Rifaat al-Assad

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Rifaat al-Assad
رفعت الأسد
Rifaat al-Assad, commander of the Defense Corps in the 1980s.png
Rifaat al-Assad in the 1980s
Vice President of Syria
In office
11 March 1984 – 8 February 1998
PresidentHafez al-Assad
Member of the Regional Command of the Syrian Regional Branch
In office
15 April 1975 – 8 February 1998
Personal details
Born (1937-08-22) 22 August 1937 (age 84)
Qardaha, Alawite State, Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon
(now Qardaha, Latakia Governorate, Syria)[1]
Political partySyrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party
RelationsJamil al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad (brothers)
Alma materDamascus University (BA) Soviet Academy of Sciences (PhD)
Military service
Allegiance United Arab Republic
Branch/serviceFlag of the Syrian Arab Army.svg Syrian Arab Army
Defense Companies SSI.svg Defense Companies
Years of service1958–1984
RankSyria-Liwa.jpg Major General
CommandsDefense Companies
Battles/wars1970 Syrian Corrective Revolution

Islamic uprising in Syria

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.[2][3] Recently declassified material back his claims that his brother Hafez al-Assad was responsible,[4] as do a number of commentators.[5] Despite accusations, Rifaat has always denied culpability.[6] He currently lives in exile in France.

Early life and education[edit]

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.[1]

Early experience[edit]

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).[1] 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.[1] 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[edit]

Rifaat al-Assad with Hafez al-Assad, 1980

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.[7][8] In addition to his military posture, Rifaat created the "League of Higher Graduates" (Arabic: رابطة الخريجين العليا‎, Rabitat al kharijin al-'ulia ), which provided discussion forums on public affaires for Syrian post-graduates, outside the constraints of the Baath party. With more than fifteen branches across Syria, this cultural project gathered tens of thousands of members.[9] 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.[10]

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."[11] 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.

Foreign relations[edit]

Numerous rumours tie Rifaat al-Assad to various foreign interests. Rifaat was close to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.[12][13] 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.

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 the United States 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 al-Assad meets with Yasir Arafat, 1983

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.[citation needed] The goal would have been to destabilize the Syrian government. However, there has been no mention of Rifaat in the United Nations Mehlis reports on the crime.

In 1983, Rifaat meets with PLO leader Yasir Arafat in an attempt to appease growing tensions between Syria and Arafat's loyalists.[14] [15]

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."[16] 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.[17]

Release of David S. Dodge[edit]

Rifaat al-Assad contributed to the release of US politician and educator David S. Dodge on July 21, 1983.[18][19]

On July 19, 1982, Dodge was abducted by pro-Iranian militiamen, members of the Islamic Amal in Beirut, led by Hussein al-Musawi.[20] He was first held in Lebanon and then kept captive in Iran until his release one year later.[21] Through contacts in the Iranian regime of Khomeini, Rifaat was able to secure the release of Dodge and was publicly thanked by US president Ronald Reagan.[22]

On 21 July 1983 US deputy press secretary Larry Speakes stated:

The Government of the United States is grateful to Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad and to Dr. Rifaat al-Assad for the humanitarian efforts they undertook which led to Mr. Dodge’s release. [23]

Muslim Brotherhood Crackdown[edit]

Hama massacre[edit]

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. A declassified document from the Defense Intelligence Agency, however, estimates the total number of casualties to be approximately 2000.[24] US journalist Thomas Friedman claims in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem that Rifaat later said that the total number of victims was 38,000.[25] Rifaat, however, has repeatedly denied playing any role in the Hama massacre.[7][26][27]

Rifaat al-Assad clarified his version for the Hama massacre during the conference in Paris to form the Syrian National Democratic Council on 15 November 2011.[28] He was also implicated in the 1980 Tadmor Prison massacre and acquired the sobriquet, the "butcher of Tadmor."[29]

Rifaat al-Assad was also mentioned in a CIA report regarding drug smuggling activities in Syria during the 1980s, along with other Syrian officials such as Ali Haydar, Mustafa Tlass and Shafiq Fayadh.[30]

Attempted coup d'état[edit]

When Hafez al-Assad suffered from heart problems in late 1983, he established a six-member committee to run the country composed of Abdul Halim Khaddam, Abdullah al-Ahmar, Mustafa Tlass, Mustafa al-Shihabi, Abdul Rauf al-Kasm and Zuhair Masharqa.[31] 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.

In March 1984, Rifaat's troops, now numbering more than 55,000 with tanks, artillery, aircraft and helicopters, began asserting control over Damascus. A squadron of Rifaat's T-72 tanks took position at the central roundabout of Kafr Sousa and in Mount Qasioun, overlooking the city.[32] 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; the Defense Companies rapidly outnumbered and took control over both the Special Forces and the Republican Guard.[32] Although Damascus was divided between two armies and seemed on the brink of war, Rifaat did not move. Informed that Rifaat was heading to Damascus, his brother Hafez al Assad left his headquarters to meet him.

British journalist Patrick Seale reports an intimate moment between the two brothers :

At Rifat's home in Mezze the brothers were at last face to face. 'You want to overthrow the regime?' Asad asked. 'Here I am. I am the regime.' For an hour they stormed at each other but, in his role of elder brother and with his mother in the house, Asad could not fail to win the contest. Deferring to him at last, as he had so often done in their youths, Rifat chose to accept (although with some inward scepticism) Asad's pledge that trust between them would be restored and would be the basis for their future work together.[32]

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 the Defense Companies loyal to Rifaat. 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).[33] 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. Upon his departure, Rifaat acquired $300m of public money including a $100m Libyan loan. In 2015, he claimed that the money was a gift from Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia back then.[34]

During the 1990s[edit]

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.[35] 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[edit]

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,[citation needed] 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).[36] Ali Eid the general secretary of the party today, supports the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.[citation needed]


Ribbon Distinction Country Date Location Notes Reference
Legion Honneur GC ribbon.svg Grand Cross of the National Order of the Legion of Honour  France 1986 Paris Highest rank in the Order of the Legion of Honor in the Republic of France. Awarded by former president François Mitterrand[37] [38][39][40][41]

Legal issues[edit]

Since 2014, Rifaat was accused of organised money laundering, aggravated tax fraud and embezzling Syrian funds to buy property worth at least €90m in France.[42] In addition, Spanish authorities have seized his assets and bank accounts in a money laundering investigation since 2017.[43][44]

In June 2020, a Paris court sentenced Rifaat to four years in prison; hence, his properties in Paris and London would be seized.[45]

Personal life[edit]

In 2010, Rifaat was living in Mayfair, London.[46][47] As of 2011 he is living in Avenue Foch, Paris,[48] while trying to sell off his real estate properties.[49]

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.[1] He firstly married to one of his cousins, Amirah, from al-Qurdahah. Then, he married Salma 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.[1] 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.[1] His youngest son, Ribal Al-Assad, born 1975, is a businessman and political activist. He resides in Paris and has spoken frequently on French and international media on the Syrian crisis.[50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Dossier: Rifaat Assad". Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. 2 (5). 1 June 2000. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  2. ^ "'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.
  3. ^ "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
  4. ^ "Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies" (PDF). Although President Assad was successful in squelching the Hama uprising, he is clearly on the defensive.
  5. ^ "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.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ a b "Exiled Assad's uncle wants to lead Syria transition". Al Arabiya. AFP. 14 November 2011.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ Seale, Patrick (8 February 1989). "Chapter 24: Brothers's war". Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. p. 422. ISBN 978-0520069763.
  10. ^ "Syria's Assad forms new cabinet". Sarasota Herald Tribune. Damascus. AP. 12 March 1984. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  11. ^ Nisan, Mordechai (Spring 2012). "Of Wars and Woes. A Chronicle of Lebanese Violence". The Levantine Review. 1 (1): 32. doi:10.6017/lev.v1i1.2150.
  12. ^ Henderson, Simon (24 July 2012). "The Prince and the Revolution". The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The closeness between Rifaat and Abdullah is more than just kinship: They worked together in the early 1980s when Rifaat was leading the Defense Companies
  13. ^ Parker, Claire (9 December 2019). "The Prince and the Revolution". The Washington Times. much of the case will center on the circumstances of his exile from Syria and his friendship with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
  14. ^ C. R, Jonathan (25 June 1983). "Syria Abruptly Ousts Arafat As PLO Rebellion Mounts". The Washington Post. talks between Arafat and Assad's brother had gone well and that Arafat was convinced that Rifaat Assad had signaled willingness to intercede with the president to smooth over their growing differences.
  15. ^ Sadeq, Ali (8 July 2014). "Palestinians and the Assad regime: for history and generations to know". Middle East Monitor. At that time, he had arranged relations with Rifaat Al-Assad
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ "Ion Mihai Pacepa on Muammar Khaddafi on National Review Online". Archived from the original on 20 February 2014. Retrieved 2 June 2013.
  18. ^ "FREED U.S. EDUCATOR THANKS SYRIANS FOR HELP". New York Times. AFP. 24 July 1983.
  19. ^ Wright, Robin (6 November 1986). "Free-lance terrorism undercuts Syria". csmonitor. He demanded that Mr. Dodge be returned. This demand eventually led to Dodge's freedom after a year-long captivity.
  20. ^ Dickey, Christopher (Fall 1987). "Assad and His Allies: Irreconcilable Differences?". Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations. 66 (1): 68. doi:10.2307/20043292. JSTOR 20043292. Mousavi first came to attention outside Lebanon in connection with the 1982 kidnapping of David Dodge
  21. ^ "AMERICAN IS FREED WITH HELP OF SYRIA". New York Times. AFP. 22 July 1983.
  22. ^ "His Brother's Keeper". Time. 19 December 1983. President Reagan publicly thanked him when, through contacts in the Iranian regime of Ayatullah Khomeini, Rifaat secured the release of David Dodge.
  23. ^ "Statement by Deputy Press Secretary Speakes on the Release of David Dodge in Beirut, Lebanon". Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. AFP. 21 July 1983.
  24. ^ DIA: Syria – Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies (Report). DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY. May 1982.
  25. ^ Friedman, p. 90
  26. ^ Al Arabiya on YouTube
  27. ^ "RT arabic" on YouTube
  28. ^ Video in Arabic with English subtitles on YouTube
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ "Heroin Trafficking: The Syrian Connection" (PDF). CIA. 8 February 2012. pp. 3, 5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 January 2017.
  31. ^ Seale, Patrick (8 February 1989). "Chapter 24: Brothers's war". Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. p. 427. ISBN 978-0520069763.
  32. ^ a b c Seale, Patrick (8 February 1989). "Chapter 24: Brothers's war". Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. p. 434. ISBN 978-0520069763.
  33. ^ Dossier: Bushra Assad (September-October 2006) Archived 21 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ القضاء الفرنسي يصادر ممتلكات لرفعت الأسد. Sky News Arabia (in Arabic). 9 September 2016.
  35. ^ Political Chronology of the Middle East. Routledge. 12 October 2012. p. 2038. ISBN 978-1-135-35673-6. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  36. ^ "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)
  37. ^ "Syrian president's uncle under investigation for corruption and money laundering in France". The Telegraph. 28 June 2016.
  38. ^ "Biens mal acquis ; ouverture du procès de Rifaat Al-Assad, oncle du président syrien". parismatch.fr (in French). Paris Match. 9 December 2019.
  39. ^ ""Biens mal acquis": ouverture du procès de l'oncle de Bachar al-Assad à Paris" (in French). Le Point. 9 December 2019.
  40. ^ "Le procès de l'oncle de Bachar al-Assad s'est ouvert sans lui à Paris" (in French). Ouest France. 9 December 2019.
  41. ^ ""Biens mal acquis": Rifaat al-Assad, oncle du président syrien, mis en examen à Paris" (in French). Sherpa. 28 June 2016.
  42. ^ "Syrian president's uncle on trial in France for money laundering". BBC. 9 December 2019.
  43. ^ "Spanish raids seize Assad uncle's assets in corruption inquiry". BBC. 4 April 2017.
  44. ^ "Spanish court wants to try Syrian leader's uncle for money laundering". elpais.com. 22 November 2019.
  45. ^ "Rifaat al-Assad: Syrian President's uncle jailed in France for money laundering". BBC. 17 June 2020.
  46. ^ Rayner, Gordon (12 June 2011). "Syria's 'Butcher of Hama' living in £10 million Mayfair townhouse". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  47. ^ "Robert Fisk: Freedom, democracy and human rights in Syria". The Independent. London. 16 September 2010. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  48. ^ "The Syrian Leader's Exiled Uncle Vows to Topple the Regime – TIME". Time. 24 November 2011. Archived from the original on 24 November 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  49. ^ Nabila Ramdani (6 October 2011). "Syria: Assad family 'selling off overseas property empire'". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  50. ^ 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.
Political offices
Preceded by
(No Vice Presidents appointed)
Vice President of Syria
Succeeded by