By Anshel Pfeffer
LONDON – Ribal Assad jokes that “being called Assad is not the best way to gain friends today, especially being a relative of Bashar.” Indeed, being the first cousin of the Syrian president who over the last year has overseen the murder of some 9000 Syrians in the bloody repression of the Syrian revolution is not a great distinction, but the 36 year-old son of the former vice-president and security chief is attempting, from exile, to clear the family’s name.
“Only two members of the Assad family are in the regime,” he insists. “The rest of the 99 percent of them are sitting at home without jobs” and he tells how the stooges of his cousin the president have persecuted his father, siblings and assorted cousins. He never calls the government in Damascus – the Assad regime. “It is a corrupt regime, a regime of killers, the worst dictatorship, but don’t call them the Assad regime, or the Baathist or Allawite regime. There are two million members in the Ba’ath party, most of them are members because that is the only way they can get a job, not because they are killers.”
Currently living in London, Damascus-born Assad has been an exile from the age of nine, leaving Syria along with his father Rifat following a failed coup attempt. Since then he has returned only for a few visits, during one of which he claims to have been the target of an assassination attempt. But he feels that his family history obliges him to get involved and is using every possible platform to campaign for what he claims is a democratic future for Syria. On Wednesday night this week, he appeared at a small hall in north London, speaking to “The International Forum” of Hampstead Garden Suburb.
It is hard to reconcile the softly-spoken well-groomed, babyface with the stories of atrocities carried out by his father, uncle and first cousin. He carries a range of titles – founder of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, chairman of the Imam Foundation which promotes interfaith understanding and director of the London bureau of his father’s Arab News Network (ANN) satellite television channel. He says “I miss the country I love but being here makes me free to criticize the regime and champion for reform.”
But does he have a formula for extricating Syria from its current bloodshed and can an Assad even deliver a credible solution? “My agenda is not as simple as overthrowing a corrupt regime or supporting the most vocal and violent elements of the oppositions. My agenda is real democracy.” And while he is full of criticism for the actions of his cousin Bashar, (ten years his senior, whom he claims never to have spoken to) his real enemy is actually the most prominent of the Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC).
“The west is in danger of supporting the wrong people. “Why was the SNC chosen to represent the Syrian people? How did it rise to prominence?” He blames them of human rights violations that could be worse than his cousin’s regime. “The SNC have transformed the actions of peaceful protestors who were chanting ‘peaceful, peaceful'” he charges. “They have chosen a moderate leader to hide this but radical Islamists have entered the fold backed by insidious elements in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is the reason that Damascus and Aleppo have not yet risen, they are afraid they will be replacing the regime with something worse.”
Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing Salafist Islamist elements are just two of the regimes Assad blames for advancing their ulterior motives in Syria. The main culprit is
“Turkey with its imperial agenda. It was Turkey who chose the SNC which is really the Muslim Brotherhood. When they held in Ankara a meeting of the opposition, they called only the Islamists, and disregarded all other groups. It’s because Turkey is lead by an Islamist party. No-one in Syria believes them. If you want to have a real meeting, do it in London or Berlin. Not Ankara.”
Ribal Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood have a long history. He claims that the Brotherhood in Syria, unlike in Egypt, is a murderous movement committed to establishing an Islamic state and that when he was a child, the Brotherhood tried to bomb his family’s house. Assad is ready with details of Muslim Brotherhood terror but he is insistent that despite all contemporary records, it wasn’t his father Rifat Assad who commanded the infamous Hama Massacre in 1982, when Syrian forces who were putting down a Brotherhood rebellion demolished entire parts of the northern city, killing an estimated twenty to thirty thousand civilians. He was eight at the time but he is certain of the details – “it is a great invention, my father was never involved. A committee was appointed by President Assad to oversee Hama and he was not one of them. He commanded the republican guard unit and their job was to protect the capital, not to go north to Hama.”
While every report from the period clearly puts Rifat at the center of the Hama operation, it is imperative for his son to deny this was the case, if he is to have any credibility today and a chance of participating in the future of Syria. He also insists that his father, who until 1984 was widely acknowledged as the next leader, was in favor of democracy and a peaceful solution to the Middle East’s conflicts already in 1967.
He also believes that the only solution to the current situation within Syria has to be peaceful. “International intervention means a tug of war between Iran on one side and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other side. Iran will do everything in its power to support the regime and will use the Quds Force and Hezbollah and their militias in Iraq, they will never let the regime fall? They know that if the regime goes they are finished. The superpowers, Russia and China are already preparing to make Syria their proxy-playground.
The Saudis are financing the Islamist elements because they don’t want to see a democracy emerge in Syria. Military intervention will be a disaster and hundreds of thousands will be killed.”
He believes that the only solution is for the western countries to back the democratic opposition groups and insist on negotiations with the regime. He insists that if free elections are held in Syria, the Islamists will not take control as in Egypt and Tunisia. “Democracy is possible in Syria because 45 or fifty percent of the country are classified minorities. The Curds are twenty percent and the Alawis and Christians are each 17 or 18 percent. And the rest who are Sunni are not mainly Islamists either.”
He explains that his own Alawi sect and the other minorities have yet to join the revolution because “they want change, democracy and freedom, but they don’t want to replace a dictator with theocracy. That’s why Syria hasn’t moved forward and the international community should ask itself why. Put yourself in the place of an army general in Syria. How can they trust that this is genuine change?”
He is much more careful when speaking about Syria’s future relations with its neighbor Israel. His father has been accused in the past with links with the Zionist enemy and Ribal is careful not to speak to the Israeli media but he insists that his uncle was never interested in getting the Golan Heights back in a peace agreement – “the Golan was just an excuse for the state of emergency.” He himself thinks that Israel should return the Golan to Syria. “It is important for our self-respect, but I’m sure that everyone just wants to live in peace.”