If Only The Bunglers of Damascus Had Listened

Had the rulers of Syria heeded Rifaat Al-Assad’s advice, would Syria and the wider Middle East have been different?

This article is not a profile of Rifaat Al-Assad, brother of the late Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, and the Uncle of Bashar Al-Assad, the current President of Syria. It is not an exhaustive historical account of the events in Syria. This would require several voluminous books.

The intention behind this article is to set the record straight and to correct the distortions of Rifaat’s role in Syria. Though a military man of distinction, Rifaat was a visionary and a reformer. His zeal for democratic change and reforms in Syria had inevitably put him in collision with the old guards. He opted to leave Syria in 1984 to avoid further conflicts and to save Syria from the ensuing chaos.

When discussing Syria’s turbulent history one cannot ignore the critical role played by Rifaat al-Assad who for many in the West remains an enigmatic figure.

Syria in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the first country to face the violent Islamic extremists. Rifaat defeated them once and for all. But very few writers and historians bothered to write about Rifaat’s strategic vision and reforms.

A lot has been written and said about Rifaat’s role in standing up to and eradicating the Islamic insurgents’ revolt in the early 1980s. One former Lebanese Minister said to me once when I phoned to thank him for taking part in a political discussion program I was presenting some years ago on Arab News Network (ANN) “if we had two or three leaders like Rifaat al-Assad in the Arab World, we would have never heard of the likes of Bin Laden and Al Zarqawi”.

In this brief article I focus on some of the strategic mistakes that the bunglers of Damascus had made simply by refusing to heed the voice of logic and reason.

Peace with Israel

After the October 1973 war with Israel, Rifaat Al-Assad called for immediate peace negotiations with Israel to regain the Golan Heights. Egypt entered into serious negotiations with Israel and a peace treaty was signed. Egypt got back the occupied Sinai. But the regime in Syria refused to listen.

Rifaat al-Assad supported President Sadat peace efforts which resulted in the full return of the Sinai to Egypt. Had they listened at the time, Syria would have peaceful relations with Israel and through Syria’s influence Lebanon would also have reached agreement with Israel. What do we have now?

The Golan is still occupied and the state of war has not ended. We have tensions on the Lebanese- Israeli borders. Worst of all we have the meddling by Iran which obstructs any moves towards peace with Israel. He still firmly believes that peace with Israel is achievable in the context of UN Resolutions which call for full withdrawal of Israel to pre 1967 borders.

Syria and Lebanon

Rifaat Al-Assad voiced his opposition to Syrian interference in Lebanese internal affairs. It is worth noting that he objected to the deployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon in 1976. Some 30 years later Rifaat Al-Assad was proved right and the regime was proved wrong.

In Feb 2004 in a broadcast on ANN (Arab News Network) Rifaat Al-Assad declared that the Syrian armed forces had accomplished their mission in Lebanon and demanded their immediate withdrawal. The regime in Damascus dithered, fumbled and stumbled yet as usual failed to take Rifaat’s advice. Barely a few months after the assassination of Lebanon former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops in humiliating compliance with UN Resolution 1559. Syria paid a heavy price from Resolution 1559. Had they listened to Rifaat Al-Assad, this humiliating retreat would have been avoided.

On the 5th of February 2008 he condemned the campaign of assassinations in Lebanon which was aimed at destabilizing Lebanon and destroy its fragile democracy.

Rifaat al-Assad a man of vision was able to read the geo-political developments that were taking place in the region. Even as far back as the early 1980s he was against putting all the Syrian eggs in the Soviet basket and demanded balanced and sound relations with all super powers including the USA and Britain.

The Unholy alliance with Iran is a strategic mistake

He also advised against building close alliances with Iran. He posed the question in 1984 to his brother Hafez Al-Assad, the late president of Syria: How can we justify closer relationship with an extremist regime in Tehran at a time when Syria is fighting extremism at home?

Rifaat still maintains that Syria must not strengthen its relations with Iran at the expense of its ties with its Arab neighbours. Rifaat Al-Assad is a close friend and supporter of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He always urged the Syrian Regime not to sacrifice its relations with its Arab brothers in favour of Iran which has its own agenda that does not serve Syria or the Arab world. On numerous occasions he urged Damascus to have warmer relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Both countries stood by Syria in its hour of need.

In 2008 he provided a powerful media platform through Arab News Network Satellite Station (ANN) to the Ahwazi people who have been living under Iranian military occupation since 1925. Before 2008 very few people heard of Ahwaz or cared about Ahwaz. Now the subject has received extensive publicity and Ahwaz has become a topic that other media outlets are willing to discuss.

In 2005 Rifaat al-Assad launched his initiative for “national reconciliation and reforms in Syria”. The Regime has again failed to grasp this important opportunity. As far as I am aware this initiative remains on the table.

Are the bunglers in Damascus listening?

Had they listened, the world would have been a better place and Syria would be democratic and living in peace with its neighbours.