Inside details of Rifaat Al-Assad's return to Syria

Inside details of Rifaat Al-Assad's return to Syria
Rifaat al-Assad's left France months before his return to Damascus, a source close to al-Assad, told The New Arab.
3 min read
11 October, 2021
Rifaat al-Assad thinks of Bashar "like a son," his lawyer said.

Rifaat Al-Assad, the uncle of Bashar Al-Assad who left Syria after an alleged coup attempt in 1984, returned to Damascus on Thursday, ending his 37-year long exile from the country.

His return comes about a month after a Paris appeals court upheld a four-year sentence against Al-Assad for misappropriating Syrian public funds and money laundering. His lawyer, Elie Hatem, maintains the court case against the 84-year old former Syrian vice president is politically motivated.

On 7 October, Al-Assad left for Damascus from Minsk, where he had been staying with "Syrian friends" since July, Hatem told The New Arab.

His departure from France came before the upholding of his sentence, which meant he was free to leave the country. Some have called his departure an evasion of justice and have criticised the French for allowing him to leave.

"Many Syrian human rights defenders have been left perplexed and disappointed by this troubling news," Kristyan Benedict, the Crisis and Tactical Campaign Manager for Amnesty International UK, told The New Arab.

"The relevant authorities, especially in France and Spain, have some serious questions to answer regarding Rifaat's ability to flee to Syria and whether they are genuinely committed to ending impunity."

Al-Assad left France in July, partly out of fear that despite his advanced age, he would face jail time over the embezzlement case. 

The former billionaire found himself suddenly destitute after his assets were frozen by the French courts. According to Hatem, he had "zero money" and was put up by his friends in Belarus as a result.

As winter approached in the former Soviet Republic, however, Al-Assad's heart began to pine for Syria.

"He was getting bored in Minsk, and he has become very nostalgic for his homeland," Hatem said.

Al-Assad left Syria was made to be the vice president in 1984, largely a ceremonial role. He also allegedly led regime forces during the Hama offensive in 1982 in which up to 20,000 civilians were killed - giving him the moniker "the Butcher of Hama".

When the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, Al-Assad organised a group of exiled self-described political opposition - the Syrian National Democratic Council - and called for his nephew, Bashar, "to vacate his position".

He has not made any public statements about Bashar since 2016 after the tides of the Syrian civil war definitively shifted in favour of the Syrian regime.

In May, Rifaat Al-Assad voted for Bashar and congratulated him on his re-election in what was almost universally considered to be a flawed political process.

"He has become convinced that he needs to support the state of Syria and its institutions - and that it was Bashar that saved Syria," Hatem said.

In mid-September, Rifaat began petitioning the Syrian regime to allow his return. His son, Somar Al-Assad - who has stayed close to his cousin, Bashar throughout the civil war - facilitated the discussions between Rifaat and Damascus.

Despite Rifaat's public opposition to Bashar and his alleged role in the events of 1984, the regime gave him the green light to return to Syria.

"In order to prevent his imprisonment in France… President Assad rises above what Rifaat al-Assad has said and done and allows him to return to Syria," Al-Watan, a pro-regime Syrian newspaper said last week.

The newspaper added that he will play no political or social role in Syria.

Rifaat and Bashar have not spoken since the revolution started in 2011, and the two have yet to meet since Rifaat arrived in Damascus.

Still, Rifaat thinks of Bashar like a son, Hatem said. Bashar and Rifaat, who is a skilled pianist, apparently have bonded over a shared love of classical music in the past.

Since his return, photos of him smiling with his granddaughter have circulated social media. He is "very happy to be home", Hatem, who has spoken to Al-Assad after his arrival in Damascus, said.