The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria

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Ribal Al-Assad: ‘Bringing Democracy and Freedom to Syria: The Key to Tackling Extremism and Building Peace in the Middle East’, the European-Atlantic Group, the Carlton Club, London

Mardi, 18 Mai 2010

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

“Syria is a beautiful country.” This is what everyone says when they return from a visit. And it’s true; our mountains, historic places, villages and beaches are wonderful places. Furthermore, the recent arrival of new hotels and restaurants in Damascus can give the impression of an economy on the rise. But beneath this bright veneer lies a dark reality. Yes a dark reality. One of the reasons I am here today is to shine a light on the dark corners of the country I love.

I want to highlight the terrible abuses of human rights. I want to expose the corruption. I want to be the voice of all those who have been silenced. I want to campaign for a free, democratic, pluralist Syria that doesn’t depend on Iran and have its future dictated by it. The relationship should be based on equality.

I want my baby son to grow up knowing a Syria that is strong, free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous.

When the current regime came to power there were tentative hopes that they would liberalise and repeal the worst excesses of the state. These hopes were short-lived, and those that criticised the regime soon found out that the oppressions of the past had not been swept away. They had simply been put on hold, ready to be redeployed at the government’s will. The regime has reverted to press censorship, secret detention and violations of human rights.

So where does the regime get its confidence? Perhaps it gets it from America’s renewed diplomatic efforts. Perhaps it gets it from its close relationship with Iran. It performs a balancing act between the West and Iran. It welcomes American diplomatic envoys in the morning, and then receives members of the Iranian regime in the evening. The Syrian regime should not be fooled by Iran’s intentions. Through the prism of the Arab / Israeli conflict, Iran’s aim is to use proxy groups to exercise greater influence and control in the region.

Iran has spread its tentacles far and wide. It funds, arms, trains and controls Islamist groups from all sides of the spectrum in the Middle East. Iran’s pitch to Arabs is that we will help to liberate Arab lands. It 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 uses its proxies to ferment trouble in the Middle East every time it believes it is close to facing sanctions from the international community. Iran portrays itself as the leader of the so called ‘resistance’. Yet when Lebanon, Syria and Gaza were attacked at different times over the last few years there was no sign of Iran. This is why Iran’s allies should not be fooled and realise that they are being used as bargaining chips in any future negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.

Syria has been ruled under emergency law since 1963. This “security measure” has acted as a smoke-screen that allows the regime to arrest and detain its opponents with breathtaking ease. This state of affairs cannot go on. The emergency law must be lifted immediately, and civil society must be allowed to exercise its rights of association and expression.

Dictatorships breed corruption. Corruption breeds poverty. Poverty breeds ignorance. Ignorance breeds extremism. Extremism breeds terrorism

This chain must be broken.

So how can this come about?

I have set up the Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria. ODFS. Through the ODFS, we will raise awareness not just of the problems facing Syria, but of the hopes that exist for a better future. If we can play a small part in starting a debate about my country’s future – both in Syria and abroad – then we will have achieved some success.

I would like all groups who genuinely believe in democracy to join our campaign to bring democracy and Freedom to Syria. There are Islamist groups who say they believe in democracy but are not willing to tolerate people who do not share their beliefs. They deem such people to be infidels. One of their core beliefs is Jihad against infidels. They think that the time is ripe for them to come to power because of the discontent amongst the Arab people. Therefore the pretext of democracy is perfect for them to play to the western gallery. The West should not be fooled by the wolf in the sheep’s clothing because as soon as they come to power they would be no different from the Iranian regime. The solution is to educate and economically empower the masses over a transitional period so they have the hope of a better future and therefore are not vulnerable to these Islamist groups.

I’m going to say a few words about peace in the Middle East. People all over the world desire peace, security and prosperity. For peace to be real and lasting in the Middle East it must have solid foundations. It is vital to have a land for peace deal where all the Golan Heights are returned to Syria. The Syrian regime must concede that peace is only likely to be achieved if the regime moves towards national unity, disengages from Iran and returns to its Arab home. It is imperative that there is a two state solution with a viable, independent and democratic state of Palestine.

ODFS will publish research papers. We will write articles. We will speak to journalists, policy makers and commentators. We will monitor human rights violations. We will give a voice to those that have had their voices robbed. And we will do it calmly, accurately and without fear or favour.

Some will say that Syria is on the mend. Some will point to trendy new bars and hotels. Some may say that Syria is liberalising. To coin a phrase, I say that we see the fig-leaf of democracy clothing the nakedness of absolutism.

I want to connect with ordinary Syrians through the media platforms I have to inform and educate them about peaceful transition, civil society and democracy. Syrians must be empowered to decide their future. The West must implement policies that help Syria move towards democracy, freedom, prosperity and disengagement from Iran.

Syria deserves a new, democratic constitution. It deserves guaranteed equal rights and freedom under the law for all religions, peoples and minorities. It deserves a free media and it deserves a truly democratic process to enable it to determine its own future. The time for democratic change is now.

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