Monday, 19 December 2011

"There are almost no demonstrations in Syria now, as Syrians detect a western agenda."

Interview with the spokesman of the Syrian mission to the EU.

We have been following the events in Syria. We have been watching videos of bloody protests, gun shooting, crying and dying people. How can a popular leader, as Bashar al-Assad president of Syria certainly was, especially after introducing wide reforms after his appointing in 2000, keep his position in such a situation? Lucia Mrázová decided to look to the other end of the corridor and talk to a representative of the Syrian government.
"Because we trust our people, we believe it is not
a revolution. If it was a revolution, the regime would
have fallen in the first or second month."
This week, European Stagiaires Journal brings you a very topical interview with the spokesman of the Syrian Mission to the EU. How does the representative of the Syrian government see the situation? He is convinced that no regime would kill its own people and that the responsibility for killings rests with armed foreign infiltrators.

At the beginning of December, the European Union tightened its sanctions against Syria to increase a pressure on the regime. How would you describe the current relations between Syria and the EU?

In two words: very bad. They are very bad, unfortunately. However, I think the Europeans are making a mistake because they are judging events in Syria by what they receive from the media. The media are very very subjective. Also, some big countries in the European Union, mainly France, have a special agenda for Middle East and for our country. You could see how France forced others to go to Libya. Mr. Sarkozy was badly positioned on internal issues in France. He intended to achieve something, however internally, with all the economic problems in Europe and in France, it was difficult. Instead, he thought, at least in a foreign policy he can achieve something. So, maybe he wanted to repeat the same thing with Syria.

So if we see pictures from Syria, these are only propaganda? Doesn't the regime use force and crackdown on dissent?

Yes, at the beginning there were demonstrations, they called for change, for democratic reforms. The government tried to fulfil the demands of the people, but at the same time we, the government, had to face a group of very well trained terrorists. They were and still are infiltrating into demonstrations and shooting to civilians as well as to police forces, killing here and there and blaming the government. And yes, police forces made mistakes. When you are in such a complex situation, mistakes can be made. There were demonstrations for reforms, and the government implemented several reforms. But in this situation, it is very difficult to go further with them. Now, there is kind of a civil war, but not among the population, but between governments' troops - the authority and a group of militants mainly coming from abroad – from Turkey, from the north of Lebanon, some from Jordan, with a huge support from many countries, like Turkey, some Arab countries unfortunately, from the United States.

Are you saying that videos or pictures of torture where police or armed forces intervene against civilians are twofaced? So far, statistics show that more than about 4,000 people have been killed.

In many occasions, pictures and videos were presented as if the event happened in Syria and later we discovered that it was in Iraq or in Libya. Not all that we see happening in Syria is true. Awful crimes that are committed by armed gangs are shown as if they were committed by  the authorities. There is no regime, whatever it is, that would kill its own people. It is in the interest of the regime to prevent crime and massacre.

Protests in Syria started in January and protesters asked for different reforms. However, one of the biggest demands is to allow free elections where other parties, not only the ruling Ba'ath Party, could participate. In this sense, how does it progress?

Yesterday (Note L.M.: December 12th) there were local elections in Syria. The President also confirmed that we will have legislative elections in February. Currently, a commission is working on a new constitution. The President has already said several times that he is not willing to stay if people don't want him to. Believe me, because of what is happening now the president is much more popular than before. As I said, at the beginning there were demonstrations, but today, there are almost no demonstrations anymore. People understood that foreign powers wanted to take advantage of the situation to push forward their agenda. It is not the first time that we have problems with the United States and sometimes, unfortunately, also with European countries that follow the US. In the 80s, the US supported the Muslim Brotherhood to commit the most awful crime in Syria. Between 2005 and 2008 we were accused of killing the Prime Minister of Lebanon Hariri. There were sanctions against Syria and suddenly, they said: no, it wasn't Syria, it was Hezbollah. Maybe one day they will say: no, it wasn’t Hezbollah… They are trying to put pressure on Syria to become pro-American, to give up on the Syrian Golan, you know, our land occupied by Israel, this is the main objective. Syrian people understood that there is a foreign agenda on Syria to destabilize and weaken it. Therefore, there are almost no demonstrations. The biggest demonstrations may count about 200 people today.

Will opposition parties be allowed to stand in upcoming elections?

There is already a law on political parties, adopted in August. Currently, people have been already applying the status for their political parties. It is working very well. And even today I was reading that work on the new constitution is advancing very well. There will not be this famous Article 8 saying that the Ba'ath party is a leading party anymore. Reforms may go slowly but only because of events.

But if reforms proceed, is the situation – after almost a year of demonstrations – any better today?

Unfortunately, it is not better. At the beginning of the events, security forces were not allowed to carry guns. But because hundreds of them were killed and we discovered armed infiltrators among demonstrators, the government allowed the police to have guns. Frankly we, the authority, were surprised by a huge number of armed people. For instance, the Turkish borders are very long, about 900 km, and every day and mainly at night, groups of twenty to thirty people are trying to enter Syria. We also have problems with some fractions in Lebanon which are facilitating a transfer of guns from the north of Lebanon to Syria. Many foreign newspapers, such as New York Times or Le Figaro wrote about that. This is reality, it is not our imagination. All in all, we have problems only in border regions. In cities like Damascus, there is nothing, there are no demonstrations and no armed gangs. And this is another proof that it is a problem of outsiders, not of our people.

Among protesters, a significant role is played by the young generation.  In Syria, an unemployment rate of youngsters is above the average of the Middle East, about 25 percent. Could this be a reason that they became so active on demanding political reforms in the country?

I think it is a phenomenon everywhere, even here in Europe. Unemployment among young people is higher than among others. Unfortunately, these people in Syria were paid to go to demonstrations. In many cities, people themselves call for the army because they have those gangs kidnapping or killing people, sometimes just for money.

By whom are they paid?

By either foreigners or by some people who wanted to change Syria but not in a democratic way.

What would you do if you were 20 and living in Syria today? Under these circumstances, it might not be possible for you to finish you university or to find a job, what would you do?

I would like to remind you that Syria is among those few countries where universities are free and even with an accommodation for about ten Euros a month. Usually, educated people have no problems with finding a job. However, we have a category of people that are either not smart enough or don't want to work at school and they don't want to go to university, thus it will be problematic for them to find a job. The economic crisis is everywhere in the world and we can't achieve full employment.

Demonstrations are highly influenced by social networks. The emerging role of Facebook or Twitter helped to mobilize masses also in Syria. Might it have been a mistake of the regime to allow such forms that are now, apparently, acting against it?

"When you are in such a complex situation, mistakes can be made."
 I believe in transparency, I believe in openness. I don’t think that we can prevent people from revolt by keeping them away from social networks or by educating them this way.

But there is still not such a transparency: for instance, when you go to internet café in Syria, you have to prove yourself by ID and after, your internet browsing is monitored anyway.

In every country, communication is under control. Even here, even in the United States. If I send you an email and it is interesting, the CIA will know what I am writing to you. This is clear. But maybe, in some countries like in ours, we don’t have that sophisticated technology… Myself, when I was in Syria, I went to internet café many times and nobody ever asked me for my ID. But I have heard that sometimes, maybe during these days, they are requesting IDs. Most educated people have internet at home and they have Facebook. In some countries like Tunisia or Egypt, regimes stopped Facebook and other ways of communication, but we did not. Because we trust our people, we believe it is not a revolution. If it was a revolution, the regime would have fallen in the first or second month. It is a small category of people manipulated by foreigners.

By the end of November, the Arab League imposed sanctions against Syria. 19 of the 22 members of the Arab League had agreed on the measures including transactions of money, travel ban for officials or suspension of some funding. How is it possible that not only Western countries but also your Arab friends turned against you?

With the Arab League, it is another story. Today, the Arab League is driven by Gulf countries, mainly by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar is a tool in the hands of the United States. There are some countries that were against sanctions for Syria, like Sudan, Mauritania or Egypt. And those countries are in need of cash, so they were forced by money to change their position. Other countries, like Iraq and Algeria are trying to make the position of the Arab League' countries more reasonable. We expect a meeting on Saturday. If Syria will allow observers to come to the country, other countries will freeze sanctions. But I will tell you this: it would be funny if a country like Saudi Arabia will sanction Syria because of not reforming its  political system. In Syria, we have a woman in the post of the vice-president. We have several women as ministers, many ambassadors' women. In some sectors, like education, women represent at least 50 percent of the employees. In Saudi Arabia, a woman has no right to drive a car. They don’t have a constitution, they have never had elections. This goes for most of Gulf countries, except Kuwait. It is ridiculous to think that they behave this way because they care about human rights.

We can agree on the difficult situation in which Syrians now find themselves. But what can they hope for? How do you see a future development in Syria?

It is very complex. There are too many factors, even if you solved a problem with some Arab countries, you still have the United States, you have Israel. We have Mr. Sarkozy who wants to achieve something before the elections. If it was only an internal issue, we would solve it very easily, because the reforms are reality.

By Lucia Mrázová