Presidential candidate backed by a clan that does not want him to win

Hassan al-Nouri knows he has no chance of beating the incumbent

Syria’s presidential candidate Hassan al-Nouri speaking during an interview in Damascus yesterday. He said  Syria has paid a high price for adopting the Arab nationalist line and staying true to its traditional allies, Russia and Iran, a policy the US, in particular, condemned Photograph: Reuters

Syria’s presidential candidate Hassan al-Nouri speaking during an interview in Damascus yesterday. He said Syria has paid a high price for adopting the Arab nationalist line and staying true to its traditional allies, Russia and Iran, a policy the US, in particular, condemned Photograph: Reuters

 

Businessman and government critic Hassan al-Nouri is well aware he has no chance of winning Syria’s presidential election. Nevertheless, he decided to stand against incumbent Bashar al-Assad. “I am 100 per cent behind him” in his effort “to unify the army and the administration and wage the war on terror... but I disagree with him on very important points on the economy and administrative reform ... am in the opposition but I seek to pursue the interests of the country ... not to fight with him.”

He believes Syria is the victim of an “international war and that the government has responded well” to this challenge. Speaking to The Irish Times in his campaign suite at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, Nouri says he had considered becoming a presidential candidate for some time but made his final decision while attending an EU conference on Syria held in Warsaw last December.

After he had uttered sharp criticisms of government economic policy, a European journalist asked him if he “had the guts” to repeat them in Damascus. Nouri responded that the Syrian ambassador was attending the gathering and would report back. Then the journalist asked if he “had the guts to stand against Assad”. Nouri, a large man with a cheery manner, said he replied: “Please consider me a candidate.”

Reformer

“People want Assad to win but they want Nouri for reform” as an adviser to the president, prime minister, or minister. A former independent member of parliament, “leader of the minority”, and minister of administrative development, Nouri considers himself a member of the opposition and plans to form a pressure group or party, the National Initiative for Reform, after the election.

He says he is not an “economic liberal” but an advocate of a flexible, “smart free economy” which the government regulates to benefit both the rich and the poor. He condemns the “social market” model, adopted a decade ago, which enabled 100 businessmen to become very wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor. He also condemns the decision to open Syria to free trade with Turkey. “Turkish products flooded the Syrian market. It was a disaster.” Many industries in Aleppo closed down. “I am an industrialist. I had 300 workers.” His family firm produced shoe polish and brushes.

In his view, Syria has paid a high price for adopting the Arab nationalist line and staying true to its traditional allies, Russia and Iran, a policy the US, in particular, condemned. Washington demanded Syria renounce its allies as the price of good relations with the West.

The US also called upon Syria to cut relations with Palestinian groups calling for resistance to Israeli occupation and to permit the construction of a pipeline to carry Qatari gas across Syria to Europe in order to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas. He believes Syria can rely on these allies as well as its strategic partners, Algeria, Iraq, Oman and Lebanon, as well as supportive countries in Latin America.

‘Not lucky’ He points out that Dr

Assad has not been lucky. He has faced the fallout of al-Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the US, the US war on Iraq, blame for the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, four years of drought in Syria and the 2008 global economic meltdown. “Assad did not have top advisers to help him understand” and respond correctly to these events and to threats from Washington. After the election Nouri believes there will be economic reform and a campaign against corruption. Syria will open its doors to every dissident expatriate who wants to return home and “respects Syria and Syrian pride”.

He mentions in particular preacher Moaz al-Khatib who briefly headed the expatriate National Coalition, backed by the west and Gulf Arabs, and Haitham Manna, the Paris-based representative of the domestic opposition National Coordination Board and longstanding democracy activist.