The Road to Damascus?

“Is this the place where I will be shot?”, a smiling Ribal al-Assad asks as we lead him into a small room in Queen Mary University. Like all good jokes, Ribal’s words are not entirely without basis. Cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and son of Rifaat al-Assad (once Vice President and leader of the Presidential Guard), Ribal has his fair-share of enemies.

It is widely believed that Ribal’s father was responsible for the 1982 Hama massacre, in which as many as 25,000 people were killed by the Syrian regime. To this charge, we will inevitably return. The organizer responsible for Ribal’s presence at the University has received several death threats, and he himself has previously survived two separate assassination attempts in Syria. His three bodyguards wait at the door.

But it is with an air of quiet confidence, and undeniable charm, that Ribal smooths his bespoke suit and takes a seat. A handsome personalised lapel pin (in the shape of an eagle carrying an olive branch) clings to his chest. Well groomed, and fluent in French, Spanish, English and Arabic, he looks and sounds like a man who is comfortable under pressure.

Ribal chaired the satellite Arab News Network for five years before it was blocked by the Syrian government in 2009. He left Syria as a child and has never been part of the ruling regime. As founder of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (ODF-Syria), he is seen by some as a voice of opposition to the current ruling party.

So what does he think of his cousin, Bashar? “In a democratic election it’s impossible that Bashar al-Assad would stay in power”, he says, “it’s been going on for too long now and a lot of people have died”. Ribal has only met Bashar once, many years ago, and is unequivocal in his criticism of the current Syrian government’s “bloodshed”. The United Nations currently estimates that as many as 3000 civilians have been killed. The conflict, he says,”cannot continue… we have to find a solution”.

Many have suggested that Ribal himself has leadership ambitions. If the opportunity arose, we ask, would he ever work with his cousin in Syria? Ribal pauses, and calmly considers the hidden implication of the question, before smiling. “I think that everybody, the Syrian people, the opposition, and people in the regime – if that is the way to move forward and stop the bloodshed, if that a way out – I think they should all sit together” he replies. Comfortable under pressure, indeed.

“Elections, democratic elections of course” are the goal for Syria. If working with the regime in the short-term “would stop the violence and lead to a genuine democracy and constitution, then why not?” But as for Bashar’s leadership, “there’s no future in it”.

Anyone who considers the matter concedes that one of the mountain-shaped problems lying between modern Syria and functional democracy is its factional internal politics. In 1916, Britain and France drew the borders of Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, in the secret ‘Sykes-Picot agreement’. As a result, Syria has deep ethnic and religious divides.

Ribal speaks at length about this problem, but a good deal of his ire is saved for what he calls ‘Islamist’ parties in the Middle East. He is fiercely critical of the ‘Islamist’ Shia government in Iran, and of Hizballah in Lebanon, but also of Erdogan’s Turkey. Many Syrians, he reminds us, still see Turkey as an imperial threat.

“A lot of people in Syria do not agree with wearing the veil.. they are open minded,” he says, “and it should not be imposed on anyone. If you want to pray, you pray. If you want to wear the veil you wear it.” But, he says, “there shouldn’t be a government or a party telling people you wear it, or you’re going to be hanged.”

“All this is unacceptable,” he repeats, “today we are in the 21st century”. Ribal unapologetically promotes “Secular liberalism” as the answer for Syria. But Ribal lives in exile. What if, as was the case in Gaza, the Syrian people elect an Islamist government? “In Syria, it cannot be this way”, he replies. “You have a lot of minorities, a lot of religions, a lot of ethnicities… 80 or 90 percent of the people do not want that”. People in Syria, he asserts, “are not pro-Islamist, because they know very well that it would be a disaster for the whole country.”

Remember, Ribal concludes, “Syria had a very bad experience with Islamists”. He is alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1976-82, which culminated in the Hama massacre. Much of Syria’s fourth largest city was destroyed by artillery fire, and the body count was chilling.

This leads us towards the destination that, Ribal knows, any interview will inexorably reach. Though Ribal is not Rifaat, and was only a child in 1982, his father’s shadow follows him. “The Muslim Brotherhood chose to take up arms against the state” he says, and “this lead to a lot of bloodshed”. In particular, he stresses the Brotherhood’s targeting of the Syrian Alawites: “They were killing people for belonging to a religion, or a sect, and even people who just didn’t agree with their ways.”

There is a widespread perception that the Alawites, a minority Shia group of which the Assad family is part, have a disproportionate amount of power. Ribal attacks this idea. After all, he says, only two members of the top echelon of government are Alawites. This is true, and gone are the days when positions of power belonged to the residents of Qardahah, but it is undeniable that the Syrian armed forces has a large Alawite majority, and around 80% of officers are Alawites. The elite Republican guard is still exclusively Alawite.

It was this kind of military elite that Ribal’s father Rifaat commanded in the 70’s and 80’s. In 1984, when tensions between then President Hafez al-Assad and his brother were high, Rifaat’s Defence Companies (later Unit 569) were involved in a tense stand-off with Hafez’ forces in Damascus. “The whole army stood with my father”, Ribal claims, “most of Syria stood with my father at that time”.

Ribal describes his father’s role at the very top of the Syrian regime as one of dissent. “My father was criticizing the regime while he was in the regime”, he says, “he told them, you have to change, you have to move towards democracy”. Many would describe Rifaat’s relationship with Hafez as more of a power struggle than a push for democracy. But Ribal’s defence of his father’s legacy is, to say the least, comprehensive.

In all his time in the regime, we ask, can you honestly say that he has no responsibility for the atrocities committed? “Yes, because when you have a magazine that, every edition, calls for democracy in Syria…. why would you do that if you are repressing your people. If you are repressing your people, you stick with the regime. He was opposing what the regime was doing.”

“The regime has worked very hard to destroy my father’s image, but they couldn’t”, he goes on, “when he came back in 1985, there were hundreds of thousands of people at the airport… people were celebrating for three days even though they had received orders not to celebrate. They would not stop.”

This vision of Rifaat’s time in Ba’athist Syria is not one which many hold, and Rifaat’s nickname, the ‘Butcher of Hama’, offers a sharp contrast to Ribal’s description. The regime of which he was a leading part – second only to Hafez himself – was a brutal one.

In 1984, most believe Rifaat was forced to leave Syria because Hafez feared a coup. In 2000, when both Hafez and Bashar’s older brother Basel died, Ribal’s father was Vice President. “The first thing they did was put the army on a state of alert, and issue an arrest warrant against him.” Did Rifaat not want power in Syria? Ribal strongly denies this: “My father never wanted to…it was not about power, he wanted the right thing for Syria.”

Finally we come to Hama. The massacre, Ribal says, was nothing to do with his father. The Muslim Brotherhood “chose arms against the state, the state tried to have dialogue with them and they refused… they would not put arms away until they had an Islamist state in Syria.”

Though the Brotherhood had indeed resorted to violence – much of it very severe – the destruction of Hama was a grave crime against humanity, and entailed the murder of tens of thousands of people; many were civilians. After the military stormed Hama, executing at will, the city was practically destroyed by heavy artillery. The military units that did this, so the consensus says, were under Rifaat’s direct control, and as Ribal claimed “the whole army stood with my father”.

Did Rifaat give the order? “Of course he didn’t”, Ribal answers. And furthermore, he claims, Rifaat wasn’t even in Hama. “When you’re the head of the Presidential guard – and the regime is in Damascus – and at the same time the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting the regime”, you have no reason to be in Hama. “Why would you send your forces,” he asks, “whose job is to protect the capital… 200 kilometres outside of the capital?”

This contradicts the majority of the written accounts of Hama, some of which describe Rifaat boasting of his responsibility for the massacre. Ribal seems to genuinely believe that the Ba’athist regime tried to frame his father, in order to destroy his reputation. Yet he also denies that Rifaat ever sought to take power in Syria. If either of these assertions is correct, it is difficult to see how the other isn’t somewhat compromised.

Ribal’s account of Hama is, however, collaborated by an interesting individual. General Aref Bayumi, a senior military commander who was in Hama, also claims that Rifaat “didn’t do anything” and that “it was the army” who had the substantial role. There are certainly others, like Bayumi and Minister of Defence Mustafa Tlass, who bear some share of the responsibility for the terrible atrocities.

Ribal delivers this total defence of his father with characteristic style and charisma. Rifaat’s is not a legacy that many would wish to spend their time defending; he no doubt wishes that he were asked a little more about ODF-Syria and a little less about his father. Separating the two is, however, problematic.

Does Ribal think his father’s past will affect his own campaign? Not a bit of it. “In 1992, a lot of people don’t know, the regime decided – when my grandmother passed away – to bury her before [Rifaat] came back”, he answers, obliquely, “they didn’t want the people to see him, because they know the effect that he has and the support he has”.

Ribal’s polished speech, presence, and style, can be all be summarised in a single word: statesmanlike. I cannot shake the suspicion that should the opportunity arise – which is far from certain – Ribal could become a serious contender for the Syrian opposition. If so, the effect of his father’s bloody reputation will cease to be a matter for speculation.

This interview was conducted on October 24th 2011, with Kaamil Ahmed.

Image by Matthew TK Taylor.

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