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Muslim, Jewish, Christian power players talk Syria over smoked salmon

There, in the back of a kosher restaurant in the heart of the Syrian Jewish area of Brooklyn, New York, sat four very different men – all set on discussing the conflict in Syria.

    Syria talks over brunch: an American Jewish community leader; a Jewish activist with ties in Syria, a Christian ex-diplomat; and Bashar al-Assad’s cousin met yesterday morning
    Syria talks over brunch: an American Jewish community leader; a Jewish activist with ties in Syria, a Christian ex-diplomat; and Bashar al-Assad’s cousin met yesterday morning

    It was an unlikely meeting of minds.

    There, in the back of a kosher restaurant in the heart of the Syrian Jewish area of Brooklyn, New York, sat four very different men – all set on discussing the conflict in Syria.

    Last Sunday morning, the men – an American Jewish community leader; a Jewish activist with ties to Syria, a Christian ex-diplomat, and Bashar al-Assad’s first cousin – met in the restaurant.

    They sat around a table at the back of the establishment, where the lighting was dim and where they were surrounded by fewer diners.

    None of them wanted to be recognised.

    After the waitress had served the “lox special” – a spread of smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagels, fruit cups, coffee and juice - the men got down to talking about Syria.

    Different solutions to the war were proposed and different perspectives were discussed.

    Ribal al-Assad – who currently chairs the London-based Iman foundation, which claims to promote dialogue and challenge extremism - was sat around the table. The ex-diplomat suggested that Mr al-Assad's father, Rifaat al-Assad, should replace Bashar.

    Bashar al-Assad's cousin Ribal chairs the London-based Iman foundation
    Bashar al-Assad's cousin Ribal chairs the London-based Iman foundation

    Speaking to the JC after the breakfast, Mr al-Assad said: “It was a very good meeting.

    “Everyone is worried about the rise in Islamic extremism, and everyone wants to see peaceful change. We have to find a third way”.

    He added that his father Rifaat – Bashar al-Assad’s paternal uncle – “in the interim would be a good alternative to Bashar - not only him, but men like him.

    "You need someone who has strong support from the military and the peaceful majority who are not with the Islamists. You need someone who has a history in Syria, who is a patriot, someone who has built up loyalty through the years.”

    He added: “The best solution is for the US and other Western allies to find a political solution to Syria by calling for a conference in a neutral country."

    Mr al-Assad's father - dubbed the "Butcher of Hama" - has been widely accused of ordering the 1982 Hama massacre which resulted in the deaths of up to 40,000 people. However, Mr al-Assad dismissed these allegations, saying: "It's all propaganda."

    Next around the table was communal figure Malcolm Hoenlein, vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, who was meeting Ribal al-Assad for the first time.

    He said of the proposition to replace Bashar with Rifaat: “He’s entitled to want it, it doesn’t make it happen.”

    Mr Hoenlein, who is regularly in contact with the White House, said information obtained from the meeting could help with a variety of issues, including orchestrating the rescue of Syrian Jews still in hiding in Damascus.

    He said: “By having the opportunity to hear from different people there, direct information enables us to get a better picture of what is happening and what policies are then appropriate.

    “It could be used to help Jews in dangerous situations. We can also help others: Yazidis, Christians and Muslims who are persecuted.”

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