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Ribal Al-Assad proposes peace plan for Syria in article for Middle East Voices

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Middle East Voices is a new social journalism project powered by the BBG and Voice of America. Designed as a collaborative journalism and engagement platform, it seeks to combine investigative journalism, crowdsourcing, participatory writing and social media technology to redefine how stories in and about the Middle East should be told.

VIEWPOINT: A Peace Plan for Syria by Ribal Al-Assad, Director & Founder of the ODFS

I run an organization which attempts to foster freedom and democracy in Syria and am exiled from my own country. Although Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is my cousin, I am not an apologist for the regime in Damascus.

On the contrary, I hold Bashar al-Assad responsible for the behavior of his abhorrent regime. But, unlike his late father, he is largely without power and my country is plunging into civil war as a result of factors and circumstances that have spun out of his control.

Sadly, none of us can turn back the wheel of time. Nor is there a magic formula to end the bloody conflict in my country. But I do believe that there is more the international community could do. Hence, I will set out my five steps towards political pluralism and a peaceful future for Syria.

But before I do, some background.

It is no secret that Syria has become a hotbed of violence. Less clearly articulated are the four layers of conflict working in unison to make full-scale war highly likely. These layers are global, regional and civil in nature, and are exacerbated by a long-term schism within the Syrian regime itself. I will briefly illustrate each, before explaining how their combined effect is pushing Syria towards all-out armed conflict, despite the best efforts of international envoy Kofi Annan and the United Nations.

The global layer

On a global level, tensions are escalating between the U.S. and NATO on one side, and Russia and China on the other. In recent weeks, the Philippine government has sought U.S. protection in the South China Sea, and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying has said Beijing is ready for ‘any escalation.’ In Moscow, the Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov has threatened pre-emptive strikes on future NATO missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. Around the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled out of the next G8 summit at Camp David. In Jordan, 12,000 soldiers from 17 countries have gathered under the leadership of the U.S. to carry out war games. Further East, Russia and China have launched an enormous joint naval drill, incorporating 25 ships and submarines in addition to aircraft and special forces.

The regional layer

In the Middle East, an ever-growing rift is widening between Turkey and Iran. Turkey is growing fast, is economically powerful, and is looking to develop its own power-base across the region. Iran, whose own ‘Green Revolution’ was put down mercilessly, sits in an ever-growing state of isolation. Still, Tehran’s tentacles are reaching into Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain and it remains desperate to retain its strategic power bases and regional leadership.

The regional tensions are largely fueled by sectarian forces; an Iranian-led Shia axis versus a Turkish-led Sunni axis. And with the U.S. delegating so much of its Middle East policy to Ankara, Iran has relied on Russia and China for support. This support is fueled by geo-political need and a morbid fear of Islamism spreading within their borders.

Turkey’s allies and principle supporters within the Arab League are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They are absolute monarchies whose greatest fear is the arrival of a democratic tide across the region. Their influence is increasingly aggressive, and the Arab Spring has been replete with examples of state-sponsored violence. Saudi-owned WISAL and SAFA satellite TV stations, for instance, have screened footage of extremist clerics exhorting fundamentalists to “mince the minorities who are not with us and feed them to the dogs.” Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia, called for jihad against Alawites, even if one third of the Syrian people die. Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti (the highest authority in Islam) of Saudi Arabia has exhorted Muslims that it was their religious duty to destroy churches across the region. Their support for extremism is not just rhetorical. There is now irrefutable evidence that Saudis and Qataris are investing petro-dollars to accelerate the cross-border arms flow into the unstable nations emerging from the Arab Spring.

The civil layer

Moving inside Syria’s borders, the regime’s atrocities are well documented. Free elections, the right to demonstrate peacefully, press freedom and the cessation of torture have all been promised. And every promise has been broken. The shelling of its own civilians and violent reaction to the initial peaceful protests of the Arab Spring attest to the regime’s inhumanity.

What is less well-publicized in the Western media, is the equally extreme and sadistic behavior of the opposition. Before the first meeting of “Friends of Syria” group in Tunisia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the need for an inclusive, democratic, peaceful transition in Syria. Sadly, not one word of that description fits the Syrian National Council (SNC) or any aspect of the “Friends of Syria” meetings that have followed.

Kamal al-Labwani, a physician and prominent opposition leader for many years, resigned from the SNC soon after the first meeting, describing it as “an opposition under the cloak of fanatics hiding behind a veneer of stupid liberals” and a façade for the Muslim Brotherhood. Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, has publicly highlighted the SNC’s Islamist credentials, explaining that Burhan Ghalioun was chosen as its leader only to make it more acceptable to the West.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the opposition as fractured, “not a national movement” and infiltrated by al-Qaeda, a view endorsed by Syria expert Patrick Seale, and evidenced by bombings in the country showing the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, the latest of which killed over fifty people in Damascus last week.

This is hardly a moderate or inclusive opposition. Peaceful groups such as my own have not been invited to any of the “Friends of Syria” conferences despite our best efforts. And in our absence, the Gulf states took to the floor to pool agreement for a formalized pay structure for the Free Syrian Army (whilst the armed opposition has been cited by Human Rights Watch for the torture of prisoners).

The SNC is a hotbed of fundamentalist extremists. Internally, we are not currently dealing with ‘good and evil’ but with two forms of evil.

The regime element

To understand the regime, and the conflicts within it, one must understand Bashar al-Assad’s immediate family history. His father, the late president, rose through the ranks of the military and the Baath Party. He built a system and security services with leaders in open conflict who competed for his loyalty. His late son, Basel, was trained and groomed as his successor and had a deep understanding of the machinations of power in Damascus. But Basel died in a car accident in 1994, and his civilian brother, Bashar, was called back after a few months in London. Six years later, his father died, leaving a 34-year-old son to take control with limited understanding of the Baath Party or the military.

A weak president suited the rival groups beneath him. And it would be in Bashar’s interests to retain the status quo. And so the constitution was changed in less than an hour to allow him to become president six years before his 40th birthday, until then a constitutional mandate. The U.S., Britain and France, amongst others, applauded the appointment of a “young, liberal internationalist” to the presidency. And their approval legitimized the leadership of a young, inexperienced man, whose friends were all doctors, to run a security services-led regime dripping with venom and strife. As a result, Bashar has pleaded on ABC News that the military are “not my forces” whilst being parodied in the foreign press for his shopping habits and musical tastes. This is not a man in charge of his own or his country’s destiny. And it is only by acting like a president, and taking the side of all his people, that he can hope to escape the shackles of the generals who surround him.

Combined effect

I have attempted to present these four conflicts independently. But in practice they are all interwoven. And they are being played out in and around Syria.

The Russian-Chinese veto of the draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling on President Assad to step down helped highlight existing allegiances across the international spectrum. Moscow has supplied its Syrian ally with three million gas masks, 72 shore-to-sea missiles and boosted its naval presence in Tartus where the Smetlivy, a Russian guided-missile destroyer, arrived in April.

Meanwhile, Turkey watches its border with Syria with guns trained. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attack each other with accusations of sectarian rhetoric. The Syrian president has warned Turkey that its missiles are trained on Ankara and Istanbul. Western spy satellites have picked-up Syrian chemical warheads being moved towards the Turkish border in broad daylight. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming and funding parts of the Syrian opposition. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that Iran will defend Syria against any attack or adversary. Sectarian unrest has led to deaths and hundreds of injuries in the second largest Lebanese city of Tripoli. The U.S. has increased its aid to the Syrian opposition to $25 million, funding night-vision goggles and satellite communications. And meanwhile, the killing inside Syria continues.


In this context, it is no surprise that the future of Syria appears doomed. Despite the U.N.’s intervention, war suits the interests of too many parties to allow it to be hijacked by peace.

Which means that the Syrian Arab Spring appears to be heading in an even more extreme direction than Egypt’s and Libya’s, where the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups is instigating chaos and fragmentation. A once-peaceful, secular Syria is in danger of becoming another Afghanistan, thanks to ugly big-power geopolitics and cross-border arms flow.

Democracy and peace

At this moment in time, anyone looking to manufacture a truly peaceful solution for my country is pushing against a tidal wave of violence and vested interests. Kofi Annan is trying and has referenced the dialogue necessary for a transition from one-party to multi-party rule. Sadly, this is entirely inconsistent with the tactics being used by almost every element of the opposition to the regime. Certain Arab states are arming and funding the Free Syrian Army and other groups are also not aiding a peaceful transition. Nor have the “Friends of Syria” conferences contributed toward that cause. Nor has Turkey’s squaring up to Damascus and Baghdad, itching for war. Nor has the international recognition of the SNC as a representative of the opposition. Nor has a president whose powers are limited. As a result, civil war will spiral into regional war, with terrible consequences.

Diplomacy may not offer Syria a great chance but it is the only chance for a peaceful transition. It ties in with my own five-point plan to maximize the chances of a peaceful future for Syria.

• Firstly, the opposition must act in a way that is inclusive and representative of the Syrian people by creating a platform where all parties can come together and speak with a single voice.

• Secondly, it must work peacefully with the international community with the aim of non-violent regime change.

• Thirdly, international funding must be channeled solely toward facilitating peace through humanitarian aid and training on how best to form civil groups and political parties.

• Fourth, non-aligned states should be asked to help facilitate and encourage the journey towards political pluralism.

• Finally, and only once it can display real unity, can this internationally-backed, democratic opposition take on the regime by campaigning for a genuinely pluralistic election.

In my view, that is the only way forward – a route through which a heterogeneous country with a colorful mosaic of ethnicities, cultures and faiths, can counter extremism and live in a cosmopolitan and liberal environment.

I began by stating my independence from and abhorrence to the history and ongoing behavior of the Syrian regime. But this is not to say that Bashar can solve my country’s problems. He is out of his depth, surrounded by feuding generals, sectarian divisions and vested foreign interests. He may have contributed to the cause, but is powerless to broker the solution. His best chance is to side with the people of Syria – the peaceful majority whose ethnic mix is deeper and broader than in any other country touched by the Arab Spring. It is these people who require representation in a democratic and pluralistic state. That’s my goal, and it pains me to see it looking so distant a dream.

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