Syrian tycoon scandal strikes at the heart of ruling Alawite sect

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - When Hafez Al Assad died in 2000 after three decades of iron-fisted rule, he set a token model of communal belonging upended by a political and business scandal shaking his minority Alawite sect to the core.

Assad’s funeral in his home village of Qardaha in the Alawite mountains near the Mediterranean coast was entirely Sunni, without a hint of the esoteric faith to which he belonged.

A protege cleric from Damascus, who had spent his life preaching obedience to the Assads, presided over the ceremony.

Nowhere in the televised funeral was an Alawite rite detected or an Alawite accent heard although the sect had dominated the state and the security apparatus since mostly Alawite officers took power in a 1963 coup.

So it was highly unusual when Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man and Bashar Al Assad’s cousin, spoke with an Alawite accent in viral videos over the last week. As a staunch backer of the Alawites, his fall from grace and apparent threat to his power base in Syria strikes at the very heart of the ruling sect.

Hafez Al Assad in Damascus in 1972. AFP
Hafez Al Assad in Damascus in 1972. AFP

Breaking a taboo by using Alawite religious terms in a public broadcast, Mr Makhlouf signalled that the security apparatus was moving against him because he had expanded his efforts to help his co-religionists without permission from the top.

Mr Makhlouf made clear that in the last eight years he has been plugging perceived neglect of ordinary Alawites by supporting families who had lost members defending the regime. Before the 2011 revolt against the Assad family’s rule, the sect comprised about 10 per cent of Syria’s then population of 20-22 million.

Regional bankers who dealt with Mr Makhlouf said he has also been financing Alawite clerics whom the Assads had traditionally treated with suspicion because some of the clerics had balked at showing total obedience to the ruling family.

The tycoon’s fortune came largely from monopolies the Assads had awarded him and his father over swathes of the economy.

Mr Makhlouf is also widely seen as a frontman for Mr Assad and for his brother Maher Al Assad, who oversees the Alawite praetorian units entrusted with defending the core of the regime.

The funeral procession of Hafez Al Assad in Damascus 13 June 2000, before his body was flown to his home village of Qardaha for burrial AFP.
The funeral procession of Hafez Al Assad in Damascus 13 June 2000, before his body was flown to his home village of Qardaha for burrial AFP.

Alawites have comprised most of the officer class for decades, partly a result of their promotion in the military by the French colonialists of Syria in the 1930s and 1940s.

Still, the Assads only assigned sensitive military hardware, such as artillery units within reach of the presidential palace in Damascus, only to members of Alawite clans regarded as ultra-loyalists.

Mr Makhlouf is now believed to be out of sight in the Alawite Mountains near Qardaha, the same rugged region where Hafez Al Assad’s soviet-style mausoleum stands.

The late dictator did not trust that his grave would be left unmolested to perpetuity if he was buried as is customary in Damascus among majority Sunni inhabitants.

In 2013 rebel groups, some linked to Al Qaeda, came close to Qardaha before they were repelled, but not after overrunning several villages and killing over 100 Alawites, as well as taking at least a similar number hostage.

Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf in one of his latest videos denouncing the security apparatus from an unknown location.
Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf in one of his latest videos denouncing the security apparatus from an unknown location.

Many in the opposition, even secular figures, regarded the offensive as partial retribution for the hundreds of thousands of Sunni civilians who regime forces killed or disappeared since the 2011 revolt and the ensuing civil war.

But the inner-communal settling of scores have also been a hallmark of the Alawite Mountains, and members of the sect traditionally fled there when they regarded that their existence was at stake.

When Hafez Al Assad died in July 2000 many Alawite families left Damascus to their original mountain enclaves fearing Sunni retribution if the succession did not work.

Mohammad Makhlouf, Rami’s father, played a main role behind the scenes in ensuring the transfer went smoothly, together with his sister Anissa, Hafez Al Assad’s late widow and Bashar Al Assad’s mother.

Syrian writer Michel Kilo in Paris on October 11, 2011. A former political prisoner, Mr Kilo was jailed for three years in the 2000s after he wrote about societal changes in his home city of Latakia, prompted by a 1963 coup that ushered Alawite domination of the state.
Syrian writer Michel Kilo in Paris on October 11, 2011. A former political prisoner, Mr Kilo was jailed for three years in the 2000s after he wrote about societal changes in his home city of Latakia, prompted by a 1963 coup that ushered Alawite domination of the state.

Hafez Al Assad had surrounded Bashar with Sunni figures who introduced him to Sunni urban merchant families and helped adapt his mannerisms to fit the Sunni mainstream. Bashar married from the Al Akhrases, a Sunni family from Homs who had business dealings with the regime.

Bashar Al Assad and Rami Makhlouf had been close friends before Assad became president.

But Mr Makhlouf was not liked by the two powerful brothers of Bashar: Bassel, the former heir apparent who died in a car accident in 1994, and Maher, who heads the elite Fourth Mechanised Division of the Syrian military and who expanded his business network in the last eight years.

The death of Hafez Al Assad set Mr Makhlouf on a course to become a member of an Alawite triumvirate — Bashar, Maher, and him. Some of the spoils also went to the senior Alawites who disproportionately staffed the top echelons of the army, security, and the state, as well as their Sunni business associates and informants.

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni in exile in Berlin on April 9, 2020. Mr Al Bunni was arrested in Damascus in 2006 as he was researching Alawite domination of the state. He was released a few months after the revolt against Assad family rule broke out in 2011.
Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni in exile in Berlin on April 9, 2020. Mr Al Bunni was arrested in Damascus in 2006 as he was researching Alawite domination of the state. He was released a few months after the revolt against Assad family rule broke out in 2011.

The Alawite rise from the fringes of Syria to absolute control of the country’s resources for the last 57 years resulted in steep societal changes, compounded by the spoils from a de facto takeover of large parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and the war economy since 2012.

While researching a book on Syria in the late 1990s, Palestinian scholar Hanna Batatu sat next to a group of Alawite intelligence operatives at a bar of a state-owned hotel in Damascus.

He approached the group and started asking about their peasant background only to be grabbed and thrown in jail. Eventually he published the tome about Syria’s peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables, and their politics.

A Sunni academic living in the UAE recalled how his family had an Alawite maid in their house while he was growing up in Damascus. The maid married an intelligence operative and quit around 1963.

“She came a couple of years after with an armed guard in a black Mercedes, knocked our door, and ordered my mother to kiss her feet, although we had treated her as a member of our family,” he said.

The mother did what she was told. Others who challenged what they described as the Alawisation of the state had their liberty confiscated.

Veteran Syrian economist Aref Dalila in Damascus in 2012. Mr Dalila was jailed fom 2001 to 2008 , after he criticised the regime for awarding monopolies to Rami Makhlouf. AFP
Veteran Syrian economist Aref Dalila in Damascus in 2012. Mr Dalila was jailed fom 2001 to 2008 , after he criticised the regime for awarding monopolies to Rami Makhlouf. AFP

Among them was prominent writer Michel Kilo, a Christian who was jailed in 2016 for three years after writing about officers’ tombstones in his hometown of Latakia, on which he observed mostly Alawite names.

The coastal city was overwhelmingly Sunni and Christian until preferential treatment attracted Alawites from the mountains to state security jobs. Latakia’s bauhaus and Marseilles-style architecture gave way to a skyline of bland residential towers and fortress-like compounds for a myriad of secret police organisations.

While conducting research on the make-up of the manager class in the bureaucracy, also in 2006, Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni was arrested and spent five years in incarceration as a political prisoner. After his release Mr Bunni said data he had collected indicated that the manager ranks were almost exclusively Alawite.

The regime has had few qualms about targeting Alawite dissidents. Aref Dalila, former dean of economics at Damascus University criticised monopolies awarded to Mr Makhlouf and was gravely ill when the regime released him in 2008 after seven years in jail on the assumption that he would soon die. Against the odds, Mr Dalila survived a huge lung surgery in Damascus and is now in exile in .

Abdel Aziz Al Khayyer, a friend of Mr Dalila from Qardaha remained in Syria despite his opposition to the regime. Security forces abducted Mr Al Khayyer in 2012 and he has since disappeared.

But Mr Makhlouf is a casualty of the system of repression he championed. His quest for survival has exposed socio-economic rifts within the Alawites, challenging the regime’s narrative that the community is monolithic in its support for the Assads.

A European lawyer who has had close dealings with Mr Makhlouf told The National that the tycoon retains support among a significant proportion of Alawites who regard the Assads as having treated them as cannon fodder and among a long-neglected Alawite clerical establishment.

“Makhlouf’s message has been that Assad lost Lebanon, and then large parts of Syria and now he is going to sink the Alawites by targeting the only financial trustee who has been helping the community,” the lawyer said.

Updated: May 5, 2020 07:59 PM

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