The Syria that Rifaat al-Assad left when he was vice president to Hafez al-Assad decades ago is not the same one that he returned to after his nephew, President Bashar al-Assad, allowed him to return to as a “citizen.” The country has changed with its foreign alliances and role in the region. Its composition has changed and it is now “home” to five armies.
Accompanied by his wives, children and grandchildren, his first glimpses of Damascus, with its streets, checkpoints, officials and his former residence, may have rekindled memories of when he was at the height of his power. He may have recalled a time back in the 1980s when he orchestrated a “coup” against his brother and surrounded the capital.
Damascus, which 21 years ago ordered his arrest should he return from exile, rose above the wounds and received him so he can avoid imprisonment in France where he was sentenced to serve for five years. Days alone will decipher the “code” that was headlined by al-Watan newspaper last week and that said that Rifaat, 84, had returned “with no political or social role”. Days will tell the extent to which this “decree” will be implemented in Damascus and Latakia.
The brothers and the Brotherhood
When he was young, Rifaat had always been overshadowed by his stronger older brother, Hafez, who was seven years his senior. In 1952, he followed in his brother’s ideological footsteps and joined the Baath party. He also followed him in joining the military and later the interior ministry.
In March 1963, the Baath military committee, which his brother was a member of, seized power. Rifaat soon joined the military academy in Homs. After graduating, he served alongside his brother, who at the time was an air force commander.
His first military “tours” took place with Salim Hatoum and the raid of President Amin al-Hafez’s residence in February 1966. The raid was aimed at toppling the first Baath government. Under President Nureddin al-Atassi, Rifaat was tasked with commanding a special unit that was formed by the military committee to “defend the regime”.
Historians say that during the late 1960s, Syria witnessed two major conflicts. The first pitted Hafez and Rifaat against Salah Jadid and his chief of intelligence Abdulkarim al-Jundi. Between February 25 and 28, 1969, the Assad brothers launched a military operation in Damascus. Tanks moved in the capital against Jundi and Jadid loyalists. The former committed suicide on March 2, 1969, to avoid arrest. On November 17, 1970, Assad carried out the “comprehensive movement”, arresting Atassi and Jadid. Rifaat was then tasked with securing Damascus.
Rifaat became commander of the Defense Companies, which boasted some 40,000 soldiers and acted almost like an independent army that was not affiliated with the official military. Rifaat rose up the ranks in the party and he expanded his activities among students, the youth and the media.
The second conflict erupted in 1979. It pitted the regime against the Muslim Brotherhood. In December 1979, Rifaat declared it was time to “respond with force” against the movement, calling on everyone to pledge their absolute loyalty. He was quoted as saying: “Stalin sacrificed 10 million people to protect the Bolshevik revolution. Syria must do the same to protect the Baath revolution.” He threatened to wage a “hundred wars, destroy a million forts and sacrifice a million lives” to preserve the state-regime. He let loose in suppressing the uprising between 1979 and 1982. The situation reached its peak when he struck Hama in February 1982.
In 1983, he sent his paratroopers to Damascus with the command to remove the hijab off women on the streets. The move was met with widespread criticism, even his brother openly condemned him.
Edge of danger
When Hafez fell ill in November 1983, it appeared that the moment Rifaat had long awaited had arrived. He began to act as though he were the “legitimate heir”, seeing himself as the only heir. He began to rally the support of his generals, drawing the extreme ire of the president.
Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam recalled the tense situation in his memoirs, which were seen by Asharq Al-Awsat. He said he met with Hafez in March 1978 to address the extreme campaign against Rifaat among the Syrians. “This campaign weakens the regime,” Khaddam told Hafez. “You must address the situation with Rifaat.”
Indeed, Rifaat was meddling in the affairs of state and ordering around Prime Minster Mohammed Ali Halabi, who did not dare speak out.
Khaddam added: “The president wanted his brother to succeed him, but Rifaat committed a major sin when he tried to revolt against him when he had fallen ill in November 1983.”
He recalled that Hafez had at one point in 1980 told him that he wanted to appoint a vice president for the sake of “continuity, because no one knows when their time will come.” Khaddam, who was foreign minister at the time, understood that he was referring to Rifaat. His attempted coup, however, made his brother change his mind.
Remembering the failed coup, Khaddam said that when Hafez fell ill in November 1983, commander of the republican guard, Adnan Makhlouf, informed him that the president wanted to see him at hospital. “I believed that he was a victim of an assassination attempt,” said Khaddam. “I asked: ‘Was he shot or targeted by a bomb?’ to which Makhlouf replied: ‘He was struck by a heart attack.’ I headed to the hospital immediately.”
The next day, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel was scheduled to visit Syria. Hafez asked Khaddam to postpone the visit and to cite “his preoccupation with internal matters”. When Hafez left the ICU, Khaddam contacted army commander Hikmat al-Shihabi and asked him to come to the hospital. “We agreed to take measures that would avert attempts to blow up the situation in Syria, because I was fearful of Rifaat.”
Khaddam recalled how at one point he was on the phone with the Syrian ambassador to London to request that a doctor be flown over immediately. He demanded that the best doctor be sent to Syria. He had made a similar request to the envoy in Washington. Rifaat walked in at that moment and asked why should doctors be brought from abroad? Syria has doctors, he declared. Should doctors be brought in from abroad whenever anyone falls ill? Khaddam replied: “Your brother is called Hafez al-Assad, not Hafez Khaddam. It is my responsibility to provide all conditions for his recovery because I know what sort of chaos will happen if he is gone.”
Later, Khaddam said the American ambassador revealed to him that an American envoy was coming to Damascus to meet with Rifaat. He responded: “We won’t allow him to come. Syria has a state. If the United States wanted to contact us, then it should do so through the state that I represent as foreign minister.”
The next day, the Defense Companies paraded through the streets of Damascus and Rifaat declared to the people: “I am coming.” Soon after, Khaddam met with the military, Shihabi and Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass. “We agreed to bring in two units from outside Damascus. They surrounded the city and the situation became tense. When senior officers who had pledged allegiance to Rifaat found out that Hafez was out of danger, they abandoned his brother. Rifaat became isolated.”
At the time, the Central Command held a meeting. Everyone was shocked at the large numbers of Defense Companies members. Addressing the meeting, Rifaat said: “The Central Command must expel from the party Ali Duba (chief of military intelligence), Ibrahim Safi (commander of Syrian forces in Lebanon), Ali Haidar (commander of the special forces) and Mohammed Khawli (director of air force intelligence) because they are insulting me. I am the brother of the president. I should be treated like the president. If you don’t take a decision, then my forces will immediately occupy Damascus.”
Some of the members of the Central Command appeared hesitant. General Mustafa then addressed the gatherers: “These are your brothers. The problem can be solved if you meet together.” Khaddam then interjected, addressing Rifaat, he said: “You want to launch a coup? Go ahead. If every officer with a tank and soldiers wants to ride on our shoulders, then that is a dangerous thing. You have the tanks. Go ahead, make your move.” Rifaat was gradually becoming angrier. “I never said such a thing,” he retorted. Khaddam replied knowingly: “The discussion was recorded.”
After the meeting, Khaddam contacted Hafez to inform him of what happened. The president said he will check with Zuhair Masharqa, who was a member of the Central Command. Minutes later, Hafez told Khaddam that Masharqa had informed him that Rifaat did not make any threatening remarks. Khaddam told Hafez to check with the minister of defense and commander of the army because Masharqa was loyal to Rifaat. After around a quarter of an hour, Hafez contacted Khaddam again. “What you said was right. Zuhair is a coward and he lied to me,” said Hafez.
‘I am the regime’
In February 1984, Hafez carried out his retaliation. He ordered the arrest of Salim Barakat, Rifaat’s security aide. He also sent a message through their other brother, Jamil, to Rifaat, saying: “I am your older brother, whom you must obey. Do not forget that I am the one who made you.”
In March 1984, Hafez appointed Rifaat as vice president but with no official duties. In fact, this was not a form of promotion, but an attempt to curb Rifaat’s power through appointing him to a purely political role, one that would be under the constant watchful eye of the president. His security duties, as commander of the Defense Companies, were referred to Mohammed Ghanem.
Khaddam recalled how Rifaat’s appointment was announced. He said Hafez called the Central Command to meet in early March 1984. He informed the leadership that he had decided to appoint three vice presidents. He said he alone has the right to make such an order and name the officials, who were Rifaat Assad, Zuhair Masharqa and Abdul Halim Khaddam.
“I immediately told him that I didn’t want to be vice president or serve in any government or party position,” said Khaddam. “Hafez ended the meeting and then called me to his office. He asked me: ‘Why did you object?’ I replied: ‘How can you put Rifaat and Zuhair above me? Rifaat should be in jail, not act as first deputy to the president. I have worked tirelessly to serve my country. I will not practice any state or partisan work.’ He told: ‘Then take over the position of secretary of the Central Command.’ I rejected his offer and went home.”
“After about an hour, he called me back to his office. He welcomed me back with a laugh: ‘You are stubborn.’ He informed me that he issued a decree naming me as first vice president, followed by Rifaat and then Zuhair. I asked him what a vice president does. He replied that he is in charge of foreign policy. Soon after the decree was announced and I accepted.”
On March 30, 1984, Rifaat responded to the move. His soldiers entered Damascus with clear orders to seize power. They took over strategic positions throughout the capital and its surroundings. Rifaat’s forces clashes with Hafezloyalists, such as Ali Haidar of the special forces and Adnan Makhlouf of the republican guard.
Patrick Seale, author of Assad’s biography, “Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” wrote that had the two sides struck each other in the capital, the destruction would have been massive and the image of the regime would have been irreparably damaged. Hafez left the noose dangling enough for Rifaat to hang himself.
Hafez was in full military uniform, accompanied by his oldest son Bassel, who was to become his father’s right-hand man until his death in a car accident in 1994.
Hafez drove his car alone without any guards to confront Rifaat at the headquarters of his military command. Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass recalled the developments in a book, “Three months that shook Syria”. “Adnan Makhlouf, commander of the republican guard, informed me that Mr. president has headed alone to his brother’s headquarters in Mazzeh. He said the president had told him that if he was not back in an hour, then Tlass must carry out the plan (of confronting Rifaat’s forces),” wrote Tlass.
“Do you want to overthrow the regime?” Hafez asked Rifaat. “Here I am. I am the regime!” They argued and then Hafez offered Rifaat a way out, vowing to respect his dignity and interests and provide him with a safe exit to exile of his choosing. He promised that he would not arrest him.
In late April 1984, Rifaat sensed that the balance of power had started to lean in his brother’s favor to an extent that he could no longer move. He contacted his brother Jamil so that he could mediate a reconciliation and to say that he was ready to do anything the president wanted. Hafez was impatiently waiting for Rifaat to collapse and resign himself to the authority. He won the waiting game. Then the difficult negotiations began.
They agreed that the Defense Companies would come under the authority of the operations command in the armed forces. Rifaat would remain as vice president tasked with security affairs. They agreed that senior officers would travel with him to Moscow. On May 28, 1984, a plane carrying Rifaat and his senior officers flew to Moscow to cool down. They were summoned one by one back to Syria and Rifaat alone remained in exile.
‘My brother doesn’t love me’
It was said that prior to leaving Syria, Rifaat had thrown a huge banquet for his friends. “It appears as though my brother no longer loves me. When he sees me, he frowns. I am not an American agent. I did not conspire against my country,” he told them. “If I were a fool, I would have destroyed the entire city, but I love this place. My men have been here for 18 years, the people are used to us and they love us. Now the commandos want to kick us out.”
Rifaat returned to Syria in 1992 at the wishes of his mother, who died later that year. In 1994, he extended his condolences to Hafez when his son Bassel died. Later that year, he was discharged from his position in the army and kept his post as vice president before later being relieved of his duties.
In 1999, his supporters clashed in a gunfight with government forces in Latakia. He set up a satellite channel in London in September 1997. He established his own party in Europe that is headed by his son, Sumer. The party had called for political change and was met with criticism by loyalists and the opposition.
When Hafez died on June 10, 2000, he issued a statement to elegize him. He claimed to be his heir, but his calls fell on deaf ears. Khaddam ordered Rifaat’s arrest should he attempt to attend his brother’s funeral.
After the eruption of the 2011 protests in Syria, Rifaat stood against the regime. His son, Ribal, is openly involved in politics. Rifaat’s presence in the media gradually faded. He appeared during the presidential elections this year when he voted for his nephew at the Syrian consulate in Paris. He then sent a cable of congratulation to Bashar on his reelection. On Thursday, he returned to Syria.