The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria

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Ribal Al-Assad: 'Moving towards Democracy and Freedom in Syria and Tackling the Threat of Iran', The Mid-Atlantic Club, Dartmouth House, London

Mercredi, 7 Juillet 2010

I am delighted and honoured to be speaking here today. I would like to thank the Mid-Atlantic Group for inviting me.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in London. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those that were killed and injured. I pay tribute to their courage and resilience. It is a timely reminder of the need to tackle extremism and terrorism.

As I have been warning for some time the threat of war in the Middle East is very real. I sincerely hope that there is no war. However the recent flotilla incident of the coast of Gaza is part of a dangerous escalation towards war. The recent build up of U.S warships in the Persian Gulf is an indication of how fragile the situation is.

I welcome the easing of the blockade on Gaza, which will allow civilian items to reach the Palestinians. The blockade has caused a humanitarian and economic crisis which has left most Gazans dependent on handouts and led to the closure of many businesses. It's easing will improve conditions for Palestinians. However I believe the blockade must end and Gaza must be opened up consistent with UN Resolution 1860.

I have been campaining for peace in the Middle East through a two state solution with a viable, independent and democratic state of Palestine and the return of all of the Golan Heights to Syria in a land for peace deal. At this crucial time I call on President Obama and the EU to seize the opportunity and push both sides towards a break through in the peace process to achieve a two state solution. In light of the current situation in the Middle East this is more important now than ever before.

Iran continues to use the Arab / Israeli conflict to ferment trouble and pursue hegemony in the Middle East through its proxy groups. Iran tells Arabs that it will liberate their occupied lands . Yet Iran itself occupies Arab lands such as the Al-Ahwaz and the three U.A.E islands of its southern coast, the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, which are claimed by the United Arab Emirates. The UAE's claim is backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab states. Iran should peacefully end its occupation of Arab lands and respect Arab sovereignty.

Iran also uses the pretext of helping Arab Shias to further develop Iranian hegemony throughout the region, while at the same time it oppresses its own Shia citizens at home.

Iran has a free hand in Syria and is allowed to exert excessive influence in exchange for economic assistance.

So what is Iran doing in Syria?

Well the estimated numbers of Iranians who visit Syria is above half a million a year and rising since the waiving of visas between the two countries. Not all of these Iranians are innocent tourists, seeking bargains in the souks of Damascus. Moreover elements of the Syrian regime distribute pictures of Ahmedinejad in Damascus.

The Syrian regime should wake up and recognise the true intentions of Iran. Giving Iran a free hand in Syria in exchange for economic assistance is leading to the disintegration of Syrian sovereignty. Syria must re-assert its identity and sovereignty by creating national unity where all Syrians are given a chance to play their part in forming a new democratically elected government, which would be a good foundation for Syria to disengage from Iran.

Since 1963 Syria has been ruled under a highly restrictive state of emergency. Some commentators took the view that the Syrian regime might change a little since the U.S. has been engaging with it. Well they got their answer in the last few weeks. Muhannad Al Hassani, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer and activist, was sentenced to three years in jail by Syrian courts for “spreading false information likely to weaken the morale of the nation”. He is the winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders.

So what did Hassani do to get charged? Well he drew public attention to unfair trials of political prisoners before the regimes Supreme State Security Court. The imprisonment of Al Hassani shows that the Syrian regime does not even respect minimum international human rights standards

I am pleased that the British, American and other Governments have condemned the jailing of Al Hassani . I call on the Syrian regime to release him and all other political prisoners immediately. That includes over 400 Syrian Kurds who have been detained lately. The oppression and persecution of the Syrian Kurds must end and they must be recognised as citizens of Syria with full rights.

I call on the Syrian regime to lift the state of emergency immediately and allow the people to exercise their rights of association and expression.

I welcome U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton's call to the Syrian regime to improve Internet freedoms. I am delighted that she regards the free flow of communications as a central tenet of her foreign policy, and sees the Internet as a key tool for spreading democracy.

Sadly the Syrian regime is not so keen on having freedom of expression and allowing its people to use the internet.

According to Reporters without Borders, Syria is one of the world's worst "internet enemies."

Only 16.5% of Syrians use the internet. This is one of the lowest penetration rates in the world. The regime has blocked over 200 websites. These are mainly sites which question its policies. Censorship particularly targets social networking and blog platforms as part of a policy to prevent freedom activists getting organised and bringing people together. Blogspot, Maktoob, Facebook and Youtube are all blocked.

Internet users are subject to surveillance from the regime. Website owners are legally required to keep the personal data of anyone who posts comments or articles online. Security agents monitor internet cafes and the owners are obliged to identify their clients and report on the "illegal" websites they visit. Internet activists can and have been jailed for a minimum term of three years for "weakening the nation's morale."

I call on the Syrian regime to end press and internet censorship and unleash social media.

Syria is a beautiful mosaic of people. The hopes and dreams of the Syrian people must be allowed to flourish. They must be able to reach for what is possible. Syria must move towards national reconciliation and unity and rise above the past. We must build our future together and be a united, strong and prosperous nation. A leader in the modern world.

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