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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Conversation with Assad (No, Not That One)

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has antagonized many critics over the conflict in his country, including some members of his own extended family. Now one of them, a cousin who has long lived in Western exile, is making the rounds in the United States, denouncing both Mr. Assad and the increasingly diverse array of jihadists who have joined the insurgency against him.

The cousin, Ribal al-Assad, says he has no aspirations to power himself in Syria. But he says he is worried that the Obama administration’s recent decision to provide weapons to the insurgency will only further entrench President Assad, whose blanket portrayal of the insurgents as terrorists appears to be gaining more credibility among the war-weary population.

In an interview on Wednesday at The New York Times, the cousinsaid he believed that many Syrians are sticking by President Assad despite the horrific violence that the United Nations says has left more than 93,000 people dead over more than two years. “Not because they are with Bashar,” he said. “It’s just because they fear that they will be replacing the devil that they know with something that’s much worse.”

Ribal al-Assad, 38, is a fluent English speaker, schooled in the United States, who now lives in Britain and who runs a group he founded, the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, which describes him as an “international campaigner for democracy, freedom and human rights.” He was forced to flee Syria with his immediate family as a child because of the rivalries in the Assad clan, which has dominated Syrian politics since the 1970’s. Ribal’s father, Rifaat, was the loser in a Baath Party power struggle with Rifaat’s sibling Hafez, the predecessor and father of the current president.

Before his exile, Rifaat notoriously served as a government security enforcer who has been widely blamed as the architect of the 1982 Hama massacre, in which at least 10,000 people were killed. Both Rifaat and his son have called Rifaat’s involvement in that massacre a myth.

Ribal al-Assad said he had not spoken to the president or sought to directly communicate with him. But he said he knew early in the current crisis, which began as a peaceful Arab Spring uprising seeking a multiparty democracy, that “the regime’s only chance to survive was to militarize the conflict.”

Now, he said, money and weapons provided to the insurgency largely by Saudi Arabia and Qatar â€" hardly democratic models themselves â€" have made Prsident Assad’s work easier, by turning the conflict into a sectarian struggle waged by Sunni jihadists against Shiites and against Alawites â€" the offshoot of Shiism that is the Assad family’s sect. President Assad, he said, had “wanted it to become like that, but he didn’t do anything for it â€" they gave it to him, the Qataris and Saudi Arabia.”

With Sunni jihadists from more than 30 countries now believed to be among the insurgents fighting Mr. Assad’s forces, Ribal al-Assad said, Internet videos from Syria calling for death to what they call Shiite and Alawite infidels have proliferated, as have swathes of rebel-held territory where the black flag of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, denote the enforcement of Sharia law. This is why, he said, Mr. Assad’s core of support has rem! ained res! ilient despite the misgivings of many loyalists.

“We speak to a lot of people in the military, we speak to a lot of people in the Baath Party, a lot of people speak to us,” he said. “Of course they are for democratic change. But at the same time they tell us, ‘please, go check those videos. Is that the kind of democracy we’re going to have?’ This is not what the Syrian people want.”

“Those videos you are seeing that are worrying and scaring the West â€" those are the same videos that are worrying and scaring people inside Syria.”