Rifaat Assad, brother of late Syrian leader Hafez Assad and uncle of current president Bashar Assad, has announced he intends to return to Syria in the coming days, according to London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Rifaat, who has spent more than 20 years in exile in Paris, said he decided to return as “Syria is in trouble, and I want to take part in saving it.”
A spokesman for Rifaat said he plans to revive his political and national role in Syria in order to establish a “just, free and peaceful society” through the “Special National Union” - a political list headed by Rifaat Assad.
Rifaat’s spokesman said no timetable has been announced, but that plans for his return were in their final stages and he could make it in time to take part in the June 6 meeting of the Ba’ath Party’s 10th Convention.
President Bashar Assad is expected to use the convention to announce far-reaching reforms and to introduce new blood into the party.
The spokesman said Rifaat’s return is not being coordinated with Syrian officials, who have refused to respond to the announcement.
He added that Rifaat, who saw himself as a successor to his brother, has no aspirations in coming back, apart from a desire to help “strengthen democracy and freedom.”
“Syria is in a dangerous position and needs help because it’s democracy is flawed,” the spokesman said.
He said Rifaat intends to run in the Syrian elections.
Banished after botched revolt
Rifaat Assad, 68, was banished from Syria to Moscow in 1984 following a failed attempt to revolt against his brother Hafez, who was in ailing health at the time. He later settled in Spain, where he established the ANN news agency.
In 1992 he returned to Syria following the death of his mother. However, in 1998, as Bashar Assad was being groomed for the presidency, Rifaat was denied the title of vice-president and left the country one again.
For years he has been deemed a potential threat to Bashar’s inheritance of his father’s regime, but when Hafez Assad died in June 2000, Rifaat refrained from taking any major steps to prevent Bashar from assuming power.
Now he is returning to Syria, and it is safe to assume the authorities will keep a close eye on him to prevent upheaval.
“It is not certain the authorities would let him in (to Syria), and, in any case, he is in poor health,” Tel Aviv University Professor Eyal Zisser said. “This is not an age in which you embark on a political career, and the foundation of his political strength has apparently been eroded. However, this move definitely projects on President Bashar Assad’s weakness.”