Dissensions in the ruling family
In the meantime, the Russian drama was followed by an even more shocking one, the Makhlouf affair.
At the beginning of May, President Assad's cousin, businessman Rami Makhlouf, began posting videos on social networks imploring President Assad to end the tax pressure on the telephone company he owns (Syriatel). He then denounced both the arrests of some of his associates and more generally the abuses of the security services (the infamous Moukhabarat).
The staging of these videos and the language used by Rami Makhlouf were enough to capture the attention of the Syrians, especially that of the Alawite base of the regime. The businessman, known for his boundless cynicism and for being an insider among insiders for decades, portrayed himself as a modest and pious man, outraged by the injustice of which he was a victim, and appearing to discover the usual methods of the regime's henchmen.
The good apostle also emphatically recalled the important role he had played in the struggle against the uprising, through financing part of the regime's militias and paying considerable sums of money to the relatives of combatants who had died in the service of the cause.
The president's cousin was quite obviously addressing the regime’s base, specifically the many modest families of the Alaouite community, especially those living in the villages. It was they who served as "cannon fodder" in the civil war and suffered, like the rest of the population, from generally miserable conditions. Syria's GDP is currently a quarter of what it was before the civil war and 80% of the population now lives below the poverty line.
But who is Rami Makhlouf? His father was Mohammed Makhlouf, brother-in-law of Hafez, Bashar's father and founder of the dynasty. The Makhloufs are Alaouites like the Assads, but from a more prestigious tribe than the Assad family. Mohammad played a major role in the Syrian economy during the 30-year reign of Hafez al-Assad, naturally amassing a large fortune from it.
When Bashar came to power in 2000, Rami’s fortunes took flight. Over time, he acquired an increasingly invasive spot within the national economy. He was one of the main beneficiaries of its economic expansion, especially after obtaining the operating licence for one of the country’s two telephone companies.
Over the years, it has become impossible in Syria to obtain a contract or do any business without giving a percentage to Makhlouf, whose brother and other relatives hold important positions in the security services. In the late 2000s, the Makhlouf and the Assad families seemingly formed a single block, one entrusted with the economy and the other (Bashar and his brother Maher) with managing politics: the Makhlouf form the business wing of the ruling family.
However, this family shares a few similarities with the mythological Atrides,. Hafez al-Assad had to distance himself from his brother Rifaat in the early 1980s, who had sought to oust him from power. In 2012, Bashar's brother-in-law, Assef Chawkat, was killed in an attack which, in retrospect, looks like it was commissioned by the presidential palace and likely also the Iranians.
In 2011, at the beginning of the uprising, Rami Makhlouf was the focus of much of the public's hate of the regime. Assad couldn’t have failed to understand this. It would have been convenient for him to lock up his cousin or at least to distance himself from him. Makhlouf took the lead, announcing that he was giving up business to devote himself to philanthropy. His foundation (al-Bustan) worked to mobilize militias within the Alaouites and to provide support for the Alaouite victims of the civil war.