SITTING on a leather sofa in a modern marbled palace overlooking the ancient city of Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad paints what he describes, with considerable understatement, as a “black picture” of the consequences for the entire Middle East of an American war on Iraq.
Countries would be partitioned, he says. There would be floods of refugees. Economies would grind to a halt. Foreign investment and trade would dry up. Poverty would deepen.
“The consequences are not going to be contained within Iraq,” he says. “The entire region will enter into the unknown.” Far from eliminating the threat, the war would merely create “fertile soil for terrorism”.
But Mr Assad believes war is inevitable. The Americans have made up their mind. “Despite the UN resolutions and the fact that the inspectors are there, they are all the time announcing that they want to launch a strike against Iraq,” he says.
“Even before the return of the inspectors, the US was trying to obstruct the return of the inspectors and this is evidence that what they really want is to launch a strike against Iraq.”
This is the first interview Mr Assad has given to the British press since succeeding his father in July 2000 and he is giving it because he is about to make an unprecedented visit to Britain, during which he will meet the Queen and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
It will be the first visit by the leader of a country that spent much of the Cold War in the Soviet camp, features high on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and has long been seen as one of the most hardline Arab states. America also suspects it of developing weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Assad does not come across as some sort of ruthless dictator. In striking contrast to the austere style of his father, who rarely gave interviews but spoke for hours to the few Western leaders he met, the 36-year-old President has a ready smile, a modest demeanor and a friendly “bedside manner” that must have stood him in good stead during his clinical practice as an eye specialist in London.
He speaks good English, although he uses Arabic for this 90-minute interview. He wears a smart gray suit. He and his wife, Asma, happily posed for a Western-style “photo-opportunity” on a balcony of the presidential palace.
But for all his familiarity with the West, he clearly harbors deep resentments towards the Bush Administration’s policies in the region. He challenges Washington’s assertions that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the region.
“We are a better judge of this because we live in the region. It is not logical that others should decide that something is or isn’t a problem for the region. I think the bigger problem is that any country should interfere in the internal affairs of another country,” he argues.
He says that Syria has voted in favor of the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a return of the weapons inspectors to Iraq to delay a war, not to make one possible.
He admits that there are points in that resolution with which Syria, the only Arab member of the Security Council, does not feel comfortable. But it faced two options: an American strike, regardless of any UN or international legitimacy, and a resolution “that seems to serve at least to postpone the war”.
Mr Assad insists that Syria supports the US-led War on Terror not because it wants good relations with America, but because his country also regards al-Qaeda as an enemy.
Syria fought al-Qaeda in Lebanon four years ago, he says. It fought “extremism” in the late 70s and early 80s (a reference to the violent suppression of an Islamist uprising in Hama). It has taken a “principled position” against terrorism.
He admits that Syria has done little to “market” its assistance to Washington. Some congressmen know of the help given, but few ordinary Americans or Europeans do. “We are still very weak in making our voices heard.”
But he dismisses any idea that Syria was co-operating with America to get itself removed from Washington’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. “This list is a political list. It has nothing to do with terrorism,” he insists. If Syria signed a peace treaty with Israel it would be removed immediately.
Mr Assad is also scathing about what he considers the Bush Administration’s failure to do more to rebuild a viable Middle East peace process.
“This Administration has been there for two years. Do we have to wait for another two years so that they can have their vision?” he asks. All the Administration’s proposals to date have been “extremely biased in favor of Israel”.
He speaks skeptically of Mr Blair’s call for a Middle East peace conference, voicing a criticism similar to those of the Prime Minister’s domestic opponents. The conference was a good idea, he says, but “it is not enough to announce a principle or utter a thought”.
“You have to look for the elements which make your thought a success.”
But it is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Syria’s support for militant organizations such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, that Mr Assad speaks most passionately and where his Arab roots show most clearly.
Those organizations“express the view of millions of Palestinians inside the occupied territories” who are fighting for legitimate rights, he says.
Those Palestinians are in turn supported by “300 million Arabs, by over a billion Muslims, and by millions of people all over the world”. It is impossible to describe all these people as terrorists or supporters of terrorism.
He says that the Palestinians have no army, no state and no dignity. They are being killed by the Israelis.
That is what is driving them to become suicide bombers. The present violence is “a reaction to the terrorism practiced by (Ariel) Sharon (the Israeli Prime Minister) against the civilian Palestinian people”.
Questioned about his own record as President, Mr Assad veers between the candid and the positively disingenuous.
He describes the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus as merely “media offices”. He admits that oil and other goods are being smuggled across the Syrian-Iraqi border in violation of UN sanctions against Baghdad, but attempts to minimize the importance of such activity.
Smuggling across Syria’s long border is very difficult to control, he says. “This kind of trade is always going on,” he says — and not only through Syria. Iraq also receives goods from Turkey and Iran.
He claims that Iraqi oil is flowing to Syria only because his Government wants to test the repair of a 50-year-old pipeline from Iraq.
“Of course,” he adds with a smile, “we are not going to send the oil back after the test.”
This “testing” has been going on for at least a year now, and Western estimates put the flow at about 150,000 barrels a day.
The big mystery about Mr Assad is how much he wants to open up Syria, a country long hidden behind veils of secrecy and still associated in the West with the repressive, autocratic regime of his late father.
The current President has sometimes appeared diffident in asserting himself in a country where many of the old guard still have an important say. He admits that the pace of reform has been uneven: for some it is too quick, for others too slow.
He explains that change often produces “negative repercussions”, and that liberalization measures would be thwarted unless he took key officials along with him.
But he also states quite bluntly that he is giving much greater priority to economic reform than political reform because “what is the use of political openness if people can’t have their daily subsistence”.
Iraq will top the agenda when Mr Assad meets Mr Blair at Downing Street on Tuesday. “It is normal for us to co-ordinate our efforts during our membership of the Security Council,” he says.
But he will also be using his visit to seek British support for his efforts to improve training and education in Syria, for his country’s privatization program and for spreading the use of information technology.
In those areas at least, he and Mr Blair are likely to reach agreement.
Population 16.6 million
Size 75,359 square miles
GDP £11.5 billion
Ethnic groups 90% Arab, 10% Kurds, also Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians and Assyrians
Religion 85 per cent Muslim, 15 per cent Christian
Disputes Syria has been campaigning for full return to 1967 borders since losing Golan Heights to Israel during the Six Day War. In 1976 Syria sent 30,000 troops to Lebanon to end the civil war. Only a third have left.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd