President Bashar al-Assad‘s uncle doesn’t know what to say about his nephew these days. On the other, after trying to insert himself into the opposition back in 2011, he now describes the rebels as terrorists.They return the compliment: Rifaat al-Assad, younger brother of President Bashar’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, is regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt of the Assad clan.Known as “the Butcher of Hama,” for his role in the crushing of a Muslim Brotherhood revolt in 1982, he’s been in exile for nearly 30 years after a failed coup attempt.Yet, as he put it to me “family is the most important thing,” and he more than anyone understands how the Syrian regime operates. For a start, he doesn’t believe German intelligence reports that President Bashar’s younger brother Maher, who commands the republican guard, ordered chemical weapons strikes without the president’s knowledge.Such a decision would have to follow the hierarchy, he said.“Maher in particular cannot do that. He doesn’t know how to use chemical weapons and he doesn’t think that way. I know the truth very well.“All this talk about Maher is far from the truth. It’s not logical. Above him is the president, the vice-president, prime minister, government, head of the army, reconnaissance.”He gave the impression that President al-Assad controls the regime, but cannot act without the agreement of others in the inner circle. But Rifaat believes the rebels are more likely than the regime to have used chemical weapons.“If the regime wanted to use such weapons it wouldn’t use them in such a restricted way but more extensively,” he said.
We were in a walnut-panelled ante-room lined with renaissance style paintings (I don’t think they were originals).A cabinet featured antique Syrian dark red glass and silver jugs – I made the mistake of admiring one, and had to insist very firmly that I didn’t want to take it away. Rifaat is a very wealthy man, with several properties in Mayfair as well as Paris. He told me he bought his first London property for $5m and sold it for $50m.One of his children, he said, had made $100m from buying and selling property in London. The British government had been good to him, and so had the French.[[[[“President Mitterand was a great friend,” he said, pointing to the small badge in the shape of a rose he was wearing in his lapel, the emblem of the knighthood he received from the French government in 1986.He is related by marriage to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – I put it to him that might make for awkward dinner table conversation as the Saudis are arming and backing the rebels he calls ‘terrorists’.]]]]