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September 29, 2005


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An Exiled Assad Plans a Return to Syria
By Eli Lake

WASHINGTON - Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of Syria's current leader, is putting himself forward as a possible successor to his nephew, prevailing upon friends in Saudi Arabia and Iraq's transitional assembly to press his case to a wary Washington.

Earlier this month, Rifaat, who is the exiled brother of Syria's former strongman, Hafez al-Assad, told some Lebanese papers that he was planning on making a triumphant return to Syria. His brother kicked him out of the country shortly after letting him return to Damascus for his mother's funeral in 1992. In August and September, Rifaat met with members of the political party of Iraqi politician Ayad Allawi in an effort to gain an audience with a high-ranking Bush administration official.

Rifaat al-Assad is also said to have helped procure a witness, former intelligence officer Mohammed Saddiq, in the United Nations investigation into the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Mr. Saddiq, who the Syrians claim is a fraud, fled to France earlier this year.

On Monday, the former director of the congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare, Yossef Bodansky, virtually announced Rifaat's candidacy to head Syria. Sitting across from Rifaat at a Paris restaurant, Mr. Bodansky said on the John Batchelor program on ABC Radio that his dinner companion enjoyed support from America and Saudi Arabia as the heir apparent to the crumbling Baathist regime in Damascus.

Yesterday two American officials denied these claims. "We have no interest in a dialogue with Rifaat al-Assad," one American official said. But nonetheless, the search for a replacement for Bashar al-Assad is clearly on the minds of top policymakers in Washington and Riyadh. Saudi diplomats have quietly already told their Gulf counterparts that they would support the conclusions of the United Nations report due next month, wherever it leads. This is code, one diplomatic source said, for supporting the policy of isolation that helped pressure Syrian troops to exit Lebanon earlier this year.

Meanwhile, in Washington over the weekend Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick told an audience at an off-the-record retreat for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that America was indifferent to the fate of Syria's rulers. "The United States is interested in behavior change, but if regime change would occur, so be it," he said, according to three people in the room for his comment.

Rifaat al-Assad has been angling for a way to take over Syria since 1983, when his brother first exiled him after he amassed a militia in the streets of Damascus with rumors circulating that the leader was deathly ill. Over the years, the Assad family's black sheep has had intermittent meetings with Western and Arab intelligence services and claimed, according to one former CIA official, that he could foment a military coup with his contacts in the military and security services in Syria. The deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson, said yesterday, "Rifaat at various times in the last decade has tried to propose himself as a more reasonable alternative to other members of his family."

One of Rifaat's possible selling points to the Americans is also one of his liabilities. In 1982, he led the military campaign that crushed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, a massacre that claimed as many as 40,000 lives. In this respect, he can claim experience that will serve him in putting down the jihadist movement in Syria at war with Iraq's first representative government. Yet at the same time, because he is both an Assad and a Baathist with blood on his hands, support for him would severely undermine America's public case that it is supporting the transition to democracy in the Arab world.

One democratic opposition leader, Farid Ghadry, who has been quietly meeting with opposition groups in Europe for the past two months and has had some meetings with American policy-makers, says that he is wary of any efforts to supplant Bashar al-Assad with another dictator. "If Rifaat Assad wants to help Syria and wants to be part of a democratic process then let him say so," Mr. Ghadry, who is the leader of the Reform Party of Syria, said Tuesday. "The solution to all of our problems is democracy, not another dictator or someone to use violence to stop violence."

Salameh Nematt, the Washington bureau chief for al-Hayat, an Arabic newspaper, said yesterday, "Americans and Saudi leaders want to see a smooth transition in Syria from those tainted with the murders in Lebanon to people who can look at a new page. Rifaat is universally seen as not acceptable for the job nor supported by the majority of the Syrian people, but he is clearly promoting himself to the Americans and Syria's neighbors."

A political science professor at Florida Atlantic University and an expert on Syrian politics, Robert Rabil, said flatly, "Rifaat is not going to work in Syria." He said that Rifaat al-Assad has too many enemies in the country ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to loyalists to his brother. "He has a terrible past and is accused of corruption throughout Syria," he said.

Source: The New York Sun
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