The President’s News Conference With President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria in Damascus

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William J. Clinton

President Asad. President Clinton, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to welcome President Clinton in Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, in the heart of a region which witnessed the dawn of human civilizations and the cradle of divine religions. This region, whose peoples have long suffered, especially throughout this century, from the horrors of wars, the bitterness of conflict and bloodshed, hopes at last to enjoy peace and stability.

The visit of President Clinton at the head of the high-level American delegation to our country and the positive and fruitful talks we had today constitute an important step towards the realization of this noble objective to which the people of the region and the world at large aspire.

Our talks today have focused on the different aspects of the peace process and its developments. In this regard, I would like to express my deep satisfaction with the fact that our views were identical regarding the importance of achieving a comprehensive peace on the basis of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace and that the solution we seek has to be just in order to be stable and lasting.

I have reaffirmed to President Clinton the continued commitment of Syria to the peace process and her serious pursuit of a comprehensive and just peace as a strategic choice that secures Arab rights, ends the Israeli occupation of the Arab land in conformity of the Security Council Resolutions 242, 338, and 425, and enables all peoples of the region to live in peace, security, and dignity.

I also stressed to President Clinton—emanating from the principle, full withdrawal for full peace, I stressed to President Clinton the readiness of Syria to commit itself to the objective requirements of peace through the establishment of peaceful, normal relations with Israel in return for Israel’s full withdrawal from the Golan to the line of June 4, 1967, and from the south of Lebanon.

In this context, the statement of President Clinton on the eve of his trip to the region asserting that no comprehensive peace can be achieved in the region without Syria is a realistic expression that reflects an international consensus regarding this fact. Our nation has sacrificed hundreds of thousands of martyrs, not out of love for war or fighting but in defense of its rights, dignity, and land. That’s why we aspire today to transform the region from a state of war to a state of peace: a peace that renders to each party its rights, ends occupation, saves the blood of the innocent, and preserves man’s dignity; a peace that prevails throughout the region and enables its peoples, both Arabs and Israelis, to live in security, stability, and prosperity.

Finally, I would like to convey greetings to the American people through President Clinton and to thank President Clinton for his personal efforts and the efforts of his aides. I would like to express my readiness to work with him for achieving a real, comprehensive, and just peace in the region.

Thank you.

President Clinton. I am glad to have had the opportunity to stop in Syria to meet with President Asad. After yesterday’s signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, I came to Damascus today to continue working for our common goal of peace in the Middle East.

During our meeting this morning, President Asad and I affirmed our common commitment to that goal and want to accelerate progress toward our objective. Yesterday’s signing represents an important step forward. But our job will not be done and we will not rest until peace agreements between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon are achieved.

A Syrian-Israeli agreement is key to achieving a comprehensive peace. Given Syria’s important regional role, it will inevitably broaden the circle of Arab States willing to embrace peace. And it will build confidence throughout the area that peace will endure.

My talks here with President Asad are a sign of our mutual determination to achieve a peace of the brave as quickly as possible. The United States will do everything possible to help make that a reality.

For peace to endure, it must also be just. Peace between Israel and Syria must be based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace. Peace must also be real, more than mere words on paper, more than just the absence of war. Nations must establish normal, peaceful relations.

Peace must also be secure for both sides. Security for one side should not come at the expense of the other’s security. Peace must guarantee security against surprise attack by any side. And peace must enable the parties to invest in economic development, rather than military might.

All sides must enjoy stability and tranquillity. Violence must cease. Borders must no longer be subject to aggression, terrorist infiltration, violent acts, or bombardment. The murderous acts of terror that we have witnessed over the past weeks have two targets: first, innocent people who have been killed and wounded; and second, the very peace that President Asad supports. All who work for peace must condemn these terrorist acts. President Asad and I agree that the peace process allows no place for the killing of innocent civilians.

I also told President Asad of my desire to see the relations between our two nations improve. In an era of peace, improved relations would benefit both countries and improve regional stability and security.

Finally, I want to tell the Syrian people how very glad I am to have the opportunity to visit your country, if only briefly. Like your neighbors in Israel, you have waited too long and have suffered too much to be further denied the hope for a new and better future.

On behalf of the American people, I pledge that I will work with President Asad to do everything possible to make real this new and peaceful future.

Thank you.

Middle East Peace Process

Q. President Asad, you do seem to hold, in the minds of many, the key to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and you have now expressed the bottom line of what will be true peace in the Middle East. How do you intend to go about getting it? And how soon will it occur?

And President Clinton, do you agree that there should be a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights to Lebanon and Syrian troops from Lebanon to make a real peace in the Middle East?

President Clinton. I think I answered the question in my statement. We believe that the peace between Israel and Syria must be based upon the United Nations Security Council resolutions. And we made some progress today in our own talks, the details of which, as you would expect, I am not free to discuss. But we are moving forward today, consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and we will continue to do it until we have a peace that is based on those resolutions.

President Asad. For a long time we’ve been moving according to a mechanism that pushes us to achieve the peace process. We are relying in this, as President Clinton said, on Security Council resolutions and on different activities undertaken by all the parties, particularly the United States of America. We achieved a few things, and we didn’t achieve other things. We are going to continue our pursuit in order to reach there, in this way or in any other more effective way, in order to achieve peace sooner.

[At this point, a question was asked in Arabic, but a translation was not provided.]

President Clinton. I didn’t get the translation. Am I on the wrong channel?

Q. [Inaudible]—security and stability of the region?

President Clinton. Well, first, as I said, I think the role of Syria in the security and stability of the region is absolutely critical. I don’t think we can finish a comprehensive peace or maintain peace in the region unless there is peace between Syria and Israel. And I think the benefits that would come to the people of both countries over the next several years are enormous if such a peace can be achieved.

My view of President Asad, based on our two meetings and our many conversations over the telephone and his constant willingness to receive the Secretary of State and other representatives of the United States, is that he is committed to achieving a peace. He is clearly a very effective and determined advocate for the interests of his country and its people. But I believe he wants peace, and I believe we will achieve it.

Q. President Asad, the majority of the Israeli public, according to the polls, does not believe it is physically safe to give up the Golan Heights. This mistrust has been added by the fact that you haven’t visited Israel; you haven’t met with Mr. Rabin; there’s no direct talks; you haven’t spelled out the exact terms of peace; your support for 10 rejectionist groups in Damascus and Hezbollah. All this taken together, sir, I want to know what assurance can you give the Israeli public—now that you are able to address them through this press conference, they could hear you—what assurance can you give them that withdrawal will indeed lead to true peace and not to the next war? Thank you very much.

President Asad. The concern of any country in the world about its security does not justify for that particular country to preserve the lands of other states, of other countries. And countries which fought throughout history did not put conditions for achieving peace that one party should visit the other or should not visit the other.

The issue is not concerning rhetorical or formal issues, not with a visit. There are people who visited Israel before, but he himself complained—when he was in office, he complained and went on for a long time before being able to reach a peace agreement with Israel.

The important point is that the assumptions or the attempts to confine the peace process to small things, to formal things concerning the visit of one party to the other, or that one of us is concerned about security and that he should arrive there or we should take them there—to be secure and not to have any concern from anything—this was never there in reality or in books.

There’s nothing we have that proves our desire for peace except our saying that we want peace. And anyone who does not believe what we are saying, he would have no other way for peace. It would be him who doesn’t want peace.

What also makes us believe that they want peace? We have many proofs which we have against them that they do not want peace and not us who don’t want peace. Such matters to a certain extent were the subject of discussion and contemplation between me and President Clinton, and we are both convinced, as I believe, we are convinced that the United States is serious in pushing the peace process forward.

And as I’ve heard from President Clinton, he has proved that we are serious. Why the others are not convinced that we are serious— although I heard statements from Israeli officials which say that Syria is serious in the peace process—and probably what I remember is that Rabin was in the front, he was in the front of those people who said a short while ago that Syria is serious in wanting peace. And I hope I remember quite well, I hope my memory is accurate in this. I heard him saying and asserting that Syria is serious in the peace process. So of whom is he afraid?

Q. Mr. President, in your speech today you emphasized the significance of security for both sides, i.e., Syria and Israel. On numerous occasions, Israeli leaders have sought preferential and rather advantageous security arrangements as a precondition for any peace pact with Syria. It’s common knowledge that Israel possesses a huge arsenal of both conventional and mass destruction weapons, refuses to sign the nuclear arms nonproliferation treaty. How do you explain your endorsement of any future package of security arrangements in view of Israel’s illogical and unacceptable precondition?

President Clinton. Well, first of all, I don’t have to explain it because there won’t be a peace agreement until both sides agree on security measures. And these are measures that to some extent are objective and to some extent are based on intuition, the feeling about what the possible future threats to Syria and to Israel are. But the United States has absolutely no hesitation in facilitating an open and straightforward exchange on those issues. Both sides will have to be satisfied that their security needs are met. And it’s been my experience that countries, and particularly their leaders, are the best judge of what those security requirements are.

I don’t believe for a moment that President Asad or Prime Minister Rabin would agree to a peace that would undermine the security of either nation. I think both of them will feel that they’re more safe after the agreement rather than less safe. And that, to me, is the ultimate answer to this question.

Q. Mr. President, Secretary Christopher said that leaders, Presidents like yourself, are capable of bold moves that negotiators and diplomats aren’t able to make. Can you tell us, were there any bold moves made today that you can report in terms of agreements on the Golan Heights or peace or terms of security?

President Clinton. Well, let me restate what I said earlier. First of all, I respect and I welcome the statement that President Asad has made here today, which goes beyond, in my judgment, the public diplomacy initiatives which have been made in the past. And I think that that statement should be reassuring to the people of Israel and should encourage more dialog and a greater willingness to pursue the peace process.

Secondly, in our private discussions there was some progress made, the details of which I will not and I should not discuss at this time. But we are moving forward. I will obviously see Prime Minister Rabin. We will have a frank and open discussion, as we always do, and we’ll do what we can to keep moving forward.

Q. Mr. President Clinton, I have a question for you please. On numerous occasions the United States has stressed commitment to Israel’s security and has provided Israel with all forms of financial and military support. How would you, Mr. President, reconcile your role as an honest intermediary in the peace process and your different way of dealing with Syria, which since the outset of the peace process has confirmed her seriousness and positive attitude to make the process successful?

President Clinton. The commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is something that goes back a long way, is of long standing, and is a given as a part of our foreign policy. I think that, notwithstanding that commitment, President Asad and all others in the Middle East who have dealt with us in this peace process would say that we have done our best, not just me but especially the Secretary of State, Mr. Ross, and others, to be an honest intermediary, to carry the legitimate concerns of the various parties, to try to help them make peace.

I would say to you, if I might, what I said in the previous answer: This peace agreement will never occur unless Israel and Syria sign with the absolute conviction that they will be more secure for signing it, not less secure. So whatever the details of the ultimate security arrangement are in this peace treaty, if it is signed by the leaders of both countries it will only be because they are both convinced that they will be safer after they sign than they are before. And we will support that in any reasonable way that we can.

Q. President Asad, President Clinton referred to terrorism earlier. As you are aware, the United States keeps Syria on its lists of countries that sponsor terrorism. Did you in this discussion promise not to sponsor terrorism anymore? Did you acknowledge that you, in fact, do? And can you tell us what the Syrian view is of terrorist activities?

President Asad. We did not discuss terrorism as a separate title. And the context of our discussions mentioned some of the examples of the discussions which took place between me and some of the senior American officials, these discussions which are related to accusing Syria of supporting terrorism. I said in these discussions to the American senior official, whom I asked then to mention for me one incident in which Syria has committed a terrorist action, and he was helpless. He was not able to mention one single incident in which Syria supported terrorism.

Terrorism—but as it is known, the problem of terrorism is an accusation, allegation because of the conflict between us and Syria. This is a fact. None of you, in my opinion, neither an Arab nor an American, who doesn’t know that the reason for accusing Syria of terrorism— it’s not because that Syrians and those who are in Syria are practicing terrorism but for reasons which are related to our stand regarding Israel. That’s why this accusation went on for a very long time. And regardless of the desire of many people, both in Syria and the United States, at different times to solve this problem, we did not reach until now such a solution.

But at any rate, this was not one of the topics on the agenda in my discussion with President Clinton, and we are discussing what is more important. And our concern and focus was on the peace process.

If the time allows, I would have asked all of you, does any one of you have anything that proves that Syria has done a single terrorist act. But I don’t want this to be a question to you because time does not allow such a question.

President Clinton. I’ll make two points. First of all, in our meeting I said, and I believe President Asad agrees, that if we are going to have peace in the region and a peace agreement is made, then supporting those who try to undermine a peace that is made is inconsistent with that, particularly if they try to undermine it with terrorist tactics.

Secondly, we do not, we cannot, and we will not support the killing of innocent civilians. And President Asad has said repeatedly and said to me in our meeting today that he thought that was wrong as well, wherever it occurred, whether in the bus incident or in Hebron. So we did discuss it in that context.

I am here because I believe strongly that the best way to bring an end to terrorism in this part of the world is to achieve a comprehensive peace. And I believe we should keep working at it until we get the job done.

Q. President Clinton, you said many times that achieving a progress on the Syrian track is the basis for achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the region. And incidents have shown that the stalemate in this track now is caused by the rejection of Israel to fully withdraw from the Golan and from the south of Lebanon. Do you believe, Mr. President, that it is possible to overcome this obstacle during this visit of yours to Syria? Thank you.

President Clinton. No, I don’t believe we’ll announce a peace treaty on this visit. I don’t believe we will finish the job on this visit. I do know we have made some progress here, and I expect to make some progress in Israel.

I believe, and I have told all the parties in the Middle East this, that we should build on what has happened and try to accelerate this peace process, not slow it down.

The people of Israel have been shaken by the incidents in the last couple of weeks. But I also think they must have been lifted up by the signing yesterday with Jordan. And they also should have been encouraged by President Asad’s speech to the Parliament, by Foreign Minister Shara’s interview on Israeli television, by the statement President Asad made here today.

So no, I wish we were signing a peace treaty on this trip. We won’t do it, but we are making progress.

Thank you.