The Syrian Assad who likes Jews and Israel
Interview: Ribal Al-Assad
The first cousin of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has welcomed the possibility of a future democratic Syria making peace with Israel.
Ribal al-Assad, 36, whose father is the exiled former vice-president Rifaat al-Assad, said in an interview with the JC that most Syrians were interested primarily in peace and prosperity.
"People want a good future for their kids. That's why they are fighting this régime. Of course, it is a matter of principle that to have peace with Israel they will need a land-for-peace deal. There was a possibility of this happening at the time of the late Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin but sadly it didn't materialise. When there is genuine peace, people will be travelling and doing business in both countries. When this happens, borders will be less important."
Mr Assad, who in 2009 founded the Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, in opposition to his cousin's régime, claimed that if his father's ideas had been pursued in the 1970s, Syria would have made peace with Israel at the same time as the Egyptians.
He said: "My father was a great friend of President Sadat. On one of my father's visits to Egypt, Sadat said that he had an offer from the Americans. Israel would exchange the Sinai and Golan Heights in return for peace, and Syria and Egypt would receive American economic help. My father thought this was a great idea and he told Sadat, 'come to Syria and we'll talk to my brother [President Hafez al-Assad]'.
"Sadat was shocked by Hafez's answer, which was 'what's been taken by force can only been taken back by force'. As a result, we lost Egypt as an ally, and became isolated, particularly as our weapons, which were supplied by the Soviet Union, didn't even work."
Mr Assad denied the commonly accepted wisdom that Rifaat had overseen the shelling of the Syrian town of Hama in which thousands of Sunni Muslim rebels were massacred.
Rather, he claimed, his father was a reformer who was "ahead of his time".
Ribal al-Assad grew up in Paris after leaving Syria in 1984, and was the target of an assassination attempt when he returned home aged 18. He explained that the opposition to his cousin's régime needed to be united in order to be successful.
"The Syrian National Congress has international recognition but does not represent the broad opposition. The protesters can only win if they unify to show the régime that it will not be replaced by the Islamists. To prise the leadership away from the present régime, we need to move to a system where there is the rule of law and independent justice, where people will be given a fair trial."
He was adamant that a future democratic Syria would embrace all its minorities, including those few Jews who have remained in Damascus. "Growing up I had many Jewish friends and I still have friends of all faiths - including Jews. We all have to work together."