Geopolitics

Is A Shadowy Assad Uncle The Way Out Of The Syria Crisis?

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.

Rifaat al Assad
Rifaat al Assad
Laure Lugon Zugravu and Simon Petite

GENEVA â€" 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.

Post exile

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.

Rifat (left) with his brother and then President Hafez al-Assad â€" 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.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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