Rifaat Assad: Challenged his Brother for Syria’s Presidency, Aged in Exile, Pardoned by his Nephew

publisher: Asharq Al-Awsat

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2021-10-10


Abdel Halim Khaddam: His forces besieged Damascus to announce his impending rule… So we took measures to prevent Syria from exploding.

Syria, which Hafez al-Assad left when he was deputy to President Hafez al-Assad decades ago, is not the same as the one he found when his nephew, President Bashar al-Assad, allowed him to return as a “citizen”; it is a country that has changed through its foreign alliances and regional role, and has transformed with its composition and the “establishment” of five armies within it.

His first observations with his wives, children, and grandchildren in the past two days in Damascus, in its streets, checkpoints, houses, officials, and his old-new place of residence in the Mezzeh neighborhood, awakened his memory and the memory of his supporters when he was in power, gesturing from one of its hills to a “coup” against his brother and besieging its gates in the mid-80s.

Damascus, which issued a circular 21 years ago to border points for his arrest if he returned from exile, “rose” and now received him to avoid the execution of a French court’s 5-year prison sentence. Only time will decipher the phrase that the newspaper “Al-Watan” wrote two days ago, stating that Rifaat came back “without any political or social role,” and the extent of the “strictness” of this “circular” in the streets between Damascus and Latakia.

  • “The Two Brothers”… and “The Brothers”

Rifaat (84 years old) was under the influence of his elder brother from a young age, who was seven years older than him. In 1952, after 5 years, he followed his brother’s ideology and joined the Ba’ath Party. He also followed his path by joining compulsory military service, then the Ministry of Interior after Syria’s separation from Egypt in 1961.

In March 1963, the military committee of the Ba’ath Party, of which his brother was a member, seized power. Rifaat joined the military college in Homs and, after graduating, served alongside his brother who was the commander of the air force at the time.

His first military operation was with Sulaym Hatum in storming the headquarters of President Amin al-Hafiz in February 1966 to overthrow the first “Ba’athist” government. Under President Noureddin al-Atassi, who succeeded Hafiz, Rifaat was tasked with leading a special unit established by the military committee to “defend the regime,” under the command of Defense Minister Mohammed Imran.

Historians say that by the late 1960s, there were two levels of conflict: between Hafez and Rifaat on one side, and between Salah Jadid and his intelligence chief Abdul Karim al-Jundi on the other. Between February 25 and 28, 1969, the “Assad Brothers” carried out a military movement in Damascus, with tanks entering the city against the supporters of al-Jundi and Jadid. Rifaat’s suicide on March 2, 1969, to avoid arrest, was seen as a victory for Rifaat. On November 17, 1970, Assad carried out a comprehensive movement, arresting President al-Atassi and Salah Jadid, and assigned Rifaat al-Assad with securing Damascus.

Rifaat became the leader of the “Defense Brigades,” an elite force of 40,000 soldiers that acted as an “independent army” not directly connected to the regular military. Rifaat rose to leadership within the party, expanding his activities among students, youth, girls, and the media. He also established the “Higher Association of Graduates” to unify university degree holders, making it a parallel student organization under his control.

In 1979, a conflict erupted between the regime and the “Muslim Brotherhood.” In December 1979, Rifaat declared at the Ba’ath Party conference that it was time to respond forcefully, calling for absolute loyalty from everyone. He was quoted as saying, “Stalin sacrificed ten million people to preserve the Bolshevik revolution, and Syria should do the same to preserve the Ba’athist revolution.” Rifaat threatened to “fight a hundred wars, demolish a million fortresses, and sacrifice a million martyrs” to preserve the system – the state. He unleashed a crackdown on the uprising between 1979 and 1982, culminating in the shelling of Hama in February 1982. In 1983, he sent his “paratroopers” to Damascus with orders to remove women’s veils in the streets, a move met with sharp criticism that led his brother to publicly denounce it.

Rifaat al-Assad speaks to his supporters.

  • Edge of Danger

When Hafez al-Assad fell ill in November 1983, it seemed like the anticipated moment for Rifaat had come, and he started acting as the “legitimate heir.” He saw himself as the sole successor and began rallying support from his generals, which greatly displeased the President.

According to papers from Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, which were accessed by {Al-Sharq Al-Awsat}, in March 1978, he met with Assad during a severe campaign against Rifaat among the Syrians. During our conversation about the situation, I told him, “There’s a big campaign against Rifaat, and this campaign weakens the regime. Therefore, we must address Rifaat’s situation.” He answered, “Rifaat is a thorn in the eyes of reactionaries.” I replied, “We will see in the future, he will be a thorn in the heart of everyone.”

Indeed, Rifaat was interfering in state affairs and giving instructions to Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Halabi, who dared not to restrain him. Khaddam adds, “The President’s inclination was towards appointing his brother as his successor, but Rifaat committed a grave mistake when he attempted a coup against his brother during his illness in November 1983.”

During a meeting between Khaddam and Assad at his house to discuss participation in the summit conference in Amman at the end of November 1980, Assad said, “I am thinking of appointing a deputy for the president for the sake of continuity, as one doesn’t know when the end comes.”

Khaddam, who was the Foreign Minister at the time, estimated that “continuity” referred to Rifaat. However, Rifaat’s attempt to seize power during his brother’s illness “dropped him from the list.” Khaddam narrates that in November 1983, President Assad fell ill. Adnan Makhlouf, the commander of the Republican Guard, came to me in the evening and informed me that the President wanted to see me while he was in the hospital. I thought he was the victim of an assassination attempt, so I asked him, “Was he shot or hit by a bomb?” He replied, “He suffered a heart attack.” I immediately went to the hospital, entered the intensive care room, and his wife was present. I asked him about his heart condition, and he replied, “We’re tired, Abu Jamal.”

The next day, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel was supposed to visit Syria, so Assad asked Khaddam to postpone the visit due to his “engagement in internal matters.” When he left the intensive care room, Khaddam contacted Chief of Staff General Hikmat Al-Shihabi and asked him to come to the hospital. “We agreed to take measures to prevent any attempt to destabilize the situation in Syria, as I feared Rifaat,” says Khaddam.

He continues: “Meanwhile, Rifaat entered the room, and I was speaking on the phone with our ambassador in London, who I asked to send a top heart specialist immediately, and I also called our ambassador in Washington and made the same request. After I finished speaking, Rifaat said, ‘Why bring doctors from abroad? There are doctors in Syria. Is it necessary that every time someone falls ill, we bring doctors from abroad?’ I replied, ‘Your brother’s name is Hafez al-Assad, not Hafez Khaddam, and it’s my responsibility to provide all conditions for his recovery, because I know the chaos that will arise (in his absence).'”

He adds that at that time, “The American ambassador came to us and informed me that an American envoy was coming to Damascus to meet with Rifaat al-Assad. I told him, ‘We will not allow him to come; in Syria, there is a state, and if the United States wants to communicate, they should contact the state I represent as the Foreign Minister.'”

Indeed, on the next day, detachments of the “Defense Brigades” toured the streets of Damascus, as if Rifaat wanted to tell people, “I am coming.” Khaddam adds, “We gathered in the General Staff, including myself, General Hikmat Al-Shihabi, and (Defense Minister) General Mustafa Tlass. We agreed to deploy two units from outside Damascus to encircle the city. The atmosphere became tense, but when Rifaat learned about the measures and when some senior officers who had pledged allegiance to him realized that President Hafez had overcome the danger, they abandoned him, and he became isolated.”

Hafez al-Assad, Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, and Rifaat al-Assad

Tense meeting

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.”

Hafez al-Assad, his son Bassel, and his brother Rifaat

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.

Rifaat al-Assad and his son Dureid in Damascus after his return on Thursday


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.