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The unhealed wounds of the Asad clan in Syria

French justice condemns Bachar al-Asad's uncle for money laundering, exposing Syrian president's fragility
A woman walks past a sign representing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in Damascus, Syria, on 5 March 2020

REUTERS/YAMAN AL SHAAR  -   A woman walks past a sign representing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in Damascus, Syria, on 5 March 2020

The history of the Asad clan in Syria could be described with that popular saying that "the family is our major strength but also our major weakness". Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has dismissed his prime minister, while French justice has sentenced Rifaat al-Asad, the uncle of the Syrian leader, to four years in prison for money laundering and as economic instability increases in the territory under his control. 

El presidente sirio Bachar al-Asad
PHOTO/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY – Syrian President Bachar al-Asad

The history of this clan goes back to 1920, when Ali Sulayman al Wahhish earned the nickname of Al Asad (the lion, in its Spanish translation), for his feats in his hometown, Kardahah, in the mountains of Latakia, in the northwest of the country, as well as for defending the interests of the minority sect of the Alawites - a sub-sect of the Shi'ism main stream, the Duodecimana or Imam - in a Syria dominated, at the time, by Sunni Muslims. 

The English historian Lord Acton defended the theory that "if power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely". And this is precisely what happened to Ali's son, Rifaat al-Asad, who allegedly tried to dethrone his older brother, Hafez al-Asad, head of the 1970 coup d'état and dictatorial president of the Republic since the following year. This dispute has not been forgotten by the descendants of the clan that has decided Syria's future for the past fifty years. 

La foto de archivo tomada el 1 de enero de 1984 muestra al difunto presidente sirio Hafez al-Assad con su hermano menor Rifaat (en una ceremonia militar en Damasco
AFP PHOTO / HO - The archive photo taken on 1 January 1984 shows the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad with his younger brother Rifaat (at a military ceremony in Damascus

Several decades later, the Paris Correctional Court has sentenced the uncle of the current president of Syria - one of the pillars of the regime as head of the internal security forces until the beginning of the 1980s - to four years in prison for money laundering; a capital that has allowed him to build up significant assets in countries such as France, Spain and the United Kingdom, among others. The French justice system has also confiscated assets amassed in France, whose value at the time of the investigation was about 90 million euros, and to which were added another 8.38 million real estate properties that had been sold, according to information available to the EFE news agency.

En esta foto de archivo del 27 de mayo de 2005, Rifaat Assad, el tío exiliado del presidente sirio Bashar Assad habla durante una entrevista con The Associated Press en su oficina de Marbella, al sur de España
AP/PAUL WHITE - In this archival photo from May 27, 2005, Rifaat Assad, the exiled uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in Marbella, southern Spain

The story of Bachar al-Asad, a UK-trained and educated ophthalmologist, changed completely after the death of his father. Bachar represented the hope of democratic openness in a country that a decade later would be plunged into one of the cruellest conflicts of the 21st century. The civil war, the economic crisis and the coronavirus have created the perfect scenario for the so-called "most serious crisis in the last twenty years of the Syrian Government". 

In this context, Bachar's maternal cousin and one of the richest members of the family, Rami Makhlouf, has challenged the president's decision to charge him some $230 million in back taxes.  In early June, the Syrian Ministry of Telecommunications announced its intention to manage the company Syriatel, of which Makhlouf is a director, to ensure payment of the operator's debts. The justice ministry had previously forbidden the Syrian magnate to leave the country "for the money he allegedly owes the state," according to local media reports. Since then, several of Asad's cousins have publicly questioned the effectiveness of Asad's government through various videos. 

En esta foto de archivo del 24 de abril de 2010, Rami Makhlouf, primo del presidente sirio Bachar al-Assad y uno de los hombres de negocios más ricos de ese país
PHOTO/AP - In this archive photo from April 24, 2010, Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and one of the richest businessmen in the country

However, in this complicated scenario, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced the entry into force of new sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, and 38 other personalities around him, including his wife Asma and his brother Maher. The war raging in this country has been compounded by an unprecedented crisis caused by these sanctions. The Syrian pound has devalued from 50 pounds to the US dollar in 2011 to more than 3,000 pounds in 2020 and it is estimated that around 90 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Called the Caesar Act, these sanctions are intended, according to the State Department, to "help end the horrific conflict in Syria by promoting the accountability of the Al-Assad regime" as well as "deny the regime the financial resources used to further its campaign of violence and destruction that has killed thousands and thousands of civilians. 

 En esta foto de archivo publicada por la página de Facebook de la Presidencia Siria el 27 de enero de 2019, se ve a la Primera Dama Asma al-Assad
AFP/Syrian Presidency Facebook Page - This stock photo posted by the Syrian Presidency Facebook page on 27 January 2019 shows First Lady Asma al-Asad

Meanwhile, Asad has decided not to take refuge in his family to face the social and political crisis in his country and has also distanced himself from his 45-year-old cousin Ribal al-Asad and his uncle's son Rifaat. The videos made by Makhlouf, have reached the hands of Ribal who has described them as a "threatening trick". "I know Rami personally; he's a coward. He won't go against the regime. He is nothing without Bachar," he told the newspaper Foreing Policy.  "This is just a show. Bachar is using Rami to tell the Russians that he will lose the support of the Alawites and that it will affect their interests in the coastal area where the Russians have their naval base and airport," he explained. 

En esta foto de archivo del 10 de febrero de 2015, publicada por la agencia oficial de noticias siria SANA, el presidente sirio Bachar al-Asad durante una entrevista en Damasco, Siria
PHOTO/SANA vía AP - In this archive photo from February 10, 2015, published by the official Syrian news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad during an interview in Damascus, Syria

After more than nine years of conflict, Syria is going through a severe economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the internal crisis of the Asad clan. In addition, the Syrian President has issued a decree dismissing Prime Minister Imad Khamis after several weeks of economic difficulties caused by the currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Syrian leader has appointed in his place Water Minister Hussein Arnous, who has previously worked as governor of Deir Zor province. This situation has led to dozens of people protesting in areas controlled by the Asad government. Hundreds of protesters in the southern province of Sweida have taken to the streets in recent days, denouncing the rising cost of living and criticizing the Syrian president's administration; protests that are reminiscent of anti-government demonstrations that took place in 2011.

Esta foto de archivo del 16 de enero de 2014 muestra al entonces ministro de electricidad, Imad Khamis
PHOTO/AFP - This archive photo from 16 January 2014 shows the then Minister of Electricity, Imad Khamis

"The economic crisis is hitting every corner of Syria. Medicine is more expensive and scarce. Food prices have shot up and supply chains have been disrupted. Syrian women, who are the main breadwinners in many families, are forced to assume the responsibilities of caring for the family and maintaining the household. In recent weeks, we have seen many Syrians begin to express new fears, including panic in some quarters. I continue to call for calm in Idlib and elsewhere, and for a ceasefire to be established throughout the country in accordance with resolution 2254," Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, said on Thursday via the social network Twitter. 

Vista aérea se muestra la ciudad de Ariha en la provincia de Idlib el 11 de abril de 2020
AFP/ AAREF WATAD - Aerial view showing the city of Ariha in Idlib province on 11 April 2020

The resurgence of protests has accentuated an internal schism within the regime, involving the aforementioned Rami Makhlouf, Asad's billionaire cousin, known to be supposedly one of the regime's main sources of funding. The economic crisis, family disputes and the war that is dividing this nation have led President Asad not only to be on the defensive, but to appear weaker than ever, at the same time that Syria is becoming the "impoverished shadow of what it once was", as the analyst Faysal Itani at the think tank Center for Global Policy has pointed out.