Bashar al-Assad's Cousin Accuses World of Abandoning Syria's Democrats

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enjoys his victory lap to celebrate a rigged election that is serving as a brazen re-coronation over his war-torn nation, the dictator's first cousin lamented the lack of help for the pro-democracy movement.

Ribal al-Assad, a son of Bashar al-Assad's uncle Rifaat al-Assad, who fled Syria in the 1980s after a failed coup, continues his pro-democracy campaigning nonetheless.

But his many trips abroad, appearances at various parliaments, and events have found little desire for engagement. "I didn't see any genuine support for the genuine democrats in Syria," Ribal al-Assad, who lives in London, England, told Newsweek.

"The whole world has recognized that [Bashar al-Assad] won," he continued, noting the failure of the international community to buoy any true democratic movement in Syria as the war waged on over the past decade.

It's too late for the U.S. to change the outcome in Syria. Ribal al-Assad said Washington, D.C. should have at least backed groups "who are willing to commit to our international values," excluding the extremists that ultimately took control of the revolution.

The idea of Syrian democracy lies mortally wounded. "Can you promise us that there will be a genuine democracy when this regime is gone? How can I promise that if the U.S. cannot?" he said. "Nobody's even been moving towards that direction."

Bashar al-Assad supposedly won 95.1 percent of this week's vote with a claimed turnout of just over 78 percent. There has been little pretense that this piece of electoral theater was free or fair.

Kurdish-held areas and the Islamist-controlled Idlib province did not vote, nor did many of the 5 million or so refugees displaced in neighboring countries.

Regardless, the dictator thanked his compatriots for "their high patriotism and their remarkable participation in this national event."

Assad lauded the "righteous martyrs, without whom Syria would not have remained, healing for our wounded and all greetings to the men of our heroic Syrian Arab Army and for the sake of all their sacrifices."

He vowed to "start from tomorrow the stage of working to strengthen hope to build Syria as it should be."

Few will take this commitment seriously. The decade-long war has killed some 500,000 people and ruined Syria. Millions have been forced abroad by persecution, fighting, a litany of war crimes, and economic devastation, in all of which Assad's SAA played a driving role.

Assad has shown little remorse for the deaths and displacement of his opponents, all of whom are considered "terrorists" for daring to resist his regime. The dictator even chose to cast his vote in Douma; a former rebel stronghold and site of one of the regime's several infamous chemical weapons attacks against civilians.

He has survived the efforts to unseat him, dodging the grizzly ends that met dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. He may rule a ruined nation, but he and Syria's Alawite minority have retained power.

As votes were being "counted," Ribal al-Assad, told Newsweek the past decade of war has produced no winners.

He works from abroad in favor of democratic reform in Syria. But the past decade of turmoil has done little for such plans and met with scant substantive support from the international community.

"We've all lost, the whole country has lost," he told Newsweek. "Nobody in his right mind considers that he's come out a winner."

Assad brutalized his people, outraging the West and his Arab neighbors, though winning powerful friends in Russia and Iran.

With the combined force of Moscow and Tehran at his back, there are now rumblings that Assad's regime will be accepted back into the fold of the Arab League. International rehabilitation may be a way off, but Assad is no longer a pariah in the same way.

Assad's victory is a strategic defeat for the U.S. and its European allies. The West wanted Assad out, but scattergun support for rebel groups was insufficient. Islamist groups overwhelmed the Syrian secular opposition, their ranks swollen by prisoners released by regime security forces to undermine the popular nature of the 2011 uprising.

"The regime was very smart. Sadly everyone fell into their trap," Ribal al-Assad said, with Gulf nations throwing their weight and money behind various competing Islamist militant groups.

The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, called for Assad's resignation and provided limited military and financial support to supposed moderate rebels.

Ribal al-Assad photo for Syria interview
Ribal al-Assad, cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, told Newsweek the last decade of war has produced no winners. Ribal al-Assad

None of those groups succeeded, and all were eventually snuffed out by the tide of extremists. U.S. weapons ended up in the hands of such extremist groups, used to chip away at the regime and build the Islamic State's "caliphate."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called this week's election "fraudulent," while the European Union said the vote " met none of the criteria of a genuinely democratic vote." The United Nations said the election does not meet Security Council rules.

But Ribal al-Assad said democrats in Syria have not received sufficient support throughout the war. "Nobody was supporting people who want genuine democrats," he said, a realization he said he found "terrifying."

The sectarian conflict of the past decade has exacerbated internal divides in Syria, he added. Assad's Alawite minority has reinforced its position, supported by Shi'ite groups from at home and abroad. The Sunni resistance has been hijacked entirely by the extremist groups, drawing funding from the Gulf.

"How can you have a genuine democracy, a representative democracy in Syria, when you cannot differentiate between one Assad or another? Between one Alawite or another?" he asked. "That's going to be very difficult."

Years of war and an uncertain future have left many Syrians focused on practicalities.

"People were looking for a better life," Ribal al-Assad said. "Everyone wants to move forward. But if at a certain point they've seen that it's gone 150 years or 100 years backwards, we just want to come back to the status quo.

"Today, all they care about is having normal electricity, having safety for their children, having children going to school. Having simple stuff that is taken for granted in most countries."

"In some ways people are relieved because they have just had enough of the war...There's not one house or family that hasn't lost loved ones in Syria."

Casting his ballot on Wednesday, Assad said the opinion of the West counted for "zero."

His cousin concluded: "Bashar feels more secure today than ever."

Bashar al-Assad poster in Aleppo, Syria election
Syrians celebrate in the streets of Aleppo as President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected for a fourth term as president of war-ravaged Syria, late on May 27, 2021. -/AFP via Getty Images

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts