Al-Assad’s latest interview: Soft language; openness on Arab states
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
In a large hall within the presidential palace and in two non-table chairs, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, met with the state-run RT Arabic channel for about 31 minutes on the evening of 9 June.
The agenda of the interview carried a lot of topics, conducted by al-Assad with the door behind him open, which could be politically interpreted as a step to try to express no concealment or “transparency.”
Given the time frame of the Syrian and Russian sides, the interview comes three and a half months after the Russian war on Ukraine on 24 February 2022, as Russian ambitions to reach the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which began to regain back strength of its diplomatic and political life, started to erode with the return of some diplomatic missions to it.
The interview also comes two weeks after a year since the presidential elections in Syria, in May 2021, when al-Assad’s electoral slogan “Hope Through Work” carried loose and vague promises, which were not clarified within a detailed electoral program.
What is new this time?
The head of the Syrian Journalists Association, Samir Matar, explained in an interview with Enab Baladi that the interview was internationally insignificant and that the meeting is a message to the inside of Syria and to those who sided with the regime or remained silent inside Syria, at least in the face of its continuous violations.
Matar also considered the meeting as a message of reassurance sent by the regime that the state is in place and the regime is stable, yet it remains empty-handed and weak, especially since the regime is politically and economically bankrupt. Also as the front of its internal supporters began to disintegrate after the emergence of the consequences of its security policy, and because of the impact of the sanctions that were mainly taken against the regime, as a result of the policy of killing and arresting the security forces practiced against the Syrians.
As for the foreign message, according to the head of the Syrian Journalists Association, it is directed to his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Russian government, and to launch an attack on US policy, but it is a weak message because the regime has no weight in the international or regional scene.
The presenter of the Russia Today channel did not confront al-Assad with real questions but rather gave him the space to present the messages he wanted to deliver in line with the channel’s policy and the Russian government, which explains the short duration of the meeting compared to what usually comes, as it is a sufficient period for the goals entrusted to it.
Samir Matar also pointed out the absence of the topic of ongoing trials against former Syrian non-commissioned officers in Germany and soon in other European countries, given that talking about such issues shows, without leaving room for controversy, the real image of the regime.
During the dialogue that opened with talking about the Russian war on Ukraine and the common political denominators in Russia, and the regime’s view of Europe and the United States, in addition to the regime’s admiration of Moscow, detailed axes emerged from the core of the Syrian file and its political path outside Syria, and the livelihood and economic situation it faces.
After approaching the sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime with those imposed on Russia, al-Assad addressed the living and economic situation in response to a question about the causes of the economic deterioration in his areas of control and the possibility of attributing them only to the sanctions, but al-Assad mentioned the excuses he used in his oath speech, on 17 July 2021, and attributed the problem to the “siege,” as it raises production costs and slows down the economic process.
He also mentioned other global reasons, including those related to the Covid-19 pandemic, pointing to what he considered the West’s desire to put all problems as a result of the Ukraine war, specifically as a result of Russian policy.
During his speech, al-Assad described the causes among those related to “war,” blockade, and government plans, hinting at potential corporate liability and citizens’ consumer habits, which, in his view, contribute negatively and positively to the economic situation.
He also pointed out that there are obstacles to combating corruption, such as the “war” and the weakness of state institutions because of it and the need for the administrative system to develop.
Al-Assad added: “But this does not mean we can achieve our ambitions in fighting corruption under the conditions we live in.”
In response to the mechanism through which the citizen can reconcile his daily needs with this deterioration of living, al-Assad considered that the solution is in production, which is linked to electricity, which in turn will witness an improvement during the current year, without raising the ceiling too high, given that “there are circumstances that come against us, and there are attempts to hit every step we take forward in the development field.”
Constitutional Committee is present
Al-Assad considered that the opposition delegation to the Constitutional Committee was a Turkish delegation appointed by Ankara and expressing its aspirations.
“We are talking about two parties: the first was proposed by the Syrian government, but it does not represent it or is not an employee in it, and therefore its members are not diplomatic employees, but they are approved by the government, or it represents the viewpoint of the Syrian government, and there is another party appointed by Turkey,” al-Assad said.
The Constitutional Committee was established in 2019, comprising a 150-member body comprising 50 representatives of the Syrian regime, 50 representatives from the opposition, and 50 from civil society.
In a speech to the heads of local councils on 17 February 2019, al-Assad accused the opposition delegation in the Committee of being agents and said that the committee’s meetings will be held between a “national party and an agent to Turkey.”
Courtship and attack
In light of speculation about the possibility of the regime’s participation in the next session of the Arab summit to be held in Algeria, al-Assad expressed during the interview a political sympathy for the Arabs in general and for Algeria in particular. He denied the existence of political grudges against the Arab countries, considering what happened in Syria “from the past,” noting that relations between Syria and the Arab countries have not changed in substance but only in form.
At the same time, al-Assad focused on the importance that Algeria gives to the summit, considering that the only weight of this summit is that it will be held in Algeria, justifying his position on the stability of the relationship with Algeria since the seventies of the last century.
While he underestimated the feasibility of the Arab League and its ability to achieve some of the hopes of the Arab citizens in the presence or absence of the regime from the Arab League, as he considered it a cover for “the aggression against Libya, and the aggression against Syria, and every other aggression.”
On the other hand, al-Assad expressed his desire and willingness to visit any Arab country, hinting that this thing does not happen without an invitation, and added: “It is natural and self-evident for me to think about visiting Arab countries because despite all the bad Arab situation without borders, we have to mitigate the damages and to avoid further falls, for dialogue with Arab countries and with Arab officials is crucial.”
While some countries welcome the return of the regime to the Arab League, such as the UAE, Algeria, Oman, Lebanon, and Iraq, other countries oppose the return of the regime, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, confirmed on 10 March, during the meeting of the 157th session of the Arab League Council at the level of ministers, the failure to monitor Arab consensus on Syria’s return to the League.
During the interview, al-Assad’s offensive rhetoric against at least the Gulf States and Turkey declined, he did not name certain countries, and he expressed openness, as he referred to Turkey as the “Turkish government,” without attacking the Turkish president as usual.
According to Samir Matar, the head of the Syrian Journalists Association, the regime will benefit from opening relations with the Gulf countries in particular, and any country that gives it indications of normalization, in view of its need to break sanctions and obtain deals, projects, or assistance of any kind.
The head of the Journalists Association clarified that al-Assad seeks to lure countries to invest in his areas of control, to be marketed later as a victory, breaking his isolation, and a prelude to a future and inevitable economic recovery, in order to dispel the growing internal discontent against him after his government’s inability to secure the most basic needs of Syrians.
After an emergency meeting held in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in November 2011, Arab foreign ministers suspended the Syrian regime’s membership in the Arab League, months after the outbreak of popular protests in Syria, which demanded the departure of al-Assad.
After the decision was issued with the approval of 18 Arab countries, it was announced that economic and political sanctions would be imposed on the Syrian regime, leaving the Syrian seat vacant in the Arab League since the membership was frozen until March 2013, when the seat was granted during the summit held in Doha to the Syrian opposition, in which the former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, gave a speech, for once at that time and place.
Normalization with Israel?
Speaking about the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel, Bashar al-Assad expressed his reservations about the term, without ruling out the idea, as he linked normalization to relations based on Arab concessions without any return, while the regime desires “normal relations linked to peace that restores rights,” according to his opinion.
At the same time, al-Assad stressed that relations should not be established before the return of the occupied Golan Heights, indicating that the relations will not be a normalization but rather “normal relations between any two countries,” which is one of the rare times that Israel is described as a “state” in official Syrian rhetoric.
Also, in his speech, he gave the Arab countries that established relatively recent political relations with Israel (the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco) justifications for steps of this kind, considering that the Oslo agreement in the nineties of the last century witnessed concessions from the owner of the issue to Israel, which justifies for any country in the world to make “normalization or peace with Israel because the issue’s owner has given up on it.”
Al- Assad also demonstrated his adherence to relations with Iran, stressing that the topic is not debatable with any country nor originally discussed, although it was discussed earlier by some countries.
Regarding normalization with Israel, Matar believes that the regime cannot make such a move in isolation from Iranian consent, which is evident when viewing its silence on Israel’s repeated attacks on Iranian forces in sporadic areas of Syria, especially in the south.
The latest Israeli targeting of Syrian positions was at dawn on 10 June, hours after al-Assad’s interview was aired, when Israel targeted and disrupted by air the Damascus International Airport.
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