From the “ Hama butcher ” to the real estate mogul


The appeal process for Rifaat al-Assad’s trial takes place in Paris on Thursday. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s uncle was initially convicted of organized gang money laundering, embezzlement of public funds and aggravated tax evasion. FRANCE 24 looks back on the long career of this descendant of the Assad dynasty who amassed a colossal European real estate empire.

French justice is once again examining the case of Rifaat al-Assad, who was sentenced to four years in prison in June 2020 on a series of charges of financial irregularity.

The uncle of the Syrian president is accused of having fraudulently built a French real estate empire estimated at 90 million euros – including two mansions in upscale districts of Paris, around 40 apartments, a castle and a stud farm.

Given its British and Spanish real estate assets, Rifaat’s European empire amounts to several hundred million euros, according to anti-corruption NGOs including the French association Sherpa, which has filed a complaint against him before the courts in 2013.

A princely lifestyle

Rifaat al-Assad was born in Syria in 1937 and raised in the Alawite community. He has always insisted that he did nothing wrong in acquiring his assets. This younger brother of Hafez al-Assad – father and president of Syrian President Bshar al-Assad from 1971 to 2000 – said it was mainly thanks to the generosity of the Saudi royal family in the 1980s that he was able to build his lucrative empire.

His allies claim that the value of these assets is much lower than the amounts reported in the media. Rifaat has long argued that his legal troubles and the criminal complaints brought against him in France, Spain and Switzerland were a plot fomented by the Syrian opposition. He says he is targeted because of his popularity in Syria.

But it is clear that Rifaat was by no means predestined to become such a tycoon. “During his first trial, there was a long discussion about Assad’s rise to this vast fortune of a family of small landowners from Qardaha, in northwestern Syria,” said Fabrice Balanche. , a specialist in Syria at the University of Lyon 2, who testified as an expert during the first trial in December 2019.

“The size of his assets is out of proportion with the hundred acres of poor land his family owned, 400 meters above sea level, on which sharecroppers grew tobacco and durum wheat,” Balanche continued.

Rifaat has lived in Europe since he was forced into exile in 1984 after a failed coup against his own brother Hafez.

“Before his exile, Rifaat was his brother’s right hand – and you could say that hand was highly armed; Rifaat was the leader of the Defense Brigades, an army corps made up of Alawites, the community the Assads come from, ”Balanche said.

The Defense Brigades numbered around 50,000 men, paid three times the average of the Syrian army. He did the dirty work of the Assad regime – and his formidable reputation polished Rifaat’s ambitions.

“Syria saw a Muslim Brotherhood uprising from 1979 to 1983, which ended with the infamous Hama massacre orchestrated by the Rifaat defense brigades,” Balanche said. This came after he massacred hundreds of prisoners in Palmyra Prison in 1980 to avenge an attack on the government.

‘You don’t kill your own brother’

After that, Rifaat was nicknamed the “Butcher of Hama”. Currently, he is the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland by the NGO Trial International for his alleged involvement in the massacre – which for many Syrians remains a preeminent symbol of the cruelty of the Assad regime.

“The defense brigades were also involved in the theft of property and trafficking in antiques; they have a strong grip on smuggling, especially in Lebanon, which the Syrian army occupied in 1976, ”Balanche declared. “Many of their barracks functioned as warehouses filled with goods from Lebanon, such as televisions, VCRs, cigarettes and foreign beers.”

Far from being an ideologue, Balanche continued, Rifaat was someone who used his brother’s power to flourish: “It was the little brother who imposed himself by force; his goal was to accumulate wealth – much more than Hafez, as the latter was primarily interested in power, not money.

Rifaat has grown in influence over the years – with the rise of his patronage networks and Hafez as vice president. This threatened his brother’s grip on power when Rifaat used Hafez’s hospitalization to attempt a coup in 1984.

“Hafez spared him after this betrayal because you don’t kill your own brother; it would have upset their mother enormously, ”Balanche said. “It is also interesting to note that Hafez did not want to risk a civil war within the Alawite community, because at the time his younger brother had a lot of supporters – especially within the army thanks to the Defense Brigades. So Hafez expelled Rifaat from Syria with a large sum of money so that he could bounce back abroad.

Sumptuous exile and Legion of Honor

Disgraced and deprived of his Defense Brigade power base, Rifaat moved to France with various wives, many descendants, and a squad of bodyguards.

“The French intelligence agencies were very happy that he was there,” Balanche said. “Lebanon was mired in its [1975 to 1990] civil war and was occupied by Syrian forces – and in this context Rifaat was a valuable source of information against Hafez, as well as a kind of tool to be used against him if necessary, ”Balanche said. “Some French intelligence figures even saw him as a useful intermediary in the arms trade – and as a potential pro-Western successor to Hafez.

Then French President Fran̤ois Mitterrand made Rifaat a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1986. This remains controversial Рin February Sherpa and another Trial International NGO urged President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw the highest French distinction of Rifaat in light of the serious accusations. against him.

An interregnum in the French exile of Rifaat occurred in 1992 when Hafez allowed her to return to Syria with a grace, following their mother’s funeral. He regained the right to do business there.

But the tide turned again in 1998. “Rifaat was declared persona non grata and stripped of his title of vice-president because Hafez saw him as a danger to his succession plan in which his son Bashar would take his place”, noted Balanche.

Bashar’s older brother Bassel had been widely regarded as Hafez’s most likely successor until his death in a car crash in 1994.

During Hafez’s funeral in June 2000, Rifaat accused the Syrian authorities of violating the country’s constitution by appointing Bashar as head of state.

“Today, Rifaat has no political weight in Syria,” Balanche said. “Maybe he created a party and started a satellite TV channel [ANN] based in London – and he might have backed the opposition because he knew his only chance to regain a foothold in Syria was to change regimes – but his former opponents weren’t fooled for a second.

“After a lavish exile and dreams of ruling Syria in place of his brother and then his nephew, Rifaat’s last fights take place in European courts – far from his Parisian palaces and his dreams of national leadership,” he said. concluded Balanche.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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