Bashar al-Assad v. Rami Makhlouf: A Spat Between Cousins Takes Dramatic Turn

Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad is once again conflicting with his businessman cousin Rami Makhlouf. Spats between both men are a regular occurrence, however now new conflicting information has been resurfacing and, as a result, the family affair has become more exciting to watch and for a lot of observers it has transformed into a Hollywood drama teeming with twists and turns. 


Recently, Rami Makhlouf recorded two video messages intended for his cousin Bashar al-Assad. In the videos, Makhlouf wanted to portray himself as a good charitable philanthropist, and even went as far as to play Quranic recordings in the background. In spite of this Good Samaritan charade, he still admitted that he financed Assad’s war efforts against the Syrian people. What’s strange about this is that while Makhlouf had clashed with his cousin before, he never opposed him politically, in fact, for the past two decades Makhlouf’s clashes with his cousin happened on the economic front. The political clash did not happen because Makhlouf saw the error of his ways, and decided to do what was right for the people of Syria, rather this spat happened because Assad unscrupulously took money out of Makhlouf’s fortune and estate to help pay off debts he accumulated during the civil war. 


Hostilities started to come under public scrutiny late last year when Assad seized a large portion of Makhlouf’s fortune. In September 2019, Syrian authorities decided to put precautionary seizures of Makhlouf’s fortune, however the decision wasn’t confined to his cousin as several other of Makhlouf’s business associates and their wives suffered the same fate. Syrian customs would go on to state that this decision was made because the businessmen had violatied import regulations and thus had fines which needed to be paid to the public treasury. However, a few days before this decision some Russian websites leaked news about Russia demanding a payment of two billion to three billion dollars from the Assad regime in exchange for the services it provided for him during the war. These services ranged from restructuring armed forces and guarding oil refineries.


Ever since Bashar al-Assad ascended to power, Rami Makhlouf has played an instrumental role in the Syrian economy. According to a 2011 Financial Times article, Rami Makhlouf’s family controlled 60 per cent of Syria’s economic sector as they controlled most of the country’s capital, companies and vital projects. Moreover, as previously mentioned he was one of the biggest finacers of Assad’s war on Syrians, however the regime now needs much more from him. 


Today, the Syrian regime and Iran are struggling with the US economic sanctions. Additionally, the US has increased its forces in eastern Syria to protect the oil fields and prevent Russia from reaching them. Finally, in a matter of weeks the Caeser Act will come into effect and the Assad regime will be in an even tighter spot. Now Russia is trying to race the clock and obtaining all that it can from Syria to make up for its own losses in the proxy war, as well as the losses it is facing from the unprecedented decline in oil prices. Furthermore, the Coronavirus crisis has forced Russia to postpone financing the Syrian reconstruction project, and has instead asked Syria to pay war service fees. 


The only way out for Assad was to rely on the currupt state structure he had created himself. So he chased after allies and associates who became wealthy because of their connections with the regime, and asked them to pay for his debts and needs. If they paid then they would be removed from the list of people who would get their assets seized. But, Makhlouf couldn’t pay the fees the regime wanted from him, and saw this whole process as a violation. 


Rami Makhlouf was the “bank” of the Assad regime, but even he was never susceptable from being replaced.  Through the years, Makhlouf was able to garner popularity through of his charity organization, Al- Bustan Charity (which the regime confiscated) and because of the fact that he employed many people in his companies. However, that did not make him a strong member of the regime, since he would sometimes come at odds with Bashar. 


There are talks that Russia is trying to replace Bashar al-Assad with Makhlouf, but that is a nonsensical notion because Moscow would never place someone who repeatedly spoke ill of one of its closest allies in the region. Furthermore, the fact that Makhlouf has US and EU sanctions placed on him means that he would not be a popular replacement both at home and abroad. 


Leaked news about Russia abandoning Assad and his corrupt cronies is nothing new, rather similar news stories have leaked all the time. The videos that the Russians leaked showing Bashar at the Khmeimim air base or at the Russian embassy in Damascus are evidence that both parties are still allies. However, what Russia is doing now is pressuring Assad to secure financial resources, and Makhlouf’s assets is a huge financial reservoir in the country. 


The dispute between Assad and Makhlouf is the latest episode of the spiralling drama within the Assad regime. We can expect much more developments once the Caeser Act kicks in, and the regime sees itself in much more financial burden. 


While the Assad regime, Russia and Iran may have won the military battle in Syria, the situation they find themselves in makes it clear that they have not won the war. Furthermore, Russia might have made the wrong cost-benefit calculation, as it seems that sticking by Assad’s side was a much more costly decision than it had anticipated.