AP Interview: Uncle of Syrian leader a regime foe

AP News
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Posted: Nov 16, 2011 11:10 AM
AP Interview: Uncle of Syrian leader a regime foe

Syria's rising opposition has many voices, but one sticks out: That of President Bashar Assad's uncle, a former Syrian vice president and military strongman who many say has blood on his own hands.

Rifaat Assad, in an interview with The Associated Press from self-imposed exile in Paris, claimed Tuesday that the Syrian people need a strong, stable hand to end the crisis _ and he's just the man.

The 74-year-old has re-emerged to criticize his nephew, whose regime is hurtling toward international isolation over his bloody crackdown against protesters seeking his ouster. The U.N. estimates 3,500 people have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March.

"We are going to bring him down," the uncle said from his opulent home, a marble-floored mansion near Paris' 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 himself widely reviled back home. As 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 the central city of Hama, one of the darkest moments in the modern Middle East.

In the interview, Rifaat Assad denied those claims, spoke about a new opposition movement he helped create, and posited himself as a possible transition leader.

Rifaat, 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.

Rifaat, often chuckling, said he has "heard many voices in Syria, the Arab world and even beyond that the crisis in Syria can only be resolved by Rifaat al-Assad," although he didn't elaborate.

International pressure has been growing the regime to halt the bloodshed, not only from the West but from Syria's neighbors, but so far all have avoided calls for military intervention, fearing another Libya-style quagmire.

Rifaat Assad said he would support international military intervention in Syria, insisting it should involve a combination of Arab League forces and U.N. peacekeepers. He said he would return to Syria to oversee a transitional government until elections can be organized _ then step down.

Rifaat claimed the Assad clan is the only one that can 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 the bloody 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 regime opponents. "The Syrian people who have spilled so much blood will not give their efforts to a man who killed them years ago."

Rifaat isn't 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 Khaddam's group or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Rifaat 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 all-important military closed ranks around Bashar.

Human rights groups say Rifaat led crack army units in an assault that crushed a 1982 uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which has been a center 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.

Rifaat Assad's Defense Companies also reportedly were behind the killing of between 500 to 1,000 prisoners in 1980 in the notorious Tadmur Prison in central Syria a day after then President Hafez Assad escaped an assassination attempt.

He also has allegedly been linked to Syrian abuses in Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s when Syria had thousands of soldiers in its smaller neighbor. And he has been accused of turning a blind eye to criminality, including drug deals and car thefts in Lebanon.

Now, Assad is seeking to cast himself as a voice for freedom, democracy and human rights in Syria.

At a Paris conference 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 unites 3 million people _ most in Syria _ through 15 affiliate political parties. Those back home are 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.

At the conference, former British and U.S. diplomats led at least two panel discussions. The Next Century Foundation, a London-based conflict resolution group, provided four-fifths of the funding for the gathering, Rifaat said, with the rest paid by his family.

Foundation secretary-general William Morris told the AP "American money" was behind the event, but refused to elaborate. State Department officials in Washington said they were not aware of the conference, and are not funding any Syrian opposition groups.

Sitting on a Louis XV-style divan in a wood-paneled office, Assad described what he said were modest origins, his near-escape with assassination by his brother's cronies in the 1980s, and financial backing from Arab world leaders such as Saudi King Abdullah and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was ousted and killed last month in a popular revolution.

Rifaat said that after he fled Syria, Gadhafi sent him $200 million that he used to buy two hotels, which he later sold. He praised his adopted home, France, though his European residency papers come from Spain, where the family has a home in Marbella that he visits for a month or so each year.

He also reminisced of being invited nine times by French President Francois Mitterrand to hunt in Rambouillet forest, south of Paris. His jacket's lapel bore a red "rosette" insignia worn by inductees to the Legion of Honor, France's highest award. He became a "Grand Chevalier" in 1985, according to an official with the Legion of Honor.

Rifaat says he lost a fortune in the stock market and is living off the largesse of his children _ 8 sons and 8 daughters from his four wives. His 36-year-old son Siwar said the holdings mostly include real estate but also two TV networks, hotels and a restaurant in Syria.

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-exile doctor.

"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."

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.