Thinking Aloud: No to Rifaat

May 11, 2015 by Darius 

Today, one of the Syrian regime’s top intelligence officers was arrested for supposedly conspiring with Turkish intelligence to facilitate the return to power of Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad’s brother and Bashar’s uncle, who has spent the last few decades in exile.  I can’t speak to the internal Syrian situation at this moment, but based on my research on Syria in the 1970s and ‘80s, anything involving Rifaat anywhere near the levers of power is a very bad idea, and, if true, I cannot imagine what Turkey is thinking.  Simply put, Rifaat al-Assad is a terrible person.

Don’t take it from me.  Take it from internal CIA assessments and US diplomatic cables (some declassified, some released via Wikileaks) from the 1970s and 1980s, when Rifaat was one of the most powerful men in Syria:

  • In 1976, a diplomatic cable described Rifaat as the “regime’s Rasputin” and said that “Rif’at al-Asad has made himself the symbol of what is bad about the regime.” (Source: “Political Campaign Against Rif’at al-Asad, US Embassy Damascus to Department of State, December 18, 1976, https://search.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1976DAMASC08644_b.html)
  • Rifaat’s corruption distinguished him in a massively corrupt administration. By 1977, Rifaat’s corruption had become such an embarrassment to his brother that Hafez was considering posting Rifaat to an embassy abroad.  This became a recurring rumor.  (Source: “Attempts to Kill Rif’at al-Asad,” US Embassy Damascus to Department of State, May 19, 1977, https://search.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/1977DAMASC03164_c.html)
  • Rifaat didn’t clean up his game. In 1978, a CIA report described Rifaat as “the symbol of Alawite arrogance and abuse of power.”  (Source: “Syria Without Assad: Succession Politics,” Central Intelligence Agency, November 7, 1978, p.7).
  • In 1980, Rifaat convinced his brother that a policy of restraint towards street protests was not working. Rifaat was put in charge of the resulting crackdown.  Soon afterwards, “stories of atrocities committed by his Alawite troops [began] spreading.”  In 1982, Rifaat’s personal army, the Defense Companies, killed tens of thousands of civilians while crushing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama. (Source: “Syria: Assad’s Problems,” Central Intelligence Agency, April 17, 1980, p.13)
  • In 1984, while Hafez was floored with medical problems, Rifaat tried to seize power for himself, dispatching the Defense Companies to strategic locations around Damascus. The rest of the regime knew exactly what kind of awful leader he would make and combined to stop his putsch.  Fortunately, Hafez recovered before the two sides started shooting at one another.  Rifaat was packed off into exile, where he has remained.

In what way would bringing this guy back to run Syria be a good idea?  While I do not doubt that Rifaat is willing to make elaborate promises to anyone and everyone in order to be escorted to power, leopards do not change their spots.

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