Khaddam’s memoirs… Khaddam to Assad: You have to choose between your brother… or your companions

publisher: المجلة AL Majalla

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2024-01-19

Rifaat followed “Big Brother” and expanded his influence in the army and the “Baath Party”

Lina Jaradat

The relationship between Hafez and Rifaat was like any two brothers in a large family that originated from a poor background in the Syrian coast. The younger brother was influenced by the elder and followed in his footsteps, including joining the same party, the Baath Party, in the early 1950s, and the military in the early 1960s. When the “older brother” took control of the military committee in the Baath Party and became its mastermind and decision-maker, Rifaat was at the military academy in Homs, central Syria, to be closer to his inspiration, who was the leader of the Syrian Air Force.

This fraternal partnership was tested in the conflict among Baathist comrades in 1966, then strengthened when Rifaat was tasked with establishing a military force to ensure the regime’s stability. Thus, the axis of Hafez-Rifaat emerged against the axis of Salah Jadid-Abdul Karim al-Jundi. The latter’s suicide in March 1969 was a turning point in the conflict, which Hafez Assad settled in November 1970. The older brother was in the palace with his hand on the decision, and the second was in the streets with his hands on the rifle, overseeing the “security” of Damascus.

Lieutenant Colonel Rifaat al-Assad, according to Khaddam, was the focus of communications between agents of companies aspiring to obtain contracts in Syria

Khaddam recounts: "During the power struggle with the military leadership and the Baath Party in the late 1960s, a group of pioneers and non-commissioned officers (military ranks) supported Defense Minister General Hafez al-Assad against the leadership in Qatari and held the most effective units. Assad clung to them, and they assumed advanced responsibilities in the armed forces. Some of them turned to Major Rifaat, and some of them moved to positions of power. Each one of them believed he was the closest to the president and gave them that impression. They were practically the nucleus of protecting the regime. However, during the competition for loyalty to the president, animosities and envy emerged among them. Thus, Assad ensured their inability to unite."

Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, with Mustafa Tlass in the middle

On December 23, 1973, Assad formed a government that lasted until 1976. This period was rich in events, most notably the October 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, followed by the separation of forces agreement with Israel, tensions with Egypt, sharp conflicts with Iraq, and the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon. Arab aid flowed in, contributing to the launch of numerous infrastructure and industrial development projects. Companies competed to win bids for these projects, and a significant number of agents focused their efforts on influential centers to secure contracts for their clients. "Major Rifaat al-Assad was a focal point in the agents' communications," according to Khaddam.

Khaddam to the “Baath” leaders: “Meet and take a decision to dismiss Rifaat from the party and from the army (...).” Hafez al-Assad commented, saying: “Indeed, why do you come and complain? Bear your responsibility.”

Campaign and Accusations of Negligence

In the Qatari conference of the Ba’ath Party held between April 5 and 15, 1975, Major Rifaat al-Assad launched a direct or indirectly affiliated bloc attack on the Qatari leadership, accusing them of negligence. He targeted the Assistant Secretary-General Abdullah al-Ahmar, Mahmoud al-Ayoubi, the Prime Minister, Muhammad Haydar, the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, General Naji Jameel, and General Mustafa Tlass, the Minister of Defense. He sought to discredit them and began promoting their downfall. Members of the National Leadership, Baqir al-Yasin and Ahmed al-Jubouri, requested a meeting between the National and Qatari leaderships with President Assad to inform him of the situation and highlight the interference of Major Rifaat and his pressures on several conference members.

One of Abdul Halim Khaddam's documents

Indeed, the meeting took place at the presidential palace, and members of the leadership began complaining to the president about his brother's interference and pressures. Assad responded, "Why don't you defend the National Leadership in the conference? Why don't you confront him in the conference?" Khaddam recalls, "I was sitting in a distant place from the president. I took the floor and said, 'I find this meeting strange. You are the party leadership, and you have decision-making authority in the party. Instead of complaining to the Secretary-General (Hafez al-Assad), gather and make a decision to expel Rifaat from the party and the army, thus safeguarding the leadership and the party.' Assad responded, saying, 'Indeed, why do you come and complain? Take responsibility.'"

Khaddam "strongly attacked Lieutenant Colonel Rifaat al-Assad" and accused him of "spreading laxity in the armed forces, practicing corruption, and trying to sabotage the party through blocs."

“You have to choose between your brother or your comrades.”

In the evening session of the conference, Khaddam asked to speak and talked extensively, strongly attacking “Colonel Rifaat al-Assad,” accusing him of “promoting negligence in the armed forces, engaging in corruption, and attempting to sabotage the party through alliances, although the man had always treated me with affection and respect,” according to Khaddam. He adds, “Before finishing my speech, I turned to President Hafez and said: You have to choose between your brother and your comrades. I finished my speech and returned to my seat, which was close to his. He turned to me and said, ‘Summon Dr. Adib Al-Dawoodi; I want to appoint him as a political advisor.’ I replied: Appoint him as the Minister of Foreign Affairs; why a political advisor? I told him: He will be here tomorrow, and I called my office manager and asked him to summon Dawoodi from his workplace in Brussels.”

Indeed, Assad received Dawoodi upon his arrival and appointed him as a political advisor. Two weeks passed without assigning him any work. Dawoodi came complaining, so I called the president and conveyed his complaint. He replied, ‘What will he do? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is there.’ After a while, I helped Dawoodi get a job as an observer at the United Nations, and he was based in Geneva, and he was indeed one of the competent professionals.”


After the conclusion of the conference, a date was set the next day for the election of members of the Qatari leadership. President Hafez had requested from Abdullah al-Ahmar, the president of the conference, to conduct the elections in his absence as he would be accompanying his mother to the airport, where she was traveling to France for medical treatment. On the morning of that day, Wael Ismail, an old friend of Khaddam, came and informed him that Rifaat had “arranged things to overthrow al-Ahmar, al-Ayyoubi, Jameel, Haider, and Talas, and he would take advantage of the president’s absence.” Khaddam says, “I immediately called President Hafez, who also trusted Wael Ismail, and informed him of what Wael had told me. He asked me to inform the president of the conference to postpone the date until his return from the airport. Indeed, after the president returned and attended the conference, he spoke at length about stability in the leadership positions in the party and the state, praising the five members, and the conference members understood that he feared for their downfall, so he praised them.”

The elections took place, and Ayyoubi and Jameel fell, while Talas succeeded “to a moderate extent,” and al-Ahmar and Haider were among the last successful candidates. Khaddam narrates, “The election results were a shock to the president; his prime minister and his comrade, General Jameel, who had been with him since they were young officers and strongly supported him in his struggle with the previous Qatari leadership, fell. At the same time, Jameel was the head of the National Security Bureau and the commander of the Air Force. He headed to issue a decision from the National Leadership to cancel the elections. However, comrades Yassin and Jubouri advised him that canceling them would give a negative impression of the party and the system, and this decision could be made after a few months, so he agreed. Among the successful candidates were some supporters of Colonel Rifaat, including Youssef al-Asaad, Ahmed Diab, and Mohammad Zuhair Masharqa.”

Despite Ayyoubi’s fall in the Qatari conference elections, President Hafez and most members of the Qatari leadership urgently requested him to continue as the Prime Minister. General Jameel also remained in his position as the head of the National Security Bureau. After more than a year and a half, a new government was formed under the leadership of General Abdul Rahman Khalifawi.

Refaat’s influence strengthens; Militarily, he became the leader of the "Defense Brigades", an elite force of 40,000, not linked to the army, and rose to the leadership of the party. He also expanded his activities among young men and women and the media.

Expansion of Rifaat’s Influence

Colonel Rifaat had become more influential in both the party and the state. During this period, political and security tensions resumed between Damascus and Baghdad. The armies were mobilized against each other, and the Iraqi intelligence carried out a series of sabotage operations in Syria. Khaddam himself was the target of two assassination attempts “by Iraqi intelligence; the first at the beginning of December 1976, where he was hit by two bullets.” His wife was also injured. The second attempt took place on October 25, 1977.

Enhancement of Rifaat’s Influence  Militarily, Rifaat became the commander of the “Defense Companies,” an elite force of 40,000, not affiliated with the regular army. He ascended in the party leadership, expanding his activities among the youth, women, and the media. He founded the “High League for Graduates” to unify university degree holders.

During that period, significant developments included the actions of the “Vanguard” organization led by Marwan Hadid, whose members were all affiliated with the “Muslim Brotherhood.” They carried out several assassinations, including that of Captain Mohammad Ghurrah in Hama and Dr. Mohammad Al-Fadl, the president of Damascus University.

In this atmosphere, Brigadier General Abdul Rahman Khalifawi assumed the responsibility of heading the government. He found himself in conflict with “most factions of the regime, especially with Colonel Rifaat and the security apparatus, and most members of the Qatari leadership and the majority of branch leaders. He was always in conflict against corruption,” according to Khaddam. He adds, “This brought him enmity from the majority of security officials and power centers in the armed forces. In addition to harsh criticism from members of the Qatari leadership, sparking intense campaigns against him.”