x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Assad's uncle vows to topple the regime

Rifaat Assad claims to unite millions of Syrians but activists question his track record, which includes alleged rights abuses in the 1980s.

PARIS // Syria's opposition has many voices, but the one that stands out is that of President Bashar Al Assad's uncle, a former Syrian vice president and military strongman who many say has blood on his own hands.

Rifaat Assad, speaking from his self-imposed exile in Paris, claimed yesterday that the Syrian people needed a strong, stable hand to end the crisis - suggesting he could be the man.

The 74-year-old has re-emerged to criticise his nephew, whose regime has been hurtling toward international isolation following months of violence against pro-reform protesters. The UN has estimated that 3,500 people have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March.

"We are going to bring him down," said the Syrian president's uncle, who lives in a marble-floored mansion near Paris's Arc de Triomphe. "Even if it takes time and is difficult, I am going to work to topple the regime and give power to the people."

Rifaat Assad, however, is widely reviled back home. As the leader of an elite military corps under his brother Hafez - Syria's longtime dictator and Bashar's father - he allegedly had a role in the 1982 massacre of thousands in Hama.

Rifaat Assad, who also attempted and failed to take power from his brother in the mid-1980s, depicted his nephew as weak and ill-suited for power, and said the British-trained eye doctor should return to his medical practice.

Often chuckling, he said he had "heard many voices in Syria, the Arab world and even beyond that the crisis in Syria can only be resolved by Rifaat Al Assad".

International pressure has been growing against the regime to halt the bloodshed and Rifaat said he would support international military intervention in Syria, insisting it should involve a combination of Arab League forces and UN peacekeepers. He said he would return to Syria to oversee a transitional government until elections could be organised - and then step down.

Rifaat claimed the Assad clan was the only one that could bring stability to the country: "The people want the Assad family," he said.

That assertion was sharply disputed by opposition leaders who have spearheaded eight months of protests that have persisted despite government repression.

"The hands of this man are stained with the blood of the Syrian people," said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of anti-regime activists. "The Syrian people who have spilt so much blood will not give their efforts to a man who killed them years ago."

Rifaat was not the only former regime insider trying to join the opposition movement in Paris. Another former vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, took part last week in setting up the National Council of Support for the Syrian Revolution.

Rifaat said he was prepared to join forces with any other regime opponents - except for Mr Khaddam's group or the Muslim Brotherhood.

He fled into exile after his failed coup attempt in 1984. When his brother died, he claimed he should be Syria's next leader, but the Baath party and military closed ranks around Bashar.

Human-rights groups have said that Rifaat led crack army units in an assault that crushed a 1982 uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which had been a centre for the current protests. The death toll reportedly topped 20,000 - a figure never officially confirmed.

Rifaat denied any role in the Hama massacre, which he said was ordered by his late brother, Hafez.

His Defense Companies were also reportedly behind the killing of between 500 to 1,000 prisoners in 1980 in the notorious Tadmur Prison in central Syria a day after Hafez Assad, who was president at the time, escaped an assassination attempt.

At a Paris conference on Sunday, he helped create the United Syrian Opposition Council, billed as a secular alternative to the better-known Syrian National Council. Rifaat claimed his movement united three million people - most in Syria - through 15 affiliate political parties. Those back home were keeping a low profile during the uprising, he said.

The claim could not be verified because the Syrian government has prevented independent reporting and barred most foreign journalists.

Critics scoffed at what they called Rifaat's brazen and unconscionable attempt to reinvent himself.

"If today Rifaat Al Assad dared to risk going to Syria, he would be guillotined right away - hung on the public square by the people, because nobody likes him, and he knows it," said Mohammad Al Raschdane, a Syrian doctor in exile.

"He thinks: 'If Bashar is weakened, the army is going to break up and my old soldiers will be with me to perpetuate the dictatorship in Syria.' He hopes for that."