Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 July 2020

Why is Bashar Al Assad really targeting Rami Makhlouf?

The Syrian president's decision to fleece his long-time rival is about more than money

Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf has revealed a family power struggle within the Damascus regime. AFP
Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf has revealed a family power struggle within the Damascus regime. AFP

Last week, Syrians and those who follow the latest developments in Damascus witnessed a rare sight: a public feud within the inner sanctum of the Syrian regime. Rami Makhlouf, an oligarch who controls most of the country’s economy, implored President Bashar Al Assad in a series of Facebook videos apparently filmed from his own villa to call off a tax evasion probe that threatens to destroy his business empire.

Failure to do so might lead the country to suffer, Mr Makhlouf indicated, as though the half-a-million who died so far in nine years of war had not already accomplished that.

It was a spectacular fall from favour by a pillar of the Syrian regime who has played a key role in the systematic stripping of Syria’s wealth from its citizens. But the saga, which pulled back the curtain to reveal some of the machinations of Mr Al Assad’s inner circle, shows that, for all the regime’s military victories, Syria will never enjoy a measure of peace or tranquility without serious reforms.

A man stands across Syria's largest mobile operator Syriatel, owned by businessman Rami Makhlouf. AFP
A man stands across Syria's largest mobile operator Syriatel, owned by businessman Rami Makhlouf. AFP

Mr Makhlouf is the scion of an enormous business empire whose crown jewel and cash cow is the telecoms operator Syriatel. He reportedly controls somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent of Syria’s economy. Corruption and patronage personified, Mr Makhlouf was until now a crucial ally of Bashar Al Assad.

In addition to bankrolling the Syrian state, Mr Makhlouf has built a paramilitary force that numbers in the thousands and his charitable organisation, Al Bustan, has continued to support impoverished families in the regime’s heartland, building a base of popular support that Mr Al Assad risks alienating through his crackdown on the Makhlouf empire.

The latest dispute stems from an investigation by the Syrian state, the results of which allege that Syriatel and its main competitor owe more than 200 billion Syrian pounds (Dh1.4bn) of back taxes to the government. If paid, that sum could lead to Syriatel’s collapse.

If you are having trouble thinking of any other potential replacements for Bashar Al Assad, you are not alone

In many ways, however, the Makhlouf saga is indicative of the deeper rot and inherent instability at the core of a regime that has survived a debilitating, nine-year uprising and civil war through brutal popular suppression, bankrolled and militarily backed by foreign powers.

The result is the emergence of competing centres of power that will continue vying for the spoils. The saga further indicates that Syria will remain a tinderbox, even after military conflict dissipates, because that systemic rot (which is, of course, what drove Syrians to rise up in the first place) has not been addressed.

Consider the timing of the crackdown. The Syrian economy is buckling under the weight of providing basic, essential services to its citizens. Having long been quarantined from international markets by US sanctions, it is also under a partial lockdown from a domestic coronavirus outbreak. As the presumptive military victor in the war, the Al Assad regime has been obstinate in its refusal to participate in any serious peace talks or consider reform, which has meant an indefinite delay in reconstruction funds from abroad.

Meanwhile, the economy of the regime’s main military backer and guarantor, Russia, is also struggling under the pandemic and the related collapse in the price of oil. All of this has accelerated Moscow’s demands for a resolution to the Syrian crisis and its frustration at the regime’s stubbornness and corruption. There are loud critiques emanating from many Kremlin proxies and surrogates, who question just how necessary Al Assad really is to Syria’s post-war order.

These tensions within Damascus and amongst its core allies are only emerging now that the immediate military threat to the regime’s survival has been quelled, in much the same way that the myriad of underlying conflicts in Syria re-emerged after the defeat of ISIS. These power struggles and jockeying are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, at least up to the next constitutional deadline in 2021, when presidential elections are scheduled to take place.

The most likely scenario is that Mr Al Assad will be nominated for another presidential term, though that has not prevented speculation that another figure might be presented – even his wife Asma’s name has circulated as a potential candidate. A former banker from London, she has stood by her husband throughout the war and runs the Syria Trust for Development, which controls most of the charitable and civil society sector in the country.

If you are having trouble thinking of any other potential replacements for Bashar Al Assad, you are not alone. Even the Russian government proxies who criticise the Syrian president point out that there aren’t any realistic options left – partly a consequence of the scorched earth policy of relentless violence and forced displacement pursued by Damascus and its allies.

A man watches the Facebook video of Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf on his mobile. AFP
A man watches the Facebook video of Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf on his mobile. AFP

This brings us back to Rami Makhlouf, whose saga has yet to unfold fully. Public disputes within the regime’s inner circle are a rare sight, and Mr Makhlouf, Syria’s perennial oligarch, retains many levers of power, including his militia. But he is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Mr Al Assad. He had simply grown too powerful, and clipping his wings was part of the Syrian president’s ongoing efforts to balance the interests of his allies and rivals against each other, all the while maintaining his own place at the apex of the crumbling edifice that is Syria.

For all of the possible scenarios and resolutions to this latest crisis, it is important to keep in mind a simple and blunt fact. The Syrian regime is akin to a mafia in control of a genocidal police state, and Bashar Al Assad and Rami Makhlouf together brutalised Syrians. The latest episode is merely the pruning and sacrifice of a loyal underling who became a potential rival. As long as Syria is ruled by this regime, the potential for an implosion remains high.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada

Updated: May 13, 2020 10:37 PM

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