The National - News
AL ASSAD’S UNCLE PLUNDERED MILLIONS FROM SYRIANS TO BUILD PARISIAN PROPERTY EMPIRE
▶ French homes worth $101m part of portfolio of frozen assets stretching from London to Spain’s Costa del Sol
For a man who insisted that he had no interest in money, the disgraced Syrian politician Rifaat Al Assad amassed a staggering fortune. Within a few kilometres of his marble-floored Parisian mansion near the Arc de Triomphe, the uncle of Syria’s president could take in some of the grandest properties that make up his estimated €90 million ($101.3m) French property empire.
From mansions to a network of luxury flats in some of the most desirable parts of the French capital, Al Assad’s property portfolio reads like an estate agent’s fantasy tour of the world’s most fashionable capital.
The aged general no longer strolls the streets of Paris. While the houses and flats are now frozen assets and unsellable, Al Assad has fled back to Damascus in humiliation to avoid a possible four-year jail term in France.
The Paris appeals court in September confirmed a guilty verdict for money laundering, as it found Al Assad had plundered Syrian state funds over a 20-year period through his vast European property portfolio.
French authorities want to sell his multimillion-dollar empire and return the proceeds to dispossessed Syrian victims. But the legal case is expected to continue for another couple of years after an appeal to the country’s highest court, his lawyer told The National.
The plundered and inherited riches assembled over decades can be revealed on the basis of a series of court judgments and statements in France, the UK and Spain, where Al Assad lived after a failed effort to oust his brother as president of Syria in 1984.
Investigations by police forces, human rights groups and transparency campaigners have shown that he controlled the properties through a network of offshore companies. His return to Syria via Belarus marks a conclusive reversal for a man who once suggested that he was the only person who could overthrow his nephew Bashar Al Assad.
“We are going to bring him down,” he said in an interview in 2011 at his sumptuous home on Avenue Foch, Paris. “Even if it takes time and is difficult, I am going to work to topple the regime and give power to the people.”
Far from giving power to the people, the Avenue Foch home had been stolen from them – bought using part of the reputed €300m taken from Syrian state funds to dissuade him from destabilising his brother, Hafez, who was president from 1971 to 2000.
The wide, chestnut tree-lined avenue is one of the most expensive streets in Paris. It has been home to some of the world’s wealthiest families – the Onassis dynasty and the Rothschild banking family – as well as the plunderers of Syria.
The mansion was owned through an offshore company on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. It was furnished with carpets valued at €1.5m. A further €5.5m was spent on furniture and paintings, court documents revealed.
Al Assad owns another property on the same street through a different offshore company. A few kilometres away, he owns a grand multi-storey property with wrought-iron balustrades on Avenue de Lamballe, opposite the embassy of Turkey, a country that backed the forces who fought his nephew during the civil war.
It was paid for, Al Assad claims, by a Saudi and given to the father of one his four wives. Legal proceedings in France heard from two of his political opponents, the ex-defence minister Mustafa Tlass and former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, who said the funds used to buy property were looted from Syrian resources.
Khaddam described Rifaat Al Assad as the “most corrupt man in Syrian history”, while Tlass accused him of involvement in the sale of arts and antiques on the black market. Both men have since died in France.
Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor at the University of Lyon and a Syria expert who gave evidence at the trial, said Al Assad was known for accepting bribes on arms deals and had invested in Europe before he fled his homeland.
“When he left in 1984, he directly came to France and he had a place to live,” Mr Balanche told The National.
“He liked the money, he liked the women and he liked the luxury. He was not isolated in the countryside. He wanted to enjoy life.”
The money was spent on property through complex financial arrangements. In Paris, some of it went on flats on the Avenue du President Kennedy in the name of a Panama-registered property company with accounts at a Danish bank in Gibraltar. A French court has also frozen those assets, as well as rents paid by the tenants.
Al Assad claimed that a 45-hectare stud farm and house on the northern outskirts of Paris was a gift from a long-time friend. That friend was also said by Al Assad to have financed property in Lyon as a gift after the birth of one of his 16 children in Paris in 1996.
But based on information from French investigators, properties worth €695m were also seized in and around Marbella, Spain, in 2017.
French criminal proceedings also led to the seizure of a £27m ($36m) property in Mayfair, west London, that was used by Al Assad and his family. He claimed it was bought with investments made by his children using his money.
The six-storey house in one of London’s most upmarket neighbourhoods is owned through an offshore company registered in the Virgin Islands. It can now be sold only with the consent of UK prosecutors.
The freezing orders do not prevent members of Al Assad’s family living at the properties while the legal cases continue. Nobody answered the door at the home in Mayfair when The National called. The only sign of any activity was a mop and bucket used by cleaners in the basement stairwell.
Al Assad told investigators that he lived in the house. One of his wives and sons were also there, court papers said.
The Mayfair mansion was one of several lavish properties in the UK’s capital bought by the family. A deal to buy two hotels in 1985 resulted in them owning what was said to be the secondlargest private residence in London.
The house, Witanhurst, was at the centre of a legal battle linked to the collapse with debts of £35m of the Arab News Network, an Al Assad family enterprise.
It was sold for £32m by one of Al Assad’s sons but a judge imposed a freezing order in 2007 on the proceeds because of Somar Al Assad’s outstanding debts that liquidators feared would be moved abroad.
The anti-corruption charity Sherpa started the investigation that led to Al Assad’s conviction in France. It said his escape to Syria sent an “alarming signal” about France’s fight against corruption. It said the flight “constitutes a failure on France’s part to meet its international commitments to fight and punish corruption effectively”.
But Al Assad, 84, was never likely to serve a prison term owing to his age, said Elie Hatem, his lawyer in Paris. He said there had been no restrictions on his movements since he was first convicted of embezzlement in June 2020.
“I don’t think he is going to stay indefinitely there,” Mr Hatem said. “Maybe he will come back to Paris for Christmas.”
Mr Balanche said he was surprised that Al Assad had returned to Syria. But the man known as the Butcher of Hama for leading an attack that killed thousands of civilians in the central Syrian city in 1982 no longer posed any sort of threat to the current Syrian president, he said.
He said the regime in Damascus would consider it “better to have the uncle in Damascus than the uncle in jail in Paris”.
“The fact he came back to Syria is a proof that he stole the money and that he’s not an honest man,” said Mr Balanche.
“He’s somebody who is very pragmatic but he doesn’t have much honour or courage because it’s a kind of humiliation. It’s over for the Rifaat branch of the family.”
He liked the money, he liked the women and he liked the luxury. He wanted to enjoy life FABRICE BALANCHE
Expert witness at trial