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Rifaat al-Assad, from “butcher of Hama” to real estate tycoon

In the judicial soap opera of “ill-gotten gains”, the French justice will retry on appeal, from May 5, Rifaat al-Assad. The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was convicted at first instance for money laundering in an organized gang, embezzlement of public funds and aggravated tax evasion. Back on the journey of the former dignitary of the Syrian regime who built a real estate empire in France and in Europe.

Where does the money come from that allowed Rifaat al-Assad to acquire his colossal real estate heritage? French justice is looking again, this time on appeal, on the case of the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sentenced at first instance, on June 17, 2020, to four years in prison for money laundering and embezzlement.

Accused of having fraudulently built in France a real estate empire estimated at 90 million euros, his property, including two mansions in wealthy districts of Paris, around forty apartments, a castle, stud farms in Taverny-Bessancourt, in the Val-d’Oise, had been seized.

He is tried from May 5 for “organized money laundering”, aggravated tax evasion and embezzlement of public funds at the expense of the Syrian state. According to anti-corruption NGOs, including Sherpa, at the origin of the complaint filed against Rifaat al-Assad in 2013, his assets in France, Spain and England are estimated at several hundred million euros.

A princely lifestyle

Born in 1937 in Syria, within the Alawite community, Rifaat al-Assad has always defended himself from having badly acquired his property. The younger brother of Hafez al-Assad had said that it was mainly thanks to the generosity of the Saudi royal family in the 1980s that he was able to build his heritage.

A heritage whose value, assure its defenders, is far below the estimates relayed in the media. For Rifaat al-Assad, his legal setbacks and the complaints against him in France, Spain and Switzerland are a plot fomented by the Syrian opposition. He says he is permanently targeted because of his popularity in Syria.

However, nothing predestined Rifaat al-Assad, after his military studies, to build a huge international real estate empire and to lead a princely lifestyle between Paris, London and the Balearics.

“During his trial at first instance, there was a long discussion of the financial trajectory of Rifaat al-Assad, from a family of small landowners in Qardaha (north-western Syria), explains Fabrice Balanche to France 24. , lecturer at the University of Lyon 2, geographer and specialist in Syria cited as an expert during the trial of December 2019. The extent of its heritage is out of proportion with the hundred hectares of poor land in his family, located at an altitude of 400 meters in the Alaouite mountain, on which some sharecroppers cultivated tobacco and durum wheat “.

Forced into exile since 1984, after a failed coup attempt against his own brother, Hafez Al-Assad, who ruled Syria with a ruthless hand from 1970 to 2000, Rifaat Al-Assad has lived in Europe ever since. several decades, far from the Alaouite mountain.

“Before his exile, Rifaat al-Assad was the right arm of his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, and even his armed wing, in his capacity as head of the Defense Brigades, an army corps at his boot, composed Alaouites, the community from which the Assad family came, and of merchédites, a particular branch within this same community ”, points out Fabrice Balanche.

Estimated at 50,000 men, paid two or three times more than the soldiers of the army, the orange berets of the Defense Brigades were the instrument in charge of the low works of the Syrian regime and cultivated a reputation of ferocity which greatly served the ambitions of Rifaat al-Assad.

“Between 1979 and 1983, Syria was the scene of the revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood, which ended in a bloodbath during the Hama massacre, orchestrated by these famous Rifaat al-Assad Defense Brigades, says Fabrice. Balanche. In 1980, they were the ones who executed hundreds of prisoners in Palmyra prison in order to avenge an attack on the government.

“You don’t kill your brother”

Nicknamed in Syria the “butcher of Hama”, Rifaat al-Assad is the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland following a complaint filed by Trial International for his alleged involvement in this massacre, which remains in Syrian memories as the first symbol of the cruelty of the Damascus regime.

“In addition to the bloody repression, the Defense Brigades, who responded to him, were also involved in the trafficking of antiques and engaged in the theft of property. They also had a strong grip on smuggling. with Lebanon, then occupied by the Syrian army since 1976. Their barracks in Damascus and elsewhere were warehouses that were full of goods from the land of the Cedars, such as televisions, VCRs, cigarettes and foreign beers “.

Far from being an ideologue, continues Fabrice Balanche, Rifaat al-Assad has greatly benefited from his brother’s political trajectory to reach the heights of power. “He was the little brother who imposed himself by force within the apparatus, he sums up. Described as greedy for money, he whispered to himself that he was accumulating wealth, much more than his brother Hafez al-Assad, who was content to assert his power “.

Appointed vice-president by Hafez al-Assad, Rifaat al-Assad has gained influence over the years, cultivating his own networks thanks to the clientelism in force in the country, to the point of directly threatening the power of his brother. He was even tempted to replace him by taking advantage of the absence of Hafez El Assad, then hospitalized, to seize power during an attempted coup in 1984.

“Despite the betrayal, Hafez al-Assad still spared him because we do not kill his brother, and because it would have greatly upset their mother, decrypts Fabrice Balanche. He expelled him from the country with a certain sum of money to allow him to bounce back abroad, because Hafez al-Assad did not want to provoke an internal civil war in the Alawite community either, because at the time, the supporters of his younger brother, who counted important support within the army thanks to its Defense Brigades, were all the same numerous “.

A golden exile and a French Legion of Honor

Disgraced and deprived of his Defense Brigades, Rifaat al-Assad flew to Europe and settled in France, with several of his wives, his numerous descendants, and a strong squad of bodyguards.

“The French intelligence services were very happy to welcome him, because in the context of the time, with Lebanon which is in full war and which is occupied by the Syrians, Rifaat al-Assad constitutes a precious source of information and an interesting lever against Hafez al-Assad, explains Fabrice Balanche. Some within the French services even saw him as a useful intermediary in the arms market that it is interesting to have in France, or even as a pro candidate. potential Westerner to succeed the Syrian president “.

In February 1986, Rifaat al-Assad was made, despite his sulphurous reputation, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor by President François Mitterrand for services rendered to French diplomacy in the Middle East. A decoration that is still controversial today.

On February 28, 2021, the Trial International and Sherpa associations also asked President Emmanuel Macron in a forum to withdraw the highest French honorary distinction “given the heavy charges and accusations against him”.

In 1992, Rifaat al-Assad will be authorized to return to Syria with a family pardon, granted on the occasion of his mother’s funeral. He also obtains the right to relocate and do business again.

“But in 1998, the tide turned again and he was again declared persona non grata, stripped of his title of vice-president and expelled from Syria because he represented a danger for the succession at the top of power, while Hafez al- Assad was preparing his son Bashar al-Assad to succeed him, “notes Fabrice Balanche.

It must be said that in January 1994, after the disappearance in a road accident in Bassel, the older brother of Bashar al-Assad scheduled to succeed his father suffering from leukemia, had replaced Rifaat al-Assad among the main contenders for the Baathist throne. Moreover, in June 2000, at the very time of Hafez al-Assad’s funeral, his younger brother had accused, since his golden exile, the Syrian authorities of having violated the Constitution by appointing Bashar al-Assad at the head of the regime. .

“Today, Rifaat al-Assad, from a political point of view, no longer weighs anything in Syria, believes Fabrice Balanche. He may have created a party with a confidential audience, launching a satellite television channel ( ANN), based in London, and start to pour into the opposition, because he knew that his only chance to return to the country was linked to regime change, historical opponents were never fooled “.

And to conclude: “Today, after having led a golden existence and dreamed of a presidential destiny in the place of his brother, then of his nephew, his last fights are played out in the European courts, far from his Syrian ambitions and from its Parisian palaces “.

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