On April 20, Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, the maternal cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, began posting statements and videos on Facebook criticizing the regime. This was striking: in the past decades, it was uncommon to see anyone, whether a businessman, politician, or military commander, daring to criticize the security forces and the regime, directly or indirectly, while living in Syria. So, two questions must be asked: Why did Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy businessman and the president's cousin, rebel? How could one voicing such criticism from Damascus be still free? To answer those two questions, it is important to understand the historic relationship between the Makhlouf family and the Assad family.
Makhlouf himself is known for amassing massive wealth inside and outside the country. According to a former economy official in Syria, his wealth is equivalent to eight percent of Syria's GDP, which is $62 billion.
In his media appearances, Rami Makhlouf tried to appeal to the Alawites by presenting himself as the voice of the Syrian coastal region, especially the poor, religiously-devout, and those loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. This region, a stronghold of the Assad regime, suffered in the nine-year-long war, reportedly incurring more than 100,000 deaths.
In order to understand the historic context, it is important to highlight the Makhlouf family’s history and relationships with others. The Makhlouf family belongs to the al-Haddadin tribe, which is mostly Alawite land-owners in the Syrian coastal region. They controlled villages, similar to other feudal families.
In 1958, the Makhlouf family made the difficult decision of agreeing to marry their young daughter to a young air force pilot named Hafez Al-Assad, who was from a different tribe, al-Kalbiyah, that descended from rural regions. Assad was a member of the military at the time Anisa was studying in a French-managed monastery.
Hafiz and Anisa's marriage would impact Syria's modern history for the next six decades. The Makhlouf family forged close relations with rising military men in the predominantly Alawite countryside, while Hafez al-Assad gained legitimacy among tribes and social circles in his birthplace.
After Assad ascended to the presidency in 1970, Anisa held the title of the first lady even though she never used that title and refrained from appearing in public events. Undoubtedly, this marriage spared the Makhlouf family from extinction, which was the fate of other feudal Alawite families.
One of the key cards that Hafez used to consolidate his power was ending classism. He sought to create alternative social classes composed of farmers and the marginalized who rose to power through the army and security forces. The Duba and Khuli families exemplified that: General 'Ali Duba took charge of the military intelligence, and General Muhammad Khuli commanded the air force. Similarly, Assad became closer to the clerics. The Haydar family, for example, gained influence General 'Ali Haydar was given control over the army's special forces.
Assad rose to power, taking control of the army, security, and political apparatus. His brother-in-law, on the other hand, took control of the economy. Muhammad Makhlouf, Anisa's brother, started at the state-owned tobacco company Regie, and went on to sponsor major business deals, mostly in oil production and exports in the mid-1980s. He became the secret godfather for the economy, among other things. All deals had to pass through Makhlouf, who distributed them among other Alawite and Sunni businessmen in the 1980s and 1990s.
With the generational change in the ruling family and elites, the role of the new generation of official's sons shifted from partnerships in companies to the leadership of the private business sector, especially in the second half of the 1990s. One of the most renowned figures was Rami Makhlouf, an engineer who at the end of the 1990s took over Ramak firm that specialized in duty-free zones at ground ports and airports.
When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Muhammad Makhlouf stepped down, allowing for the rise of his older son, Rami, in the business sector. Anisa, Assad's widow, took it upon herself to facilitate and encourage the rise of Rami, her favorite nephew, as she had done previously for her brother.
Rami focused on the promising telecommunication sector. In 2001, the Syrian government granted the company Syriatel and its competitor MTN a build, operate, and transfer permit (BOT), giving them a monopoly over the telecommunication sector and its revenues.
Syriatel's contract formed the foundation from which Makhlouf's diverse businesses and companies expanded. His companies operated in the fields of oil, finances, banking, tourism, and trade, keeping up with the selective economic openness in early 2000.
Some experts believe that this openness shrank the size of the middle class and concentrated wealth in the hands of a small number of people, mainly the Makhlouf family, thus, chipping away at the traditional support base of the regime and the ruling Baath Party and undermining the social contract that prevailed through three decades of Assad reign.
Makhlouf's domination over the Syrian economy reached a level that prompted the United States to impose sanctions against him early, at the beginning of 2008 — three years before the Syrian revolution — as part of the Syria sanctions program that began in 2004.
In the 1930s, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) also known as the Syrian Party, expanded from Lebanon to the Syrian coastal region and the Alawite's mountain region. The expansion is mainly because of geographic location, trade, and openness in those regions, which later became a breeding ground for secular parties like the Baath Party and the Communist Party in the second half of the 1940s.
If the Baath Party believes in Arab unity and Arab nationalism, the Syrian Party is known for promoting Syrian nationalism in Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. The party never got into power and existed in secrecy for most of its history.
The Makhlouf family, especially Muhammad and his sister Anisa, were closer to the Syrian Party ideology than to the Baath Party. On April 22, 1955, Colonel 'Adnan Al-Maliki, a powerful nationalist military figure, was assassinated in al-Baladi Arena in Damascus by three men, including Badi' al-Makhlouf, Anisa's cousin. The SSNP was held responsible despite denying involvement in the assassination. The head of the government at the time, Sabri al-'Asali, banned the party, prompting a crackdown on its members. Six months later, a military court in Damascus sentenced to death a number of the Syrian Party's members and leaders, which was the biggest blow to Syrian nationalists since Antwan Sa'ada was handed over to the Lebanese authorities and subsequently executed in 1949.
The party remained banned after the Ba'th Party took control of the government from 1963 to 1970. After Assad assumed power, he relaxed the crackdown because of the influence of his wife, Anisa, on him. The party was then allowed to join Parliament indirectly.
In 2000, Bashar Al-Assad assumed power and married Asma al-Akhras. The political history of her family was unknown and she appeared more focused on economy than ideology. Shafiq, the cousin of her father Fawwaz, was an economy professor, and another relative of hers was a businessman in Homs, while she herself worked at JP Morgan. Her father was a renowned cardiologist in London while her mother worked in the Syrian embassy in the British capital.
In 2011, the Syrian Party was allowed to join the Ba'th Party-led Progressive National Front, an alliance of parties in Damascus, as an observer. There was a common belief that Bashar al-Assad was closer to the Syrian Party's ideology because of the influence of his mother and uncle, which helped the party resume its activities and join Parliament.
Rami Makhlouf is described by people who met him as someone with "absolute belief in the ideology of the Syrian Party." Between 2005 and 2019, Makhlouf played the role of a behind-the-scenes leader for the SSNP. He pushed supporters of the party to assume high leadership positions before being elected to Parliament or appointed to the cabinet. Rami also participated in founding a branch for the party in 2011 and formed a militia under the name Eagles of the Whirlwind that is associated with the party. The militia fought alongside government security forces against the opposition factions. The party participated in the 2012 congressional elections with the support of al-Bustan Foundation, a charity through which Makhlouf has been able to channel funds, and won seats in Parliament. It came as no surprise that many of Makhlouf's supporters posted a whirlwind, the logo of the party, on their social media pages after his last appearance.
By the mid-2019 and under the regime's nose, Rami accumulated tools and networks that were not available to anyone else: A historical, tribal, and class heritage, a financial and economic empire, a political party aspiring to govern, a charitable foundation, and an armed militia. Separately, new businessmen and warlords emerged, making their wealth from the fighting between 2012 and 2019 and from circumventing the US and European sanctions.
There were concerns about Rami Makhlouf, his apparatuses, his rivals’ increasing ambitions, regional, and international changes, and tension between Russia and Turkey. Last August, a campaign began to dismantle Makhlouf's networks, including banning certain activities by al-Bustan Foundation and disbanding its military wing, which paid fighters $350 a month -- a hefty sum compared to regular soldiers’ salaries.
In October 2019, the appeal court issued a decision to disband the al-Amana Wing of the Syrian Party, which Rami helped create. The decision excluded the Minister of Reconciliation 'Ali Haydar, who is a member of the party, due to his "friendship with Assad," according to a source in Damascus.
On December 19, a series of decisions were made to freeze the assets of Makhlouf, his wife, and his companies, accusing him of tax evasion. On March 17, 2020, the Ministry of Finance seized his assets because of his ties to an oil company.
The measures taken against Rami Makhlouf included arresting senior employees in his companies and organizations, seizing his assets in Syria, prohibiting state institutions from dealing with him for five years, in addition to a travel ban. He also lost all the security and economic privileges that he enjoyed since 1970 as the nephew of the president's wife.
Clearly Makhlouf is banking on his social, political, and economic stocks to protect him. The regime, however, is seeking to disband Makhlouf's networks and declaw him. This equation can change at any moment if a new factor, from the inside or the outside, emerges.