Frozen, the disputed European property empire of Rifaat Al Assad

A French court will decide fate of large slice of the diminished property fortune of uncle of Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad

Rifaat Al Assad at home in Paris in 2011, when he vowed to bring down the government of his nephew, Bashar Al Assad, in Syria. AP
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For a man who insisted that he had no interest in money, the disgraced Syrian politician, Rifaat Al Assad, had a remarkable aptitude for amassing staggering amounts.

On a brisk stroll of a few kilometres from his marble-floored Parisian mansion near the Arc de Triomphe, the uncle of Syria’s President could take in some of the grandest properties that make up his estimated €90 million ($101.3m) French property empire.

From mansions to a network of high-end flats in some of the most chic parts of the French capital, Al Assad’s property portfolio reads like an estate agent’s fantasy tour of the world’s most fashionable capital.

The aged general no longer strolls around Paris. While the houses and flats are now frozen assets and unsellable, Al Assad himself has fled back to Damascus in humiliation to avoid a potential four-year jail term in France. The Paris appeals court in September confirmed a guilty verdict for money laundering, as it found Al Assad plundered Syrian state funds over a 20-year period through his vast European property portfolio.

French authorities want to sell his multimillion-dollar empire and – under new legislation – return the proceeds to dispossessed Syrian victims. But even in the absence of Al Assad, the legal case is expected to rumble on for another couple of years after an appeal to the country’s highest court, his lawyer told The National.

The complex web of plundered and inherited riches assembled decades ago can be revealed on the basis of a series of court judgments and statements in France, the UK and Spain, where Al Assad lived after a failed effort to oust his brother as president of Syria in 1984.

Investigations by police forces, human rights groups and transparency campaigners have shown that Al Assad controlled the properties through a network of offshore companies. His return to Syria via Belarus marks a conclusive reversal for a man who once suggested that he was the only person who could overthrow his nephew.

“We are going to bring him down,” he said in an interview in 2011 at his sumptuous home on Avenue Foch, Paris. “Even if it takes time and is difficult, I am going to work to topple the regime and give power to the people.”

Far from giving power to the people, the Avenue Foch home had instead been stolen from them – purchased using part of the reputed €300 million taken from Syrian state funds to dissuade him from destabilising his brother, Hafez, who was president from 1971 to 2000.

Central Paris

The wide, chestnut-tree-lined Avenue Foch is one of the most prestigious – and expensive – streets in Paris that has been home to some of the world’s wealthiest families – the Onassis dynasty and the Rothschild banking family – as well as the plunderers of Syria.

The mansion was owned through an offshore company in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. It was furnished with carpets valued at €1.5 million with another €5.5m spent on furniture and paintings, court documents revealed.

Al Assad owns another property on the same street through a different offshore company. A few kilometres away, he owns a grand multi-storey property with wrought-iron balustrades on Avenue de Lamballe, opposite the embassy of Turkey, which backed the forces who fought his nephew during the civil war.

It was paid for, Al Assad claims, by a Saudi and given to the father of one his four wives. Legal proceedings in France heard from two of his political opponents, the ex-defence minister Mustafa Tlass and former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam, who said the funds used to buy property were looted from Syrian resources.

Khaddam described Rifaat Al Assad as the “most corrupt man in Syrian history”, while Tlass accused him of involvement in the sale of arts and antiques on the black market. Both men have since died in France.

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor at the University of Lyon and a Syria expert who gave evidence at the trial, said Al Assad was known for taking kickbacks on arms deals and had invested in Europe before he fled his homeland.

“When he left in 1984, he directly came to France and he had a place to live,” Mr Balanche told The National. “He liked the money, he liked the women and he liked the luxury. He was not isolated in the countryside. He wanted to enjoy life.”

The money was spent on property through complex financial arrangements. In Paris, some of it went on a series of flats on the Avenue du President Kennedy in the name of a Panamanian-registered property company with accounts at a Danish bank in Gibraltar. A French court has also frozen those assets – and rents paid by the tenants.

Al Assad claimed that a 45-hectare stud farm and house on the northern outskirts of Paris was a gift from a long-time friend.

That friend was also said by Al Assad to have financed property in Lyon., a gift after the birth of one of his 16 children in Paris in 1996.

But based on information from French investigators, properties including holiday homes and country estates worth €695m were also seized in and around Marbella, Spain, in 2017.

French criminal proceedings also led to the seizure of a £27 million ($36m) property in Mayfair, west London, that was used by Al Assad and his family. He claimed it was bought with investments made by his children using his money.

The home – a grand six-storey house in one of London’s most upmarket neighbourhoods – is owned through an offshore company registered in the Virgin Islands. The property ownership forms stipulate it can be sold only with the consent of UK prosecutors.

London homes

The freezing orders do not stop members of the Al Assad family from living at the properties while the legal cases continue. Nobody answered the door at the home in Mayfair when The National called. The only sign of any activity was a mop and bucket used by cleaners in the basement stairwell.

Al Assad told investigators that he lived in the house. One of his wives and sons were also there, court papers said.

The Mayfair mansion was only one of a series of lavish properties in the capital bought by the Al Assad family. A deal to buy two hotels in 1985 resulted in the family owning a vacated private house said at the time to be the second-largest private residence in London.

The house – Witanhurst – and became the centre of a legal battle linked to the collapse of the Arab News Network, an Al Assad family enterprise, with debts of £35m.

Witanhurst was sold for £32m by one of Al Assad’s sons but a judge imposed a freezing order in 2007 on the proceeds because of Somar Al Assad’s outstanding debts that lawyers for the liquidators feared would be moved abroad.

The anti-corruption charity Sherpa, which started the investigation that led to Al Assad’s conviction in France, said his escape to Syria sent an “alarming signal” about France’s fight against corruption. It said his flight “constitutes a failure on France's part to meet its international commitments to fight and punish corruption effectively.”

But the 84 year old was never likely to serve a prison term owing to his age, said Elie Hatem, Al Assad’s lawyer in Paris. He said there had been no restrictions on his movements since he was first convicted for embezzlement in June 2020.

“He can go to Syria, he can go to Pakistan, he can go to the US whenever he has to visit,” Mr Hatem said. “I don’t think he is going to stay indefinitely there. Maybe he will come back to Paris for Christmas.”

Mr Balanche said he was surprised that Al Assad had returned to Syria. But the man known as the Butcher of Hama for leading an attack that killed thousands of civilians in the central Syrian city in 1982 no longer posed any sort of threat to the current Syrian president, he said.

Mr Balanche said the regime in Damascus would have considered that “it’s better to have the uncle in Damascus than the uncle in jail in Paris”.

“The fact he came back to Syria is a proof that he stole the money and that he’s not an honest man. He’s somebody who is very pragmatic but he doesn’t have much honour or courage because it’s a kind of humiliation.

“It’s over for the Rifaat branch of the family.”

Updated: December 06, 2021, 8:17 AM