Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s exiled uncle, a former regime insider accused of carrying out a massacre in 1982, says he wants to oversee a peaceful transition of power in his homeland.
On Sunday, Rifaat al-Assad took charge of a new opposition movement in exile. Afterwards, in an interview with AFP and Le Monde, he urged Arab and world powers to negotiate his nephew’s safe departure from power.
But Rifaat’s former close ties to the regime and his current gilded life -- since quitting Syria in 1984 he has lived in luxury properties in London, Paris and Marbella -- may undermine his appeal to other opposition groups.
“The solution would be that the Arab states guarantee Bashar al-Assad’s security so he can resign and be replaced by someone with financial backing who can look after Bashar's people after his resignation,” he argued.
“It should be someone from the family ... me, or someone else,” he said.
Since March, Assad’s regime has been violently repressing a popular revolt against his rule, a campaign which the United Nations says has left at least 3,500 people dead and which has drawn international condemnation.
Opposition groups have been organizing to form a credible alternative government. Rifaat’s National Democratic Council is led by close allies from his own party and former members of the ruling Baath Party.
Rifaat al-Assad, aged 73 or 74, is the younger brother of Syria’s former dictator Hafez al-Assad and was a feared figure who commanded his internal security forces in the 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1982 these forces attacked the town of Hama to put down an Islamist revolt, in an attack which historians and rights groups such as Amnesty International estimate killed between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians.
Then, in 1983, with his brother receiving treatment for heart problems, he tried to seize power himself. The attempt failed, Hafez recovered, and the next year Rifaat left Syria for a long life in well-heeled exile.
Speaking to AFP on Sunday, Rifaat dismissed reports that he had a leading role in the Hama massacre as a “myth” and insisted he is now best placed to bring the latest crisis to an end.
“The regime is ready to go but needs guarantees not just of the personal safety of its members, but also that there will not be civil war after it is gone,” he said, warning of trouble between Syria's religious communities.
The Assad clan are members of Syria’s Alawite minority, which controls most senior posts in the security forces, while the bulk of the population are from the Sunni tradition.
“We need a kind of international or Arab alliance ... that could enter into talks with the government itself ... and be a real guarantor of the concessions that the regime would make,” he said.
Rifaat suggested that Britain, France, Russia or Iran play a role.
He was also dismissive of the other opposition groups, branding the main Syrian National Council of Paris-based Burhan Ghaliun “a band of Muslim Brothers hiding behind someone who is unknown in Syria.”
He said the internal opposition groups were ready for compromise, but added they would be unable to negotiate a truce without outside help.