Syria’s Rifaat al-Assad: From ‘butcher of Hama’ to real estate tycoon

Rifaat al-Assad photographed on May 27, 2005, during an interview with Associated Press in his office in Marbella, Spain. © Paul White, AP (archives)

The appeals process for the trial of Rifaat al-Assad goes ahead in Paris on Thursday. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s uncle was initially convicted of money laundering as part of an organised gang, embezzlement of public funds and aggravated tax evasion. FRANCE 24 looks back at the long career of this Assad dynasty scion who amassed a colossal European property empire.

The French justice system is looking again at the case of Rifaat al-Assad, who was sentenced to four years in prison in June 2020 for a range of financial impropriety charges.

The Syrian president’s uncle stands accused of fraudulently building a French property empire estimated at €90 million – including two mansions in upscale parts of Paris, some forty apartments, a chateau and a stud farm.

Taking into account his British and Spanish property assets, Rifaat’s European empire amount to several hundred million euros, according to anti-corruption NGOs including the French association Sherpa, which brought the complaint against him to the courts in 2013.

A princely lifestyle

Rifaat al-Assad was born in Syria in 1937, and was brought up as part of the Alawite community. He has always insisted that he did nothing improper in the acquisition of his assets. This younger brother of Hafez al-Assad – Syrian President Bshar al-Assad’s father and president from 1971 to 2000 – said that it was mainly thanks to the Saudi royal family’s generosity in the 1980s that he was able to build his lucrative empire.

His allies say that the value of these holdings is far below the sums relayed in the media. Rifaat has long contended that his legal troubles and the criminal complaints levelled against him in France, Spain and Switzerland are a plot fomented by the Syrian opposition. He says he is being targeted because of his popularity in Syria.

But it is clear that Rifaat was by no means predestined to become such a tycoon. “During his first trial there was a long discussion of Assad’s rise to this vast fortune from a family of small landowners in Qardaha, northwest Syria,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria specialist at Lyon University 2, who testified as an expert at the first trial in December 2019.

“The size of his assets is out of proportion with the hundred acres of poor land his family possessed, 400 metres above sea level, on which sharecroppers cultivated tobacco and durum wheat,” Balanche continued.

Rifaat has lived in Europe since he was forced into exile in 1984 after a failed coup against his own brother Hafez.

“Before his exile, Rifaat was his brother’s right-hand man – and you could say this hand was highly armed; Rifaat was head of the Defence Brigades, an army corps composed of Alawites, the community the Assads come from,” Balanche said.

The Defence Brigades numbered some 50,000 men paid three times the average for soldiers in the Syrian army. It did the Assad regime’s dirty work – and its fearsome reputation burnished Rifaat’s ambitions.

“Syria saw a Muslim Brotherhood uprising from 1979 to 1983, which ended in the infamous Hama massacre orchestrated by Rifaat’s Defence Brigades,” Balanche said. This came after they massacred hundreds of prisoners in the Palmyra jail in 1980 to avenge an attack on the government.

‘You don’t kill your own brother’

After this Rifaat was nicknamed the “butcher of Hama”. At present, he is the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland by NGO Trial International for his alleged involvement in the massacre – which for many Syrians remains a pre-eminent symbol of the Assad regime’s cruelty.

“The Defence Brigades were also involved in stealing property and trafficking antiques; they have a powerful grip on smuggling, notably in Lebanon which the Syrian army occupied in 1976,” Balanche said. “Many of their barracks functioned as warehouses full of goods from Lebanon, such as TVs, VCRs, cigarettes and foreign beers.”

Far from being an ideologue, Balanche continued, Rifaat was someone who used his brother’s power for self-aggrandisement: “He was the little brother who imposed himself by force; his goal was to accumulate wealth – much more than Hafez had, seeing as the latter was primarily interested in power not money.”

Rifaat gained influence over the years – with the burgeoning of his clientelist networks and Hafez making him vice-president. This threatened his brother’s grip on power when Rifaat took advantage of Hafez’s hospitalisation to attempt a coup in 1984.

“Hafez spared him after this betrayal because you don’t kill your own brother; it would have upset their mother a great deal,” Balanche said. “It’s also worth noting that Hafez didn’t want to risk a civil war within the Alawite community, because at the time his younger brother had a lot of supporters – especially within the army thanks to the Defence Brigades. So Hafez expelled Rifaat from Syria with a significant sum of money so that he could bounce back abroad.”

Lavish exile and Legion of Honour

In disgrace and deprived of his Defence Brigade power base, Rifaat settled in France with various wives, many descendants and a squad of bodyguards.

“France’s intelligence agencies were very happy that he was there,” Balanche said. “Lebanon was mired in its [1975 to 1990] civil war and was occupied by Syrian forces – and in this context Rifaat constituted a precious source of information against Hafez, as well as a kind of tool to be used against him if need be,” Balanche said. “Some French intelligence figures even saw him as a useful intermediary in the arms trade – and as a potential pro-Western successor to Hafez.”

Then French President François Mitterrand made Rifaat a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1986. It remains a controversial move – in February, Sherpa and another NGO Trial International urged President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw France’s highest honour from Rifaat in light of the grave accusations against him.

An interregnum to Rifaat’s French exile came in 1992 when Hafez allowed him to return to Syria with a pardon, prompted by their mother’s funeral. He got back the right to do business there.

But the tide turned again in 1998. “Rifaat was declared persona non grata and stripped of his title of vice president because Hafez saw him as a danger to his succession plan in which his son Bashar would take his place,” Balanche noted.

Bashar’s elder brother Bassel had been widely regarded as Hafez’s most likely successor until his death in a car accident in 1994.

Upon Hafez’s funeral in June 2000 Rifaat accused Syrian authorities of violating the country’s constitution by appointing Bashar as head of state.

“Now Rifaat carries no political weight in Syria,” Balanche said. “He might have created a party and launched a satellite TV channel [ANN] based in London – and he might have backed the opposition because he knew his only chance of regaining a foothold in Syria was through regime change – but his old adversaries weren’t fooled for a second.”

“After a lavish exile and dreams of ruling Syria in place of his brother and then his nephew, Rifaat’s last struggles are playing out in European courts – a far cry from both his Parisian palaces and his dreams of national leadership,” Balanche concluded.

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