Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf released videos last week voicing his open criticisms aimed at some of the regime’s actions. Makhlouf, who, based on his tone and context of speech, was obviously unable to directly reach Assad, was complaining about the additional taxes imposed on his companies and the detention of his employees.
Considering the tribal and secretive structure of the regime in Syria, his comments in the second video dated May 3 were intriguing: “Mr. President! These people are your loyal supporters. The situation has currently taken an extremely dangerous form. If we continue this way, the country’s situation is going to become much more difficult.” He did not seem to be pleading; his voice sounded confident, concerned with a hint of menace.
Rami Makhlouf, who is Assad’s mother Anisa Makhlouf’s nephew, is known to have control over important driving industries in Syria’s economy, including telecommunications, construction, civil aviation, and banking. According to estimates, revenues from more than 60 percent of economic activities in Syria flow directly or indirectly into Makhlouf’s pocket.
Thanks to the spectacular fortune he acquired and controls, Makhlouf is known as the person who has long been feeding the regime and financing the paramilitary gangs that are charged to massacre the opposition. Since the source of a fortune totaling billions of dollars in a country like Syria can only be corruption, Makhlouf is also a figure who is hated by a considerable portion of the population. All these are points that make his “bold” move against the regime both surprising and questionable.
The first sign of the operations targeting Rami Makhlouf was seen in August 2019. When Makhlouf’s sons’ lavish lives in Dubai hit social media, there were rumors that the billionaire business tycoon was placed under house arrest upon Assad’s order. In fact, print media outlets even published analyses stating that “Assad seized his cousin’s assets in order to pay off his debts to Russia,” and some political observers resembled the events in Damascus to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman’s arrest of his cousins in the luxury Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.
This is not a first for the Assad regime, which has been ruling Syria since 1970, in other words, for exactly half a century.
Similar tensions were witnessed in 1984 between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifat al-Assad. Following the Hama Massacre, Rifat al-Assad rolled up his sleeves to change the power balance in the country. Rising against his brother in attempts to oust him had resulted in a victory for Hafez al-Assad. Eventually, Rifat al-Assad ended up leaving his country to settle in Paris, while Hafez al-Assad became Syria’s incontestable ruler until his passing in the year 2000. There was neither Iran nor Russia on his back when Hafez was fighting his brother.
Since the people’s uprising was violently suppressed, he had no opposition either. Nevertheless, in the Middle East conjuncture of the time, there were even a number of outside elements strengthening his hand. Add to this the relative reflections of the economic moves he started in the country on the public, it is clear how Hafez was so easily able to take the reins.
Yet, today, Bashar Assad is deprived of all these advantages his father once had. Two outside forces like Russia and Iran are competing for influence power on Syrian territory. His wife Asma’s economic and political ambitions, his brother Maher’s monstrous methods are the primary motives behind Assad’s moves. In a country that is in ruins, a collapsed economy and political system, cities waiting to be reconstructed, among numerous other problems, it is not possible to say that Bashar Assad is the “country’s ruler.” He may appear to be sitting in the driver's seat, but everyone knows that the reins are in fact in Russia and Iran’s hands.
Rami Makhlouf’s ability to remain in Damascus despite his audacity during all this tumult rises suspicion. One of the theories is that Makhlouf is acting on behalf of Russia and is prompted by the Russians. This view suggests that Makhlouf is “pitted” against his cousin in order to force Bashar Assad and his entourage to a political solution, and draw a framework in Syria’s design post-war that will protect Moscow’s interests. In this case, Makhlouf seems like the Damascus branch of the “Moscow Fans Association.” It is assumed that Assad is intelligent enough to see the puppeteer behind his cousin.
Yes, this is the latest news from the “Anti-Israel Resistance Front” where more than 500,000 people were slaughtered to prevent it from “collapse” and “destruction.”