Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Two Brothers War

We have been looking at recent Syrian history because it is relevant to the rehabilitation - or otherwise - of some of our interlocutors. By which we mean we need to know who the good guys are - not always easy in a world filled with dissinformation. One of the players we have been looking at is Rifat al Assad, the uncle of the present President. We have asked members for background on the so called "Two brothers' War" that resulted in Rifat's self-imposed exile. The former British Ambassador to Syria, Hon Ivor Lucas, kindly stepped into the breach to advise us. We are at present conducting a serious Syria program with a number of ongoing reports. Ivor thought it might be helpful to those of you engaged in these discussions if we append below two assessments of these events. The first is his own, written in June 1984. He comments that, "With hindsight, it takes a rathermore relaxed view than the second - Patrick Seale's, in his book 'Asad', published in 1988. I have to defer to Patrick's superior sources and to his greater Syrian expertise, but even his version has its problems. In summary the two are as follows.":

Soon after Hafez was taken ill in November 1983, jockeying for position started, with Rifat pushing himself to the fore. Opposition to him was disparate and slow off the mark. The battlelines began to be drawn more sharply in February 1984 when Rifat's opponents appeared to be mainly Ali Haidar, Ali Duba, Shafiq Fayyad and Badr Hassan. Tension mounted rapidly towards the end of February, when Hafiz deployed units of 3 Division (commanded by Fayyad) to protect key points in the capital, and strengthened the Presidential Guard under Adnan Makhlouf in the Palace area. In earlyMarch the President achieved the abrogation of the 17 May 1983 Lebanon/Israel agreement and reorganised his Government. Both these events contributed to a relaxation of the tension. The reorganisation involved the appointment as Vice-Presidents of Khaddam (anti-Rifat), Mashariqa (pro-Rifat) and Rifat himself. Despite this activity giving the impression that Hafez was back in the saddle, further unrest occurred between March and late May, when Rifat visited Moscow. With the encouragement of the President, Rifat began to build up his image as a responsible politician and to cultivate the Party Membership, businessmen and intellectuals. The Moscow visit at the head of an impressive-looking delegation representing Government, Party and military (including his principal opponent Ali Haidar) was designed to reassure both Russian and internal opinion that the little local differences had been settled. I concluded that there had not been an attempted coup in February, but that the rivalry had been essentially between opposing Alawi military figures and did not threaten the continuation of minority Alawi rule. Rifat's position had been reinforced and Hafez' authority and control might have been impaired. But while he was keeping his options open he was probably thinking in terms of his brother's succession when the time came. At all events the situation should not be over-dramatised.

Soon after he was taken ill Hafez entrusted the day-to-day running of affairs to a six-man committee: Khaddam, Ahmar, Tlas, Shihabi, Kasm andMashariqa. Rifat's exclusion prompted some of the generals to turn to him for leadership, and Khaddam and Shihabi persuaded him to go along with a full meeting of the Regional Command which then voted to substitute itself(including Rifat) for the six-man committee. Hafez suspected an American-Saudi plot to replace him with Rifat and berated the top generals for disobeying his orders. The political and temperamental differences between the two brothers made it unlikely that he ever considered [Rifat] a possible successor... the brother who had been once been useful, then necessary, then an embarrassment, had become a danger. At the same time it is unlikely that Rifat ever seriously aspired to rule in his brother's stead ... essentially he wanted Asad to accept him as a partner, with a free hand on the home front. But he overestimated the extent of the generals' commitment to him. When Hafez berated them they changed tack and began to contain Rifat. Among them were Ali Duba, AliHaidar, Adnan Makhlouf and Shafiq Fayyad. The visible trio publicly at thePresident's side included Khaddam and Tlas. The consequent confrontation was ostensibly resolved by the appointment of the three Vice-Presidents, with Khaddam, Rifat's enemy and a point of focus for the generals, heading the list. However, this led to Rifat's show of force on the streets of Damascus at the end of March and eventually to a face-to-face encounter between the two brothers at which Rifat was said to have given in - and later to have regarded this as "the greatest single mistake of his life". Although defending himself publicly against charges of disloyalty, he was virtually banished thereafter.

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