Syrian regime in crisis

Assad versus Makhlouf

The power struggle between the Syrian regime and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and one of the richest men in Syria, is coming to a head now that the state has ordered the confiscation of Makhlouf's assets. Commentary by Shafeeq Ghabra

The open rift between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf, who with his dubious business interests controls a considerable segment of the Syrian economy, gives some idea of the seriousness of the crisis currently facing the Syrian regime. And it also demonstrates the magnitude of government corruption.

The signs of disintegration that have long since been evident in the military and security apparatus, as well as in the country's economic life are now beginning to show in the all-powerful ruling clan as well. Against the backdrop of the military and political presence of Russia and Iran and growing criticism of Assad's actions by the Russian media over the past few weeks, a few surprises are still to be expected.

A power struggle amongst mafia-like players for economic resources and political supremacy, plus a reckoning for the enormous number of victims amongst the Syrian population since 2011 are some of the factors that will define how things play out.

Scorched earth policy – looking back

To begin, though, we have to ask how Syria got itself into this dismal situation in the first place. So let's take a look back. The revolution of 2011 only became radicalised when the Assad regime decided to embark on a strategy of repression and military force to suppress a rebellion that had started out peacefully.

There can be no doubt that the military response to the uprisings and the resulting elimination of the civil and popular character of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and 2012 was what led the Syrian Free Army to splinter into many different militias.

President Bashar al-Assad with his wife Asma al-Assad (photo: WDR)
Fight to retain power – at any price: hopeful of circumventing a political solution and reforms, Bashar al-Assad first enlisted the help of Hezbollah from Lebanon, then militias from the Iranian government. In September 2015, Russia entered the fray, fully committed to crushing the revolution

And yet the regime preferred to embrace a scorched earth policy rather than curtailing Syrian presidential powers, or even implementing a minimum of political reforms to ensure social participation and the accountability of those in office.

This may not be anything unusual for dictatorships. But it makes a huge difference whether a regime comes to the realisation that all signs are pointing toward radical change (as in some other Arab countries, where a new president at least took office), or whether it holds fast to its leader until its dying breath, without caring in the least what price there is to pay.

Under the sway of external forces

In the hope of circumventing a political solution and reforms, the Syrian regime first enlisted the help of the Hezbollah from Lebanon and then called in Iranian government militias.

When these steps failed to give the regime the necessary clout to regain the upper hand against the insurgents, it appealed to Russia with its fighter planes and military bases. In September 2015, Russia thus arrived on the scene and put all its weight into crushing the revolution, at a time when the insurgents were just on the verge of tipping the scales against the regime.

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