Amid the ongoing impasse concerning the formation of a new Lebanese government, the landscape of the Syrian crisis has deteriorated further. The security situation has escalated dangerously over the course of the last two days, with the unprecedented bombardment of the city of Hermel [in northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border] by armed groups, as rockets and mortars continue to fall sporadically and at random locations in a number of Bekaa Valley villages adjacent to the border.
While the aftershocks of the the Syrian crisis have racked the Hermel region, an expanded Lebanese delegation of party leaders and national political figures visited Damascus yesterday [April 21] and met at length with President Bashar al-Assad in Tishreen Palace.
According to information obtained by As-Safir, Assad expressed before the visiting delegation his resentment of the [Lebanese] policy of distancing itself [from Syria]. In his words, no man who sees the flames’ approach, who is on his way to being consumed by them, can “distance himself.” He posed the question: “I don’t understand, what exactly does this policy mean? Is the idea that Lebanon will pick itself up and move to Africa, wait out the end of the Syrian crisis there and then return to its natural location?”
Tammam Salam’s appointment
The Syrian President made a number of broad hints and gestures regarding the appointment of Tammam Salam to head the interim government, without naming names or getting into the details. According to Assad, “Sometimes, it is useful to return to the old, established families and houses that historically dominated political activity, enabling them through their experience to provide a clear and broad interpretation of events.”
In what appeared to be a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia, Assad noted that “Lebanon is not a joint-stock company whose officials can be appointed or ousted from abroad.”
The Sunni sect
Assad spoke at length on the role of the Sunni sect in Syria and Lebanon, emphasizing the importance “of the Arabist sect, which draws its strength from [the Sunnis], and acts as a central reference point in national affairs, exerting great influence on that level.”
The Syrian president also addressed the situation of the Sunni community in Lebanon, noting that it has always been the linchpin of Arabism and [political] equilibrium, and that it had not constituted a militia. Yet, he continued, it is ironic that precisely after the [Lebanese Civil] War and the Taif Agreement that concluded it, and particularly after the assassination of President Rafiq Hariri, “Some sought to turn the Sunni sect into a militia. But Lebanon can only be stable if this cherished community reaffirms its Arab and national identity.”
He stressed that Syria, despite the widespread view to the contrary, is not drifting toward the sect; indeed, Syrian society has deepened in solidarity, faith and patriotism in confronting the challenges of the crisis. He emphasized that the Syrian army is cohesive, and there is no sectarian division within its ranks “even though we are aware that they tried vigorously to stir sectarian emotions and impulses. But they have not had any significant success.”
Aoun, Franjieh, and Rai
The Syrian president commended Gen. Michel Aoun, Member of Parliament Suleiman Franjieh and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, noting that “they are leaders imbued with expansive patriotic spirit and profound thought.”
Assad lingered over the relationship with Aoun, saying, “We recall that he opposed us with honor, and he reconciled with us with honor. And what accords him more credibility, regarding Gen. Aoun’s positions on the Syrian crisis, is that he was never one of our friends in the past. On the contrary, we were bitter rivals with him. Therefore, the fact that he has approached what is happening to us from this angle is particularly important. As for MP Franjieh, my testimony regarding him cannot be impartial, for he is my friend and my brother.”
Assad praised Aoun and Franjieh’s contribution to strengthening the Eastern Christian dimension and strengthening their ties to the social fabric of the region. He also commended Patriarch Rai’s positions, “which have shined light upon the path.” Assad did not neglect to praise the role of the Armenian community in Lebanon and Syria, saying “if Islam binds us to the Kurds, and if our Arab identity ties us to the Christians, then the Armenians have succeeded in implanting firm ties in this society in which they find themselves, and in becoming a vital part of it.”
In the course of his remarks on the meeting, he noted that the Armenians did not leave Lebanon when that country was going through its own ordeals, and they are not leaving Syria despite its current crisis. He noted that he concurs with Minister Franjieh’s remarks that treason has now become [simply one more] “point of view.”
Assad suggested that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was now completely outside of his calculations. The Syrian president harshly criticized Hariri, noting that he had informed the Qataris and the Turks (when he was still in communication with them) that Hariri is, in Assad’s opinion, unfit to discharge the duties of prime minister. But, he continued, that decision is for the Lebanese to make.
The civil situation
With regards to the reality on the ground in Syria, Assad expressed his satisfaction with the course of developments on the ground. He noted that the Syrian leadership’s strategy is premised upon maintaining the army’s control of Damascus and the other cities, “but as for some regions of the countryside, we deliberately evacuated them on occasion out of tactical necessity. It is better to wear them down rather than having them wear us down. But, of course, we could retake any region whenever we desire to do so.”
Assad stressed that “the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ has effectively come to an end. We are now fighting against al-Qaeda, and there are fighters from 23 different foreign nationalities fighting on Syrian territory at present.”
He pointed out that many “demanded at the beginning of the crisis that we settle the issue rapidly and decisively. But one shouldering the responsibility cannot deal with his people and his land in this way. If we had behaved in that manner, the picture would still be a muddy one for some, and we might have lost some of our friends. Now, however, we have earned some enemies.”
He went on: “For example, we dealt with the entry of militants into the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp with great wisdom. I won’t conceal from you the fact that there were those who called for settling the matter, and using force to expel the gunmen from the camp. But instead we made do with reinforcing the patrols around the camp, confining the militants inside it without any bloodshed. After some time had passed, an outcry against the terrorists’ presence rose up from within the heart of the camp.”
The Russian role
When he came to address Russia’s role in the conflict’s equation, Assad radiated considerable confidence that Moscow would remain firm in its strategic choice to support the Syrian state, “not out of love for us or our people, and not out of charity for us, but rather because Russia believes that the battle to defend Damascus is a battle to defend Moscow’s position and its interests.”
Assad expressed his belief that the Russians are stronger at present than they were in the days of the former Soviet Union, drawing attention to the assumption of some that the course of the crisis would be inextricably tied to the outcome of the joint summit between the Russian and American presidents, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. “But as for us, we say that Syria, through its patience and its strength, Syria will affect this summit and it will not wait to be affected by it. We are the ones who will impose our rhythm upon it; we will not wait for them to impose their rhythm on us. Both presidents are waiting to see how the realities on the ground in Syria will develop before determining what they will do.”
Assad stressed that Syria can be extremely flexible when the need for flexibility arises, “and perhaps the case of Walid Jumblatt may be the best example. Despite everything that he said against Syria and against myself personally, we went back and received him. Yet, on the other hand, when decisiveness is necessary, we are capable of that as well. We can settle things decisively.”
Arabs, Americans, and Turkey
Assad attacked the Arab League, saying that it lacks [political] horizons, and was originally established in order to service British interests. It only played an authentically Arab role once, and that was in the days of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
In the course of repudiating the roles played by external actors in the Syrian crisis, Assad described them as follows:
• Qatar is blatantly interfering [in Syrian affairs], and spending enormous sums of money to do so. In this context, he elaborated on the importance of the states which possess a history of Arab identity, stating that civilization emerged from the Levant.
• Saudi Arabia is suffering a schism within its government, for the ruling family is divided against itself, and Assad does not expect Saudi Arabia to play a major role in the future.
• The Americans have been pragmatic since the beginning of the crisis; they don’t pursue [any policy] to its conclusion. At the end of the day, they will side with the victor.
• Europe is confused.
• Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is placing his bets on the Muslim Brotherhood. As for those who criticize our earlier policy of widespread openness to Turkey, we would tell them that this opening caused Erdogan to lose within his country, even as we gained significant sympathy from wide swaths of Turkish society.
Assad concluded by stating that the battle was very long “and we have no choice but victory.”
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that President Assad had, during his meeting with a Lebanese delegation of party leaders and national political figures, highlighted “an improvement in the situation in Syria, thanks to the perseverance of the Syrian people, and their rallying around their valiant army.” He stressed that “there is no room for a truce with the Takfiri and terrorist groups, and that Syria will confront terrorism in all its forms with firmness and resolve. Moreover, the government will continue working in parallel to implement its political program for resolving the crisis.”
Assad stressed that “Lebanon’s strength lies in it being a strong country and not a weak one, and the richness of Lebanon and Syria — as well as their political, cultural, and societal diversity — strengthens their hand in confronting the intellectual onslaught to which the region has been subjected, and in frustrating those external plans seeking to forge a new Sykes-Picot agreement that would divide the region along sectarian, confessional and ethnic lines.”
Assad added that “what the Arab arena is currently witnessing only underlines the need for unifying ideas and ambitions that bring people together. Syria and Lebanon had always played a pioneering role in creating and reinforcing such ideas, particularly through the pan-Arab, Nasserite, and nationalist political parties. This has greatly contributed to the spread and strengthening of Arab nationalist sentiment. Today we are in greater need than at any time in the past to capitalize upon this role in confronting those attempts to divide and fracture us.”
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