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The Intractable Roots of Assad-Makhlouf Drama in Syria

Copy of Rami Makhlouf (2)|WhatsApp-Image-2020-05-15-at-12.25.52-PM

Editor’s Note: This insider account was written by a contact in Lebanon who did not wish to be identified for safety reasons. The Newlines Institute will occasionally publish analyses from unnamed but informed sources to protect their identities. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.

Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf has started what seems to be a soft defection from the regime that is headed by his cousin, President Bashar al-Assad. Over the past three weeks, the 51-year old engineer has voiced a series of positions via Facebook, saying that conditions in Syria have become “deplorable.” This was a major development for somebody often described as the “richest man in Syria,” worth an estimated $6 billion.

The rift between Makhlouf and Assad is currently open-ended, threatening the Alawite community’s unity, a point of strength that made it survive – against all odds – since 2011. Over the past decade, the Syrian opposition has repeatedly failed to produce credible Alawite representatives or leaders, which is one reason why the community’s rallied rank and file behind the president, arguing that the only alternatives were Sunni Islamist groups with a jihadist agenda bent on wiping out all minority groups.

Initially trying to position himself as a cross-sectarian public figure, Makhlouf has recently shifted into a more Alawite-focused appeal, addressing a community that is impoverished and worn out by 10 years of fighting. This is serious, given the historical role that the Makhlouf family has played in the Alawite community, and it might trigger the community’s first internal divide since Assad’s uncle Rifaat tried to seize power from his brother Hafez back in 1984. 

Nobody can say for sure why Rami Makhlouf fell from grace eight months ago, when the state began to dismantle his business empire, clipping his wings on various fronts. In September, his al-Bustan militia was disbanded, which he had set up during the course of the war to fight alongside Syrian, Iranian, Hezbollah, and later Russian troops on the Syrian battlefield. Al-Bustan was important to the Alawites because it paid well; a monthly salary of $350, or half a million Syrian pounds at today’s rates – three times higher than what regular soldiers were making in the Syrian Army. In addition to bankrolling al-Bustan, Makhlouf also provided generous subsidies to the Syrian security services and to the families of soldiers wounded or killed in battle. He was a goldmine for the cash-strapped Syrian regime, which has been suffering great economic setbacks from sanctions, lack of oil revenue, and the high cost of maintaining the war effort.

Then the state seized his shares in SyriaTel, Syria’s giant GSM operator which Makhlouf had set up in 1999. Last December, the Ministry of Justice dissolved the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which Makhlouf had dominated  since 2005. It is commonly believed that he was getting too strong, too rich, and too influential in the Alawite community. Makhlouf was left only with a high school, a newspaper, and a real estate development firm that was deemed as useful for the future, when and if the reconstruction of Syria took off. Two months ago, the Finance Ministry charged him with outstanding dues from SyriaTel totaling 233 billion Syrian pounds.

The Makhloufs and the SSNP

Makhlouf had literally bought the SSNP from its long-time secretary-general Issam Mayari.  Between 2005 and 2019, Makhlouf served as its invisible president, injecting his supporters into its top leadership before they would be elected to parliament or appointed as government ministers. The SSNP believed in Greater Syria — encompassing Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon – and in promoting Syrianism as opposed to Arabism, the main ideology of al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party. The SSNP was a cross-sectarian party that was open to both sexes, active in Syria since the 1930s. 

Unlike the Baath, which has been in power since 1963, the SSNP never assumed control of the state and spent most of its lifespan underground, thus much of its support was at the grassroots level. In the mid-1950s, the SSNP was persecuted over the murder of Adnan al-Malki, who was Syria’s deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces at the time. The party’s offices were shut down and its members arrested, landing Rami Makhlouf’s father, Mohammad, and his aunt, Anisa, in jail. Their first cousin, Badi Makhlouf, was the man who actually shot al-Malki in 1955.

Coinciding with the party’s closure in 2019 was the circulation of a black-and-white photo that Makhlouf’s supporters disseminated on social media, showing the SSNP founder Antoun Saadeh seated with members of the Makhlouf family in the Alawite village of Bustan al-Basha, southeast of Tartus. It was taken during Saadeh’s brief residency in Syria before he was captured and executed by Lebanese authorities in 1949.

Antoun Saadeh, in the middle, appears seated with two members of the Makhlouf family in the Alawite village of Bustan al-Basha in western Syria. Pro-Makhlouf elements circulated the picture during the Assad-Makhlouf rift to express support for a family with deeper roots than Assad’s.

Relations with the Assads

The Makhloufs were landowning notables in the Alawite community who reigned in coastal villages along with a handful of prominent Alawite families like the Kinjs, Ismails, and Kheir Beiks. When famine hit the Syrian coast during World War I, Anisa and Mohammad’s father opened his house to villagers in need, providing them with food and shelter, further elevating the family’s standing within Alawite society. For that reason, Makhlouf family elders objected when a young air force pilot named Hafez al-Assad — the father of the current president — proposed to marry her in 1958. Given his humble peasant origins, the family said, he was no match for Anisa, who was then a schoolteacher educated at the French-run Convent of the Sacred Heart.

But Assad eventually prevailed, and after coming to power in 1970, made Anisa first lady of Syria. He propped up her brother Mohammad first as head of the state-run tobacco industry – a very profitable business that added to the family’s wealth – and then as director of the Real Estate Bank. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Mohammad Makhlouf took a back seat, ushering his eldest son Rami into the business community. Interestingly, the official communique of al-Assad’s death that was broadcasted on Syrian state television was issued jointly by the Assad and Makhlouf families.

The young Makhlouf’s rise was facilitated and nudged by Hafez al-Assad’s widow Anisa, who regarded Rami Makhlouf as her favorite nephew. Makhlouf, then a 31-year-old engineer, started with a company called Ramak, which was given exclusive rights to administer Syria’s free zone and duty-free shops. From there he was awarded the license for SyriaTel, which now boasts 11 million subscribers. Makhlouf’s business empire began to expand in Syria and beyond, establishing him as a leader in telecommunications, real estate development, media, and banking.[5] So notorious was Makhlouf’s dominance in the Syrian economy that the United States slapped sanctions on him as early as 2008 — as part of the sanctions on Syria since 2004 under the Syria Accountability Act — three years before the outbreak of the Syrian revolt.

Makhlouf Fights Back

Makhlouf’s fortunes first began to turn against him with the 2016 death of his aunt Anisa, who was seemingly his primary passport to her son Bashar. Nevertheless, he remained surprisingly silent as measures were taken against SyriaTel, the SSNP, and al-Bustan. On April 24 of this year, he began fighting back, setting up a Facebook page with a Ramadan greeting to his followers, positioning himself as a champion of the poor while saying that his monthly donations to charity are worth 1.5 billion Syrian pounds. Six days later, he published an online video, appearing before what seemed to be a fireplace, wearing regular clothes and using simple language while appealing directly to his cousin, the president, saying that the income tax was too high. He would pay it nevertheless, if the money went to charity, he said. It was obvious that Makhlouf had lost all access to Assad, forcing him to take to social media to make himself heard.

In the videos, two changes in his tone were clear. Makhlouf spoke with a Damascene accent, mainstream to Sunni Muslims of the Syrian capital, rather than the Alawite accent of the Syrian coast. He wanted the optics and tone to appeal to a wider audience. He also quoted verses of the Quran that appealed to a cross-sectarian audience: Alawites, Shia, and Sunnis. He was trying to win hearts and minds among all Syrians and not just Alawites. The president ignored him, while the government-affiliated Telecommunications Establishment issued an official communique saying that all outstanding dues from  phone market operators had to be paid no later than May 5. 

Furious, Makhlouf snapped back with a second video on May 3, this time directly challenging Assad, saying that he would not pay a penny and calling on him to change his ways or otherwise the country would face what he described as “divine punishment.” Makhlouf complained that the security services were arresting his employees and top managers in order to pressure him to bend. He was addressing Assad as an equal, rather than a subordinate, clearly seeing him as a partner in the present regime, just like his father considered himself a co-creator of Hafez al-Assad’s regime.

That evening, units from the Republican Guard headed to Makhlouf’s villa in the Damascus countryside, with orders to dismantle his security entourage and tear down the checkpoints that surrounded it. This was done in broad daylight, so that passersby and neighbors alike could witness what was playing out. Al-Assad was making a point not only that Makhlouf had fallen from grace, but also that he was no longer useful to the Syrian regime. Contrary to what the opposition websites were saying, he was never arrested, however, nor was he interrogated.

Appealing to the Alawites

That evening Makhlouf came out with his fourth Facebook post, this time in writing, appealing to the Lord to save him. His prayer was copied from a book called “Al-Dire al-Amin wa al-Balad al-Hasin” (“The Safe Country and Fortified Shield”), penned by Sheikh Taqiuddin Kafaan of Jabal Aamel (presently southern Lebanon) back in the 1500s. It contains a long list of prayers that Shia and Alawites refer to in order to shield them from fear, injustice, and illness.  

Makhlouf had tried to appeal to mainstream Sunnis with his first two Facebook posts, but clearly that did not work. Pro-government Sunnis laughed him off and members of the opposition criticized him as a symbol of corruption and nepotism, echoing curses that had been hurled at Makhlouf at the start of the uprising in 2011. It became clear to him that he would only succeed if he barricaded himself within the Alawite community, where his family had reigned for years. The Alawites were devastated by the Syrian war, suffering from a massive yet undocumented death toll from 10 years of fighting. 

Among Sunnis, deaths are cross-gender and from all ages but for the Alawites, only able-bodied men of age to serve in the armed forces – 18 to 50 years old – were killed. Due to its cash-strapped economy, the Syrian state has been unable to accommodate the Alawites or meet their basic demands, forcing them to seek help from local chieftains, notables, and business figures. Prime on that list is Makhlouf, who has been generously bankrolling the community since 2011. Now that he is appealing directly to them – which is a novelty in the unfolding saga – will they embrace him and create an invisible shield to protect him from harm? Or will they side with his cousin, who remains equally popular within the community?

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