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Thursday, 18 June 2020

Syria: Who is Rifaat al-Assad?

A Paris court convicted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s uncle Rifaat of money laundering and misappropriation of Syrian government funds and sentenced him to four years in prison. 

Rifaat Ali al-Assad was born in the village of Qardaha, near Lattakia in western Syria on 22 August 1937. He studied in a local elementary school in his village and was later given an honorary Ph.D. in Politics from the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Rifaat joined the Syrian Arab Army in 1958 and was rapidly promoted after the coup of his brother Hafez in 1966.

Rifaat al-Assad played a key role in the takeover of executive power by his brother in 1970, called the Correction Revolution, and managed elite internal security forces and defense companies (Saraya al-Difaa) in the 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to his military position, Rifaat created the "League of Senior Graduates" (Arabic: رابطة خريجي الداراسات العليا), which provided discussion forums on public affairs for Syrian doctoral students, beyond the restrictions of the Baath party. This cultural project with more than fifteen branches throughout Syria brought together tens of thousands of members. 

In February 1982, as Commander of Defense Companies, he allegedly commanded forces that suppressed a popular rebellion in the central city of Hama, instructing his forces to shoot the city with BM-21 Grad rockets, killing thousands of its inhabitants (the number of reports is from 30,000 to 40,000). This became known as the Hama massacre. American journalist Thomas Friedman claims in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem that Rifaat later said the total number of victims was 38,000.

In March 1984, the Rifaat Army, currently numbering over 55,000 tanks, artillery, aircraft, and helicopters, began to take control of Damascus. The T-72 Rifaat squadron took its position at the central Kafr Sousa roundabout and at Qasioun, overlooking the city. Establishing checkpoints and roadblocks, placing his posters in state buildings, disarming regular soldiers and arbitrary arrests of regular army soldiers, occupation and command of police stations and intelligence buildings, occupation of state buildings; The number of defense companies has grown rapidly and has taken control of both the Special Forces and the Republican Guard. Although Damascus was divided into two armies and seemed to be on the brink of war, Rifaat did not move. Informed that Rifaat was heading to Damascus, his brother Hafez al-Assad left the headquarters to meet him.

There was a clear division and tension between forces loyal to Hafez, namely the 3rd Armored Division (commanded by General Shafiq Fayadh), the Republican Guard (commanded by General Adnan Makhlouf), various intelligence services (commanded by Generals Mohamed Khouli and Ali Duba), police national and special forces (commanded by general Ali Haidar); and Defense Companies loyal to Rifaat. In mid-1984, Hafez returned from his sickbed and took full control, at which point most officers gathered around him.

In the first seeming compromise, Rifaat became the vice president responsible for security matters, but it turned out to be a completely nominal position. The command of the "Defense Company", which was reduced to the size of the Panzer Division, was transferred to another officer, and eventually, the entire unit was dissolved and consumed by other units. After leaving, Rifaat raised $ 300 million in public money, including a $ 100 million Libyan loan. In 2015, he claimed that money was at that time a gift from Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. 

In France, Rifaat loudly protested against Bashar's succession as president, claiming that he embodied "the only legal constitution" (as vice president, claiming his dismissal was unconstitutional). He made menacing remarks about plans to return to Syria when he decided to take on "duties and fulfill the will of the people" and that although he would rule kindly and democratically, he would do so with "the strength of the people and army" behind him ".

Groups and organizations Rifaat's son, Sumer, is the head of the small Pan-Arab TV channel Arab News Network (ANN), which acts as his father's political mouthpiece. He also claims to have a political party with an uncertain fate. Sam Rifaat heads the United National Group (al-tajammu` al-qawmi al-muwahhid), which is another political party or alliance; it is known that Rifaat has members on its own initiative among those exiled from Syria. In addition, Rifaat founded the Arab Democratic Party in Lebanon in the early seventies, a small Alawite sectarian/political group in Lebanon that during the Lebanese Civil War acted as an armed militia loyal to the Syrian government (through Rifaat). Ali Eid, today party secretary-general, supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2010, Rifaat lived in Mayfair, London. He has lived in Avenue Foch in Paris since 2011, trying to sell his property.

Rifaat married four times, his polygamous marriage and the marriage of his children established strong alliances and ties with well-known Alawite families and clans in Syria.

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