Bashar Assad was thrust into politics by a twist of fates seven years ago. A car accident killed his older brother, who was being groomed to succeed their father, President Hafez Assad. When Assad¹s father died, Bashar, who was then training to be a doctor, was catapulted into the presidency at the age of 34.
There was hope in the West that he would be at the helm of a new, more pragmatic generation of Arab leaders. And early on, Assad made conciliatory gestures toward the United States, condemning the 9/11 attacks and cooperating in the war against al Qaeda.
But since then, amid charges by the Bush administration that Syria has increased its support of extremism; relations with the U.S. have deteriorated.
The Assads represent something of an oddity in the Arab world: a ruling family from a minority Shiite sect in a primarily Sunni country. But critics say the Assads; regime's stability was built on brutal repression at home and the support of terrorists abroad; giving rise to Syria's reputation as a "rogue state."
President Assad denied U.S. allegations that Syria is allowing terrorists to use the country as a point of entry into Iraq. The transcript of Couric's exclusive interview follows:
President Assad: What do they do, those terrorists in Iraq? They kill civilians, they create chaos. What interest have Syria in having chaos in Iraq? Chaos is contagious. If we help the chaos in Iraq, this means we work against our interest. So we do our best to control our borders, first of all for the Syrians; second, for the Iraqis; third, for the region.
Couric: You say that chaos does not work to Syria's advantage. Does that mean you support a stable, democratic Iraq?
President Assad: Definitely. For our interest, first of all, and for Iraqi interest, second. Otherwise the whole region, and maybe later, indirectly, the rest of the world will be suffering. But we will pay the price first, and we are paying the price for the chaos in Iraq today. So why not to work if it's in our interest? This is definitely and this is the announced position of the Syrian politics.
Couric: So you support the U.S. efforts to help establish a democracy in Iraq?
President Assad: If they do ... but they don't do. They don't do it. There's no effort. They only talk about military - numbers of soldiers, raising up the number or making it go down. There is no serious political process supported by the Americans so far.
Couric: But I was in Iraq and in Anbar province. President Bush and his other top officials were meeting with Prime Minister Maliki and his top leaders, trying to move democracy forward. Why do you say there is no political process going on?
President Assad: We¹re talking about the results. It's getting worse every day, nothing is better. Sometimes it gets better, but it's like a flash in the pan; it just disappears, it's transient. We're talking about the result; the chaos is worse, the killing is worse than before.
Couric: Let me ask you about the Damascus airport. It is considered a major point of entry for terrorists going into Iraq, and you have been highly criticized, Mr. President, for not taking greater action to stop that from happening. Why haven't you? Why haven't you got in control of your airport?
President Assad: It's not an airport problem. It's not related to the airport. This is again another false allegation. They've been harping on this bogus claim for four years. But actually the terrorists, if they want to come, they don't have to come to the airport. They can cross any border, anyhow, by any means, to go to Iraq.
Couric: You're telling me you have no evidence and no knowledge that terrorists are using Damascus International Airport as an entry point and then going to Iraq?
President Assad: No, I didn't say that. I said, if I want to continue or elaborate, we caught many coming from the airport, but mainly most of them they don't come through the airport. They came through the illegal borders and we caught them.
Couric Let's look forward. Do you believe that U.S. troops should withdraw from Iraq?
President Assad: Definitely, yes. As a principle. How and when,
this is an Iraqi issue. We cannot decide it as Syria.
Couric: Are you concerned though, Mr. President, that if U.S. troops do withdraw, and do it too precipitously, the country will break out in an all-out civil war?
President Assad: Yes. We have to take the context of the events since the war, after four years ... every day is getting worse than before. So I cannot say that American forces will bring stability to Iraq. This is for sure. Some say if they leave, it will get worse, maybe. So this is not a debate. As principle they have to leave.
Couric: Do you want to see America succeed in Iraq?
President Assad: My priority now is the stability in Iraq. It doesn't matter if the United States leaves today or tomorrow. My priority is the Iraqi people and my country. And of course, if the success means political stability, we don't have any problem because we support any country in the world, including the United States, in succeeding in Iraq in that regard.
Couric: Mr. P, thank you very much for your time.
President Assad: Thank you for coming.