Rifaat al-Assad’s return to Syria

Hannah Wallace

Senior Researcher at Tactics Institute

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Rifaat Al-Assad, the uncle of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who left Syria after an alleged coup attempt in 1984, was allowed back into the country last month after his conviction for laundering embezzled funds in a French court was upheld.

His return marked the end of a 37-year period spent in exile in Europe where he acquired millions of pounds worth of assets. It was the nature of how these assets were accrued that led to his arrest. In 2020, a French court found him guilty of aggravated tax fraud and embezzling state funds to acquire £80 million worth of property in France alone. He was subsequently sentenced to 4 years in prison.

His reported French fortune included not only two Paris townhouses, a stud farm, a chateau, and 7,300 square metres of office space in Lyon, but also several luxury properties.

His departure from France last month came before his sentence was upheld, which meant he was free to leave the country. Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and the senior diplomatic editor for Syrian affairs at Asharq Al-Awsa told TACTICS that “al-Assad’s return to Syria was brokered by his son and grandson. After flying to Belarus, al-Assad made his way to Damascus where he currently resides. He will play no play no political or social role in the country.”

The “Butcher of Hama”

Bashar al-Assad’s decision to greenlight the return of his former rival is a sign of his ensconcement in the country. Assad has held onto power despite a brutal civil war that began a decade ago. As such, Arab states have made moves to bring Damascus back into the regional fold.

Rifaat al-Assad was exiled in the mid-1980s after mounting a failed coup against his brother, the late president Hafez al-Assad. As head of the Saraya al-Defaa” (Defence Battalion) which later turned into the 4th Division, al-Assad was, at one time, the second most powerful man in the country.

Nicknamed the “butcher of Hama”, al-Assad commanded troops involved in the brutal suppression of an uprising in central Syria in the early 80s in which up to 40,000 were said to have been killed. A separate investigation related to war crimes committed in Hama is ongoing in Switzerland.

He returned briefly to Syria in the 1990s to attend his mother’s funeral, but was swiftly declared a persona non-grata and forced to leave as he was considered a threat to Hafez’s succession plan for his son, Bashar.

Embarrassment for Europe

After arriving in France in 1986, he was awarded the legion of honour, France’s highest award, for his role in protecting French interests from Syrian intelligence. The fact that he was arrested and tried years later is a source of much embarrassment for French authorities. According to a report by the French newspaper Le Figaro, the deal that was done paving the way for al-Assad’s return to Syria was “thanks to the services he provided to the French intelligence”.

This decision to allow al-Assad to leave France has been heavily criticised by legal organisations. French law association, Shepra, founded to protect and defend victims of financial crimes described the move as “an alarming signal about France’s commitment to the anti-corruption fight”, further adding “we therefore question the conditions that made his escape possible, which constitutes a failure on France’s part to meet its international commitments to fight and punish corruption effectively”.

Bigger questions remain such as to why al-Assad was only charged in France on lesser charges, not those related to war crimes. While al-Assad has been allowed to slip away, other European countries have prosecuted lower and more senior ranking Syrian officials in recent years.

In 2015, A Swedish court sentenced former Syrian rebel fighter, Mouhannad Droubi, to five years in prison for a “torture-like” assault in Syria that was filmed and posted on social media. It was the first such conviction in a court outside of Syria. War crimes are among the serious offences that Swedish law allows to be prosecuted even if they were committed abroad.

At the beginning of this year, Germany prosecuted Eyad al-Gharib, a former Syrian secret police officer on Wednesday of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. The case was unprecedented for its hours of witness testimony describing widespread torture in Syria.

Germany used the argument of universal jurisdiction to bring the case that involved victims and defendants in Germany. According to universal jurisdiction, national courts, other than that of Syria, can prosecute individuals like Assad and his collaborators for serious violations of human rights such as crimes against humanity.

While there has been a handful of prosecutions, efforts so far constitute a mere “drop in the ocean”. Al-Assad’s case has again brought to the fore the uncomfortable truth that many continue to live in exile in European despite being accused of war crimes. His flight compromises not only the enforcement of his sentence in France, but also the procedure ongoing against him in Switzerland for war crimes.

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