Assad’s Cousin: Syria Must Change to Avoid Regional Turmoil


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should take steps to liberalize the country’s political system and allow more freedom to prevent the regional turmoil spreading to Syria, his cousin said.

Assad should “end the state of emergency, which would be a symbolic and tangible step,” Ribal al-Assad, head of the London-based Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, said in a March 4 telephone interview.

“Second, I would tell him to call on all political players to come to the table and discuss how to move forward and to form a national unity government,” said Assad, 35, who is one of 8 sons and 8 daughters of Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the Syrian president who was forced into exile by his brother, Hafez al- Assad, in 1984 after an attempted coup.

A Libyan revolt that began in mid-February and threatens the rule of Muammar Qaddafi is the bloodiest in a wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East in the past two months that have toppled Tunisia’s former leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Syria must “allow all independent political parties who genuinely believe in democracy to be established,” Assad said. “They have to release all political prisoners, allow peaceful freedom of expression and association, and end media and Internet censorship. Also, they must start processes to end state corruption. They have to do it, and they have to do it right away.”

‘Long Overdue’

Sweeping changes in the Arab world are “long overdue,” said Assad, who was last in Syria in 1999. “People in that region have been waiting for democracy and freedom a long time, and it was time for this change to happen,” he said.

“We are in the 21st century,” Assad said. “People cannot continue as is. You have satellite-television channels, mobile phones and the Internet. You cannot see how the world is advancing and accept to continue living under a dictatorship.”

Syria has taken some measures to placate citizens. The government will keep electricity prices stable even as the costs of power generation increase, state-owned newspaper Al Baath reported on March 3, citing Minister of Electricity Ahmad Qusay Kayali. The Ministry of Economy and Trade ordered a reduction in profit margins on food items such as rice, sugar, vegetable oils, animal fats and corn, as part of a drive to cut retail prices, Thawra newspaper said on March 1.

President Assad issued a decree on Jan. 16 almost doubling the heating allowance for state workers to 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32) a month, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported today. The measure will cost the state 15 billion Syrian pounds a year and will benefit about 2 million people, the agency said, citing Finance Minister Mohammad al-Hussein.

Beautiful Mosaic

“We don’t want a violent revolution,” Assad said. “Syria is a bit different from Egypt and Tunisia. We have Muslims, Christians, Jews. We have ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turkman and Circasians. It’s a beautiful mosaic.

About 200 people began a daily vigil on Jan. 29 outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus and then moved to the Bab Touma neighborhood in the old city. Their numbers dwindled because of harassment and on Feb. 2, 15 to 20 people participating in the vigil were attacked by unidentified men, Suhair Atassi, a dissident who took part, said on Feb. 3.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the Syrian authorities and called on the government to stop intimidating demonstrators.


‘‘Of course’’ change is coming to Syria, Assad said. ‘‘You can see the regime is very scared, it’s very worried. Since the revolution happened in Tunisia they have made many changes,’’ he said, referring to cash handouts by the regime, salary increases of government employees and cuts in the price of heating oil.

‘‘These are indicators,’’ said Assad, who has had no contact with his cousin since 1994. ‘‘Why didn’t they take these steps before, why did they have to wait until now? This shows they are not immune to waves of change in the region.’’

President Assad issued an amnesty for some crimes committed before today, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported, without giving further details.