Assad Believes His anti-US and anti-Israel Stance will Save Him from an Uprising
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad believes he has more time for reforms, because of his anti-US and anti-Israel policy. He believes Egypt is suffering for its connection with the U.S. and Israel. But the recent popular protests and uprisings in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt have far less to do with anti-Americanism or anti-Israeli feelings of the demonstrators on the streets as Assad wants us to believe. They are the results of the increase in unemployment, rising food prices, government corruption, bad local economy and lack of freedom.
Monday, the Syrian President said that his situation was better than that of the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, three Arab countries which have witnessed a civil uprising in the last few weeks. Assad also found an explanation for his claim: The three countries have strong ties to the US, while his country doesn’t.
Assad told the US Wall Street Journal that in contrast to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country is on the verge of a revolution, he has more time to prepare for reforms because of his anti-US stance. According to Assad, his conflict with Israel leaves him in a better position with his citizens.
Due to the wave of attempted revolutions, Assad said that the Middle East is standing before a “new era” and that Arab rulers will have to do more to adapt themselves to their citizens’ political and economic aspirations.
Assad told the wall Street Journal that the Arab nations need time to construct institutions and improve education before opening up participation in the political system. According to Assad, the growing demands for swift political reform could harm Arab societies if they are unprepared for those reforms.
And yet, the Syrian president believes that his situation is better than Mubarak’s.”If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform, he noted.
“We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”
In spite of what Assad said, just two weeks ago, following the uprising in Tunisia and fears over a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, his government carried out a cautious move which has been seen as an attempt to soften up Syrian citizens when it increased subsidies at a rate that could seriously hurt the national budget.
In the interview Assad explained that he intends to promote reforms this year, but added that it was clear that these reforms were not on the same scale as those being demanded by Egyptian protestors. He noted that he was interested in improving relations with the US and even cooperate in the war against al-Qaeda, but wasn’t willing to do so at the expense of his country’s relations with Iran.
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Interview With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Transcript of interview in the Wall Street Journal:
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited a regime that has held power for four decades, said he will push for more political reforms in his country, in a sign of how Egypt’s violent revolt is forcing leaders across the region to rethink their approaches.
In a rare interview, Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are ushering in a “new era” in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people’s rising political and economic aspirations.
WSJ: We had a lot to ask you before, last week. And now we have even more to ask you about.
President Assad: This is the Middle East, where every week you have something new; so whatever you talk about this week will not be valuable next week. Syria is geographically and politically in the middle of the Middle East. That is why we are in contact with most of the problems forever, let us say, whether directly or indirectly.
WSJ: Thank you again for seeing us. We appreciate it. Maybe we can start just with the regional situation which is all over the news. As the president of Syria, how do you see what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan? How do you see the region changing and eventually, what does that mean for Syria itself?
President Assad: It means if you have stagnant water, you will have pollution and microbes; and because you have had this stagnation for decades, let us say, especially the last decade in spite of the vast changes that are surrounding the world and some areas in the Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, because we had this stagnation we were plagued with microbes. So, what you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease. That is how we see it.
If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this; at the end we are not Tunisians and we are not Egyptians. We cannot be objective especially that the situation is still foggy, and not clear. It has not been settled yet. So, whatever you hear or read in this period cannot be very realistic or precise or objective. But I can talk about the region in general more than talking about Tunisia or Egypt because we are one region. We are not a copy of each other, but we have many things in common. So, I think it is about desperation. Whenever you have an uprising, it is self-evident that to say that you have anger, but this anger feeds on desperation. Desperation has two factors: internal and external. The internal is that we are to blame, as states and as officials, and the external is that you are to blame, as great powers or what you call in the West ‘the international community’, while for them, the international community is made up of the United States and some few countries, but not the whole world. So, let us refer to the latter as the ‘greatest powers’ that have been involved in this region for decades.
As for the internal, it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. There must be something to have this balance. This is the most important headline. Regarding the west, it is about the problems that we have in our region, i.e. the lack of peace, the invasion of Iraq, what is happening in Afghanistan and now its repercussions in Pakistan and other regions. That led to this desperation and anger. What I tell you now is only the headlines, and as for the details, maybe you have details to talk about for days if you want to continue. I am just giving you the way we look at the situation in general.
WSJ: What sort of changes? How would you define the changes that are happening?
President Assad: Let us talk about what has not changed till today. Until today we have only two new things but if you want to talk about something new in our life, you have new hopes and new wars. You have a lot of people coming to the labor market without jobs and you have new wars that are creating desperation. So, one is internal and the other is external. Of course, if you want to talk about the changes internally, there must be a different kind of changes: political, economic and administrative. These are the changes that we need. But at the same time you have to upgrade the society and this does not mean to upgrade it technically by upgrading qualifications. It means to open up the minds. Actually, societies during the last three decades, especially since the eighties have become more closed due to an increase in close-mindedness that led to extremism. This current will lead to repercussions of less creativity, less development, and less openness. You cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind. So the core issue is how to open the mind, the whole society, and this means everybody in society including everyone. I am not talking about the state or average or common people. I am talking about everybody; because when you close your mind as an official you cannot upgrade and vice versa.
This is from the inside. From the outside, what is the role of the West? It’s now been twenty years since we started the peace process in 1991. What have we achieved? The simple way to answer this question is to say is it better or worse? We can for example say that it is five percent better than before we started the peace process. I can tell you frankly that it is much worse. That is why you have more desperation. This is the end result. If you talk about the approach, I always talk about taking the issue into a vicious cycle of desperation especially when you talk about peace. I am talking now about peace. You have other factors: you have negotiations, and then exaggerated hopes followed by failure; and then comes another hope and another failure. So, with time the diagram will be going down, and that is what has been happening: a little bit up and more down. This is one example about peace.
Internally, it is about the administration and the people’s feeling and dignity, about the people participating in the decisions of their country. It is about another important issue. I am not talking here on behalf of the Tunisians or the Egyptians. I am talking on behalf of the Syrians. It is something we always adopt. We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas. Unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is happening.