January 26, 2015—As the civil war in Syria enters its fifth year this spring and offers no end in sight, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat down with Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman in Damascus on January 20, marking the president’s only interview with an American journalist since 2013. A transcript of the interview is now available on ForeignAffairs.com.
During the conversation, the embattled Syrian president shared his thoughts on the role of the United States in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the state of the Syrian conflict and its reverberations—domestic, regional, and international—the prospect of Russian and United Nations-led peace initiatives, U.S. diplomatic pressure on Turkey, and his attempts to secure the hearts and minds of the Syrian people.
Assad and Tepperman’s exclusive exchange provides insight into the challenges that underpin diplomatic relations between Washington and Damascus as the two countries work to combat terrorism in Iraq and Syria.
Foreign Affairs: Since the United States began its air campaign against the Islamic State, Syria and the United States have become strange kinds of partners and are effectively cooperating in that aspect of the fight. Do you see the potential for increased cooperation with the United States?
Assad: Yes, the potential is definitely always there, because we’ve been talking about or asking for international cooperation against terrorism for thirty years. But this potential needs will. The question that we have is, how much will does the United States have to really fight terrorism on the ground? So far, we haven’t seen anything concrete in spite of the attacks on ISIS in northern Syria. There’s nothing concrete. What we’ve seen so far is just, let’s say, window dressing, nothing real. Since the beginning of these attacks, ISIS has gained more land in Syria and Iraq.
Foreign Affairs: The United States is currently training five thousand Syrian fighters who are scheduled to enter Syria in May. Now, U.S. General John Allen has been very careful to say that these troops will not be directed at the Syrian government, but will be focused on ISIS alone. What will you do when these troops enter the country? Will you allow them to enter? Will you attack them?
Assad: Any troops that don’t work in cooperation with the Syrian army are illegal and should be fought. That’s very clear.
Foreign Affairs: Even if this brings you into conflict with the United States?
Assad: Without cooperation with Syrian troops, they are illegal, and are puppets of another country, so they are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army. But that brings another question, about those troops. Obama said that they are a fantasy. How did fantasy become reality?
When assessing the status of the war in his country, Assad offered this perspective:
Wherever the Syrian army has wanted to go, it has succeeded. But the Syrian army cannot have a presence on every kilometer of Syrian territory. That’s impossible. We made some advances in the past two years. But if you want to ask me, “Is it going well?” I say that every war is bad, because you always lose, you always have destruction in a war. The main question is, what have we won in this war? What we won in this war is that the Syrian people have rejected the terrorists; the Syrian people support their government more; the Syrian people support their army more.
Regarding Israel’s agenda in the region, Assad maintained that “[Israel is] supporting the rebels in Syria. It’s very clear. Because whenever we make advances in some place, they make an attack in order to undermine the army. It’s very clear. That’s why some in Syria joke: How can you say that al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.”
Assad concluded the interview with a message for President Barack Obama:
You are the greatest power in the world now; you have too many things to disseminate around the world: knowledge, innovation, [information technology], with its positive repercussions. How can you be the best in these fields yet the worst in the political field? This is a contradiction. That is what I think the American people should analyze and question. Why do you fail in every war? You can create war, you can create problems, but you cannot solve any problem. Twenty years of the peace process in Palestine and Israel, and you cannot do anything with this, in spite of the fact that you are a great country.
The full interview is now available on ForeignAffairs.com at www.foreignaffairs.com/assadinterview and will be featured in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.
Andrew Palladino, Foreign Affairs
Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, is an independent magazine of analysis and commentary on foreign policy and international affairs. In recent biannual surveys, Foreign Affairs has been ranked among the top ten most influential media outlets by the independent research firm Erdos & Morgan.