Rifaat Ali al-Assad (Arabic: رفعت علي الأسد; born 22 August 1937) is the younger brother of the former President of Syria, Hafez Assad and Jamil Assad, and the uncle of the incumbent President Bashar al-Assad. He is alleged by some sources to be the commanding officer responsible for the Hama massacre of 1982. Recently declassified material back his claims that his brother Hafez al-Assad was responsible, as do a number of commentators. Despite accusations, Rifaat has always denied culpability. He currently lives in France.
Rifaat Ali al-Assad
رفعت علي الأسد
|Vice President of Syria|
11 March 1984 – 8 February 1998
|Member of the Regional Command of the Syrian Regional Branch|
15 April 1975 – 8 February 1998
|Born||22 August 1937|
|Political party||Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party|
|Branch/service||Syrian Arab Army|
|Years of service||1958–84|
|Battles/wars||1970 Syrian Corrective Revolution|
Early life and education
Rifaat al-Assad was born in the village of Qardaha, near Lattakia in western Syria on 22 August 1937. He studied Political Science and Economics at Damascus University and was later given an honorary PhD in Politics from the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Rifaat joined the Syrian Arab Army in 1958 as a First Lieutenant, and was rapidly promoted after training in various Soviet military academies (mainly in the Yekaterinburg Artillery school). In 1965, he became commander of a special security force loyal to the military wing of the Ba'ath and soon, supported Hafez al-Assad's overthrow of Salah Jadid and seizure of power in 1970. He was allowed to form his own paramilitary group, the Defense Companies, in 1971, which soon transformed into a powerful and regular Military force trained and armed by the Soviet Union. He was a qualified paratrooper.
Under Hafez's rule
Rifaat al-Assad played a key role in his brother's takeover of executive power in 1970, dubbed the Corrective Revolution, and ran the elite internal security forces and the Defense Companies (Saraya al-Difaa) in the 1970s and early 1980s. He had a pivotal role throughout the 1970s and, until 1984, many saw him as the likely successor to his elder brother. Hafez Assad appointed him second vice president in March 1984.
In 1976, he visited Lebanon as a guest of Tony Frangiyeh since they had close and personal ties. Referring to their conversation later, he stated “ultimately, you [Christians] are okay as tolerated dhimmis living under Islam. Our reward for apostasy is death: Muslims will not tolerate us the way they might do you; they will kill us as offenders of their religion.” referring to the fact that as Alawites the Assad family had to be staunchly secular as fundamentalist muslims hate the Alawites as apostates even more than they hate Christians
In February 1982, as commander of the Defense Companies, he allegedly commanded the forces that put down a Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the central city of Hama, by instructing his forces to shell the city with BM-21 Grad rockets, killing thousands of its inhabitants (reports range from between 5,000 and 40,000, the most common suggestion being around 15,000–20,000). This became known as the Hama Massacre. The United States journalist Thomas Friedman claims in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem that Rifaat later said that the total number of victims was 38,000. Rifaat has denied having a leading role in the Hama massacre.
Assad was also implicated in the 1980 Tadmor Prison massacre and acquired the sobriquet, the "butcher of Tadmor."
Attempted coup d'état
When Hafez al-Assad suffered from heart problems in late 1983, he established a six-member committee to run the country. Rifaat was not included, and the council consisted entirely of close Sunni Muslim loyalists to Hafez, who were mostly lightweights in the military-security establishment. This caused unease in the Alawi-dominated officer corps, and several high-ranking officers began rallying around Rifaat, while others remained loyal to Hafez's instructions.
Rifaat's troops, now numbering more than 55,000 with tanks, artillery, aircraft and helicopters, began asserting control over Damascus, setting up checkpoints and roadblocks, putting up posters of him in State buildings, disarming regular troops and arbitrarily arresting soldiers of the regular Army, occupying and commandeering Police Stations and Intelligence buildings, occupying State buildings; he was clearly launching a bid to succeed his brother. There was a clear division and tensions between forces loyal to Hafez, namely the 3rd Armoured Division (commanded by General Shafiq Fayadh), the Republican Guard (commanded by General Adnan Makhlouf), the various Intelligence services (commanded by Generals Mohamed Khouli and Ali Duba), the National Police, and the Special Forces (commanded by General Ali Haidar); and those loyal to Rifaat, but by the middle of 1984 Hafez had returned from his sick bed and assumed full control, at which point most officers rallied around him. Initially, it seemed that Rifaat was going to be put on trial and even faced a questioning that was broadcast on television. However, it is believed that Hafez's daughter Bushra actually saved her uncle by convincing her father that purging him would disgrace the family and might cause tensions not only in the Assad family, but with the Makhlouf family as well (since Rifaat is also married to a woman from that family, who are also the second most prevalent Alawite family, dominating the leadership of the security services behind the Assads). In what at first seemed a compromise, Rifaat was made vice-president with responsibility for security affairs, but this proved a wholly nominal post. Command of the 'Defense Companies', which was trimmed down to an Armoured Division size, was transferred to another officer, and ultimately the entire unit was disbanded and absorbed into other units, like the 4th Mechanized Division, the Republican Guard, and the Airborne Special Forces Division. Rifaat was then sent to the Soviet Union on "an open-ended working visit". His closest supporters and others who had failed to prove their loyalty to Hafez were purged from the army and Baath Party in the years that followed.
During the 1990s
Although he returned for his mother's funeral in 1992, and for some time lived in Syria, Rifaat was thereafter confined to exile in France and Spain. He nominally retained the post of vice president until 8 February 1998, when he was stripped of this. He had retained a large business empire both in Syria and abroad, partly through his son Sumer. However, the 1999 crackdown, involving armed clashes in Lattakia, destroyed much of his remaining network in Syria; large numbers of Rifaat's supporters were arrested. This was seen as tied to the issue of succession, with Rifaat having begun to position himself to succeed the ailing Hafez, who in his turn sought to eliminate all potential competition for his designated successor, his son Bashar al-Assad.
In France, Rifaat has loudly protested against the succession of Bashar to the post of president, claiming that he himself embodies the "only constitutional legality" (as vice president, alleging his dismissal was unconstitutional). He has made threatening remarks about planning to return to Syria at a time of his choosing to assume "his responsibilities and fulfill the will of the people", and that while he will rule benevolently and democratically, he will do so with "the power of the people and the army" behind him.
Groups and organizations
Rifaat's son Sumer is the head of a minor pan-Arab TV channel, the Arab News Network (ANN), which functions as his father's political mouthpiece. He also claims to run a political party, of uncertain fortunes. Rifaat himself heads the United National Group (al-tajammu` al-qawmi al-muwahhid), which is another political party or alliance; it is known to have self-professed members among Rifaat's fellow exiles from Syria, but neither can be considered an active organization, even if they will regularly release statements in favor of Rifaat's return to Syria and protesting president Bashar al-Assad. Further, Rifaat founded the Arab Democratic Party in Lebanon in the early 1970s, a small Alawite sectarian/political group in Lebanon, which during the Lebanese Civil War acted as an armed militia loyal to the Syrian government (through Rifaat). Ali Eid the general secretary of the party today, supports the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.
Foreign support for Rifaat
Numerous rumours tie Rifaat al-Assad to various foreign interests. Rifaat was considered close, by some observers, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah was married to a sister of Rifaat's wife, and Rifaat has on occasions—even after his public estrangement from the rulers in Syria—been invited to Saudi Arabia, with pictures of him and the royal family displayed in the state-controlled press.
It is claimed that Rifaat is reputed to have turned even to Israel asking for assistance, and that he has initiated contacts with exiled representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Iraq War, there were press reports that he had started talks with US government representatives on helping to form a coalition with other anti-Assad groups to provide an alternative Syrian leadership, on the model of the Iraqi National Congress. Rifaat has held a meeting with the former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Yossef Bodansky, the director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, has stated that Rifaat enjoys support from both America and Saudi Arabia; he has been featured in the Saudi press as visiting the royal family in 2007. The Bashar government remains wary of his intentions and carefully monitors his activities.
Rifaat was mentioned by the influential American think tank Stratfor as a possible suspect for the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri and the string of attacks that has struck Beirut after the subsequent Syrian withdrawal. The goal would be to destabilize the Syrian government. However, there has been no mention of Rifaat in the United Nations Mehlis reports on the crime.
Ion Mihai Pacepa, a general in the security forces of Communist Romania who defected to the U.S. in 1978, claimed that Rifaat al-Assad was recruited by Romanian intelligence during the Cold War. In Pacepa's 1996 novel Red Horizons, Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu is quoted as saying that Rifaat was "eating out of our hand" and went on to say: "Do I need a back channel for secret political communications? A way to inform Hafez secretly about my future discussions with Carter? Do I need to have somebody disappear in the West? Rifaat will take care of it. Now he can't do without my money." Pacepa later reasserted this allegation, describing Rifaat as "our well-paid agent" in a 2003 article in which he discussed the then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Rifaat married four times and his polygamous marriages as well as the marriages of his children have produced strong alliances and ties with prominent families and prestigious clans within Syria and the Arab Mashriq. He firstly married to one of his cousins, Amirah, from al-Qurdahah. Then, he married Sana Makhlouf, a cousin of Hafez Assad's wife, Anisa. His third spouse is a young woman from the traditional Sunni Muslim establishment, Raja Barakat. His fourth wife, Lina al-Khayyir, is from one of the most prominent Alawite families in Syria. The sister of one of his spouses was married to the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Rifaat's daughter Tumadir married Muin Nassif Khayr Bek, a member of the most powerful and prestigious Alawite family. Tamadhin, another daughter, married a Makhlouf. Lama married Ala Fayyad, the son of Alawite General Shafiq Fayadh. Rifaat's eldest son, Mudar, married Maya Haydar, the daughter of the ultra-rich entrepreneur Muhammad Haydar from the prominent al-Haddadin Alawite tribe. His youngest son, Ribal Al-Assad, born 1975, is a businessman and political activists. He resides in Paris and has spoken frequently on French and international media on the Syrian crisis.
- "Dossier: Rifaat Assad". Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. 2 (5). 1 June 2000. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
- "'The enforcer' who heads Syria's dreaded army division". FRANCE 24. 4 March 2012.
Rifaat al-Assad is perhaps best-known for his role in personally overseeing the notorious 1982 Hama massacre, in which at least 10,000 people were killed.
- "Assad's cousin: West is right to back Syrian opposition, but it is backing the wrong one". Haaretz. 29 March 2012.
every report from the period clearly puts Rifat at the center of the Hama operation
- "Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies" (PDF).
Although President Assad was successful in squelching the Hama uprising, he is clearly on the defensive.
- "Bashar Assad Teaches Visiting Members of U.S. Congress How to Fight Terrorism".
Select [Syrian Army] units... under the command of General 'Ali Haydar, besieged the city for 27 days, bombarding it with heavy artillery and tank [fire], before invading it.
- "Dr.Rifaat Al-Assad speaks about the 1982 Hama incident".
The leader Rifaat Al-Assad speaks about the 1982 Hama incident on the sidelines of the Paris Conference.
- "Exiled Assad's uncle wants to lead Syria transition". Al Arabiya. AFP. 14 November 2011.
- "Syria: The Syrian military unit called Saraya al-Difaa' (Difa'), its role in an alleged coup attempt in 1995, and the fate of its officers and men". Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 1 June 1998.
- "Syria's Assad forms new cabinet". Sarasota Herald Tribune. Damascus. AP. 12 March 1984. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
- Nisan, Mordechai (Spring 2012). "Of Wars and Woes. A Chronicle of Lebanese Violence". The Levantine Review. 1 (1). Archived from the original on 31 July 2013. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
- Rayner, Gordon (12 June 2011). "Syria's 'Butcher of Hama' living in £10 million Mayfair townhouse". Telegraph. London. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
- Friedman, p. 90
- Video in Arabic with English subtitles on YouTube
- Judith Miller (16 May 1997). God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East (reprint ed.). Simon and Schuster. p. 325. ISBN 9780684832289.
- Dossier: Bushra Assad (September-October 2006) Archived 21 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- Political Chronology of the Middle East. Routledge. 12 October 2012. p. 2038. ISBN 978-1-135-35673-6. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
- "Rifaat founded the Red Knights in northern Lebanon in the early 1970s and they were eventually instrumental in helping Yasser Arafat to slip by sea to Tripoli in 1983...""Archived copy". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 27 September 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Robert Fisk: Freedom, democracy and human rights in Syria". The Independent. London. 16 September 2010. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
- "The Syrian Leader's Exiled Uncle Vows to Topple the Regime – TIME". Time. 24 November 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
- Nabila Ramdani (6 October 2011). "Syria: Assad family 'selling off overseas property empire'". Telegraph. London. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
- Red Horizons: the 2nd Book. The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu's Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption, 1990. ISBN 0-89526-746-2, Page 188
- "Ion Mihai Pacepa on Muammar Khaddafi on National Review Online". Archived from the original on 20 February 2014. Retrieved 2 June 2013.
- Al-Assad, Ribal (28 April 2011). ""L'Iran ne laissera jamais le régime s'effondrer" ("Assad: Iran will never let the regime fall")". France 24 (in French). Retrieved 6 November 2019.
- Thomas L. Friedman (2012). "4. Hama Rules". From Beirut to Jerusalem (Revised ed.). Picador. ISBN 978-1250015495.
(No Vice Presidents appointed)
| Vice President of Syria