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The recently released photograph of Rifaat al-Assad and his nephew, Bashar, conveys numerous messages for the streets of Syria and the ِArab world.
Amidst growing anticipation regarding Rifaat al-Assad’s imprisonment in France, al-Watan newspaper published an article titled “President Assad Permits Rifaat al-Assad’s Return to Syria to Avoid French Incarceration.”
The article published by the semi-official Syrian newspaper in October 2021 stated that Rifaat al-Assad would not engage in political or social activities upon returning.
Since his return, Rifaat al-Assad has remained out of the public eye, except for a video clip featuring him and one of his grandchildren. However, a recently surfaced photograph of Bashar and Maher alongside their uncle Rifaat appeared at many social media outlets. In the photograph, there was also Asma al-Assad (Bashar’s wife), Manal Jadaan (Maher’s wife), and their children and grandchildren.
Such a photo raised numerous questions. In fact, the photo marks the first time that Bashar and Rifaat al-Assad have been seen together since the latter announced from exile in France opposition to his nephew who took control of Syria after Hafez al-Assad passed away.
Rifaat al-Assad was convicted in France of “organised laundering of funds embezzled from the Syrian public purse.” In September 2021, he was sentenced to four years in prison. His €90 million assets were also seized.
Following legal complaints from Transparency International and Sherpa Association, the French authorities started in 2014 investigating Rifaat’s enormous wealth.
Later, France seized his movable assets and luxury properties. The investigations also revealed that Rifaat and his relatives had transferred assets through companies in Panama and Liechtenstein and then to Luxembourg.
In addition to the French investigation, Switzerland also pursued Rifaat for committing war crimes in the 1980s. Moreover, he was on trial in Spain for allegedly making illicit gains related to more than 500 real estate properties worth €691 million.
Despite all these accusations, Rifaat found a way to return to Syria.
Who is Rifaat Al Assad?
Known by various titles such as the “Saraya al-Difaa General”, “Butcher of Hama,” and “Plunderer of the Syrian Central Bank,” Rifaat al-Assad is a controversial figure. In the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad exiled his brother Rifaat to France after the latter attempted a coup against him.
Rifaat Ali Sulayman al-Assad was born on August 27, 1937, in Al-Qardaha, Latakia. He is Hafez’s younger brother. When the Baath Party came to power in March 1963, Rifaat had already been a graduate from the military academy. In 1967, he became the commander of the 569th Brigade, also known as “Saraya al-Difaa” or the “Defence Troops.”
Saraya al-Difaa was established after the 1963 coup, and Rifaat was appointed its commander in 1964. Saraya al-Difaa was active in the “February 23 Movement,” a conflict between Baathist officers, which ended with ousting President Amin al-Hafez.
Saraya al-Difaa’s mission was to attack the National Guard building in Damascus. Under Rifaat’s leadership, Saraya al-Difaa also participated in the 1970 coup called the “Corrective Movement,” which brought Hafez al-Assad to power.
According to Samer al-Mousa, a researcher in contemporary Syrian history, Saraya al-Difaa became a formidable force and the best-trained, equipped, and paid army unit.
He added: “Its members received two salaries, one from the army and the other from the unit, thanks to the Saudi financial support granted by Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.” Furthermore, al-Mousa indicated that Saraya al-Difaa participated in quelching the Juhayman al-Otaibi movement in the Masjid al-Haram in 1979 alongside French special forces.
Saraya al-Difaa emerged as a military force that nominally followed the Chief of Staff while directly managed by Rifaat. At the time, Rifaat gave himself the title “the Leader.” He also established special housing for those forces known as the “Sumerian Housing,” named after his son Sumer.
Nowadays, one of the neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Damascus still bears the name “Mezzeh 86.” The name is derived from the 555th Brigade, which represented the command centre for Saraya al-Difaa.
The Hama Massacre
The Syrian Army had allegedly perpetrated the most notorious atrocity in modern Syrian history when it quashed a rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Civilians bore the brunt of the massacre. Despite Rifaat’s disavowal of any connection to Saraya al-Difaa’s participation, British journalist Robert Fisk accused him and his unit of doing so. During the conflict, Fisk was present in the city and documented around 20,000 fatalities.
In his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, American journalist Thomas Friedman also claimed that Rifaat boasted about the total number of victims, saying they were “no less than 38,000.”
Saraya al-Difaa is accused of committing several bloodbaths culminating in the infamous massacre.
For example, in response to an assassination attempt on Hafez al-Assad in 1980, Saraya al-Difaa reportedly executed around 1,200 detainees in Tadmur prison.
Most of these detainees were Islamists. After his arrest during a failed attempt to assassinate former Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran in March 1981, Issa Ibrahim Fayyad, a member of Saraya al-Difaa involved in the massacre, confessed on Jordanian television.
In his confession, Fayyad asserted that 100 members of the Saraya al-Difaa’s 40th Brigade, led by Brigadier General Moeen Nassif, who was married to Rifaat’s daughter, were airlifted by helicopters to carry out the massacre.
In 1975, Rifaat was appointed President of the Constitutional Court and Head of the Higher Education Office. In 1983, when Hafez al-Assad faced a health crisis, a committee of six members was formed to manage the country. Still, Rifaat was excluded, which provoked several senior officers to side with Rifaat. Others remained loyal to Hafez’s instructions.
In his book “Three Months that Shook Syria,” Former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass wrote that Rifaat attempted a coup to unseat Hafez from power after the latter fell into a coma.
In his book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” the journalist Patrick Seale mentioned that Saraya al-Difaa began to assert their control over Damascus in March 1984.
Rifaat’s T-72 tanks were positioned in the central roundabout in Kafr Sousa and on Mount Qasioun overlooking the city. Checkpoints and roadblocks were erected, and Rifaat’s posters were displayed inside government buildings.
Despite the city being on the brink of war between two armies, Rifaat did not make any hostile moves. Hafez subsequently met with his brother Rifaat at his headquarters in the Mezzeh district of Damascus. They reached an agreement to restore confidence, pledging to work together.
Rifaat became Vice President responsible for security affairs. However, the command of the Saraya al-Difaa was transferred to another officer, and Rifaat’s position became largely symbolic.
Eventually, Hafez managed to contain the situation and forced Rifaat to leave Syria after giving him substantial money. It is alleged that Rifaat seized all the assets of the Central Bank.
At the time, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi provided liquidity to Syria to alleviate the Central Bank’s deficit.
In his biography, former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Salam Jalloud claimed that Hafez made a deal with Rifaat for his departure from Syria in exchange for $200 million. According to Jalloud, Libya donated this amount.
In 1985, Rifaat returned to Damascus and attended the Regional Conference for the Ba’ath Party. Despite being appointed Vice President of the National Security Council, Hafez stripped Rifaat of his military power. At the time, Hafez dispersed his brother’s supporters within the army.
While in Europe, Rifaat ventured into business and investment in France, Spain, and Britain. It is worth noting that he was not removed from his position as Vice President of the National Security Council until 1989.
Upon Bashar’s ascent to power in 2000, Rifaat voiced his dissatisfaction and established an oppositional television channel. With the onset of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Rifaat formed the “National Democratic Council,” consisting mainly of officials from his party, the “United National Group,” and former Ba’ath Party leaders.
Although Rifaat supported demands calling for Bashar to step down, he did not accept stripping the al-Assad family of power. He issued statements calling for forming an Arab international alliance to negotiate with his nephew for a deal.
Under the deal, Bashar would step down in exchange for guarantees for him and his relatives. In turn, one of the family members, possibly his uncle or one of the al-Assad family members, would assume power.
However, many Syrians were unconvinced by Rifaat’s opposition and rejected his proposals. In recent years, he has been embroiled in legal disputes, culminating in his return to Syria to avoid imprisonment in France.
Pledge of Allegiance
Various Syrian groups have interpreted Rifaat’s return as a symbol of new allegiance to his nephew. The return indicated that Bashar regained the support of military figures or their sons from the Alawite sect, including families receiving financial support and monthly salaries from Rifaat.
According to journalist Mohammad Al-Hamadi, the viral photo of Rifaat with Bashar and his wife Asmaa, indicates the local family and Alawite community’s support for the Syrian president. Al-Hamadi told Fanack that this support was particularly needed after losing support from his cousins in the Makhlouf family. Asma’s actions in seizing a significant portion of Rami Makhlouf’s financial empire and diminishing his political influence have also contributed to this perception.
Al-Hamadi did not completely rule out the possibility of the photo being a message to Arab circles. However, he downplayed its significance despite Rifaat al-Assad having Arab relations, particularly with Saudi Arabia, due to his kinship by marriage.
Before leaving for Syria, Rifaat told the French judiciary that the money he obtained was a grant from the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz when the latter was Head of the National Guard.
However, Rifaat’s son, Firas, who opposes his father and Bashar al-Assad, does not seem to fully agree with this opinion.
In his post, he wrote: “The picture is telling the Syrian people to forget what they saw in the soap opera and to not ask about the reasons for the dispute between Hafez and Rifaat. The message to Syrians was: ‘you should not ask about your history, what happened in reality, or how Hafez, Bashar, or Rifaat see you. You must live in delusion as you always have and surrender to the idea that the al-Assad family will rule over you forever.’”
Firas added: “I want every Syrian to know that Rifaat and Bashar al-Assad only met because one gave up his dreams of power for the other. There is no other reason. If Rifaat were to speak out about his right to power or anything of the sort today, he would either end up imprisoned or expelled the next day. If the roles were reversed and Bashar was in Rifaat’s position, under the same scenario, you would see Bashar al-Assad killed and dumped in the Palmyra desert.”
Firas concluded: “These people have nothing in this world except for power. They do not care if the entire Syrian population died, were displaced, or starved. They do not care if Syrian children eat dirt or if one of them kills his brother or son for the sake of power. What matters to them is staying in power.”