Brother of Assad is stripped of his power

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IT LOOKS like the final suppression of Rifaat Assad's power in Syria - his brother, President Hafez Assad, appears to have cleared the way for his son Bashar as undisputed successor to the country he has led for almost three decades.

IT LOOKS like the final suppression of Rifaat Assad's power in Syria - his brother, President Hafez Assad, appears to have cleared the way for his son Bashar as undisputed successor to the country he has led for almost three decades.

The move comes after the closure of Rifaat's illegal port at Lattakia - not to mention the reports of the killing of his retainers.

Even the Syrians admit that a number of Rifaat's heavily armed praetorian guard - the remnants of his once-powerful defence brigade - have been "returned to their units" after the closure of his private harbour. And although Damascus denies that Syrian troops stormed Rifaat's residence and killed his security guards - a story put about by Rifaat's own son Summar on his satellite television station - they acknowledge that the port was shut down because it had been built on state land.

During Lebanon's civil war, illegal Mediterranean ports made millionaires of rival militia leaders, many of whom traded in guns and drugs. President Assad's eldest son Basil - killed in a car accident in 1994 - won widespread popularity in Syria by suppressing much of the corruption that had spread from Lebanon. But Rifaat Assad's own private port was never touched. Who would tangle with the heavily armed retainers of the President's brother? This week, however, the authorities acted with their customary ruthlessness.

Put very bluntly, Rifaat is finished as a political force in Syria. Ever since he tried to stage a coup against his brother in 1983 and was confronted by an outraged President Assad who announced - according to his biographer, Patrick Seale - "I am the regime," Rifaat's days were numbered. Although he was Vice-President, he chose an extraordinary luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus in 1984 to denounce his brother's policies, announcing plaintively to 500 guests that "my brother doesn't seem to like me any more".

Along with many of his loyal officers, Rifaat was packed off to Moscow for a "cordial working visit". A few days later, he took up exile in Geneva with a retinue of more than a hundred servants, subsequently wandering between estates in Spain and France. Disputes with local European police forces and rumours of drug-running did nothing to dispel Rifaat's earlier reputation as a gregarious and often dissipated man, operating nightclubs in Damascus as well as a restaurant in the capital, selling Arabic cuisine at extortionate prices. No wonder the President, with his iron determination and austere Baathist ideals, could not allow Rifaat to hold any power in Syria.

The demise of his Lattakia port - the harbour was built opposite his luxurious private residence in the Damssarkhou district of the old Roman city - tells the story of Rifaat's decline. He was still Vice-President when the Syrian minister of transport, Dr Mufeed Abdel-Karim, ordered its removal inJanuary 1995. If Rifaat refused to abide by the ruling, the minister added, "it would be removed at Rifaat's expense".

In September the same year, Dr Abdel-Karim - obviously acting with the President's permission - ordered the port chairman to "proceed with the removal of structures built on public maritime property by the Vice-President due to the unavailability [sic] of the required permit." Rifaat ignored the minister.

But the President removed his brother from the nominal post of Vice-President and Rifaat was expelled from the Baath party, forbidden ever to return. And so this week, the one-time aspirant to the leadership was told that Syrian government officials had turned up to clear the equipment from his private harbour and order most of his bodyguards to close up shop and report back for duty.

As for those reports of shooting and killings at Rifaat's summer residence - Damascus has denied them all. It dismissed the "intense gunfire", allegedly heard near the former vice-presidential complex, as well as the Syrian resident in London whose friends told him that "tanks and armed boats" had attacked the building. All "highly exaggerated and imprecise," a Government source was quoted as saying.

But Summar's television station, which is based in London, claimed "hundreds of deaths, including those of women and children". Someone, it seems, is telling a whopper.

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