When the Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov recently sat down with Syrian opposition figures, in preparation for the ever-postponed Geneva II conference, he didn’t just meet with the usual Moscow favorites: Saleh Muslim Mohammed, Heitham Mannaa, and Qadri Jamil.
He also decided to have a meeting with Refaat al-Assad, Syria’s 76-year old former vice president, who also happens to be the uncle of Bashar al-Assad. He was once the second-most powerful man in the Syrian regime and now he’s angling for a similar position in the Syrian opposition.
Black Sheep of the Assad Family
In the 1970s and 1980s, Refaat served as the president’s enforcer, earning a reputation for brutality, greed, and Alawite sectarianism that made his elder brother Hafez seem quite liberal by comparison. Using his own private army, the Defense Companies, Refaat took the lead in repressing Syria’s opposition and he is alleged to have personally overseen the massacres of Palmyra in 1980 and Hama in 1982.
But power got to his head. When the president fell ill in 1983-1984, Refaat made a bid for succession. It gradually escalated into a coup, then stalled, and failed.
Hafez decided to cut his troublesome sibling down to size, but he also sought to avoid bloodshed within the family and didn’t want to publicly admit to the dispute. After transferring Refaat to a ceremonial vice presidency, he was sent off on an unspecified “diplomatic mission”—as meaningless as it was endless—with enough pocket money to live out his life in royal splendor. He would eventually settle in very comfortably between Spain, France, and Great Britain, and was allowed back for visits to Syria some years later on the condition that he stayed out of politics.
The story could have ended there, but Refaat couldn’t let go. In the late 1990s, he took the fateful decision to oppose the succession of Bashar al-Assad. That ended the implicit deal that had been brokered in 1984 and split the family in half. Hafez and Bashar promptly stripped Refaat of his nominal title as vice president and called in the army to confiscate his smugglers’ port on the Mediterranean coast, killing several of his supporters in the process. Refaat could do nothing about it—although he toyed with the idea of hiring mercenaries to invade Latakia by boat. When Bashar became president the following summer, his exiled uncle could do no more than issue angry statements from his mansion in Spain.
Today, Refaat lives a good life in exile, but he commands no discernible popular base in Syria. It is likely that he still enjoys the sympathy of some relatives and of the family of a few of his fellow exiles. It is worth pointing out that many of his children were married into the leading clans of the security apparatus, before he fell from grace. Last but not least, there are still hundreds of senior Alawite officers who got their start in the Defense Companies and who will probably recall the former strongman with a tinge of nostalgia.
But none of these figures have had the slightest reason to join him in opposition. If they seek a president to protect the current order, uphold their privileges, and maintain Alawite military supremacy, they already have Bashar. A change of allegiance to Refaat would accomplish nothing and risk everything.
Instead, Refaat’s main source of influence and fortune since the year 2000 appears to have been the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. It is an alliance rooted in marriage, the old-fashioned way: one of Refaat’s wives is the sister of one of King Abdullah’s wives and that happy union has also resulted in Refaat being wedded to Saudi foreign policy. Throughout the 2000s, his political activity has seemed to rise and fall with the tension between Riyadh and Damascus.
A Legend in His Own Mind
Refaat has, however, been of limited use to the Saudis so far. Whatever role he may have played behind the scenes, he has shown himself singularly inept as a public politician. He displays no interest in changing Syria in any practical fashion and doesn’t seem to care for any part of the opposition that won’t accept his leadership. His political program revolves around one thing only: making Refaat al-Assad the president of Syria.
To that end, he has wasted millions of dollars on creating a minor galaxy of make-belief movements and media groups for himself, his children, and cronies, including the ANN TV channel, the United National Assembly, the Free Shia Current, and a bunch of other websites and organizations. Few of these groups seem to have any form of popular base or audience, or even a clear purpose, except to praise Refaat al-Assad as “the first knight of Syria” and its “thinker-leader.” Instead of a workable political strategy, Refaat has used his time in exile to construct a cult of personality, for no point other than to help him soothe the phantom pains of a career in tyranny cut short.
A Bad Bet for Moscow
Deputy minister Bogdanov isn’t choosy. The Russian government has begun to investigate whether it could manage to insert Refaat into the Syrian opposition delegation at Geneva II.
That is an embarrassingly bad idea. Which force on the opposition side is Refaat al-Assad expected to represent? Is it the Army of Islam? The National Coalition? The Local Coordination Committees? Jabhat al-Nusra? The Tawhid Brigade? Or perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood? They’d all rather see him dead than sit next to him at a conference.
If the idea is that Refaat enjoys some lingering sympathy within the Alawite officer corps, this may or may not be true. But it is quite beside the point, since those officers aren’t looking for a voice to represent them in the opposition, but at the other side of the table. The man who could do that most effectively is not Refaat al-Assad; it’s their commander in chief, his nephew.
So far, the pro-regime camp in Syria remains united around Bashar al-Assad since this is their best bet for survival. That means that there is simply no niche for Refaat to function in. He could never represent any part of the Syrian armed opposition and the exiled dissidents refuse to have anything to do with him. The regime, for its part, doesn’t need him—Bashar can speak for himself.
If the regime's Russian sponsors are trying to find a transitional figure, for a hypothetical post-Bashar future, Refaat would be a singularly poor choice. He has copious amounts of blood on his hands and is a member of the Assad family, making him as unacceptable to the mainstream opposition as Bashar himself. And yet, he has no control over the Syrian security forces, raising the question of why one would want to introduce him into an already volatile mix of personalities. In fact, any number of active-duty generals could probably fill the role as transitional regime leader more effectively and wouldn’t be hampered by Refaat’s historical baggage.