Bashar al Assad's estranged cousin and the poster boy of crony capitalism, Makhlouf is making desperate attempts to position himself as a populist figure amongst Syria’s disillusioned Alawites, Assad's key support base.
On Wednesday, fallen tycoon Rami Makhlouf took to Facebook to once again rebuke the expropriation of his assets by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the sixth video of its kind since Makhlouf, Assad’s first cousin and former member of his inner circle, was evicted from the echelons of power a little over a year ago, he blamed the financial hardships of Syrians living within the regime-held territory on “satanic” war profiteers. He also spoke of an imminent miracle that was awaiting the country – not for the first time – and indirectly likened himself to the Abrahamic prophet Moses.
Beyond the absurd combination of religious references and allusions to the impoverished Syrian masses, however, Makhlouf's incoherent rambling is not without meaning. In this analogy, the insinuation, however subtle, that Assad is Syria’s pharaoh is designed to target a specific audience: Syria’s Alawites. Makhlouf is attempting to weaponize Syria’s Alawites – the same religious community to which he, the president, and the top brass of the regime belong – for personal gain.
In Makhlouf’s struggle for relevance, he seems to believe that he can leverage Alawite suffering against the regime. The indispensability of the community’s support to Assad’s survival leads him to view the sect as perhaps his final strategic card in the struggle against the president. While Makhlouf is cognizant of the fact his fate is tied to the regime, he seems to wager that he can utilize the community as a bargaining chip with the hope of inducing Assad into reversing course in exchange for his silence.
Since Makhlouf was reportedly placed under house arrest last April, he began utilizing Facebook as a platform through which he could take jabs at those responsible for his fall from grace. References to “outsiders” interfering in internal – read, family and confessional – affairs, early on, were likely aimed at the first lady, Asmaa al-Assad, whose Sunni identity was never entirely accepted by Syria’s Alawite community. Among some Alawites, moreover, there is a view that Assad, in supposed contradiction to his father, has prioritized the Sunni elite in Damascus – to which Asmaa and the al-Akhras clan from which she hails belong – over his own. In spite of the absurdity of the notion that either father or son possessed an iota of compassion for any Syrian community, the belief nevertheless is adhered to by many.
In this regard, Makhlouf has opportunistically exploited successive crises to push his agenda centre stage. For example, in the midst of the wildfires that devoured large parts of western Syria’s countryside in October and displaced over 25,00 Syrians, most of whom were Alawite, Makhlouf announced on Facebook his intent to donate 7 billion SYP ($2,851,000 at the time) to those impacted by the crisis – a claim he repeated twice in the weeks that followed. However, he stressed that executing the donation entailed releasing funds from his former telecommunications firm, SyriaTel, which was the main target of the regime’s expropriation campaign. He also stated that he would otherwise hold the Department of Telecommunication’s Judicial Guard – the body tasked with overseeing the expropriation of his assets – “fully responsible for depriving the people in need of this financial support.”
The regime’s aversion to enacting more forceful measures in dealing with the fallen oligarch has thus far emboldened him to continue intensifying his provocative Facebook posts. Cast out of the elite, Makhlouf may believe that his celebrity status among the Alawites will deter Assad from harming him. For example, after months of repudiating the regime’s anti-corruption campaign by pointing to corruption within its own ranks, in December, he adopted a markedly more confrontational tone. In a Facebook post, he repudiated Assad for “the neglect of the poor” and stated – likely as a pre-emptive warning to any coercive measures the regime may be considering against him – that he would not exit his house standing.
On Assad’s side, Makhlouf poses no tangible threat. His assets within Syria have overwhelmingly been seized and his links to pro-government militias have been severed. The Al-Bustan militia faction Makhlouf set up under his so-called charity of the same name has been disbanded. While he has been neutralized in this regard, however, his ongoing social media tirades do pose a minor dilemma for the Syrian president: Assad is not inclined to liquidate his cousin for fear of reverberations among his support base, however remote, nor can he conceivably permit increasingly more defiant slants to continue.
Thus far, Makhlouf’s attempt to position himself as a populist figure advocating for Syria’s disillusioned Alawites has failed to yield results. Although his Al Bustan Association did provide certain benefits to Syrian army veterans and small numbers of marginalized Alawite families, his ‘charitable’ legacy falls substantially short of impactfully resonating in their collective psyche. The degree of reverence he enjoys is not likely to cause the Alawites to mobilize in any meaningful manner to defend his interests.
The community’s immediate concerns lie with avoiding the spectre of famine in a country in which food insecurity has reached unprecedented levels.
Additionally, whatever dwindling degree of popularity Makhlouf still has among the Alawites is vastly outweighed by a sense of disdain for him that runs deep within the community. Many Alawites have come to know the former oligarch as the poster boy of crony capitalist corruption.
Having said all this, Makhlouf’s desperation will likely encourage him to continue these efforts.
One year after his fallout with Assad, Makhlouf has lost virtually all relevance as an impactful player in the Syrian theatre. Instead, he has been reduced to a televangelist utilizing social media to frame himself as the Robin Hood of Syria’s disenchanted Alawites.
Yet, unless he is willing to raise the stakes by divulging important secrets that directly incriminate the president in Syrian suffering or, conversely, takes the ill-advised gamble of explicitly calling for the overthrow of the regime, he is unlikely to receive a response from the regime.
Even then, the response he elicits may be a knock at his door from the secret police. Agitating the community against the regime may be his last resort – but it is also a dangerous game that he isn’t poised to win. Moreover, his growing allusion to Iran’s financial role in his dispossession has placed him in dangerous waters.
As opposed to galvanizing the Alawites, Makhlouf may wind up succeeding in provoking Assad and the Iranians. The proxy war component of the Syrian conflict has played out as a complex game of geopolitical poker. In this game, Makhlouf may be too intransigent to realize that he lacks a seat at the table.
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