Ribal al-Assad argues against arming the opposition in Syria, warns of atrocities
Ribal al-Assad, a critic of the current Syrian regime and a cousin of its leader President Bashar al-Assad, spoke to members of The Common Good at a special luncheon on Tuesday.
Below is the text of his prepared remarks in which he argues against the U.S. supplying arms to opposition forces in Syria and warns of coming atrocities in his native country’s civil war.
I have traveled the world to spread the cause of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, but it is a particular honour to be here in New York, a city that is a symbol across the world for its inclusivity, cosmopolitanism and resilience. There are those who say that the Middle East is too eclectic and too diverse to house a democracy. And then I look around New York, where people of different cultures, backgrounds and religions have demonstrated that within a true democracy, anything is possible.
I am a Syrian living in exile in England and speaking in the United States. Each of these countries has much in common. They are home to a diverse range of people from a wide range of religions and ethnicities. They have all promoted the cause of women. And they all contain a peace-loving majority.
But only two are lucky enough to experience true democracy. For Syria that remains a distant dream.
In recent weeks, all three have been in the news. Syria’s descent into all-out war has continued. An English soldier has been hacked to death in East London. American citizens have lost their lives at the Boston Marathon, and we need no reminding of previous terrorist outrages here in New York City.
These events may, on first glance, appear to be unconnected. But they are actually woven into the fabric of the same global story. That story is, of course, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. And even the most cursory of glances around the world’s political and cultural flashpoints demonstrates the significance of this underlying theme.
In Turkey, police have fired tear gas at peaceful protesters, a reactionary state hitting out at its liberal people that its Prime Minister Erdogan categorised as ‘extremists’.
In Libya, swathes of the country remain in a power vacuum as Islamists fight to establish strongholds with weapons originally provided by the West to bring about the downfall of the Gadaffi regime. The American ambassador was assassinated outside the consulate in Benghazi, and last week alone, a protest rally against outlaw militias in Benghazi led to a gun battle leaving dozens dead.
In Mali, French forces had to intervene to halt the Islamist extremists’ advances against the Government – these Islamists are very well armed with weapons imported from Libya.
In Russia, the State is increasingly uneasy about the threat of extremism in Chechnya and Dagestan and keen to oppose Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere, not least because hundreds of extremists from the North Caucasus region are fighting alongside the rebels inside Syria.
In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Clerics continue to promote Jihad against Alawite, Christians and Jews in a society where there is no attempt to hide the on-going persecution of women.
The list goes on and on. But it provides a necessary context for my subject: Syria. Because it is impossible to view the Syrian situation in isolation from the events around it – locally, regionally and globally.
This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has seemed inevitable to me for some years already that my country was heading towards apocalypse.
Eighteen months ago I spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and I predicted the worst.
I read that script on my flight over. It included this passage: “The term ‘civil war’ is bandied around by international observers, but the truth is that this is building towards something even worse: A regional war attracting vested sectarian and political interests from across the Arab World and beyond. The prospect is petrifying.”
That prospect had already inspired me, long before the “Arab Spring”, to form the Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria. And it is why, in hundreds of speeches, interviews and articles over the past three years, I have been explaining how the West’s support for the opposition to the regime has been handled without an eye on history or the realities of the twenty first century.
Being proved right is no consolation for the disaster-zone that Syria has become. And as I illustrate the fundamental forces driving this apocalypse forward I can only implore you to listen, to ask questions, and to spread the word that the West’s policy needs to change.
And as if to prove the point, a man of the standing of General Myers, the former Chairman of the joint Chief of Staffs, has recently gone on record to categorise this as a “regional war”.
Meanwhile the military conflict in Syria is attracting extremists into my country like nails to a magnet.
The same was true of the West’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980s and, more recently, Libya.
Before I go into more detail, I should explain my own position here. My abhorrence of extremism does not make me an apologist for the regime. Nor, incidentally, does my surname! Its tyranny and violence have been inexcusable, its modus operandi horrific, and its consequences tragic. Were there a unified, democratic opposition representing the best interests of the peaceful majority within Syria, my support for them would be unequivocal.
The initial protests against the regime in 2011 were not fuelled by sectarianism but by that peaceful majority. Only 30 years ago, Syria was the most liberal and bohemian country in the region.
Women, including my own mother, were allowed in the army. She was a paratrooper. Syria’s mosaic of ethnicities and religions lived side-by-side in harmony. Trade flourished. The economy boomed.
Sadly, the Regime blunted this progress. The prospect of true democracy vanished. But as the events of 2011 unfolded, there was an opportunity for positive change. A democratic and inclusive opposition would have rallied mass support. The world was watching and the West was ready to lend its support.
What followed was a hijacking of a democratic and progressive cause by a convergence of extremists.
This began with the formation of the Syrian National Council backed by Turkey that was legitimised at the series of so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ conferences early last year. To quote once again from my Berlin speech at the time: “In Syria, over 45% of the population is represented by minorities who are ignored by the SNC. The SNC was not elected. And as democrats, we must ask a series of crucial questions: Why was it chosen? How did it come to the ascendancy? From where did it get its legitimacy? How democratic was that process?”
It took Secretary of State Clinton 18 months to question its legitimacy. The SNC subsequently disbanded and morphed into the Syrian National Coalition (also SNC) that was formed in Qatar earlier this year. It purports to be the political arm of the Free Syrian Army (or FSA). But two thirds of its 263 founder- members are members of the Muslim brotherhood or their allies. Its previous President, Moaz Al-Khatib, has a long and loud history of anti-Western comments and opposed the US blacklisting of the extremist al Nusra Front to whom I shall return.
None of this is new news. In Berlin I explained how: “An extremist and unrepresentative opposition backed not just by Turkey but also Qatar and Saudi aims to split the Arab world down Sectarian lines inciting violence on state-sponsored television channels such as Safa and Wisal with clerics openly calling for Jihad against the Shiaas and Alawites.”
And little has changed, except that the ‘aim’ to split the Arab World is succeeding. Last week, influential Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi denounced the Alawites as: ‘‘more infidel than Christians and Jews’’. In his perverted ideology, when you call someone an infidel you are effectively serving a death sentence on them.
And he is not a lone voice. For a start, he is backed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia who welcomed this statement and who, two months ago, called on Muslims to burn churches. Last week, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audio message on Islamist websites. He said, and I quote word-for-word: “The United States, it’s associates and allies want you to sacrifice your blood … to bring down the criminal Alawite regime and install a government in its pay and to preserve Israel’s security. The jihad in the Levant should work to establish a combatant Islamic caliphate that continues to make sacrifices … until the banner of jihad and Islam is hoisted.”
The internet has long been rife with similar calls to Jihad. It is now packed with videos uploaded by terrorists demonstrating how they have heeded his words. I should warn the faint-hearted among you to avoid these. They are disturbing. The latest include rebels eating a soldier’s heart after ripping it from his body (an incident picked-up by President Putin at the G8 summit) and responding to a fifteen year old’s refusal to lend them money by shooting him dead.
This State-backed terrorism introduces the regional divide that has long been opening-up on sectarian lines. On one hand, a Shia-led axis runs through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, a Sunni-led axis involving Turkey, Saudi and Qatar (and motivated by political, cultural and religious opposition to Iran) backs Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition.
Last week, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi formally took sides by cutting off all ties with the Syrian regime. And as the Washington Post has reported this week, Egypt’s ancient mosques have crackled with calls for jihad as an exodus of extremists have headed for Syria. Just yesterday a prominent Egyptian Shia cleric and four of his followers were killed in a brutal attack carried out by Salafi extremists near Cairo.
So much for the Arab Spring!
This backing is not restricted to verbal fireworks. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have long been funding, sheltering, and arming the Islamist opposition. Latest estimates suggest that US$3.5 billion dollars has already been spent in this way.
Meanwhile, according to the UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, fighters from 38 nationalities have made their way into Syria. The situation is akin to a contemporary Tower of Babel where different groups, speaking in different languages, fight for a sectarian cause. Which is why the European Union pledged last week to keep the many hundreds of EU citizens now fighting in Syria from importing terrorism on their return home. Canada has recently given the same warning and one US Citizen has been arrested on his return from Syria. Another died.
And as time passes and the war intensifies, the opposition becomes increasingly extreme. The US Secretary of Justice, Eric Holder, has stated categorically that most of the Free Syrian Army follows the Al Qaida ideology. Even General Idris, the current Chief of Staff of the supposedly moderate Free Syrian Army, has said that he is happy to fight alongside extremist groups which he believes compromise over half of all opposition forces. That may be an understatement. The New York Times has, this month, suggested that nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
Those forces who make up the Supreme Military Council of the free Syrian Army share the common ground of Islamism which sits at the heart of each of the al-Tawhid Brigade, Deraa al-Thawra Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Syrian Martyrs Brigade, and al Farouq Battalions.
Success in the fight for Raqqa City led to its main square being adorned with a massive black flag bearing the Islamic Shahada. A video posted last week was entitled ‘The Storming and Cleansing of Hatla’ where opposition forces attacked and massacred a peaceful Shia village showed gunmen firing weapons and brandishing black flags alongside the colours of the Free Syrian Army. The cameraman comments: “We have raised the banner saying’ there is no God but God’ above the houses of the apostate rejectionists, the Shia, and the holy warriors are celebrating.”
A little earlier I mentioned the al-Nusra front. It fights alongside General Idris despite being blacklisted by the United States as a foreign terror organisation.
A list of atrocities carried out by these forces is neither pleasant nor necessary. Suffice to say that they are sustained and horrific. A United Nations’ report suggested that Jihadist rebels may already have used chemical weapons. It is certain that they have massacred Christians most recently in Al-Duweir village on the outskirts of Homs. And it is unquestionable that their motivation lies far from a democratic future for my country. The head of the independent UN investigation, Mr Pinheiro, stated that none of these groups were fighting in the cause of democracy.
Which brings me to my key point today. Namely why, when it has all these facts at its disposal, is the West not just legitimising, supporting and supplying the rebels, but on the verge of arming them too?
Again, the answers lie far from Syria. A cold war has been escalating for some time now. It began with China’s perception of a US policy of encirclement, developed with Russia’s concern over the US missile shield, and grew with Chinese currency protectionism.
Jordanian and US forces are drilling together in the Jordanian desert alongside 17 other nations in Exercise Eager Lion 2013, the third such exercise of its type. [Exercise Eager Lion 2013] is yet another demonstration of muscle-flexing between the super powers that had already manifested itself in Russia proposing a permanent naval task force of 10 combat and auxiliary ships in the Mediterranean and Chinese naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea.
The US announcement that it would resume its anti-ballistic missile program in Europe was swiftly followed by Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces reporting a successful launch of a next-generation ICBM that can supposedly pierce any ABM system.
Russia’s involvement here is pivotal as her geo-political interests are aligned with her long-term support for Syria, her biggest client in the Middle East and her only ally on the Mediterranean coast with a Russian naval base at Tartus.
Combined with their respective concerns about Muslim fundamentalism, this explains Russo-Chinese blocking of UN resolutions against the Syrian regime and the ever growing relationships with the Iranian-led axis across the region. And it explains why Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia will honour its controversial contract to deliver the S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria.
This contextualises the strategic importance of Syria to the US. It explains her calling for a no fly zone around the country that Russia says would be unlawful. And it begins to explain why she has announced yet more (as yet unspecific) support for the opposition. But it still does not explain her tactics because the current opposition is completely unaligned with democracy and freedom.
In fact, the latest edition of the World Tribune suggests that the rebels are so loathed and feared across much of Syria that the regime is beginning to win back the people’s hearts and minds. It estimates 70% support despite forty years of dictatorship, the deaths of 100,000 Syrians, and the emigration of 1.5 million more. This is a tragedy.
No wonder the conflict is spreading. Both sides are supported by external groups. Both have access to chemical weapons. Both are prepared to commit atrocities without compunction. Both will fight to the death. But neither represents the peaceful majority of the population.
It is not only the death toll in Syria that has changed since my speech in Berlin. These themes – the influx of Jihadis and the committing of atrocities – have all come to the attention of the world’s press. Previously I was forced to quote relatively obscure papers and sources to illustrate my concerns. Now it is public knowledge. The world is aware. And dozens of informed observers have shared my views, most recently the German Foreign Minister.
But amazingly, the West continues to back the extremists. And in doing so, it is demonstrating the worst kind of hypocrisy. Quite rightly, the response to the outrage in Boston and to the tragedy in London was for senior politicians to point to our values, our principles and the importance of freedom and democracy. But if we are to support these values in the US and Europe, surely we must support them everywhere.
To support democracy alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar is oxymoronic. As it is to oppose extremism alongside the Free Syrian Army. Secretary of State John Kerry has done just that. On one hand he has stated that: “We can’t risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East become hijacked by the extremists”. But then he has given his support (and that of ten other countries) to the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army. President Obama has pointed to the perils of the chaos that extremism breeds, but the West still appears to want to arm extremists.
I have already mentioned the consequences of supporting Extremists in Afghanistan and Libya.
Surely we must learn from these tragedies?
John McCain tweeted recently that the “Obama administration is fiddling while Syria burns”. But the answer is not to supplement the current export of aid, night goggles, and body armour to the opposition. It is to change the entire narrative of the conflict.
At present, and if regional implosion is averted, there are only three potential outcomes. The first is an endless war, a power vacuum, and the complete disintegration of Syria. The second is victory for the regime, whose future will be reliant on the support of Iran, Hezbollah. The third is a victory for the opposition, formally represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and backed by Al Qaida.
I am sure that every one of us agrees that there must be a fourth way? A new narrative, an approach that puts Syria and the Syrian people at its heart. So what can we do?
There is only one answer. Diplomacy. The only approach that has yet to be given a real chance. Russia may have its own vested interests, but it has long been calling for the key players to come to the negotiating table. The West must make this happen.
The pending Geneva peace summit is a step in the right direction. But only if it invites representation from every Syrian group with a genuine interest in democracy and a vested interest in the country’s future.
And that means everyone – every reasonable observer of this tragedy seeks a democratic solution, [meaning] pluralism and not just lip service to democracy. As Sergey Lavrov put it last week: “We’re open for talks with all Syrian opposition members, but I think a way to stop the violence won’t be found in Moscow or any other foreign capital, only in direct talks between the opposition and the Syrian government.”
Sadly, democracy is not on the agenda of the Arab League which is neither democratic, neutral, nor objective. It represents the very states encouraging extremism and sectarianism in Syria. How can we trust it to carve out the road to Syrian democracy?
The first aim of the conference must be to diffuse the violence, [meaning] that Russia and the United States should agree to stop supplying any group with money, arms or supplies. A bipartisan group of senators in Washington agree and have just introduced legislation to block any attempt to arm the rebels, with their thinking in line with Mr Pinheiro who feels that to send weapons “will contribute to the escalation of war crimes and gross human rights violations.”
This is why the international community must pressure Qatar, Saudi, Turkey and Jordan to stop funding, arming, training, and encouraging the conflict. Aid should only be used to supply medical aid through the Red Cross, UNICEF and other responsible charities. It should save civilian lives rather than compromise them.
Any other international aid should be put into a fund and held until a peaceful solution is found. Pouring it into a war zone can only inflame. Germany’s foreign minister warned again last week that delivering weapons to Syria’s rebels could result in a regional arms race. Saving that investment until afterwards will create resources to rebuild homes, businesses, and families.
Earlier in the week I sat in an airport watching the headlines flash through on CNN. The stories were depressingly familiar. “Obama defends secret surveillance programmes”. “Turkish Prime Minister condemns protesters.” “Taliban attacks building near Kabul airport.” The fourth was: “White House to arm Syrian rebels.”
Each story was reported separately. Each involved reporters explaining different contexts. Each was depicted as an independent incident. In fact, each is simply a shadow cast by the same cloud. That cloud – Islamic fundamentalism – threatens to tear apart not just Syria, but much of the Middle East and beyond.
The region is on a precipice. It is being torn apart of sectarian lines. In Turkey, 2 kg of sarin gas was found in the homes of suspected Syrian Islamists detained in the southern provinces of Adana and Mersia. In reaction to the atrocities here in Boston, an extremist Jordanian Muslim Salafi group stated that it was ‘happy to see the horror in America.’
And as extremism spreads, so does the conflict. Syrian planes have attacked targets inside Lebanon.
The Jordanian army killed one militant and injured two others after clashesat the border with Syria. Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border has witnessed the death of 43 civilians from twin car bombs. Rockets launched from Syria have hit Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. Elsewhere in Lebanon, sectarian fighting in the northern city of Tripoli has killed at least 25. Sectarian tensions and atrocities have swept through Iraq where over 1000 civilans were killed in May. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces have shelled Free Syrian Army positions after its Prime Minister predicted regional war in the event of a rebel victory. Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s transport minister, has added that it would be impossible to “sit idle while the Shi’ites are being attacked“. Meanwhile, Israeli planes have attacked Damascus.
My personal quest to avert a civil war in my country has failed. My warnings about the wrong sort of intervention leading to a regional escalation of the conflict have fallen on deaf ears. But we must not give up on the Middle East or on democracy.
At some stage this war will end. By that stage, who knows whether there will even be a country called ‘Syria’?
Across the West – and particularly here – is the world’s greatest democracy. It is our responsibility to ensure that the future holds more hope for the Syrian majority. The majority who want peace. And for whom the only outcome worse that the survival of the current regime would be its replacement by something more extreme and less predictable.
Syria has already become an enclave for extremism. Responding with military aid will simply turn a catastrophe into an apocalypse. We must be true to our values and clear in our objectives. The future of Syria should not be determined by clerics in Saudi, strategic interests in Istanbul or Tehran, or extremist groups in the Region. It must be developed for the peaceful majority of the Syrian people and by the Syrian people.
I hope that when I speak on this subject a year or so from now, I will not be repeating phrases from this speech and wishing.