Régis Le Sommier with President Bachar el-Assad

After nine years of civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, is the only master on board. Here is the full interview given to Paris Match.

Paris Match. Our last interview was five years ago, almost to the day. It was November 2014, your government only controlled one third of the country. Today your armies are back at the Turkish border. Do you feel you have won the war?

Bashar al-Assad. I would like to be very specific on this point. Whether won or lost, it is not "my" war, the war of a president trying to keep his position, according to the Western version. It is a national war, the Syrians’ war against terrorists. It is true that since then, as you said, we have made a lot of progress; but that does not mean that we have won. We will win when there is no more terrorism. However, terrorism is still present in northern regions. What is even more regrettable is that it still enjoys support from Turkey and Western countries, the United States, Great Britain, and in particular France. It is therefore still early to talk about victory.

Do you honestly think that France supports terrorists?

Of course it does. They have sent weapons in the past. I don’t know if there has been a real change in this area in the last few months or year, but we don’t have any data right now. But let us look at things in their general context. When French forces come to Syria without being invited by the legitimate government, it is occupation. There is not much difference between supporting terrorism and deploying military forces to occupy a country.

The French came in support of the Kurds who were fighting Daech, that was the meaning of their mission...

Do you honestly think we can send Syrian forces to France to fight terrorism in France without being invited by the French government? International law governs the behaviour of States around the world, not intentions. It is not enough to want to fight terrorism, international rules must be observed. Of course, I suppose that, in this particular case, the intentions are good, but we do not really believe it. The Syrian government was also fighting Daech. Why didn’t you support it? Why are the French governments fighting Daech, when they support Al Nosra? Both are terrorists!

You refer to the time of the Hollande government and the supply of weapons to Syrian rebels. This government wanted you eliminated. Its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, said at the time that you "did not deserve to be on earth". What about Emmanuel Macron? Have you noticed a change in France’s positions?

In form, yes. But as long as the occupation continues, it is a form of terrorism. Recognize this truth. There must be a change in content, not just in form. We are not interested in statements, it is on the ground that things must change.

How do you expect them to change?

We simply have to go back to international law, just that. We are not asking the French government for anything. We are not even asking for political, economic or security support of any kind. We don’t need it. We can manage our own affairs. But we want it to return to a world order that is no longer respected, because chaos reigns. Whether or not they support the president doesn’t interest me. I’m not interested in saying it’s good or bad either. This is a purely Syrian question. But let them stop supporting anything that could further spill blood, increase killings and increase suffering in Syria.

France is facing a delicate problem with its jihadists who have left to fight in Syria. Do you have any in your prisons?

Nationality does not matter. The competent services that have the statistics should be contacted. But in any case, if there are any, they will be subject to Syrian law.

You must know if there are French people in your prisons!

I don’t have any figures. As far as we’re concerned, a terrorist is a terrorist. Whether it is French or Syrian, the result is the same.

For the moment, you have a military agreement with the Kurds of the YPG. If you reach a political agreement, the Syrian government will take over the territory of the North and in particular its prisons. What will you do, then, with the 400 or so French jihadists held by the Kurds?

Any terrorist who is in areas controlled by Syrian forces will be subject to Syrian law. This is very clear. They will therefore be brought before specialized terrorism courts.

You will not consider, for example, sending them back to Europe, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing?

Erdogan is trying to blackmail Europe. A self-respecting person does not speak that way. There are institutions and laws. Removing terrorists, or anyone who has been tried and sentenced, to another country is subject to bilateral agreements between States. As for getting someone you know to be a terrorist out of prison and sending them home to kill civilians, it is immoral.

After eight years of war, you are heading for victory... but on rubble. Half of the Syrians are displaced or in exile, 400,000 people have lost their lives. Do you recognize that without the help of the Russians and Iranians, you would have lost?

This war is hard. We are not a great power, but we were facing the richest countries in the world. It is quite certain that the support of our friends limited the damage and helped us to recover territories. As to whether Syria would have gone towards partition, or total defeat without this support... It is sometimes difficult to predict the outcome of a tennis match with only two players. Now you’re talking about dozens of players and hundreds of thousands of fighters.

During this war, at one point, did you consider losing and exile?

Actually, I didn’t think about it, for the simple reason that this choice wasn’t even an option. Only Western leaders have proposed it. It didn’t concern me. For me, that was out of the question. I can only consider this option if it comes from the Syrian people. And when I say "the Syrian people", I mean the majority, not a terrorist minority, or a politically manufactured minority in foreign intelligence services, or a minority of people who demonstrated because Qatar paid them to do so. For the majority of the people, the question did not arise. That’s why I resisted and stayed.

But in 2013, Al Nosra reached the Abbasid Square in Damascus, a few kilometres from your residence.

That is absolutely true. The city of Damascus had been surrounded for years, sometimes almost totally, sometimes partially. The shells were falling on us every day. It was one more reason for me to stay, defend my country, and not run away. I assume my constitutional responsibilities. I defend my people and my country.

Reconstruction must begin. It is estimated to cost $300 billion, some say 400... What is your plan to get your compatriots out of the slump, taking into account the terrible sanctions that aim to weaken you, but that actually affect the poorest?

Absolutely! Absolutely! But despite these sanctions, rather than weakening, the industry has grown, for example in the pharmaceutical sector. As for reconstruction, you can go to Aleppo, for example, which has been largely destroyed by terrorists. You will notice a big difference. Because the State is rebuilding, as are the citizens.

The Syrian pound is at its lowest. You will need investments, foreign partners. Are China, India and Russia present?

Over the past six months, companies have begun to come from abroad to invest in Syria. This investment will remain slow under current conditions, due to the sanctions, of course. But we can get around them, and we have started, in coordination with these companies, to find ways to get out of them. They will soon invest in Syria. I am realistic, however, that does not mean that the reconstruction process will be rapid.

How many years do you estimate it will take?

This will depend on how long the sanctions last, and also on the return of our citizens. They’re coming back right now, but gradually. It is therefore difficult for me to give a precise answer on this subject. But it is a process that will obviously take years.

How many Syrians have returned?

More than a million in less than two years. And things are now accelerating, especially after the liberation of Damascus, the southern region and its periphery. Of course, the return of Syrians also depends on the rehabilitation of infrastructure, such as electricity, schools and hospitals. Unfortunately, sanctions and the blockade are weighing heavily on these sectors. At the same time, Westerners are exerting strong pressure on refugees not to return to their countries. It is a "humanitarian" issue that they brandish as a tool to achieve their political objectives.

Some of these refugees left because they were opposed to you, because they suffered horrors during the war, sometimes from your army. Are you going to grant an amnesty? Is reconciliation still possible?

First of all, most of these refugees supported the state and not the other way around. Proof of this is the 2014 presidential election, in which they participated and voted for the president. The majority emigrated because of the war and its economic consequences. So as far as the return is concerned, there is no problem. Some come back quite naturally, without the need for an amnesty. Others are opponents, but there is no problem, and we are in constant dialogue with them. As for the amnesty, we have decreed it on several occasions, the last one less than a year ago, because some feared to come back for fear of being arrested. Only those who have carried weapons will be arrested. And despite that, they will be pardoned.

Last year, at the time of the fall of the Ghouta, I was able to witness the departure of the rebels for Idlib. Syrian officers told them, "Put down your weapons. Don’t go to Idlib. You’re going to get yourself killed. "They replied: "You’re going to incorporate us into the army, so we don’t want to go with you. "They were afraid of your army. What are you telling them? Why this fear?

Let’s talk about the facts. Some of those who went to Idlib left us their families. And we, as a state, take care of these families. It means they’re not afraid of us, otherwise, how else would they leave their families behind? In addition, some of these armed persons went to Idlib. Then they asked to come back, and we gave them permission. They have been pardoned. For seven years, when they were isolated from the state, most of them were told that the army was going to kill them. But since we entered Ghouta, life has resumed its course. People lead normal lives. It should also be noted that some took up arms not because they were extremists, but because they had no choice but to fight on the side of the terrorists, or to be killed by them. Now they are gradually coming back to us, because they have been reassured.

Iran, your ally, is now in the grip of a major uprising. Lebanon and Iraq also. The demonstrators demand dignity and an end to the monopolization of wealth by a small number of people. Wasn’t that finally what the Syrian demonstrators also demanded in 2011?

Let us look for a moment at the slogans of dignity, of freedom that they chanted. They can be beautiful masks that hide ugliness. Let me give you some examples: Bush killed a million and a half Iraqis behind the great slogan of democracy. Sarkozy contributed to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Libyans, hiding behind that of freedom for the Libyan people. Today France, Great Britain and the United States are violating international law under the pretext of wanting to support the Kurds, yet the Kurds are Syrians and not a separate people. In 2011, in Syria, we heard the same slogans about dignity and freedom. These same slogans have been used to kill police officers and civilians, sabotage public property. We must therefore not rely on slogans, but on the reality of the facts on the ground.

At the beginning in 2011, there was an authentic popular uprising, with real demands. It wasn’t Al Qaeda. Why did you use force?

Let’s talk about the numbers first. The largest demonstration in Syria was attended by 170,000 people. Let us suppose that this figure is not accurate. Let’s multiply it until we reach a million demonstrators. The Syrian people have more than 23 million inhabitants. These figures are therefore not significant. They don’t reveal anything. From a quantitative point of view, this was not a popular uprising. In any case, we cannot talk about a popular uprising when the funds to push people to demonstrate come from Qatar. Finally, neither I nor the government could have remained in power for nine years in the face of a popular uprising. Proof of this is that, despite all the support it has given to him, the West had not been able to keep the Shah of Iran in power. So the term "popular uprising" is false, or let us say unrealistic.

At the beginning of the war, in June 2011, you had a number of detainees released from Sednaya prison. You are accused of trying to introduce the jihadist poison into the opposition. Why did you do that?

In Syria, prisoner amnesty has been a general rule since before the war. When an amnesty is granted, the categories of people who are not covered by it are specified, such as spies, drug traffickers, and others. In our law, there is no category called "radicals". The amnesty must therefore cover everyone. There are also other cases of detainees who were released from prison, precisely in 2011, because they had served their sentences, not because they were granted amnesty. Why release fundamentalists and terrorists? So they can kill our soldiers and civilians? According to the Western version, I did it to demonize peaceful demonstrations. In fact, they demonized themselves when they posted videos on the Internet showing them executing civilians by slitting their throats, shooting them, and shooting police officers from the very first days. That is the truth about this release of prisoners.

There are prison centres in Syria such as Sednaya Prison. Documentaries, including that of my colleague Manon Loizeau, "Le cri étouffé", show that systematic rapes were carried out there. Do you acknowledge the existence of these treatments?

There is a difference between a claimed policy and individual mistakes. If there have been any, we are not aware of them. Such practices, such as rape and sexual harassment, are not common in our society. Such acts, if they exist, are condemned and punished by law. These are isolated and individual cases. But if such a policy exists anywhere in the world, we condemn it, because it is immoral, and because it goes against stability. We cannot expect peaceful relations between citizens if there is torture, murder, or any kind of aggression.

Precisely, these documentaries are based on testimonies of Syrian victims who say that in society, they are ashamed. So they don’t talk about it. But they attest that it happened to them.

The story is one thing, the documents are another. All that is proposed are stories, unverified images. These witnesses were hidden. In most cases, Qatar has funded these reports. To recognize them as valid, professional audits and investigations are required. Logically, we have no interest in this kind of crime being committed. Let’s put ethics aside, I’m talking about pure and simple interest. What is the result of torture? Revenge? If you go to the areas that were controlled by the opposition, you will see exactly the opposite. We are not schizophrenic enough to torture people here, while being lenient there. These are just political allegations.

I insist. They are not witnesses produced by Qatar. These are people we met in refugee camps, often in Turkey or Jordan, who testified before a trustworthy journalist, who is not remote-controlled and does not have a political agenda.

What does "trust" have to do with it? There are mechanisms. There is well-verified information. Who checked the accuracy of these stories? Who verified the identity of these witnesses and whether they were subjected to this kind of thing? I will be willing to discuss this with you the day I have the facts. If this is true, those who have committed such acts will be tried under Syrian law.

Donald Trump quoted Syria in his thanks at the time of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death. Did you give any information to the Americans? Did you know where he was?

It always makes me laugh when I’m asked this question. The most important thing is to know whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was really killed, and whether this beautiful comedy presented by the Americans really took place.

But Daech admitted his death!

Yes, of course, but Daech was made by the Americans. It’s part of this comedy. Baghdadi learned to play his part when he was in American prisons in Iraq. That’s why I say it’s a huge comedy. Did it really happen? I don’t know. I don’t know. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t killed, but if he was, it’s not because he was a terrorist. They were able to hit Daech when Daech stole Syrian oil and sent it to Iraq, but they did not. And when Daech attacked the Syrian army in Deir Ez-Zor, the Americans hit the Syrian army. Not Daech. As a result, we have not collaborated with the Americans in any way. We cannot collaborate in the fight against terrorism with those who support terrorism.

Then why did he thank you?

It’s one of his jokes...

During our last interview, you assured me that you had never used chemical weapons, particularly in the Ghouta in 2013. Since then, there has been Khan Sheikhoun, there has been Duma. How do you respond to the accumulation of evidence on the use of chemical weapons by your armies?

No, no, there’s not a single piece of evidence so far. Using such a weapon would have killed hundreds or even thousands of people. As for the accumulation, it is due to the fact that the Syrian army was advancing, and achieving victories against terrorists. It was absolutely necessary to find a pretext to hit it, and that’s what happened. This story was used in two cases: when we had made a lot of progress and we had to be stopped. It was then used as a threat against us. It was also used when we were preparing for a major operation. There was threatening before the operation was launched. On the other hand, we are moving forward, why would we need chemical weapons? That is the question? The most important point is that where we enter, there are civilians, and their lives resume their normal course. How could they have stayed there if we had used chemical weapons? On this subject, lies in the Western media and Western politics are limitless.

Roger Lagassé