The Cumhurieyt Turkish published an interview it conducted with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week about the events in Syria and regional and international developments. A group of Turkish media, including Cumhurieyt, represented by Utku Cakirozer, Kanal D, CNN Turk and Posta newspaper, represented by Mehmet Ali Birand, and Hurriyet newspaper represented by Ertugrul Ozkok, and Radikal newspaper represented by Fehim Tastekin, and Haberturk newspaper represented by Amberin Zaman, requested interviews with President al-Assad. Based on Syria’s policy of opening up to the mass media, it was agreed to grant an interview to the abovementioned media organs. However, four of the representatives of these organs were not able to come to Syria to conduct the interview after they were contacted by the director of the office of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asking them not to conduct the interview.
The interview is also available at Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA):
Journalist: Mr. President, will the current tension in the relations between Syria and Turkey, caused by Syria’s downing of the Turkish aircraft, lead to a confrontation between the two sides, as the Turkish leadership believes?
President Assad: This period is full of events and developments, and it is a historical period during which the map of the whole region is being drawn. I think this is perhaps similar to what happened a hundred years ago when the Ottoman Empire declined and fell. Then, there was conflict between the Arabs and the Turks. As far as we are concerned, our vision during the past twelve years, i.e. since the first visit of President Sezer to Syria is to change this historical image, to delete it completely from the Arab mind. We have always said that the period of historical differences taught us plenty of lessons.
The Arabs lost and the Turks lost. So, it is unreasonable to go back suddenly to that stage so that we lose and you lose. During the past fifteen months, i.e. since the crisis began, we tried to work on more than one front. First, to solve the internal crisis in Syria and confront the terrorists. Second, to try and maintain what we have achieved in the Syrian-Turkish relations. We found that with every speech, with every step, with every decision taken by the current Turkish government there was an attempt to destroy these relations. I can say that they have been able to destroy most of what we have built. But what has remained is the foundation which consists of the relationship between the two peoples.
So, in answer to your question, I would like to say that we will continue to work hard in Syria so that things do not reach the stage of confrontation. This confrontation is a losing one for Syria and for Turkey. Nevertheless, I think that this is happening only on the government level. On the popular level, the Turkish people are intelligent and fully aware of what is going on and will not allow – as we will not – things to lead to confrontation. The Turkish people know that this Turkish government wants to drag it to a confrontation for private interests, not for national interests.
Journalist: Mr. President, you said that you will not allow things to move in this direction. What is Syria’s position concerning the downing of the Turkish aircraft, and concerning the statements made by the Turkish government and the Turkish state to the effect that Syria downed the aircraft intentionally and under instructions from President al-Assad directly?
President Assad: Maybe they were sitting with me in the same room. This is ridiculous. We should ask logical questions. There are two options: that we downed it deliberately, as they claim, or that we downed it by mistake outside our territorial waters. If there was a mistake, and we downed the aircraft outside our territorial waters, we have no problem to say so and to apologize officially. The Turkish people will understand this. But if we downed it deliberately, the logical question is: what is Syria’s interest in downing a Turkish aircraft deliberately? Do we hate the Turkish people?! Do we want to send them a certain message? This is untrue, because the Turkish people reciprocated our love and affection during the past years. And during the crisis, the largest part of the Turkish people did not believe the claims of the Erdogan government. Did we down the aircraft in order to harm the Turkish army?!
The Turkish army committed no aggression against Syria, so why should we attack it? What happened in fact is that the aircraft was downed with the smallest caliber gun used against aircraft. Its range is between two and two and a half kilometers. Usually, it’s very difficult for anti-aircraft guns to down a fighter jet unless it is flying too low. This means that downing it with this type of gun means that it was less than 2.5 kilometers from Syrian land and that it was flying at a very low altitude. In normal situations, and in peacetime, when you see a friendly aircraft from any country of the world doing this, you don’t down it, let alone if it were from a neighboring country like Turkey. But we are in a state of war, and when you do not know the identity of such an aircraft, you assume that it is an enemy aircraft. Usually, this kind of thing is not dealt with at the central level. Because the aircraft was flying at a very low altitude, it was not visible on Syrian radar screens. What happened was the following: we knew that we downed an unidentified aircraft, and Turkey announced the disappearance of one of its aircraft. So we expected that this aircraft was Turkish.
No Turkish party contacted us. We contacted the Turkish side. The direct relationship between the Turkish and Syrian armies is fully severed upon a decision by the Turkish side, so we called the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Hours later, we received an answer and rescue boats were sent to the site. Of course, there was Syrian-Turkish cooperation in order to rescue the pilots. But the point which was not talked about is that the place which was violated was the same place which Israel has always tried to violate our airspace through. So this violation on this border point gives an indication to any Syrian military officer that the aircraft might be an enemy aircraft, and consequently he has to respond accordingly based on the velocity of the aircraft, the low altitude it was flying at, and the fact that it violated our airspace. Once again I stress that the Syrian side had no knowledge of the identity of the aircraft before downing it.
Journalist: The question now, Mr. President, why wasn’t the aircraft warned?
President Assad: Had it appeared centrally on the radar screen, it would have been warned. But when a soldier is behind his gun, and has no mechanism for sending a warning, and the military rules applied as far as such guns are concerned, are that when you see an aircraft, and you don’t have any information or instructions that an aircraft will be passing from that particular place, you shoot it. These are the standing military rules: the soldier shoots without going back to command and control, because the whole issue happens in a matter of seconds.
Journalist: Didn’t the aircraft appear on Syrian radars at all?
President Assad: Maybe it appeared on the radar screens when it was flying at a high altitude and was outside territorial waters. Inside territorial waters, the issue is different, and we all know that, we are talking about 20 kilometers and an aircraft usually takes a minute or maybe less to cover that distance. When an aircraft is flying at a low altitude the radar screens cannot catch it. The evidence is that when the Israeli aircraft that violated the same area in order to bomb a Syrian military site in 2007, Syrian radars did not see them. More importantly, there are no anti-aircraft missiles in that area which can reach beyond the limits of the territorial waters. So, the things said about this point are mere lies made up by some Turkish officials.
Journalist: The Turkish army said that it is in possession of communications made by Syrian officials on Syrian radars related to downing the Turkish aircraft, and it called on all the countries which possess eavesdropping equipment, satellites, and military bases in the region, like Cyprus, to present what they have in this regard.
President Assad: Let them publish what they have. But they are lying. We downed the aircraft, and we didn’t know its identity until it was announced by Turkey. Once again, I ask those who are saying this to state what is Syria’s interest in downing a Turkish aircraft? They don’t have an answer, although up till this moment, we are not dealing with the issue in terms of an aircraft sent to violate Syrian airspace. Up till now, we want to assume goodwill, that there was a mistake made by the pilot maybe. We in Syria dealt with the subject as we deal with any other accident.
Journalist: Mr. President, what did you feel when you were informed that a Turkish aircraft was downed?
President Assad: Psychologically, it wasn’t pleasant, because the Turkish people are brotherly people, so it is natural that you shouldn’t be pleased if an aircraft was downed unless it is an enemy aircraft. As far as we are concerned, the enemy is Israel only. But on the other hand, we felt that Erdogan and his government want to exploit this accident in order to make political gains they were not able to make last year. They haven’t been able to mobilize the Turkish people behind them on the Syrian issue during the past 15 months. They tried to create a case of animosity between the two peoples instead of having differences between the two governments. And this is a dangerous thing.
Journalist: Mr. President, you are telling the Turkish people that the aircraft was not downed deliberately by the Syrians, and you gave a different interpretation of the incident. But on the other hand, there are two pilots, two young people, killed in this accident, and they are victims whether they were sent deliberately or unintentionally. So, what do you say to the families of these two pilots, knowing that one of them was going to be sent on a space mission?
President Assad: Despite Erdogan’s policies which cause the Syrian people only blood and destruction, and regardless of this Turkish government which wants death for our people, we wish the Turkish people well, for it is a brotherly people. As far as we are concerned, there is no discussion about this. When a Turkish citizen dies, this means the death of a brother of ours. So we offer their families our deepest condolences. We appreciate what we heard from the father of one of these two pilots when he addressed Erdogan by saying “the person killed is my son, and we do not want this incident to be manipulated in order to cause war.” This is an honorable position and is worthy of our respect. We certainly feel for them and sympathize with them. Since they are our brothers, we feel that the loss of any Turkish citizen is the same as the loss of a Syrian citizen, regardless, as I said, of Erdogan’s policies.
Journalist: Did you wish that the incident had never happened?
President Assad: We do not wish for such an incident to happen with any non-hostile aircraft, let alone with a Turkish aircraft. But on the other hand, any unidentified aircraft, an in the same circumstances, even if it the aircraft were Syrian, it would be considered an enemy aircraft. These are military rules of engagement, not political rules, and I believe that they exist in most countries of the world.
Journalist: Mr. President, what do you say to the fact that the two pilots who were killed do not belong to the Turkish government or state. With full appreciation for your sentiments towards them, what do you say to their families and to the Turkish people?
President Assad: This is natural, but these two pilots are part of the military establishment, and what you are proposing should be done through the direct relations between the two military establishments, and this has ceased to exist completely, i.e. there is no direct relationship between the two armies. There was supposed to be direct communication during the incident, but this did not happen.
Journalist: Communications are absent in relation to this incident alone?
President Assad: No, communications were stopped over six months ago by the Turkish government, specifically since the changes which took place in the Turkish army. You know that in neighboring countries, there is always the possibility for similar incident which needs direct coordination between the armed forces. Now the Syrian military establishment doesn’t have the phone numbers of the Turkish military if they wanted to communicate with them for any emergency. When we tried to contact them earlier through the military attaché, he said that contacts should be made through the foreign ministry. This is not practical, but all of that was upon a decision by the Turkish government and not by the Syrian side.
Journalist: Mr. President, the Turkish side claims that a point of strength for it case is the fact that this is a reconnaissance aircraft which doesn’t carry any weapons or any kind of protection. So why was it downed?
President Assad: Military rules are not related to the type, task or armament of an aircraft. The fighter or the solider sitting behind the gun doesn’t know whether this aircraft is a reconnaissance aircraft, a fighter aircraft, or whether it’s carrying missiles or not, whether it entered that area by mistake or whether it was carrying out a hostile act. He cannot make his own estimates. But there is a question in return to this question: why didn’t they notify us that there are aircraft approaching the Syrian airspace. Had there been coordination between the two armies, we would have been told about their exercises. Then it would have been easier to deal with such situations. The Turkish side should publically say what this aircraft was doing in Syrian airspace. Nevertheless, we are not demanding these things because we consider it an accident.
Journalist: The Turkish government now sees that in Syria there is an enemy government and regime, and they started to deploy military forces on the Syrian borders as a result of the last crisis. How do you see Turkey, and what is the Syrian response to what they are doing?
President Assad: The worst two stages in the Syrian-Turkish relations were in 1998 when Turkey deployed its army, and in the 1950s – I believe in 1955 – during the days of the Baghdad Alliance. Nevertheless, we have never looked at Turkey as an enemy. So it is self-evident that neither today nor in the future shall we look at Turkey as an enemy, even when we have differences with the governments. For animosity to exist between Syria and Turkey, that animosity should exist at the popular level, not at the government level. That’s why there’s no Syrian deployment against Turkey.
Journalist: Mr. President, there is talk in Turkey about new rules of engagement to the effect that any Syrian aircraft, tank, or piece of artillery coming close to the Turkish borders, will be shot at. What are your comments on that?
President Assad: No state has the right to fire unless its land has been encroached into.
Journalist: Let’s assume that a Syrian tank or aircraft was targeted?
President Assad: This is a hypothetical question, but we do not want things to move in that direction between Syria and Turkey. When they target anything inside Syrian borders, this is an aggression against Syria.
Journalist: What is you assessment of the Geneva Summit yesterday, particularly the points Kofi Annan talked about?
President Assad: There hasn’t been any direct contact between us and Kofi Annan or the Russians. But there were clear points in what Kofi Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said. First, that the Syrian people decide, and this is our position in Syria. Violence should stop first, and this is our position in Syria. The armed groups should be disarmed, and this is our position. Hands stained with Syrian blood, as Kofi Annan said, do not exist only in Syria, but outside Syria as well. This shows the role of the other countries which have been involved. These points are essential for us, but the most important thing is that everything should be decided inside Syria, not outside it.