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Rifaat al-Assad: From the Butcher of Hama to aspiring opposition leader

The younger brother of Hafez al-Assad has been sentenced to four years in prison on the charges of embezzling $300 million from Syrian state funds.

21 June 2020

AMMAN — On Wednesday, June 17, a French court sentenced Rifaat al-Assad, brother of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, to four years in prison and ordered the seizure of his London mansion and French properties—valued at $133.6 million—on the charges of embezzling $300 million from Syrian state funds.

His lawyers filed an appeal immediately after the ruling on Wednesday, which could take up to four years to settle, at which time al-Assad would be 86 years old. The trial started in 2014 when he was 76 years old and was initiated by the Paris-based, legal NGO Sherpa.

Already in poor health and bed-ridden in a London hospital, Rifaat is unlikely to serve any time in prison. However, his sentencing holds meaning for many Syrians, who see it as the first instance of accountability against a member of the Assad regime, though his charges are not related to his alleged crimes while a Major General in the Syrian Arab Army.

Who is the ‘Butcher of Hama?’ 

Born in the town of Qardaha in the countryside of Latkia province in 1937, Rifaat al-Assad is best known as the younger brother of Hafez al-Assad who brutally crushed the 1982 Hama uprising and later tried to overthrow Hafez in 1984, though his influence in Syria extends long before and after the coup attempt.

Not much is known about Rifaat until 1963, the year of Syria’s Baathist. He joined the military after the Baathist coup and then was made the commander of a special armed force which was key in helping Hafez al-Assad to consolidate power in 1970. 

A year later in 1971, he became the head of the Defense Companies (Saraya al-Difa), a sort of Praetorian guard tasked with defending the Assad regime. The Defense Companies were later broken up into the Republican Guard—also tasked with defending the Assad regime—and the 569th division, the predecessor of the infamous 4th Armored Division now led by Maher al-Assad and widely considered to be one of the more effective units of the Syrian Arab Army.

Rifaat’s position in the military quickly translated into a wider role in Hafez al-Assad’s regime, and in 1975 he became president of the Constitutional Court (the highest court in Syria).

Similar to Maher al-Assad’s current role as the younger brother of Bashar al-Assad and head of the 4th Armored Division, Rifaat was to be the more brutal face of the Assad regime. In 1982, when unrest exploded into an outright uprising in the city of Hama led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, as well as urban intelligentsia, Rifaat al-Assad was sent to crush the rebellion. 

What followed was one of the bloodiest chapters of Syria’s modern history, as Rifaat commanded the Defense Companies to brutally put down the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency. Much of the historical parts of the city were razed to the ground and thousands of civilians were killed. 

Death tolls of the event differ, ranging from 2,000 to 40,000 dead; however, 20,000 is a typically cited number of those killed. Rifaat’s brutal crackdown also displaced an unknown number of families who fled to neighboring countries to escape the Defense Companies’ offensive.

For his part, Rifaat denies he played a significant role in putting down the Hama uprising and claims that Hafez’s regime fabricated accounts of his involvement. 

Rifaat al-Assad’s ambition soon outstripped his loyalty. In 1983, suffering from heart issues, Hafez al-Assad appointed a six-member committee to rule the country in his stead. Sensing weakness and possible imminent death of his brother, Rifaat mobilized the Defense Companies troops to occupy Damascus, quickly overwhelming the Republican Guard meant to be Hafez’s last line of defense against any insurrections in the country’s capital. 

However, Hafez was able to successfully rally his loyalists in the army and confronted his brother before an outright conflict erupted between the two. In the end, Rifaat’s coup was stopped without a shot fired.

Following the coup attempt, Rifaat was stripped of his powers as a military general and appointed as the country’s vice president, a completely symbolic position. He was sent into virtual exile, first in the Soviet Union, then in France and Spain.

When he was exiled, he was gifted $300 million from Syrian state coffers at the direction of his brother, according to the Wednesday ruling of French courts. Rifaat maintains that the money was gifted to him by Saudi King Abdullah; Abdullah is married to the sister of one of Rifaat’s four wives.

In the 1980s, the CIA also speculated that Rifaat was in control of heroin smuggling networks in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon which exported to Europe and North America, though the veracity of these claims is unclear given that they have not received renewed attention in the 21st century. 

Angling for a place in the Syrian opposition 

Early on in the Syrian revolution, Rifaat was quick to urge his nephew, Bashar al-Assad, “to vacate his position,” as he told CNN in 2012. He then offered himself up as a sort of “transitional” candidate, claiming that he left Syria with “85%” of Syrians supporting him and that he maintains popularity within the army, as he “makes both the majority and the minority comfortable.” 

The latter of his comments, a likely overture to the minority Alawite sect which suffered from much discrimination prior to the Assad’s ascent to in Syria, formed the backbone of Rifaat’s pitch to be considered as an alternative to his nephew. He enjoyed close ties to the political class in Europe and Saudi Arabia, and positioned himself as a ‘reasonable’ alternative to Bashar, who at the time, was increasingly seen as a dictator with blood on his hands, possibly on his way to being deposed. 

In 2011, he organized a group of exiled political opposition, the Syrian National Democratic Council, as a sort of transitional body for Syria, though the group never gained much traction. In addition, he has run a satellite television station—the Arab News Network—focusing on the Middle East since the late 1990s. 

For a time it seemed that Rifaat was taken seriously by at least Russia, who was exploring possible alternatives to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. In 2013, Rifaat met with Russian officials in Geneva to discuss the possible departure of Bashar and alternative leaders for the country. 

However, even though Rifaat enjoyed “unique links to the regime’s inner core of Alawite military officers and the Assad-Makhlouf clan [made] him valuable both to the regime and to its enemies, his toxic reputation and overt ambitions for personal power have stood in the way of effective cooperation,” Aron Lund wrote in 2012, noting that “all mainstream opposition groups refuse to deal with him.” 

In the end, Rifaat joined the numerous defected and former military officials of the Assad regime who began to tour European capitals in an effort to market themselves as credible alternatives to the increasingly brutal regime and extremist opposition. Like many of them, he found no buyers.

This article reflects minor changes made on 22/06/2020 at 10:40 am.

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