Seymour Hersh talks about his conversation with Syria’s Assad

7 02 2010

Source

February 3, 2010

Direct Quotes: Bashar Assad

I spoke to Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, this winter in Damascus. Assad assumed the presidency after his father’s death, in 2000, when he was thirty-four years old, and he expressed some empathy for President Barack Obama, who, like Assad, was confronted with a steep learning curve.

One note: a transcript of our talk, provided by Assad’s office, was generally accurate but it did not include an exchange we had about intelligence. A senior Syrian official had told me that, last year, Syria, which is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, had renewed its sharing of intelligence on terrorism with the C.I.A. and with Britain’s MI6, after a request from Obama that was relayed by George Mitchell, the President’s envoy for the Middle East. (The White House declined to comment.) Assad said that he had agreed to do so, and then added that he also has warned Mitchell “that if nothing happens from the other side”—in terms of political progress—“we will stop it.”

Quotes from our conversation follow.
President Barack Obama:

Bush gave Obama this big ball of fire, and it is burning, domestically and internationally. Obama, he does not know how to catch it.

The approach has changed; no more dictations but more listening and more recognition of America’s problems around the world, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. But at the same time there are no concrete results…. What we have is only the first step…. Maybe I am optimistic about Obama, but that does not mean that I am optimistic about other institutions that play negative or paralyzing role[s] to Obama.

If you talk about four years, you have one year to learn and the last year to work for the next elections. So, you only have two years. The problem, with these complicated problems around the world, where the United States should play a role to find a solution, is that two years is a very short time…. Is it enough for somebody like Obama?
Hillary Clinton:

Some say that even Hilary Clinton does not support Obama. Some say she still has ambition to be President some day—that is what they say.

The press conference of Hillary with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [in which she appeared to walk away from the Administration’s call for a freeze on settlements] was very bad, even for the image of the United States.
Israel and the United States:

To be biased and side with the Israelis, this is traditional for the United States; we do not expect them to be in the middle soon. So we can deal with this issue, and we can find a way if you want to talk about the peace process. But the vision does not seem to be clear on the U.S. side as to what they really want to happen in the Middle East.
Negotiations with Israel:

I have half a million Palestinians and they have been living here for three generations now. So, if you do not find a solution for them, then what peace you are talking about?

What, I said, is the difference between peace and a peace treaty? Peace treaty is what you sign, but peace is when you have normal relations. So, you start with a peace treaty in order to achieve peace…. If they say you can have the entire Golan back, we will have a peace treaty. But they cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect…. You start with the land; you do not start with peace.

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