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Bashar Al Assad (right) and cousin Rami Makhlouf Image Credit:

Damascus: Syria observers have been busy trying to analyse what seems to be a soft and yet phased defection from Rami Makhlouf, a 51-year-old tycoon who happens to be the first cousin of President Bashar Al Assad.

Since the beginning of Ramadan, Makhlouf has made two controversial videos, creating waves in the upper echelons of power in Damascus. The first was released shortly before midnight on April 30, and the second on May 3.

While seated next what seemed to be a fireplace, wearing casual clothes with no ties or extravagance, he addressed the president using simple terms while citing the Quran.

He touched on sensitive topics using religious overtones, criticising corruption, injustice, and repression of the security services.

Clearly, he had completely lost access to Al Assad and was using social media to deliver a message to his cousin.

Makhlouf crossed several red lines, saying that conditions in Syria have become “deplorable”, going as far as to threaten the president with “divine punishment” if no reforms were forthcoming.

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A screen-grab from Makhlouf's first video addressing his cousin Al Assad.

Those who know him say that the engineer-turned business magnate has become deeply religious in recent years, perhaps explaining why he believes that his massive wealth (estimated at $6 billion) had been given to him “by God” rather than his cousin.

He seemed to be developing a political ambition as well, without necessarily saying that he wanted to replace Al Assad, who has survived a brutal nearly 10-year old civil war that originally aimed at unseating him, and is due to celebrate his 20th year in power next July.

Makhlouf sees himself as a partner and co-creator of the present regime, rather than a subordinate.

Boiling tension

During the first decade of Al Assad’s rule (2000-2010), Makhlouf was often described as “the richest man in Syria”. He was founder of Syria’s first GSM operator, SyriaTel (which now boasts of 11 million subscribers) and a wide assortment of smaller investments in schools, banks, duty free shops, real estate development firms, and media organisations.

When the Syrian revolt started in March 2011, anti-regime demonstrations chanted his name and called for his downfall, describing him a symbol of nepotism and corruption.

Bankrolling the security services

Makhlouf made a rare television appearance in June 2011, saying that he was retiring from public life, a move that was interpreted back then as an attempt at appeasing the angry street. He continued to bankroll the security agencies, albeit silently, even establishing his own militia to lend a hand to the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian armies fighting on the Syrian battlefield.

It was called Al Bustan and operated a charity firm that was heavily involved with helping the families of Syrian soldiers wounded or killed in battle, mostly members of the Alawite minority to which the Al Assad and Makhlouf families belong.

Those gestures greatly boosted Makhlouf’s popularity among the Alawites. His family were traditional notables in that community, owing land and influence long before the Al Assads came to power in 1970.

Buying allegiance

Enjoying the attention that he was getting, Makhlouf bought the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, one of the oldest political parties in the Middle East, which has been traditionally opposed to the ruling Baath.

Propping himself as the party’s invisible president, he started to insert his proteges into parliament and the executive branch, literarily creating a state within-a-state for the Makhlouf family.

Family tension

Makhlouf’s influence raised the ire of the president and his brother Maher Al Assad, an influential commander in the Republican Guard, who always believed that Makhlouf was giving the regime a bad name.

He now had money, a political platform, and an armed militia at his disposal, making him start to look and sound dangerous.

The chance to get rid of him came with the death of Anisa Makhlouf in February 2016. She was Al Assad’s mother and Rami had always been her favourite nephew.

Slowly the Al Assads began to distance themselves from Makhlouf, dismantling his business empire, one bit at a time.

Empire disbanded

First, his brother Hafez was discharged from his post at Syrian intelligence.

Last September his shares in SyriaTel were seized, followed by his militia, Al Bustan, which was immediately disbanded.

Then came a court order banning Makhlouf’s political party, a major development that had been eclipsed in Arab media by the back-to-back October unrest in Iraq and Lebanon.

Makhlouf did not complain, however, but gently suspended his monthly subsidies to the intelligence services and to the 25th Counter-Terrorism Division of the Syrian Army.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Finance came after his shares in SyriaTel, saying that he owed them an outstanding payment of 155 billion Syrian Pounds (Dh1.10 billion). Due to accumulating interest on income tax, the number had snowballed to become 233 billion SP.

In his first video, Makhlouf said that he would only pay the money if the state promised to distribute it to the poor and needy. Days later he changed his mind, saying that he would not pay a penny.

The security services, he added, were arresting his top managers and employees, hoping to pressure him to bend. “Can anyone believe that those security agencies are harassing Rami Makhlouf’s men” he said on March 3, speaking about himself in third person. “I supported those agencies for years and I was there main benefactor!”

The security services did not respond to Makhlouf and have kept his men in custody, as of May 8. The Finance Ministry had given him a deadline until May 5 to settle his dues, and although it has passed, it has taken no action against him yet.