Assad freezes his brother out: The President's sibling is back from exile but his former friends in high places are ignoring him, Robert Fisk writes from Damascus

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THE BEARD is the startling feature; half-Islamic, half-Spanish Armada, long and pointed as befits a man who has spent years of exile in the Costa Brava sun.

But for the people of Damascus, watching the familiar figure at his mother's funeral on state television, there could be no mistaking the rock-hard eyes or the straight back to the head, even though his beret, worn at a rakish angle, was missing. Colonel Rifaat Assad, former commander of the Syrian Defence Brigades, suppressor of the Hama uprising, Vice- President of the Syrian Arab Republic, is a difficult man to ignore.

Yet ignore him the people of Damascus have done. No newspaper carries his photograph, no powers have been restored to the middle-aged playboy by his President brother. He sits, remote and powerless, in his old compound above the cantonments where his disbanded military units once controlled the southern approaches to Damascus, accompanied only by the first of his four wives. If he hoped once day to succeed the man who has ruled Syria for 22 years, he appears to be a disappointed man.

Not that he did not try, a few weeks ago, to regain some of his old power and influence. Shortly after he returned from exile for the funeral of his 82-year-old mother, Colonel Assad attempted to pay a social call on Bajeth Suleiman, the head of Syrian counter- intelligence who once commanded one of his brigades in Lebanon.

Nine years ago, when President Assad lay stricken with a heart attack - and Rifaat must have thought his hour of destiny was at hand - he ordered Suleiman to drive his tanks into the centre of Damascus. But Suleiman remained loyal to his President and refused to obey. So when told that Rifaat wanted to renew their old acquaintance this summer, Suleiman declined to see him.

Rifaat made similar vain approaches to other powerful men in the Syrian intelligence hierarchy: to Adnan Badr al-Hassan, head of political security, to Mohamed Nassif, head of intelligence security, and to General Ali al-Khouri, head of the foreign intelligence branch of the security services. All refused to meet with him. Only Majed Said, head of Syria's general security department - and the immediate superior to Suleiman, Nassif and al-Khouri - found himself face to face with the man who once took a squad of his defence brigades to massacre the Muslim fundamentalist inmates of Tadmor prison.

Rifaat barged into Said's Damascus office unannounced and suggested that he might resume some of his former security functions. According to detailed accounts, Said politely turned him down, reminding him of the 700- page volume that appeared under his name in Paris, The ideology of Rifaat al-Assad. It was in this massive - and immensely boring - tome that Colonel Assad enraged many Syrians by claiming that if a democratic poll were held, he would be elected to rule Syria.

Least amused by this claim, of course, was President Assad himself, for whom a quite remarkable 96.5 per cent victory in last year's presidential elections was, for him, sufficient proof of the people's choice. Said confronted Rifaat with his somewhat rash electoral claim, only to be told that the offending volume had not been written by him but been produced by a freelance author called Oudaimi, without official permission; at which point, it is said, the head of Syrian general security produced a photocopy of a cheque made out in Oudaimi's favour - payment for his work on the book - signed by Rifaat.

Even more symbolic of Rifaat's powerlessness is the continuation in office of the most omnipotent of all Syrian intelligence officers, a man who enjoys the ultimate trust of President Assad but whose identity is known by few outside the country: none other than Abdul-Raouf al-Kasim, the multi- millionaire former prime minister who now heads all the secret- police departments in Syria.

Yet elsewhere in the Arab world - particularly in Lebanon - rumours abound that Colonel Assad is back to his old tricks, buying up nightclubs, squandering money, secretly taking over his old security roles, even displacing the Defence Minister, General Mustapha Tlass, and that most dominant of all military security officers, General Ali Douba. But a Syrian source, with impeccable credentials, denies every story.

'I saw Ali Douba only yesterday and it is not true,' he said with conviction. 'General Tlass remains Defence Minister. You will see him at a routine cabinet meeting if you watch the news on Syrian television this week. Till this moment, Rifaat al-Assad has not been asked to handle any job . . .

'Some people like to raise doubts when there are peace talks going on between Syria and Israel. (Israel's) Mossad starts rumours like this in Europe. But the Syrian constitution says that the President of the Republic is the one who defines the authorities of a vice-president. Yes, Rifaat al- Assad still holds the position of Vice-President. He has been here for almost three months. But until now he has not been asked to handle any job.'

The phrase 'until now' may carry its own message. President Assad is a man who likes to keep the world guessing about his intentions. But he has a young and apparently popular son, Basil, a bearded Syrian regular army officer whose modesty stands in sharp contrast to Rifaat's reputation, and a country whose economy and political leadership has never appeared so stable.

In his heyday a decade ago, Rifaat's eye for women - and that is an extremely generous way of describing his behaviour - became as notorious in Damascus as his brutality towards those who opposed his brother's Baathist regime. The death-toll in the 1982 Hama uprising - the popular figure suggests up to 20,000 died although this may be a slight exaggeration - was largely the work of Rifaat's killer squads.

Rifaat may still take his Vice- Presidential title seriously. But for the moment, at least - and whatever Syria's enemies may claim - he is out in the cold.

And there, it seems, President Assad intends him to stay.

(Photograph omitted)