Accused of one of Syria's worst atrocities in 1982, and then exiled after a falling out with his brother's regime, Rifaat al-Assad may again be eyeing power, and with Moscow's help.
GENEVA — On an autumn evening at the Metropole Hotel, a few glum-faced bodyguards are silently killing time in the corridors of this luxury Geneva locale. Though long used to hosting prestigious clients, the security agents are not here to watch over some famous actor or music star. Instead, their client is named Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He's here with one of his sons, Siwar al-Assad, 40.
"Rifaat often spends long periods of time in Geneva," says one of the hotel bar's regular customers. "He's looking to establish himself here."
The president's uncle has also been seen walking around Lake Geneva. He knows his way around, after having already lived here in the 1980s, at the beginning of his exile. According to a well-informed source, Rifaat's protection isn't provided by the local authorities, given that he doesn't have diplomatic status. But the police are informed of his regular presence around Geneva.
"We've seen him around here often over the past two years despite the atrocities he's responsible for," a Syrian opposition source says.
Rifaat al-Assad is accused of carrying out the Hama massacre of 1982. While his brother Hafez was ruling the country, Rifaat was his right-hand man and commander of the Defense Companies, a paramilitary force used to protect the regime. This force crushed the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, a mostly Sunni City, against Hafez al-Assad's Alawite and secular regime.
The actual death toll remains unclear, with figures varying from 2,000 to 40,000 depending on the source. Rifaat al-Assad defended his actions saying the armed insurrection was the beginning of future Islamist movements. The Defense Companies are also blamed for the Tadmor prison massacre in Palmyra, the ancient city ISIS recently destroyed. In 1980, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members were killed in their cells after an assassination attempt against Hafez al-Assad.
This period also marked the beginning of a fratricidal war. Rifaat was accused of trying to topple his brother, and went into exile. He was given a warm welcome in France, where President François Mitterrand decorated him with the Legion of Honor in 1986 for services rendered to the French diplomacy in the Middle East.
But 30 years later, France lost its enthusiasm for its former protégé. In 2014, Paris prosecutors launched an investigation against him following a complaint from anti-corruption groups Sherpa and Transparency International. Rifaat al-Assad had claimed he'd been thrown out of Syria without a penny, but he accumulated real estate worth 90 million euros ($100 million), not to mention impressive properties in London and Spain. Investigators believe the money is the result of corruption during the time he helped his older brother rule in Damascus. Rifaat, however, claims that the money he used for these investments was the fruit of financial support from Saudi Arabia.
While the investigation continues, Rifaat's son Siwar dedicates himself to writing fiction. His first novel, A Coeur Perdu (Wholeheartedly), was published in 2012 and he's preparing to release a second, entitled Le Temps d'une saison (For A Single Season), a detective novel set in 1920s London. Siwar writes in French, having attended school in Switzerland from age 8 before studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. It's a way for him to make his own way, he once told reporters.
Still, that doesn't mean the son is leaving politics aside. He currently owns Arab News Network, a London-based television network, and he's vice president of the United Nationals Democratic Alliance, a political movement founded by his father. Siwar declined to be interviewed, saying his schedule was changing and unpredictable.
For all his setbacks, Rifaat al-Assad hasn't vanished from the geopolitical chessboard. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, he hasn't spared criticisms of his nephew. Rifaat has always made it clear that he thought himself more fit to govern than Bashar. But he stopped short of calling for his resignation, preferring instead to suggest a "third way."
The West doesn't consider this to be a credible option, but Moscow, on the other hand, seems to be interested. At the end of 2013, Rifaat al-Assad was reportedly received in Geneva by Russia's Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who had tried in vain to include him in the opposition's delegation for the Geneva 2 negotiations.
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Rifat (left) with his brother and then President Hafez al-Assad — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Even though Russian officials deny having officially met him in the last few months, they are well aware of Rifaat's comings and goings around the lake. Le Temps has also learned that Rifaat and Siwar al-Assad were both in Moscow very recently, at the same time as Staffan de Mistura, the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria who's been striving to relaunch the negotiations from Geneva.
Has de Mistura met Rifaat al-Assad? "We don't communicate on the detail of his meetings," his spokeswoman Jessy Chahine says.
"If I were the UN envoy, I'd meet everybody," says Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That said, Rifaat al-Assad cannot be an alternative to his nephew. He's got far less support than Bashar inside the regime, and the opposition hates him just as much."
The grand illusion
But Lund foresees another hypothesis. "Contacts with Rifaat al-Assad can also be a way to put more pressure on Bashar, a sort of bluff to show him that they're looking for alternatives. But I don't think that anybody imagines Rifaat ruling Syria, except maybe himself."
Even the Saudis, considered to be Rifaat's godfathers, say they will no longer gamble on him. Still, Russia could see things differently.
It's impossible to say for sure that Rifaat al-Assad, now 78 and once the second most-feared man in Syria, has become irrelevant. Thanks to his four weddings, the former Syrian vice president has built some lasting alliances with Alawite families close to power. And many people in the highest ranks of the Syrian security apparatus began under his command and owe him their careers.
Some of Rifaat's sons still travel to Syria, where they're not persona non grata like he is. Finally, it's said that Bashar is still suspicious of his uncle. "A split inside the family would spell the end of the regime," Lund says. Perhaps we'll soon find out whether Rifaat al-Assad has been in Geneva for vacation, or whether he sees the city's hotels and corridors as the launching pad for his great comeback.