Robert Fisk: Freedom, democracy and human rights in Syria

Ribal al-Assad gives our writer a rare insight into the dynasty that has shaped modern Syria

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Ribal al-Assad doesn't look like the son of a war criminal; fluent English, fluent French, fluent Arabic (of course), fluffy black hair and brown eyes, a youngish 35, Boston graduate, self-assured, a member of the Damascus elite, sitting in a Marble Arch hotel, turning down my offer of coffee, talking about freedom and democracy and human rights in Syria, denying – gently but forcefully – that his father, Rifaat, is a war criminal.

Funny that. Back in February 1982, on the banks of the Orontes river, I stood next to one of Rifaat's tanks as it shelled a mosque in the blood-boltered battle between the Assad regime and the Sunni insurgents of Hama. The tank crew and many of the soldiers around them were wearing the pink uniforms of Rifaat's Special Brigades.

The Sunni uprising – as ferocious as the Algerian war or Iraq, regime party families slaughtered in their homes – was real enough. So was the brutality of Rifaat's lads. Up to 20,000 souls were reported killed in the streets and underground tunnels of Hama.

The President of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, said later that the insurgents deserved to die a hundred times. Rifaat was Hafez's brother. Hafez was therefore Ribal's uncle, the present President – Bashar – his cousin. "But anyone can wear a pink uniform," Ribal says. "Everyone wanted to wear pink uniforms then, to look like the special forces. My father was not in Hama. He was in Damascus at the time." A mere lieutenant-colonel, I am to understand.

And Rifaat, it turns out – a man whom I have always believed should stand, alongside Ariel Sharon, in a war crimes dock – is now living in central London! Did we know this? Does the British Government advertise the fact that the Butcher of Hama – for so he was known to the survivors – now lives not very far from where his son sits with me in Marble Arch? But I have to be frank. Ribal was a bit put out by my insistence that our little chat must include his Dad. He wanted to talk about his so-called "United National Alliance" (self-funded, he claims), his desire to see a new, inclusive, equal rights Syria – not a dredging up of the past. Ribal was eight years old at the time of Hama, scarcely to blame for the sins of his father – though that is not a phrase of which he would approve. A businessman managing export-import between China and the Arab world, he insists he wants no political role in a "new" Syria and bursts into laughter when I suggest he might like to be president. Most would-be presidents, I should add, burst into laughter before assuring the world that they have no such ambitions.

Personally, I suspect young Ribal would like to be a political opponent in a democratic Syria. He shakes his head. But let's face it, Ribal is a strong sell. "We want to concentrate on our future country. A country cannot be built on past grudges. We have to forgive – I don't know about forget – and we have to live together, all Syrians who believe in democracy and human rights, to have a new era. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed. Syria will change."

I point out, cruelly perhaps, that the Soviet Union still exists in Syria, despite all the economic changes which Bashar wants to bring about. But I tell him, too – for Ribal hasn't lived in Syria since the age of nine, save for a few brief visits – that Syria is not the police state it was under Uncle Hafez. You can make jokes about the regime in government ministries, private banks are creeping into the market, a critical remark about Bashar does not encourage a visit from the mukhabarat plain-clothes guys.

Ribal nods sagely. He knows all this. But he wants Syria to break its relations with Iran – a policy that must surely earn the gratitude of the Americans, not to mention Israel. US-Israeli demands that Syria sever its connections with the Islamic Republic are central to the West's "peace process" for the Middle East. But to expect Syria to deprive itself of such a powerful ally is ridiculous.

Damascus is the West's gate to Iran, Bashar is the middle-man between Washington and Tehran. Without Iran, Syria will be weak enough to make peace with Israel – like Egypt and, later, Jordan and Yasser Arafat. This would be a peace of the weak rather than a peace of the just. "No – Iran wants to have the Persian Empire back again!" exclaims Son of Rifaat. "The Iranians are not trustworthy. You see what happened in Iraq? Who was funding the insurgents, who was training them? Iranians are arrogant, especially of course with the Arabs. Look how they treat their own Arabs in Ahwaz. They are not even allowed to speak Arabic." I point out, politely, that this is not true.

And President Bashar al-Assad? Ribal speaks of him with both respect and regret. "He is still governing under the ghost of his father. Each person in Syria has an interest in the secret service. Bashar should have declared national unity as soon as he took over. He did things bit by bit, with internet cafes and so on. But it was not enough. There was no real change."

I suggest that Bashar's eloquent and very intelligent wife Asma is a great credit to him. "She is a very good woman – she has tried hard," Ribal replies rather dismissively. No, he doesn't want to see a "coup d'etat" in Syria. "My father left Syria because he didn't want bloodshed. A 'coup' means dictatorship and dictatorship breeds corruption and corruption breeds terrorism. We are campaigning internationally for a new Syria. We have no relations with Khaddam" – Syria's former foreign minister and vice-president, currently sulking in opposition in Paris – "and we had no relations with Kenaan". Kenaan was Syrian army intelligence commander in Lebanon when Damascus ruled Beirut – Ribal says he knows nothing about Kenaan's brutality then – but says he was a good man (Kenaan's son is married to Ribal's first cousin) albeit that he shot himself in the mouth after being made minister of interior. As for Bashar's brother Basil – who would be president if he had not died in a car crash – "he visited my father when we were children. He came to see me in France. I think Basil would have known that national unity was in the interests of Syria. He would have understood that independent parties could exist in opposition to the government." But I return to Rifaat – who physically looks like an even grimmer version of his brother Hafez – and his eventual departure from Syria. Ribal denies that Rifaat tried to stage a "coup" – which doesn't square with my own memory of Rifaat's tanks on the streets of Damascus – but says his father was a critic of Hafez's 1976 military advance into Lebanon. "My father was against it – he told my uncle: 'If you send Syrian troops into Lebanon, they will come back in coffins.' He said that Bashir Gemayel and his Lebanese people were nationalists. And he really never went to Hama. It was the defence minister, Mustafa Tlass, who said later that at the time of Hama, he was signing between 200 and 250 death sentences every week."

Because of the Muslim uprising, Ribal was escorted to his French school by bodyguards, a family friend was murdered, he had to live in a walled compound in his home on the Mezze boulevard, his house was attacked. "Saddam Hussein funded the Muslim Brotherhood, they were trained in Iraq and Sudan. So the Baath party decided that those in the Muslim Brotherhood were traitors. I am against all extremism."

Interesting man, Ribal, a good horseback rider (like Basil), Thai boxing enthusiast, a competent skier. "I could have had a life of privilege," he says. I ask him if Rifaat would meet me. "I'll ask him," he says. Full of hope, I am...

The Hama Massacre

* Hama was the setting for the most ferocious uprising ever staged against Hafez al-Assad's regime.

* The killings followed years of antagonism between the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalist regime of President Assad.

* The Muslim Brotherhood had tried to unseat the regime through targeted political killings and urban warfare, including an attempt to kill the President.

* During a search of Hama to try to root out dissident forces, Syrian troops came across the hideout of a local commander and were ambushed. As troop reinforcements were rushed to the city, the mosques called for a holy war against Assad's regime on 3 February 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood led the rebellion with guns, knives and grenades.

* The leadership's response was harsh. "Death a thousand times to the hired Muslim Brothers," Assad shouted in fury. "Death a thousand times to the Muslim Brothers, the criminal Brothers, the corrupt Brothers."

* The Syrian army, led by Assad's brother Rifaat, destroyed half of the city with tank shellfire and killed up to 20,000 people.

* Rifaat was seen as the natural successor to his brother, who ruled for three decades, but was accused of preparing to take over the country with his special forces. He was driven out of Damascus.

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