BEIRUT – Syria's president, who has resisted calls for political freedoms and jailed critics of his regime, said in an interview published Monday that his nation is immune from the kind of unrest roiling Tunisia and Egypt.
In a rare interview, Bashar Assad was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as acknowledging that the toppling of Tunisia's longtime ruler and the protesters that have left Hosni Mubarak's government teetering in Egypt signaled a "new era" in the Middle East.
But he said Syria, which has gradually shed its socialist past in favor of the free market in recent years, was insulated from the upheaval because he understood his people's needs and has united them in common cause against Israel.
He also blamed the trouble on the West — primarily the United States — for failing to push through peace between Israel and the Arabs and for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Anger feeds on desperation," he was quoted as saying.
"We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people," Assad said, according to the paper.
"This is the core issue. When there is divergence ... you will have vacuum that creates disturbances."
Assad, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor, inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, after three decades of iron-fisted rule. He has since moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector.
Assad has not matched liberal economics with political reforms and critics of the regime are routinely locked up, drawing an outcry from international human rights groups.
He is seen by many Arabs, however, as one of the few leaders in the region willing to stand up to arch enemy Israel. And his support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups opposed to Israel as well as his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has won him more support among his people than other Arab rulers.
"It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have," Assad said, according to the Journal. "There is a difference between having a cause and having a vacuum."
"This is a revolution against whoever wants to oppose the belief of the people," he was quoted as saying.
Assad said he will seek to push through economic and political reforms in Syria, but not necessarily because of the events in Egypt and Tunisia.
"If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform," he was quoted as saying.
"If you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action and ... you are going to fail."
Assad said the pace of reform in Syria had slowed in recent years as a result of the upheaval in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
"Today is better than six years ago, but it is not the optimal situation. We still have a long way to go because it is a process," the Journal quoted him as saying.