Inside the decades-long power struggle between the al-Assad brothers

Refaat schemed to take over power in Syria, but Hafez outwitted his younger brother, resulting in his exile

Al Majalla provides exclusive insight into a fraternal rivalry between Hafez and Rifaat that ended up with Hafez remaining Syrian president.
Lina Jaradat
Al Majalla provides exclusive insight into a fraternal rivalry between Hafez and Rifaat that ended up with Hafez remaining Syrian president.

Inside the decades-long power struggle between the al-Assad brothers

London: It has been four decades since Syria’s presidency was the subject of fierce and famous competition between two brothers – Hafez and Rifaat al-Assad.

Much has been written about how Hafez managed to maintain his hold on power while the younger Rifaat was exiled to France. Newly revealed documents from former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam (who died during his Parisian exile in 2020) show how this sibling conflict was politically pivotal and reshaped the face of modern Syria.

The grudge lasted until 2021 when Syria’s current President, Bashar al-Assad, gave the green light for his uncle Rifaat to come home.

Rifaat – referred to as “The Leader” – had only returned twice since his rivalry with Hafez came to a head in the 1980s, both for family funerals, one for his mother in 1992 and the other for a nephew and contender in 1994.

The documents and their keeper

Abdul Halim Khaddam was a staunch ally of President Hafez al-Assad in their joint power struggle against Baathist comrades in the 1960s. Khaddam later served as Syria’s foreign minister from 1970-84.

Khaddam had been part of Syria’s ruling inner circle for decades and remained in a position of leadership until long after Hafez’s son Bashar assumed office in 2000.

In the summer of 2005, however, Khaddam retired from all his posts and relocated to Paris months before announcing his formal defection on the last night of the year through a televised interview with the TV channel al-Arabiyya. This was, in effect, a momentous defection and signalled his transformation from ally to outspoken opponent.

Having fought the Muslim Brotherhood for years, Khaddam then actively aligned himself with the group and became a prominent figure in its struggle.

When Khaddam moved to France, he brought a collection of documents and notebooks that formed a detailed memoir chronicling the intricate conflict between Hafez and Rifaat.

While these papers do not necessarily provide a comprehensive or entirely accurate account of the tumultuous events that shook Damascus, they nevertheless are a valuable and historical testimony of a crucial period in the country’s history, contributing to the broader narrative on Syria.

Here, Al Majalla outlines the revelations.

In the footsteps of ‘big brother’

Hafez and Rifaat’s relationship mirrored that of typical siblings in a large family with modest beginnings on the Syrian coast.

The younger brother, Rifaat, was naturally influenced by the older brother, and they followed a shared path, first into the Baath Party and then into the Syrian Army.

While Hafez assumed control of the military committee of the Baath Party, becoming its mastermind and ultimate decisionmaker, Rifaat was studying at the Military Academy at Homs in central Syria. He remained close to Hafez, his inspiration, who had become commander of the Syrian Air Force by then.

Their relationship was further solidified when Rifaat took part in the 23 February 1966 coup against then-president Amin al-Hafez, which landed him in jail and made Hafez Minister of Defence.

From here, the Hafez-Rifaat axis emerged, opposing the power and influence of coup commander Salah Jadid during the years 1966-1970. Rifaat helped his brother seize power from Jadid and figurehead president Nur al-Din al-Atasi in November 1970.

As Hafez al-Assad entered the Presidential Palace four months later, his brother patrolled the streets of Damascus with a rifle, helping ensure the security of the new regime.

In 1970, Rifaat helped his brother seize power and patrolled the streets of Damascus with a rifle, helping ensure the security of the new regime.

Khaddam recalls: "During the power struggle within the army and the Baath Party in the late 1960s, a group of trailblazers and captains supported Maj. Gen. Hafez al-Assad, the Minister of Defence, against the Central Command".

He adds: "They controlled the most influential units, and al-Assad relied on them, granting (them) advanced responsibilities in the armed forces. Some aligned with Maj. Rifaat and others became centres of power.

"Each believed they were closest to the president, fostering a sense of competition for loyalty. In practice, they formed the nucleus of regime protection.

"However, as the rivalry for the president's favour intensified, animosity and jealousy arose among them. Al-Assad strategically ensured they remained dispersed, preventing them from coalescing."

Governing and politicking

Hafez al-Assad officially became Syria's president in March 1971. On 23 December 1973, he established a government that lasted until 1976, a tumultuous period marked by significant world and regional events.

Foremost amongst these were the October War against Israel in 1973, followed by the negotiation of a 'separation of forces' agreement with Israel, disputes with Egypt, heightened tensions with Iraq, and the eruption of the civil war in Lebanon.

This timeframe witnessed an influx of Arab aid into Syria, which initiated several big infrastructure and industrial development projects. This saw various companies vying to secure lucrative deals through competitive tenders.

Amid this fervour, many agents emerged, diligently concentrating their efforts on power centres to secure contracts for their clients. Lt. Col. Rifaat al-Assad "became the focal point of communications for these agents," recalls Khaddam.

During the Baath Party Regional Command conference in April 1975, Lt. Col. Rifaat al-Assad launched an attack on the Central Command. Through an associated bloc, he accused them of negligence.

His aim was to oust the old guard, including Assistant Baath Party Secretary-General Abdullah al-Ahmar, Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Ayoubi, Deputy Premier Muhammad Haidar, Maj. Gen. Naji Jamil and Defence Minister Maj. Gen. Mustafa Tlass.

In response, Iraqi Baathists Baqir al-Yassin and Ahmed al-Jubouri sought a meeting with President Hafez to complain about Rifaat's interference and pressure.

"Why don't you defend the nationalist command at the conference?" al-Assad is said to have replied. "Why don't you stand up to him at the conference?" Khaddam recalls "sitting at a distance from the president" when he intervened in the conversation.

"I am surprised by this meeting," he said. "You're the party's leadership and have the power to decide within the party.

"Instead of complaining to the Secretary-General (Hafez al-Assad), convene and decide to expel Rifaat from the party and the army, thereby safeguarding the leadership and the party. Why do you come and complain? Be responsible."

In the evening session of the conference, Khaddam spoke out and accused Lt. Col. Rifaat al-Assad of "propagating idleness in the armed forces, engaging in corruption, and attempting to sabotage the party through alliances," despite acknowledging that Rifaat had always treated him with affection and respect.

Khaddam wrapped up by urging President Hafez to choose between supporting his brother or standing by his comrades. After returning to his seat, President Hafez summoned veteran ambassador Dr Adib al-Daoudi and expressed his desire to make him adviser to the presidency.

Despite Khaddam questioning the need for such an appointment, Daoudi was appointed but given no assigned duties. When Khaddam conveyed his concerns to al-Assad, the president replied: "What will he do? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs still exists."

Eventually, Khaddam helped Daoudi become Syria's observer at the United Nations in Geneva, recognising his professional competence.

Rifaat's post-conference coup

After the conference ended, the Central Command members' election was planned for the following day. With the imminent departure of Hafez's mother to France for medical treatment, the president excused himself from the proceedings.

On the morning of the elections, Khaddam was told of Rifaat's plans to use the president's absence to bring down key leadership figures, including Ahmar, Ayoubi, Jamil, Haidar, and Tlass.

"I immediately called President Hafez and informed him," recalls Khaddam. "Hafez asked me to relay a message to the conference president, urging a postponement until his return.

"When he returned to address the conference, he spoke extensively about the need for stability in leadership positions. Despite praising the five targeted members, the election results saw the fall of Mahmoud Ayoubi and Naji Jamil, while Mustafa Tlass achieved only moderate success, while Abdullah al-Ahmar and Muhammad Haidar ranked at the bottom of the list."

The results shocked the president. His prime minister had fallen, as had his comrade Maj. Gen. Jamil has been his ally since their junior officer days. Jamil had strongly supported Hafez in his conflict with the former Central Command and played a key role in the 17 November 1970 coup that brought him to power.

Hafez considered annulling the elections, but his Iraq comrades Yassin and Jabouri advised against it. They said such a move might give a negative impression of the party and regime. Hafez agreed but left the possibility open for several months.

Among the successful candidates were some supporters of Lt. Col. Rifaat, including Youssef al-Asaad, Ahmed Diab, and Muhammad Zuhair Masharqa.

Despite Ayoubi's ouster, President Hafez and most of the Central Command asked him to remain prime minister—likewise, Maj. Gen. Jamil remained head of the national security. Finally, more than a year and a half later, a new government assumed office, with Maj. Gen. Abdul Rahman Khelifawi returning as premier.

Lina Jaradat

Expansion of Rifaat's influence

Rifaat's influence in both the party and the state grew, while political and security tensions flared up between Damascus and Baghdad as both armies mobilised.

Iraqi intelligence conducted acts of sabotage in Syria, including two assassination attempts on Khaddam. The first was on 1 December 1976, when he was shot twice, and both he and his wife were injured. The second occurred less than a year later, on 25 October 1977.

Rifaat's ascendancy extended to military leadership, and he assumed command of the Defence Companies, an elite force of 40,000 fighters independent of the regular army.

Simultaneously, he rose through party ranks, expanding his influence among the youth and in the media. He also established the Higher Association of Graduates to unite university degree holders.

During this turbulent period, the Fighting Vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood emerged, led by Marwan Hadid, who had previously led an insurgency against the Baath Party in the city of Hama in 1964, when Khaddam was serving as its governor.

The group carried out various assassinations, including those of Maj — Muhammad Ghara in Hama and Dr Muhammad al-Fadel, the president of Damascus University.

It was in this atmosphere that Maj. Gen. Abdul Rahman Khelifawi led the new government. He soon found himself at odds with various factions, including Rifaat, the security services, much of the Central Command, and various branch leaders.

Khelifawi was waging a war against corruption, which "earned him the hostility of numerous security services officials and power centres within the armed forces," says Khaddam. "Additionally, he faced severe criticism from members of the Central Command, leading to intense campaigns against him."

At the end of March, in a Central Command meeting, the decision was made to dismiss the Khelifawi government in the absence of President al-Assad. When told, al-Assad did not take it seriously, and, in later meetings, he reacted with surprise and even laughter, asking: "Whatever happened to the world?"

Assistant Regional Secretary Mohammed Jaber Bajbouj said: "The discussions on government-related issues had shifted to a motion of confidence in Comrade Khelifawi, and the leadership unanimously voted to support him."

President al-Assad then asked the same of Khelifawi. He replied, "I agree with the decision and cannot continue." After a brief silence,

al-Assad turned to Khaddam. "Apparently, we have no one but for you to form a government," he said. Khaddam declined.

"I apologise for the same reasons I did in 1971," he said. "My role in government leadership will pose significant challenges for you, as I intend to apprehend certain leaders involved in corruption. This could result in complicated circumstances."

What he meant was "the formation of an investigative committee with some command members, including Rifaat al-Assad". Al-Assad said he would ask the command members for their opinion.

Mohammad Ali al-Halabi, a schoolteacher who became the President of the People's Council, sat beside Hafez and expressed his readiness to form a government. With no objections from the command and after agreement from al-Assad, al-Halabi formed his government on 30 March 1978.

"It is important to note that during Halabi's tenure, both paralysis and corruption escalated within the state apparatus and its institutions," says Khaddam. "To safeguard his position in the new role, Halabi subjected himself to the authority of Col. Rifaat, the commanding officer to the Prime Minister."

During the Baath Party Regional Command conference in April 1975, Lt. Col. Rifaat al-Assad launched an attack on the Central Command. His aim was to oust the old guard.

Killings and corruption

"The second significant development involves the eruption of armed violence carried out by factions of the Muslim Brotherhood in response to the heinous act committed by Capt. Ibrahim al-Youssef, in 1979, was an instructor at the Artillery College in Aleppo.

"Armed with a machine gun, he entered the classroom and instructed Sunni Muslim, Druze, Ismaili, and Christian cadets to leave the room, then killed approximately 40 students belonging to the Alawite sect.

"This atrocity shook Syria, provoking intense anger among Baathists, the armed forces, and the security apparatus. The situation further escalated, leading to the involvement of Muslim Brotherhood groups in subsequent killings and bombings."

Between 22 December 1979 and 6 January 1980, another Baath Party Regional Command Conference was convened. The Brotherhood was carrying out bombings and assassinations, and there was state-level instability, so the atmosphere was tense.

"It was clear from the first day that the conference was divided into two currents," says Khaddam. "One was led by Col. Rifaat (al-Assad), who tried to control the conference and led a party-affiliated leadership to seize control of the party and the reins of the state.

"The second, led by most members of the Regional Command, who were concerned about Rifaat's behaviour and practices, had the support of most of the conference members, both civilian and military."

Khaddam adds that Rifaat al-Assad "tried to exploit the issue of the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood to garner support" from conference members. At the same time, the other side "adopted a campaign against corruption in the state, targeting corrupt individuals shielded by some in power" - particularly Col. Rifaat.

"During the conference, I spoke for over three hours, highlighting major system flaws surrounding evading responsibility. I emphasised the issues of the "green and red lights" attributed to the President.

"I also addressed the economic crisis in the country, the absence of an economic initiative, and discussed the illicit interventions from certain sources."

Rifaat on the march

During the conference, Rifaat said the time had come to "respond forcefully" and called on everyone to pledge absolute loyalty. "Stalin sacrificed 10 million people to preserve the Bolshevik revolution," Rifaat said. "Syria must do the same to preserve the Baathist revolution."

Rifaat further threatened to "engage in a hundred wars, demolish a million fortresses, and sacrifice a million martyrs" to uphold the regime. This fervour led to the military suppression of the Syrian uprising from 1979 to 1982, which reached its tragic zenith with the shelling of Hama in February 1982, killing thousands.

In 1983, Rifaat – a secularist - sent armed fighters to Damascus with orders to unveil women in the streets, in a move that met with sharp criticism, including from his brother, the president, who publicly condemned it.

It was in the capital that the power struggles continued. The days before the election of the Regional Command were filled with debate. Al-Assad formed a committee of Khaddam, al-Ahmar, and Col. Rifaat to nominate a proposed list of individuals.

"The committee met twice," recalls Khaddam. "Col. Rifaat suggested additions and removing some leadership names who did not align with him. We rejected the list and presented (our own) with names we believed qualified for leadership membership, which he also rejected.

"President al-Assad invited me and asked about our conclusions. I told him we disagreed. President Hafez then said, 'I will put forward the list.' The next day, I met with him, and he informed me of the names, finding some with no party background who showed loyalty to Rifaat.

"I tried to convince him, but he provided me with criteria for each of them (which I found) disconnected from the reality of these individuals."

The names of the Central Committee members were announced during the conference. Two hours later, the members of the Regional Command were revealed, including six individuals "affiliated with Col. Rifaat, clearly demonstrating President Hafez's support for his brother", says Khaddam.

On the second day, after the conference's conclusion, the Regional Command held a meeting to form the new government. While most members were inclined to assign Mahmoud al-Ayoubi, the leadership was surprised when President al-Assad, after opening the session, proposed Abdul Rauf al-Kasm as the candidate for the presidency of the Council of Ministers.

"In reality, the nomination was not put to a vote, and the leadership members considered Dr al-Kasm's nomination (to be) a decision made by President al-Assad. No one objected to it." On 14 January 1980, al-Kasm formed his first government and continued as prime minister for almost seven years until October 1987.

The first sniff of inheritance

"The dangerous phenomenon was inheritance," recalls Khaddam. "This was before the Arab Summit, due to take place in Amman in November 1980. Al-Assad invited me to his house to discuss our participation. After we reviewed the positives and negatives, we agreed not to participate.

"We had participated in the preparatory conference for ministers a few days earlier. One of the reasons for our non-participation was the highly tense situation between us and Jordan due to the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, who were infiltrating from Jordan to carry out assassinations and bombings.

"Additionally, there were intense conflicts between us and Iraq, whose government was also supporting the Brotherhood with training, weapons, and funds.

"After we concluded the discussion, al-Assad spoke about life, death, and the country's fate in case of an unexpected incident. Consequently, he appointed a vice president to ensure continuity and avoid leaving the country in a vacuum.

"It was clear to me that he intended to appoint his brother, Rifaat, with whom he had very close ties and (who had) significant support within the party, which raised questions, especially among the armed forces and the party.

"I took the initiative to advise against it, stating that if he was concerned about continuity, the constitution and the party guaranteed the system's stability. However, he did not respond, and no further action was taken.

"In 1982, al-Assad surprised the Regional Command in the Baath Party by asking each member to write down the name of their nominee for the position of vice president. He believed that the majority would support his brother. However, following the count, he never again brought up the nomination of a vice president."

When Hafez fell ill in November 1983, it seemed like Rifaat's moment had arrived.

A presidential brush with death

The younger brother had already started acting as the legitimate heir and sole successor, rallying support from the generals, which had angered the president.

"In mid-November 1983, Commander of the Republican Guard Brig. Gen. Adnan Makhlouf informed me that President al-Assad wanted to see me while he was at Shami Hospital," recalls Khaddam.

"I asked, 'Did he have an accident?' Makhlouf replied, 'No, he had a heart attack.' In reality, I was surprised, and a wave of concern engulfed me as I imagined what could happen in the event of his death.

"Upon arriving at the hospital, I headed to the intensive care unit. I found (President al-Assad) pale but welcoming, smiling. He said, 'A person never knows what might befall them.' We discussed his illness for a few minutes.

"Then he said, 'Tomorrow, Sheikh Amine Gemayel (Lebanese president from 1982 to 1988) will come. As you can see, I can't receive him. You know that talking to him extends for hours.'

"I reassured him, 'Don't worry, I'll call and inform him that I'm coming to Beirut to handle some matters.' After that, I bid him farewell, wishing him a speedy recovery."

Khaddam went to the hospital's waiting room, phoned Chief of Staff (of the Syrian Army) Lt. Gen. Hikmat al-Shihabi, and requested his immediate presence, aiming to make suitable arrangements to avoid any surprises.

"Lt. Gen. al-Shihabi arrived, and we discussed the matter. Meanwhile, Col. Rifaat al-Assad arrived and went to see his brother. After a few minutes, he returned as I spoke with our ambassador in London."

"I asked him to urgently contact the leading heart surgeon, Dr Magdi Yacoub, and bring him to Damascus. After concluding my call, Col. Rifaat said, 'Why do we need foreign doctors? Aren't there heart surgeons in Syria? Every time someone falls ill, we summon foreign doctors.'"

"I replied, 'This someone happens to be the head of the country, not an ordinary individual. His name is Hafez al-Assad, not Hafez Khaddam.'"

A short while later, all three left the hospital. Khaddam returned to his office and summoned the Soviet ambassador. "I informed him of (the president's) condition and asked him to inform the Soviet leadership.

"I also asked for Soviet doctors to come and treat the president. The ambassador expressed his concern and said, 'I'll inform the leadership in Moscow immediately.'"

"Indeed, less than an hour later, the ambassador came to my house to inform me that the Soviet leadership wished President Hafez a speedy recovery and that the Soviet minister of health - a senior heart specialist - would arrive in Damascus the next day, together with a complete medical team."

Khaddam also contacted Dr Abu Al-Khair al-Atassi, a resident in Cleveland in the US and a skilled heart surgeon. He asked him to come to Syria as quickly as possible. Additionally, he called Col. Muhammad Nassif, a friend of Dr al-Atassi, to ensure the doctor's swift arrival.

"The Soviet doctors arrived, and two days later, Dr al-Atassi also came. They collaborated with Syrian doctors to re-examine the president using all available means.

"They concluded that he had suffered a heart attack and that a part of the heart muscle was damaged. They imposed a strict regimen on the president - initially, a period of rest in the hospital, followed by a recovery period in an isolated house away from people."

Stalin sacrificed 10 million people to preserve the Bolshevik revolution. Syria must do the same to preserve the Baathist revolution.

Rifaat al-Assad

Pledging allegiance to Rifaat

While the president was ill, Col. Rifaat intensified his efforts to woo army officers, summoning them to his office. Some came willingly since he was the brother of the president. "Most pledged allegiance to him as successor," says Khaddam.

"Notable exceptions were Generals Ali Douba, Ibrahim Safi, and Adnan Makhlouf. Additionally, some members of the Regional Command flocked to him in support. We felt concerned. I discussed the matter with Izz al-Din Naser, Lt Gen. Hikmat al-Shihabi, and Brig. Gen. Ali Douba.

Read more: Ali Douba: Hafez al-Assad's spy chief and most feared man in Syria

"Our collective aim was to halt Rifaat's trajectory, communicate with the officers, and reassure them that President al-Assad was well, with no threat to his life."

"Simultaneously, military intelligence smuggled anti-tank weapons from military units outside Damascus into the city. These weapons were supplied to the Republican Guard and the military intelligence unit for potential use in case Rifaat made any moves. At that time, his forces surrounded Damascus, controlling all major routes.

"The army command mobilised several brigades, positioning them to the outskirts of Damascus, surrounding the Saraya al-Difaa (Defence Brigades) and putting the air force on high alert at the Al-Dumayr airbase (Al-Dumayr Military Airport)."

A witness recounted that Douba instructed Ghazi Kanaan (who was in charge of Syrian troops in Lebanon) to transport thousands of soldiers discreetly in ambulances from Lebanon to the General Staff HQ in Damascus, which was encircled by Rifaat's forces.

Douba confronted an officer affiliated with Rifaat in the General Staff building and "reprimanded him for not following orders due to loyalty to Rifaat".

Among the officers was Assef Shawkat from the Storming Unit, who later married al-Assad's daughter, Bushra, solidifying his influence until he was killed in an explosion at the start of the Syrian conflict in mid-2012.

After more than a week, al-Assad left intensive care. Senior leaders were summoned, including Prime Minister Abdul Rauf al-Kasm, Assistant Secretary-General Abdullah al-Ahmar, Foreign Minister Khaddam, Defence Minister Mustafa Tlass, and Assistant Secretary-General Zuhair Masharqa.

"Upon our arrival, we were informed of a decision to name these individuals to manage the country's affairs during (President al-Assad's) absence from work. Al-Kasm was appointed as head, based on the constitution, which stipulates that the prime minister assumes presidential duties in the president's absence from work."

The time to pounce

That evening, a fully equipped battalion from the Republican Guard roamed Umayyad Square in central Damascus, firing shots in the air and raising concerns.

"Gen. al-Shihabi and I were worried that Col. Rifaat might take a reckless step, so we agreed to contact him and visit him at his home in the Mezzeh district to calm him down," recalls Khaddam.

"We were warmly received and discussed the situation in the region, its dangers to Syria, and the necessity of maintaining the regime's stability. We emphasised that there should be no opportunity for others, especially since President al-Assad was still in a difficult stage.

"At this point, he (Rifaat) emotionally expressed his dissatisfaction with President Hafez's disregard for him and the appointment of individuals in the committee whom he considered loyalists.

"To that, I replied, 'The President chose based on positions, not individuals: Masharqa as the party's Assistant Secretary-General, Tlass as the Minister of Defence. If he wanted effectiveness, he should have appointed Lt. Gen. Hikmat al-Shihabi, the Chief of Staff responsible for military matters, while Gen. Tlass was occupied with other matters unrelated to the army.

"The President wanted to convey that he chose officials responsible for their sectors. According to the constitution, al-Kasm is tasked with exercising presidential duties, and this matter has nothing to do with the roles of individuals but their positions.' (Rifaat) remained tense because he considered himself the president's heir and the strongest in the regime."

Gen. Shihabi spoke extensively during the meeting about the situation and "the danger of division at a time when enemies are waiting for such a situation to pounce on the regime".

Khaddam said: "(It seems like) you want to contribute to the decision. We can discuss all matters in the leadership, and when we reach a decision that requires an announcement, we will publish it in the name of the committee."

This proposal was considered a suitable way out and was accepted, yet despite President al-Assad's improvement, Rifaat continued trying to attract party members and trade unions. Meanwhile, his face began to adorn Syrian city walls.

Tensions with the US

During that period, Lebanon experienced heightened tensions. US and French forces were on the ground, with US forces shelling Syrian soldiers in Lebanon.

"I held discussions with Lt. Gen. Hikmat and Brig. Gen. Douba," says Khaddam. "It was our collective assessment that refraining from a response would exacerbate the aggression and undermine the morale of our forces, so we resolved to take action.

"Lt. Gen. Hikmat directed our forces to utilise their air defence weaponry against aircraft flying over our positions. Indeed, an American plane was downed, and the American pilot was captured.

"In the following days, the US ambassador conveyed President (Ronald) Reagan's intention to dispatch his representative — Donald Rumsfeld — to Syria and Lebanon. Given President Hafez's illness, the meeting would involve Col. Rifaat and I.

"In a swift and unequivocal response, I told him that Syria was a sovereign state with established institutions, that the representation of Syria is vested in the foreign minister, and that if they insisted on meeting Col. Rifaat, we would categorically reject the hosting of Mr Rumsfeld and deny him a visa to enter Syrian territory."

"If they chose to meet me and then met Col. Rifaat once in Syria, both he (the ambassador) and Mr Rumsfeld would be escorted in a vehicle and dropped off in Lebanon.' The ambassador's face turned yellow. He was offended. He uttered, 'I shall convey this to my government.'"

The next day, the ambassador told Khaddam that Washington's directive was for an exclusive meeting with him. "At this juncture, I extended a welcome," he recalls.

When Hafez fell ill in November 1983, it seemed like Rifaat's moment had finally arrived. He intensified his efforts to woo army officers, summoning them to his office. Most pledged allegiance to him.

Go ahead, stage a coup!

After President Hafez al-Assad returned home, efforts were made to isolate Rifaat al-Assad within military circles. Brig. Generals Ali Douba, Ali Haidar, Shafiq Fayadh, and Ibrahim al-Safi conducted inspections of military formations, says Khaddam.

"During a visit to one of the brigades in the al-Zabadani region and amid a luncheon hosted by the brigade's commander, who was reportedly associated with Col. Rifaat al-Assad, discussions ensued about the situation and the mutiny orchestrated by the colonel, with accusations of conspiracy levelled against him.

"Brig. Gen. Shafiq Fayadh offered particularly harsh criticism. That evening, a regional command meeting took place. Making my way there, I was taken aback to find numerous soldiers linked to the Defence Companies strategically stationed in the courtyard and corridors."

Inside the meeting hall, members gathered. "After the meeting commenced, Col. Rifaat made a dramatic entrance, clad in military uniform, gripping a bundle of papers. With evident nervousness, he sought permission to address the assembly."

"In a charged speech, he declared, 'The army is on high alert. Tanks are armed. Officers stand ready for orders. Traitors and conspirators lurk within our ranks: Ali Douba, Ali Haidar, Shafiq Fayadh, Ibrahim al-Safi, and Adnan Badr al-Hassan.'"

"The command must decide to expel them from the party and send them to trial. They have slandered and insulted me. My dignity is entwined with the president's. I implore an immediate vote on appointing me head of the military bureau.'"

"Deputy Regional Secretary Zuhair al-Masharqa put the proposal to a vote and voted on it with Tawfiq Salha, Said Hamadi, and Wahib Tanous. However, the proposal was defeated, intensifying (Rifaat) al-Assad's fury."

"Tlass attempted to assuage Col. Rifaat's anger, saying, 'Abu Duraid, these people are your comrades and colleagues. Today, you may differ, but tomorrow, reconciliation is possible. I implore you to put an end to this discord.'

In response, Col. Rifaat became noticeably angry.

"He abruptly stood up, indicating his intention to leave. I shouted, 'Sit down, Rifaat. I have something to tell you. These tanks do not belong to you or your father. This army is not a tool for committing thuggery or heinous acts.'"

"'If you want to stage a coup, go ahead! You people always try to stage a coup whenever one of you has some tanks at your disposal. A coup is not a joke, Rifaat. It results in heads rolling.' "

"At this juncture, he stated, 'I don't want to stage a coup, nor did I threaten to. I have filed a complaint with the command.' I responded, 'All the conversations are recorded.'"

Subsequently, he calmed down, and the command continued with its agenda.

"After the meeting concluded, and upon my return home, I informed President Hafez al-Assad of the proceedings. His response was, 'If he wants to stage a coup, let him go ahead and stage one!'"

It was not long before the president called Khaddam again.

"He said, 'I questioned Zuhair Masharqa about the meeting - he insisted it was normal and calm.' I responded, 'What he told you is inaccurate.'"

I urged the president to verify the facts, suggesting he consult with Tlass and al-Shihabi or listen to the recorded tape.

"The president, in disbelief, asked, 'How can Zuhair be such a shameless liar?' I said I hoped he got to the bottom of this." Thirty minutes later, Hafez called again. "I spoke to Mustafa and Hikmat. Both corroborated your account. How can Zuhair Masharqa audaciously lie to me like this?" the president asked.

"I didn't mince my words," Khaddam recalls, telling the president that "the party's problem is that it has many bastards in its upper echelons".

Rifaat and the partition scheme

Tensions within the nation continued. An officer affiliated with the Defence Companies sought an urgent audience with the president and then disclosed a purported plan by Rifaat to sequester the coastal region and portions of Homs, Hama, and Idlib provinces to establish a separate state.

Hafez knew he needed to take decisive action. He considered ending the dispute and removing his brother but knew that the use of force would lead to bloodshed, which could spell an end to the regime, so he opted for a judicious approach.

Intermediaries, including Hafez and Rifaat's other brother, Jamil al-Assad, and Maj. Gen. Naji Jamil, and commander of the Popular Army, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Al-Ali engaged in diplomatic exchanges between the warring pair to find a solution.

At one point, Jamil al-Assad even proposed that he, Hafez, and Rifaat all live and work together in the presidential palace without their respective wives, who were considered instigators of the discord. Al-Ali dismissed the notion derisively. Nobody was contemplating power-sharing with the president, he said.

Khaddam recalls a palace officer "indicating concerted attempts to persuade the 'Murshidies' officers to disavow Rifaat", with Mohammed Ibrahim Al-Ali reportedly actively involved. "The spiritual guide of the 'Murshidies' had already issued a directive for them to renounce Rifaat and maintain allegiance to President Hafez."

Three vice presidents

In early March 1984, President Hafez al-Assad invited Khaddam to visit him. "I have decided to appoint you as a vice president alongside Rifaat al-Assad and Zuhair al-Masharqa," he told Khaddam. "You will be responsible for foreign policy. I have decided to resolve Rifaat's predicament and remove him from the military."

Khaddam paused, then expressed his agreement, with one condition: that he be designated as the first vice president. "President al-Assad raised the consideration of Zuhair al-Masharqa's previous role as deputy regional secretary. I said, 'Masharqa wasn't even in school when I was secretary of the party's division in Baniyas.'

"Additionally, for the state's sake, I was willing to collaborate with individuals such as Maj. Generals Abdul Rahman Khelifawi, Mahmoud al-Ayoubi, Muhammad Ali al-Halabi, and Abdul Raouf al-Kasm, whose utmost wish was to shake hands with me. Therefore, I decline this proposal.

"And if my work in the foreign ministry would pose a hindrance, I can also renounce all my positions and retire in my home.' He replied: "You are right; you will be the first vice president."

A few days later, the president summoned the regional command and told them of his decision to appoint "three vice presidents – Rifaat, Masharqa, and Khaddam".

After the meeting, Khaddam sought a private audience with Hafez. "Given our prior agreement, I asked if anything had changed. He said there had been objections to my appointment, with certain military officers advocating for Rifaat instead.

"I said military officers were expressing opposition to Rifaat's appointment in any capacity. 'Nevertheless, if you choose to designate Rifaat as first vice president, I am prepared to withdraw from the entire process, resigning from all my party and government positions and retiring in my home.'"

Hafez then proposed that Khaddam become regional secretary for the party, an offer that was politely refused. "I said, 'I have no desire for positions, whether within the party or the state. I have dedicated numerous years working alongside you, exerting my utmost efforts for the betterment of our country. I believe that should suffice. Perhaps Rifaat would be a more valuable asset to you and the nation.'

"With that, I stood up, said 'I'm leaving', and promptly returned home." Moments later, Hafez called. "Why can't you take a joke? I have signed the decree. You will all be sworn in this evening."

The decree delineated his responsibilities, which encompassed the oversight of foreign policy, including issuing instructions and directives to the foreign ministry and submitting reports on foreign policy issues to the president.

After President Hafez returned home from the hospital, efforts were made to isolate Rifaat within military circles. Brig. Generals Ali Douba, Ali Haidar, Shafiq Fayadh, and Ibrahim al-Safi investigated military formations.

Time to topple the regime

On 30 March 1984, Rifaat reacted by instructing loyalist troops to enter Damascus and seize control of the government. His forces positioned themselves at key locations throughout the city and its surrounds, selecting vantage points for shelling.

The pro-Rifaat forces engaged in clashes with those loyal to the president, including figures like Ali Haidar from the commandos and Adnan Makhlouf from the presidential guard - forces specially assembled to counteract Rifaat's influence.

According to Patrick Seale, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, if the two sides had fought in Damascus, the carnage would have been colossal, and the regime's image tarnished beyond repair. "Hafez had made the rope loose enough, giving Rifaat enough room to hang himself," said Seale.

Dressed in military fatigues, the president accompanied his eldest son, Bassel, who served as his father's right hand until his unfortunate death in 1994 in a car accident, to Rifaat's military command centre in Mezzeh.

In his book Three Months that Shook Syria, Tlass recalls how Brig. Gen. Makhlouf told him that the president "had autonomously journeyed to his brother's headquarters in Mezzeh" and that, before departing, he had "issued an order to Makhlouf that if he did not return within an hour, Makhlouf should instruct me to execute the plan and confront Rifaat's forces".

Khaddam recalls what happened. Confronting his younger brother, the president said: "Do you want to topple the regime? Here I am. I am the regime." Then, he offered Rifaat a safe way out to a self-selected place of exile.

An exit to save face

In the early days of April 1984, the then Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac — who would later become the president of France — extended an invitation to Khaddam.

"When I informed President Hafez about the invitation, he said, 'We want to find a way out of the country for Rifaat. I think Rifaat should be the one to go, not you.'"

"I responded, 'I have no problem with that decision. I will request the Minister of Foreign Affairs to convene with the French ambassador and communicate to him that Vice-President Rifaat is designated to undertake the forthcoming visit.'"

Indeed, Khaddam informed the Minister about the situation and the request. The next day, the ambassador came to the Foreign Ministry and informed them that the invitation was extended to Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam."

After informing Hafez of the French response, the president said, 'We will facilitate an invitation for Rifaat from the Soviet Union.' This was subsequently made, and Rifaat accepted.

He wanted two officers — Shafiq Fayadh and Ali Haider — to accompany him, and permission for this was granted. Maj. Gen. Naji Jamil and Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa were also part of the delegation.

"A substantial monetary arrangement was a stipulation in the settlement (between Hafez and Rifaat)," recalls Khaddam. "According to my information, he received around $500mn, a substantial portion of which constituted a loan from Libya."

Before leaving Damascus, Rifaat told friends: "It seems that my brother no longer loves me. When he sees me, his face turns grouchy. I am not an agent for the United States and did not conspire against my country.

"If I were imprudent, I could have caused substantial harm, even decimating an entire city. But I love this place. My steadfast supporters have stood here by me for the past 18 years, and the community has embraced us. They love us, and now those commandos want to expel us."

On 8 May 1984, a delegation comprising officers, including Rifaat, embarked on a journey to Moscow for a period of respite. After, Rifaat proceeded to Geneva. All other members of the delegation returned to Damascus, except Maj. Gen. Naji Jamil, who stayed with Rifaat.

Dealing with pro-Rifaat remnants

"President Hafez did not implement tangible measures to eliminate Rifaat's loyalists within the armed forces, particularly within the Defence Companies. Loyalists retained their positions, except those who accompanied him abroad."

This sparked "apprehension and queries" among those who confronted Rifaat, recalls Khaddam, standing up to him in defence of the president, particularly during the period of his ailment.

"In early July 1984, as I was returning from Bloudan in my car, I saw a vehicle on the right side of the road atop a slope beyond the Saboura area. Directly opposite, it was one of the command centres belonging to the Defence Companies.

"Upon nearing the location, a formidable explosion occurred, leading to the rupture of my car's tyres. Undeterred, I persevered, driving on the rims for approximately 300 metres.

"Eventually, we came to a stop. My wife and I transferred to one of the accompanying vehicles for our journey home. The force of the blast propelled the engine of the exploded car over 200 metres."

The car that was blown up belonged to a lawyer who lived near the office of Defence Companies, which was implicated in the remote-controlled detonation, but no one was ever held accountable for the incident.

Following Rifaat's departure from Syria, an expulsion list was issued targeting several officers from the Defence Companies, ejecting them from the armed forces. Additionally, Gen. Hikmat Ibrahim – renowned for his allegiance to the president – was appointed as the new commander of the Defence Companies.

Read more: Hafez al-Assad "shocked" Kissinger by agreeing to separation line

Hafez had made the rope loose enough, giving Rifaat enough room to hang himself.

Patrick Seale, British author

A brother's status in exile

On 5 January 1985, the Regional Conference was convened, with lengthy deliberations on "the Rifaat crisis". Advocates defended him, but many were vehemently critical.

"The prevailing ambience suggested an imminent ousting of the Rifaat faction from regional command," recalls Khaddam. "Nevertheless, the notable astonishment for me and those who opposed Rifaat in support of President Hafez was the president's unwavering commitment to his brother, preserving his partisan legitimacy."

Al-Assad called Khaddam to a meeting in his office and shocked his staunch ally with his plans for his exiled brother. According to Khaddam, the conversation went as follows:

Al-Assad: Rifaat's tenure is almost over, and he won't be returning to Syria. I intend to retain him in a leadership role for a specific duration, after which he will be ousted from both the party and the state.

Khaddam: This decision will yield negative consequences, particularly for you. He defied you, yet you rewarded him, and now you intend to maintain his position. How will our colleagues perceive this development? They will question the potential fate awaiting any one of them should they commit a transgression akin to Rifaat's.

Al-Assad: I summoned you to implore you to assemble our military leaders and persuade them to approach this matter without undue sensitivity.

Khaddam: I disagree with this decision, so how do I persuade them?

Al-Assad: Certain circumstances necessitate this approach. I am fully aware of Rifaat's actions, and he merits the most severe punishment. However, resorting to force against him would result in the loss of thousands of lives and the devastation of the country.

The objective is to eradicate the sources of discord before addressing him definitively. Therefore, I implore you to engage with them, striving to pacify the situation in collaboration with Lt. Gen. Hikmat.

When the two spoke, it transpired that Lt. Gen. Hikmat shared the same reservations as Khaddam. "I reached out to the officers with whom I was tasked to convene, namely Ali Douba, Ibrahim Al-Safi, Shafiq Fayadh, Ali Al-Saleh, and Ali Haydar."

They arranged to meet in Lt. Gen. Hikmat's office during a conference lunch break. "Their response was fervent. Some expressed their discontent forcefully. Following an extended deliberation, we successfully diffused the tension, and subsequently, we returned to the conference."

Rifaat remained as vice president within the regional command despite not actively participating in meetings. He returned to Syria twice – initially in 1992, following the wishes of his late mother, who had passed away that year, then in 1994, to extend condolences to his brother Hafez upon the death of his son Bassel.

Despite being relieved of his military role the same year, he retained the vice presidency for a period before eventually being discharged.

"In my analysis of President Hafez's stance, retaining his brother in the regional command was related to inheritance," says Khaddam. "Following the conclusion of Rifaat's responsibilities, he faced expulsion from the party and dismissal from the vice presidency."

A last meeting between allies

On 1 October 1987, almost 13 years before Khaddam's last meeting with the president he served so diligently, a decree was issued to establish a government, with agricultural engineer Mahmoud al-Zoubi appointed its head.

Al-Zoubi, also the Speaker of the People's Council, remained prime minister until 13 March 2000 – the longest tenure for any head of government since Syria's independence. Throughout that period, Khaddam remained vice president.

On 6 December 1999, President Hafez contacted Khaddam and invited him to his residence. "Our meeting lasted from 8 pm until 1 am," he recalls.

"It was our last meeting. His ailment and weariness were palpable. Each time I attempted to depart, he insisted on me staying, almost as if he sensed it would be our last meeting. Despite his ailing state, he remained affable, and we talked about our younger years at great length."

Talk then turned to Syria's internal landscape and its escalating challenges. "Acknowledging the accuracy of my observations about the state of the country, he said, 'I will initiate corrective measures. The current state of affairs is no longer tenable.' I concurred."

Hafez asked for Khaddam's expectations for the imminent visit of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Syria "I said, 'I expect her to propose a meeting between you and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. However, I don't believe that you will agree to it.' To this, he responded, 'After all this time, that's not possible.'"

Khaddam suggested that, with this probability in mind, the Americans may settle for the Syrian foreign minister engaging with his Israeli counterpart. "Do you perceive this as advantageous or detrimental to us?"

Khaddam said the Israelis and Syrians met several times during the Madrid Conference in 1991 and subsequent engagements but added that "assessing the situation hinges on evaluating our interests... a comprehensive assessment can only emerge after your meeting with Albright to discern its implications".

The two men discussed any proposed meeting with the Israelis – what objectives they were pursuing, whether they were prepared to address Syrian demands for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, or whether it was a tactical manoeuvre.

At 1am, Khaddam bid his farewell and left. Three months later, in early March 2000, the regional command convened. Notes describe the president's deteriorating appearance and demeanour.

"His complexion had visibly paled, revealing signs of weakness. He commenced speaking with hesitation, saying, 'I have resolved to initiate a corrective measure. The state of the government is dire, and the condition of the country is precarious.'"

Khaddam says he sought to remind Hafez that they had not discussed the detail of this in December, nor reached a consensus on its parameters, but Abdul Rauf al-Kasm, who was standing nearby, whispered, 'Don't engage in an argument – he's fatigued', so Khaddam heeded his counsel and kept silent.

Al-Assad continued, saying: "We will alter the government." He then momentarily forgot the name of the incoming prime minister. Inquiring about the proposed appointment, he turned to Dr Suleiman Qaddah, who responded, 'Muhammed Mustafa Mero, the Governor of Aleppo.'

This shocked the assembled members, Khaddam says, because Mero "had been relieved of his duties as governor and retired him only two weeks earlier".

Various other ministerial appointments were mentioned, and no one argued because everyone realised that the decisions had already been made. This marked the end of al-Zoubi's government. He became completely dedicated to the regional command until his suicide two months later.

Al-Assad passed away on 10 June 2000. Khaddam endorsed decrees nominating his son Bashar al-Assad for the presidency, but in 2005, Khaddam moved to Paris and declared his defection.

Khaddam died in 2020, at the age of 87. A year later, in 2021, Rifaat made the return journey to Damascus, at the age of 84.

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