Rifaat Al-Assad was born on 22 August 1937 in Qardaha, in northwestern Syria. He is the younger brother of the former President of Syria, Hafez Al-Assad, and the uncle of the incumbent President Bashar Al-Assad. He was a member of the Central Commandment of the Baath party, commander of the elite defense troops of the Syrian regime, the « Defense Brigades » , from 1971 to 1984, and Vice-President from 1984 to 1998.
Rifaat Al-Assad allegedly took part in the planification and the carrying out of the massacres of Tadmor and Hama in the 1980s, in the context of the non-international armed conflict opposing government troops to the Fighting Vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On 27 June 1980, the Defense Brigades, under his command, allegedly entered Tadmor prison (or Palmyra prison) where were detained prisoners suspected of having ties with the opposition. The troops allegedly killed as many as 1000 prisoners. In February 1982, government forces, including the Defense Brigades, laid siege to the city of Hama, following its takeover by the Fighting Vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood. Government forces surrounded and shelled the city with heavy artillery and tanks. Crimes against civilians were numerous and continued throughout the month of February 1982. 10’000 to 40’000 people have allegedly been killed, mainly civilians. Reportedly, whole areas of the city were destroyed, including a part of the old town.
Perceived by many as the probable successor to his older brother, he was later suspected of preparing a coup against the latter and forced into exile in 1984. Since then, he has lived in various European countries where he has invested his substantial personal fortune.