His Brother's Keeper

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1970, Rifaat has not only served the regime with unflagging loyalty but has also had a hand in most of the nation's bloodier actions. "He is the one who keeps his brother in place," says one U.S. State Department official. In the midst of Syria's cutthroat factionalism, he may not be averse to taking that place himself.

"Shrewd and dangerous as a snake," as a general in Israeli intelligence describes him, Rifaat flexes his muscles through the 280 tanks and 15,000 troops of the Defense Companies. Charged with the defense of metropolitan Damascus, Rifaat's men have sometimes been called on to defend the government from internal enemies. Last year, for example, they reportedly executed around 100 air force officers who had tried to stage a coup. In February 1982, some 8,000 of Rifaat's troops exacted a bloody revenge against the rebellious Muslim Brotherhood in the historic city of Kama, leaving most of the ancient quarter in ruins and at least 10,000 civilians dead.

Rifaat's savagery at home has been complemented by his smoothness abroad. He has cultivated Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose government has given Syria an estimated $6 billion over the past five years. He has worked to conciliate, and sometimes protect, P.L.O. Leader Yasser Arafat. Last summer President Reagan publicly thanked him when, through contacts in the Iranian regime of Ayatullah Khomeini, Rifaat secured the release of David Dodge, acting president of the American University in Beirut, who had been kidnaped the previous year and abducted to Iran.

Yet if Rifaat is the main guarantor of the regime's strength, he is also a major source of its frailty. He allegedly sits atop a nationwide ladder of corruption, an arrangement by which government officials on the take share payoffs with their immediate superiors. The bucks stop with Rifaat. Such shady enterprises as extorting money from drug traffickers in the Bekaa Valley and running guns throughout the Arab world have reportedly given him a personal fortune of around $100 million.

While the President is an ascetic family man, Rifaat is an outright hedonist with seven wives, countless mistresses and 17 children. After deciding to send two of his sons to college near Washington, D.C., Rifaat last year spent $1.1 million on a mansion in Potomac, Md., which he furnished with armed guards, housekeepers and other retainers. Just one month later, the house was severely damaged by a fire of unknown origin, and the entire entourage apparently fled the country.

Despite their radically different habits, Rifaat and Hafez Assad share the same political goals. As members of the Alawite branch of Shi'ite Islam, both are determined to preserve the sect's control. The Alawites have dominated Syria for 13 years, mostly because of the adamantine grip of Hafez

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