Interview with Syrian Ambassador to Spain Milad Atieh on december 2017.
Ambassador, thank you very much for attending our meeting. We want to talk to you about the general conflict situation in Syria. In the beginning, there were protests and demonstrations in Syria, something usual in all countries; there is always an opposition. What were the reasons why people were protesting?
- The Government of Syria was following the policy of gradual reforms. Since President Al Assad took office in 2000, he has focused on military, economic, and political changes. They were progressive reforms, step by step, so the Government of Syria managed to make a lot of progress. But in 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East, there were demonstrations in Syria, as in other countries in the region, calling for reforms. Of course, the Government took note of these demonstrations and the demands of the population. The Government immediately responded to the requests of the people, to the legitimate claims of the people. Different packages of reform measures were presented and approved; economic and social policies, thus responding to the requests of the population. Many steps were taken by the Government to respond to these legitimate demands. There were political reforms such as the formation of a new Parliament, a new Constitution, new administrative codes, and presidential elections in 2014. All this was done with goodwill from the Government in response to the demands of the population.
What were the first warnings showing that they were unusual forms of protest, that it was something more savage?
- The Government soon realized that many of those who were protesting did not want reforms; they wanted a change of regimen. These groups were supported by some Western countries, mainly the U.S., and this was the basis; to change the Government by force. This basis was contrary to the will of the people and contrary to the Constitution of Syria.
Before the demonstrations, the Government was releasing jihadists from prison. What was the reason for releasing jihadists?
- The government wasn't liberating jihadists per se. In the climate of protests and lawsuits by the people and more within the reform program, Al Assad granted several amnesties that benefited people who committed crimes and were imprisoned before 2011. The Government intended that these people who were in prison and were released should be integrated into society and become ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, some of them were recruited by fundamentalist groups, thus becoming part of groups protesting against the Government. Then they used force against the police, against the army, and the citizens.
So... A lot of people who were released from prison later joined mercenary groups?
- Yes, they enlisted in mercenary groups, but the Government's intention was for them to integrate into society and be good citizens.
There were good intentions on the part of the Government?
- Of course, there was goodwill on the part of the Government.
What was the first violent group to appear on the scene?
- Look, there were fundamentalist groups before the crisis in Syria. Al Nusra, for example, was linked to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, of course, was supported by several actors in the region, such as Qatar, Turkey at first, and Saudi Arabia.
The Government comes from the social sector of the Alaouites, there was a survey on Qatar television, Al Jazeera, asking people if they should exterminate all Alaouites.
- Fortunately, it is an aptitude not very widespread in our country. Syria is a multi-denominational and of course, multi-Islamic country. We do not have majorities or minorities in that sense, according to the Constitution, we are all Syrian citizens; we enjoy our rights and obligations according to the Constitution. It was the media that wanted to sell that the Government comes from a minority in Syria; it was a narrative to defeat the Government by force. So far, we are all Syrian citizens, and we compose this beautiful mosaic that is the Syrian society. Despite the crisis in Syria, because we do not believe in "you are Muslim" "you are Christian" "you are Alawite" or whatever. In Syria, even when calculating the population, one does not ask about confession or ethnicity; one is a Syrian according to the Constitution. That's how we live in Syria.
When did the Government realize that it was a war, that it was a rebellion?
- Since some demonstrators in several cities used force. They used force to kill police officers protecting demonstrators... Then they accused the Government, the Syrian army, of having killed demonstrators. It was found that among the demonstrators, infiltrators were shooting at the military and citizens who were demonstrating. This was planned by some powers that began to instruct infiltrators in demonstrations to make such attacks. For example, when President Al Assad proposed an amnesty for armed groups that surrendered weapons, but Hilary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, told the groups not to listen to the Government and to continue fighting. They were receiving precise instructions from the U.S. and other actors in the region.
Hilary Clinton played a vital role in the Libyan conflict. Was she playing the same role in Syria?
- The same. She made repeated calls for the people of Syria to rise against the Government.
Has there been any change between the Obama and Trump administrations?
- In reality, we do not notice any difference between the actions of the two American administrations. They are following the same lines, the same strategy about Syria or the Middle East. Do we measure these actions in terms of what use can they be to them? How can we achieve peace and security in the area?
Who are these well trained and prepared military actors? Where do they come from?
- They have enlisted mercenaries and jihadists to fight in Syria from more than 83 nationalities, from different parts of the world. They are usually brought to Turkey and supported by Qatar, trained for some time, and then placed on the Turkish-Syrian border. They do so clearly with the complacency of the Turkish Government and enter Syria to kill people and destroy infrastructure.
Are they backed by Qatar and trained in Turkey?
- They are supported and financed by Qatar, trained in Turkey, and then sent to Syria.
Some voices say that the central core of the ISIS terrorists is the overthrown army of Saddam Hussein. Is that true?
- What we know, and it is proven, is that the U.S. founded ISIS in Iraq in 2006. He used this group to destabilize security in Iraq, and then he did it in the region, he did it with Syria. So if these people come from Saddam Hussein's army or other armies, we don't know. But what is proven, and Hillary Clinton has recognized, is that the U.S. founded ISIS intending to destabilize the entire region.
Do you have any detailed knowledge of what actors they used to finance and provide logistics to these terrorist groups? Companies, NGOs... ?
- Well, they supported all the radical groups; the U.S., Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia... and they have all said that they will continue to support these groups to overthrow the Government of Syria. The arms seizures we have made, before and now, prove that the weapons come from many parts of the world, and have been smuggled into Syria to be distributed among these terrorist groups. In 2011 and 2012, we learned of two ships loaded with weapons leaving Libya and entering Syria via Turkey. We denounced this illegal transport at the U.N., with detailed information, but nothing happened.
Which are the main underlying reasons for the war?
- Syria has always followed the policy of rejecting and confronting the system of the USA and its allies in the area, mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia. These countries had an agenda for the region. When Syria opposed this agenda, they wanted to overthrow the Government only to continue the plot in the area. So far, we continue to reject the imposed agenda as well as the interference of foreign states in the internal affairs of sovereign states. We reject the division and division of sovereign states. We reject occupation and illegal presence in any sovereign country. This rejecting is our policy, and this policy does not meet the aspirations of the United States and its allies in the region. That's why they want to overthrow the president and change the Government; to have a free hand in their aspirations and to be able to control the region and its resources.
Are you aware of any attempt to change, or infiltrate, the Syrian banking system by foreign banks?
- That can be part of the economic base. Because Syria was politically and economically independent. We were not immersed in or dependent on the international banking system; we have our banking system, our economy, our sovereign country, with our economic policies. Before the crisis our foreign debt was Zero. Zero dollars, we didn't have any debts. That is why, due to the progress we had made in the last fifteen years, they wanted to intervene in the economy, in politics, in social life... And the Syrian people do not want to accept that policy dictated by other countries and powers in Syria.
Are you aware of any gas pipelines crossing Syria from Arabia?
They were talking about crossing Syria to bring gas to Europe, and they were talking about gas pipelines; from Russia through Syria to Europe, from Qatar s Syria to Turkey and Europe. Pipelines may be reasons for war and conflict in the region, not just in Syria. There are always economic reasons behind wars. In the region, the main reasons are the attempt of U.S. hegemony, the expansion of Israel and the control of natural resources.
When did Russia decide to get involved in the conflict? What reasons led it to do so?
- The relations between Syria and Russia are very old, go back to the Soviet Union times, it goes back to a hundred years the ties between the Russian people and the Syrian people, even at high levels of Government. There has never been disconnection with Russia or in the transition from the USSR to the present Federation. They have continued at the same level of friendship, even increasing year after year. When the crisis began in the region, with the Arab Spring issue, Russia was keeping an eye on what was happening. When the intervention of Western powers began to increase in Syria, and when Russia saw that there was a violation of international law and the UN Charter, Russia intervened. Russia's intervention meant defending international law and the UN Charter. That was the main reason for the intervention in 2012-2013. They wanted to protect international legitimacy. Otherwise, it would be chaos. If we leave the responsibility of overseeing international legality to the United States, this would be a disaster, a mess all over the world. Russia's intervention meant curving the intervention of the U.S. and its allies in the area.
There are two U.S.´s allied countries in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. How do you see the concrete action of these two actors in the area? Does Israel have a military presence in Syria?
- Not beyond the occupation of Syrian territory of the Golan Heights. The interests of Israel and other actors in the area (Arabia, Qatar, Turkey) converge in Syria, which is why they began to defend terrorist groups on Syrian territory. Every time the Syrian Arab army achieved triumphs in certain areas. Israel was bombing Syrian military bases to protect terrorists. This is clearly because of Israel's interests and the interests of terrorists converge to some extent. One point of convergence is the destruction of Syria. Because Syria is against Israel, against the occupation, and Syria is demanding the return of its territory, which is illegally occupied. Since Israel's proxy forces were defeated on the ground, Israel had to defend them, for example by bombing military bases in Syria. But we were prepared to defend ourselves, even on the part of third parties, such as France, the U.K. or the USA. Syrian military forces destroyed the vast majority of the missiles launched against Syria before targets were reached
So, the US, France and the U.K. do it in front of the media. Israel does it out of focus, away from the press.
- Of course, Israel intervenes when its proxy forces on the ground lost. The shamelessness reaches the point where terrorists wounded in battle on Syrian territory are taken to Israeli hospitals and returned to war in Syria, once healed, to fight the Syrian army.
If that is true is a very brazen thing.
- Yes, of course, it is, but they do.
Is there any plan by the Syrian army to retake the Golan Heights?
- The Golan Heights are Syrian territories. We are looking for the way; we are claiming the return of Syrian sovereignty to the Golan Heights. We try politically, through the U.N.; every year there are resolutions on the part of the General Assembly, on the part of the Security Council, demanding, asking Israel to return the Syrian Golan. This is the political line we will follow until our occupied territory is returned to us.
How do you see the Lebanon-Iran-Syria axis to solve the situation in the region?
- Lebanon's elections and their results or internal conditions are a matter of Lebanon's national policy. In Syria, we support whatever outcome comes out of the will of the Lebanese. A stable and secure Lebanon is definitely in Syria's interest. Lebanon is an Arab country, neighbor, brother, and the relationship between our people is like the relationship between our two countries. On the other hand, Hezbollah is a party in Lebanon, with representation in Government and parliament. We see it as the party of resistance; if the West considers them terrorists, it is up to them. We have an interest in combating occupation and terrorism in the region. Because no one is immune to terrorism, no country in the world, and unless we fight collectively, we will never succeed in ending terrorism. No country in the world can defeat this significant threat alone. That is why we are coordinated, working together to put an end to terrorism. Any other matter is Lebanon's internal affair, and we will not interfere.
How long do you suppose it will take to end the war against ISIS?
- As soon as the powers that give logistics to ISIS stop doing it. Those countries that say they are fighting ISIS are lying, and they are providing logistics to ISIS. So, as soon as the Turkish Government closes the borders to terrorist groups, as soon as the U.S. and its allies stop funding and supporting ISIS, as soon as they recognize that they must cooperate with the Syrian Government to end ISIS, then we can end the war in Syria.
It seems that there is another problem, behind the ISIS, are the Kurds. They were also financed and armed by Western countries. They control the Turkish-Syrian border. How do you think this conflict will develop?
- Well, at first we didn't have a Kurdish problem in Syria. The Kurds are part of Syrian society. As I mentioned earlier, Syria, as a multi-ethnic and multi-faith country, had no issues of this kind. Unfortunately, small Kurdish groups have been deceived by the U.S. Since the war in Iraq they have been promised a Kurdish state, so some Kurds have followed American policy. But this is not the interest of the armed groups now; their interest converges with that of the Syrian Government because it is their country, it is their land. Turkey plays a very negative role in the Syrian conflict. Erdogan, who was Prime Minister at the time, presents himself as the moderate caliph in the region but supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, throughout the region. They support them to replace them with secular and democratic states. But this project fails; the Turkish presence in Syria is illegal, any international presence in Syria, Turkish, American, all presences without the consent of the Syrian Government are unlawful, they are occupiers, and they have to leave.
How does he foresee Turkish policy about these facts?
- Their internal politics are their business.
But they're beyond the border
- If they continue their illegal occupation, the only way out is for them to leave. This is a red line for the Syrian population and Government. They have to end their illegal presence in Syria.
What opinion do you have of the media coverage of the Syrian conflict?
- Very negative. Frankly, I tell you that they have used the means to achieve their goals and interests in Syria and throughout the region. They have not been at all objective in presenting the reality on the ground. In Syria, we have terrorist groups such as Al Nusra and ISIS, which were qualified as such in the Security Council. Therefore they should be combated by the international community, but the majority of the media so far continue to accuse the Syrian Government and the Syrian army of killing civilians in Syria. It is the great mistake of the press, they have been used directly by the U.S. and some other country to achieve their goals, to set their agendas. It is not the most beautiful part of the media; they try to represent Syria, Russia, Iran, negatively... Look, in the press, whoever rejects the objectives of the USA is the enemy of America. It's straightforward.
So you think the media is a weapon of war?
- It's been a weapon of war in Syria. It has served to feed the conflict, to create antagonism against the Government and the population. They have not objectively reflected reality in the media. For that reason, the Syrian media have been censored in the West. Our satellites could not broadcast in Western countries; also the Syrian channels have been canceled on the Internet. It has been a significant policy of Western actors that the people on the street in the West did not have an objective view of the facts. In any case, I am convinced that at this point, the population is aware of the situation. People are aware of this agenda; it has seen it since the Iraq war with the issue of weapons of mass destruction. After all, no weapon of this nature was found.
We have the issue of White Helmets in the Western media. What do you think of these people? Who are they?
- It is a group created by the U.K. and funded by the U.S. and other allies. It is a gross coincidence that they are present only in areas where terrorist groups are present. They present themselves as defenders of civilians, but they have not even asked the Government for help with the logistics of their actions. The White Helmets make up stories to accuse the Government of attacking civilians; they always get the history of gas attacks... The last story of a gas attack was the cause of the bombing of France, USA, and G.B. against Syria... all the bombs over Syria fell due to a fake video produced by these people. It's scary to think that a war escalation in the region can only be due to a fake video of the White Helmets.
Do you think this terrorist war could spread to other countries in the region?
- I think the international political climate is a little tense. We must look out for mutual interest, rather than look at differences. We must work together, we have too many threats, above all, terrorism. No one benefits from climbing. We must calm down; the accusations used to create conflict have been seen to be false in the end. We must sit down and negotiate, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the other countries must not be used as an element of confrontation.
Finally, about Spanish diplomacy... How does the Spanish policy look about Syria?
- Before the crisis there was a great deal of cooperation between the people and the Government. At the highest levels in affairs of state, President Al Assad visited Spain three times, and His Majesty of Spain visited Syria. Since the 1950s, there has been a great deal of government cooperation.
Franco was alive!
- Hehe yeah, back then he was alive. Indeed, since then there has been excellent cooperation at economic, political and cultural levels... Speaking in current terms, the position of the Government of Spain has not been as hard as that of other countries. It has been more moderate. Spain has always had excellent diplomatic skills to resolve conflicts, especially in the Arab world, for example, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We would like to see Spain as a bridge between Syria and the E.U. to be able to face together the threats and changes that we all have to face; from terrorism to trafficking in human beings, to drug trafficking, international crime... All those issues that we have to face together in the Mediterranean area.
Let us hope that Spanish diplomacy can offer solutions to all these issues. Thank you very much for your attention, Mr. Ambassador. I hope that we will be able to talk in the future about a fully developing and conflict-free Syria.