Dr Shaaban says UN Report claiming to uncover torture and murder by the Syrian government has no more credibility than the 'weapons of mass destruction' that the US used as an excuse to invade Iraq and which were later shown not to exist. "Everybody who is carrying arms against civilian and against the Government is a terrorist. The Russians are here according in response to the requests of the Syrian Government. The Russians are coordinating with us every single step and they are only fighting terrorists"; "The Security Council Resolution 2254 asked for one broad delegation from the opposition to represent the opposition in Geneva. Let us wait to see when that delegation is going to be made. The reality, Tony, again, is that these oppositions are paid by Turkey, by Saudi Arabia, by Qatar. [They] represent the countries who are paying them, but they do not represent the Syrian people. However, we are ready to sit with them whenever they are ready for a dialogue as Security Council resolution say"; "President Assad has been elected by the Syrian people and it is the Syrian people who decide [whether he will go"; Transcript and link to videoed interview inside article.
Transcript of Interview
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: It's almost impossible to imagine what life is like for ordinary Syrians caught up in the multi-sided conflict where the rules of war are routinely ignored. This week the world got a rare glimpse into what conditions are like for those detained in Syria's official prisons and makeshift detention centres. UN investigators accused the Syrian Government of murdering and torturing prisoners on a scale so grand it amounts to extermination. Government soldiers have even filmed the abuses they're accused of.
The UN report also accused Islamic State extremists and other rebel groups of torturing and executing their detainees. It's estimated thousands have been killed over the past five years.
PAULO PINHEIRO, IND. COMMISSION OF INQUIRY ON SYRIA: Prisoners are routinely tortured and beaten, forced to live in unsanitary and overcrowded cells with little food and no medical care. Many perish in detention.
TONY JONES: Meanwhile, Russian air strikes continue to pound rebel positions. This amateur video shows just how devastating the conflict in Syria has become with civilians increasingly in the firing line. The video shows what's said to be a series of Russian attacks on Aleppo, the city where 50,000 people have been displaced.
Well as the war on the ground continues to escalate, there's a second track: a hard road towards peace through United Nations-mediated talks in Geneva which have stalled several times. Delegates from the Syrian Government and the opposition arrived in Geneva last week for the peace talks which will take place in two weeks' time at the end of February. Each side blamed the other for the collapse of the talks.
Well let's go live to Damascus now. Dr Bouthaina Shaaban is the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's top advisor and she joins us now.
Thanks for being there.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN, ADVISOR TO SYRIAN PRESIDENT: Hello.
TONY JONES: Is your government prepared to return to the UN Syrian peace talks in Geneva on February 25th?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Well, if you allow me first just to say that unfortunately what the UN report has mentioned at the beginning of this program is totally unfounded. They have never been to Syria, they haven't been talking to Syrian people, they have been making such a statement as means of targeting the Syrian people and Syria, part of this war on Syria, I consider that report. However, to answer your question, Tony, the Syrian Government has been prepared right from the beginning of this war to respond to every single effort that was made by Kofi Annan, by General Moon, by Lakhdar Brahimi, by General Dhabi and now by - by de Mistura. The problem is not with the Syrian Government; the problem is with the agents who had been created by other parties, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, claiming that those people represent the Syrian people. And I will put this question with your viewers, Tony: do Western people believe that Saudi Arabia is an example to bring an opposition that would make democracy and the freedom and the human rights? Is Saudi Arabia the example that the West looks up to?
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban, I'm just going to interrupt the flow here to go back to what you said at the beginning because you took umbrage with the UN Human Rights Commission report into the deaths in detention.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Yes. Yes. Yes.
TONY JONES: Now the reports includes accounts from more than 500 survivors of the Government's detention centres. It of course goes on to talk about other deaths in militia-controlled detention centres. But you are the Government, so it says that some of the worst of the detention centres were controlled by the Syrian intelligence agencies. Almost all of the people, these 500, describe being the victims of or witnesses to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Are you saying that they're all liars?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I will answer you in two points, Tony. The first point is that this report, first Paulo Pinheiro was not allowed to come to Syria because we know how biased he is, but I will tell you that this report is as reliable as the claim that there was nuclear and mass destruction open in Iraq before occupying Iraq. And it is as - targeting Syria as a claim on Iraq was and we can see after 13 years of targeting Iraq what happened to Iraq and what happened to the Iraqi people because of all these unfounded claims that were targeting on Iraq. This is the first point. The second point: I will ask the UN, did they mention that millions of children that are being killed in front of our eyes in Yemen and Yemen did not do anything - isn't the obligation of the UN to question Saudi Arabia about this aggression, this horrible war on Yemeni people? What I'm saying is that ...
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban, I'm going to - I'm sorry to ...
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: ... the UN report has no - has no credibility. One word, one word: the UN report has no credibility. It has not been done in Syria.
TONY JONES: The UN report, if I may say so ...
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: It has not been - yes. No credibility.
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban, if I may say so, the UN report, as I say, sets out 500 witnesses who say they've all been in detention and they've witnessed horrors in detention in Syrian detention centres. More than 200 of those survivors say they witness one or more deaths in custody.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Those people ...
TONY JONES: They describe - if I can just finish. They describe their cell mates being beaten to death during interrogation or dying in their cells after being tortured. Have you taken the time to read the accounts of these individuals?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I did. I definitely did. And I will remind you of the first Geneva when we went to Montreal and there were pictures published in London claiming to be pictures of people who are dying of hunger in Syrian prison and later the whole world discovered that these pictures were made up by a cuttery - a company to be broadcast. I tell you, these people interviewed, if they were people who are interviewed, they are - they haven't been in Syrian prisons, they were not in Syria. This report was made in the Turkish and Jordanian camps of the supporters of the terrorists who had been targeting Syria for the last five years. It is another way of targeting the Syrian people and Syria,
TONY JONES: Well I'll just bring one particular case to your attention because there's so much detail around it. In 2014 a man held in the centre under the control of the Fourth Division of the Syrian Army had his genitals mutilated. There are case after case of torture and murder in this report and whether you believe the witnesses or not, can I ask you, how are you going to respond to it?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I - I would have believed a report that would be balanced and that would speak about ISIL crimes, about the moving of Syrian people from anywhere that terrorists occupy to God and the Syrian Government. If the Syrian Government is as this report describes, could you - could you tell me or could the UN tell me why 85 per cent of the Syrian population are in the areas controlled by the Government? Why wherever there is a terrorist organisation in any part of Syria, the whole Syrian people move to the areas where the Syrian Government is in full control? You know, I answered you, Tony ...
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban - Dr Shaaban, can I just make the point that's not entirely true as we see hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the country and going to places like Turkey and making their way to Europe. Now this report calls for your government to take urgent action, to make direct orders to the military and the intelligence personnel associated with these prison camps, to order them to cease the arbitrary killing of prisoners. Will you do that?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: My government is not working for the UN to tell our government its duties. We are a responsible government, our people are extremely important to us, and as I said - I repeat again: such a report, plus the sanctions, plus all the measures that had been taken against the Syrian people to present food and medicine to arrive to the Syrian people, plus the terrorists - all these are different ways of targeting our country and our people.
TONY JONES: Alright.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: And this is why we have been suffering for five years from this war. It's about time that the world looks for the truth rather than for falsified accusations that are totally unfounded. It's about time. It's about time.
TONY JONES: OK. Bouthaina Shaaban, let's go back to these peace talks in Geneva which you say you are prepared to return to. The key condition for the peace talks to actually succeed is for there to be a ceasefire. Do you agree to that?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Well, the least thing that the world and the UN could have said is that the Syrian delegation arrived as scheduled by the - by the - by the Vienna group. The Syrian delegation was there ready with no pre-condition. The Syrian Government was - was - the Syrian delegation was positive and forthcoming. While the other side were fighting with each other and they were so irresponsible and they are the ones actually who brought the talks into an end. So, as I said, it is ...
TONY JONES: Yes, no, that is true. Dr Shaaban, I'm sorry to interrupt you. Dr Shaaban, that is true, they were squabbling amongst each other. But I'm actually asking if when you go back to the talks, you're prepared without conditions to offer up a ceasefire?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: You know, there is no - no such thing as this question. We are prepared to go back with no pre-condition and the other side should go back with no pre-condition. But then what the subject or the timetable of the talks is left up to the Syrian. This is what Security Council Resolution 2254 says. It says it is the Syrian people who decide what is the agenda, it is the Syrian people who discuss the agenda and it is the Syrian people who agree on the agenda.
TONY JONES: Yes.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: No-one should impose any agenda on the Syrian people.
TONY JONES: That is true, but there is also a plan to end the conflict which has been endorsed by Russia, by Iran, by the United States and many others. It's that the peace talks would establish a transitional government in Syria which would rule the country for 18 months, after which ...
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: You know ...
TONY JONES: I'll just finish the point. After which point there would be elections. In 18 months there would be elections. Do you agree to that plan?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Tony. Tony, Tony, I am here to be informative to your viewers and I respect your viewers. I'm speaking from thousands of miles away. The only way and the best way to end this war on Syria is to have Western countries truly wanting to fight terrorism, to join the Syrian Army and the Russians in fighting terrorism. You know at Ramadi in Iraq, they said that the American coalition liberated Ramadi. 90 per cent of Ramadi is destroyed. Our ecology is destroyed, our factories are destroyed, our country is destroyed, our agriculture is destroyed and yet Western countries say (inaudible) ... how to stop the conflict. It's very simple. Join us in fighting terrorism. That's how we stop the war on Syria. But not to speak about ceasefire and the human, etc. with the - with terrorism speeding in our country and with the Army financing and facilitating terrorism from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the full support of the US and the West. This is the reality of the situation, believe me.
TONY JONES: Well, I mean - well, one other - one other harsh reality is that the Russian air strikes that you're talking about, it said 90 per cent of them are not hitting ISIS terrorists, but they're hitting the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups backed by the United States. This is a huge problem, isn't it? I mean, if you're fighting terrorists rather than opposition groups, why are you bombing so many of the opposition groups?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: (Laughs) This is one problem with the language that the West is using. What is the difference between someone who kills in Nubl and Zahraa and someone who kills in Hama? Everybody who is carrying arms against civilian and against the Government is a terrorist. The Russians are here according in response to the requests of the Syrian Government. The Russians are coordinating with us every single step and they are only fighting terrorists, and Tony, allow me to give you one example. When 60,000 people in Nubl and Zahraa were liberated by the Syrian Army supported by Russian aircraft, the Turkish and the Western media said that all the roads to support the opposition had been cut. They did not speak about 60,000 people who were liberated. They were speaking about the ability of the Syrian Army to stop the financing and the arming of the terrorists. This is the truth, Tony, honestly.
TONY JONES: Do I take it ...
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I am Syrian. I have been here throughout.
TONY JONES: Can I interrupt you for another question?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Please.
TONY JONES: Can I take it from what you're saying that a ceasefire is not even close, that there's no chance of a ceasefire while any opposition group is still fighting against your government? Is that what you're saying?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: No, no, that's not what I'm saying. Please don't let me say what I don't want to say. No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying the agenda of the talks would be put by the Syrian people with no pre-condition. But I'm saying the Western interpretation of what is going on on the ground does not at all correspond with reality.
TONY JONES: Alright. OK.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: We are fighting terrorists.
TONY JONES: OK.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: We are trying to liberate Aleppo.
TONY JONES: Yes,
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: We are trying to liberate Aleppo. Why the West doesn't want Aleppo to be liberated from terrorists? Why? This is the question. Why don't they want our city to be liberated?
TONY JONES: Can I ask you this - Can I ask you this then because it is a fundamental question strategically?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Please, please, please. Please, please.
TONY JONES: Taking Aleppo back for the Government would be a huge win for the Government.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Ya.
TONY JONES: This could take a very long time and it does seem to me that you're saying the fighting will continue backed by the Russians at least until that happens.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Liberating the people of Aleppo is the most important thing. It is not taking Aleppo to Government. The Government is the Government of the entire Syria. There are two million people in Aleppo who have been without electricity, without water and missiles are falling on them, killing children, civilians. The historic city of Aleppo has been destroyed by these terrorists and yet there is someone in the West who would say why should Aleppo be liberated of terrorism? Is this something good to say?
TONY JONES: Well, I mean, once again I'll just make the point that the images that we just saw a moment ago were from Russian air strikes on Aleppo which were hitting civilians.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: That's not true. That's not true. Russian air strikes, they are only striking to help the Syrian Army to strike terrorists and the Russians do not do a single thing without co-operating with the Syrian Army. The so-called American coalition is not coordinating with Syria. They did not even strike one oil truck three years they were here before the Russians. Why did the Russians were able to discover that ISIL is the one who is selling the oil to Turkey and to Europe through Turkey. Why the Americans did not discover that before the Russians came?
TONY JONES: I'm sorry to interrupt you again, but there is one fundamental question that I need to ask you ...
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Please. Yep, please.
TONY JONES: ... and that is that the pre-condition of the opposition groups and of the United States and other countries for any transitional process is that President Assad steps out of it, steps aside and removes himself from the process. Will that ever happen?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Well, you know, this - what you call opposition group, the Security Council Resolution 2254 asked for one broad delegation from the opposition to represent the opposition in Geneva. Let us wait to see when that delegation is going to be made. The reality, Tony, again, is that these oppositions are paid by Turkey, by Saudi Arabia, by Qatar. They are not nationalists who grew up in the country, who have political parties, they are not like Australian opposition.
TONY JONES: OK.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I came to Australia and I visited the Opposition.
TONY JONES: Alright.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: There is a political party, there is government, there are representatives of people. Those represent the countries who are paying them, but they do not represent the Syrian people. However, we are ready to sit with them whenever they are ready for a dialogue as Security Council resolution say.
TONY JONES: And we're nearly out of time, but I've got to get you to answer this critical question: will President Assad agree to stand aside or will he put his own power ahead of the interests of his people?
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: I'm - President Assad has been elected by the Syrian people and it is the Syrian people who decide.
TONY JONES: Dr Shaaban, thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us again.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Thank you.