By Mohammed Abbas
LONDON (Reuters) - Syria could slip into civil war and spark regional conflict if there is no rapprochement between President Bashar al-Assad and an uprising against his autocratic rule, Assad's dissident cousin said Wednesday.
Ribal al-Assad, who lives in London, also said religious extremists were hijacking the three-month uprising, and that a corrupt inner circle was manipulating the president into resisting concessions to the protest movement.
"We have to choose. Either we have peaceful transitional change, or we might find ourselves in a regional war. A civil war and a regional war .... It could easily happen," he told Reuters in an interview in London.
Ribal is the son of Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar's uncle and a former military commander widely held responsible for crushing an Islamist uprising in 1982 against then president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father. Many thousands of people were killed.
Ribal, 36, denies his father was involved and believes he was framed for what he says were his pro-democracy sentiments. Rifaat turned against the regime in the 1980s and lives in exile, while Ribal campaigns for democratic change from London.
Ribal said Bashar still had allies in the region, such as Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.
"You have to be pragmatic and practical. He's there, the regime is there. You have to do the best to pressure them to sit round a table to have a national unity government ... Bashar has allies. He's not alone," Ribal said.
Assad, 45, promised reform when he succeeded his father in 2000, but has opted for a bloody crackdown on demonstrators campaigning to end his family's four-decade grip on power. Rights groups say some 1,300 civilians have been killed.
The threat of sectarian civil war is already apparent. Bashar's family and many other members of his administration belong to Syria's minority Alawite sect, while the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim.
Sectarian tensions have already spilled into Lebanon, where at least three people were killed in a clash between Alawis and Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli Friday. In Syria there are signs of sectarian cracks between Alawites and Sunnis in the army.
Ribal, an Alawite, said Sunni extremists, who consider Alawites heretics, were trying to hijack the protest movement to start a sectarian war. That pushes Alawites who might otherwise defect closer to Assad's administration, Ribal said.
At the same time, members of Assad's inner circle are blocking the prospect of real reforms called for by protesters.
"There are people in the regime who do not want to see any reforms happening in Syria. They know very well that reforms mean they would lose their interests, they would be brought to justice," Ribal said.
"At the same time you have people on the other side, like the Islamists and the extremists who are pushing for sectarian war, without calculating what a disaster it would be for Syria and the region," he added.
Ribal, who lived in Syria till the age of nine, says he and his father have no political ambitions, despite having the support of "millions" in Syria. It is unclear how seriously the opposition movement takes him or his father.
Monday Assad pledged reforms, including new laws on political parties and elections, but they were seen by opponents as too little, too late and too vague.
"The protesters still haven't seen anything ... He doesn't need to set up a committee to abolish Article Eight of the constitution, which says the Baath Party is the leader of state and society. This could be done right away by presidential decree to show good will," Ribal said.
If Assad cannot make reforms, he should admit he is hostage to vested interests and side with the uprising, Ribal said.
"What Bashar has to know is that at the end of the day he will be blamed for everything because he's the head of the government, the army, the Baath party," he added.
"If he can't stand up to those people, he has to come out and say 'I've tried to do reforms since I came to power, but the people around me have not let me. I need you to help me. I'm stepping down and taking the side of the people'."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)
(The following story was corrected in the 10th paragraph to make clear clash was in Lebanon, not Syria)