The Syrian Regime Turns On Its Patrons: Rami Makhlouf’s Fall From Grace

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As Syria’s seemingly endless civil war continues to scorch the countryside, the Syrian government has been forced to adapt to the realities of the current situation after eight years’ of conflict. Manpower and supply shortages, a bottomless pit of debt, destroyed infrastructure, and millions of internally displaced persons have created a situation where stability is a distant prospect, and desperate times have called for desperate measures. Even still, it comes as some surprise that Damascus has turned on one of its most powerful and wealthiest patrons in order to ensure the continued survival of the regime. That patron is none other than Rami Makhlouf, and his potential downfall comes amid a number of drastic changes within the regime’s patronage network and military branches that are meant to stabilize unstable political sectors and ensure that power remains centralized with the authoritarian base loyal to Bashar al-Assad. 

The Rise

Makhlouf’s history with the Assad regime goes back to the 1980s, when the Makhlouf family was picked out as a group of particularly loyal supporters thanks to the connections that the family had to Hafez al-Assad through Anisa Makhlouf, Rami’s aunt. The Makhlouf family was provided with numerous opportunities throughout the 80s and 90s to establish duty-free businesses and invest in an increasingly privatized Syrian economy, and were given these opportunities where other potential investors were locked out.1.“Getting to know Syria’s first family” : CNN As they evolved into trusted patrons of the regime, Rami and his brother Ihab profited significantly through their increasingly diverse businesses, and by the time Hafez died Rami’s business interests had come to include the vaunted SyriaTel communications monopoly, which was founded in 2000 under Rami’s oversight. 

Rami continued his patron-client relationship with the Assad family after Hafez’s death, continuing to cement his family’s network with the Syrian government. In exchange for providing financial and political support to the regime and ensuring the continuing censorship of media in Syria, Rami was allowed to expand his business interests significantly and act unimpeded with his transactions and purchases, allowing him to bolster his support base and build even more monopolies on multiple consumer goods and services, including tobacco and real estate in large swathes of the country.2.Ghadry, Farid N. “Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath” in: Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (December 2005) His investment in numerous banking institutions throughout Syria ensured that illicit financial activities, which had already become common practice in the Makhlouf family, could easily be disguised or detached from the Makhlouf name. Through such enterprises as the Cham Bank and the al-Bustan Foundation, a charity foundation through which Makhlouf was able to quietly channel and move significant funds, the family profited and by extension so did the government.3.Ghadry, Farid N. “Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath” in: Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (December 2005)

Corrupt practice and illicit financial activity did not cease due to the onset of conflict. For the first half of the war, Rami’s position was even further cemented by virtue of his continuous extension of support to the regime.4.Primavera, Mauro. “Rami Makhlouf and the Syrian war economy”. Publication by the Moshe Dayan Center (25 April 2018) Makhlouf utilized his networks of shabiha, who had previously been central to the smuggling industry on the Lebanese-Syrian border, to suppress protests and arrest dissenters, many of whom vanished into the government’s prison network, never to be seen again. As protests evolved into armed conflict, Makhlouf funded and supported a broad, loosely-connected network of militias, including the Tiger Forces, Suquor al-Badiyah, the “Eagles of the Whirlwind”, and the “Homeland Shield” militia (Dir al-Watan).5.“Rami Makhlouf-funded Militias’ Commander killed east of Palmyra” : Nedaa Damascus has become increasingly reliant on these militia groups for frontline operations as well as garrison and patrol duties in unstable areas.

The Fall

In the last week of August, rumors began to swirl on social media that Rami Makhlouf had been put under house arrest by the Syrian government, and that his assets had been disbursed to other actors under government oversight.6.“Assad Orders Measures Against Rami Makhlouf’s Companies” : Asharq al-Awsat These rumors were initially controversial as there was no official statement about any kind of arrest, but a post by the al-Bustan Foundation’s Facebook page confirmed that something was amiss.7.https://twitter.com/SchoenbornTrent/status/1166851679905570817 While the post did not mention any specific details and only vaguely referred to a change in leadership, it was evident that a shift had occurred, corroborating the unconfirmed reports that Makhlouf had become a target. Social media chatter also claimed that Makhlouf’s SyriaTel had been swept up as well, but there was no confirmation of this and the matter remains unsettled. 8.“Assad Orders Measures Against Rami Makhlouf’s Companies” : Asharq al-Awsat

The Facebook post made by the official al-Bustan Foundation Page, vaguely hinting at administrative changes and promising “operations as normal”.

As for Makhlouf himself, reports that he was placed under house arrest seem to have been inaccurate, though his current whereabouts are unknown and it is not clear how closely he is being monitored. A variety of news reports have attributed his supposed arrest and the divestment of some of his assets to debates over the ongoing debt that Syria is mired in. The Russian government, struggling with its own economic troubles and facing mounting debt, demanded compensation from Damascus to the tune of $3bn, a significant sum for an economically crippled state. Damascus attempted to sidestep the issue but Moscow reiterated the demands clearly, and both governments honed in on Rami Makhlouf as a potential solution to the debt issue.9.https://twitter.com/THE_47th/status/116631817040529817610.“Assad Orders Measures Against Rami Makhlouf’s Companies” : Asharq al-Awsat With his vast reserves of cash, it was determined that he would be able to provide the required assets to pay off the debt. Damascus, perhaps reluctantly, made its move. 

Makhlouf’s undermining comes as a companion piece to a concerted effort from Minister of Defense Ali Ayyoub to rein in the militias who have, for too long, dodged centralised power and acted without oversight from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) central command. The move took control of the Tiger Forces from Air Force Intelligence commanders and placed it under the jurisdiction of the SAA, a move that Ayyoub has long been planning. The seizure of Makhlouf’s assets has served a similar purpose: to remove power from agents who have grown too self-interested and put that power back in the hands of agents loyal to Damascus and the Assad family. What might the consequences of this action be for the patronage network built around Damascus?

The Precedent

Assad’s move against Makhlouf is not an entirely unprecedented action in the long history of corruption and patronage in modern Syria. The Ba’ath Party has historically relied on patronage networks and a clientelistic relationship with the influential and wealthy cadres of Syrian society, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship where the clients receive state resources (government postings, real estate and grants, preferential treatment in business networks) and the state, in turn, receives political support and funding from its clients.11.Levitsky, Steven R. and Way, Lucan A. “Beyond Patronage: Violent Struggle, Ruling Party Cohesion, and Authoritarian Durability” in: Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 10 No. 4 (December 2012) Such client-patron networks have grown to be expansive and deeply ingrained in Syria, but never gratuitous. When certain agents within the network begin to maneuver for individual power that exceeds their allotment, the network is “pruned” back. 

The most outstanding example of such pruning is that of Rifa’at al-Assad, whose rise and fall deserves an entire article of its own and will not be detailed as such here.12.Sadowski, Yahya. “Patronage and the Ba’th: Corruption and Control in Contemporary Syria” in: Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9 Issue 4 (Fall 1987) Through familial and political connections as well as his own charisma and dogged nature, Rifa’at al-Assad grew to such positions of power in the 1970s that by 1983, a year after military units under his command brutally quelled the Hama uprising, he believed that he could successfully seize power from his brother Hafez, who had fallen into ill health after a heart attack. Rifa’at mustered his forces but underestimated the propensity of the regime, which he had until recently been a central part of, to close ranks around its primary benefactor when threatened. Though wealthy and powerful, Rifa’at was neither admired nor trusted by his colleagues within the regime, whereas Hafez had at least gained the trust and support of his clientele in spite of an economic downturn and the popular grief caused by the uprising. Though Hafez’s position initially seem tenuous, he recovered his health and returned to office before Rifa’at could strike a major blow. Knowing that their own positions would be threatened by Rifa’at and unwilling to back what many saw as a lost cause from the initiative, the majority of the Ba’ath rallied around Hafez and Rifa’at was forced to step down and go into temporary exile. He would never again attain his position or power, and would end up in exile in France with his assets seized either after the 1983 coup or after the 1999 protests in Latakia.13.Sadowski, Yahya. “Patronage and the Ba’th: Corruption and Control in Contemporary Syria” in: Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9 Issue 4 (Fall 1987)  

Rifa’at’s episode is the paramount example of how symbiotic the relationship between the client and patron in Syria is, and how excessive defection from the network is treated.14.Ghadry, Farid N. “Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath” in: Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (December 2005) While Rifa’at was able to get away with limited amounts of defection, his growing power and prestige tolerable so long as he continued to act loyal to Hafez and the Ba’ath, an attempt at full defection was quashed quickly and forcefully. This “pruning” of the network ensured that the most severe threat was eliminated, whereas lesser threats were contained or dealt with accordingly (several officers were put under house arrest or heavy surveillance following the attempted coup). 

Makhlouf has fallen into a similar pit as Rifa’at did, though he was not allowed to accrue as much power as Rifa’at had, likely on account of lacking the surname “Assad”. Seen not only as a potential source of debt relief but also as a growing threat to the central pillar of the Assad family and their dominance over Syria, Rami was quietly and quickly contained. Though he is likely a free man and has retained some of his assets, he has nevertheless seen his capacity to effect power projection in Syria reduced, and will be under extreme surveillance for the near future. Whether or not he can turn the tables in his favor again and reassert control over some of his assets remains to be seen. His fall from grace is beneficial not only for the Assad family, but for some of its other clients – namely Samer Foz, who is already providing funding for a new militia network under Talal Dakkak. There are no doubt many within Syria who greet his fall with jubilation.

Yet the Makhlouf episode shines a light on the precipitous position of the regime’s patrons, who are encouraged by the system’s tolerance of corruption to profit but must be aware of the fine line that they cannot cross. Rami Makhlouf has arguably been one of the biggest supporters of the regime in the last twenty years, and yet the regime has turned on him without hesitation, cannibalizing one of their own to keep Damascus afloat and, by extension, Moscow. It is as much a sign of predatory behavior towards the regime’s own clients as it is a sign of desperation in a time of seemingly endless civil war. 

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at tschoenborn.00@gmail.com.

References   [ + ]

1. “Getting to know Syria’s first family” : CNN
2, 3, 14. Ghadry, Farid N. “Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath” in: Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (December 2005)
4. Primavera, Mauro. “Rami Makhlouf and the Syrian war economy”. Publication by the Moshe Dayan Center (25 April 2018)
5. “Rami Makhlouf-funded Militias’ Commander killed east of Palmyra” : Nedaa
6, 8, 10. “Assad Orders Measures Against Rami Makhlouf’s Companies” : Asharq al-Awsat
7. https://twitter.com/SchoenbornTrent/status/1166851679905570817
9. https://twitter.com/THE_47th/status/1166318170405298176
11. Levitsky, Steven R. and Way, Lucan A. “Beyond Patronage: Violent Struggle, Ruling Party Cohesion, and Authoritarian Durability” in: Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 10 No. 4 (December 2012)
12, 13. Sadowski, Yahya. “Patronage and the Ba’th: Corruption and Control in Contemporary Syria” in: Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9 Issue 4 (Fall 1987)