On Wednesday, August 9, The Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, appeared in an interview on Sky News Arabic from the Citadel of Damascus, Syria. al-Asad talked about the decisions he took throughout the last years, the destruction of infrastructure, reconciling the relationships with Arab countries, Captagon trade, the nervous relationships with Hamas and Turkey, how he inherited the power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, and the possibility of passing power to his son Hafez after him.
However, the interview contained some misleading claims, including unspecific information or declining facts and proven chronicles, or denying the charges against some parties and blaming them on other parties. Misbar has tracked those claims and provides clarifications and nuances in this article.
This Was Not al-Assad’s First Interview with an Arab channel
At the beginning of the interview, the reporter of Sky News Arabia, Faisal Ben Huraiz, said that this was the first interview for President al-Assad with an Arab channel “since the outbreak of the events in Syria.” Nevertheless, Misbar investigated this claim and found it to be fake. President al-Assad did interviews with the Lebanese channel, Almayadeen, between 2013 and 2019. He also did another interview with Almanar, a Lebanese channel, in 2015.
Domestic Demands for al-Assad to Step Aside
The reporter of Sky News Arabia asked al-Assad whether he considered stepping down considering the unrelenting political pressure he was under. “There were no domestic demands for the president to step down,” al-Assad replied. Instead, they were just external instructions and desires for him to “escape and not to step down.” However, this is not true. Calls for al-Assad to step down were made days before the outbreak of the revolution on March 15, 2011, and before the intervention of any foreign or external parties. On February 5 of the same year, there were calls on Facebook to what was called, “the day of the Syrian wrath” in response to a statement made by al-Assad on February 1, in which he said: “There is no possibility for protests to break out in Syria given the current lack of widespread public dissatisfaction with the regime.”
Some activists started trying to organise multiple solidarity protests with the Egyptian revolution of January 25. The protests first started on January 29 and lasted until February 2 in Damascus. Nonetheless, the Syrian armed forces disrupted protests. On February 2, the Syrian armed forces halted the protests and imprisoned some protesters. Suhair al-Atassi was among them.
On February 17, al-Hariqa market was closed. Shopkeepers and citizens crowded in the surrounding area after a man from the Syrian forces humiliated the son of one of the shopkeepers. Protesters, then for the first time, chanted, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated.” Accordingly, the interior minister attended in an attempt to reach an understanding with the crowd. On February 22, tens of Syrians held a sit-in in front of the Libyan embassy in solidarity with the Libyan Revolution, in which the slogan “he who kills his people is a traitor” was chanted for the first time. There were figures like Tayyeb Tizini. This sit-in was also forcibly halted by the Syrian Armed Forces.
How many Protesters Were in Syria?
When the reporter replied that there was a large number of protesters who chanted for al-Assad to step down, al-Assad answered that even this large number had not, at best, exceeded “one hundred thousand-odd at best in all provinces, compared to tens of millions of Syrians.”
Misbar investigated this claim and found it to be misleading. Al-Aassi Square in Hama City was a central place for protests. On June 3, 2011, there was a massacre at al-Assi Square where more than 80 people were killed. The largest protest in the history of Syria ever happened on July 1, with more than half a million protesters. On the following day, al-Assad issued a decree of dismissal to Hama’s governor, then, Khaled Abdel Aziz. Meanwhile, hundreds of protests in which their marchers reached tens of thousands were documented.
Terrorism And The Destruction Of The Infrastructure In Syria
The reporter of Sky News Arabia asked about the most prominent challenge that faces the refugees. The latter said, “The infrastructures that were destroyed due to terrorism” are the biggest logistic challenge. When asked about the biggest obstacle that hinders improving the economic situation for the citizens in Syria, he repeated the same answer.
The groups that were part of the Syrian war indeed targeted the infrastructure systematically. For instance, ISIS attacked al-Omar oil field, the biggest oil field in Syria, in Deir ez-Zur city. Then, it was attacked again by the global coalition in the lead of the U.S. Multiple studies documented the systematic attacks on power buildings and public facilities by the Islamic State.
However, al-Assad did not mention the systematic bombing of the infrastructure by the Syrian armed forces along with the Russian army in some cities. According to a Human Rights report, published in 2020, titled, “Targeting Life in Idlib,” the Syrian and the Russian armies launched attacks for 11 months that caused damage to civilian objects and infrastructure, such as homes and schools. The report documents 46 ground and air attacks that directly struck or indirectly damaged civilian objects and infrastructure in Idlib. The report is based on another report by Amnesty International published in the same year. The latter report documented 18 air and ground attacks on schools and hospitals during this period in northwest Syria.
To document the 46 incidents, Human Rights Watch interviewed 113 victims and witnesses of the attacks, as well as healthcare and rescue workers, teachers, local authorities, and experts on the Syrian and Russian militaries. Human Rights Watch examined dozens of satellite images, over 550 photographs and videos taken at the attack sites, and logs of observers who monitored Syrian and Russian aircraft in the area.
In each of the 46 incidents, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of opposition military weapons, equipment, or personnel in the vicinity at the time of the attack. Most of the attacks occurred in populated areas, and no residents said that the Syrian-Russian alliance ever provided any advance warning. The overwhelming majority of attacks documented took place far from active fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government armed groups.
According to a study by researchers at the universities of Stanford, California, and Johns Hopkins examining the attacks on the infrastructure of the Syrian war between 2012 to 2018, considering the most targeted sectors, and analyzing a dataset of 2689-documented military attacks during that period, the study found that the Syrian army or the Russian army or both was responsible for 1450 attack targeted the health sector, public facilities, buildings of the private sector, and schools in Ar Raqqah, Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zur.
No Proof that Half a Million Refugees Returned to Syria
The reporter of Sky News asked Bashar al-Assad, “You announced that you welcome the return of a huge number of refugees, but there are some who fear punishment after their return. What do you say to those millions via this channel?” Al-Assad replied, “During the last years, there were about a million refugees who returned to Syria and none of them was imprisoned.” Al-Assad indicated that the return of refugees has stopped because of the deteriorating situation in the economy and services.
Misbar investigated the numbers and reports that are periodically provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the responsible party for the return process all over Syria. It turned out that refugees started to return in 2018 when the fierce combat came to an end in most of the Syrian lands.
According to the report of the High Commissioner, 56,047 Syrian refugees returned to Syria in 2018, 94 thousand refugees returned in 2019, 38 thousand refugees in 2020, 36 thousand refugees in 2021, 51 thousand and three hundred refugees in 2022, 16 thousand and 529 refugees during the first six months of this year. This means that the total number of refugees who returned to Syria reached 291 thousand and 876 refugees, about 40 percent less than the number al-Assad mentioned.
Syria Imprisoned Some Of The Returned Refugees
As for what al-Assad claimed, “It is unreasonable for the state to imprison those who have returned,” tens of recorded testimonies refuted the claim. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, titled, “Our Lives Are Like Death,” whoever considers returning to Syria knows well that they will face interrogations by the Security agencies. Those who return to Syroa will be directly asked to check one of the branches of the security agencies to “have a cup of tea with them.” This phrase refers to the intention of the security agencies to interrogate them.
The report documented 65 interviews with Syrian refugees who have returned from Jordan and Lebanon or interviews with their relatives. They confirmed that they were called for interrogation and asked about the reasons behind their decision. They also faced the same violations that prompted them to escape from Syria, such as persecution, assaults, arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, and torture. Refugee returnees who did not face threats to their life or physical integrity “lived in fear of the government’s targeting of civilians perceived to be affiliated or sympathetic to the opposition or who have expressed dissent, making living in Syria a challenge.”
The results of the report of Human Rights Watch correspond with the results of Amnesty International Organization, journalists’ analysis, and the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Republic. All of them documented arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions.
Amnesty International Organization managed to document cases of 66 people who faced severe violations upon returning to Syria, some of the cases were of children aged between 3 weeks to 17 years. The organization also documents the story of 24 men, women, and children who were subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment upon their return to the country.
Last year, The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 3083 cases of imprisoning refugee returnees upon returning from countries of asylum or residency. While 1887 prisoners were released, 1196 are still under arrest. 864 prisoners were subjected to enforced disappearances. Most of them have returned from Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan since 2014.
The Captagon Trade In Syria Is Sponsored By The State
When the reporter of Sky News Arabia asked al-Assad about the drug trade and how it is a danger threatening the stability of the arena, al-Assad answered, “We are the first ones who will be enthusiastic and cooperative to fight this phenomenon for how dangerous it is. It is unreasonable for the state to encourage it. The responsible for causing this state are the countries who shared in creating chaos in Syria and not the Syrian State.”
However, a handful of investigations from international or independent parties documented the direct links between figures from the Syrian government and the industry and trade of amphetamine drugs, known also as “captagon.”
“The Republic of Captagon,” an investigation aired by Alaraby television last year, recorded Captagon factories inside the Syrian lands and its routes and the shipping process. According to images from satellites, analyzed by the television, it turned out that the ships that were arrested in the neighbouring states due to transporting Captagon pills were initially loaded and set off from Syrian official ports sponsored by the state.
It was also found according to the report that Captagon factories are located in Latakia and its countryside. Most of the factories are close to the main smuggling lines that intersect later in Latakia’s port. The factory behind Joul Jammal School, the school of al-Assad when he was in middle school, is only 2 kilometres away from the port. Meanwhile, Al Shilfatiyah factory is 13 kilometres away from the port. Aïn Beïda’s factory is 22 kilometres away from the port. Jableh Countryside’s factory is 35 kilometres away from the port, which means that the furthest factory among these factories is just 20 minutes away by car from the port.
The investigation of Alaraby television is not the only one in this case. Last April, BBC channel aired an investigation in cooperation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The investigation revealed relationships between members of the Syrian army and Hezbollah in the manufacturing, transportation, and trade of drugs with neighbouring countries. In response to this investigation, Syria's Information Ministry revoked the licence of the British public broadcaster and its correspondents who work in Syria for broadcasting “misleading reports relying on statements and testimonies from terrorist and anti-Syrian authorities.”
Hafez al-Assad Gave Power To His Son Bashar
Before the end of the interview, the reporter of Sky News Arabia asked al-Assad if he intends to make his oldest son, Hafez, the heir, on the grounds that he inherited the rule of Syria from his father, Hafez al-Assad, and he “won after that in the elections.” Al-Assad answered, “President Hafez al-Assad had no role in my being the president because he did not specialise in any civil or military position for me to become a president. I became a president through the party after his death. I did not discuss this point with him even in his last weeks. He was ill during that time.”
Nevertheless, during the 80s of the last century, after the failure of the coup attempt led by Rifaat al-Assad followed by exiling him to France, Hafez al-Assad started to pave the way for his oldest son, Bassel, to become president after him, but he suddenly died in a car accident in 1994, leading to change the plan. Since then, the process of handing over power to the younger brother, Bashar, has begun.
According to Imad Ghalioun and Mamoun Alhomsi, former members of the People's Assembly of Syria who witnessed the transition in power from al-Assad the father to al-Assad the son, to Alaraby TV, since then, the process of removing influential figures from the government, were called “old guard,” paving and smoothing the way to power for Bashar.
Soon after his return to Damascus in 1994, Bashar al-Assad occupied the position of the Commander of the tank battalion. He was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1996, then colonel at the beginning of 1999, setting a new record in the speed of military promotion, leaving all his colleagues in the Syrian military behind.
The major role in the transfer of power from Hafez to Bashar is attributed to the Minister of Defense at the time, General Mustafa Talas. He published his memories in two books, titled “The Mirror of My Life 1” and “The Mirror of My Life 2,” in which he wrote Hafez al-Assad’s will to smooth the process of power transfer to Bashar if he died, by editing the provisions of the constitution that stipulate a specific age and military rank Bashar did not have to occupy the position of president, and to also call all the senior officials and officers, informing them of this decision before making it known for the public.
In June 2000, Hafez al-Assad died. The members of parliament were called to an emergency public session in the presence of the media, aiming to approve the required provisions. The deputy of Hafez al-Assad, Abdul Halim Khaddam, issued a decision for promoting Bashar al-Assad to the rank of lieutenant general and appointing him as a commander-in-chief of the army and forces. He also issued another decision to amend Article 83 of the Constitution, which states that the president must be at least 40 years old, to become 34 years old, the age of Bashar al-Assad back then.
After that, presidential elections were held in July as a referendum. Bashar al-Assad won a presidential term for seven years, which has been renewed twice so far.