WSJ: You have a reasonably stable situation as ever gets in the Middle East, your economic program is moving, so there is then a sort of political reform and human rights issues will come to the fore soon?
President Assad: Of course, we are moving, we did it, but I am talking about the priorities; it does not mean subsequently, I am talking in parallel but which one faster and which one you focus on more. For example, local administration reform is very important before the law. We put it as priority number one because this is where people can elect; now they can elect their municipalities, but we wanted to reform this law to be more democratic, more efficient because people in every place they first deal with their municipalities. So, this is number one. Actually, we postponed it because of the conflict. We took the decision in 2005 in one of the conferences of our party. At that time the conflict started by France, Britain, the United States and others trying to destabilize Syria. We said: okay, let us forget about it; we have something new. Now, we are very serious in finishing this. The second one is about civil society; we need to improve the civil society. Now, we are finalizing the law of the civil society. We have been discussing this law now for two years, why? Because we went to every place from the west till the east to see what is the best model we can use, and actually after we finalized it, many people in the civil society gave their comments and said we have to change it. Now, we are changing it.
WSJ: These are the two things you would likely to see this year?
President Assad: Not this year. I do not know if we can make it for the local administration this year because for example we took five years to change the labor law because we have strong unions in Syria. They opposed and businessmen opposed and we took five years to finalize it last year. It was not easy; it went to parliament and there were a lot of debates about it. I expect for the local administration law to happen at the end of this year. The one for the civil society was supposed to be finished last year but because we wanted to make more deliberations with different parties, we said Okay let us postpone it till next year.
WSJ: And basically it allows NGOs and other organizations a greater role?
President Assad: We have less than 2000 NGOs in Syria, but we want to make it more efficient law to have more NGOs, less bureaucracy and things like this.
WSJ: You postponed it till next year, did you mean from 2010 till 2011?
President Assad: Actually, it is supposed to be in December. So, when we talk about next year it is one month or two.
WSJ: It is alright. So, the year to do it is this year now?
President Assad: Actually, it was supposed to be last year, now may be we finish next month. Now, we are at the beginning of February. Sometimes, it is not about the time because many people want to participate and this is good, and sometimes we say let us postpone it because when you have many people participating in this, they will support it. If you do it with less participation, they will attack it. So, it is better to have consensus; this is very important for stability. This is one of the very important principles; the more consensus you have about everything, the more stable and smooth you can move forward and this means that you will be heavier and thus slower but more stable. That is how we see it.
WSJ: Is there any change on the media side? I know you talked about that.
President Assad: We are talking now about a new look for the media and of course we removed some of the punishments because sometimes we do major things and sometimes we do patching as a temporal thing till we get the new look. So, we do not want to stop; we are very dynamic in Syria. We do small things, but when you have a clear vision we do something big, major law to change everything. Sometimes we do not have this vision regarding an issue – the difference between the media and a website or new sites. That is why I postponed it – the publishing law. It is not yet clear to us what is the difference4 between publishing, e.trade, etc.
WSJ: And you 5 year plan is quite ambitious. Do you think you can achieve those economic growth figures with sanctions and everything? 6-7% a year?
President Assad: It is 5%. But it is not about the numbers anyway, because we tried the numbers, we always have better numbers in very different circumstances especially regarding Syria, it is about how to make it inclusive; it is not inclusive because it doesn't have good administration. We improve the administration, but it is not as good as it should be to make this number inclusive.
WSJ: Which means jobs basically?
President Assad: Yes, exactly, because now at the very beginning we have few people getting these numbers, and this is normal at the beginning. we talk about millions and millions, we have few hundred who get the benefit more than others, in the past it used to be less, much less. Now how we make it inclusive that is the challenge, and you cannot make it inclusive if you do not develop the administration . but we have to take into consideration that sixty percent of our society is peasantry, so almost sixty percent of our economy will depend on water. So, when you have less water you will have less growth. You know I was a doctor before, and I remember in 1992, one of my friends who graduated from the medicine schools and went to an agricultural area where he lived, he came to visit me, I asked him "how is your work", he said "not good because there is no rain", I said "how come?, you are a doctor.." he said "because there is no rain so many people postponed even their operations for next year. So you can imagine how much water can influence every aspect of our economy. So four years of drought have influenced our economy dramatically. That is why it is difficult to say that I am having clear plan in everything. As you see there are many complicated factors which influence you.
WSJ: And you would say your greatest economic partner right now is Turkey. I mean it seems that Turkey is a model of investment.
President Assad: It is the model because we have the same society and similar traditions. It is a model, at the end you do not have full model to take as a whole, only some aspects, because at the end the West used to support Turkey, now the West is against Turkey they have more technology, we do not have technology, we do not talk about the reform you talk about technology also. There is no reform without high qualifications. Our universities were under embargo, so how can I have the best human resources? They have better human resources. At the end you have to see the whole course of events, the whole context. We cannot take it as today; today Turkey and today Syria, it is not today.
WSJ: Is that the worst part of the sanctions for the U.S.; is it the technology?
President Assad: No not technology actually, worse, I have one of my friends who worked in the U.S. for 12 years, he has a medical lab, and he cannot import the basic material for the lab. That influences the life of the people if you don't have the right calibrator for lab analysis, for example. This means that you are giving wrong results to people. You diagnose somebody with cancer while he doesn't have cancer. What did the people do to the United States to deserve this? And regarding the airplanes, what is the relation between politics and people dying because of airplane accidents .But from the other side, we are the fastest growing internet user in the Middle East. And this is because of the nature of the Syrians; they are very open generally at society, they want to learn, and they are successful, we have expatriates all over the world, we have been in contact with the rest of the world for a hundred and fifty years at least, more than any other country in the Middle East, we have expatriates more than any other one. The Palestinian refugees are five millions; while the Syrian expatriates, the minimum that we know about, is 10 million which is double the number, and some people say that we have 18 millions expatriates. So you can understand that we have that diversity of culture inside our society and we have this contact with the rest of the world. So we cannot say that this embargo has been killing Syria. No, it affects certain sectors in humanitarian aspects. I mean at the end you can get these materials from black market, he used to buy the materials from the US, this year he bought his instruments from France, for instance, he didn't buy from the United States. Recently we bought two airplanes, not big ones, with propellers at the end from France; we didn't buy from the United States. So, people are shifting more towards Europe, now you can buy from China, you can buy from India, now we moved in that direction, we moved East, we used to look West, now we are moving East. this is important, not only us, even countries that have good relations with the United States, even their allies are not sure that the United States can help them some day, they wanted to diverse their resources, their relations, their interest, and everything. They want to have good relations especially with China and India.
WSJ: Mr. President, Thank you so much.