Syria is ruled by the Al Assad family since 1971 till date. Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the current ruler of Syria, Bashar al-Assad assumed power through a coup in 1970 and remained in power till he died on 10th June 2000. He was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. The Al Assad family belongs to a minority Shia sect called Alawite which constitutes about 10 to 15 percent of the total population of Syria.
The Alawites had traditionally held most of the officer class positions in the military under the French Mandate Syria during the 1930s and 1940s. However it was the regime of Hafez that gave Alawites a disproportionate share in the country’s financial and economic structure as well as the military due to ultra-loyalty to the regime.
It was, however, the death of Hafez, which brought to light the complex equation between the strongly knit Alawite minority influence in Syria’s financial and military interests and the ruling Assad family. Mohammad Makhlouf, father of Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man, and his sister Anissa, widow of Hafiz Al Assad had at that time ensured that the transfer of power to Bashar al-Assad went on smoothly.
Bashar al-Assad had to grapple with the mass movement dubbed Arab Spring in 2011 when people rose against the authoritarian rule of Bashar Al Assad and the preferential treatment received by the Alawites in the regime. The Arab spring later took the form of a civil war which is still raging in parts of Syria. Throughout this difficult period Alawite community stood solidly behind Bashar Al Assad. There was no bigger backer of Bashar Al Assad during all the ups and down, than his cousin and the richest man of Syria Rami Makhlouf.
However for the first time the absolute support for Bashar Al Assad in the tightly knit Alawite community seems to be shaking. In a recent Facebook video, Rami Makhlouf, is seen making allegations that the Syrian regime of Bashar has been going after him and his company assets because he raised voice for Alawite families which lost members while serving the regime, but were left to fend for themselves. There have been unconfirmed reports that Rami has been under house arrest since last summer.
Multiple reasons have been cited for the Assad governments’ sudden outburst against Rami. Some experts suggest it is because of Rami’s immense wealth, which in turn makes him a possible rival to Bashar, or the lavish lifestyle of the Makhlouf’s, as evidenced by Rami’s son Mohammad who was seen boasting about their wealth and showing off pictures of his private jet to multiple newspapers around the world. Whatever be the reason behind the regime going after Rami, it is quite evident that they are under severe pressure to churn out cash to revive the dwindling currency. While his son might have dented his family’s rather away from limelight public image with his public show-off stunts, it appears that Rami himself has not been up to the mark in rolling out enough credit for the Assad regime.
The ongoing saga of Rami Makhlouf brings to light the complex relationship between the Assad regime and the dominant Alawite minority, indicating a clear rift between them. A former Syrian diplomat who defected from the Syrian Embassy in Washington in 2012 said “It’s very big. Rami was in the inner circle from day one of Bashar’s rule. He’s built into the regime. To take him out would be like a divorce.”
It will be interesting to see whether the Alawite community will continue to back Bashar Al Assad or Rami Makhlouf will be able to sway a significant section of the community to take a stand against Bashar Al Assad. Watch this space for further updates