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Exclusive: Bashar Assad wants war not peace reveals Syria’s former prime minister Riyad Hijab

Exclusive Telegraph article
The most senior politician to defect from the Bashar al-Assad’s regime has revealed that the President repeatedly rejected calls by his own government for a political compromise, in favour of all-out war.

The most senior politician to defect from the Bashar al-Assad's regime has revealed that the President repeatedly rejected calls by his own government for a political compromise, in favour of all-out war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) and former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab Photo: AFP/Getty Images
By , Amman,04 Nov 2012

In his first full interview with a Western newspaper since he fled to Jordan in August, Riyad Hijab, the former prime minister, told The Daily Telegraph that he and other senior regime figures pleaded with Mr Assad to negotiate with the Syrian opposition.

One week before his defection, Mr Hijab, the vice-president, the parliamentary speaker and the deputy head of the Baath party together held a private meeting with Mr Assad.

“We told Bashar he needed to find a political solution to the crisis,” he said. “We said, ‘These are our people that we are killing.’

“We suggested that we work with Friends of Syria group, but he categorically refused to stop the operations or to negotiate.”

Mr Hijab referred to the war waged against the Muslim Brotherhood by Mr Assad’s father, Hafez, which led to the deaths of up to 10,000 people in an assault on the city of Hama.

“Bashar really thinks that he can settle this militarily,” he said.

“He is trying to replicate his father’s fight in the 1980s.” Mr Hijab was speaking as key anti-regime figures gathered in the Qatari capital Doha to replace the fractured opposition Syrian National Council with a new government-in-exile. Once formed, the new Council would seek to gain formal international recognition, and, crucially, better weapons.

Mr Hijab said he rejected an offer to be part of the US-backed proposal, promising to be a “soldier in this revolution without taking a political position”.

He said the lack of serious action by the West had consolidated President Assad’s confidence.

“Bashar used to be scared of the international community – he was really worried that they would impose a no-fly zone over Syria,” he said. “But then he tested the waters, and pushed and pushed and nothing happened. Now he can run air strikes and drop cluster bombs on his own population.”

Mr Assad’s acceptance of ceasefire proposals by the United Nations envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi during the 19-month crisis was “just a manoeuvre to buy time for more destruction and killings”, he said.

Indeed in a speech to his cabinet Mr Assad extolled only the dictums of warfare, Mr Hijab said.

It was as he watched his leader speak – coldly, confidently and gripped by the blind conviction that only military force would crush his enemies, he said – that Mr Hijab knew he had no choice but to break away.

“My brief was to lead a national reconciliation government,” Mr Hijab said. “But in our first meeting Bashar made it clear that this was a cover. He called us his ‘War Cabinet’.” The explosion at the Damascus national security building that killed the country’s defence minister and the president’s brother-in-law marked a turning point, Mr Hijab said. After that, no holds were barred.

“The new minister of defence sent out a communiqué telling all heads in the military that they should do ‘whatever is necessary’ to win,” he said. “He gave them a carte blanche for the use of force.” In recent months the formal government had become redundant, Mr Hijab said. Real power was concentrated in the hands of a clique comprising Mr Assad, his security chiefs, relatives and friends.

Certain that he had lost all influence, and watching the tendrils of smoke rising from his home town of Deir al-Zour near the Iraqi-Syrian border after another wave of air strikes, Mr Hijab plotted his escape: “A brother spoke with one of the Free Syrian Army brigades in Damascus,” he said. “We had expected to be at the border in three hours, but it took us three days.”

Since then, the violence has worsened and new fronts have opened across the country. On Sunday a bomb exploded in the centre of Damascus, wounding 11 civilians, state television and activists reported. The blast was detonated close to the Dama Rose hotel, which hosted Mr Brahimi during his recent visit to Damascus.

Rebels also claimed to have seized an oilfield near Deir Al-Zour, while fighting continued around army and airbases west of Aleppo, which the regime have used to strike rebel-held areas in recent weeks.

Mr Hijab said the violence would continue and the regime would stay in power for as long as Russia and Iran continued to provide support. But even if they cut their allegiance, he said Mr Assad would most probably still refuse to quit.

“I am shocked to see Bashar do what he has doing,” he said. “He used to seem like a good human being, but he is worse than his father.

Hafez is a criminal for what he did in Hama, but Bashar is a criminal for what he is doing everywhere.”

A Word on the Tlass Departure

Something stinks to high heaven. First there is the defection of Manaf Tlass, a Republican Guard General, son of Mustafa, the former Syrian defence minister under Hafez Assad, and friend of the latter’s son, Bashar. In one news story I heard Tlass referred to as a member of the Damascene “aristocracy”, and then we hear reports that Michel Kilo gives a radio interview to a Russian station saying that Tlass is an acceptable head for a transition government.

Firstly I don’t think the Tlass family are members of any “aristocracy”. No offence but the town of Rastan is not known for its riches, it is a military town, and its sons find a career in the military far more appealing than the other opportunities available to them. The Tlass’ have done well under Assad’s forty year rule, and they have considerable wealth. I don’t remember hearing them have any issues about corruption, torture and regime heavy handedness during the eighties. Tlass junior’s departure today is even more suspect now that the Assad regime appears to be on the way to collapse.

So why is he now being pushed as a potential successor to Assad? I think he ticks all the boxes. He is charismatic, handsome, wealthy and comes from a military background. That means he is respected by Assad’s old guard – both the new and the old. His friendship of Assad might mean he won’t pursue Assad and his family should the latter leave power, and the country could safely retain its security apparatus under a new Sunni dynasty, the Tlasses. I find myself wondering if this is the result of some compromise between Russia and the West, with both sides not very happy about this revolution, and neither of them wanting the country and the region to crumble into oblivion.

Iran is quietly watching from the sidelines, and it is no coincidence that Annan has hurried between Damascus and Tehran; most likely to deliver the final ultimatum offered by the West. Whatever the contents of this final lifeline are, the alternative is a very destructive war. The FSA will definitely see an upsurge in supply from the West and the Gulf states. Ultimately this means a catastrophic refugee situation. It is clear by now that the Gulf states intend to herd all Syrians fleeing the violence into refugee camps, as the GCC has been denying visas to all Syrians for months.

This is a particularly devastating and humiliating option for many Syrians, as their other routes, whether to Turkey, which will be perilous, or to Lebanon, which might just be a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Not many people realise this, but Damascus in particular is packed with families that have left Homs, Hama and the neighbouring areas and rents in the capital have sky rocketed in the past year. If war reaches Damascus then where will these people go? And how will they be fed, clothed and sheltered? Clinton is not joking when she warns of an impending catastrophe, but the real question is whether Assad cares or not. The mantra chanted by his supporters, “Assad or the country burns” might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tlass might be the least worst option, but this still isn’t good enough for a country that has given over fifteen thousand lives for its freedom, and tens of thousands of refugees and prisoners. I doubt that all these people died to replace an Alawite dictator with a Sunni one, but I’m confident about one thing, and that is that Syria’s freshly grown grass roots will now, and should remain, the final line of defence for the Syrian people’s liberties and fight against oppression. It is now more vital than ever that these grass roots groups and coordination committees dig in and consolidate. The hard work really begins once Assad goes.

Posted by Maysaloon at 8:10 PM  

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