Syria’s president counters U.S. accusations

Assad decries sanctions, denies supporting terrorists

Lebanon and Syria 2004

By Larry Johnson

June 10, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syrian President Bashar Assad, accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism, yesterday vigorously denied having weapons of mass destruction and emphatically rejected U.S. demands that he expel Palestinian militants.

The Bush administration imposed sanctions on Syria Tuesday, but Assad said there was no reason for them. And the Syrian ambassador to the United States said they would have no effect on Syria's economy.

At a rare 90-minute meeting with American editors at the People's Palace, high in the hills overlooking this ancient oasis city, Assad also denied that Syria was allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq along Syria's 400 mile-long border.

Assad, 38, told the editors, who were in Syria on a fact-finding trip with the Washington-based International Reporting Project, that, despite the sanctions, he would continue to have "dialogue" with the United States.

"We agree on so many things," he said. "The problem is (U.S.) policy, not the American people."

Bush imposed sanctions Tuesday that ban all U.S. exports to Syria -- which is on the State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring countries -- except food and medicine and forbid direct flights between Syria and the United States.

The penalties came as a response to U.S. allegations that Syria was supporting terrorism by supporting the militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, and undermining U.S. efforts in neighboring Iraq.

Islamic Jihad and Hamas have carried out numerous suicide bombings and other deadly attacks on Israelis. Assad's government regards them as legitimate groups fighting Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.

After yesterday's meeting, Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States, said, "The U.S. sanctions will have no effect on our economy."

An independent Syrian economist, Nabil Sukkar, agreed.

"Syria has very little economic relations with the U.S.," he said. Trade is only about $300 million, with more goods going to the United States than coming to Syria. Sukkar said Syria also receives no aid of any kind from the United States, which further weakens the sanctions' effect.

Moustapha suggested that the sanctions may actually have little to do with Syria, saying that they may have more to do with the U.S. elections and could also be a distraction from the problems of the Iraq war.

Assad spoke on a wide range of issues yesterday, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq, but the focus was on the sanctions.

On the issue of supporting terrorism, Assad said there were no Palestinian militants in Syria until they were expelled from Israel. He said there were no leaders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad in Syria, only political spokesmen.

He said the Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon has no relationship with the Syrian army, which still maintains a presence in northern Lebanon, 15 years after that country's civil war was ended with the participation of Syria.

"We provide no military support to any party in the region," Assad said.

Assad also denied that his country has any weapons of mass destruction.

"We don't even have a nuclear reactor for peaceful use," he said.

He said Syria proposed to the United Nations Security Council last summer that the region become free of all weapons of mass destruction.

"For a long time, we have called for making the region free," he said. Assad added that before the United States invaded Iraq last year, he told the Bush administration that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"We knew that, but the West didn't listen to us," he said.

On foreign fighters, Assad said he had repeatedly made requests for evidence from the United States that they were crossing from Syria to Iraq but never received any proof.

"We have asked them to give us one passport, one name, one piece of evidence, but so far, nothing," he said.

But he admitted that Syria can't completely control its border with Iraq, just like the United States can't completely control its border with Mexico.

Assad said the instability in Iraq is the problem.

He said there was a history in the 1980s of Iraq sending saboteurs into Syria and that even today there is smuggling of arms from Iraq to Syria.

"This is dangerous for Syria. This is the natural result of the lack of a state in Iraq."

At an earlier meeting with the American editors, Syria's longest-held political prisoner said the government has a long way to go if it really wants to reform.

"The government must free all political prisoners and offer an apology for (state-sponsored) violence in 1980s," said Riad al-Turk, who spent a total of 19 years in prison, 17 years in solitary confinement.

But al-Turk said he does have hope for "peaceful, democratic change" in Syria. He also rejected U.S. sanctions, saying only an international body like the United Nations had the right to sanction any country.

Assad said he's committed to reform but that it will come slowly because of regional instability and the reluctance of some in his society to change.

Asked if he might be reforming himself out of a job, he said that is a possibility.

"I never cared about my position," he said. "When the Syrian people no longer want me, I'll quit."

SYRIA AND REFORMS

Bashar Assad came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria for 29 years. The younger Assad has promised political and economic reforms, but changes have come slowly.

What has occurred:

The elimination of martial law courts. Now anyone charged with a crime has the right to hire a lawyer and fight the charges in court.

  • Some political prisoners have been freed.

  • Private banks have been allowed.

  • A private newspaper has opened. A private radio station begins soon.


What hasn't occurred:

  • Free elections.


Assad on reform:

"We're going to change. ... We haven't made great progress. I think the road is still long ahead of us."