The Syrian Opposition is in disarray, but can the new kid on the block save it?
For the last two decades I have been following the political scene in Syria very closely. Like many observers of the Middle East, I was pleased to hear the new president Bashar Al-Assad’s inaugural address in July 2000 promising a break from the dictatorial past of his late father Hafez Al-Assad. Bashar promised freedom, reform and democracy. Ten years later, if anything, the situation is even worse. Human rights are systematically violated, the media is muzzled and democracy remains a mirage.
A recent important report by the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre in Paris (ESISC) focused the spotlight on the Syrian opposition. The most striking thing is the emergence of a new force for change headed by Ribal Al-Assad the cousin of Bashar Al-Assad.
It is worth remembering that there are several Syrian political groupings each claiming to be the real opposition. One such group is The Muslim Brotherhood which was for a long time the sole opposition in Syria. Its extreme views and tendency to use violence for political ends made it unpopular in Syria.
The Kurdish opposition
This branch of the opposition is particularly divided and splintered. In fact it numbers more than a dozen parties, most of which are active either in the Kurdish region of Syria or abroad
The National Democratic Rally
Founded in the late 1970s, the National Democratic Rally (NDR) has long constituted the sole ‘organized’ framework of the Syrian opposition. It is considered illegal by the Regime.
The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change
In October 2005, some twenty parties, organizations, and Arab and Kurdish personalities joined forces around a platform entitled the ‘Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change.’ The objective was to achieve regime change but has so far failed to deliver.
Farid Ghadry and the Reform Party of Syria
Farid Ghadry a Syrian living in the USA announced the creation of the Syrian Democratic Coalition (SDC) with great fanfare during a ceremony arranged in the National Press Club of Washington on 17 November 2003.
Al-Ghadry has no wide political base in Syria and his links to the USA has undermined his credibility.
Abdul Halim Khaddam a former Vice President of Hafez Al-Assad defected to the opposition in the spring of 2006
Merged his forces with Ali Sadreddin Bayanouni (the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood) to form National Salvation Front (NSF). This group has so far failed to mobilize the street in Syria.
Rifaat al-Assad, the ex-successor designate
Rifaat al-Assad, the younger brother of the late Hafez al-Assad and a former Vice President, was generally expected to succeed him at his death. In the end, this did not happen because the constitution was hastily amended to favor Bashar al-Assad.
Rifaat al-Assad was the right hand man for his brother Hafez during the 1970s and 1980s. He was the Vice President and was in charge of the Special Forces that defeated the Islamic Brotherhood. During the 1970s and 80s, he worked especially to strengthen the role and place of women within Syrian society. In 1984, recurrent dissension and the authoritarian excesses of his brother forced the reformer to go into exile.
The new Kid on the Block
One ‘new arrival’ on the political scene, Ribal al-Assad, a son of Rifaat al-Assad and a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, has for several years been leading a fight for the defense of human right in Syria. Although he is still little-known internationally, this young 35-year-old entrepreneur who is mainly occupied directing ANN (Arab News Network) – a satellite television channel based in London – is trying to promote not only democracy in Syria but also a just peace in the Middle East. His emergence is probably the most striking development in the life of the opposition since the turn of the new millennium.
Ribal al-Assad now spends the greater part of his time campaigning for interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians, and promoting freedom in Syria.
At a recent conference held in London under the title “The importation of democracy into Syria and the Middle East and the dangers posed by Iran”. Ribal Al-Assad spoke of the human right abuses in Syria and warned of the danger posed by Iran in the region. His own television channel has been blocked by the Syrian authorities, just as they jammed broadcasts of the BBC Persian service in the context of the recent demonstrations in Tehran.
Ribal is a genuine reformer and his calls for democracy and respect for human rights have captured the attention of activists and non-governmental organizations in the Middle East and Europe. He favors a speedy and total peace with Israel. He established the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (ODFS).
At the present time, no opposition force has been able to bring the change necessary to achieve democracy and freedom in Syria.
Ribal Al-Assad educated in UK and France has acquired and appreciated the precepts of democracy and freedoms. The question which is often asked can this young man unify the opposition and achieve real change in Syria? ESICS believes that with international support, he may succeed where others have failed.