It is no surprise that the Syrian economy is in shambles with a civil war that has been raging since 2011 in addition to the economic deterioration in neighboring Lebanon which has led to Syrian nationals not being able to withdraw their deposits from Lebanese banks which are estimated to be at around $45 billion. Coupled with the international sanctions imposed on Syria, it can be said that the Assad regime is in a bad spot and needs to find a way to navigate through the situation and come out on top. This endeavor has led them to cut ties with many businessmen including billionaire Rami Makhlouf in what they call an anti-corruption campaign, but the story is far more complex.
Rami Makhlouf is the maternal cousin of the president of Syria Bashar Al-Assad and one of the richest businessmen in Syria with an estimated net worth of $5 billion and, according to the Financial Times, controls more than half of the Syrian economy with his most profitable endeavor being Syriatel – the main telecom provider in Syria. Makhlouf has been a staunch supporter of the regime and has been financing the war effort ever since 2011 but it seems that his days as the front man for the Syrian economy are over. In 2019, Makhlouf was accused by the state of failing to pay customs and other fees on imports, such as oil and gas, which were estimated to be around $21 million. This was one of the first accusations put on the business magnate.
Recently, the state has accused Makhlouf and his company Syriatel of being late on their taxes of an estimated $178 million which prompted the tycoon to take to Facebook to air his grievances and refute this accusation. In one of his multiple videos he says that not only has Syriatel paid its dues in taxes but on top of that they are sharing 50% of the profits with the government. The 51 year old businessman has been asked by the regime to resign from his post as chairman of Syriatel and is being pressured to do so with the state seizing his assets and putting him under house arrest.
The reasons why president Bashar has distanced himself from his cousin and is trying to eliminate Makhlouf’s economic hold goes beyond financial reasons. Rami Makhlouf’s power has grown dramatically during the war and he even has his own militia that has been fighting alongside the Syrian army, but Al-Assad fears that with Rami’s growing power his ambition would grow too and he would try to take his place as president. This rift between Al-Assad and Makhlouf can lead to bigger problems in Syria and cause a divide within the ruling Alawite class which could be a cause for concern to foreign powers who have interests in Syria, specifically Russia and Iran.
These two superpowers have each stood along with the regime during the civil war and have both invested considerable amounts on it. Hesmatollah Falahatpisheh, a former Iranian MP, has stated that Iran has spent $30 Billion in Syria which shows how much Iran cares about the survival of the Assad regime and that they would continue to protect it so that their political and economic interests are kept safe. As for Russia, it has had substantial investments in Syria with the deployment of Russian anti air defenses and providing air support for Al-Assad which have substantially aided him in retaking control over Syrian land that had been under rebel or ISIS control as well as sending Wagner group mercenaries. It is evident that Russia has poured considerable military resources in Syria to ensure the survival of the regime for it to achieve its objectives of maintaining strong economic ties as well as a militarized presence in the region. Russia wants to achieve stability in Syria and if they decide to bring in Rami in Assad’s place they would provoke the regime which would further disrupt the fragile country and go against their objectives. As for Iran, it would be difficult for them to accept a change in leadership in Syria as they have had a long standing alliance with Syria which Bashar inherited from his father.
It will be interesting to see what Rami will do to try and keep his economic power, but it is difficult to imagine that the Syrian president wouldn’t try to eliminate the potential threat that he perceives in Makhlouf. It is possible that Makhlouf will utilize his Russian connections and be able to secure passage to Russia, but he will forfeit his position in Syria which will be inevitable considering the pressure mounted upon him.