A Once Powerful Patriarch Returns to an Unrecognizable Syria

Rifaat al-Assad was exiled by his late brother when the country was allied with the Soviets. This month he returned to a fragmented country reeling after an uprising and a brutal war

A Once Powerful Patriarch Returns to an Unrecognizable Syria
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

When Rifaat al-Assad passed by his old office on the Mazzah Highway in Damascus a couple of weeks ago, after having spent more than three decades in exile, he must have seen the large imposing picture of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander assassinated by the United States near Baghdad in January last year. It has decorated the façade of the Iranian Embassy since his killing.

According to people who met Rifaat after his recent return to Damascus, the 84-year-old still has a prodigious memory. Soleimani’s image, and many others scattered around Damascus, serve as a perfect reminder that the Syria that Rifaat returned to — following a pardon by his nephew, President Bashar al-Assad — is starkly different from the one he left in the mid-1980s or the one that he had tried to change as he nearly staged a coup against his brother, Hafez al-Assad, during the latter’s illness in late 1983.

The new Syria that Rifaat has landed in is — in terms of political system and geopolitical weight — nothing like the one he saw during a brief and unannounced visit to Damascus and Latakia in the 1990s or the one he must have been following in the news during his years of exile in Europe.

Rifaat’s life story began in his home village of Qardaha, nestled in the rural areas surrounding Latakia in western Syria, which has served as the stronghold of the Assad clan. At an early age, Rifaat came under the influence of his brother Hafez, seven years his senior. He followed in his footsteps by joining the Baath Party and enlisting in the Syrian Army. Hafez — a pan-Arabist who lived in Egypt during the time Egypt and Syria merged into one country, a union that lasted from 1958 to 1961 — helped form the Baath Party’s military, which subsequently seized power in Damascus in 1962. Rifaat joined the Homs Military Academy on the recommendation of Hafez, an Air Force commander at the time.

In the second half of 1963, Baath Military Committee member Mohamed Omran formed an outfit that would become the kernel of the notorious and feared Defense Companies (Saraya al-Difaa). Rifaat al-Assad would later inherit leadership of the outfit, which proved critical when used to oust Syrian President Amin al-Hafiz in February 1966. It was pivotal again in November 1970, as Rifaat sent tanks into the streets of Damascus to unseat President Noureddin al-Atasi and senior Baath Party official Salah Jadid and install his brother Hafez in power.

It was Rifaat also who led the battles against the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the notoriously bloody one in Hamah in early 1982. He was quoted as saying, “Stalin sacrificed 10 million people to preserve the Bolshevik revolution and Syria should act similarly to preserve the Baathist revolution.” (Opposition figures have blamed Rifaat for the shelling and destruction of Hamah, killing thousands of civilians while quashing the Brotherhood, a factor that played in the refusal of many in the opposition to align with him against the regime in recent decades.) Rifaat also sent female members of the Defense Companies to Damascus with orders to remove women’s veils in the streets, a move that drew so much criticism that even his brother Hafez saw no choice but to publicly condemn Rifaat.

Rifaat expected to be his brother’s partner in power and perhaps his heir in office. According to the memoirs of former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, Hafez was “open to the idea of bequeathing power to Rifaat. But the latter committed an unforgivable act when he tried to stage a coup against his brother during the latter’s illness in November 1983.”

During the time of his illness, which lasted from November 1983 to March 1984, Hafez formed a committee of five members to run the country, among them then-Foreign Minister Khaddam, Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and Army Chief of Staff Hikmat al-Shihabi. He also formed a clandestine committee of military commanders, including Military Intelligence chief Ali Douba, the army commander in Lebanon, Ibrahim al-Safi, and officers Ali Haydar and Adnan Badr Hassan.

Acting on Rifaat’s order, forces from the Defense Companies laid siege to Damascus, took positions at its gates and placed heavy weapons on its hills. Rifaat’s supporters filled the streets with his pictures in both Damascus and Latakia, plastering his likeness over that of the president. “Rifaat al-Assad: the sun that never sets,” was one of the slogans his supporters used at the time. On March 30, 1984, Rifaat ordered his troops to enter Damascus with clear instructions to seize power. From Rifaat’s perspective, he was the heir apparent of Hafez, who had groomed him for the role and assigned special missions on his behalf over the years. When his brother fell ill, he saw an opportunity to assume his role for two reasons: He suspected that the time to take over was right and that his brother had started preparing his own son Bassel for succession instead of Rifaat.

Hafez was aware of these moves, having received pertinent intelligence from the chief of the Defense Companies’ security apparatus, Bahjat Suleiman. The president, acting with the help of loyalist aides, planned a countermove, one involving the dispatch of his own troops to Damascus. The British journalist Patrick Seale, author of a biography of Hafez titled “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” concluded that “had the two sides come to blows in the capital, the destruction would have been immeasurable.”

At one point, the conflict evolved into a face-to-face confrontation. Hafez put on his military uniform and — accompanied by his son Bassel, who would serve as his right-hand man till his death in a car accident in early 1994 — went to Rifaat’s headquarters in a Damascus suburb amid the roar of military helicopters overhead. “Do you want to bring down the regime? Here I am … I am the regime!” said the president. The two brothers argued, after which Hafez offered his brother a way out.

With Moscow and some Arab countries mediating, a deal was struck. Heydar Aliyev, then Soviet Politburo member and later president of Azerbaijan, acting on orders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), participated in the talks, along with then-CPSU Secretary General Yuri Andropov.

Aliyev, who stayed in Damascus March 11-13, 1984, later wrote the following about his secret mission: “In 1984, I was urgently sent to Damascus. According to Soviet security reports, a rift was taking place in Syria between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, who was chief of intelligence at the time. The Kremlin was unwilling to tolerate a change of regime or leaders in Syria. So I went immediately to Damascus and met Hafez al-Assad, who was ill and undergoing treatment. Despite his illness, we talked for eight hours. Shortly afterward, he expelled his brother Rifaat [from the country]. The problem was solved and the Politburo sighed in relief.”

Hafez’s next move was to appoint three vice presidents: Rifaat, Khaddam and senior Baath Party official Muhammad Zuhair Masharqa. An agreement was reached to place the Defense Companies under the command of the Armed Forces’ Operations Room, with Rifaat named vice president in (nominal) charge of security affairs. Arrangements were also made for Rifaat to travel to Moscow in the company of senior officers and for him to receive millions of dollars to be paid by Arab countries.

On May 28, 1984, a plane took off from Damascus to Moscow, with Rifaat aboard, accompanied by senior officers and several politicians — including then-Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. When the dust settled in Syria, Hafez started calling his men back from Russia one by one, leaving Rifaat alone in exile. Rifaat went to Switzerland, then to Spain. He ended up spending the rest of the 1980s and 1990s in Europe, leading a lavish life fit only to that of a king in exile.

Before leaving Syria, Rifaat hosted a big banquet for his friends during which he was quoted as saying: “My brother no longer loves me. Whenever he sees me, he frowns. But I am not an American agent; I did not plot against my country.” Rifaat knew he was going into exile, but he suspected there was still a chance he would be able to return.

In a leaflet titled “Three Months That Shook Syria,” Tlass accused Rifaat of taking orders from America. I have a copy of this leaflet, whose circulation was limited at the time. In later writings, Tlass said that during the crisis between the two brothers, “I lashed out at U.S. hegemony and agents in the region, as well as those who support the United States,” in reference to Rifaat. Tlass also released a previously unpublicized letter sent to Hafez by an Alawite group that used to be loyal to Rifaat but turned against him. In the letter, the group said: “We cannot condone treason within our sect. In the past, the British accused us of being French agents, and today the patriots in Syria are accusing us of being American agents. We are nothing if not Hafez al-Assad’s supporters, and if we have loved your brother Rifaat, it was only because we felt that he was your right-hand man.” Tlass also pointed out that “America encouraged the visits of (former) Lebanese President Amine Gemayel to Damascus. He visited us three times during al-Assad’s illness, which proves that the visits were taking place with the encouragement of the U.S. Administration, and because America knew what the Defense Companies were doing.”

Syrian leaders at the time saw Rifaat as a key figure in a political current that pushed for closer ties with the West and with Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Rifaat was central in promoting ties between Damascus and Riyadh. According to Khaddam’s documents — which he took with him to Paris after his breakup with the regime in 2005 — Hafez sent Rifaat with the following message to Saudi King Khalid bin Abdulaziz on May 20, 1981. “It is my pleasure to convey to Your Majesty and to your dear brothers the best wishes of your brother President Hafez al-Assad, who sent me to update you on his recent talks with U.S. envoy Philip Habib and who asked me to pass on his appreciation for your unwavering position, a position for which Syria is grateful, and also his appreciation for your responsible remarks in the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the remarks were received with great satisfaction among your kinfolks, the Arab people of Syria, due to their impact in supporting Arab rights.”

Among the U.K. official papers declassified in 2017, there is a document that sheds light on Rifaat’s beliefs and how different they were from those of his brother. In the minutes of a meeting Rifaat had with Member of Parliament Julian Emery in 1990, there is valuable insight into the kind of friction that surfaced within the Assad family at the time. According to the document, “the relationship between Rifaat and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat seems to be a reaction to the attempts by the Syrian President to break up the PLO and turn it against its leader.”

On April 3, 1990, U.K. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Charles Powell, the private secretary of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, received a message from Emery containing the minutes of his meeting with Rifaat, who was still a Syrian vice president along with Khaddam (Rifaat kept this position during his years in exile, until Hafez formally dismissed him in early 1998).

Some of the talking points about that meeting echo much of the thinking in the West today about Syria — the same delusions.

In his message, Emery said: “If Rifaat is allowed to go back to his country on his own terms, this may soften the position of the current Baathist regime in Damascus, and it may undermine the pro-Soviet clique that still surrounds Hafez. Perhaps we should encourage the Americans, the Egyptians, and the Israelis to look into the question of whether President al-Assad’s permission of Rifaat’s return would be seen as a sign of a change in the thinking or the politics of Damascus.”

Rifaat passed on a bleak assessment of the situation in Syria, as this extract from the readout from the Emery-Rifaat meeting on March 31, 1990, shows. “Rifaat began by saying that he had high hopes for a major change occurring in Syrian policy as of August of last year. But any such hopes were dashed. In his opinion, the situation did not change much since this time, apart from the improvement in ties between Syria and Egypt. In Syria itself, the situation is deteriorating for many reasons. The economic situation is worsening and cannot possibly improve without abandoning the (policy) of controlling the markets. Lebanon is draining (Syria’s) capabilities and its men. Jordan’s return to parliamentary rule is raising embarrassing questions in Damascus. The Soviet support is clearly ebbing. Moscow is still sending weapons, but it has substantially decreased its material and moral support. None of this is a secret. The Saudi support also seems to be receding. But there is still hope for U.S. support.”

Regarding the U.S. position, Rifaat was also pessimistic about any positive impact for a U.S. outreach to the Syrian regime — even when the situation was significantly more favorable with a willing American president and a capable and pragmatic Syrian president who had tight control over the country, relative to his son today. As the document explains: “Rifaat does not believe that the recent initiatives by former President Jimmy Carter were made on Washington’s prodding. Carter has always had good personal rapport with Hafez al-Assad. Carter sees the Camp David Accords as his biggest achievement and wishes to top them by arranging an agreement between Syria and Israel.” According to the document, Rifaat said that “he would not go back to Damascus unless he regains his previous position in power and be allowed to bring with him back into the country a number of officers who followed him into exile. If he is allowed to return, one of his first steps would be to urge immediate talks with Israel.”

According to Rifaat, the document continues, “Hafez al-Assad’s position is not much different from that of [former Romanian President] Nicolae Ceausescu and other pro-Soviet leaders in Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. He may wish to turn around and pursue a pro-Western line, but this move would not be easy, unless other concerned countries see it as credible. If he, Rifaat, were allowed to go back on his own terms, he would be in a better position to convince other countries in the region that Hafez is serious about change. So far, Damascus does not seem to be heading in this direction.”

The document adds: “[Rifaat] asked me about my relationship with Yasser Arafat. When I told him that I never met him, he said that he was only asking because he thought I may want to send him my regards, for Arafat was coming to visit him that evening.”

From exile, Rifaat criticized Syria’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war and its reliance on the Soviet Union, urging instead an alliance with the U.S. He also criticized Syria’s long-running feud with Arafat and disapproved of Hafez’s friendship with Iran, saying that it gives Syria a bad name in the Western world as an ally of a “terrorist state.” He would have preferred that Syria forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries.

When Rifaat returned to Syria for his mother’s funeral in 1992 — a visit he conducted to fulfill a dying wish by his mother — Syria was holding talks with the U.S. and engaged in peace negotiations with Israel. The talks had started in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1994, Rifaat returned to Damascus and then to Qardaha once again, this time to offer his condolences to his brother after the death of Hafez’s son Bassel in a car accident. At the time, Hafez had just returned from a summit meeting with then U.S. President Bill Clinton in Geneva in early 1994. The meeting was part of a bid to reach a peace agreement between Damascus and Tel Aviv. The ties between Damascus and Washington had improved since Hafez decided to participate in the Gulf War in 1991.

Following Bassel’s death, Rifaat tried to present himself as a possible successor to Hafez, but there was a consensus in Damascus that Bashar, Hafez’s son who had just returned from London, would be a better choice. So Rifaat went back into exile and started a satellite television station in London in September 1997. He also created his own party in Europe. The party, led by his son Somar, urged political change in Syria. Somar regularly issued statements criticizing his uncle’s politics and met with key Syrian opposition members.

The elevation of Bashar in Syrian military and political institutions, coupled with the activities of Rifaat and his sons, impelled Hafez to dismiss Rifaat from his position of vice president in 1998. In 1999, Rifaat’s supporters engaged in a gunfight against government forces in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia.

When Hafez died on June 10, 2000, his brother released a statement on the Arab News Network paying tribute to his brother and claiming that he was now the “legitimate heir” of the Syrian presidency. He declared three days of mourning at the television station and called on Syrians to help him regain his rightful place in Syria and establish a democratic government in the country.

Rifaat’s calls fell on deaf ears, and Khaddam ordered the arrest of Rifaat if he were to come to Syria to attend his brother’s funeral on June 13, 2000.

By the time he returned to Damascus weeks ago, Syria had moved far beyond all of his former positions and wishes.

For decades, whenever Rifaat came back to Damascus, there was something that he wanted. But by the time he returned to Damascus weeks ago, Syria had moved far beyond all of his former positions and wishes.

None of the figures associated with the regime that his brother created — that “mosaic” edifice within the security and military establishments that Hafez created in the 1960s and 1970s — are still around. Those who fought against Rifaat and helped send him into exile in the mid-1980s are either aging or dead; some even died in exile. Military Intelligence chief Ali Douba and Special Units chief Ali Haydar are both old men who spend their time with their grandchildren in Latakia. Al-Sharaa, whom Bashar appointed as vice president in 2006, lost his job because of his opposition to a military response to the 2011 protests and is now spending his time at home with his family.

As for Khaddam and Tlass, the former left the country to France after being dismissed as vice president in 2005; he died in France in March 2020. Tlass, who left the country in 2012, passed away in Paris in mid-2017.

Mohamed Makhlouf, brother-in-law of Hafez and maternal uncle of Bashar, who rivaled Rifaat in the pursuit of economic wealth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, died of COVID-19 in late 2020. His son, Rami, was stripped of all his financial privileges when Bashar dismantled his financial, economic, and sectarian empire in mid-2019.

Rami was not arrested or sent into exile but simply became another “ordinary citizen.” I was told that he tried last month to attend a meeting of one of his former companies but was barred from entry. When he challenged the security people by saying, “I am Rami Makhlouf,” they told him that he still had to show his ID, just like any other visitor.

The epithet “citizen” is now also befitting of Rifaat. The newspaper Al-Watan, which is close to the Syrian government, reported on Oct. 8 that Rifaat “arrived in Damascus after a prison sentence was passed against him in France (a French court sentenced him to five years in prison last September) and after his possessions and assets were confiscated in Spain.” The newspaper added that Bashar “decided to overlook everything that Rifaat had done in the past and allowed him to return to Syria just like any other Syrian citizen, and he is not going to have any political or social role.”

Syria, a country that Hafez transformed from a playground for rival powers vying for influence in the Middle East into a force to contend with, a country that once placed Lebanon under its “protection,” is no longer the same. It is now divided into three “zones of influence.” There are five armies trying to outmaneuver one another in Syria: those of the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel.

Rifaat has been seen dining out in Damascus several times. He lives in his old house in the Western Villas of Mazzeh. This neighborhood, perched on the hills overlooking Damascus, certainly reminds him of the time of conflict with his late brother. It is from this area that he once issued commands and sent his tanks to besiege Damascus. The city streets that his supporters long ago adorned with his pictures, placing them on top of his brother’s pictures, are now bedecked with the pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The Defense Companies have disappeared, but their positions in the hills surrounding Damascus are still there, under the command of Maher al-Assad, Rifaat’s nephew. Qaboun, where he barricaded himself in the 1980s, lies in near ruin today, following the military operations that were carried out there in the aftermath of the 2011 protests.

The major change in Syria goes beyond the repeated Israeli shelling of positions that used to serve as the headquarters for Rifaat’s units. Some of these positions are now held by Iranian forces — the forces of the very country that he railed against, that he refused to have any “strategic ties” with. Patrols and checkpoints operated by Iranian militias, Hezbollah and Russia have taken the place of the checkpoints that the Defense Companies deployed in their heyday.

Rifaat was all for forging ties with the U.S. He was also supportive of establishing “special ties” with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). History offered a lot more than what Rifaat had in mind. The U.S. Army is now stationed on the eastern shores of the Euphrates, giving succor to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an outfit composed mainly of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and with close ties to the PKK. These forces now control nearly one-quarter of Syrian land in an area that contains most of the country’s oil, agriculture and water resources.

The U.S., Iran and Turkey all have a military presence in Syria. And yet Arab countries — especially the Gulf states that used to voice support for Syria — are absent from the scene. Contrary to Rifaat’s wishes, Syria did not sign a peace deal with Israel. Iran and its allied Palestinian forces, meanwhile, feel at home in Damascus.

Rifaat hasn’t yet visited Latakia on the coast. This is the area in which his mother, brother and nephews — Hafez’s sons Bassel and Majd — were laid to rest. When he finally gets to visit Qardaha, he will have to pass by the Russian military base in Humaymim. He may even notice that the mountainous area of Juba al-Burkhal and the coastal area of Tallat al-Sinawbar have changed drastically since the time the Defense Companies were stationed there.

When he travels along the coast, Rifaat will surely see the two Russian military bases situated in Latakia and Tartus — both established through contracts signed by the Syrian government. Rifaat, some may recall, protested against Hafez’s signing of a strategic pact with the Soviet Union in 1982. Now, he will have to be pragmatic about the Russian presence in Damascus. Let’s not forget that he once refused to live in Russia, preferring Europe for exile instead. Ironically, it was the CPSU that orchestrated the deal that saved him — or saved the Syrian regime — decades ago.

When Rifaat visits the coast, he may also notice that the small Mediterranean port that he used to bring in his military, financial and economic supplies is now in the hands of Iran, which is using it to bring oil and goods into Syria and Lebanon.

At least for now, Rifaat will not be able to travel along the road connecting Latakia and Aleppo, the road that was once used to smuggle goods from the coast into the Syrian interior. This road is no longer in the hands of the Syrian government but is controlled by outfits that have the backing of the Turkish Army.

Likewise, Rifaat will not be able to travel east on the Aleppo-Hasakah road, for this road is now controlled either by the U.S. forces and their Kurdish allies or by the Turkish Army and Syrian Islamist factions. Some of these factions have connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that Rifaat crushed decades ago.

It would be interesting to see the reaction of Rifaat’s Alawite loyalists when he arrives at his former stronghold in Latakia. What kind of welcome would they give him after 10 years of war that took a heavy toll on them as well as the lives of tens of thousands of young people? How would they react to Rifaat now that they have seen Rami Makhlouf, who used to provide many of them with financial support, fall from favor?

In his clandestine leaflet, “Three Months that Shook Syria,” Tlass had this to say: “Rifaat banked on the sentiments of sectarian fanatics, promising them to create an Alawite state. … They all dreamt of having sectarian states that could only end up orbiting Israel’s sphere; no two ways about it. What impelled Rifaat to act thus is that America wished for this to happen. It wished for anything that would break apart the Arab people.”

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