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CNN Security Watch: The Syrian Connection; Interview With Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad

Aired October 13, 2005 - 23:30   ET


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR, SECURITY WATCH: In the war against terror, what is Syria's role?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: It's not just with the United States that you are having trouble right now. It is potentially with the whole world.


VERJEE: Tonight in an exclusive interview, Christaine Amanpour talks one on one with Syria's controversial president, now at odds with the White House.


AMANPOUR: It accuses you of facilitating, providing safe haven, and now actively supporting the insurgency in Iraq.


VERJEE: Just who is President Bashar Al-Assad? Is his government on the verge of collapse? And what impact will it have on the United States' and on your security?

Tonight, CNN SECURITY WATCH special, "The Syrian Connection".

The mystery man of the Middle East speaks out. Welcome to this CNN SECURITY WATCH special, I'm Zain Verjee.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad came to power five years ago after the death of his father, long-time Syrian strongman, Hafez Al- Assad. In some ways, Bashar is an accidental ruler. It was his older brother, not Bashar, who was supposed to sucsede his father, but when his brother died suddenly in a car accident, Bashar became the heir apparent.

And now he finds himself in a tight spot. Feeling the heat from all sides. To the east, Syria is under pressure from the White House to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq; on its western border the Syrian government is suspected of carrying out political murder to try and retain control of Lebanon. And from within, there are doubts about Assad's grip on power and concerns about what could follow him. With all of these questions hanging in the air Bashar Al-Assad sat down this week with our Christiane Amanpour for a rare one-on-one interview. Over the next half hour we're going to hear what he had to say on three critical questions that affect U.S. security.

Question number one: Does Bashar Al-Assad allow so-called foreign fighters to use Syrian as a staging ground for attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq? We get background from CNN's David Ensor and then we're going to hear how Assad, himself, answers this tough question.


DAVID ENSOR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The faces of young men, honored for dying in the fight against American, but this isn't Baghdad or the Sunni Triangle. These pictures shot, last year, come from Yarmuk (ph), a combination suburb and Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, under the noses of the Syrian authorities.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We expect Syria to do everything in her power to shut down the trained shipment of suiciders and killers into Iraq.

ENSOR: At the beginning of the Iraq war, U.S. officials say there was evidence the Syrian regime provided direct assistance to young Arab seeking to cross the border and fight the Americans. No longer, for almost two years now the problem is, what Syrian is not doing.

FLYNT LEVERETT, FORMER CIA OFFICIER: The Syrian government is clearly not doing everything that it could to stop the flow of people, money, equipment across the border from Syrian into Iraq to support insurgent activity there.

ENSOR: American officials say Syria continues to allow scores of young Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Syria, itself, to cross into Iraq to fight. Some analysts argue the U.S. should engage more with Damascus. That as long as Bashar Al-Assad believes Washington just wants to overthrow him, he has little incentive to fully cooperate against the insurgents. The Syrian leader has told him, privately, but bluntly, says author Flynt Leverett, it will carrots not just American tough talk to change Syria's approach.

LEVERETT: He does say, though, very explicitly, Syria is a state, not a charity. If I'm going to give something up, I need to know what I'm going to get in return. He said that to me. He said that to any number of other American visitors.

AMANPOUR: The United States is extremely angry with you and you government. It accuses you of facilitating, providing safe haven, and now actively supporting the insurgency in Iraq. What are you going to do to stop doing all of that, to stop allowing the insurgents into Iraq?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT, SYRIA: I wouldn't say this is true. It is completely wrong. You have many aspects of the problem. The first aspect is no country can control his border completely. And example is the border between United States and Mexico. And many American officials told me we cannot control our border with Mexico.

But at the end what they end up saying, you should control your border with Iraq. This is impossible. And I told Mr. Powell that for the first time we met after the war. I told him -- I told him it is impossible to control the border. And we asked for some technical support. But we did many things to control our border and we'd like to invite any delegation from the world or from the United States to come and see our borders, to see the steps that we took.

AMANPOUR: And yet, everybody I talk to, even commanders on the ground in Iraq, say that the bulk of the foreign insurgents, or the Iraqi insurgents are coming from Syria. Why can't your forces go house-to-house? Why can't you actively stop this? Close it down?

AL-ASSAD: I said it is impossible for any country to stop it down. But many officials said the number is between 1,000 and 3,000 insurgents, as they call them, or terrorists. The chaos in Iraq is the reason, not the border. We should be very frank about this. The problem is political. Not the border with Syria. When you have chaos it is fertile soil for terrorists. This is the problem.

AMANPOUR: Do you agree that it is a bad thing? Would you like to see the insurgency stopped?

AL-ASSAD: Regardless of what the United States wants, our interests in Syria is to have a stable Iraq. And when you have the insurgency or terrorism, or anything like this, you will have more chaos. When you have more chaos we'll have a fragmented Iraq. That means affecting Syria directly. This is contagious. So from our point of view, we should help the Iraqis be stable.

AMANPOUR: Why have you stopped, according to your ambassador in Washington, intelligence cooperation with the United States?

AL-ASSAD (through translator): There cannot be security cooperation when political repercussions are the exact opposite, further attacks from the U.S. administration. That, on the one hand. On the other hand, because of the weak analysis and knowledge of the region by U.S. agencies, in many cases this security cooperation has had a negative affect on Syrian interests. We have lost faith. Syrian security and U.S. agencies have lost trust, so cooperation stopped.

AMANPOUR: What is your condition for helping the United States? And are you prepared to help the United States.

AL-ASSAD: Definitely, we don't have any problem. And we said that publicly. They talk about a stable Iraq, we have direct interest in a stable Iraq. They talk about unified Iraq, we have direct interest in a unified Iraq. They talk about supporting the political process, we have interest in that, because that will help with stability. So there are no differences. We don't know what they want. I think they don't know what they want. (END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: Coming up next, a presidency born from tragedy.

AMANPOUR: There are some people, Sir, who say that you are the president, but maybe you are not fully in charge.

VERJEE: Is President Assad's government on the verge of collapse?



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Driving into Syria from Lebanon you see pretty quick who is the boss. Dotting the highway, billboards of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his late father, Hafez, who ruled Syria for nearly 30 years. Bashar Al-Assad, like his dad, maintains power through a vast intelligence network. Dissent isn't tolerated, the press is tightly controlled.

(On camera): The first thing you have to do when you get into Damascus as a journalist, is to go to the Ministry of Information and pick up your government minder.

Shall we tell them that we don't need a minder?

OCTAVIA NASR, CNN SR. EDITOR, ARAB AFFAIRS: Let's try that, Anderson. Shall we? Let's try that. We'll be asked to leave, as simple as that. We just -- you know, we do what we have to do, OK?

COOPER (voice over): Our minder was a friendly young man who explained he was there to help us. Of course he would also monitor what we did, whom we talked to, and what they told us. So it was no surprise to hear everyone give the current government rave review. Syria says it is a democracy, everyone on the street agreed.

(On camera): You really believe that Syria is more democratic than the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Yes, I believe ...

COOPER (voice over): Yes, yes, she says, Syria has more democracy than any other country in the world.

(On camera): Really? So if you said something against the government here, you wouldn't be worried?


COOPER (voice over): No, she says, with all my heart and emotion I salute President Bashar. He is a wonderful leader.

The people we talked to said they could criticize the president if they wanted to, it is just he's so good, there is nothing to criticize. COOPER (on camera): What do you think about the government here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they're doing well.

COOPER: No complaints?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no complaints.

COOPER: When you talk to Syrians on the street they all tell you pretty much the same thing. When the cameras are rolling, they say, we love our president. We have no complaints. When the cameras are gone, however, and the government minder is not around, they'll tell you a very different story. One man just said to us, I can't say what I really think on camera, we live in a dictatorship. If I said that the secret police would come and pay me a visit.


VERJEE: He's an unlikely choice to occupy the most powerful position in Syria. Bashar Al-Assad was never supposed to inherit the presidency from his father, but a tragic accident thrust him onto a political fast-track and derailed his own dreams of a quiet life and a medical career.

Now there are questions about his control of Syria and whether the alternative could be worse for the United States. Which brings us to question two: Who is Bashar Al-Assad, and is he really calling the shots in Syria? That is a question Christiane Amanpour asked the Syrian president in her exclusive interview.

Before we get to that, CNN's Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler looks at Bashar Al-Assad's unusual rise to power and the political challenges he faces. Challenges that could have far-reaching implications for the United States and the Middle East.


BRENT SADLER, CNN BIERUT BUREAU CHIEF (voice over): He was given a job he wasn't planning to take; Bashar Al-Assad, a British trained, English-speaking eye doctor, elevated to the pinnacle of Syrian power. Becoming president at the age of 34, with no opposition, inheriting the rule of his late father, Hafez Al-Assad, an iron-fisted Socialist- style dictator. It was a job his elder brother, Basil (ph), killed in a car crash, had been groomed for.

At first, the young President Assad offered fresh ideas, but they soon went stale. Moves to liberalize the economy bogged down by corruption and red tape. A Damascus spring blossomed, he freed hundreds of dissidents at first, and promised greater political freedom. Moves soon crushed by old guard loyalists.

JOSHUA LANDIS, AUTHOR, SYRIACOMMENT.COM: Syria used to be one of the leading countries in the region, 50 years ago. Now, it is behind and it is behind demonstrably, and every Syrian knows that.

SADLER: Bashar Al-Assad faces huge pressures. SARKIS NAOUM, COLUMNIST, AN-NAHAR NEWSPAPER: I heard that for the first time that the Assad regime become very weak, this regime could collapse.

SADLER: But the young Assad shows no obvious sign of strain. He presents himself as a reasonable leader, who can and will deliver change, but equally aware of the many factions in Syrian that have no interest in a modern democracy.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask about reform here in Syria. When you became president, tragically because of the death of your brother, you are almost the accidental president of Syria. And people had a huge amount of hope. You were young, you were a new face. There was a moment where there was a Damascus spring, flowering, reform, a little bit of democratic progress, and then it all came to grinding halt. Now you've started, a little bit, again, after the party congress in the summer.

And yet people say, it is still not enough. We can't go in slow motion, now, because the pressures on us are so intense. What is your plan for this?

AL-ASSAD: Let me comment on "accidental president". I cannot accept it, because this means we ignore the opinion of the Syrian people, who made me president. So it is not accidental, it is by their will.

Second, when you ask me about my plan, you should ask me first, do I have all the requirements? No, we don't have. This would be the answer. Because you have many factors, internal factors and external factors. Internal factors is your will, your history, your tradition, your goal, many other factors. The external factors are the peace process, stability in the region, what's going on in Iraq. So, we don't control all of these aspects. That is why we have a lot of obstacles.

AMANPOUR: There are some people, Sir, who say that you're the president, but maybe you're not fully in charge of those aspects. Maybe you're not in the loop? Is that possible?

AL-ASSAD: But at the same time they say that I'm a dictator. So, they should choose, you cannot be a dictator and not be in control. If you are a dictator you are in full control. And if you are not a dictator, or if you are not in control, you cannot be a dictator.

Actually, I'm the first one, I'm not the second one. I have my authority, by the constitution, by the Syrian constitution, but at the same time, it is not enough to have your authority. It is very important to make dialogue with the widest circle of people you can, to take your decision. And this is the way I work.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, you know the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you, from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They are granting visas and visit to Syrian opposition politicians. They're talking about isolating you, diplomatically, then perhaps a coup d'etat or your regime crumbling. What are you thinking about that?

AL-ASSAD: I feel very confident, for one reason, because I was made in Syria. I wasn't made in the United States. So I'm not worried. This is a Syrian decisions. It should be made by the Syrian people, nobody else in this world.

AMANPOUR: What would happen, do you think, if there was a alternative to you? Who is the alternative to you?

AL-ASSAD: It could be any Syrian. Any national Syrian, and we have a lot. I'm not the only person who is eligible to be president. We have a lot of Syrians. So we don't have any problem about that. But a no Syrian would be allowed to be president if he is made anywhere outside out borders. This is a Syrian principle.


VERJEE: When we return, murder mystery in Lebanon. Was Syria behind the assassination of the form Lebanese prime minister?


AMANPOUR: Would you have ordered such an assassination?



VERJEE: It's a murder mystery, full of political intrigue and the question of who did it could spell even more chaos in the volatile Middle East. When a care bomb killed Lebanon's former prime minister in February, the finger of blame immediately pointed Syria.

In her interview with the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Christiane Amanpour confronts the head of state with our third question: Was Syria behind the murder of a popular Lebanese leader who opposed Syrian control of his country. But first, we want to take a look at the assassination. And the growing demands that the murder mystery be solved. Once again, here's Brent Sadler.


SADLER (voice over): He was a big politician from a small country. Rafik Hariri, five times Lebanese prime minister, welcome in the White House. Earlier this year he was apparently planning a risky move. Preparing to throw his weight behind growing Lebanese opposition to a Syrian military presence.

Then, on February 14, he was assassinated in a massive Beirut bomb blast. A security camera caught snapshots of the Hariri motorcade. A suspect truck, possibly laden with explosives, and the moment of detonation.

United Nations' investigators have recreated the vehicle they think was used in the attack.

DETLEF MEHLIS, U.N. INVESTIGATOR: And this is it, as it probably, most probably looked on the day of the crime.

SADLER: Mehlis, a German prosecutor, is about to issue a report on Hariri's assassination that is making Bashar Al-Assad's government apprehensive. His team has already interview several prominent figures in Damascus. Its inquiries have also led to the arrest of senior pro-Syrian officials in Lebanon.

But the campaign of bombings against journalists and politicians who want to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence, has continued. And some pro-independence politicians now believe it is too dangerous to live in Beirut.

(On camera): The French capital, Paris, is now considered a temporary safe haven by some leading Lebanese politicians and influential media figures who say they fled Beirut fearing an assassin's bomb or bullet.

(Voice over): Saad Hariri, son and political heir to his murdered father, says he feels safer here in Europe than in Lebanon right now. Stressing the magnitude of what's at stake with the U.N. probe.

SAAD HARIRI, SON OF RAFIK HARIRI: To find who Rafik Hariri and to punish them. If we don't punish them, we will never be safe in Lebanon.

SADLER: To the United States the democracy movement in Lebanon is an example of what is possible in the Middle East. And the Syrian role there, an example of what must be changed.


AMANPOUR: In two weeks, the U.N.'s investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri will be published. And there are well- informed U.N. sources who say that Syria will be implicated.

AL-ASSAD: We have very good relations with the whole of the world. And I think most of the countries, they know that Syria is not involved in that crime, for two reasons. The first reason, this goes against our principles. The second reason, this goes against our interests. And from another aspect, Rafik Hariri was supportive of the Syrian role in Lebanon. He was never against, so there is not logic involving Syria, so far we are very confident.

And we've seen (ph) the investigation the committee two weeks ago. And we're very cooperative. And we are more confident after that interview that they made in Syria, that we are completely innocent. Syria has nothing to do with this crime.

AMANPOUR: And yet, you obviously heard the informed speculation that Syria could be implicated. It if it is implicated, and if the names of high-level and or any Syrian officials are provided as suspects, will you hand them over for an international trial?

AL-ASSAD (through translator): Concerning this specific matter, if indeed there is a Syrian national implicated in it, he would be considered as a traitor and most severely punished. It is treason and where the trial would take place, that's different. However, we are confident that Syria is not involved and so far there is not material evidence of Syrian involvement. We are confident of that.

AMANPOUR: There are people who believe, and very probably the U.N. investigation will say this, that Syria is behind the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. Would you have ordered such an assassination?

AL-ASSAD: This is against our principle and my principle. And I would never do such a thing in my life. What do we achieve? What do we achieve? I think (what happened targeted) Syria, that will affect our relation with the Lebanese people and with most of the countries. So we wouldn't do it, because it is against our interests and it is against my principle. I would never do it. It is impossible.

AMANPOUR: If many Syrians are implicated, is it possible that such an act, such a crime could have taken place by Syrian officials without your knowledge?

AL-ASSAD: I don't think so. As I said, if that happened this is treason.

AMANPOUR: What do you envision for two weeks from now? This report is going to come out, if the worst-case scenario for Syria is in that report, in other words, that Syria is to blame, what is going to happen to this country? There will be sanctions. Your country will be increasingly isolated. How will the country survive?

AL-ASSAD: That depends on the evidence. If there is any evidence we will support any action. This is (INAUDIBLE). If it is just political, then -- and there is no evidence, and they just want or they are looking for a reason to isolate Syria, the question is for what? What do they achieve if they isolate Syria? Nothing.


VERJEE: The U.N. report on the Hariri murder is expected soon and the fall out could be enormous for Syria and the rest of the Middle East. We're going to be following the story closely on CNN. That's all for this SECURITY WATCH special. For Christiane Amanpour, Brent Sadler, David Ensor, and the rest of the team, I'm Zain Verjee, and this is CNN.


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