'Russia-Ukraine conflict will significantly impact the Middle East and bring us back to the Cold War-era:' Ribal al-Assad
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Kurdistan 24 had an exclusive interview with Ribal al-Assad, a cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and son of Rifaat al-Assad—the brother of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad. He discussed the war in Syria, the status of the Syrian Kurds, and the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the Middle East.
"The present situation in Syria is chaotic with extreme poverty."
Q: How would you sum up the present situation in Syria?
A: The present situation is chaotic with extreme poverty due to the 11 year-long conflict. This conflict has caused hundreds of billions of dollars in destruction, around a million severely injured people, and many left without jobs or support. Oil and gas fields and refineries have been attacked and are no longer operational, some no longer under the regime's control. Factories have been looted and destroyed. Business owners and entrepreneurs are fleeing the country. There are also extreme levels of corruption. Then came the Lebanese banking crisis where Syrians had around 40 billions dollars and since then both the Syrians and Lebanese currencies began a parallel collapse with the Syrian lira, which was at $1 to 50 liras before the conflict, jumping to 600 liras and managed to stay that way until the Lebanese financial crisis began and then suddenly jumped to over 3,500 liras! Then you had COVID, the Cesar Act sanctions, wildfires, etc. There are also severe electricity shortages.
It is high time for an all-inclusive political solution that brings together all parties who genuinely believe in democracy, freedom, and equality of all citizens under the rule of law regardless of religion, ethnicity, sect, and gender. That would automatically exclude all Islamist extremist groups and create a new platform that would sit with the regime and draft a new modern and progressive constitution under the auspices of the United Nations. This is a perfect opportunity for both the regime and that newly formed truly democratic opposition as it would be guaranteed and protected by the UN.
I believe, and have repeatedly said, that a geographic federal solution would be the best solution for our country, which is made up of a beautiful mosaic of people. Then we could form a government of National Unity and start, with the support of the international community, the reconstruction of our beautiful country, which has sadly been ravaged by the 11 years of war with cities, towns, and villages totally destroyed. Over 50% of the country's basic social infrastructure has been left non-operational, hundreds of thousands killed and, let's not forget that the UN stopped counting in 2014, around 1 million injured, about 8 million internally displaced, and over 6 million refugees spread between neighboring and Western countries.
"The vast majority of Syrians want to move towards genuine representative democracy. Still, they can't see a viable alternative!"
Which groups in Syria support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
Well, since the International Community allowed regional countries to form the overwhelmingly Islamist political opposition in Turkey and then Qatar, excluding genuine democratic groups with real representation on the ground, and having those regional powers arm, train, and give safe passage to the Islamist extremist groups and the tens of thousands of foreign jihadis who have joined them, the peaceful majority of people who aspired for a democratic change now feel the alternative would be much worse than dictatorship. They don't want to see in Syria what happened in Iran 43 years ago, where a dictatorship was replaced with theocracy.
The vast majority of Syrians, which includes the minorities, who make up around 50% of the population, want to move towards genuine representative democracy, but just they can't see a viable alternative!
"Bashar al-Assad has galvanized his local support and knows that there is nothing to worry about with the existing exclusive and non-representative opposition; he also has the Russian and Iranian military aid."
Do you think President Assad feels more secure after a decade of continuous war in Syria? If so, why?
Yes, of course, because he knows what I have just explained and that people's priorities had changed today with millions losing their homes, their jobs, living in terrible poverty, both in Syria and in refugee camps, without proper education for their children, no access to appropriate medical health care, no security, no electricity…they just want to go back to the life they had before the conflict where people had those basic needs.
He also knows that over one-third of the population has left; he has galvanized his local support and knows that there is nothing to worry about with the existing exclusive and non-representative opposition, which has no support whatsoever on the ground. He also has the Russian and Iranian military support, and most Arab countries are now re-engaging with the regime, with some reopening their embassies and others working closely on intel.
You also have many Western countries that are now sharing intelligence with the regime worried about their foreign fighters who joined the different Islamist extremist groups, and of course, the reopening of the Interpol office in Damascus in October will make the cooperation more official.
"The country has turned into a narco-state with several countries seizing enormous Captagon shipments coming from Syria."
Who is the biggest winner in the Syrian war?
I don't believe that there is a winner, and no one in his right mind would say that they won. We have all lost. Much of our country and its rich cultural heritage has been destroyed, with hundreds of thousands killed, around 1 million injured, about 8 million internally displaced, and over 6 million refugees.
The people have been divided; the army weakened. We have Idlib, which is under the control of several Islamist extremist groups, including thousands of foreign jihadists backed by Turkey. Several towns in the north, around 8,800 square kilometers of territory, are occupied by Turkey. The SDF controls the northeast. There is the US presence in the northeast, and Al-Tanf base, Russia's presence in Al-Hmeimim Airport in Latakia, and the Tartus Port. The Iranians and their proxy groups spread all over the country, and the ongoing problems in Daraa.
On top of all that, several reports in the last couple of years have stated that the country has turned into a narco-state with several countries seizing enormous Captagon shipments coming from Syria.
"It is essential today to establish a geographically based federal system that would heal the wounds of the conflict and teach people that our country could only be a viable state if we were united."
Do you still have hope to see a democratic government established in Syria?
Of course, I do hope to see one day a genuine democratic representative government established in Syria. However, this will only happen through an all-inclusive peaceful transitional change with everyone understanding the true meaning of a pluralist representative democracy where all citizens are equal under the rule of law regardless of religion, ethnicity, sect, and gender. It will definitely take time. Western countries didn't get where they are overnight, and some are more advanced than others, but we definitely have to start right away as we have already lost 11 years.
Everyone must understand that our country is a beautiful mosaic of people, and they should see it as a strength and not a weakness. Still, as a cradle of civilization, they should learn that Syria is and has always been for all and not just for one group of people or another. They must also understand the true meaning of democracy and freedom which does not mean the rule of the majority and the oppression of the rest. By the majority, I mean religion, ethnicity, sect, political group, or an alliance of some religious, ethnic, sect, or political groups.
Our national identity must supersede any religious, ethnic, and sectarian affiliation.
That's why I believe it is essential today to establish a geographically based federal system that would heal the wounds of the conflict and teach people that our country could only be a viable state if we were united.
"I believe that a true leader should have his country and people's best interests at heart, love his country and people above all else and not take orders from anyone or be anyone's puppet."
Do you see yourself as a potential alternative to President Assad for ruling Syria?
At the moment, we have to find the best way to move forward towards a peaceful transitional change to genuine representative democracy. No one at the moment is in a position to talk about an alternative until we can create an all-inclusive and independent group of like-minded people who share the same values and honestly believe in a genuine representative democracy with equality of all citizens under the rule of law and are willing to commit to it. Only then we would be able to show the peaceful majority of Syrians that there is a viable alternative to the regime.
And this is precisely the problem with the real opposition backed by some regional powers who do not represent anyone on the ground and lack legitimacy as they have acted similarly to the regime by bringing together a couple of hundred people and calling themselves representatives of the Syrian people and this is not a democratic process. They are just jockeying for positions; they have created their own government, given themselves positions, and taken their orders from regional powers. I think they must know by now that they have no chance to return unless a deal is reached between the regime and Turkey under the auspices of Russia and Iran, where they would be allowed to take some government positions in exchange for the sanctions being lifted by the international community, which would be a terrible idea and a total disaster. This is precisely what Turkey and the regime were working on a few months before the start of the 'Arab Spring' when Turkey was hosting a dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian regime to give them some positions in the government.
I believe that a true leader should have his country and people's best interests at heart, love his country and people above all else and not take orders from anyone or be anyone's puppet. He must also work relentlessly and tirelessly to strengthen and unify his country and achieve justice, peace, prosperity, and freedom for all.
"I believe that it is crucial to first draft and agree on a new modern and progressive constitution under the auspices of the United Nations, which would guarantee Syria's unity, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in July 2021, said Kurds in Syria should look to Erbil and Baghdad as a model for cooperation. Do you agree with this comparison?
But it is not the same thing as the Kurdistan Region is an autonomous region recognized by the Iraqi constitution, and Iraq is a federal parliamentary republic. This is why I believe that it is crucial to first draft and agree on a new modern and progressive constitution under the auspices of the United Nations, which would guarantee Syria's unity, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
"Syrian Kurds have been excluded from all peace talks to please Turkey, even though they are an essential part of Syria's beautiful fabric and are a genuine democratic group who have a genuine representation on the ground."
The Syrian Foreign Minister and former Permanent Envoy to the United Nations Faisal Mekdad blamed the US for undermining talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds in an interview with Kurdistan 24 on Feb. 22, 2022. Mekdad said that "whenever we agree on a point, under American pressure, they change their position." What's your take on this view?
I believe that our brothers, the Syrian Kurds, are in a very difficult position because, as you know, they have made tremendous sacrifices since the beginning of the conflict by fighting fearlessly, men and women side by side, against all Islamist extremist groups and have been doing so for a long time in coordination with the regime. Then they started getting support from the US in the war against ISIS after the US had given up supporting several groups who turned out to be Islamic extremists and ended up giving their weapons to, or joining, groups such as Al-Nusra. Still, once ISIS was defeated, the US diminished its presence in the northeast under the previous US administration and sadly allowed Turkey to come in, occupy Syrian lands and create their own "safe zones". The Syrian Kurds felt abandoned, squeezed by both the Turks and the regime, which is now taking advantage of the situation.
The Syrian Kurds have set up a secular, inclusive democratic system in their regions. Still, they have been excluded from all peace talks to please Turkey, even though they are an essential part of Syria's beautiful fabric and are a genuine democratic group who have a genuine representation on the ground and who has fought all Islamist extremist groups regardless of their brand. I don't even understand how the international community could accept having them excluded from the peace talks and the drafting of the new constitution.
After all, they have sacrificed and achieved; it is tough for them to throw away everything and go back under the regime's control. This is why I believe it is essential now to set up an all-inclusive platform uniting all genuine democratic groups that would appeal to Syrians' peaceful majority and make sure it takes part in any peace talks or the drafting of a new constitution. It could even draft and propose a modern and progressive constitution.
"Russia-Ukraine conflict will significantly impact the Middle East and brings us back to the Cold War-era."
What impact might the Russian invasion of Ukraine have on Syria and the wider region?
It will have a significant impact as what is going on brings us back to the Cold War era, where the world was divided between two superpowers and two spheres of influence. The problem also is that most leaders familiar with that period are now gone. Today, those in power must feel a bit lost and unsure of what to do. They cannot afford to sit by without taking a side in such a situation. Still, after the 'Arab Spring', many countries in the region started courting Russia feeling abandoned by the West.
What is happening today is extremely dangerous. Let's hope it won't evolve into what happened during the Korean War in 1950, which lasted three years and killed between 2-3 million civilians and around 1.2 million soldiers. You had nuclear superpowers facing each other, with the North supported by China and the Soviet Union. The South was supported by the United Nations, the US, NATO countries, and their allies.
"Russia only came in support of the Syrian regime in 2015 after the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, which Russia believes was orchestrated by NATO."
Do you think the world's focus on the new war in eastern Europe will further empower Bashar al-Assad?
Not at all; even if the regime feels more secure now, it is very worrying as it could escalate due to the Russian military presence. If you remember, Russia only came in support of the Syrian regime in 2015 after the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, which Russia believes was orchestrated by NATO. Russia does not differentiate between Ukraine and Syria having both as part of its zone of influence and defense strategy. For now, Russia feels secure in the region because it has been able to win over Turkey, NATO's second-largest army, after the failed military coup, which Turkey blames on the US, and have cooperated in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan-Armenia. It has also won over Egypt, the largest Arabic country in terms of population, after President Sisi's coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel, with whom Russia has excellent cooperation on Syria, and, of course, Iran, with whom they share the same foes.