RT: We start with Aleppo, of course. Aleppo is now seeing what is perhaps the most fierce fighting since the war started almost six years ago here in Syria, but the western politicians and western media have been largely negative about your army’s advance. Why do you think this is happening? Do they take it as their own defeat?
President Bashar al-Assad (BA): Actually, [we start with] after they failed in Damascus, because the whole narrative was about “liberating Damascus from the state” during the first three years. When they failed, they moved to Homs, when they failed in Homs, they moved to Aleppo. They focused on Aleppo during the last three years, and for them this is the last ‘most important’ card they could have played on the Syrian battlefield.
Of course, they still have terrorists in different areas in Syria, but it’s not like talking about Aleppo, as the second largest city, which has political, military, economic, and even moral significance, when their terrorists are defeated. So, for them the defeat of the terrorists is the defeat of their proxies, to talk bluntly. These are their proxies, and for them the defeat of these terrorists is the defeat of the countries that supervised them – whether regional countries or western countries like the United States, first of all the United States, and France and the UK.
RT: So, you think they take it as their own defeat, right?
BA: Exactly, that’s what I mean. The defeat of the terrorists, this is their own defeat because these are their real army on the ground. They didn’t interfere in Syria directly; they have intervened through these proxies. So that’s how we have to look at it if we want to be realistic – regardless of their statements, of course.
RT: Palmyra is another troubled region now, and it’s now taken by Isis or Isil, but we don’t hear a lot of condemnation about it. Is that because of the same reason?
BA: Exactly, because if it was captured by the government, they [the imperialists] would be ‘worried’ about the heritage. If we liberate Aleppo from the terrorists, they would be – I mean, the western officials and the mainstream media – they’re going to be ‘worried’ about the civilians. They’re not worried when the opposite happens: when the terrorists are killing those civilians or attacking Palmyra and destroying the human heritage, not only the Syrian heritage. Exactly, you are right, because Isis – if you look at the timing of the attack – it’s related to what’s happening in Aleppo.
This is the response to what’s happening in Aleppo: the advance of the Syrian Arab Army. And they wanted to undermine the victory in Aleppo, and at the same time to distract the Syrian army from Aleppo – to make it move toward Palmyra and stop the advance, but of course it didn’t work.
‘Isis could only attack Palmyra the way it did with supervision of US alliance’
RT: We also hear reports that the Palmyra siege was not only related to the Aleppo battle, but also to what was happening in Iraq, and there are reports that the US-led coalition – which is almost 70 countries – allowed Isil fighters in Mosul in Iraq to leave, and that strengthened Isil here in Syria. Do you think it could be the case?
BA: It could be, but this is only to wash the hands of the American politicians from their responsibility for the attack, when they say: “It’s just because of Mosul, of course; the Iraqi army attacked Mosul, and Isis left Mosul to Syria.”
That’s not the case. Why? Because they came with different and huge manpower and firepower that Isis never had before during this attack, and they attacked on a huge front, tens of kilometres that could be a front of armies. Isis could only have done that with the support of states. Not state; states. They came with different machine guns, cannons, artillery; everything is different.
So, it could only happen when they come in this desert with the supervision of the American alliance, which was supposed to attack them in al-Raqqah and Mosul and Deir Ezzor. But that didn’t happen; they either turned a blind eye to what Isis was going to do, or – and that’s what I believe – they pushed toward Palmyra. So, it’s not about Mosul. We don’t have to fall in that trap. It’s about al-Raqqah and Deir Ezzor. They are very close, only a few hundred kilometres; they could come under the supervision of the American satellites and the American drones and the American support.
RT: How strong is Isis today?
BA: As strong as the support that they get from the west and regional powers. Actually, they’re not strong if you talk of Isis as an isolated case. They’re not strong, because they don’t have the natural social incubator. Without it, terrorists cannot be strong enough. But the real support they have: the money, the oilfield investment, the support of the American allies’ aircrafts – that’s why they are strong. So, they are as strong as their supporters, or as their supervisors.
RT: In Aleppo, we heard that you allowed some of these terrorists to freely leave the battleground. Why would you do that? It’s clear that they can go back to, let’s say, Idlib, and get arms and get ready for further attacks, then maybe attack those liberating Aleppo.
BA: Exactly, exactly, that’s correct, and that’s been happening for the last few years, but you always have things to lose and things to gain, and when the gain is more than what you lose, you go for that gain. In the case of Aleppo, our priority is to protect the area from being destroyed because of the war, to protect the civilians who live there, to give a chance to those civilians to leave through the open gates; to leave that area to the areas under the control of the government. And to give a chance to those terrorists to change their minds; to join the government, to go back to their normal lives, and to get amnesty.
When they don’t, they can leave with their armaments, with the disadvantage that you mentioned, but this is not our priority, because if you fight them in any other area outside the city, you’re going to have less destruction and fewer civilian casualties. That’s why.
‘Fighting terrorists US-style cannot solve the problem’
RT: I feel that you call them terrorists, but at the same time you treat them as human beings; you tell them: “You have a chance to go back to your normal life.”
BA: Exactly. They are terrorists because they are holding machine guns: they kill, they destroy, they commit vandalism, and so on. And that’s natural: everywhere in the world that’s called terrorism. But at the same time, they are human beings who committed acts of terrorism; they could be something else. They joined the terrorists for different reasons: either out of fear, for the money, sometimes for the ideology. So, if you can bring them back to their normal life, to be normal citizens, that’s your job as a government.
It’s not enough to say: “We’re going to fight terrorists.” Fighting terrorists is like a video game: you can destroy your enemy in the video game, but the video game will generate and regenerate thousands of enemies, so you cannot deal with it in the American way: just killing, just killing! This is not our goal; this is the last option you have.
If you can change people, this is a good option, and it has succeeded. It has succeeded because many of those terrorists, when you change their position, some of them are living normal lives again. Some of them joined the Syrian army; they fought with the Syrian army against the other terrorists. This is success, from our point of view.
RT: Mr President, you just said that you gain and you lose. Do you feel you’ve done enough to minimise civilian casualties during this conflict?
BA: We do our utmost. What’s ‘enough’? This is subjective; each one could look at it in his own way. In the end, what’s enough is what you can do. My ability as a person, the ability of the government, the ability of Syria as a small country to face a war that’s been supported by tens of countries, mainstream media’s hundreds of channels, and other machines working against us. So, it depends on the definition of ‘enough’. So this is, as I said, very subjective, but I’m sure that we are doing our best.
Nothing is enough, in the end, and human practice is always full of both correct things and flaws, or mistakes, let’s say, and that’s the natural reality.
‘West’s cries for ceasefire meant to save terrorists’
RT: We hear western powers asking Russia and Iran repeatedly to put pressure on you to, as they put it, ‘stop the violence’, and, just recently, six western nations, in an unprecedented message, asked Russia and Iran again to put pressure on you, asking for a ceasefire in Aleppo.
RT: Will you go for it? At the time when your army was progressing, they were asking for a ceasefire.
BA: Exactly. It’s always important in politics to read between the lines; not to be literal. It doesn’t matter what they ask; the translation of their statement is to Russia: “Please stop the advance of the Syrian army against the terrorists.” That’s the meaning of that statement; forget about the rest. “You went too far in defeating the terrorists; that shouldn’t have happened. You should tell the Syrians to stop this; we have to keep the terrorists and to save them.” This is the essence.
Second, Russia never – these days, I mean, during this war, before the war, during the Soviet era – never tried to interfere in our decision-making. Whenever they had an opinion or advice, doesn’t matter how we can look at it, they would say at the end: “This is your country; you know what is the best decision you want to take. This is how we see it, but if you see it in a different way, you know, you are the Syrians.”
They are realistic, and they respect our sovereignty, and they always defend sovereignty that’s based on international law and the charter of the United Nations. So it never happened that they put any pressure on us, and they will never do it. This is not their methodology.
RT: How strong is the Syrian army today?
BA: It’s about a comparison to two things: first of all, the war itself; second, to the size of Syria. Syria is not a big country, so it cannot have a great army in the numerical sense. The support of our allies has been very important: mainly Russia, and Iran. After six years, or nearly six years of the war, which is longer than the first world war or the second world war, it’s definite and self-evident that the Syrian army is not going to be as strong as it was before.
But what we have is determination to defend our country: this is the most important thing. We lost so many lives in our army; we have so many martyrs, so many disabled soldiers. Numerically, we lost a lot, but we still have this determination, and I can tell you this determination is much stronger than it was before the war. But of course, we cannot ignore the support from Russia; we cannot ignore the support from Iran. That support makes this determination more effective and efficient.
‘Stronger Russia, China make world a safer place’
RT: President Obama has lifted a ban on arming some Syrian rebels just recently. What impact do you think that could have on the situation on the ground, and could it directly or indirectly provide a boost to the terrorists?
BA: We’re not sure that he lifted that embargo when he announced it. Maybe he lifted it before, but announced it later just to give it political legitimacy. This is first.
The second point, which is very important: the timing of the announcement and the timing of attacking Palmyra. There’s a direct link between these two, so the question is to whom are those armaments going? In the hands of whom? In the hands of Isis and al-Nusra, and there’s coordination between Isis and al-Nusra.
So, the announcement of this lifting of that embargo is related directly to the attack on Palmyra and to the support of other terrorists outside Aleppo, because when they are defeated in Aleppo, the United States and the west, they need to support their proxies somewhere else, because they don’t have any interest in solving the conflict in Syria.
So the crux of that announcement is to create more chaos, because the United States creates chaos in order to ‘manage’ this chaos, and when they manage it, they want to use the different factors in that chaos in order to exploit the different parties of the conflict, whether they are internal parties or external parties.
RT: Mr President, how do you feel about being a small country in the middle of this tornado of countries not interested in ending the war here?
BA: Exactly. It’s something we always felt before this war, but we felt it more of course today, because small countries feel safer when there’s international balance, and we felt the same, as you just mentioned. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was only American hegemony, and they wanted to implement whatever they want and to dictate all their policies on everyone, small countries suffered the most.
So we feel it today, but, at the same time, today there’s more balance with the Russian role. That’s why I think we always believe the more Russia is stronger – I’m not only talking about Syria, I’m talking about every small country in the world – whenever there is a stronger Russia, a more rising China, we feel more secure.
It’s painful – I would say it’s very painful – this situation that we’ve been living, on every level; the humanitarian level, the feeling, the loss, everything. But at the end, it’s not about losing and winning; it’s about either winning or losing your country. It’s an existential threat for Syria. It’s not about a government losing against other governments or army against army; either the country will win, or the country will disappear. That’s how we look at it. That’s why you don’t have time to feel that pain; you only have time to fight and defend and do something on the ground.
‘Mainstream media lost credibility along with moral compass’
RT: Let’s talk about the media’s role in this conflict.
RT: All sides during this war have been accused of civilian casualties, but the western media has been almost completely silent about the atrocities committed by the rebels … what role is the media playing here?
BA: First of all, the mainstream media with their fellow politicians, they are suffering during the last few decades from moral decay. So, they have no morals. Whatever they talk about, whatever they mention or they use as a mask: human rights, civilians, children; they use all these just for their own political agenda in order to provoke the feelings of their public opinion to support them in their intervention in this region, whether militarily or politically.
So, they don’t have any credibility regarding this. If you want to look at what’s happening in the United States, it is rebellion against the mainstream media, because they’ve been lying and they kept lying to their audiences. We can tell that those, let’s say, the public opinion or the people in the west don’t know the real story in our region; but at least they know that the mainstream media and their politicians were lying to them for their own vested interests’ agenda and vested interests’ politicians.
That’s why I don’t think the mainstream media could sell their stories anymore and that’s why they are fighting for their existence in the west, although they have huge experience and huge support and money and resources. They don’t have something very important for them to survive, which is their credibility. They don’t have it; they lost it. They don’t have the transparency; that’s why they don’t have credibility. That’s why they are very cowardly today. They are afraid of your channel; of any statement that could tell the truth, because it’s going to debunk their talk. That’s why.
RT: Reuters news agency have been quoting Amaq, Isil’s mouthpiece, regarding the siege of Palmyra. Do you think they give legitimacy to extremists in such a way? They’re quoting their media.
BA: Even if they don’t mention their news agencies, they adopt their narrative anyway. But if you look at the technical side of the way Isis presented itself from the very beginning through the videos and the news and the media in general and the PR, they use western techniques. Look at it: it’s very sophisticated. How could somebody who’s under siege, who’s despised all over the world, who’s under attack from the airplanes, who the whole world wants to liberate every city from him, how could he be that sophisticated unless he is not relaxed and has all the support? So, I don’t think it is about Amaq; it’s about the west adopting their stories, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
RT: Donald Trump takes over as US president in a few weeks. You mentioned America many times today. What do you expect from America’s new administration?
BA: His rhetoric during the campaign was positive regarding terrorism, which is our priority today. Anything else is not priority, so, I wouldn’t focus on anything else; the rest is American, let’s say, internal matters, I wouldn’t worry about. But the question is whether Trump has the will or the ability to implement what he just mentioned.
You know that most of the mainstream media and big corporates – the lobbies, the Congress, even some in his party – were against him; they want to have more hegemony, more conflict with Russia, more interference in different countries, toppling governments, and so on. Trump said something in the other direction. Could he sustain [his position] against all those after he started next month? That’s the question.
If he could, I think the world will be in a different place, because the most important thing is the relation between Russia and the United States. If he goes towards that relation, most of the tension around the world will be pacified. That’s very important for us in Syria, but I don’t think anyone has the answer to that. He wasn’t a politician, so, we don’t have any reference by which to judge him, first. Second, nobody can tell what kind of pattern is it going to be set next month and after.
‘Western countries only sent aid to terrorists’
RT: The humanitarian situation in Syria is a disaster, and we hear from the EU’s foreign policy chief, Madam Mogherini, that the EU is the only entity to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria. Is that true?
BA: Actually, all the aid that any western country sent was to the terrorists, to be very clear, blunt and transparent. They never cared about a single Syrian human life. We have so many cities in Syria that are until today surrounded by and besieged by the terrorists; they prevented anything to reach them – food, water, anything, all the basic needs of life. Of course, they also attack them on a daily basis by mortars and try to kill them. What did the EU send to those cities?
If they are worried about human life, if they talk about the ‘humanitarian’ aspect – because when you talk about the humanitarian aspect or issue, you don’t discriminate. All Syrians are humans; all people are humans. But they don’t do that. So, this is the double standard; this is the lie that they keep telling, and it’s becoming a disgusting lie, no-one is selling their stories anymore. That’s not true, what she mentioned, not true.
RT: Some suggestions say that the best for Syria solution would be to split it into separate countries governed by sunni, shia and Kurds. Is it any way possible?
BA: This is the western – with some regional countries’ – hope or dream, and this is not new, not related to this war; that plan was made before the war, and you have maps for this division and disintegration.
But actually, if you look at Syrian society today, it is more unified than before the war. This is reality. I’m not saying anything to raise the morale of anyone, I’m not talking to a Syrian audience anyway now; I’m talking about the reality. Because of the lessons of the war, society became more realistic and pragmatic and many Syrians knew that being fanatical doesn’t help, being extreme in any idea, I’m not only talking about extremism in the religious meaning; politically, socially, culturally, it doesn’t help Syria. Only when we accept each other, when we respect each other, can we live with each other and we can have one country.
So, regarding the disintegration of Syria, if you don’t have this real disintegration among the society and different shades and spectrums of the Syrian society, Syrian fabric, you cannot have division. It’s not a map you draw; I mean, even if you have one country while the people are divided, you have disintegration. Look at Iraq: it’s one country, but it is disintegrated in reality. So, no, I’m not worried about this. There’s no way that Syrians will accept that.
I’m talking now about the vast majority of the Syrians, because this is not new, this is not the subject of the last few weeks or the last few months; this is the subject of this war. So, after nearly six years, I can tell you the majority of the Syrians wouldn’t accept anything related to disintegration; they are going to live as one Syria.
RT: As a mother, I feel the pain of all Syrian mothers. I’m speaking about children in Syria: what does the future hold for them?
BA: This is the most dangerous aspect of our problem, and not only in Syria. Wherever you talk about this dark wahhabi ideology [an extreme feudal, fundamentalist form of Islam promoted by the rulers of Saudi Arabia], because many of those children who became young during the last decade, or more than one decade, who joined the terrorists on an ideological basis, not for the like of money or anything else, or hope, let’s say, they came from open-minded families, educated families, intellectual families. So, you can imagine how strong the terrorism is.
‘Being secular doesn’t protect a nation from terrorist ideology’
RT: So, that happened because of their propaganda?
BA: Exactly, because the ideology is very dangerous; it knows no borders, no political borders, and the network, the worldwide web has helped those terrorists using fast and inexpensive tools in order to promote their ideology, and they could infiltrate any family anywhere in the world, whether in Europe, in your country, in my country, anywhere. You have a secular society, I have a secular society, but it didn’t protect the society from being infiltrated.
RT: Do you have any counter ideology for this?
BA: Exactly, because they built their ideology on Islam, you have to use the same ideology, using the real Islam, the real moderate Islam, in order to counter their ideology. This is the fast way. If we want to talk about the mid-term and long-term, it’s about how much can you upgrade the society, the way the people analyse and think, because this ideology can only work when you cannot analyse, when you don’t think properly.
So it’s about the algorithm of the mind. If you have a natural or healthy operating system – if you want to draw an analogy to IT – if we have good operating systems in our mind, they cannot infiltrate it like a virus. So it’s about education, media and policy, because sometimes when you have a cause, a national cause, and people lose hope, you can push those people towards being extremists, and this is one of the influences in our region since the seventies. After the war between the Arabs and the Israelis, when the peace failed in every aspect to recapture the land, to give the land and the rights to its people, we had more desperation, and that played into the hand of the extremists, and this is where the wahhabi have found fertile soil to promote their ideology.