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Damascus Caught Between Two Cousins

Damascus Caught Between Two Cousins

Friday, 8 May, 2020 - 05:45
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad.

When we consider a relative balance of power, there is really no comparison between a president of a nation who holds a near-complete authority, and the CEO of a telecommunications company — even if he happens to be the president’s cousin. Whoever controls the army, the security forces and the nation’s budget has the upper hand.

I point this out because Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf this week unexpectedly, and very publicly, challenged the Syrian regime. His protest, clearly directed at Bashar Assad, came in the form of two videos posted on social media. It was heard around the world.

If Syrians had to pick between the two cousins, they would not choose to do so in a month when there is already a wealth of fictional dramas to digest in the form of Ramadan TV shows. For years, thrilling Syrian series have dominated Arab viewing during the holy month. Not even the coronavirus pandemic prevented producers from completing about 10 series.

As a result, the homemade Rami Makhlouf reality show is struggling to compete with the spectacle and excitement of professionally made entertainment, and his dispute with Assad is likely to end soon unless the speculation surrounding it turns out to be true.

Determining the truth about what happens in Damascus is never easy. If the dispute between the cousins is primarily financial, they can easily resolve it between themselves. If, however, it relates to ruling the country and the authority that comes with that, the outcome is predetermined in the president’s favor.

What if the two videos that Makhlouf made, in which he talks about his suffering, were intended to stir the emotions of the Syrian people, or even the president himself? If the latter is the case, it is hard to imagine his efforts will succeed. His videos have been preceded by tens of thousands of videos filmed by Syrians since 2011 in which they shared their suffering, pleas for help and stories of the threats they face. None of those videos mattered much to Assad.

Foreign countries will not care much about the spat between Assad and Makhlouf if it is a family row or financial squabble. If, however, it turns out to be a genuine political dispute, that will be a different matter entirely for the international community, because the situation in Syria is crucial to the region.

Syria greatly contributed to the US withdrawal from Iraq, serving the interests of Iran. It also allowed Iran to take over Lebanon. For decades, Syria has undermined the Camp David and Oslo agreements. The country now represents the main battlefield in the confrontation between Russia and the US, with only the Euphrates River separating the superpowers. Syria is also key to Iraq’s future stability or failure.

The dispute between the Assad and his cousin, who is the CEO of Syriatel, is said by some to reflect the conflict between foreign interests in Syria. If this is true, the situation will be of great importance not only to the family but to the entire region and major global powers.

In simple terms for the purpose of analysis, if the dispute is rooted in the question of whether Russia or Iran, who are Syria’s allies, should leave the country, the world will be watching very carefully. After all, the civil war ended, the revolution lost all momentum, the national opposition was defeated and most extremist groups were expelled, along with Turkey. However, let us not forget that the regime has not won yet. That is why the next stage, as Makhlouf said, might be even more dangerous that the nine-year war.

It all depends on the decisions Damascus makes regarding its foreign allies. Assad chose Iran when he assumed power and built a special relationship. Tehran came to his aid during the war. However, the truth is that it was the Russians who rescued him. Had it not been for Moscow, he and his Iranian allies would have been defeated.

Regional states would prefer Russia, a historical ally since the Soviet era, to be Syria’s main ally rather than Iran. If Assad maintains his relationship with Ali Khamenei’s regime in Tehran and the Revolutionary Guard, he will provide them with the space and legitimacy they need to spread chaos and threaten the security of Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen.

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