Asma al-Assad

Asma al-Assad

The Syrian government has ordered the seizure of assets belonging to Syria’s wealthiest businessman, Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, revealing a split among the family that has ruled the country since the 1970s.

Here are five things to help explain the murky events in Damascus.

  1. The split emerged when the government demanded $180 million in back taxes from Makhlouf’s mobile phone company, Syriatel, and began arresting its executives. This sum is peanuts for Makhlouf, whose wealth is estimated at $6 billion, but he posted complaints on Facebook of ‘unjust taxation’.
  2. Makhlouf used his wealth to help crush the nine-year revolt against his cousin. Now that the revolt is all-but ended, the solidarity that held the cousins together has collapsed.
  3. Makhlouf has suggested that the president’s wife, Asma – well connected to the old Sunni Muslim business elite who resent his dominance of the economy – is behind the shake down, perhaps in order to give her son Hafez a cut of the wealth enjoyed by Makhlouf’s sons.
  4. A likely cause of the rift could be pressure from Moscow, where the media have been criticizing the corruption of the Assad regime, an indication that Russian business interests want a slice of the economy. The fall of the Makhlouf empire could be a sop to President Putin whose air force turned the tide of battle.
  5. The Assad family, in power since a military coup by the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, belongs to the Alawite sect of Islam which makes up only 11 per cent of the population. The family faced a similar split in 1983 when the old president’s brother, Rifaat, moved tanks into Damascus to try to take power. He failed and went into exile. The question is whether the current president has his father’s staying power.