Assad’s Family Reunion Could Be a Final Victory

By reconciling with an estranged uncle, Syria’s dictator may have definitively reestablished his power.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A member of the Alawite community pastes pictures of Rifaat al-Assad on a wall in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Dec. 6, 2007.
A member of the Alawite community pastes pictures of Rifaat al-Assad on a wall in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Dec. 6, 2007. RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP via Getty Images

A good nephew must be a good leader: That is how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wanted his Alawite ethnic group to think of him when he decided in October to allow his estranged uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, to return to Syria and escape a four-year prison sentence in France. It was not an altruistic gesture but one that sprung from self-preservation. 

By honoring the tribal code of protecting your own, Bashar al-Assad is aiming to appease the Alawite community, whose support for him has dwindled amid Syria’s worsening economic crisis; it was also designed to crush dissent within the Assad clan. It marks yet another step by Bashar al-Assad’s toward reestablishing complete control over Syria. 

Until 1984, Rifaat al-Assad got along well with his brother and Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, the former president who brought the Assad clan to power. Rifaat al-Assad was his brother’s most trusted general and allegedly his frontman in 1982 to carry out the massacre of political Islamists in Hama. Thousands were killed, and Rifaat al-Assad came to be known as the “Butcher of Hama.” But the family squabble began soon after, and just two years later, he was suspected of plotting to overthrow his brother. Rifaat al-Assad was exposed and forced to flee the country. 

A good nephew must be a good leader: That is how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wanted his Alawite ethnic group to think of him when he decided in October to allow his estranged uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, to return to Syria and escape a four-year prison sentence in France. It was not an altruistic gesture but one that sprung from self-preservation. 

By honoring the tribal code of protecting your own, Bashar al-Assad is aiming to appease the Alawite community, whose support for him has dwindled amid Syria’s worsening economic crisis; it was also designed to crush dissent within the Assad clan. It marks yet another step by Bashar al-Assad’s toward reestablishing complete control over Syria. 

Until 1984, Rifaat al-Assad got along well with his brother and Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, the former president who brought the Assad clan to power. Rifaat al-Assad was his brother’s most trusted general and allegedly his frontman in 1982 to carry out the massacre of political Islamists in Hama. Thousands were killed, and Rifaat al-Assad came to be known as the “Butcher of Hama.” But the family squabble began soon after, and just two years later, he was suspected of plotting to overthrow his brother. Rifaat al-Assad was exposed and forced to flee the country. 

Over the three decades that he lived in Europe in exile, he maintained some sway in the Alawite-dominated areas in his homeland. He opposed Bashar al-Assad’s succession to power and claimed that constitutionally he should have been the one to take over from his brother. 

When the civil war broke out in 2011, Rifaat al-Assad formed a new opposition organization called the Syrian National Democratic Council with other disgruntled members of Syria’s Baath Party—perhaps to appear clean in the eyes of his host country or to show Russia that he could be a suitable replacement to Bashar al-Assad.

His past, however, caught up to him last year. A court in Paris convicted him for embezzling Syrian state funds and sentenced him to four years in prison. He is reported to have purchased a stud farm and a chateau, as well as prime real estate properties in posh Parisian neighborhoods, with the ill-gotten funds. This September, the court upheld its decision. Rifaat al-Assad, 84, feared he might have to spend his twilight years locked up in a cell and decided to swallow his pride, kiss the ring of the nephew he had opposed all these years, and return to Syria. 

Feras al-Assad, one of Rifaat al-Assad’s sons, told Foreign Policy that his father was “definitely guilty of those crimes in France” and many more in Syria. “He sent many innocent people to prison” and was known as the “most brutal personality in the Syrian regime” at the time. Feras al-Assad added that Bashar al-Assad let his father return to stop him from revealing the darker secrets of the Assad regime—presumably Rifaat al-Assad’s only leverage left. “Bashar did not have a choice,” he said. “If Rifaat al-Assad talks about what happened in Syria between 1970 and 1984, a period during which he was the second-most powerful person in the country, then the regime’s aspiration to normalize relations with the West will go out of the window.” 

Rifaat al-Assad was allowed back in Syria only after he swore allegiance to his nephew and promised that he would not participate in any political or social activism. Ribal al-Assad, another son of Rifaat al-Assad, spoke to Foreign Policy from Spain and defended his father and claimed that he was still hugely popular. “If Bashar says my father is a spent force, then why ask him not to engage in politics? That means that he knows that my father still has a huge following in Syria,” he said. 

Several conversations with Ribal al-Assad over the years have alluded to his own political ambition. He seems inclined to claim the legacy of his father in Syria and cash in on his name among the Alawites. But in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, there is no space for any kind of opposition, not even from a family member.

In 2019, a public fight broke out between the president and his maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, a business tycoon. The latter controlled half of the Syrian economy and owned a personal militia and a charitable organization that he used to maintain and grow his support base among the Alawites. For more than two decades, Makhlouf worked for Bashar al-Assad just as his father did for Hafez al-Assad. But as the country’s economy collapsed in the postwar phase and disaffection among Alawites grew, a bankrupt state seized Makhlouf’s assets, including the telecommunication giant Syriatel. The president’s wife, Asma al-Assad, was seen as the orchestrator of the plan to sideline Makhlouf and usurp his power. 

Political and economic power in Syria now rests in the house of Bashar and Asma al-Assad, who intend to bequeath all of it to their three children. Joshua Landis, the head of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies and who is married to a Syrian Alawite from Latakia, an Assad stronghold, said there was no one left to challenge the Syrian president. “Rami has been shorn of all his power and most assets, save, presumably, some of the millions that he had squirrelled away in shell companies abroad. We have not heard a peep from him in over a year,” Landis said. “No one today foresees a force strong enough to force Bashar al-Assad from power, not within the fragmented Syrian opposition and not within the Alawite community or the military. He seems to be here to stay.” 

Bashar al-Assad is on the up and up and sees no competition. In October, hopes of any compromise with the political opposition and of their participation in Syrian politics were quashed as no breakthrough was achieved in the U.N.-mediated talks. The representatives of the Assad government, the political opposition, and the civil society sat down for the sixth time to draft a new constitution, but nothing was achieved. The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, described the talks as a “big disappointment.” 

Experts say Bashar al-Assad has strung along the U.N. and never intended to include the opposition in the governance of Syria. If there ever were a chance of the talks succeeding, it lapsed in May, when elections were held in Syria and in no surprise Bashar al-Assad returned to power with a mammoth 95 percent of votes. The world called it a sham and went about its business while Syria observers knew that Bashar al-Assad and Russia went ahead with the polls to sound the death knell of any possibility of meaningful change in Syria. 

The international community’s policy on Syria has been to push for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a new constitution that guarantees participation of political opposition and several political reforms. But experts believe that it has long been dead and a new approach is needed that factors in how Bashar al-Assad has outmaneuvered his enemies at home and abroad. 

Most Arab nations have accepted that reality and are also trying to convince the United States to ease pressure on the Syrian president. Jordan’s King Abdullah has been arguing in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s revival and took up his case with U.S. President Joe Biden. He has managed to secure from the United States selective relief of sanctions on Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon to trade electricity and gas through Syrian territory. The United Arab Emirates sent Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Damascus to meet with Bashar al-Assad in the biggest sign yet of the momentum to end his diplomatic isolation. 

It is perhaps time for the international community to recalibrate its expectations and negotiate with Bashar al-Assad in a manner that gains something tangible for the Syrian people. In exchange for an easing of sanctions, it might be possible to secure the release of political prisoners, the rights of refugees who wish to return, and amnesty for those who escaped mandatory conscription. There should be little remaining doubt that Bashar al-Assad has secured his grip on Syria and is unlikely to let it slip anytime soon. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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