When Russia received Rifaat al-Assad as an exile

A recently published book by Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, who has been out of sight since 2012, describes how Russia agreed to receive Rifaat al-Assad, who had a dispute in 1984 with his brother and late president Hafez over power when the latter suffered health problems. This means it would not be strange if Moscow repeated such an act of containing the Syrian crisis by granting President Bashar al-Assad safe passage or exile.

Rifaat tried to assert control over Damascus, but a split ensued due to a dispute among Alawites over power. The situation continued until Hafez woke up from a coma just as forces loyal to him and those loyal to Rifaat were on the verge of fighting.

The Soviets sent envoy Heydar Aliyev, then-first deputy premier, to Syria. Aliyev demanded to meet with Rifaat to know what was going on. According to the book, Hafez did not reject this intervention, and sent Sharaa to accompany Aliyev during his meeting with Rifaat to know what they would talk about. Afterward, Hafez promoted Rifaat to vice president but decreased his brother’s powers.

If the Russians had done today what they did in 1984, and if they had supported calls for Bashar to step down, they would have prevented a catastrophe.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

“I, upon the president’s request, found a decent exit for Rifaat to keep him out of Syria,” Sharaa wrote. “I contacted the French ambassador to arrange an official visit for Rifaat to France as vice president so he can then stay in Paris, but the Foreign Ministry refused to receive Rifaat. I later made the same request again, and we waited for a while but France did not alter its stance and this caused tension between us and them.”

Sharaa then turned to the Soviets, who responded quickly. According to him, they “welcomed the request” and Hafez sent Rifaat on an official visit as vice president along with a delegation of high-ranking officers. This was Rifaat’s goodbye trip, along with around 70 of his officers - a trip to live in exile until further notice.

Rifaat accepted to leave Syria to resolve the problem, but Hafez wanted to control every detail so he sent Sharaa with Rifaat to Moscow. He also sent security officials to accompany Rifaat’s officers, who were being sent to Russia for “compulsory recreation.” Sharaa said Moscow agreed to host them.

According to him, an argument erupted on the plane mainly between Rifaat and Shafiq Fayad, then-commander of the 3rd Division, which went as far as pulling out guns. The dispute did not calm down until then-chief of air force intelligence Mohammad al-Khuli intervened.

The Kremlin received Rifaat according to protocol, and they held official talks. Sharaa writes that Rifaat used to inform Hafez of the details of his meetings, including statements he gave to Russian TV that Sharaa says he helped formulate as “although Rifaat masters talking properly, I feared the Russians would employ certain statements that would suit them, or that Rifaat would reveal what’s inappropriate regarding the crisis.”

Then and now

Russia’s initiative saved the regime from chaos and fighting. When we recall these events, we can see the difference between Moscow then and today, and between yesterday’s Assad and today’s.

Bashar is behind the worst political and humanitarian disaster in the Middle East. Excluding him has become necessary because he has destroyed all chances of reconciliation by resorting to murder and destruction to resolve the Syrian crisis. Bashar staying in power will inflict bigger disasters on the political system, his family, sect, country, and even the region and the entire world due to the expansion of terrorism.

If the Russians had done today what they did in 1984, and if they had supported calls for Bashar to step down, they would have prevented a catastrophe. In the end, everyone will realize that he cannot go on being in power because his regime is destroyed. If the Russians play a positive role now and support removing him, they will be rebuilding Syria and their image, and ending this tragedy.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 9, 2016.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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