Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 1   No. 10

October 1999 


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Rifaat Assad and the Syrian Political Crisis
Rifaat Assad
Rifaat Assad
The veneer of political stability in Syria began to dissipate last month with the sudden eruption of armed clashes between security forces loyal to Syrian President Hafez Assad and followers of his exiled brother Rifaat.

On September 19, security forces began a systematic campaign to track down and arrest his supporters on charges of corruption. Dozens of people were arrested in the following weeks in connection with the crackdown, including Syrian Army General Mohammed Suleiman and well-known poet Ibrahim Jabr. Members of the Assad family reportedly arrested during the crackdown include Kenaan Ghreib and Kaisar Shaleesh, a nephew of President Assad.

According to Syrian sources in London, intermittent clashes between security forces and Rifaat's private "defense brigades" militia have broken out near his heavily-guarded compound in Latakia, resulting in "dozens" of people killed and wounded over the last month. The most recent occurred as Syrian security forces moved in to shut down an illegal port in the city operated by his followers. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Syrian government has officially denied involvement in the attacks against Rifaat's forces, attributing them to an irregular militia calling itself the "Syrian Presidential Guard."1

The crackdown was reportedly triggered by Rifaat's attempts to challenge the expected ascension of President Assad's son, Bashar, and promote that of his own son, Sumer, chairman of the Arab News Network (ANN), a 24-hour channel that began broadcasting from London in September 1997. ANN had apparently been broadcasting less than favorable news coverage of Bashar's qualifications to be leader of Syria. In addition, both Rifaat and Sumer had made a number of high profile visits to other Arab states in recent months. The Syrian regime found it necessary to "show the world that Bashar is the only successor," said a member of Rifaat's family living in London.2

The unrest comes amid major reshuffling within the security and diplomatic sectors of the Syrian government. On September 24, Assad appointed Maj. Gen. Ali Khoury as head of general intelligence and Maj. Gen. Bashir Nassif as Khoury's chief deputy. In addition, seven prominent career diplomatic officials, including Syrian ambassador to the U.S. Walid Mualem, were replaced.

According to sources in Syria, there is considerable opposition to Bashar's ascension within Assad's own Alawite sect--where it is feared that his declared reformist intentions will erode Alawite privileges. The second major sphere of opposition to Bashar is in government circles--few regard Bashar as qualified to be president of Syria (at age 35, he does not even meet the constitution's minimum age requirement of 40). Rifaat, who has extensive connections within both the Alawite community and the government, is naturally regarded with suspicion.

Relations between the Syrian president and his brother have been strained since 1983, when Rifaat launched an unsuccessful coup attempt after Assad suffered a debilitating heart attack. Rifaat has lived in and out of exile since 1986. His current whereabouts, however, are unclear. Most press reports have indicated that he is still abroad (shuttling between Paris, London and Marbella, Spain, where he has numerous investments), but the Arabic weekly Al-Watan Al-Arabi recently reported that he has returned to Syria.3

While Hafez Assad may have won the first round of the succession struggle with Rifaat, the ultimate outcome has yet to be determined.

According to one report, Rifaat is attempting to recruit foreign mercenaries abroad to bolster his forces in the upcoming struggle with the Syrian regime. According to Dean Shelley, a well-known British mercenary, a representative of Rifaat contacted him on October 10 and expressed interest in hiring a squad of 20 highly trained mercenaries. When the two met in London, Shelley was told that the the force would be used to launch "a small paramilitary operation" against Syrian security forces stationed outside Rifaat's stronghold in Latakia. Shelley said that the operation was later canceled for unspecified reasons (his willingness to expose his client's identity stemmed, he said, from Rifaat's failure to pay him $5,000 in fees and expenses).4

  1 Al-Nahar, 21 October 1999.
  2 "Supporters of Assad Brother Said Arrested in Syria ," Reuters, 3 October 1999.
  3 "Al-Siraa' al-maftouh bein al-nijal wa al-shaqiq: Asraar al-i'tiqaalaat al-achira fi suriya," Al-Watan Al-Arabi, 15 October 1999.
  4 The Sunday Times, 24 October 1999.

1999 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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