Dr Bouthaina Shaaban denies that Russian forces could escalate the conflict in Syria. She also denies that President Assad’s forces have been involved in crimes against humanity.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: We’re joined now from Damascus by President Assad’s key advisor, Dr Bouthaina Shaaban.
Dr Shaaban, thanks for being there.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN, ADVISOR TO SYRIAN PRESIDENT: Thank you.
TONY JONES: Now can we start with this: the Australian Air Force has now joined the US-led coalition in air strikes against ISIS targets inside Syria, in eastern Syria. What’s your message to the Australian Government about its involvement?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: My message to the Australian Government is that there should be a real intention to fighting terrorism that is not only against the Syrian people, but against the entire world and the real intention should come through a real coalition and cooperation with Russia, Iran, China, the Government of Syria and all countries and governments who truly are interested in fighting terrorism.
TONY JONES: Let me ask you this then: I mean, the Syrian Army is obviously also fighting ISIS. If the Australian Air Force is hitting ISIS targets in eastern Syria, doesn’t that actually help your fight against ISIS?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Actually, the Syrian Army and the Syrian people have been fighting ISIS for the last four years, but I don’t think the coalition led by the United States until now has done any real job against ISIS. In President Obama’s words, they wanted to contain or to limit the influence of ISIS, But not to eradicate, to get rid of ISIS for the benefit of Syria and the benefit of the region and the entire world.
TONY JONES: OK, President Assad himself has said in the past 24 hours he’s got no objection to cooperating with the US and his allies, provided it’s a genuine coalition against terrorism, as he calls it. What would cooperation look like? How could you imagine it happening?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I could imagine the entire world taking a real stand against these extremist terrorist forces by at least supporting the implementation of Security Council resolution 2170, 2178 and 3199, which dictates on countries not to allow the arming, the financing and the facilitating of terrorists across borders – the three things that are being done for four years by Turkey and by Saudi Arabia with full-fledged support by the West.
TONY JONES: Now, how soon would you expect to see Russian jets joining this fight against ISIS and fighting in this rather contested and crowded sky over Syria?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Well, the Syrian people would love any party in the world to join us in fighting ISIS, but in cooperation with the Syrian Government, and by the way, the report you broadcast, Tony, at the beginning of this program, you mentioned the regime about 10 times and you mentioned President Assad and you said that the Russians are coming to support President Assad. The Russians are coming to support the restoration of safety and security to the Syrian people. It is the Syrian people who are suffering, and by the way, there is no civil war in Syria. Over 80 per cent of the Syrian people live in the region which is still controlled by the Syrian Government and the Syrian Army and there is no religious or any other conflict among the Syrian people. There’s only one conflict between the Syrian people and the extremist terrorist forces that are being brought to our country from 83 countries in the world.
TONY JONES: OK, let’s talk about this Russian military buildup because the United States is very worried about it. I mean, the airport at Latakia is being heavily reinforced, it’s being changed, it looks like it’s being turned into a giant Russian military base, Russian transport planes are flying in every day and ships are bringing into your ports Russian weapons. Are we going to see Russian troops fighting on the ground in Syria and Russian aircraft in the skies above Syria supporting, as you say, your army?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Russian advisors and Russian people and Syrian-Russian relations have been here strong and well for the last 40 years. The Russians do not build colonial bases. The Russians are not an occupying force like others are. The Russians left Egypt in one day when Sadat asked them to leave. So, the Russians are supporting us by advisor, by military armaments, by the way, we have contract with them that had been signed for years and they are implementing these contracts. And if you ask the Syrian people, you would see that the Syrian people are happy to see any country in the world supporting the Syrian people and the Syrian Army against extremist forces and against terrorist forces.
TONY JONES: OK, alright. But a very quick question here: are you expecting Russian forces to be expanding their operations into Syria, more Russian troops than just the advisors and Russian Air Force pilots flying Russian aircraft over Syrian territory?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: We are only expecting support to the Syrian Army. That’s all what we are expecting. And we know that the Russians will not do anything except in cooperation with the Syrian Government and with the Syrian Army and thus the agenda is Syrian, and as I said, the best way to fight terrorism is to have this coalition broadened, not only from Russia. Really, you know, the terrorism you find now here and you describe now here, you might find tomorrow in Europe and next day in the United States. It’s a cancer that is hurting the entire world and we would love the world to understand that this is an existential danger to the entire humanity.
TONY JONES: OK, but earlier this year the Secretary of State John Kerry laid down some very strict conditions. Syria cannot have peace, stability, nor can it be saved as long as President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. Have you any reason to believe the White House has changed its mind on that fundamental issue?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Well I would like to ask you: has John Kerry any right to decide who the President of Syria should be? Do we in Syria decide who the President of the United States should be? I think this statement is erroneous right from the beginning. It is the Syrian people who decide who have the right to be the President of Syria. Nobody else in the world has the right to decide that.
TONY JONES: OK, but just – we know that obviously US and its allies participated in regime change in Iraq and they did so because they said Saddam Hussein was involved in building weapons of mass destruction, but also because of his crimes against humanity. Now President Assad also stands accused of crimes against humanity, of torturing, starving, of killing thousands of his opponents and that killing was done by branches of the Syrian security services, according to evidence. Do you accept that Western leaders simply cannot turn a blind eye to that evidence and those allegations?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I would like the Western governments who – and the Western people to think what they did with Libya with their own decision, turning Libya into a failing state, and I would like them to review their policy in Iraq, which turned Iraq into a failing state. I have no reason to believe what the Western governments say about my country. I am a Syrian, rooted in Syria. We, the Syrian people know what is right for our country, and by the way, targeting presidents in the Middle East does not aim at presidents. It aims at destroying our country, turning our identity, erasing our cultural heritage, destroying our institution. It is Syria that has been targeted, it is not President Assad. President Assad is standing with his army and people to fight for the unity and territorial integrity of his country and this is what we are doing here.
TONY JONES: Alright, but you see the obvious problem. I mean, the West cannot turn a blind eye to it when three former UN war crimes prosecutors investigated the evidence smuggled out of Iraq by a former – smuggled out of, I beg your pardon, Syria by a former military policeman. He brought 55,000 photographs of 11,000 dead bodies, all of whom he claimed were killed by your security services, starved, tortured, beaten, and his evidence by those three war crimes prosecutors was found to be most credible.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Listen. Listen, Tony, let us respect the intelligence of your viewer. I was interviewed at least three times by CNN and Wolf Blitzer on CNN about -0 about these fabricated pictures that have been paid for by a cattery company in London. You know, if anybody is careful about the lives of the Syrian people, why don’t you condemn the missiles that are killing innocent civilians? Why don’t you condemn the killing of thousands of Syrian children at school? The destruction of 5,000 schools. The erosion of Palmyra. The erosion of old Aleppo. Where is the West from all what the extremists and terrorists are doing in Syria? The myth of …
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban, can I interrupt you there for a one moment? ‘Cause we are running out of time.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Please do. Please do.
TONY JONES: But I believe it is possible to do – it’s possible to do both things at the same time. It’s possible to condemn what happens to those children, at the same time, to condemn a history of repression. Now these three war crimes prosecutors, all very credible men, believed the evidence to be real. If that is true, should your president in fact stand trial for crimes against humanity, in spite of the fact that Russia would stop that from happening?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Did you – I would only focus on what you said. The three men believe that the evidence could be real. What if the evidence was absolutely nonsense? What if these three men were absolutely wrong? What – I mean, why are you trying to suppose something about our president instead of trying to solve the problem for the Syrian people and for Syria and for the Middle East and for the world at large? I tell you once again: Syria is 10,000 years old. The Syrian people are very civilised people. They are very well capable of choosing their government and choosing their president without any interference from the West. This war on Syria, Tony, is about the independent opinion of Syria. Syria has been a very independent country and that’s not what the West wants. They want us like a country that is a satellite for the West and we will never be that.
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban, we’ll have to leave you there. I’m merely of course putting the case that bothers – the dilemma that bothers Western leaders when they worry how they can support your president. But we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much indeed for your time.