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All in the Assad Family

Ribal al-Assad, once an opponent of his cousin, Bashar al-Assad, touted a cuddly, progressive Syria in New York this week

Tony Badran
December 18, 2015
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Ribal Al-Assad, the cousin and fierce opponent of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad London, England, March 28, 2012. Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Ribal Al-Assad, the cousin and fierce opponent of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad London, England, March 28, 2012. Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Everyone loves Christmas in New York City, and Ribal al-Assad, the first cousin of the genocidal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, is no exception.

On Wednesday morning, I watched Ribal al-Assad—who markets himself as an “opponent” of his cousin—address a small gathering on at the Century Foundation in Manhattan. In a well-fitted suit, he performed a well-rehearsed shtick by reiterating stock regime talking points. His lapel pin bore the emblem (an eagle, what else?) of his “organization” that promotes “democracy and freedom in Syria.” Naturally.

Ribal is the son of the notorious Rifaat Assad, younger brother of the late dictator (and father of the current dictator) Hafez Assad. Rifaat’s claim to fame was as the Assad regime’s enforcer, who, during the regime’s campaign to put down a Sunni revolt in 1982, flattened the city of Hama, killing anywhere from 10,000 to over 20,000 people. When Hafez fell ill from 1983-84, Rifaat saw an opportunity to take over, but he failed and Hafez recovered. Rifaat’s life was spared, but he was demoted and then exiled. His punishment—to borrow from The Godfather—is that he was out of the family business. Unlike Carlo Rizzi, however, Rifaat was put on a plane and has been living a life of opulence in Europe, where his son Ribal was raised. Still, Rifaat continued to harbor fantasies of finding a way back in. In 2011, when his nephew Bashar appeared to be in trouble, he generously offered to “lead the transition” in Syria. “It should be someone from the family,” he explained. “Me, or someone else.”

It was never going to be for Rifaat. But his son has not given up hope, and, for whatever reason, he was given a platform in New York this week. Yet for all his self-branding as an “opponent” of Bashar, Ribal is hardly advocating the downfall of the Assad regime. It is, after all, the family business. Rather, what he wants is his rightful cut, which has been denied to him since his father’s ouster. His problem is that he is of little value to his cousin, who is protected by Russia and Iran. But a sucker is born every minute in America, or so the adage goes.

Appearance-wise, Ribal is in the same mold of his cousin, only the baby-faced Ribal has dispensed with the stubbly, de rigueur Middle Eastern dictator’s mustache. His practiced remarks were delivered in decent enough English, and the entire package is intended to scream: “modern,” “secular,” even “Western.” His visit therefore serves the regime, by showing its more approachable, cuddly side.

Ribal’s PR tour has so far also included an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe as well as a generous write-up in Business Insider. The message is the same stuff, replete with the same trigger words that the regime has long used to market itself to credulous types in the U.S. and Europe. Last year, the regime dispatched a bunch of loyalist Christian clerics to a Washington conference to sell the same line to the Americans, under the guise of protecting religious freedom in Syria. Consequently, Ribal’s routine is intentionally heavy on references to “Western values,” “gender and religious equality,” “minorities,” and “Christians,” “Jews,” and “Kurds” living together. These words summon visions of a veritable progressive paradise under Assad rule.

This angle has been coupled with an appeal to common enmity toward “Islamists,” a category which, for Ribal, much like for his cousin, includes all Sunnis in Syria who are opposed to the regime, covering the entire spectrum, from the Nusra Front to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the various rebel groups fighting Assad. In fact, Ribal’s first comment was to defend and justify Russia’s bombing of all the non-ISIS rebel groups, urging the audience not to get too hung up on the “brand” of ISIS, noting that, after all, “our enemy is the underlying perverted ideology.” He later seconded Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s ridicule of the moderate rebels as a non-existing “phantom group.”

As for the Syrian Kurdish forces that the U.S. is working with, Ribal was quick to describe them as Assad’s allies. His aim was to suggest that whatever “moderate” forces might exist in Syria are already working with the regime, or, at the very least, view the regime as the better alternative. People will tell you we prefer to live under a dictatorship than under a theocracy,” he noted. “Sure we didn’t have rights or freedoms but at least we were able to survive and live together, Jews, Christians, Kurds.”

America should follow their lead; we “have to be pragmatic,” Ribal said. These minorities that are fighting with Assad are America’s natural allies who “share our values.” The Alawites, “like the Christians,” Ribal continued, “don’t need vetting. They’re not Islamists.”

This effacement of Syria’s Sunni majority reflects a general sick outlook toward them, which Ribal aired rather enthusiastically, if in a somewhat roundabout manner. So he spoke about the “silent majority” of Sunnis—a category and statistic that he created out of thin air—and what they supposedly want. This tactic serves the other critical purpose—one central to the regime’s message—which is to attack the regional Sunni states, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These states were responsible for “radicalizing” Syria’s Sunnis, because “we” (meaning the U.S.), “allowed these non-moderate and non-democratic allies” to back “only Islamist groups,” and “they have been brainwashing people for the last 4-5 years.”

And when Obama finally came to his senses and launched a program to vet rebels “he realized that they can only get 70 people.” It’s these countries that are to blame for stoking sectarianism in Syria. Of course, the Assad family is never mentioned in this negative context, nor is Iran or Hezbollah or the Shiite militias ferried into Syria from as far away as Afghanistan. If anything, the Sunni states, in their quest to depose Assad, are responsible for giving Iran “the excuse” to intervene.

This rather familiar set-up is then followed with the real message: a call for an American realignment in the region. “The US should forget about our allies in the Middle East,” Ribal said outright, faithfully regurgitating a principal talking point of the Assad regime. The priority for the regime, and its patrons—namely Russia and Iran—is to isolate the revolution’s regional backers and to shut down the avenues of logistical support from these states to the rebel factions in Syria. This is why, as I explained recently, Russia’s military bombing campaign has focused not on ISIS, but on a narrow corridor on the Turkish border which serves as a logistical and humanitarian lifeline to the rebels, and the civilian population living in liberated areas in northern Syria.

Sure, Sunnis are welcome to join, as long as they understand that they would need to basically surrender and receive the required stamp of approval, which is etched on the sole of Assad’s boot. If not, they don’t need to apply. “So what?” Ribal, said casually. “Even better! Why should [the Sunnis] be there?” This “opposition” would then enter into a “unity government” with Assad, and in 3 years, there can be an election, and then “we’ll see.”

In other words, the Sunnis have the following choices: live under Assad’s boot, or die or be expelled from the country. And once those Sunnis are expelled, Assad will continue to use them to his advantage, as a tool with which to blackmail Europe. Syrian refugees, he made clear, are a threat to Europe. “You don’t know who they are,” Ribal said. “And there will be a lot more of them.” If you need information on these refugees, “the only entity” that can provide it, he helpfully explained, is the Assad regime.

Ribal’s pitch, briefly put, is that the U.S. should be a partner in a permanent sectarian war against the Sunnis. The small audience at the Century Foundation was generally appalled by Ribal Assad’s comments. Still, what’s regrettable is that the obscene message of an American sectarian alignment is finding a growing space in the American public debate—and the U.S. government is on the wrong side. As John Kerry put it the other day in Moscow: “We,” meaning the administration and the Kremlin, “see Syria fundamentally very similarly.”

Ribal, I’m told, didn’t succeed in making contact with the administration, because who cares when you already have an Assad in Damascus? In that sense, his trip was a bust. Now it’s time to do some Christmas shopping, and maybe head over to Rockefeller Center and take a selfie in front of the tree.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.