DAMASCUS CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer sat down for a rare interview with a senior official from the embattled Syrian government, Information Minister Omran Ahed al-Zouabi.
Click on the player at left to see Palmer's full report from "The Evening News with Scott Pelley" on how the war is creeping ever closer to President Bashar Assad's seat of power, the capital city of Damascus.
During the course of the approximately 30-minute long interview, Minister al-Zouabi denied that Syria has any chemical or biological weapons -- on moral grounds; insisted that his country is battling a foreign terrorist conspiracy rather than a domestic insurgency, and said that fight was "pretty much the same" as the United States government's war on terrorism.
What follows is the full transcript of Palmer's interview with Minister al-Zouabi:
Elizabeth Palmer: Turkey has now asked for Patriot missiles to be deployed along the Syrian border. What does the Syrian government think of that?
Omran Ahed al-Zouabi: Against whom do they want to deploy those missiles? And for what reason?
Palmer: Your shells.. flying across the border, and they're even, to be perfectly frank, worried about shells tipped with chemical or biological weapons.
Zouabi: First of all, Syria does not have any hostile intentions against any of the neighboring countries. Absolutely not. And this is not part of the Syrian culture. Nor is it a Syrian policy. Secondly, if Syria had chemical or biological weapons, or any such weapons, it would never use it against anybody anywhere in the world. Neither inside Syria, nor abroad. I said 'if it had' so that my words will not be taken out of context, as has happened in the past. Again, that's because this is not part of the Syrian culture.
Palmer: I think it's pretty clear that you do have chemical and biological weapons. How can you guarantee that they won't fall into the hands of the people you call terrorists?
Zouabi: First of all, as Information Minister, I assure you that Syria does not own banned weapons, and if we just admitted -- hypothetically speaking -- if Syria had all the weapons in the world, it would never use it against anybody, neither inside Syria, nor abroad. The real reason for this, is that we believe that acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as in the case with Israel, is gravely immoral.
Palmer: And how are we to be sure that those weapons that thewon't fall into the hands of the people you call terrorists?
Zouabi: (Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad) Makdissi said, "if we had chemical weapons." His words were taken out of their context.
Palmer: So how do you know they won't fall in the hands of the "terrorists?"
Zouabi: How do you want something that doesn't exist in the hands of anybody? This is a very complex hypothesis!
Palmer: Thank you very much.
Palmer: From downtown Damascus now we can hear the Syrian army shelling targets close to the city. What's going on?
Zouabi: Simply put, there are groups of armed terrorists based in certain areas, specific areas. Such areas are empty of any civilians. When you hear this shelling that you talked about, these are the gunmen's strongholds in areas clear from any civilians. If the terrorists set up base in areas populated by civilians, the approach is then different, one which preserves the life of civilians and residents and safeguards public institutions.
Palmer: We speak to civilians or people who are still in those areas where the shells are falling every day.
Zouabi: To a certain extent, there are military operations. These are mainly directed towards what's known as the "al-Nusra Front" and a number of other extremist groups which adhere to the ideology of al-Qaeda. That's why this is a tough confrontation. When the United States tackled terrorist organizations, it did that over a number of years, and through very tough confrontations as well. Both confrontations are pretty much the same.
Palmer: You have a very powerful army, one of the largest in the Arab world, how did the opposition fighters get within a mile or two from the capital city?
Zouabi: We should talk in all precision and transparency; you are talking about a country that has extended borders with a number of countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Unfortunately, support has been coming from the Erdogan government in Turkey, from where hundreds of gunmen from different countries infiltrate into Syria on a daily basis. There are also political groups in Lebanon which provide support to such groups who infiltrate from Lebanon. And there are also infiltrations from Jordan. Some of those are prevented by the Jordanian authorities, but some make it into Syria, and they get arrested or killed here. No country in the world could control all these borders, regardless of what strong army it has.
Zouabi: I always refer to the American model in combating terror in Afghanistan. Americans in Afghanistan resorted to all possible means to confront that terror, yet there were always infiltrations through the Pakistani borders and via other countries as well. The Americans therefore faced a real dilemma. I think that the American army, with all its technologies and capabilities, is one of the most important armies in the world. It's true that the Syrian army is an experienced and strong army, but this is no easy situation, not just for the Syrian army, but for any army in the world.
Palmer: Does this mean that you're losing the war?
Zouabi: Things are not like that at all. First of all, this is a real war, but it is a war on terror. The war on terror differs from regular wars. It has its own characteristics which are completely different. We are subjected to a large-scale terrorist operation; some are trying to give political, Arab spring, and Islamist labels to this operation, but in actual fact, it is a war on terror. The real problem lies in the fact that the same countries that led the war on terrorism, such as the United States and Europe, are now ignoring what's happening in Syria. This might be because they are not realizing that this too is a war on terror, or for other reasons that we don't know of.
Zouabi: I would like to add that hundreds of kilometers along the Syrian-Turkish border, with a few kilometers inside both Turkey and Syria, in addition to northern Lebanon, Tripoli and other areas, are now turning into what we could call a Middle Eastern Tora Bora, or a Middle Eastern Kandahar. Large numbers of gunmen are now present in these areas. They adhere to a radical Islamist ideology, and therefore, some Turkish areas have become a real threat, not just for the security of Syria or Turkey, but for the security of entire world, especially Europe. Terrorists have now become much closer, by hundreds of kilometers, compared to the time when they were in Afghanistan. They will escape to Europe at a later stage, by land from Turkey, and by sea from northern Africa.
Palmer: But they might come to Damascus first. You've lost a lot of territory since I was last here. Are you losing this fight?
Zouabi: Of course not. For many reasons, we shall not lose this battle. First of all, those groups do not enjoy any real public support. Secondly, the majority of them are not Syrians. They speak Arabic, but they are from other Arab nationalities. There are thousands of Libyans, Tunisians, Kuwaitis, Saudis, Lebanese, from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and many other countries. They send terrorists to Syria. They even have offices for those who wish to volunteer to carry out Jihad in Syria. That's what they believe in -- that they are waging jihad in Syria. But they are fighting on a land that's foreign to them. We fight on a land that we own. That's the main condition for achieving victory. The duration might be shortened, (or) extended, that's a different story. But they will never achieve the kind of victory they aspire to.
Palmer: Can I ask you, let's assume it does end sometime soon. How can this government, and in particular, your president who said he will not leave power, how can this government lead a post-war Syria? How do you re-impose authority or gain respect in areas like that?
Zouabi: I think that your interpretation of the scene is not correct. This is not a struggle between the people and the leadership, or the state, as in the government and government institutions. This is a struggle between the vast majority of Syrians, and between some people who are foreign to Syria, and possibly with some Syrians who got involved in this battle against the regime and against the majority of Syrians for multiple reasons, possibly related to fanaticism, criminal activities or the general conditions of the confrontations. Therefore, if we understood the situation as such, we will know that when this battle is over, there will be a whole new atmosphere.
Palmer: So, just give me an idea of how President Bashar al-Assad would talk to the people of Idlib, who have lost many thousands of their civilians, killed, chased out of the country, or injured. So what does he say to them? I'm sorry?
Zouabi: The situation is not like that. First of all, President Bashar al-Assad enjoys the support of the vast majority of Syrians. He is a civilian president of a country that has a long history, an identity and a civilization. Secondly, if civilians have fallen in any area as a result of the military operations, the responsibility for that does not fall on the Syrian forces and the Syrian army. This is the fault of the armed groups which take refuge in populated areas, and which have carried out an incredible amount of butcheries, bombings, and car bombings. Why does the world insist on looking at what's happening from a single perspective. The political sense in the West, if we may call it as such, is one sided; they look with a single eye, hear with a single ear, they smell with a single nostril. This is the way to work in the political sphere. They have got to look at the entire scene. The scene is as follows; there are radical terrorist groups, supported from outside Syria. The whole world now knows where those terrorists come from, who supports them, who funds them, what are their objectives and targets. Then the West suddenly looks at results and situations on the ground, completely ignoring the reasons and the motivations. It is not possible to look at the scene in that way. We must understand the reasons and the motivations and simultaneously look at what's happening. If we do so, we will simply deduct that Syria is not perpetrating crimes against its own people, that it's not killing or transgressing against its people.
Zouabi: When Americans were killed in the 9/11 attacks, can we possibly say that the American administration was behind their killing? Can we say that it was the cause that led to the attack on the Twin Towers, and that it was American policies that led to that? Can we say that Americans killed other fellow Americans? Or do we say that the United States was struck by terror? Why has the United States invaded Afghanistan? Why has it attacked Iraq? Why has it attacked many countries? If we admitted that it did all that to combat terror, so why are we not accepting that the Syrian army is now fighting terrorism? I believe there are unjustifiable double standards applied in looking at what's happening here.
Palmer: Just to be clear, over the last 20 months, we've seen large crowds of people all over the country saying they want to see the end of Bashar al-Assad. Are you telling me they are all foreigners?
Zouabi: Certainly no. I'm not saying that there is no Syrian opposition involved. There's maybe a few thousand opposition activists, and I'm not sure they have heard or seen the other millions who support Bashar al-Assad. According to my knowledge, a million is a greater number than a thousand. In all cases, President Bashar al-Assad has called for two things; he called for a national political dialogue with the opposition and he called for going to the polls.
Palmer: It's pretty hard to run an election campaign in conditions like this, a fair one that is.
Zouabi: I think there are many local, regional and international experts that we could turn to to hold any elections in the future. What's important is the political dialogue. What's important is to halt the violence, lay down the arms, come under the rule of the law, and establish a democratic political dialogue. The real problem is that the opposition outside Syria, and in particular those who recently gathered in Doha, and were earlier in Istanbul, they rejected the dialogue. They called for toppling the regime through weapons and violence. Therefore, the problem is not with the regime. The regime is prepared to start a dialogue and a political process. They are not. The regime unveiled its intentions, and they did too. The international community must look into the intentions and the initiatives. It should turn to those who rejected the dialogue (and said) yes to weapons and yes to violence, and tell them: "how can that be a response to a call for dialogue? How can a political process stem from all of this?"
Zouabi: The Syrian regime is willing to accept the outcome of any elections and any democratic process. The question should be addressed to the others; would they accept the outcome of free and transparent elections?
Palmer: That brings me to my last question. Do you know Mr.? Is he a person you think you could sit down and work with?
Zouabi: Actually, I don't know him personally, and I never heard of him before. But in all cases, the matter now is not about individuals, it's more about political forces, parties, political entities. National dialogue does not take place between individuals, rather between political entities. I believe that all this comes down to an acceptance of the principle of dialogue. Those who reject dialogue, call for violence and killings, could not be at the same time democratic people ready to establish dialogue with the others. I think that the opposition abroad committed serious political mistakes when it presented itself through its call for violence, for taking up arms, etcetera. It did not present itself as a democratic model, yet the West has adopted this undemocratic, violent model. That's why we now find a series of contradictions which first need to be untangled. There should first be an opposition that accepts dialogue, democracy and ballot boxes. That's what political entities need to succeed. Individuals are not that important for the time being in Syria.
Zouabi: We are subjected to a major terror campaign. The worst thing in it is that the armed gangs have been using civilians as human shields. That's why everything takes such a long time because Syrian forces always attempt to carry out operations with the highest level of professionalism in a way that tries to avoid the loss of civilians. Anyhow, I think the main problem here lies in the support provided by this opposition base abroad to those armed groups. They cooperate with (Turkish President) Erdogan, with the emir of Qatar and his foreign minister, and with French President (Francois) Hollande, in providing financial, military and logistical support to the gunmen. The international community, and especially the United States, must reconsider some of their stances. They should ask themselves: "can individuals or governments be with terrorism and against it at the same time?"
Palmer: Mr. Minister, thank you very much.