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Ribal al-Assad (born 4 June 1975) is a leading Syrian global campaigner for democracy, freedom and human rights. He is the son of Rifaat al-Assad and Line Al-Khayer and is married to Joanna Al Assad. His brothers include Siwar Al-Assad, author of the French novel, ‘À coeur perdu' and Somar al-Assad, who founded A.N.N., Arab News Network TV channel and the Arab People Party in 1997. He is also the first cousin to, and lifelong opponent of, Bashar Al-Assad.
Ribal is the Founder and Director of the Organisation for Freedom and Democracy in Syria (ODFS) and the Chairman and Founder of The Iman Foundation which seeks to promote inter-religious and cultural dialogue and to challenge extremism.
Ribal Al Assad was exiled from Syria as a child by the government and has since worked for over a decade for a peaceful transition to freedom, democracy and human rights in his country. In 2010 he was interviewed by the historian Robert Fisk in the Independent where, prior to the Arab Spring, he set out his hopes for a new Syria.
His belief in a political solution to the Syrian conflict as the only solution has remained steadfast, despite the intensification of violence since the start of the conflict in 2011. As well as being an advocate for universal democratic rights in Syria, Ribal Al Assad has also been notably outspoken against religious political groups and theocracy and has publicly criticized bodies including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Al-Nusra, ISIS, Hamas and the government of Iran. He has also been critical of the Syrian National Council, and its undemocratic selection of members by Turkey and Qatar, a majority of whom are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Equally, his criticisms of the Free Syria Army have concerned its inclusion of Islamist extremist groups and its exclusive Salafi extremist Supreme Military Council. He has, since 2010 called upon the International Community to come together in order to establish peace and stability in Syria.
Ribal al-Assad has several charitable and business interests and speaks Arabic, French, Spanish and English fluently.
Early Life and Family
Ribal was born in Damascus, the 13th of 16 siblings. His mother, an optometrist, ran a free clinic for the poor in Damascus. His father, Dr Rifaat al-Assad, was Head of Higher Education, a senior military figure and nominal vice-President between 1984 and 1998, and the younger brother of the late President Hafez Al-Assad.
As a child, Ribal was surrounded by democratic influences. His father founded Al-Fursan, the first and only Arab Magazine in the Middle East promoting Democracy and Freedom. Ribal was encouraged to read regular features explaining the importance of political pluralism and freedom to Syria and the Middle East. His father also promoted education (building the Universities of Lattakia and Homs and extending the University of Aleppo) and the advancement of women in military and civilian society. His mother, Line Al-Khayer, a beneficiary of this policy, trained as a paratrooper.
He left Syria in 1984 at the age of 9 following a drift between his father and his uncle which began in the 1970s leading to a military standoff and a split in the Baath party. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Ribal al-Assad 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."
Ribal and his family then moved to Paris, where he continued to live until the age of 16. He claimed that his experiences mixing with other cultures in Paris helped him develop an early understanding of multiculturalism and multi-ethnic communities; especially with regards to the Jewish community. The belief in inclusive and multicultural society that has been a cornerstone in the ODFS mission was developed from such a starting point. At the age of 16, Ribal al-Assad began High School in New York and Houston, before joining university in Boston.
Despite leaving Syria in 1984, Ribal al-Assad continued to be under the threat of violence, with assassination attempts occurring in 1994, 1998 and 1999. During the period 1992-1997, in which these attacks occurred, Ribal al-Assad did not permanently reside in Syria, but routinely returned home during the Christmas Holiday period in order to visit his father, who was not permitted to leave the country. From 1997-9, he remained in Syria, continuing charitable work that had been started by his father.
- In 1980 when the Muslim Brotherhood, who were advocating the overthrow of the government in favour of an Islamist State in Syria, attempted to run a truck full of explosives into the family home. The truck was intercepted by security guards who shot at it.
- In 1994, two weeks after a public argument with his cousins Bashar and Maher Al Assad, soldiers were sent to assassinate Ribal at Damascus International Airport, after returning home to visit his father following the death of his mother, in 1992. The plan was foiled because his father accompanied him to the airport.
- In 1998, Ribal was the subject of an assassination attempt by the government, who ambushed the car with spike strips (stingers) when returning on the dark road from Lebanon to Tartus.
- In 1999, a week after Ribal left for Spain, his family home in Lattakia was attacked by 5,000 Republican Guards using gun-ships, tanks, rocket-launchers and helicopters, led by General Assef Shawkat.
Other attacks have not directly targeted his life, but those of his associates and his charitable works:
- In 2006, Ribal founded the Al-Fursan Charity in Lebanon, which during religious festivals distributes food, presents and school items to people from across religions, sects and ethnic groups. He also opened a small school to teach children foreign languages free of charge. The Charity’s director was shot at and had his car burned at the school by the Syrian government in 2007 as featured in this report on LBC Television in Lebanon. The school was destroyed.
- In 2009, Lebanese Military Intelligence called in Nawar Abboud, the Syrian member of the United National Democratic Alliance, (headed by Ribal’s father) for questioning and handed him over to Syrian Military Intelligence. They also threatened his pregnant wife and their three-year-old daughter, both of whom fled to Lebanon. Abboud was also treasurer of the Al-Fursan Charity. His arrest took place the night after he had been distributing gifts to Muslims and Christians in Churches in Lebanon. Abboud was then handed over to the Syrian authorities. He has not been seen since.
The various attacks on Ribal’s person, property and friends clearly influenced his antipathy towards the government and the political system that allowed it.
Ribal al-Assad has often held that his exposure to extremism, terrorism and the horrors of living in an autocratic police-state, inspired him to work for peaceful change, bringing freedom, democracy and human rights in Syria and the Middle East.
This work for democracy and freedom began in 2006 through his Chairmanship of the Arab News Network (ANN), a television channel promoting freedom and democracy across the Middle East. Founded in 1997, it was the first Arab News satellite TV channel set up to promote democracy and freedom in Syria, the Middle East and North Africa. In 2009 however, the ANN channel was blocked by the Syrian government.
Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria
Frustrated by the censorship of ANN, Ribal al-Assad founded the Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria in 2009. Even before the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Ribal al-Assad spoke out against the Bashar al-Assad government and its failure to provide a democratic future for the Syrian people. His animosity towards the Syrian Government is encapsulated in his first speech as ODFS Director at the LEGATUM Institute in February 2010, where he said:
“The world has moved forward but my country, Syria, has not. It has failed to become the great nation that it should be. It's not the fault of the common man or woman. The current government, the regime, has failed to deliver democracy, freedom and prosperity. The regime is authoritarian and controlling. It oppresses its people, denies freedom of expression and association, violates human rights, and mismanages the economy.”
As Director of the ODFS, Ribal continued the mission for reform by lobbying senior British and European Parliamentarians including Robert Godsiff MP, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in March 2010 on the urgent need for political transition in Syria to democracy and freedom. The organization did not spring into prominence until 2010 however, when the Independent Newspaper journalist and renowned Middle Eastern commentator, Robert Fisk interviewed Ribal al-Assad. Ribal responded to the interview in this article.
The Organisation began to gain momentum after the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 and since then Ribal has spoken at a number of high-profile events, organisations and institutions including:
- Seoul National University
- British Parliament
- EU Parliament
- the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
- the National Security Conference in Berlin
- Carlton Club and Reform Club
- the Legatum Institute
- Oxford University
- Queen Mary University
- China Foreign Affairs University
- the St. Gallen Symposium
- Avenir Suisse
- the Bled Strategic Forum, by invitation of the Prime Minister of Slovenia
- the FAES (Madrid), by invitation of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar
- USI (United Services Institute) India
- European Atlantic Group
- Mid-Atlantic Group (London)
- London Rotary Club
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute
- World Policy Conference
- World Affairs Councils of America
- Business Executives for National Security
- Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting
- the Iman Foundation's "Islamism: A Global Threat" conferences
- EIN Conference in Split, Croatia
Ribal has been critical of the Syrian National Council since its inception. He has pointed-out how it has been overwhelmingly made up of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were not elected through a democratic process but hand-picked by Turkey and Qatar. He has also been critical of the Free Syria Army (highlighting how it was made of Islamist extremist groups) and its Supreme Military Council (saying how it was exclusively made up of Salafi Extremist groups).
This pivotal speech at the Oxford University United Nations Association sets out Ribal's view of the way that the optimism of the Syrian Arab Spring was quickly allowed to spiral into chaos and avoidable tragedy.
The Iman Foundation
Ribal al-Assad’s work as Chairman of the Iman Foundation has focused on promoting interfaith and inter cultural dialogue and challenging extremism across the world. The organisation is not-for-profit and is committed to "promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, intra-religious dialogue and challenging extremism and promoting mainstream voices".
Since 2010, Ribal al-Assad has met with an extensive list of religious and political leaders of a global scale, to discuss a variety of both general and specific issues linked to inter- and intra-faith dialogue.
The Iman Foundation has held a number of conferences addressing the themes of radicalism and Islamic extremism.
Published Articles and Opinion Pieces
For the Huffington Post:
For Project Syndicate:
For Conservative Home:
- "Al-Assad's cousin weighs in on Syrian war". MSNBC. Retrieved 2016-01-29.
- WorldsApaRT (2015-02-19), RADICAL CHANGE? (ft. Ribal al-Assad, Director of the Organisation for Freedom & Democracy in Syria), retrieved 2016-01-29
- "In Richmond, cousin of Syrian president calls for U.S. and Russia to destroy ISIS". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 2016-01-29.
- ODF- SYRIA (2013-10-05), Ribal Al Assad on BBC Newsnight, retrieved 2016-01-29
- Sputnik. "NGO: World Should Condemn Extremists Within New Saudi Anti-Terror Coalition". sputniknews.com. Retrieved 2016-01-29.
- "The Iman Foundation". iman-worldwide.org. Retrieved 2016-01-29.
- "The Iman Foundation". iman-worldwide.org. Retrieved 2016-01-29.