Syria Faces Unusual Critic: Assad's First Cousin

Robert Siegel talks with a very unusual critic of the Syrian regime, Ribal Assad. He is President Bashir Assad's first cousin. Ribal's father, Rifaat Assad, was an enforcer for the regime in back in the 1980s. Ribal was born in Syria, but he spent most of life outside the country. He discusses his reaction to the unrest in his homeland — and the group he founded, Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, a very unusual critic of the Syrian regime, an advocate of democratic reform in Damascus. Ribal al-Assad is the director of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, and he is an al-Assad, as in President Bashar al-Assad, his first cousin; as in the late President Hafez al-Assad, his uncle; and as in Rifat al-Assad, his father and the man who was known as an enforcer for the regime back in the blood-soaked 1980s. Well, Ribal al-Assad lives in London, and he joins us from there.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RIBAL AL-ASSAD (Director, Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria): Yes. Good evening, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: And first, I want to know by democracy, do you mean no more Baath Party rule, free elections for parliament and president in Syria.

Mr. AL-ASSAD: Of course, I mean, by democracy, it's the democracy that we have in the West. All people in Syria will be protected under the rule of law, and people will be able to elect whoever they want to. And, as you know, a country like Syria has a lot of minorities. All of these minorities need to be protected.

SIEGEL: When other Syrian opposition groups held a meeting in Turkey at the end of May...

Mr. AL-ASSAD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...your group warned on its website that some of the opposition were not representative of Syrians and were - and I'm quoting from the website - individuals who promote extremism or sectarianism which has no place...

Mr. AL-ASSAD: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...in the path to freedom and democracy. Are you talking about the Muslim Brotherhood?

Mr. AL-ASSAD: I'm talking about some people who - they were members of the Muslim of Brotherhood. They were also members of people who called themselves moderate Muslims, like Mr. Ali al-Ahmad(ph) who's, you know, a lot of them have lived in Europe, in the West since the '80s, but they haven't learned anything about democracy. All what they think is democracy is a way for them to get to power and then to do whatever they want.

SIEGEL: I want to read to you one blogger's account of the meeting in Antalya, Turkey. This blogger wrote: The Muslim brothers and Islamists were under intense pressure to accept the notion of a secular government where religion and state would be separate. They resisted this most of the day, but ultimately, conceded at the 11th hour.

If you want to move towards some constitutional rule in Syria, don't you ultimately have to sit down in the same room at some meetings with some people who are Islamists or people you disagree with?

Mr. AL-ASSAD: At the end of day, of course, you have to sit down with everybody, but they have to agree that religion would be separate from the state. They have to agree that everybody will be equal under the rule of law.

SIEGEL: You left Syria as a boy.

Mr. AL-ASSAD: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: Have you spoken with your first cousin, the president?

Mr. AL-ASSAD: No, no.

SIEGEL: No?

Mr. AL-ASSAD: Never. I only met him once in '94. That was the only time I met him.

SIEGEL: One reading of what's happening right now, what President Bashar al-Assad and his very tough-minded, evidently younger brother, Maher, are doing is looking to what they see their father having done back in 1982 when your father's unit of the military helped stamp out a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion by killing thousands of Syrians who were in armed rebellion. I mean, does your father, by the way, who also lives in London, I gather, agree with you about Syria today?

Mr. AL-ASSAD: First of all, my father doesn't live in London. My father lives between France and Spain, and he sometimes visits London. On the other issue, my father never took part in the Hama, you know, in what happened in Hama.

SIEGEL: Hama was where, I should say, somewhere between 10,000 and, who knows, 40,000 people were killed.

Mr. AL-ASSAD: Yes. But my father was not there. My father was head of Unit 569. The Unit 569's responsibility was the protection of Damascus. And again, we have to remember what the Muslim Brotherhood did in Syria. There was the Aleppo incident, which there were 400 cadets that were killed. You know, that - they were put in one room, and they shot all of them. So the government, I mean, they didn't have any choice. They tried to have dialogue.

SIEGEL: Now, you're - I'll just - without belaboring 1982 here and '84, your view is that your father, Hafez al-Assad's brother, was thrown under the bus, as it were, to - so that there could be some (unintelligible) between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, and he was blamed for everything. I would just note that there are journalists who covered those events in those days. Robert Fisk, The Independent in Britain, is one of those who would take a different view of that, but we'll leave it there.

Mr. AL-ASSAD: But just let me say, Mister - I sat with Robert Fisk, and I've told Mr. Robert Fisk: In his book, you wrote that you have been in Hama for 18 minutes. How could somebody or anybody in the world find out facts in 18 minutes?

SIEGEL: I can imagine a Syrian opposition figure saying, well, Ribal al-Assad, his heart is in the right place. He's a good guy. I like what he's saying. But we've had enough al-Assads already. As, you know, they've been running the country since the 1960s. Do you feel that being an al-Assad either requires a certain responsibility on your part or in anyway entitles you to a role of speaking out on Syria?

Mr. AL-ASSAD: First of all, I'm not - Mr. Siegel, I'm not making any bid for power, you know? (Unintelligible) campaigning for democracy and freedom in my country. I want every Syrian to be free. I want every Syrian to be - you know, to live in democracy.

You know, nobody, when you meet somebody, you don't care whether he is Jewish or Protestant or Christian or Catholic or Muslim Sunni or Shiite. It doesn't matter. You know, this is something that, you know, we can't be living today, you know, in the middle ages. This is crazy.

SIEGEL: Well, Ribal al-Assad, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. ASSAD: Thank you very much, Mr. Siegel.

Mr. ASSAD: Ribal al-Assad spoke to us from London, where he is the director of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria. He's also the first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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