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Syria - Shaking Up Assad’s House

Syria - Shaking Up Assad’s House
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

For several weeks now, strange cracks have been appearing in the system around Bashar al-Assad.

Messages exchanged between Moscow and Damascus

It started with unusual articles beginning to appear in the Russian media at the start of April: the Damascus regime, Russia's ally, was being portrayed as gangrenous with corruption, powerless in the face of the country's catastrophic economic situation, and unable to carry out the necessary reforms for the post-civil war phase.

There was even talk of a poll that an alleged "(Russian) Foundation for National Values" had conducted among the Syrian population, demonstrating the unpopularity of the regime. 43.1% of those polled were said to have a "negative opinion" of the President and 53.5% would not consider voting for him if he runs for re-election in the next presidential election in 2021.

Many of these articles came from news agencies or relatively confidential news sites. One establishment newspaper, Kommersant, however, offered a platform on April 17 for Aleksandr Aksenenok, a respected former ambassador and vice-president of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). Aksenenok’s column amounted to a strong criticism of the Assad regime. On April 19, the "Federal Press Agency'' announced that "corruption within the Syrian government is destroying the economy".

As it turns out, the heart of the "campaign" - difficult not to see it as deliberately intentional in view of the flood of articles - was orchestrated by the media belonging to the empire of Vladimir Putin's oligarch friend, Yevgeny Prigojine. It is believed that Prigojin owns not only the mercenary company Wagner, which has a strong presence in Syria, but also other companies involved in all kinds of trafficking in ill-fated Syria. Let’s mention for example EuroPolis, which is said to have obtained a quarter of the country's hydrocarbon production from the Syrian authorities.

With this sudden calling of the Damascus regime into question by those close to the Kremlin, one interpretation naturally comes to mind: it was most certainly a settling of scores over "business", in the way the word is used in countries where the shadow economy plays a large role. In other words, Prigojine's employees were sending out the message: "Let's not trust a system that is less and less profitable for our business".

Even so, the political dimension of the campaign could not be ignored. For example, an article in concluded this on April 13: "unable to re-establish a properly managed economy in his country, the Syrian president may lose a part of the Syrian territory again" (the implication being: "this time, we will not be on their side"). On April 25, Svobodnaya Pressa headlined "Kremlin ready to send Assad away", citing two figures who could replace the current president (including Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who must now feel rather uneasy).

Had things gone too far? Mr Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, ended up blowing the referee whistle and denouncing the "dissemination of false information". This declaration, however, was worded with sufficiently soft terms to leave the impression that the Kremlin was not unhappy that some form of threat had been sent to the Syrian regime.

 Mr Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, ended up blowing the referee whistle and denouncing the "dissemination of false information".

On their end, the Syrian authorities did not stay silent. A deputy known for his closeness to the presidential palace - Khaled al-Aboud - launched into a diatribe against the Russians, predicting attacks against Russian bases in Syria from the Alaouites (the Assad family’s ethnic minority) if the Moscow government did not respect its ally in Damascus. "Putin needs Assad more than the other way around", he proclaimed - thanks especially to his alliance with Iran.

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.

Just as the star of Assef al-Chawkat (leader of the security services at the beginning of Bashar's reign) had begun to fade several years before his "accidental" end, the disgrace of Rami Makhlouf at the beginning of 2020 had undoubtedly begun a few months, perhaps a few years, earlier. Moreover, during the civil war, a new generation of economic operators (not exactly "businessmen") burst into the scene and prospered in the war economy.

 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.

There is little doubt that they – Samir Foz or the al-Qatirji brothers for example - are consorting with the palace.

In any case, in the autumn of 2019, the financially desperate regime had demanded that the country's big businessmen repatriate their foreign currency to Damascus. Businesses were burdened with increasingly exorbitant taxes and customs duties. This is when the visible tensions between Assad and Makhlouf first appeared. It is likely that Bashar's wife, Asma al-Assad, was no stranger to the discord between the cousins. She herself was after the spoils of Rami's empire for her own family.

At the time of publication, Makhlouf's property had been confiscated, his residence in the upscale suburbs of Damascus surrounded by armed forces, and the militias under his generosity integrated into the army corps commanded by Maher al-Assad. Perhaps the videos broadcast by Rami Makhlouf were intended to spare him from the classic fate of disgraced regime dignitaries, i.e. pressure to commit suicide.

Syria, a major exporter of hashish and other substances

Is there a connection between the Russian campaign and the Maklouf affair? In both cases, there is the context of economic collapse, aggravated by American sanctions and the pandemic. Many observers also see the dispute between the cousins as an illustration of the competition between the Russians and the Iranians in Syria, especially after the Idlib truce on March 5 between Putin and Erdogan, which greatly irritated Tehran.

If this is the case, it is not easy to discern who is playing whom. Some think that Bashar is acting against his cousin upon instructions from Moscow, observing that reining in Makhlouf coincides with the Russian campaign. If this is the case, Rami would benefit from the support of the Iranians, without whom he could not take the incredible risk of resisting power. For others, Makhlouf is working with the Russians: his father lives in Moscow and his brother Hafez also left for Moscow after losing his position in the security services.

Adding an extra piece to a puzzle that undoubtedly has many more pieces: in April, in Port Said, Egyptian customs got their hands on four tons of hashish hidden in packages of dairy products sold in Egypt by a company owned by Makhlouf. In January, stocks of amphetamine pills were discovered in Dubai; in Saudi Arabia 45 million captagon tablets - all originating from Syria. Over the years, drug exports have become one of the few sources of foreign exchange for the Syrian regime, with the support of Hezbollah, among others. It is worth noting that Makhlouf is said to be handling these dealings alongside Maher al-Assad, whose armed forces control certain border crossings with Lebanon.

Over the years, drug exports have become one of the few sources of foreign exchange for the Syrian regime, with the support of Hezbollah, among others.

German magazine Spiegel has put forward a hypothesis on this subject. The Russians had up until now seen no harm in the massive narcotic industry in Syria. If they start to "flee" the regime's bargains, it would be, according to the magazine, to hinder the Iranians. Ruined by US sanctions, the Iranians would only be able to stay in Syria if it were profitable thus, cutting off the regime from one of its last resources would be tantamount to making the Iranian militias leave without having to confront them on the ground.

A quick pause here to add two final notes: Iran, without withdrawing its forces from Syria, as some Israeli officials have announced rather hastily, has begun to reshuffle its forces by reducing the footprint of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Moreover, an official channel of dialogue between Russia and the United States on the Syrian situation has been re-established for several weeks now. The US Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, solemnly declared that "the United States would not request the departure of Russian bases from Syria, its objective being only the withdrawal of forces affiliated to Iran".

An end-of-a-reign atmosphere in Damascus

In Damascus, there has been a widely circulated rumor stating that "the Russians and the Americans have agreed to find a successor to Bashar al-Assad". It should be noted that we have no faith in this rumor. Announcing the imminent fall of the House of Assad seems premature to us - even if an end-of-a-reign atmosphere is indeed beginning to spread in the Syrian capital.

What is sure is that the previously mentioned cracks should be carefully watched:

  • The Russians have few direct levers on the Syrian regime. It is likely that they simply wanted to show that they can destabilize it. What is their endgame? This remains difficult to discern: is it just a question of creating optimal conditions for Russian businesses and companies in Syria? To obtain sufficient concessions from the regime in the framework of the slow UN process of reaching a political agreement that would, in turn, legitimize Russian "victory" on the ground? And in the latter hypothesis, are they ready to go so far as provoking or at least accompanying Bashar al-Assad’s replacement by one of their own top men from the regime? In any case, powerful institutional and non-institutional groups in Moscow have a vested interest in keeping the current status quo in Syria.
  • Despite these uncertainties in the Russian approach– or maybe because of them – it is certainly worth pursuing a discreet, patient, and… difficult conversation with Moscow. Three conditions must be met for a chance that such a dialogue can bear fruit. First, decision-makers in Washington and those aspiring to succeed them should be aware that the "maximum pressure" strategy in place for a few months, which is different in the Syrian case than the Iranian one, is working. Nothing would be worse than changing this strategy. Second, what can be expected from Russia is not a complete turnaround but a gradual alignment of Russian, Turkish, American and European interests, linked to the stabilization and eventually the reconstruction of the country. In such a scenario, the Iranians will not leave Syria or stop having an influence in Syrian politics, but they could be pushed to reduce their footprint, especially of course in military and security terms. Third, some of the Russian articles mentioned above have rightly pointed out the 2021 Syrian presidential elections are the opportunity to change the political equation in Damascus. This is an issue on which there could be some convergence between external powers, including a key role for the United-Nations. But this will need a determined engagement on the part of the US.
  • Finally, the immediate task for all actors, whether state or non-state, is to bring some humanitarian relief to the Syrian people, inside and outside the country. Voices in Europe and in the US are advocating that some kind of implicit normalization with the regime should be accepted in order to alleviate the sufferings of average Syrian families. Some UN agencies went far in compromising themselves with Assad’s regime, to the consternation of those of us who value the UN mission in the World. Let’s be clear about the drawbacks of this approach: going through the regime to channel humanitarian assistance is simply reinforcing the power of Assad and his cronies. As unbelievable as it may sound, Makhlouf’s foundation, mentioned above, was one of the main beneficiaries of international assistance.

For all these reasons, the priority should be given to what is called "cross border" humanitarian assistance (assistance coming from neighboring countries) – which is the politically neutral way to help people in Syria. The UNSC resolution authorizing "cross border" assistance is due to be renewed in July. Because of Russian reluctance to accept a system bypassing the government of Damascus, the number of "cross border" points have already been considerably reduced. The remaining ones are situated in the North-West, alongside the border with Turkey, in a region not under Assad’s control and now completely isolated following the truce of Idlib agreed to in March between Putin and Erdogan. This consideration, plus the tragic context of the pandemic, should persuade Russian decision-makers not to object to the extension of the UNSC resolution in July. That could also be a good signal from their part of a willingness to use the American-Russian channel on Syria to work in the interest of the Syrian people. By the way, in the context of the pandemic, a case could also be made for the opening or the reopening of more cross-border points.




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