Syrian President Says He Can Help Broker Peace

ByABC News via via logo

Feb. 5, 2007 — -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a 41-year-old doctor, is the son of the legendary Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who negotiated with five American presidents.

Many in diplomatic circles believe that this quiet man may be the best hope for the United States to broker peace with insurgents in the Middle East.

In a significant moment, Assad told ABC News' Diane Sawyer that he was ready to talk to the United States, but that it must be in public -- and that because the situation was so dire, the time to talk was now.

So far, the administration has refused to engage in talks with Syria.

Below is the transcript of Sawyer's exclusive interview with Assad.

Watch "Good Morning America" Tuesday for more of Diane Sawyer's report from Syria.

Sawyer: Your excellency, thank you so much for letting us come.

Assad: You're most welcome Miss Sawyer here.

Sawyer: There are a chorus of voices in the United States saying that talking to Syria is the way to end the war in Iraq. Can you stop the violence in Iraq?

Assad: First of all, the problem in Iraq is political, and talking to Syria as a concept means talking to all the other parties inside Iraq and outside Iraq. We're not the only player. We're not the single player, but we are the main player in this issue, and our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries and any other country in the world. So that's how we can stop the violence.

Sawyer: Are you waiting to hear from the Americans? Why not begin it now?

Assad: We are hearing, but we don't expect that much. We don't expect that they're going to. After nearly four years of occupation they haven't learned their lesson, they haven't stopped the dialogue. I think it's too late for them to move toward that.

Sawyer: Too late?

Assad: That does not mean we cannot turn the tide, but it's too late because Iraq is heading toward the chaos for civil war. So maybe this is the last chance that we have now to start helping Iraq.

Sawyer: The Americans, of course, would say that they are not the occupying force, that they are in fact a force trying to regain security so that American forces can go home.

Assad: Militarily, yes. But politically, no, because they are responsible for the political situation and they haven't embarked any policy inside Iraq here. They only talk about sending more troops or less troops. They only talk about troops and power, not about political process.

Sawyer: Because Americans would say they voted, they now have the beginning of democracy there.

Assad: What's the benefit of democracy if you're dead? Now after the war, more than 700,000 Iraqis were killed. So is it democracy for killing or for having better standard of life? For starvation? For insecurity? For all this? So democracy is a tool to have a better life.

Sawyer: What would happen? Then talks take place.

Assad: Yeah.

Sawyer: You, Iran, the neighboring countries?

Assad: Yeah.

Sawyer: So the influence of the neighboring countries can create a cease-fire?

Assad: Yes, this is something mainly that they don't understand. It doesn't matter how strong economically or what army you have, it's a matter of credibility. We have credibility. We have good relations with the other factions. They should trust you to be able to play a role.

We have this good relations with all the parties, including the parties participating in this government and the other who oppose this political process. So that's how we can help. As Syria. Maybe other countries as well.

Sawyer: You are reported to have said, when American congressmen came here before the war in Iraq, "You will ultimately lose." … That you said, "You will win the war but you will sink in a swamp."

Assad: Exactly. That's what I said -- many times to many Americans and to the British officials: There is no doubt you are going to win the war, but after the war, you are going to be sinking in the mud, and nobody can help you. You are going to help us people to extract us from the quagmire, but it's going to be very difficult. And events proved that what we said in Syria was right.

Sawyer: On the current course, what do you think will going to happen next in Iraq?

Assad: Next? Whether it's a budding civil war or a full-blown civil war, it doesn't matter what the definition. It's like domino effect, it's going to affect the whole Middle East in general, and this means it's going to affect the rest of the world.

Sawyer: One of the things that Americans have been told is that Syria wants to fuel the fire and then put the fire out at the same time. And we are told that one of the reasons that there are violent insurgents in Iraq is that they're able to come through 376-mile border and that you give permission for terrorists to come down through the border into Iraq.

Assad: First of all, they have to stop looking for scapegoats and whipping boys, this administration. And there's a logical answer: We cannot stoke the fire and then extinguish it. If you stoke it, it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria and to other countries, so saying this, like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest, this is impossible.

We have a guard, a special border guard, since 1975, and we supported this guard recently to make more control. But this is not enough. You need Iraqi or American partner on the other side.

Sawyer: But in America they believe that you are all powerful, and you say the word and the border will stop.

Assad: Powerful is different from being omnipotent -- power that you can control everything completely. You cannot control your border with Mexico, can you? You're the greatest power in the world, you cannot control it with Mexico, so how do you want Syria to control its border with Iraq?

Sawyer: Did you watch the execution of Saddam Hussein?

Assad: Yeah. … I watched it. And, uh, you want to know my opinion? Actually, I can not give you personal opinion, because now I'm speaking formally and I have to be of the opinion of the government. We didn't take any stand against it, but he's a war prisoner. How could the Americans hand him over to another authority, which is not independent? So how could the trial be or called or described as fair and independent? This is a legal point of view.

Sawyer: Some have written in America that rulers in this part of the world look at Saddam Hussein and say, "That could be me, I'm next."

Assad: Because there's no rules, and there's no law and there's no independence, anybody could be next -- not only by the execution, but by killing in general. When you talk about next, every day in Iraq you have dead people, you have explosions, you have killing. So it's going on anyway, so anybody could think that he's next whether by execution or whether it's by assassination or by suicide bombers.

Sawyer: After Sept. 11, Syria was very helpful to the United States, we are told, in supplying intelligence about terrorism in the world. Do you know now where Osama bin Laden is? Is he alive?

Assad: We don't know. If you don't know, how could we know? You have all this intelligence so we're.

Sawyer: Are you ready to resume terrorism information to the United States?

Assad: We used to think that it's like the Internet, it doesn't have borders. It hits anywhere. So what hits in the West or the East, someday will hit in the Middle East. So we have to, and we are willing to cooperate with the rest of the world regarding terrorism.

Sawyer: When I was here before and I interviewed your father and I asked him about then-President [George H.W.] Bush. And he said to me, "President Bush is a man who feels he wishes to achieve peace and is seriously attempting to bring that wish to life."

Sawyer: Describe the current President Bush to me in your view.

Assad: I'd rather give objective view. … I've never met him personally to describe him, but what I know about this issue that this administration, in general, are not interested in peace at all. This administration is not willing to achieve peace. They don't have the will, and they don't have the vision. This is, in brief, what I know about this administration not about the president in particular.

Sawyer: Who do you admire the most in the world?

Assad: That's a very difficult question. The prophets, all the prophets. The three prophets -- Moses, Jesus and, of course, Muhammad.

Sawyer: And is there anyone operating on the world stage today that you admire? Any leader, any diplomat?

Assad: Maybe Bush, the father, because of his will to achieve the peace in the region. Of course, President Clinton, he has the same will, and he is admired in our region and respected.

Sawyer: And, Mrs. Clinton?

Assad: I've never met her. I don't know a lot about her.

Sawyer: So you're not endorsing her for president?

Assad: We'll see if she becomes president. … We'll see what her polices are.

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