The questions around Rifaat Al Assad's return to Syria

The arrival in Damascus of the Syrian President's uncle raises questions about the state of play of the Assad regime
Syrian regime forces sit by a marble mosaic monument depicting a picture of late President Hafez al-Assad, at the entrance of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus on March 25, 2018, after a deal was struck with rebels in the area to evacuate the town. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

The surprise return of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s disgraced uncle to his homeland following nearly four decades in exile raises some intriguing questions about the Syrian regime’s attempts to rehabilitate itself in the wake of the country’s brutal civil war.

For decades Rifaat Al Assad has lived in exile where he has, at various points, been associated with anti-regime activists.

Rifaat Assad, an exiled uncle of Syrian president Bashar Assad, answers the Associated Press, Tuesday Nov. 15, 2011 in Paris.(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Indeed, Rifaat’s banishment from his homeland in 1984, which I covered as a young journalist living in Beirut, was prompted by his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow his brother Hafez Al Assad, the founder of the current Syrian dynasty and father of the current Syrian president.

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Many observers regard Rifaat’s return to his homeland as an attempt by the Assad clan to close ranks

Rifaat’s expulsion from Syria in June 1984 came after he was implicated in a plot to overthrow his brother, who had been incapacitated by bad health the previous winter. While Hafez, who ruled Syria from 1971-2000, recuperated at home, posters began appearing in Damascus depicting Rifaat, who had only recently been appointed one of the country’s three vice presidents.

It then transpired that Rifaat has been collaborating with six Syrian Army officers to stage a coup of his own and seize power. The plot was discovered, forcing Rifaat to flee into exile after the officers were arrested and charged with treason.

The regime’s deep-felt anger at Rifaat’s betrayal of his ailing elder brother prompted Mustafa Tlas, the serving defence minister, to declare that Rifaat would be “persona non grata forever” in Damascus, a state of affairs that has lasted until the 84-year-old Rifaat was finally allowed to return to his homeland last weekend.

More recently, Rifaat has maintained his opposition to his nephew’s regime. After Hafez died, Rifaat announced that he considered himself the rightful successor to his brother, a direct challenge to his nephew Bashar. Then, at the start of the civil war, he allowed himself to become the focal point of opposition activists seeking to overthrow Bashar, although he has distanced himself from the movement in recent years.

Consequently, he has been allowed to return to Damascus on the strict understanding that he has no involvement in Syrian politics.

According to the government-friendly Al Watan newspaper, Rifaat was allowed to return to Syria by his nephew, who succeeded his father Hafez as President in 2000, so that he could “avoid imprisonment in France”, where he had fallen foul of the French authorities over his business dealings.

The Damascus-based paper reported that Rifaat "returned on Saturday afternoon to Damascus after spending nearly 30 years in Europe as a dissident.

“President Al Assad overlooked everything that Rifaat had done and allowed him to return to Syria like any other Syrian citizen, but with strict regulations, and no political or social role."

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Aar/Sipa/Shutterstock (1827315f)
President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad
President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria

Al Watan added that he arrived in the country "to avoid being imprisoned in France after the issuance of a court ruling and after confiscating his property and money in Spain as well".

But while Rifaat’s return is being portrayed in Damascus as an attempt to prevent a prominent member of the Assad clan from languishing in a French jail, it also raises intriguing questions about the current state of play of the Assad regime in Damascus as it seeks to consolidate its grip on power in the wake of the country’s decade-long civil war.

In recent weeks the Assad regime has been on a charm offensive as it seeks to rebuild relations with the outside world as the conflict draws to a close.

Since Bashar Al Assad won election to a fourth term in office last May, there have been signs of an Arab rapprochement with Damascus, with King Abdullah of Jordan speaking with the Syrian President for the first time in a decade earlier this month, while other moderate Arab states are seeking to revive economic and diplomatic ties.

The Arab initiative to rehabilitate Syria is not supported by Washington, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it clear that America does not intend to support any efforts to normalise ties with the Assad regime until there is irreversible progress towards a political solution in Syria.

But after the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a growing awareness among Arab leaders that they need to chart their own course, and they are keen to counter the influence carved out in Syria by Iran and Turkey.

There is particular concern about Turkey’s support for Islamists across the region, especially the large area of northern Syria that remains beyond the grasp of Damascus.

In such circumstances, it is essential that the Assad regime is seen to present a united front as it seeks to shore up its power base in Damascus, with the result that many observers regard Rifaat’s return to his homeland as an attempt by the Assad clan to close ranks, thereby allowing one its more notorious members to be rehabilitated.

Rifaat does, after all, have a previous track record for confronting extremists after he was implicated in the brutal repression of an uprising in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.

Two years before his failed coup attempt, Rifaat became known as the “butcher of Hama” after he led an attack on the city that killed an estimated 20,000 citizens, one of the bloodiest massacres carried out by the Syrian regime during five decades of Assad family rule.

The prospect, therefore, of a high profile member of the Assad regime ending up in a French prison was clearly not an outcome Bashar Al Assad could tolerate, as he seeks to rebuild his country’s image.

As Fawaz Tello, a veteran figure in the opposition to Bashar Al Assad, told The National earlier this week after Rifaat’s arrival in Damascus, the prodigal’s return should benefit 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 told The National from exile in Berlin. “It is better for the regime to take him back.”

Certainly, there was little doubt that Rifaat faced going to prison had he not left France after a French court last month confirmed a four-year prison sentence after convicting him of collecting 90 million euros worth of assets in a "fraudulent way". Now, thanks to the generosity of his nephew, Rifaat Al Assad can end his days a free man.

Published: October 14th 2021, 3:15 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National