Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was always able to depend upon the support of his family, and any disputes within his inner circle were hidden from the public. However, that has all changed recently.
Syria’s richest businessman and cousin to the country’s President, Rami Makhlouf, declared at the start of the month that Assad’s regime had seized his assets. Makhlouf has publicly supported his famous relative since Assad became president almost 20 years ago. This represents the latest escalation in a public conflict in the family that has ruled Syria for almost 50 years.
How Makhlouf Became Public Enemy Number One
In recent weeks, Makhlouf has posted a series of videos on social media mocking the regime in which he was a central figure for decades, and he offered a dangerous and unusual public challenge to the Syrian President. He complains that he has been treated in an inhumane way even though he bankrolled Syria’s infamous security forces, who are responsible for torturing thousands of people since the Syrian conflict started in 2011. Robert Ford, who served as the US ambassador to Syria, told Foreign Policy that if Makhlouf was not a member of the Assad family, then he would probably be dead already.
Furthermore, Assad’s cousin said that he will not resign from Syriatel, one of Syria’s largest firms. It was his ownership of this cell network that has likely made him a target of the nation’s regime. The Syrian Government insists that he owes $250 million in taxes; Makhlouf argues that this is a lie being concocted by the security services. Since then, the Syrian Ministry of Justice has imposed a travel ban on him until the case is resolved.
More public statements have emerged since. For example, Firas Tlass, the son of a former defense minister, appeared on Russia Today to confirm that Makhlouf was challenging the President’s wife and brother, Maher.
Assad Has a Lot of Problems to Worry About
Regardless, Syria’s problems cannot be blamed entirely on the President’s family dispute. So far, the nation has experienced 121 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 41 people recovering from the virus. Meanwhile, four people have died from the pandemic. Nonetheless, the Syrian Government still placed the entire country in lockdown.
Even though there are no official figures to reveal the repercussions of the coronavirus on the Syrian economy, the Syrian regime’s reduction of procedures is an obvious sign that the lockdown has severely affected various economic sectors. Enabbaladi reports that Ali Kanaan, the head of the Banking Department at Damascus University, anticipated economic losses in the billions.
Services and shops are now open again and as of April 23, politicians agreed to extend the opening hours of shops until 5pm. The original opening hours were 8.30am to 3pm.
Assad is Safe … For Now
The nine-year Syrian civil war has also had a devastating impact on the economy. Before the coronavirus, the nation’s unemployment rate stood at 8.4 percent. UN statistics reveal that 83 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line and the coronavirus has made that worse. Many day workers lost their jobs and received no financial support following the imposition of quarantine measures.
Despite this, Assad’s future seems safe for now. The Russians are not interested in regime change because there is no credible alternative to the Syrian President, but the latter’s weakened position means Moscow could carve up Syria with Iran and Turkey. The north of the country could be used by Russia and Turkey to resettle refugees, with Iran using the south as a means to threaten Israel.
Assad is in an unenviable position right now as he has to tackle numerous problems. It is unclear who could replace him, but when a suitable candidate emerges, there is no doubt that the Russians will not waste any time booting the current Syrian President out of office.