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Interview with Syrian General Manaf Tlass; Interview with Juan Manuel Santos

Aired September 28, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our special weekend. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Later in the program I speak with Manaf Tlass, the Syrian general who was the close friend of President Bashar al-Assad until he defected this summer. It's his first interview with an English language broadcaster.

But we begin with our exclusive interview with the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos. He spoke at the United Nations this week, declaring his hope that when he returns next year, he'll be able to announce that there is peace in Colombia. And that peace has been a long time coming, if it does.

For 50 years, Colombia has been at war with FARC, the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia, a guerilla movement that began as a struggle by poor farmers against the wealthy urban elite. But over the past decades, FARC has devolved into a kidnapping and drug trafficking operation and has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States and the E.U.

In that time, tens of thousands have died, millions have fled their homes, billions of dollars have been spent trying to fight the insurgency. Now there is a glimmer of hope. Peace talks between the government and FARC are said to begin next month in Oslo, Norway.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): It is President Santos who brings FARC to the table, and FARC confirmed its participation in the peace talks through the unlikely form of this rap video, actually taunting Santos for what it says, failing to defeat them by force.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But in recent years, FARC has been considerably weakened and Santos takes credit for that. First as defense minister then as president, he oversaw a devastating campaign against the group.

I caught up with him here in New York between his meetings at the United Nations.


AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, why is now the right time to try to negotiate, end this war with the FARC? Why now?

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS CALDERON, PRESIDENT OF COLOMBIA: There are several reasons. First, they are showing a will to negotiate.

Second, we have some countries that are helping and can be very helpful in the process.

Third, the old -- the oldest part of the -- of the FARC are thinking that they're going to die, that the way of violence will not take them to their objective, that they have recognized that. And so I think the conditions are right.

AMANPOUR: Do you feel that they're defeated? They just put out a rap video, as you know very well, confirming the fact that they will go to peace negotiations with the government, that they said it's the government thinks they've beaten us, they're wrong.

SANTOS: Well, of course they will say that, and that's normal and that's part of the negotiation.

AMANPOUR: How do you feel? Do you feel that they're on the back foot, militarily?

SANTOS: They are. They are. This is a fact. We have given them the worst blow that they have received in the whole history. Militarily they cannot take over any of the towns or any of the military bases. They can only do terrorism, which is a show of weakness.

But in every struggle, in every conflict like this one, you have to try to find a negotiated end to the conflict. And that's why I think conditions are right to find this negotiated end.

AMANPOUR: You were defense minister. I mean, you were in charge of this attempted defeat militarily.


AMANPOUR: Personally, what shifted in your mind? I mean, you've gone from wanting to kill them to wanting to talk to them.

SANTOS: But I wanted to kill them because I wanted peace. I knew that if you did not strike the heart, you would never take them to a negotiating table. And modesty apart, there's no -- in 50 years, nobody has hit them as hard as I have. But I've never -- and making war is much easier than making peace. And I make war and I made war not for the sake of combat, but always having peace of mind.

Two years ago, here in New York, at the U.N., I announced that we killed the military commander of the FARC. Since then, I was thinking of a peace process, since then. And for two years, I've been talking secretly (ph) to many people, seeking advice on how to go about it. And that's why today we are sitting down next month in Oslo and start a process.

AMANPOUR: Former President Uribe, is saying that actually -- this his quote -- "a slap in the face of democracy," that you are negotiating with terrorists, that this is just the wrong way to go about it.

SANTOS: Well, seeking peace cannot be a slap in the face of any democracy. On the contrary, in our constitution, one of the obligations of every citizen, starting with the president, is to seek peace. And some people think that the peace can be achieved by killing the last member of the FARC. And that is not possible and this is not the way.

AMANPOUR: At what price peace? Now a vast majority of the Colombians approve of your peace negotiations. But the same vast majority, in fact, slightly higher, do not want to pay any price. They don't want to see FARC in the political process. They don't want to, you know, give away the shop, so to speak.

Would you bring them into the political process? Is that what you envision?

SANTOS: Well, it's a must. If we're telling them, listen, you have your objectives. We respect them. We don't agree with them. What we are proposing is try to use other means, democratic, non-violent means, to seek your objectives.

But lay down your arms; otherwise, we will not allow you. But if you do, if you do lay down your arms, then we will give you the space to try in a democratic way to seek your objectives. This is normal. You can't ask the FARC simply, kneel down, surrender and give us the arms. This -- they will not do that.

So there has to be some kind of way out. And this way out has to be you can be able to participate in the political arena. This is a way any conflict is settled, not only the Colombian conflict.

AMANPOUR: How do you make sure that it won't devolve as it did the last time into a pretext for regrouping, rearming, resting and then going to war again?

SANTOS: Well, there's no guarantees. But one of the reasons I have not accepted a cease-fire is precisely the one you're mentioning. I've told them there will be a cease-fire and we will stop any military operation when we reach a final agreement. Then when we terminate the conflict, we will stop military operations, not before.

AMANPOUR: They want a cease-fire. Is that going to be a deal-breaker from the beginning?

SANTOS: No, because it's already accepted that we will talk in the middle of the war.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about Cuba, which is obviously helping to facilitate this.

How should the United States look at that?

SANTOS: I think it should look at this opportunity with Cuba with good eyes (ph). They are helping. They have been helpful. And anybody who is looking at this process, be it the U.S. or the European countries or whatever, and sees somebody helping a country like mine achieve peace, should look at that participation with good eyes (ph).

AMANPOUR: Venezuela has obviously been helping the FARC for a long time. How would you describe what they're doing right now? Are they withdrawing their help and why?

SANTOS: Venezuela is helping a lot in this process also. Venezuela understand that for Venezuela, peace in Colombia is something positive.

AMANPOUR: But why does Mr. Chavez think that now, after all of these years of aiding and abetting FARC?

SANTOS: I think that, at the beginning, he probably thought that the FARC could maybe seek power through --

AMANPOUR: Could win?

SANTOS: -- their traditional means. And now he's absolutely convinced -- and as the world is and as they are. FARC is convinced that, through violence, they will achieve nothing.

AMANPOUR: What is your knowledge of the state of health of Mr. Chavez?

SANTOS: Well, if you ask me, for the tone of his voice when I speak to him, he's very healthy. I see him strong, but I have no sort of detailed information.

AMANPOUR: So you were quite dramatic at the U.N. And you said you hoped that, by this time next year, you'd be able to come and announce peace in -- peace in our time.

SANTOS: Hopefully, yes. I hope so. We negotiated a short agenda and a very pragmatic agenda. This was a tremendous breakthrough because, so far, they have insisted in negotiating the crisis (ph) of the conflict, which is foreign investment, social policy, international relations.

I've told them, that could be discussed in congress when you win an election. But not in the negotiating table armed. That is a no-no.

And if I see that there's no progress, that they're simply trying to buy time, I will stand up and continue business as usual. And that's why there's no cease-fire, no decrease in our military operations. And my government agenda will continue as it was until then.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Mr. President, thank you for joining me.

SANTOS: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: While there may be hope for peace in Colombia, there is very little hope for Syria, where the civil war rages on. When we come back, I'll speak to a man who was once one of President Assad's top generals and closest friends. He defected, but he believes it's not too late to save his country.

Before we take a break, a final note on Colombia, though. Take a look at these pictures. In Colombia, beauty pageants remain highly popular, as they do around the world. But while the more affluent enjoy the glitzy, well-funded Miss Colombia pageant, outside in the streets of Cartagena, the people hold their own Miss Independence pageant. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. This week saw the highest death toll in Syria since the fighting began more than a year and a half ago. In July, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was rocked by the news of the most senior defection yet, General Manaf Tlass, a close childhood friend of Assad and a commander in his elite Republican Guard.

Tlass was literally born into Assad's inner circle. His father, Mustafa, had been defense minister under Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad.

With his defection came immediate speculation that Tlass might unite the Syrian rebels and lead the fight against Assad. But even if that's his goal -- and there's been no sign yet that it is -- Syria's rebels aren't ready to reclaim him as their leader. To some, the last years in Assad's inner circle make him suspect.

To others, he's seen as a potential bridge builder. He's a Sunni who commanded a mostly Alawite force. Well, whatever happens next, Tlass remains a rich target and he asked me not to reveal his location when we spoke earlier this week.


AMANPOUR: General Tlass, thank you for joining me. I want to ask you, because I'm here in New York, and lots of world leaders are talking about how to end the strife in Syria.

Do you believe that there should be a foreign intervention to stop the Assad forces?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MANAF TLASS, FORMERLY OF THE SYRIAN REPUBLICAN GUARD (through translator): I don't believe there should be any foreign intervention in Syria. There should be an agreement or a resolution. We felt that when it comes to the superpowers, there is no there is no political will. There is no seriousness.

All we need is a resolution that forces the Syrian regime to stop the killing. Syria needs to know there is political will, an international consensus to stop the massacre.

AMANPOUR: General Tlass, you were one of the people who knows Bashar al-Assad the best. You grew up with him. What is going through his mind? Does he believe he has nowhere to go, that he has to keep fighting?

Do you think he will step down? What do you think is the future?

TLASS: I believe that he's playing with the extra time. The regime in Syria is smart. And he knows very well that right now there is no international resolution for him to step down.

But once Bashar al-Assad realizes that there is such a resolution, he will step down. He knows that there are regional powers that support him, I mean, Iran or Russia. But everything will be different once he realizes that the international community has truly decided it's time to step down. He will step down. I am certain of it.

AMANPOUR: Tell me what makes you certain. And I ask you, obviously, because you must know. You're in the inner circle, at least you were. You commanded the Revolutionary Guard and you were instructed with carrying out his orders.

TLASS: I did not carry out such orders. From the time I defected, I refused such orders and I rejected the ways the regime handled the crisis. I refused to carry out any killing or harming of demonstrators. The demonstrators had legitimate demands and the regime wanted to crush them.

I did not want to engage in any such orders. I refused to carry them out and I gave up my friendship with him. I did not want to go along with the regime down such a dark tunnel.

Since June of last year, I stayed away from Bashar al-Assad because I knew that he was not going to accomplish anything.

I told him that the biggest loss (ph) for him would be to lose his with the international community and give the impression that the revolution is an Islamist one.

And he was always running away from the problem. So my relationship with Bashar ended as of June of last year because of our different vision and because of his lack of understanding of the true problem.

AMANPOUR: When you say June of last year, do you mean 2011?

TLASS: The last time I contacted him, the last time I contacted Bashar al-Assad was in June of 2011. That was the last communication we had. I tried to tell him that he had to give up something for the people, that there is a true uprising and that you must go along with it. There is Arab Spring around us. You should be part of it and democratize the country. He refused.

And the old guard around him lulled him into handling the crisis this way. He thought the crisis was easy to handle. That's why I kept away from that regime. And I absented myself. I stayed in my office and refused to engage in any meetings or any conversation with any of them.

AMANPOUR: How did you survive, because you didn't defect for another year. And if you didn't carry out his orders, how did you survive? Why weren't you hunted down, put into prison, killed, like I'm told other colonels and captains and majors were, for refusing to carry out orders?

TLASS: Because of my status with the military and because of my closeness to him, he told me that as long as you stay silent and you don't speak to Bashar, you will be safe.

So I stayed silent. But then I realized that the violence was becoming unbearable and I could no longer take it. My military conscience could not take that constant killing of innocent civilians. I know that they had legitimate demands in terms of freedom and dignity. He refused to listen. My staying silent was only an attempt to make him understand that I did not agree with what he was doing.

And eventually I had to leave in order to help the people from outside.

AMANPOUR: So are you surprised that he's behaving like this, since you've known him for all your life?

And what is his strategy? Does he think he can kill his way to staying in power? What was his strategy when you were on board?

TLASS: Well, I believe now that he's trying to internationalize that crisis. He's trying to militarize the crisis, trying to blame Islam for the revolution. Of course, there were some errors committed by the revolution. He knows how sensitive the international community is with the -- with Islamists and that was his strategy.

But the blood of the Syrians is too precious to shed for international purposes. Syria must live in peace. The extremists have to leave; the Syrians have to stay.

AMANPOUR: I've understood everything you're saying, but let me ask you this. You have said no to foreign intervention to stopping this war. You have said that there should be a political transition. There's no sign of that happening any time soon.

Do you believe that the rebels, the Free Syrian Army, can win this? Militarily?

TLASS: I believe in the need to structure the free army because the free army has extremists and has elements that should be removed. The Alawites should be also allowed to join the free army. The free army should be better armed so that it becomes a national army that can have a real balance with the regime army.

Once the regime realizes that the free army has significant weapons, he will step down. But the free army has to be a national army and it has to comprise all different sects. And it has to have a real military power.

AMANPOUR: What will it take the Alawites to defect, more Alawites to join the uprising?

TLASS: Right now, there is no resolution. Once the Alawites realize that there is a resolution, the Alawites will defect. Once they know there is a safe haven, they will defect.

Alawites are being told that the Islamists are taking over; they were considered infidels by the Islamists and that's what scares them. But when there is a vision, a plan for Syria that can include all parties, the Alawites will defect.

The ruling gang in Syria is ruling the Alawites by fear. Once the Alawites realize that there is a decision, there is the political will from the international superpowers, Alawites, Christians, Jews, everyone will defect.

And that's why we should encourage the minorities by telling them there is no reason for them to be afraid. You will be safe in the great Syria. That's how we would be able to assure the Alawites. Once the Alawites see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, they and the ruling gang will be out.

AMANPOUR: I know you don't want an intervention. But if there was an intervention, like a no-fly zone to protect a safe area, could Assad's forces be a danger to NATO military?

TLASS: No, it will not be a danger. But we don't want to repeat the Iraq experience or the Afghan experience or the Libyan experience. We want the Syrian people to liberate itself by itself. But the Syrian people are all waiting for a resolution.

If there is a resolution, we will know that the regime will fall by itself.

AMANPOUR: And finally, Bashar al-Assad was your friend. Describe him. Describe his character.

TLASS: He was my friend. This question is really embarrassing because I defected, because I started to feel the feelings of a citizen. I remember very well how I defected. I cannot speak in that logic (ph) because I remember that video that I saw when they stepped on the head of a Syrian citizen in Baniyas.

I could no longer call Bashar al-Assad a friend. But when I told him after seeing that video, that person who stepped on the head of the Syrian citizen must be punished, ever since then I can no longer be a friend of Bashar's. He has different qualities, he is humble. He loves people.

But he has changed. The crisis has changed him. He has now violent reactions and I cut my ties to him from the moment I felt that the Syrian people were being humiliated. Humiliating Syrian citizens is something you cannot tolerate.

To me, it's more important than relationship with my friend, with my father and with my mother. I can only talk about him in that regard.

AMANPOUR: Does your father agree with you? The former defense secretary, does he agree with you?

TLASS: Yes, he does. My father agrees with me.

AMANPOUR: General Manaf Tlass, thank you very much for being with me.

TLASS: Thank you, thank you.


AMANPOUR: And as world leaders continue to try to figure out how to end that carnage in Syria, we've seen them flock to New York this week. But one high-profile diplomat found herself in a brand-new role, dancing to a different drummer, when we return.



AMANPOUR: And finally, as diplomats gather here in New York, the woman who was once the voice of American foreign policy was starring on another stage.

Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state and ambassador to the U.N., was honored at Washington's Kennedy Center at a jazz gala featuring Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren, Tipper Gore and music legends Herbie Hancock and Aretha Franklin.

But the highlight came when Ms. Albright joined trumpeter Chris Botti in a jazz rendition of Puccini.


AMANPOUR: How can you not love that? In Czechoslovakia, the land of her birth, jazz was a symbol of freedom, part of the movement that brought democracy.

She brought that same spirit to her work as a diplomat, and her infectious joy brought the audience to its feet.

That's it for the weekend edition of our program. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.