Instead of demanding that Bashar al-Assad abandon his post as Syrian President as most Western powers continue to do, another option is to pressure Assad to do like his father: get rid of his crazed brother Maher al-Assad. Like his father, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar is “blessed” with a maniacal brother who is power-hungry and barbaric. Coincidentally, Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, exhibits these same qualities. In fact, Rifaat al-Assad has been held accountable for carrying out the Hama Massacre in 1982 that killed nearly 20,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood; it seems Maher al-Assad is following his footsteps. Having overseen the violent suppression of protesters in what has been coined in Western media as “The Arab Spring”, Maher al-Assad is not far from earning the same reputation as his lunatic uncle.
When Hafez al-Assad fell ill in 1983, he appointed a six-member committee to run the country. His brother, Rifaat, was not included. This infuriated Rifaat and other Alawis in the officer corps. Some officers rallied around Rifaat in support of his cause and his faction began asserting control over Damascus. But when Hafez returned from his sick bed in 1984, he purged his party of all members who proved to be disloyal to him. In 1992, Rifaat was confined in exile in France and Spain. Since then, he has scrutinized Bashar al-Assad, claiming that his inheritance of the presidency was illegitimate. Instead, it should have been Rifaat who became leader since he was the vice president during Hafez al-Assad’s run.
Rifaat is considered close, by some observers, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah is married to a sister of Rifaat’s wife, and Rifaat has on occasions—even after his public estrangement from the rulers in Syria—been invited to Saudi Arabia, with pictures of him and the royal family displayed in the state-controlled press.
It is claimed that Rifaat is reputed to have turned even to Israel asking for assistance, and that he has initiated contacts with exiled representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Iraq war, there were press reports that he had started talks with US government representatives on helping to form a coalition with other anti-Assad groups to provide an alternative Syrian leadership, on the model of the Iraqi National Congress. Rifaat has held a meeting with the former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Yossef Bodansky, the director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, has stated that Rifaat enjoys support from both America and Saudi Arabia; he has been featured in the Saudi press as visiting the royal family in 2007. The Bashar regime remains wary of his intentions and carefully monitors his activities.
Rifaat was mentioned by the influential American think tank Stratfor as a possible suspect for the 2005 bombing that killedLebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri and the string of attacks that has struck Beirut after the subsequent Syrian withdrawal. The goal would be to destabilize the Syrian regime. However, there has been no mention of Rifaat in the United Nations Mehlis reports on the crime.
If Bashar wields as much power as his father, I urge him to purge his government of certain individuals including his brother. This would satisfy some Syrian people and improve the image of the Syrian government abroad.
When I asked a fellow Syrian studying in the United States about her thoughts on the situation in Syria, she replied: “We all love Bashar. Its those people around him.” She was referring to the Old Guard–remnants of his father’s regime that have tainted the image of Bashar’s presidency.
The question now is, is Bashar al-Assad willing to make these changes? Can he?