Bashar Soprano of Syria

Compared to the Assad clan, the Mafia is a bunch of boy scouts.

By LENNY BEN DAVID
May 15, 2011 23:24
Bashar Assad in Syria

Assad 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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I confess. I never watched The Sopranos. I didn’t need to; I already had my fill of blood, murder, mayhem, fratricide and evil by observing the Assad family saga since the early 1970s, when Hafez Assad carried out his coup in Syria. I admit that as an intern reporter for the Near East Report, I predicted that, as was the way of Syrian leaders up to that point, Assad’s tenure would be brief and would probably end with acute lead poisoning. Of course, he went on to lead Syria for almost 30 years, and then passed on the gavel – and stiletto, bomb and pistol – to his son Bashar in 2000.

Bashar Assad wasn’t supposed to be the successor. That was the role intended for the favorite son, army officer Basil, who died in a car crash in 1994. But no death in Syria or Lebanon is accepted as natural or accidental, and it was suggested that Basil was killed for his role in suppressing the Syrian- Lebanese drug trade in the Bekaa Valley. Ironically, that massive drug trade helped make Syria’s ruling elite wealthy, and today the Bekaa, now under Hezbollah rule, still continues to fill the veins of addicts around the world. Money laundering, weapons and drug dealing are very lucrative businesses for the Assads and their associates.

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The Assad regime was clearly behind Sunday’s incursion into Israeli-held Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. Besides serving as a diversion from the ongoing repression, the gathering of hundreds of “demonstrators,“ purportedly Palestinians, could only have been organized by Assad’s government in collusion with Hamas, headquartered in Damascus. No gathering of more than five people is tolerated in Syria, not to mention the busing of hundreds across a country under martial law.

Bashar's coronation in 2000 didn’t go over well with his brutal uncle, Rifaat, who over the years had sought to grab the Syrian reins. When president Hafez suffered a heart attack in 1984, Rifaat’s large private army, the Saraya al-Difa guard, began to seize strategic sites in Damascus. Hafez pulled himself out of his sick bed, rallied his loyalists and banished Rifaat to Europe.

Rifaat had served his brother loyally just a few years earlier, when he was dispatched to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in Hama in 1982. In 1980, in response to an attempted assassination of the president, Rifaat’s army massacred 1,000 Brotherhood members held in the dreaded Tadmor Prison.

Rifaat’s war on the Brotherhood was ruthless. Tom Friedman described in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem how “throughout the next year, surprise searches of Hama, Aleppo, and other Muslim Brotherhood strongholds became a weekly event. During these roundups, curbside executions were regularly carried out.”

By 1982, Friedman wrote, Assad “decided to end his Hama problem once and for all... playing by his own rules... Hama Rules.”



Friedman details the horrors of Rifaat’s troops torturing, pulverizing, gassing and massacring Hama’s residents. Telephone and telegraph links “between Hama and the rest of humanity” were cut. Directing deadly tank fire, artillery and attack helicopters, Rifaat’s troops carried out his order, “I don’t want to see a single house not burning.” Rifaat later boasted to a Lebanese businessman that his troops had killed 38,000 people in Hama, Friedman reported.

After his exile, Rifaat reportedly tried cozying up to the Americans and purchased a mansion in Mclean, Virginia, not far from Teddy Kennedy’s home. Apparently this was too much for Hafez. Rifaat’s home was torched by arsonists, and Rifaat was never known to step on American soil again. He resides in Britain today.

The Hafez-Rifaat homicidal partnership is a family tradition, now bequeathed to President Bashar and his brother, Maher, the commander of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division. That division has been tasked with taming Deraa by any means necessary, including Hama Rules. Deraa is where the popular uprisings began in February.

Why does Deraa have the distinction of becoming the new center for rebellion? The Turkish press revealed the answers: “Ten children living in the Syrian city of Deraa were inspired by the Arab Spring and wrote an expression of freedom on walls,” reported the Hurriyet daily. “They were arrested by the intelligence agency [headed by Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawqat]. Families of the children applied to the Office of the Governor, but that didn’t help. They went to the intelligence offices. That didn’t help either. Finally, the Office of the Governor was raided and the children were taken back. There was a problem, however: Some of the nails of the children had been removed, and some had been raped. The families went ballistic, and their tribes were outraged. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, burned down the intelligence headquarters and the phone company belonging to [Assad’s billionaire cousin] Rami Makhlouf. This is how the fear threshold against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria was passed.”

Besides running Syria’s government with an iron fist, the Assad clan and its associates control Syria’s media, army, phone companies, intelligence service, tourism services and banks. They’re also involved in smuggling, the drug trade and arms dealing in and out of the region. Lebanon, a regional financial center and smuggling hub, is important for Syria’s kleptocrats, and Syrian hegemony in Lebanon is critical for the clan’s financial success.

If the Assad associates are not blood relatives or from the Alawite sect, then they’re likely connected through marriage.

Both Hafez and Rifaat were married to women from the wealthy Makhlouf clan, and the Makhloufs play leading roles in the economy and the army.

Another one of Rifaat’s four wives is the sister-in-law of Saudi King Abdullah, which reflects some of the long-playing intrigues between Syria and Saudi Arabia, possibly including the 2005 assassination of Saudi favorite and Hezbollah/ Iran nemesis Rafik Hariri.

One of the world’s leading arms dealers and drug traffickers, Syrian Monzer al-Kassar, had close relations with Syrian officials. His father, Muhammad, was an official in Hafez Assad’s government. His wife is the sister of a former Syrian intelligence head. One of Rifaat’s daughters was reportedly Monzer Kassar’s mistress. Of his many passports, one was Syrian, NBC Dateline reported. His name has been tied to the Lockerbie terrorist bombing and even to the Iran- Contra weapons deal. Kassar was also a close friend and quartermaster for terrorist leader Abu Abbas, leader of the Achille Lauro cruise boat attack. Kassar was reported to have served as liaison between the Syrian government and Argentine president Carlos Saul Menem, and his name was raised as a suspect in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Center in Buenos Aires. Kassar was finally arrested in a sting operation to sell arms to South American terrorists. He was convicted in a US federal court in 2008.

US and British officials have suggested that Bashar Assad could still emerge as a “reformer.”

But the systemic corruption, brutality and evil of Syria’s leadership is well beyond reform. The cancerous ganglia of the Assad clan, growing and metastasizing for 40 years, must be excised, even at the risk of losing the patient.

The writer served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today, as a public affairs consultant, he blogs at www.lennybendavid.com

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