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Is Putin behind the split in Syria’s Assad family?

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (L). and Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy businessman and the cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (R)

It is well understood that the Assad regime controls all aspects of Syrian life and society as dictatorships tend to do. The tentacles of the regime reach into the economy, the way it operates and who profits. The Assad regime operates like a family and those at the very top of the state are often tied by blood.

The relationship between Bashar Al-Assad and his maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf goes back to the relationship between their respective fathers; Hafez Al-Assad the founder of the ruling dynasty and Mohammad Makhlouf. Hafez Al-Assad married Mohammad Makhlouf’s sister Aniseh when he was an officer in the Air Force in a bid to strengthen his family’s standing. The family was more influential in Alawite circles at the time and it was widely understood that Hafez Al-Assad was “marrying up”. Once he became president, Hafez had to ensure his sect’s dominance over the state and its various power structures. This is where Mohammad Makhlouf enters the picture; he was one of the regime’s most corrupt men and was particularly infamous for his smuggling operations.

While Mohammad’s younger son Hafez Makhlouf became a prominent security officer, the other son Rami stepped to take over his father’s role at a time when Bashar was taking similar steps towards the presidency. Rami Makhlouf’s control of the economy went further than his father’s, however, and he was infamous for his wealth and power controlling the state’s finances and various sectors including telecommunications, retail, car imports and construction, to name a few. It was well known that the tycoon had a share in most major companies and would make further profit through smuggling too. During the beginning of the conflict in 2011, he warned the West of instability and chaos if the regime were to fall and said: “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”

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The Syrian uprising has taken its toll on the regime. It has stretched from March 2011 and has covered almost a decade. In exchange for diplomatic and military assistance, the Assad regime has become akin to a Russian colony. Putin’s government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Al-Assad though a rift has now emerged between them. Putin has been humiliating Al-Assad for years and has ensured that Assad knows this.

Russian media outlets with close ties to the Kremlin have begun criticizing Assad in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.  The national economy is in crisis and the local currency has collapsed ($1 used to be worth 50 Syrian pounds before the uprising, now it is 1,400 Syrian pounds). After five years of funding the regime’s activities, Putin is demanding repayment of his war loans and a return on Russia’s investments and is pushing the Syrian government to find the cash. The Assad regime’s mismanagement of the nation’s public finances has led to the catastrophic financial situation the state finds itself in.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) in Sochi, Russia on 21 November 2017 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (L) in Sochi, Russia on 21 November 2017 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

There have even been reports that Putin is quietly seeking out a more malleable figure in the regime to accept even token concessions on the new Syrian constitution which will be needed to unlock vital reconstruction funds. This essentially forms the backdrop of Al-Assad’s schism with Makhlouf; he has raided offices of Makhlouf’s officials, arrested them and gone after Rami Makhlouf himself under the guise of “cleaning out corruption” which has led Makhlouf to complain publicly on social media in an unprecedented way.  He went on to remind his cousin that he has been financing the security and militia forces to defend the regime over the last nine years and to seek sympathy from groups in Syria.

The Assad claim over clearing out corruption begs the question, however; if Assad was so concerned about corruption why wait nine years into the conflict? There are echoes of Mohammad Bin Salman’s approach in November 2017 here in how he arrested various Saudi princes using “corruption” as a guise.

The Assad regime has its hands stained by blood. No amount of goodwill or reconstruction can wash away its crimes. The Syrian population views Makhlouf as a vital cog within the regime and people are extremely skeptical of this “anti-corruption drive”. Akin to a Mafia, the Assad and Makhlouf family have been tightly knit for decades and have worked hand in glove to plunder state resources. There are no heroes in this story and Rami Makhlouf’s children’s extravagant lifestyles in Dubai show how little the Makhloufs are really suffering.

It is ironic that this could have been avoided during the early days of the Syrian uprising had the Assad regime been more quick thinking. An “anti-corruption drive” in 2011 would likely have placated some protesters and at least looked like the regime was in touch with their demands, even if it was done for purely PR purposes. The horse has bolted; there’s no way the regime can expect its long-suffering population to believe it now.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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