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, the commander of the elite defense troops of the Syrian regime, the “Defense Brigades”, from 1971 to 1984, and the Vice-President of Syria from 1984 to 1998.
Rifaat Al-Assad allegedly took part in the planning and execution of the massacres of Tadmor and Hama in the 1980s, in the context of the non-international armed conflict between the government and the armed factions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On 27 June 1980, the Defense Brigades under his command allegedly entered the Tadmor prison (also known as the Palmyra prison) where the prisoners suspected of having ties with the opposition were held. The troops allegedly killed as many as 1000 prisoners.
In addition, as a commander of the “Defense Brigades”, Rifaat Al-Assad allegedly took part in the massacre of thousands of people in Hama. In February 1982, government forces including the Defense Brigades besieged the city of Hama, following its takeover by the Fighting Vanguard, a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood. Government forces surrounded and indiscriminately shelled the city with heavy artillery and tanks which resulted in an excessive number of civilian casualties. The attacks lasted throughout the month of February 1982. Between 10’000 and 40’000 people have allegedly been killed, mainly civilians. Reportedly, whole areas of the city were destroyed, including large parts of the old city.
Perceived by many as the probable successor of his older brother, he was later suspected of preparing a coup against the latter and was forced into exile in 1984. Since then, he has lived in various European countries where he has invested his substantial personal fortune.