Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 19, 2020
Economic crisis and infighting within the Assad family envelopes war-ravaged Syria 

The nine-year-long war in Syria may have nearly ended, but the country’s troubles have not. The war-ravaged country’s economy is in shambles with as many as 90% of the population living below the poverty line and finding it hard to feed their families. The desperation was on display earlier this month as Syrians in Sweida got out of their homes and protested against the government for the first time and against the deteriorating economy. The post-conflict reconstruction was expected to kickstart growth but the western powers - the U.S. and the EU, have held back the investments and funding until President Assad concedes to meaningful reforms which enable the participation of the rebels in Syrian politics and ensure the freedom of 120,000 prisoners languishing in the country’s infamous dungeons. High on victory, however, Bashar al- Assad has dragged his feet on these demands.

In September last year, his government rounded up business tycoons and asked them to cough up the cash and do their bit to support the plummeting Syrian pound. <550 SYP to a USD in 2017, it devalued to 3000 SYP to a USD last month> They had all profited from the war with the blessings of the regime so no one objected, other than Assad’s maternal cousin and the man described as the regime’s banker- Rami Makhlouf.

Rami is the richest among the regime approved businessmen, entrusted with running the biggest companies by Bashar al-Assad. His father, Hafez al-Assad, had let Rami’s father, Mohammed, run the economic affairs of the country. That’s just how things have worked in Syria under the Assad clan- keeping all the political, military, and economic power within the family. However, Rami, who is believed to control 60% of the Syrian economy did not take kindly to the government’s demand to loosen his purse strings and pay up $230 million in back taxes and aid the state in the time of an economic crisis. Instead, he recorded several video clips calling his cousin’s regime corrupt and inefficient. In one of the videos, he said: “I didn’t give up during the war. Do you think I’m going to give up under these circumstances? Turns out you don’t know me.”  He also targeted the president’s Sunni wife and insinuated that she was creating a rift between the brothers and stealing the key to the treasury.

Mr Makhlouf’s diatribes are highly unusual and dangerous in a country where rebellion is crushed using whatever means necessary. Nonetheless, the rare outpour of a regime insider and family member has revealed a carefully hidden secret of the Assad clan- there are divisions and they are deepening.

There are many theories around the quarrel. One is that Rami had grown too strong for his own good.  He not only employed thousands in Syria’s most lucrative telecom company, Syria Tel, but also ran a charity cum militia outfit called the Al Bustan. Rami Makhlouf is at the top of the Syrian elite, in possession of more cash than his progeny can ever spend, has armed loyalists on call, and extensive political clout among the Alawites- the sect the Assad family hails from. Some say that his rise irked many in the presidential palace, including the president’s wife Asma Assad, and that he was merely cut to size.

Others suggested that he was actively making his own bid for power by presenting himself as a possible alternative to Bashar and deserved to be punished. His father and brother have been living in Russia for years and it is possible that they had struck an understanding with Moscow, the theory goes. Its genesis is rooted in another unusual occurrence. In April, Russian media close to the government published unusually critical articles on the Syrian government. Analysts read them as Putin’s fatigue with Assad and said that Russia had finally had enough of Bashar al-Assad and was ready to replace him.

But that seemed far-fetched.

It is true that Russia wants international money to be invested in Syria so Russian companies can profit and that Bashar al-Assad’s prolonged reluctance to changes has obstructed these plans. But that does not mean that Moscow is ready to get rid of him. It may simply imply that it is looking for ways to put enough pressure on Assad to have him concede to some of its demands. And curiously, in August last year, it was in fact Moscow that pointed Assad to Rami and businessmen like him to get the money needed to pay back Russia’s war-time-loan worth $3 billion.

Among some Syrians, the dispute between the cousins has created an impression that the president is pulling up the rich and the spoilt even if they are family. But largely the public opinion is swinging against Assad. Even his coreligionists seem increasingly disgruntled with him as instead of rewards for sacrifices made in war, they have received penury. A tiff with Rami, whose family is also a prominent one among Alawites, has added to Assad’s worries.

Domestic challenges mounted even as external ones needed to be dealt with. A third of Syria is still out of Assad’s control, further limiting his government’s ability to economically revive the country. Compounding the problems, on Wednesday, the US announced more sanctions by the way of the Caesar act, which intends to punish anyone who does business with the Assad regime. “Today we begin a sustained campaign of sanctions against the Assad regime under the Caesar Act, which authorizes severe economic sanctions to hold the Assad regime and its foreign enablers accountable for their brutal acts against the Syrian people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted. The act is named after the pseudonym given to the Syrian army defector who fled with thousands of photographs of Syrians tortured and killed in the country’s prisons. And even though it is being touted by the US as the legislation to seek justice for the abused, there are many who are skeptical and worry it will end up worsening the conditions of the Syrian people whilst the Assad family - split or not - continues to rule.

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Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.

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