Known as “the butcher of Hama”, Rifaat Al Assad led an attack that killed thousands of civilians in the Syrian city in 1982. He came close to seizing power two years later.
“Rifaat Al Assad spent the night in Damascus,” his son Firas Al Assad said on Facebook, referring to Thursday night.
His return to Syria puts him mostly beyond the reach of Western legal systems.
It solidifies an image of Rifaat, held by many Syrians, as having got away with involvement in one of the bloodiest massacres during five decades of Assad family rule.
A senior French lawyer said that although Rifaat had lost one appeal, he had recourse to another, which helped him avoid a four-year jail term.
“It is still a bit strange that he was able to leave to Syria,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be named.
Rifaat was the second-most powerful man in Syria from the time Hafez Al Assad took power in a 1970 coup. Hafez forced him out of the country in 1984.
Fawaz Tello, a veteran figure in the opposition to Bashar Al Assad, said Rifaat's return benefits the regime because it shows cohesion in the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria since a coup in 1963.
“He fell out with the regime but he is ultimately one of them,” Mr Tello said from exile in Berlin. “It is better for the regime to take him back. He was a main partner in its massacres and in the looting of Syria.”
Syria has been in a civil war that erupted after the regime cracked down on the 2011 revolt. Russia's intervention in 2015 returned significant territory to the regime, although large areas remain outside its control.
The semi-official Al Watan newspaper in Damascus, citing unspecified sources, said Rifaat had returned with the approval of President Al Assad. The paper said Rifaat arrived in Damascus on Thursday and that his arrival in Syria “would prevent his jailing in France”.
In the past several years, Rifaat, who had eight sons, has been facing legal proceedings in Spain and France linking him to embezzlement and money laundering. He had lived in the two countries since mounting a failed coup against his brother Hafez in 1984.
Last month, an appeals court in Paris upheld a 2020 ruling that Rifaat bought French property using funds diverted from the Syrian state. The ruling resulted in a four-year jail sentence. The court also ordered seizure of all his properties in France and London, estimated to be worth €129 million ($149m).
'Persona non grata forever'
After a joint operation between France and Spain to combat money laundering in 2017, Spain seized more than 500 Spanish properties, worth about €700m, from Rifaat. The regime gave Rifaat a reported $300m and allowed him to leave Syria in 1984. The late Mustafa Tlass, then defence minister, declared Rifaat “persona non grata forever”.
Rifaat headed the Defence Companies, an elite unit of the regime’s military. The Defence Companies overran Hama in 1982, after an uprising in several parts of Syria led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
It followed a regime crackdown on both secular and religious dissidents and mounting repression against professional unions, as well as writers and academics.
The attack on Hama killed between 30,000 and 45,000 civilians, according to Syrian lawyers who traced the civil records in the city.
Hama, like the rest of Syria, is mostly Sunni. The country has been dominated by mostly Alawite officers since 1963. Armed resistance in Hama was small, led by the Fighting Vanguard, the armed division of the Brotherhood.
A senior East Asian diplomat who went to the city days after the massacre said “Hama smelt of burnt flesh”.
Afamia Al Sham, the main hotel in the city which is majority owned by the government, is built on a mass grave from the massacre, residents say. Rifaat says he was not involved any unlawful killings in Hama.
Mr Tlass, who died in 2017 in Paris, said he personally signed the order to overrun Hama and that all those killed were “terrorists”.