SASAPOST, an online Arabic media platform, published a report shedding light on the life journey of Rifaat Assad, paternal uncle of Bashar Assad. Since he left Syria about three and a half decades ago, Rifaat Assad’s name has not disappeared from the media except to return again,” the report begins, stressing that his story is the samelike of the Syrian regime itself since Hafez Assad came to power in 1970.
Hafez Assad tightened his absolute grip on all the centers of the military and political state. His brother, Rifaat, participated strongly in the military coup in 1970 as Rifaat was the head of the 569th Division and commander of the Defense Brigades, which became the most powerful and elite unit in the Syrian army, in terms of number, equipment and training, the report goes on to say.
After Hafez wrote a constitution that made him the sole ruler of all bodies, and the source for all legislative, executive and judicial powers, “he stormed public liberties, abused all political forces, tightened his grip on the armed forces and the regional leadership of the Baath Party, and secured all this through an elaborate network of security and intelligence agencies that were directly subordinate to him and subjected to absolute loyalty to him. In order to ensure his sweeping control, Hafez resorted to relying on his “clan” of the Alawite sect in general, and in particular on his Assad family,” the report states.
Sasapost report goes on to say that since the early years of Hafez’s rule, Rifaat has been “the shield of his brother,” as he was nicknamed. The Defense Brigades was entrusted with the task of protecting the main joints of the regime, including the headquarters of the Baath Party leadership, and its main focus was around the capital, Damascus.
The report speaks about two particular major event Rifaat was the mastermind behind and the also the number one perpetrator on the ground. The first was in 1980. Rifaat led groups of the Defense Brigades towards Palmyra Prison, carrying out a massacre after killing hundreds of prisoners there, on the pretext that they belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. “This incident constituted a milestone in the history of the regime, forming the beginning of an era of terror in the country,” the report says. After that, a law was introduced that requires the death penalty for anyone who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Only two years later, Rifaat Assad will re-establish his image as a bloody leader who does not know tolerance for the regime’s opponents. After popular protests by the people of Hama, backed by a few hundred Islamist militants, Rifaat decided to end the phenomenon of Islamic opposition in the country forever. Again, the “Defense Brigades” supported by thousands of elements from the army and security apparatus carried out one of the largest “massacres” in the history of Syria, this time against an entire city, Hama.
“The city of Hama for 27 days, from the second to the twenty-eighth of February 1982, during which these forces carried out mass executions, in which no distinction was made between a civilian and a gunman, or between an old man and a young man, or between a man and a woman. Rather, the executions even extended to worshipers in mosques. Thousands of homes were destroyed and residents’ property looted, all amid a media blackout and strict control,” the report says, adding that the true number of the victims, estimated at tens of thousands, is not known until today.
One year later, Hafez Assad was transferred to a hospital in Damascus, where he remained for weeks in the intensive care room. This raised many questions about the future of Syria and its rule if Hafez disappeared from the scene.
In 1984, Rifaat began redistributing his forces at the entrances to the capital, Damascus, and the tanks of the Defense Brigades approached the vital centers of the regime, and it seemed clear that the conflict between the two brothers was about to erupt.
Negotiations between the two brothers resulted in Rifaat leaving the country, heading to Moscow. As a result, the Defense Brigades were dismantled, and their members were attached to other army units, to be replaced by the Republican Guard and the Fourth Division.
After about 35 years outside Syria, Rifaat’s problems began to appear on news headlines. In 2019, proceedings for his trial began in France on charges of “belonging to an organization that laundered more than 600 million euros in Spain.” In June 2020, a French court in Paris sentenced Rifaat to four years in prison after convicting him of charges including money laundering and embezzlement of funds in Syria, a ruling that was upheld by the Paris Court of Appeal last August.
Rifaat is about 84 years old now. Lawsuits are chasing him from all sides. While many were waiting for the news of his arrest and imprisonment, they were surprised to know of his return to Syria,” Sasapost report concludes.