Facebook's "Hama" page, circa 2012.

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Assad Cousin Sparks Backlash With Washington Speech

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A Washington think tank canceled a congressional forum featuring the first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Tuesday after protests from the Syrian opposition. When Assad’s cousin eventually did speak in another location, he defended his family’s regime and called for the U.S. to work with the Syrian government.

Siwar al-Assad, the son of President Assad’s uncle Rifaat and nephew of former President Hafez al-Assad, was scheduled to be part of the 82nd Capitol Hill Conference put on by the Middle East Policy Council, a small Washington think tank. The event was to be held Tuesday at the Rayburn House office building. He was to speak alongside the Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government and Brian Katulis, a senior Middle East fellow for the Center for American Progress.

But when Washington-based representatives for the Syrian opposition found out about the event, they lodged protests with the organizers and also with the office of Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who had reserved the room for the event. When Connolly’s office realized he’d be hosting a member of Syria’s first family in the Capitol complex, he cancelled the room reservation.

“Once we were made aware of the panel of speakers, we immediately cancelled the room in order not to be associated with Siwar al-Assad,” Connolly’s press secretary Jamie Smith told me. “Congressman Connolly has been a strong opponent of the Assad regime.”

Smith pointed out that Connelly supported military strikes against the Assad regime when the Obama administration was planning them in 2013. He said the council requested a room and his office approved the request without examining the agenda.

A junior staffer at the Middle East Policy Council acknowledged that the congressional conference had been cancelled due to objections over giving Assad’s cousin such a prominent platform.

“We had a lot of backlash because one of the speakers is the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, so we cancelled it,” said executive assistant Grace Elliott. When I asked for an interview with council leadership, she said: “There’s no one available here to speak with you.”

Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, one of the groups that lobbied to cancel the event, told me that he and other anti-regime activists called Connolly’s office, as well as Republican leadership in the House and the KRG representative office to protest.

“The thought of having the cousin and son of two mass murderers speaking in the halls of Congress is against every value we hold dear in the United States,” he said.

Siwar al-Assad was raised mostly in Switzerland and France, after his immediate family was exiled in the aftermath of a power struggle between his father and Hafez al-Assad, on whose behalf Siwar's father had orchestrated the mass murder of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians in Hama during a 1982 uprising. Yet the two parts of the Assad family have extensive ties, and the rupture still left Siwar's side with great wealth.

He was listed in the council program as managing director of Al Alamia TV, a culture and entertainment channel that broadcasts in Arabic and English. He recently wrote a novel entitled "A Coeur Perdu" that was praised in the French press. He is also vice president of an organization called the United Nationals Democratic Alliance, which was founded by his father.

The council went ahead with the cancelled event at its headquarters (and streamed it online). Assad repeatedly defended his cousin’s government and called on the international community to abandon its efforts against the Syrian regime.

“Bashar al-Assad, he is clearly supported, whether we like it or not, by many people in Syria. They see in him a leader for now,” Siwar al-Assad said.

The international community has been calling for Assad to go for four years but it should be clear that Assad is not going to answer those calls, his cousin explained.

“So we have to have priorities and we need to be pragmatic,” he said. “To succeed, we need to deal with the people who are in charge on the ground. In this case, one of these people is President Bashar al-Assad, and why not?”

Siwar said the international community should join with the Assad regime to fight the “terrorists,” including the Islamic State. He denied that the Assad regime does business with IS but he accused the Kurds, the Turks, and other Syrian groups of working with them. He criticized the U.S.-led program to train and equip Syrian rebels as a failure.

He refused to discuss his cousin’s record of mass murder in Syria, which includes evidence of the torture of thousands of civilians in government custody and direct or indirect responsibility for more than 200,000 Syrian civilian deaths. “The priority now is to make sure no more people will die, or less people will die today, tomorrow, and in the future,” he said. “The West has to make up its mind, regime change or being pragmatic.”

The KRG pulled out of the event at the last minute and declined to explain why. CAP’s Katulis did sit on the panel and pushed back against Assad’s points by explaining that Bashar al-Assad’s actions preclude him being part of the solution in Syria.

“Paint me skeptical,” he said about Assad’s proposal of a future stable Syria under the current regime. “When you have a regime that has murdered thousands of its own people, they’re quite likely not to have the moral capability nor the staying power.”

As per instructions from the moderator, I tweeted a question to Siwar al-Assad, “Your father orchestrated the murder of thousands and your cousin hundreds of thousands. Your comment?” My question was never asked nor answered.

The policy debate on Syria demands, and benefits from, a wide range of views. But today’s event suggests that those who try to use U.S. government resources to promote the views of those who are close to and benefit from regimes as odious as Assad’s do so at their peril.

(Corrects spelling of the name of Siwar al-Assad's novel in 11th paragraph of article published Oct. 20.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net