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Does Bashar al-Assad really have to go? Cartoonist Bruce Petty talks to Dr Jeremy Salt.

Video & transcript: Bruce Petty interviews Dr Jeremy Salt, Middle Eastern scholar. Bruce Petty is a highly regarded political satirist and cartoonist as well as an award-winning film maker.

"There always has to be a 'madman' in the Middle East," explains Jeremy Salt, when asked why we constantly hear that 'Bashar al-Assad has to go'? Of course Bashar al-Assad is not really mad. Jeremy explains how the west, in its long exploitation of the Middle East, has invented crises that it then pretends to help with, and these tend to feature a 'madman' whom the people have to be saved from. In reaction Middle Eastern governments tend to be defensive and authoritarian, in order to survive constant foreign interference. Even if Bashar went, the Syrian state would remain the same. Salt gives a fluent history of how the west has used the Middle East, and how western politicians expected to knock Syria over easily, but underestimated it. All they have done is weaken it and assorted armed and dangerous groups including ISIS have risen up through the cracks they have created. But many Syrians really like Bashar al-Assad and think he is their best chance for reform. (See the third part in this series, "Has the Syrian president killed more than ISIS and other questions," to hear about how al-Assad is actually legally elected and had brought in reforms prior to the current crisis.) Petty asks about beheading and the role of religion and Islam in today's crisis. Salt agrees that Islam has been taken over by conservatives and extremists, but precises that this is a political ideological take-over that has little to do with Islamic religious base.

Dr Jeremy Salt is a former journalist, turned academic and is the author of The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, (University of California Press, 2008). Until recently, Dr Salt was based in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, where he ran courses in the history of the modern Middle East, in politics and in politics, propaganda and the media.

The story behind these dialogues: On 16 November 2015 a small group of concerned Australian citizens got together to talk about the problems of getting real information out to Australians and other US-NATO allies about war in Syria, in spite of mainstream press efforts to confuse the public. Bruce Petty and Jeremy Salt were part of that group. Inside is the transcript of the embedded video. (There are two other videos in this series. The first is: "Cartoonist Bruce Petty asks Dr Jeremy Salt: Has Bashar al-Assad killed more people than ISIS? and similar questions". The second is: "Cartoonist Bruce Petty and Dr Jeremy Salt: Where news comes from: reporting on the Middle East."). The third is "Does Bashar al-Assad really have to go? Cartoonist Bruce Petty talks to Dr Jeremy Salt.")

INTRODUCTION BY EDITING TRANSCRIBER: This is the third of three dialogues. In these dialogues, Bruce Petty often agrees with a nod or a murmur, but I have not recorded these comments unless they have been part of a significant change in the dialogue. Petty’s eyes and face are worth watching as he considers what he is hearing. The transcriptions are as accurate as the transcriber could make them, but could contain small errors. Hopefully no errors that would affect the points that Dr Salt and Mr Petty seek to raise and explain.

BRUCE PETTY: The issue is the Middle East and the issue is Syria. And we’re given the idea that Assad has to go. Now, I want to know why he ‘has to go’? And I hear he tortures and he’s got too many people in prison and … now he’s bombing… and there’s gas involved … the whole scenario is there. And, I don’t know the origins of these stories.

JEREMY SALT: Well, you know this thing – if there is an objective truth about it - the Syrian government.

There always has to be a madman in the Middle East

JEREMY SALT: This is such a complex subject to go into. In any case, one point to make is that there always has to be a madman in the Middle East. Or a dictator. There always has been. You go all the way back to the 19th century. Like in [the] 1890s there was a gentleman they called ‘The Mad Mullah’ of Somaliland. Well, Somaliland didn’t have any mullahs. But it was a nice kind of alliterative title that went well with the British media.
And in fact the ‘mad mullah of Somaliland’ was a sheik. He belonged to an Islamic order and what you might call – you might call him a ‘proto-nationalist’. And then, you looked at Sudan in the same period of time - a bit earlier, actually – same period of time – when you had the dervishes, ‘savages’, ‘barbarians’ and so forth and so on.

And you ask, what was the problem there? Well the problem was that their territory, their land, had been invaded by the British. And naturally they were resisting.

And you can follow this all the way back, all the way back to the 19th century.

In the 20th century they portrayed Nasser as a dictator. In fact Nasser was actually a moderate person who wanted to get on with Americans. In particular. And the problem was that Israel - he had problems with Israel. And, you know, that was the reason why he had to be brought down. So he was a ‘dictator’.

You look at Musaddiq in Iran. They couldn’t pretend he was a dictator, because he wasn’t. But they had to find out some other kind of reason for making him look either nasty or stupid. And the fact is, he used to wear for interviews thing that, clothes that the British media laughed at and said, ‘Wearing pyjamas.” And he tended to cry. Because he was an emotional man. So you had many good reasons to laugh at Musaddiq. And get him out of the way.

So, this process, whenever there is a situation, which offends them and they want to sort out, they like to personalise. They like to pick out one person, “Oh, here’s the madman, here’s the dictator.” And that’s the key to the whole situation. Once we establish that in the public mind, well, we can go ahead and destroy them.

And, you know, this whole business about Syria… I mean if you actually look at the Middle East and North Africa, go back to the first time in modern history that a western army …[ inaudible] in 1798, when Napoleon landed in Egypt and tried to conquer Egypt. And the British got wind of it and sent a fleet out and destroyed the French fleet. And that was the end of Napoleon’s mission. But from that time onwards, if you look at the whole of North Africa, all the way across the Middle East to the Gulf, you will hardly find a country that has not been attacked. You’d be hard pressed to find one that has not been attacked. Many of them [have been] attacked many, many times. And, in many cases those attacks served many purposes. Like, for example, Egypt, when the British occupied Egypt in 1882 to get their hands on Egyptian cotton, tobacco, sugar. Also their hands on the canal. And also, it was a testing ground for new weaponry.

Now here’s the relevance of this when we think back to the attack on Iraq in 1991. Or that kind of hushed talk on the news broadcasts. You know, we’ve got these smart missiles, they don’t need telling what to do, they can turn corners and do all kinds of things. Well, in the 1880s, it was the warships: reinforced steel plating, hydraulic gun platforms. I mean, they’d never had them before. If you wanted to change targets before that, the whole ship had to turn around. So they had hydraulic platforms; it meant you only had to just turn the gun. And they had massive kind of cannons and they had shells that could go almost 2000 yards.

So, in London, all the military people were kind of like really excited about this. How’s this all going to work? Because what the Egyptians had on shore were like popguns. They couldn’t even reach these ships. So it was kind of like a done deal. They were going to win there. They were going to win. But so you follow that all the way through from the 19th century and there are always reasons for attacking these countries. Always justified. In the 19th century called them ‘civilisation’. ‘We’ll bring civilisation to these people.’

BRUCE PETTY: And Christianising.

JEREMY SALT: Well, I wouldn’t use that so much. Not really. Muslims might try that, but generally it was what we were doing ‘for’ these people, not what we were doing strong>to them. And always there would be a lot of violence. Like the British –

BRUCE PETTY: The religious factor didn’t come into it? Their religion, I mean?

JEREMY SALT: Well, always the missionaries followed the flag. You know, they went in there and they would do their bit. But if you look at Egypt, for example, when the British bombarded Alexandria. You know, blew it to bits. Before the army landed. Well then, of course, the moment they did that, well the local people reacted. They were very upset. And then Britain said, ‘Well, we have to restore order!’ Gangs were out and destroying things and setting fire to our property and so forth and so on.

That’s what goes back to the print media. It’s what the public believes. ‘Our people are being attacked in Egypt by these savages.’

And that tends to be what happens. It’s been repeated time after time. Down to the present day.

And, if you look at Syria, well, right, people say, ‘Well it’s an authoritarian, oppressive regime.’

I can accept that. It is. But you look at Syria’s history. Going back to the First World War, there was this piece of land on the map, called Syria. So, when they got their hands on it, they cut it up. That’s the first thing they did. They butchered it. The British got – the British took – southern Syria, which is Palestine. The French cut one part off – the coastal region – called Lebanon. In the 1930s, the French gave Iskanderun to Turkey. Now that’s the province of Hattay, with more than a 50 per cent Alawi population. And people who still actually believe in Bashar al-Assad. And then we move forward to the modern period, the post war period when Syria became independent, finally, independent in 1946.

1949 they had their first coup. Who organised the coup? The Americans. Why? Because the elected Syrian government won’t grant rights to the Tapline to Aramco, the Arabian-American oil company, to build a pipeline from Saudi Arabia across to the Mediterranean across Syrian territory. The government says, ‘No, we don’t want this.’

So the Americans intervene with a bit of help from the CIA . They put a colonel in power. And then, in 1956, the same time that the British planned to attack Egypt, the Americans are planning to overthrow the government of Syria. Again! And you move that through – all the way through to the modern period.

So Syria has continuously been under attack, under threat. Targeted assassinations, coups, dirty work of some kind or another. So what do you get out of this? You’re not going to get a democracy. You’re going to get a state that’s permanently on its guard; that’s watchful. Alright? And then people turn around and say, ‘Look at this, this system.’ And the fact is, you know, people point the finger at Bashar? Well Bashar could go tomorrow and the system wouldn’t change. But Bashar, many Syrians believe, is popular – one thing that the people in Washington or Britain don’t want to believe. Bashar is liked by the Syrian people. They might be critical of the system, but they like Bashar. And many of them believe that he is the best hope they have of actually changing the system.

Mass migration from Syria

BRUCE PETTY: Okay. Now the explanation for this: There’s a couple of million on the move; don’t want to be in Syria. And we see pictures of them. They look middle class and young kids. What’s a parallel to that? What’s it like? Is that like –

JEREMY SALT: I’ve never been in that situation. I don’t want to be in that situation. It’s been going on in the Middle East since 1948. And the big exodus of 1948 of the Palestinians from their land –

BRUCE PETTY: The Palestinians, yes.

JEREMY SALT: Eight hundred thousand people. Iraq –

BRUCE PETTY: They’re still there on the borders, wanting to go back.

JEREMY SALT: Of course. Well, it’s their land –

BRUCE PETTY: Are these people going to go back? Or do they want to go to Germany? Do you think [Inaudible].

JEREMY SALT: Well I couldn’t speak for them, Bruce, but I think many of them want to go back to their homeland.

BRUCE PETTY: I would think so, yes.

JEREMY SALT: Of course they do. But they can’t because it’s in complete turmoil.

BRUCE PETTY: Yeah. Well, they’re the issues that puzzle people and –

How the mass media presents what is happening

JEREMY SALT: But things also Bruce, I think, you know, people, what the media, doesn’t really want to show is that we were told from the beginning that all this was about repression of the protests by the Syrian government.

BRUCE PETTY: Yes. That’s right.

JEREMY SALT: And alternative evidence which the media - the mainstream media - will not present, is that the attack on Syria was actually well-prepared.


JEREMY SALT: Right? And they wanted to hit Syria and they waited for the moment and this, once again, there’s a template for this in Latin America.


JEREMY SALT: I mean, how did the United States carry out [inaudible ]coups in Guatamala? What you do, you wait for this, for people to kind of demonstrate over some economic issue, then you move in behind them. And that’s more or less what happened in Syria.

And people say, ‘Oh, no, no. It started as a peaceful protest and only much, much later did it become violent. Which is not true. Because they were violent from the beginning. And that’s what the media would not tell its readers [inaudible].

What do we know of the groups fighting the Syrian Government?

BRUCE PETTY: And do we know much about the fragmentation of what was called ‘the rebellion’, you know. Like there are apparently there are tribal elements, there are militias – independent militias – under various autocrats. And there’s ISIS, and there’s a bit of Al Qaeda left, I imagine. All these elements, I mean, are they… Do we know who – Do we know the quantities and the passions? Is it just passion?

JEREMY SALT: Well, the tribal … the tribes are part of it because [inaudible] in Iraq we know there are terrible kinds of conflicts between Islamic State and the tribes. And the Islamic State [? butchered] lots of [? tribesmen] in Iraq. But the position is that those countries, all of them – that is Libya, or Syria, or Iraq, who didn’t have these Takfiri jihadi elements before.

Destruction of countries has created cracks from which jihadi elements have come out

So, it’s the destruction of those countries that has created the cracks in the landscapes from which these people have managed to come out. I mean, if you look at what they did to Syria. Okay, they wanted to destroy the Syrian central government. They didn’t succeed in doing it. Now, it was very clear from the start that Syria was not Yemen; Syria was not Libya; Syria was not Tunisia or Egypt. Syria was Syria. And what would happen in Syria was very different from what would happen elsewhere.

Now, those people: the Americans, the British, the French, Turks, the Qataris, the Saudis – they all thought, ‘Oh look, we’re going to push very hard, and we will bring the government down.’

They didn’t succeed in doing it. All they succeeded in doing was weakening it. Now, we know that – and what they therefore created was – in northern Syria in particular, but also in other parts – was a kind of a vacuum . Now, in some respects, that vacuum was filled by people they were supporting. The armed groups. In some cases it was filled by people they didn’t want to be there. Like the Kurds in northern Syria. Erdogan, the Turkish president, is very angry because the Kurds took their opportunity and kind of established some kind of autonomy over the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, just over the Kurdish border.

So, in some ways, it’s the law of unintended consequences.

BRUCE PETTY: The other element that is different, I think, is things like beheadings. We haven’t sort of seen that before. Is that connected somehow to these generations of frustration? I mean, can you explain that from anything we did?

JEREMY SALT: They would. No. They would go back to Islamic history to justify beheading people. Alright? But, I mean, this doesn’t - what the Islamic state is doing cannot be called Islamic.

JEREMY SALT: It cannot be called Islamic, not just because of the absolute brutality and sadism of what they’re doing, but they’re destroying Christian churches. Now this doesn’t fit with Islam at all –

BRUCE PETTY: And antiquities.

JEREMY SALT: But the antiquities have been there for 2000 years without one Muslim government touching them. But, when it comes to Christian churches being destroyed, there’s no place for this in Islam. This is actually against Islam. This is a violation of Islamic principles, to destroy churches. Because Christians, Jews, are protected.

BRUCE PETTY: So you’d have to go back –

JEREMY SALT: No, you wouldn’t have to go back at all. There’s no place for [it].

BRUCE PETTY: But it has happened though, hasn’t it?

JEREMY SALT: No. At the beginning –

BRUCE PETTY: Way back [inaudible]-

JEREMY SALT: Oh, right at the beginning, right at the beginning –

BRUCE PETTY: Four hundred –

JEREMY SALT: No, right at the beginning, right at the beginning of the 7th century.

BRUCE PETTY: And the religious, even the religious purges and crusades, for one. We did it.

JEREMY SALT: We did it. Yeah, we did it. But when, in terms of minority, religious minorities, like within Islam right at the beginning when the Jews of what we now call Saudi Arabia would not accept the Islamic message, they were attacked and many of them were killed. But, once Islam was consolidated, as a state religion, you go back and there’s nothing, there’s nothing there. You’re hard pressed to find any kind of way in which religious communities were touched.

BRUCE PETTY: Well, that is one that made you think. And you still wonder, is there a Martin Luther Muslim?

JEREMY SALT: [Indecipherable] I didn‘t like Martin Luther.

BRUCE PETTY: - start something a bit different.

JEREMY SALT: Martin Luther was a terrible person.

BRUCE PETTY: Was he? Oh well, somebody –

JEREMY SALT: He was anti-semetic –

BRUCE PETTY: Oh, that’s right, he was –

JEREMY SALT: Who was the Nuremburg [inaudible]. I can’t remember whether it was Goering or Goebels – someone – stood up and said, ‘Well, actually, don’t blame us, blame Luther.’ That’s where it came from. And also, he was on the side of the princes. ‘Go out and slay the peasants!’

BRUCE PETTY: Oh okay. Well, whatever he did –

JEREMY SALT: Whatever it is, right –

BRUCE PETTY: He did nail a few things on the door and it would be nice if they nailed a few things on -.



JEREMY SALT: I agree. I agree. I totally agree that Islam has been taken over by arch conservatives, reactionaries, and these are people who interpret their own religion in a very selective way. And, if you actually go back to the earliest stages of Islam: You take up women’s rights, for example, women’s rights, the greatest scholars of the age, back in the western 13th or 12th century, took up these questions and what they had to say about women’s rights was extraordinary.

BRUCE PETTY: Really. That’s interesting.

JEREMY SALT: You know, they allowed contraception. One of the schools of law would allow abortion if the family was too big and they couldn’t deal with another child. They regarded the woman as a sexual creature, not just a chattel of man. Entitled to sexual satisfaction. And where do you get this in today’s Islam?


JEREMY SALT: Now these were the greatest figures of the age. The greatest thinkers of the age – the philosophers. That’s all kind of been whitewashed from their history.

BRUCE PETTY: [Inaudible]

JEREMY SALT: If you were going to draw a cartoon of the Caliph, sitting in Mosul – have you seen him?

BRUCE PETTY: No, I haven’t. I’ve seen a few.

JEREMY SALT: He was photographed kind of hectoring the crowds, wearing a very flash watch

BRUCE PETTY: Okay. Oh yeah, I remember that bit, yeah.

JEREMY SALT: I think it’s what I’d home in on, if I were a cartoonist.

BRUCE PETTY: Well, we’ve got a bit of a problem there about… because then you suddenly… got to be careful you’re not putting a case for the beheaders.


BRUCE PETTY: You know.

JEREMY SALT: Mocking them is –

BRUCE PETTY: Mocking them if you can. But then, you have to watch your own head a little bit. Hebdo and all that stuff.


BRUCE PETTY: But basically, I don’t know how you treat religion. I mean you sort of hope it would all modify a bit.

JEREMY SALT: Would you? I mean, I’ve got funny things – I’m not religious in the slightest bit – but I would not, myself, choose to insult Mohammed or Christ.


JEREMY SALT: I wouldn’t see any point.


JEREMY SALT: I’d go for the priests. I’d go for the Imams.


JEREMY SALT: I’d go for the ayatollahs. They’re all fair game. Why would you want to go back to a foundational figure? And dump on that person? I mean that’s just a personal view of mine.

BRUCE PETTY: No, I agree with that one. I’d go along with it.

JEREMY SALT: I don’t quite get it.


JEREMY SALT: They’re too far back in history.

BRUCE PETTY: And I quite like the hymns too, and the music.

JEREMY SALT: Ah, right.

BRUCE PETTY: The old cantatas.

JEREMY SALT: This must go back to your school days.

BRUCE PETTY: Probably does, yeah.


Jeremy Salt's comments regarding the enlightened views of Islamic scholars on women's rights during the Middle Ages is worthy of further study. His observations are further evidence that "progress" is not necessarily a linear phenomenon linked to perceived time, stretching ever forwards Are we entering a new Dark Age?

Your point on the notion of linear chronological 'progress' is taken, Quark. Thank you.

There is, however, a much more cogent and vital measure of women's rights, and that is land rights, notably their distribution via inheritance. Taditionally Muslim women have been accorded one third their brothers' rights, but in the 'good sister syndrome' they often give this up to their brothers, supposedly in the hope that their brothers will take care of them.

(Note that this problem of unfair distribution is corrected for Muslims living under Roman law in modern Europe, but not under Anglophone country law - i.e. Australia, England, most states of the USA, New Zealand.)

As in all societies in all regions, there was a point where fertile land was not at a premium and female humans, like other animals, dominated their own territory and passed it on to their children, whence it descended in male and female lines.

I argue in Sheila Newman, Demography, Territory, Law2: Land-tenure and the Origins of Capitalism in Britain, Countershock Press, 2014, that past eras of global warming which reduced land-areas and provoked migrations may have been a catalyst for the reduction of women's rights, the development of agriculture as a more intensive method of getting food, and the formation of tiered societies under separate ruling castes. I don't think that agricultural society was a gain; agriculture was a technological solution to the problem of sudden loss of territory associated with widescale sudden population pressure. I would maintain that hunter-gathering with modest traditional gardens (as are maintained still in the Pacific Islands) was the first choice.

England was reinvented under Norman (Viking) law as a frontier administered by soldiers who earned land-rights through service to their leader. That service entailed defending the frontier. Women could not inherit this land because it was land to be defended by [male] soldiers, but it could be transmitted through women to their husbands.

This situation persisted in England until the early 1920s, when it finally became permissible to leave women land. Nonetheless, in England and in her colonies, there is no obligation to leave land to women and women continue to be land and asset poor compared to men. (Spousal inheritance was an attempt to partially correct this, but brings its own problems, see end of this comment.)

In contrast, in Roman law, women were able to inherit (although not to manage) land. Napoleon reinforced this law and made it mandatory for all children to inherit equally, whether they be male or female. His example of the civil code was taken up by all countries except Britain by the 19th century in Europe. This gives women a much better footing in the non-anglophone countries of Europe, with the exception of Portugal which was influenced in some ways by British law.

I do not know if it was under Islam that women lost fair access to land through inheritance in the Middle East or if it occurred earlier or independently. I must investigate! I understand that in Hindu traditional law women have the right to nothing at all!

This subject of discussion is SO important and women in the anglophone countries have so little understanding of how recently they were in a similar position to the women of the Middle East in this way.

It is this historical skew, in my opinion, that is the most important factor in the lack of respect for women in many societies. Basically lack of assets translates to lack of power and lack of power translates to lack of respect.

Note also, that in Pacific Islander and African societies, 19th and 20th century colonials tended to revoke through new laws the tradition of female land-inheritance lines, impacting not only on wealth, but also on power and fertility, turning women and children into slaves of slaves (i.e of colonised men). Were there similar effects of colonisation in the 19th and 20th century in India and the Middle East? We must always bear in mind that until the industrial revolution, most societies were clan and tribe based and probably had multiple land-tenure systems, with many of them limiting marriage to a small proportion of the population with the rest cooperatively housed in extended families or male and female houses.

As for the question of whether we are entering a new Dark Age: the settings are right for it in Australia (and globally). For Australia governments are engineering drastic land-scarcity. Our inheritance laws do not safeguard children's or women's rights. There is no obligation for parents to leave their assets to their children nor for them to apportion them equally to each child regardless of sex. If a man or woman remarries and has a second family, the first family can be and is often left out of the inheritance in favour of the new spouse.

We are always taking this arrogant stance that women have more rights here (in the US, say) than anywhere else and somehow this is an outgrowth of our democratic and capitalist society. This is hogwash. Two specific situations came to mind when I read your comments here.

First, when I was a single mother with a toddler working odd jobs to get by, I knew other single mothers who, unlike myself, had gone through a divorce from a man who now had a new family, often living in a comfortable suburban home with a new family while these women were living with their children in the city and leaving them alone to go to work because they didn't have money for a babysitter.

On a lighter (?) note, when I was in Boston on a business trip a few years ago I visited the Mary Baker Eddy house and museum. The museum was mostly feminist news from the first decade of the 20th century. One article that stayed with me was titled "Does a Woman Own Her Own Clothes?". The title was meant to be facetious, I suppose. But in fact, a married woman in the US at that time often didn't own anything at all except through her husband.

By making constant war on the more secular and open minded governments in the Middle East, we guarantee that those women will not be in a position to assess and then develop their rights.

War privileges men in a society, as you say. Christianity is no more innately open minded than Islam. Peace, prosperity and education allow societies to open up and become more supportive of the rights of individuals so both women and men benefit. The fact that the nations targeted are specifically the ones that have these characteristics is telling. These wars are undermining our freedoms just as surely as they are destroying the targeted nations.

From RT (19/12/15)

The Syrian president Bashar Assad and his wife, Asma, visited the Notre Dame de Damas Church, an ancient cathedral located just 2 kilometers from the rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar in Damascus.

They attended Christmas preparations at Our Lady of Damascus, just two kilometres (around a mile) from the rebel-held Jubar district.

The visit coincided with the adoption of Friday’s UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria, which was unanimously adopted. The resolution refrained from mentioning the Syrian leader.

Assad, a member of the Shiite Muslim Alawite sect, presents himself as a protector of minorities in Syria. He says that his administration is an example of tolerance that contrasts with the behaviour of jihadists, including the Islamic State group that has seized large swathes of the war-torn country. Alawites like Bashar al-Assad celebrate Christmas and Easter as well as all the Muslim holidays, but the American media portrays Assad as a monster to be removed and vilified.

Alawites make up just 10% to 15% of Syria’s population, and they are usually presented as fervent supporters of Mr. Assad. Alawites ignore the religious practices associated with Islam, and they keep their own rituals secret.

This is a great interview. It's like the Australian version of Noam Chomsky dismissing the lies of empire without any defensiveness. Just stating the facts with authority.

Love it.

People interested in Syria should look at this link to a Democracy Now episode from 10 years ago. A journalist, Reese Erlich, interviewed Assad. DN played the video, and then interviewed Erlich, plus British journalist, Patrick Seale.

The story shows that the U.S. was threatening war against Syria 10 years ago; that Assad was trying to explain to the U.S. about the stabilizing role Syria played in the region, and how "destabilizing Syria (...) is going to destabilize the region."

The detail is really fascinating and predictive. Assad refers obliquely to rendition programs as helping the US after 9-11. Then he says how he felt that the US was not acting to prevent terrorism. Etc.

U.S. EXCLUSIVE: Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad on U.S. Foreign Policy, the Resistance in Iraq, Syrian-Lebanese Relations and More (July 18, 2006)

In a Democracy Now U.S. broadcast exclusive, we air an interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad. He spoke with independent journalist Reese Erlich last month in Damascus in a wide-ranging interview on United States foreign policy, resistance to the occupation of Iraq, Syrian relations with Lebanon and much more. [includes rush transcript]

As the bombardment of Lebanon continues, the United States and Israel have been calling on Syria to pressure Hezbollah to back down and release the two captured Israeli soldiers.

On Monday President Bush was caught on tape speaking privately to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. On the tape, he curses and blames Syria for the current crisis. Meanwhile, former CIA Director James Woolsey, appeared on Fox yesterday to call for US air strikes against Syria.

Damascus has warned that it will respond in a "unlimited" manner to any Israeli attacks on the country. Meanwhile, a massive pro-Hezbollah rally was held in Damascus yesterday.

Today, a Democracy Now U.S. broadcast exclusive: An interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad. Last month, he gave a wide-ranging interview to independent journalist Reese Erlich in Damascus. Erlich is a freelance foreign correspondent who reports regularly for CBC, ABC Australia, Radio Deutche Welle and National Public Radio. He also co-author of the book "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You"

In the interview, Asad discusses United States foreign policy, resistance to the occupation of Iraq, Syrian relations with Lebanon and much more.

Bashar Al-Asad, president of Syria interviewed by freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich on June 14, 2006.

We get response on Bashar Al-Asad’s comments from British journalist Patrick Seale, a British journalist who has covered the Middle East for over 30 years. He is the author of the definitive biography of Bashar Al-Asad’s father Hafez, titled "Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East"

Patrick Seale, British journalist who has covered the Middle East for over 30 years. He is the author of "Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East"

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Bush was caught on tape at the G8 summit speaking privately to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. On the tape, he curses and blames Syria for the current crisis.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s*** and it’s over.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, former CIA director, James Woolsey, appeared on FOX yesterday to call for U.S. air strikes against Syria. Damascus has warned that it will respond in a "unlimited manner" to any Israeli attacks on the country. Meanwhile, a massive pro-Hezbollah rally was held in Damascus yesterday.

Today we bring you a Democracy Now! U.S. broadcast exclusive, an interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad. Last month he gave a wide-ranging interview to independent journalist, Reese Erlich, in Damascus. Erlich’s a freelance foreign correspondent, reports regularly for CBC, ABC Australia, Radio Deutsche Welle, National Public Radio. Reese Erlich is also co-author of the book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You, and he now joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Reese.

REESE ERLICH: Thanks very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this interview that we’re about to play? What were the circumstances of it? Where did you interview the President of Syria?

REESE ERLICH: I interviewed him at the presidential palace, up on a hill above Damascus, where he has his formal meetings. It’s a very impressive place. You go in, and you have about eight miles of red carpet and huge doors, and it’s quite an impressive entrance. And then, out of a little room comes the President of Syria and welcomes you in and shakes your hand. He’s a very friendly guy. I’ve had an opportunity to interview presidents from a number of different countries, and most of them are rather stiff and formal. He was very informal, easy to talk to, was forthcoming in the interview. And we talked about a whole range of issues, from Iran and Syria and U.S. relations and terrorism down to issues of democratic rights inside Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the first part of that interview right now, where, Reese Erlich, you started by asking President Bashar Al-Asad if he was concerned the United States might also be considering Syria as a target for military action. Mind you, this is before the current conflict. You asked him if the U.S. might also consider Syria as a target. This is the President of Syria answering.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Actually, Syria has a history of 5,000 years, and it made its history, it makes its presence, and it will make its future. The people in Syria will decide who’s going to be in charge, who’s going on the helm and who’s not. But the most important thing, whoever think about destabilizing Syria, he should know that he’s going to destabilize the region. We are the safety valve in the region.

REESE ERLICH: The safety valve?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Yeah, safety valve in the region.

REESE ERLICH: What way? How?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: In a geopolitical way. Geopolitical way. The history of Syria, the road of the Syria and the region, the link between Syria and our neighbors, social links, ideological links, and the interest links with the region. So the whole region is connected with each other.

REESE ERLICH: You mentioned that in the past Syria has helped provide intelligence about terrorist groups, al-Qaeda and so on. Explain that. And when did that cooperation end?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Actually, we started cooperating with the United States — we took the initiative to cooperate with the United States intelligence after 11th of September. And we succeeded in preventing more than seven plots made by al-Qaeda against the United States. The cooperation stopped last March 2005, because of mistakes were made by the United States, first; second, because of their political position or stand against Syria.

REESE ERLICH: What were the mistakes made by the United States?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Technical mistakes that led to losing many opportunities to go forward in fighting terrorism in the region.

REESE ERLICH: That was also around the time in which the U.S. was pressuring Lebanon to demand the return of Syrian troops and the charges about Hariri, and so on and so forth. So, did that, in general, sour the political atmosphere?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Definitely, definitely.

REESE ERLICH: Do you think the Bush administration will militarily attack Iran, using the issue of nuclear weapons development, supposedly, that Iran is involved in? Do you think that’s likely?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Anyway, it’s a hypothetical question, but if we want to talk about logic and the interest of the region and of the United States and the rest of the world, it’s not to do such a thing, because the whole world would pay a very expensive price.

REESE ERLICH: What would be the consequences if the U.S. did either try to impose sanctions or even a military strike on Iran?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Sanctions won’t do anything, from the experience in Iraq, in many different countries. Sanctions won’t do anything. But the consequences of destabilizing the region by sanctions, by military actions, by any kind of means, will lead to destabilizing the whole Middle East.

REESE ERLICH: Iran has a number of options, should something like that happen. For example, it can work with its supporters in Iraq to attack U.S. forces, when they’re not doing that now. It has influence with Hezbollah, and it could inflame the situation there. Do you think those would be some of the examples of the destabilization?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: I think the question should be, as to the Iranian, I mean, both, they’re going to do. But for me, the consequences are much deeper, if you look at Iraq as an example. You cannot talk about factions or parties or groups. It’s much more deeper than this. It’s chaos. It’s going to be a total chaos.

AMY GOODMAN: Reese Erlich interviewing the President of Syria. We’re going to go back to that interview, joined by Reese Erlich in studio in San Francisco and Patrick Seale, British journalist who’s covered the Middle East for over 30 years, who wrote the biography of Asad called Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.

Patrick Seale, I wanted to go to you in France right now to give us a little background on Asad, on the President of Syria, and to also your response to this first part of the interview.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, as you know, he’s been in power for about six years now. He took over from his father, when his father died in June 2000. He is an eye doctor, trained as an eye doctor in Britain and in Syria. He wasn’t really prepared for power, so he’s had a rather hard innings, particularly, of course, since the attack on Iraq by the United States, which is probably go down in history as a monumental blunder. Nevertheless, he has proved a very tough defender of Syrian interests, and it’s striking that he should make this claim, that whoever — that to destabilize Syria is to destabilize the whole region. I think that’s really, in a way, one of his key remarks. He points to his concern and his attempt to persuade the world that Syria has an important regional role and continues to have that role.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us more on the background, Patrick Seale, of how Bashar Al-Asad rose to power? And then, also, if you could talk about the reference to Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese leader who was assassinated last year.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, he rose to power — in a way, it was a sort of joint decision of the political elite in Damascus after his father died. He seemed a natural candidate, and in fact his father had, I think, to some extent, prepared him for this task in the six years since his elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash. His elder brother, Basil, was the acknowledged heir. When he died, then they recalled Dr. Bashar from London, where he was studying ophthalmology, and he was then trained to succeed his father. As I said, it’s not been an easy problem.

Now, the Lebanon is vitally important for Syria’s security. Syria cannot tolerate a hostile power in the Lebanon, and this, I think, lies at the root of much of Syria’s policy. If you may recall that in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, killing about 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and attempting to bring Lebanon into its orbit with the help of the United States. George Shultz, at the time, the American Secretary of State, tried to broker a separate peace between Israel and Lebanon, which would have put Lebanon in Israel’s sphere of influence, and the Israelis were anxious to install a puppet government in Beirut, which would do their bidding.

Now, the Syrians managed to overturn that accord and bring Lebanon back into their sphere of influence, which, as I said, is necessary for their security, but is also a reflection of the numerous ties between the two countries. They are tied, intimately tied, by the family ties, trade ties, financial ties and, of course, historical ties. So for all these reasons, Syria has a very strong interest in the Lebanon.

Now, we don’t know whether or not Syria killed the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri. The investigation into that matter is still continuing, and indeed into the murders which followed. Many people have pointed the finger at Syria and have argued that Rafik Hariri wanted to change the relationship between the two countries. But, as I say, it remains unproven to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk to you about the cooperation between Syria and the United States, but first, we’re going to go back to the interview. Again, this is an interview done before the current conflict. Independent reporter Reese Erlich in this Democracy Now! U.S. broadcast exclusive, speaking to the President of Syria, Bashar Al-Asad.

REESE ERLICH: Does Syria plan to demarcate its borders with Lebanon — and then, a second related question — or open embassies between the two?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: The first part about the borders, we had a letter, formal letter, from the Lebanese prime minister, and we sent him a reply, formal reply, that we are ready to demarcate the borders. We don’t have any problem, because we had such a problem with Jordan a few years ago, and we solved it.

About the embassies, as a concept, we cannot say we don’t want to have an embassy in another country, as a concept, but that needs normal relation. Now, we don’t have this normal relation with the Lebanese, so it needs better relation to discuss this issue.

REESE ERLICH: What kinds of issues would have to be resolved in order to have a normal relation?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: First of all, not to have a government that works against your country. This is first of all. And second of all, you need the Syrians to feel that they have real neighbors, not cradle for or not a hub for terrorists to come and do such terrorist acts in Syria.

REESE ERLICH: One last question, what would it take to improve relations between the United States and Syria now? Are there any steps that could be taken that would improve them?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Definitely by the United States, not by Syria, because we did a lot, and we couldn’t get any result, because they don’t have the will. So first of all, they should know and they should understand the situation in the region. They should appreciate the role of Syria in the region. They should know that we have common interests that they don’t see. And I think they should be neutral in dealing with our causes. That’s how we can get back our relation to normal.

REESE ERLICH: So, do you want to be any more specific about your causes and [inaudible]?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Yeah, definitely. The most important thing, our occupied land, Golan Heights. The United States should take into consideration that we see everything in Syria through our occupied land. Without talking about peace process, in order to get this land back, what the benefit of this relation?

REESE ERLICH: Anything else you would like to add, in a message to the American people?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: I think after the 11th of September, which was a very tough lesson, not to the United States people, to everybody in this world, first of all, you should learn more about what’s going on behind the ocean, all over the world. You should send more people, more delegations to meet with other cultures to discuss with them, to know the facts, not to be isolated away from the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad. When we come back from break, he will talk about the war in Iraq, and we’ll continue with our conversation with Patrick Seale, who wrote the biography of Asad, called Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. And we’ll also speak with Reese Erlich, who did the interview with the Syrian president in Damascus.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue our interview that we’re bringing you in this U.S. broadcast exclusive. Independent journalist Reese Erlich was in Damascus last month and interviewed the President of Syria, Bashar Al-Asad. We’re also joined on the telephone by Patrick Seale from France, who wrote the biography of Asad’s father. It’s called Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Patrick Seale, as you listen to this interview and hear Bashar Al-Asad talk about the United States, can you comment on the relationship that Asad has had with the United States, as well as Lebanon?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, Syria has — there’s a terrible noise on this line. Can you hear it?

AMY GOODMAN: We can hear the sound, but we can also hear — we can hear you.

PATRICK SEALE: Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I hear you fine.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, it’s incredible noise. One second, please.

AMY GOODMAN: We can hear you, if you can try to ignore the sound. We can hear you fine.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, Syria has always sought better relations with the United States. Now, it’s suffered very much from what it considers America’s alignment on Israel. Indeed, it’s striking that President Bashar should urge the United States to be more even-handed, more neutral in its approach to the Middle East, not only, of course, on the Palestinian question, but also on the subject very dear to Syrian hearts, the occupied Golan. Now, as you know, Israel occupied the Golan in 1967, and the United States, in spite of Security Council Resolutions 242, 338, has allowed that occupation to stand, as it has allowed the occupation of Palestinian territories to stand for the last 39 years. The United States allowed Israel to occupy Lebanon, Southern Lebanon, for 22 years, and occupy the Palestinian territories for 39 years. Now, these are the reasons why many, many Arabs are very disgruntled, very hostile to the United States. Now, the United States believes that Israel can use force to protect its own supremacy in the region, but this is increasingly contested.

And so, in terms of President Bashar Al-Asad, he made very clear that Syria cannot tolerate the use of Lebanon to mount hostile operations against Syria. That’s when he was answering the question about why not restore — have an exchange of embassies, have diplomatic relations with Lebanon. He said, 'Well, we could do that once we have normal relations and once we have a Lebanese government in Beirut which doesn't work against Syria or cooperate with its enemies.’ So he was very clear on all those issues, and his appeal to the United States was to understand the region better, understand that there are other countries in the region, apart from Israel, with whom the United States has common interests, and should recognize those interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh detailed several years ago how the Bush administration destroyed U.S.-Syrian relations by attacking a convoy of cars inside Syria in an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. It turned out the convoy was made up of cars that were smuggling goods out of Iraq, and Syria has since stopped cooperating with the United States.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, that’s true. It wasn’t just that. I mean, Syria, like many other countries in the world, like France, like Germany, was very much opposed to the attack on Iraq. The Syrians had no love for Saddam Hussein, but the idea that the United States should attack — I mean, an unprovoked attack against a major Arab country — and smash it and kill tens of thousands of people, and then accuse Syria, of all countries, of interfering or Iran of interfering, when the United States, which previously had opposed, over the horizon, of keeping away from the heartland of the Middle East, suddenly makes this qualitative leap of attacking a major Arab state, this has caused consternation in the region.

And, of course, the Syrians feel threatened. They feel that they may be next. At least they felt that in the earlier stages of the attack. Now, I think they feel a bit more confident, because of the quagmire in which the United States finds itself. I mean, it looks very much as if the neo-cons, the pro-Israeli neo-cons, in influential positions in the U.S. administration took the United States for a ride. They involved it in this attack on Iraq, no doubt believing this would improve Israel’s strategic environment. But this has proved to be a catastrophe for the United States, extremely costly in men and treasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, we’re going to go back to the interview that independent journalist Reese Erlich did with the President of Syria, Bashar Al-Asad, last month, again, before the current conflict.

REESE ERLICH: President Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad today, or yesterday and today. Zarqawi was killed. Do you think that — the Bush administration is trying to say that they’re making progress now in Iraq. Do you think — well, first of all, do you think that’s accurate, or do you think the U.S. in some ways has actually already lost the war?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Lost the war and making progress are linked together, so have to ask about the goal first. So you have goal, democracy, the answer is very clear: the situation is much worse than before, even during Saddam’s, that we don’t defend in Syria. If they talk about better living standards, the situation much, much worse than before. If they are talking about development, about infrastructure, about anything, so everything is worse. So that depends on what the goal of the war.

You cannot talk about occupation. I mean, occupation is not the goal of the war. This is the mean, occupation. But if we talk about the military side of the war, killing Americans every day in Iraq, and, of course, killing Iraqis, tens of Iraqis every week, is that the goal of the war from the military point of view? I don’t think so. The answer is very clear for us.

REESE ERLICH: But even in a military sense, the U.S. no longer controls certain areas of Iraq. It’s very unstable, even in the south, in the Basra area. It would seem that even from a strictly military standpoint, the situation has gotten worse from the U.S. Do you think that’s true?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: It’s self-evident. No power, no military power in the world, even the United States, can control a small country militarily. You can only control a country if the people wants you to control it. When the people are against you — and this is very normal to have the people against the occupation in Iraq and in any other country — you are going to have resistance, and you will not control anything. This is normal.

REESE ERLICH: What do you think the outcome is going to be, if you said a few years from now, what do you think the situation will look like in Iraq?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: That depends on the constitution, first of all. You need consensus. If you want to talk about the future of Iraq, we should talk about a consensus about something, and normally the future of Iraq is going to be inside the constitution. So far, according to what we hear from many Iraqi factions, some factions think they are oppressed, so this needs to be re-evaluated. I think this is at the core of the future. If there’s no consensus about the constitution, you will have conflict or maybe a civil war. This is the core, not having a new government or having some relation. This is good, we support in Syria. We support the political process, but this is not enough. This is for the short term, it’s okay. For the long term, no, it’s not enough.

REESE ERLICH: Sources have told me you’ve been involved in promoting some negotiations between the Sunni resistance and the government. Is that accurate?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Actually, what we tried to promote is the unified Iraq. This is the only thing. We tried to see what’s in common between the whole Iraqis, and we tried to make some negotiations, some marketing, some ideas that the Iraqi would think it helps unifying Iraq or keep it unified, so far. And this is how we put our role as, in general.

REESE ERLICH: But, specifically, have you helped facilitate some talks between the resistance, the people opposed, fighting the United States, and the Iraqi government?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Actually, there’s a delegation that comes to Syria. We don’t know if they are resistance or not. They are Iraqis. And they don’t know — nobody knows who are the resistance. Only the Iraqis. So don’t believe if anyone tells you that he knows what the resistance? So, but definitely, most of them, most of the Iraqis that we meet, they are supporting the resistance, at least politically.

REESE ERLICH: And are you trying to facilitate the political supporters to hold negotiations with the government?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Yeah, we always say that we are ready to help in any way, but definitely Syria is open for this, and we tried to. Yeah, we did some effort.

REESE ERLICH: There’s been recent deaths on the beach in Gaza. Hamas has ended its ceasefire with Israel. What is your — it seems like a very great struggle is re-emerging now in Palestine. What is your prediction for the next short-term period in Palestine?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: You mean the Palestinian-Palestinan relation or Palestinian —

REESE ERLICH: Palestinian-Israeli relations, yeah.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASAD: Of course, when you have conflict between the Palestinians, you won’t have a peace talk in the near future. So I’m talking about — I’m talking from the West’s point of view now. From our point of view, it’s something — between the Palestinians, it’s something humanitarian, that we consider them as brothers.

But I think the Palestinians are paying the price of Oslo, treaty in 1993, and this is first. Second, they paid the price of the paralyzed peace process, especially after the 2000 negotiation at Camp David and the deadlock that they reached between the Palestinian and the Israeli and the negligence of the American administration of the peace process, in general.

AMY GOODMAN: The President of Syria, Bashar Al-Asad, speaking with independent journalist, Reese Erlich. We’re going to go to him in a minute, but I wanted to ask Patrick Seale quickly, in France, about how much control you think Syria has over Hezbollah in Lebanon now.

PATRICK SEALE: Hezbollah is, of course, its ally, as it is the ally of Iran. This doesn’t mean that it has full control over Hezbollah. Hezbollah has become an autonomous player, particularly ever since it managed to expel the Israelis from Lebanon, from most of Lebanon, in the year 2000. Of course, Israel continues to occupy a small area known as the Shebaa Farms on the pretext that they actually belong to Syria, rather than Lebanon. Syria says, no, these are Lebanese. But nevertheless, the Israelis maintain their occupation there and, of course, are holding a lot of prisoners. Now, both the Hamas attack, in which was captured an Israeli soldier, and Hezbollah’s attack, which captured two Israeli soldiers, these were intended to act — to serve as bargaining quarters to force Israel to release some of the many, many prisoners it holds. It holds about 10,000.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, we’re going to leave it there for today. We’re going to play more of the interview tomorrow. Reese Erlich, we have 30 seconds. Your final comment today on this part of the interview you did with the Syrian president.

REESE ERLICH: Well, I think it’s clear that he has accurately portrayed the difficulties the U.S. faces in Iraq. It’s an unwinnable war. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing Iraq to live in Syria, including 18,000 Christian Iraqis, who have fled as a result of their churches being attacked and their communities being attacked, something that even Saddam Hussein never dared to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Reese Erlich, I want to thank you for sharing this interview. We’ll play more of it tomorrow. Reese Erlich, independent journalist, recently back from Syria. And Patrick Seale, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Tomorrow, again, part two of the interview.