Ibrahim Hamidi is senior diplomatic editor at the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in London. Previously, he worked for Al-Hayat, for which he covered Syrian affairs as Damascus bureau chief. Recently, Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, returned to Syria after years of living in Europe. Rifaat had been forced to leave Syria after trying to organized a coup in March 1984 against his brother, who was ailing at the time. His recent return raised much speculation about why he had been allowed to come back. Diwan interviewed Hamidi in late October to cast some light on what happened.
Michael Young: Why did Bashar al-Assad authorize the return of his uncle Rifaat al-Assad to Syria a few weeks ago?
Ibrahim Hamidi: Because of a lack of information, we have to rely on what was reported in the Damascus-based newspaper Al-Watan on October 8. The paper reported that Rifaat “arrived in Damascus to prevent his imprisonment in France after a court ruling and after his property and money in Spain was confiscated as well.”
Indeed, in September a Paris court confirmed a ruling that sentenced Rifaat to four years in prison. According to my information, Rifaat’s son Duraid, and his grandson, who is also named Rifaat, were busy in September arranging for his return to Syria, especially since many Syrian institutions had taken decisions targeting Rifaat in recent decades. We know that after his exile to Russia in 1984, and then to Spain and France, Rifaat returned to Damascus at the death of his mother in 1992 and of his nephew Bassel in 1994. However, he was prevented from returning in June 2000 to participate in the funeral of his brother Hafez, against whom he had tried to stage a coup in 1984. Armed clashes also took place between forces loyal to Rifaat and government forces in Lataqiyya at the end of the 1990s.
Therefore, Al-Watan’s description is important, as it said that “President [Bashar] al-Assad has lifted [all injunctions against] Rifaat Al-Assad and allowed him to return to Syria like any other Syrian citizen, but with strict controls. He will not have any political or social role.”
MY: Rifaat had lived in France for years, without problems. Was there any political explanation for why the French authorities more recently allowed his investigation for corruption to go ahead?
IH: The French newspaper Le Figaro noted on October 14 that the French intelligence service had allowed him to leave in recognition of “the services” he had provided during the 1980s, when he was strong in Syria. It is well known that he had very good relations with Western and Gulf intelligence agencies. I do not have confirmation of the existence of a deal between Paris and Rifaat, but what I do know from those close to Rifaat is that he left France for Belarus weeks before the Paris court issued its decision, and from there he arranged his return to Damascus in October. This would have been difficult without the knowledge and consent of Moscow, which has a good relationship with both Assad and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
We know the role that Moscow played during Rifaat’s exit from Syria, after his conflict with his brother, which the Russians did to ensure the stability of the Syrian regime. Now, Moscow, played a similar role, but in reverse, by helping to bring Rifaat back to Syria. Therefore, I tend to put more emphasis on Russia’s role in facilitating his return than on France’s, albeit without denying that security contacts between the Syrian and French intelligence services have resumed after a suspension that followed the Syrian protests in 2011.
MY: What is Rifaat’s relationship with the major former and present Alawite military and security chiefs, and in particular with his nephew Maher, the effective head of the Fourth Armored Division?
IH: The agreement sponsored by Russia and Arab countries for Rifaat’s exit during the mid-1980s included the dissolution of the Defense Brigades, the military force he headed at the time and that included around 40,000 men.
Rifaat had support and followers from those who benefited financially from him and from the Murshidiyin sect, a small group of Alawites that made up the main component of the Defense Brigades. However, with the passage of time his influence within the army and security services declined, and his former supporters and their children have since declared their allegiance to the current regime.
There are those who say that Major General Maher al-Assad’s personality is similar to Rifaat’s. But Maher is now leading the Fourth Division of the Republican Guard, a strike force that not only protects Damascus but has played a major role in military operations around Damascus, Daraa, Idlib, and other places. In addition, I don’t think Rifaat has relations with the army and security services at present. The leading figures in the army and security forces are either young people who do not know Rifaat and built their strength during the war years, or older people who were at odds with him.
MY: How does Rifaat’s return affect the balance of power within the Assad family, whether now or in the future?
IH: One of the most important implications of Rifaat’s return is that it shows the importance of Assad family ties. Interestingly, and ironically, those who worked to remove Rifaat from Syria and sided with his brother Hafez during the 1980s, such as the late vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam or the late defense minister Mustapha Tlass, died in France and were unable to return to Syria. However, Rifaat who staged a military coup against his brother in 1984, and worked in exile against his nephew in the last 20 years, is back and will likely be buried in Syria.
The strongest figure in Damascus is President Bashar al-Assad. All indications point to this, as they do to the increasing influence of his wife Asma. Rifaat is 84 and there were specific conditions imposed on his return. Therefore, we should not overstate his power. But it will be interesting to see what happens when or if he visits the graves of his brother, mother, and nephew in the Assads’ home village of Qardaha, which was Rifaat’s stronghold many years back, and how the local people will react to this.
MY: Does Rifaat have any role to play in the Syrian regime’s relations with Iran or Russia?
IH: When Rifaat was part of the inner circle of power during the 1970s and 1980s, he was considered the man of the West and the Gulf states, and opposed to Russia and Iran. But between Tehran and Moscow, he preferred Moscow, which was his first destination when he went into exile. There are those who say that his return will strengthen Russia’s role at the expense of Iran’s, or preserve what remains of a Western role in Damascus. I think these perceptions are linked to the old Syria. The new Syria is divided into three spheres of influence—American, Russian-Iranian, and Turkish. Syria has changed and Rifaat has changed with it. It is necessary to adapt our reading of Syria to this new reality.
Nor should we forget that Rifaat went back to Syria to avoid prison in France. Before then he had voted for his nephew in Syria’s presidential election in May, at the Syrian embassy in Paris. At the time he had described the president as “the man of stability.”