Syrian rebels in Aleppo.
Syrian rebels aim their weapons as they take position in a building during clashes with regime forces in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo in northern Syria on March 16, 2013. Photo by AFP
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The forces fighting against the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria are dominated by Islamic extremists “who are worse than Nazis” – and the United States should refrain from arming them. This was the message delivered by Ribal Assad, first cousin and longtime critic of Bashar Assad, at a private meeting in New York on Tuesday.

“The Islamists won’t stop with Syria,” Ribal Assad said. “Their aim is to spread the revolution throughout the Middle East. And if they are not stopped, the result will be a regional war in which Turkey and Israel will also become involved.”

In a warning that he intends to convey in meetings with U.S. lawmakers and Administration officials later this week, Assad said Washington should not be taking sides in a “sectarian” war. Rather than arming the rebels, the U.S. should cooperate with Russia and China on an international convention that would create an all-inclusive “government of national unity” in Syria that would rule the country in an interim period, before new democratic elections are held.

Assad accused U.S. allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia of organizing and arming Islamic jihadist fighters in Syria – who number more than 100,000 today – in order to prevent the emergence of a democratic Syria that would threaten their own monarchies as well.

“Most rebel-held areas are flying the black flags of Al-Qaida,” Assad says. “And the so-called Free Syrian Army is all Salafi groups.”

These foreign jihadists have served as a pretext for the intervention by Iran and Hezbollah, Assad adds, and have allowed Bashar Assad himself to claim that he is waging war on “foreign extremists” rather than homegrown Syrian rebels.

Faced with the prospects of an Islamic regime that will impose Sharia rule, more and more Syrians are rallying around the Assad regime, his cousin claims. “Bashar owns 70% of Syrian hearts and minds,” he said. “Because most Syrians prefer the devil they already know,” he says.

Ribal is the son of former Syrian President Hafez Assad’s younger brother, Rifaat, the one-time Syrian vice president and security chief who has been widely implicated in the infamous 1982 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members in the town of Hama - a charge that Ribal has consistently denied.

A long time rival of his brother, Rifaat was neutralized and ultimately sent into exile following his failed attempt to seize power in 1983. His well-groomed and well-educated son Ribal lives in London, where he has headed “The Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria” which has opposed the autocratic Assad regime and lobbied for liberalization and democratization.

Assad is harshly critical of recent calls by leading Sunni cleric Sheikh Yussuf el Qardawi for a Sunni “jihad” against Shiites and Alawites in Syria, as well as anti-Alawite statements made by Egyptian President Morsi and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who questioned whether Bashar Assad is a Muslim. He said that the stage is being set for an influx of thousands of more jihadists into Syria and for the escalation and expansion of the war.

“Over 100,000 have been killed until now, 45,000 of whom were members of the security services,” Assad said. “But that number will grow much higher if the fighting carries on.”

Assad added that if the fighting is allowed to continue indefinitely, the U.S. will find itself facing a situation that can be described as “Afghanistan times ten.” He said that only an international conference which will include all the groups and minorities in Syria stands any chance of preserving the “beautiful mosaic” that Syria once was.