'A Long Road Ahead'

When Bashar Assad became president of Syria four years ago, world leaders were optimistic he would reform the Baathist regime his authoritarian father, Hafiz Assad, ran for three decades. That optimism has since faded, and Washington's relations with Damascus have now declined to the point where President George W. Bush this week ordered sanctions against Syria.

The White House says it has taken the step because of what it sees as Syria's support for militant Palestinian groups like Hamas, Syria's continued military presence in Lebanon, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its failure to stop foreign fighters from crossing the border into Iraq. The sanctions--which include banning exports to Syria, prohibiting Syrian aircraft from landing in the United States and requiring American financial institutions to sever correspondent accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria--are largely seen as symbolic. Syrian aircraft currently do not fly into the United States and American exports to Syria are less than $250 million--more than half of which is food and medicine, and therefore exempt from the restrictions.

Yet even symbolic measures can take their toll in such a volatile region. Some diplomats believe that Assad, 38, is a genuine reformer, and that Washington's decision will sabotage his efforts at political change. Two days after Tuesday's announcement of sanctions, Assad met with a group of American editors, including NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz, to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East, Syrian politics and his reaction to the sanctions measures. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is your reaction to the U.S. sanctions imposed this week?

Bashar Assad: We do not have any reaction. Not because it doesn't affect us but because we don't yet know how it will affect us.

One of the reasons for the sanctions is the U.S. charge that foreign fighters were crossing the Syrian border into Iraq. Is that still happening?

Since the war started in Iraq we have been talking to the American administration, and we have always asked the Americans to give us one passport, one name, of this happening. So far we haven't received anything. We do not have any evidence that Syrians went into Iraq, nor have the Americans been able to give us any. We used to tell the Americans that they couldn't control their border with Mexico. [Another examples is that during the Syria-Iraq] conflict in the '80s, Saddam Hussein used to send trucks full of explosives to Syria. They killed thousands of Syrians over a number of years. Even then we could not control our borders. It is not possible for any state to control its border completely.

How do you feel about the photos showing Iraqi prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib?

What we saw in those photos goes beyond my human feelings. I cannot find the words to express how I felt. [Politically,] it goes against what we know about the United States. It goes against what the United States is saying about democracy ... Is it the democracy of Abu Ghraib prison? What's more important is the reaction of ordinary [Syrian] citizens. These scenes establish a kind of hatred for the U.S. For a long time we have had problems with the American administration, not the American people. I am afraid these things will accumulate and people will no longer distinguish between the U.S. administration and its people, and this is dangerous.

Is there anything the United States can do to restore its credibility?

From what we hear from Iraqis, the situation is worse [now] than under Saddam Hussein. Then there was a dictatorship, now there is not a democracy there. American credibility was harmed not by these photos, but by the war itself.

You say there is no democracy in Iraq. But people say the same about Syria.

Definitely. We're going to change. The first thing I proposed as president was the issue of change. But change requires different and complicated elements. Part of our political life is based on traditions and customs [that] go back thousands of years. It's not easy to change traditions by laws or legislation. Change needs time, and it needs a clear vision. We have started [a] dialogue here in Syria, [but] we are still at the beginning of this process. There is a long road ahead of us.

Will you try to address any of the Bush administration's objections to Syria in order to bridge the gap with Washington?

We have addressed these issues before. Most importantly, [the issue of] saving American lives in the war against terrorism. But of course this does not mean that we have identical views with the United States on everything. They interfere in everything, they even want to change the headlines on Syrian papers ... The important thing is to continue this dialogue with them.

Is there anything Syria can do to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

We do not have relations with the Israelis, and our relations with the Palestinian Authority are quite weak. Effectively, we cannot play a role without defining this role clearly. Making a breakthrough means negotiations based on United Nations resolutions. This is the only thing that will break the cycle of violence. We see that violence is escalating day after day. Every day we delay the achievement of peace, peace becomes more difficult to obtain.

Washington says that another of its reasons for imposing sanctions is your continued military presence in Lebanon and your support for Hizbullah [which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization].

There is no relationship between Hizbullah and the Syrian Army. The Syrian Army is not in southern Lebanon [near the Israeli border.] The Syrian Army is toward the north. Syria does not give any military support to any party in Lebanon. The Syrian Army does not interfere in Lebanese politics.

You say that you don't yet know how the new sanctions will affect Syria. But it's universally recognized that they are a slap on the wrist; they won't have any significant economic impact on the country. How will they affect your own attitudes?

It's not going to stop reform in Syria. [But] sometimes symbolic actions have effects--on dialogue, on commercial relations.

What reforms are you trying to implement?

In all areas: economic, social and political.

What concrete steps will you take to pursue these changes?

We have given priority to the economy. Four months ago, we established the first private bank in 40 years. A few months before we [established] private universities. In the field of politics and human expression, about 18 months ago we had the first private newspapers. Private radio stations will start soon. But there are also many factors driving us backward: the general situation in the Middle East; the Iraq situation. Two years ago the priority was the economy, now the priority is security. Last month we had the first terrorist explosion in 19 years. This is a result of the war in Iraq and other factors. Now the Syrian people are asking for stricter security measures.

Who was responsible for that explosion in Damascus?

We are going to interview the accused [two Syrian men who survived the blast] on TV on Saturday. They're not part of any organization. This is an individual act. It was just revenge, hate, motivated by Iraq. They wanted to attack any of the Western embassies that support the [U.S] policy in Iraq. [But] they just [attacked] an empty U.N. building. They killed two women with no reason.

Are you expecting more such attacks?

You cannot say that what is happening here is not related to what is happening in the rest of the world. When you have war, what are the side effects? Prosperity? Love? [No], this is a normal result of war.

Does Syria have weapons of mass destruction? [Washington says Syria's weapons include an advanced chemical-weapons capability and a stockpile of the nerve gas sarin.]

We do not even have a nuclear reactor for peaceful means. Last summer we proposed a draft resolution for the U.N. Security Council to make the Middle East free of mass-destruction weapons.

What about America's demand that you stop providing a haven for militant Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad?

A few months ago, Israel used to say that Syria hosted the leaders of these organizations. But they actually killed the leaders of Hamas [Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi] in Palestine [Gaza]. In Syria, we have less than 10 individuals expelled by Israel and not invited by Syria. They came to Syria and rented a house and carried out media work to express their view. So far, we haven't intervened in the Palestinian question--neither negatively or positively--because of our disagreements with [Yasir Arafat's] Palestinian Authority. The U.S. role is very important. [But] now we see that the priority for the United States is the question of Iraq, not Palestine.

If you did ask the Hamas [officials] to leave, where would they go?

That is the question. The only place they could go is back to their land ... We don't expel people.

Many external and opposition groups have called for you to lift Syria's decades-old state of emergency laws. Do you plan to do so?

The state of emergency is related to the state of war that we have in the Middle East. The emergency law is not used to oppress freedom, but to suppress terrorism--there is a huge difference. In the past on many occasions this law was used frequently in the wrong way.

Do you think it will be good for the Middle East if President Bush is voted out of office in November?

We're not looking for changing presidents, we're looking for changing policy.

What are your views on the scheduled U.S. transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30?

We don't pin great hopes on this date. Of course we support the transfer of power, but we want it to be effective and real, not a formality.

Do you think that if you succeed in your political reforms you ultimately will do yourself out of your own job?

Definitely. As a Syrian I have a duty for my country. But if I don't have a vision then I will get out of [the presidency]. I will be very comfortable not being here.

What message would you like to send Americans?

I want them to know about Syria as part of the world. I always say to Americans, especially after September 11, that they should know more about the other side of the ocean. The world needs a superpower like the United States, [but] as a force of stability and not a force of war.