While You Weren't Looking
Why Did Assad Just Seize His Cousin’s Assets?
A deepening family rift shows intensifying pressure on the Syrian president.
Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.
Here’s what we’re watching this week: What to make of a rare public feud in Syria’s Assad family, China moves to exert greater control over Hong Kong, and the United States ships oil to a close Russian ally.
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In Syria, Rare Family Feud Escalates
Syria’s richest businessman, Rami Makhlouf, announced this week that the regime led by his cousin—President Bashar al-Assad—had seized his assets, the latest escalation in a rare public conflict in the family that has ruled Syria for almost 50 years. Makhlouf has posted a series of videos to Facebook in recent weeks rebuking the regime in which he was a key player for decades, offering an unusual and dangerous public challenge to Assad. “Frankly, if he wasn’t part of the family, he’d probably be dead,” said Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale.
Before the war, Makhlouf was believed to control some 60 percent of the Syrian economy and was described in a 2008 U.S. State Department cable as “Syria’s poster-boy for corruption.” During the conflict, he was a key financial backer of the regime. He was involved in oil and construction, but it was his ownership of Syria’s biggest cell network, Syriatel, that has likely put him in the regime’s crosshairs. The government claims he owes $250 million in taxes; Makhlouf says this is a lie concocted by the security services. On Thursday, Syria’s justice ministry said that he would be subject to a travel ban until the case was resolved.
It’s the economy, stupid. Theories abound as to what prompted Assad to move against his cousin, including speculation that Russia—which turned the tide of Syria’s civil war in favor of the regime when it intervened in 2015—is growing frustrated with Assad’s economic mismanagement and forcing him to turn the screws on his allies. The Syrian war has become a quagmire for Russia, but Moscow’s distaste for regime change is well known―especially when there is no clear successor.
The more likely explanation is Syria’s struggling economy, which has been battered by years of war and economic sanctions. The value of the beleaguered Syrian pound has dropped precipitously since the beginning of the year. Aside from Makhlouf, around a dozen pro-regime businessmen have been targeted for shakedowns as the regime looks to line its threadbare pockets. In recent years, Assad began collecting payments from rich businessmen as a kind of tax, said Ford, but Makhlouf was increasingly reluctant to pay—possibly singling himself out for retribution.
What We’re Following
When one drug door closes, another opens. In a series of raids conducted over three months, police in Myanmar’s Shan state have netted Southeast Asia’s biggest-ever synthetic-drug bust. The authorities seized hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drugs, including 990 gallons of the synthetic opioid methyl fentanyl, which has been linked to U.S. overdose deaths. Chinese exports once accounted for a majority of the fentanyl that ended up in the United States, but after Trump raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart in 2018, Beijing cracked down on the drug. This was the largest fentanyl haul ever taken by law enforcement in Southeast Asia, suggesting that regional crime syndicates may have stepped up to fill the void left by Chinese supply routes.
Desperate for gasoline. Five Iranian tankers carrying an estimated $45.5 million worth of gasoline and other oil products are sailing to Venezuela, where years of underinvestment and a lack of resources have left refineries struggling to convert the country’s plentiful oil supplies into gasoline. At 0.00000002 cents per gallon, subsidized gasoline in Venezuela is officially the cheapest in the world—but shortages exacerbated by U.S. sanctions that restrict imports have left drivers lining up at the pump for days. The shortages have even forced the bodyguards of government ministers to appeal for gasoline on social media.
The Venezuelan military has said that it will provide an escort once the Iranian ships reach its exclusive economic zone in the coming days. The U.S. government is weighing its options to deter Iran’s export of oil products to Venezuela.
One country, one system. The Chinese Communist Party unveiled new national security laws on Thursday that would give Beijing increased control over the semiautonomous territory of Hong Kong, signaling an end to the decadeslong policy of “one country, two systems” that gave the city a high degree of freedom relative to mainland China. The new laws would empower the Chinese authorities to quash dissent, such as the mass pro-democracy protests that began last summer. Immediate protests are dampened by pandemic fears, but serious unrest is likely later in the summer, as the city-state has almost no new coronavirus cases.
Keep an Eye On
Clashes in South Sudan. Hundreds of people have been killed in a flare-up of intercommunal violence in South Sudan’s eastern state of Jonglei last weekend. A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera that 287 people had been killed and at least 300 wounded after clashes broke out between the Murle and Lou Nuer communities on Saturday, the latest in a deadly cycle of revenge attacks over cattle raids and child abductions.
While violence has subsided since February, when the country’s feuding leaders formed a unity government after seven years of civil war, they have yet to agree who will govern each of the country’s 10 states. The leadership vacuum has allowed communal violence to continue. “The governor is a very, very important person in the state because they bring together many of the tribes. They also have the authority to reconcile and take action where there’s non-compliance,” David Shearer, the U.N. special representative to South Sudan, told Al Jazeera.
No more “oil for kisses”? The United States dispatched its first delivery of crude oil to Belarus this week, the latest sign that the country is looking to reduce its dependence on longtime ally Russia. For decades Moscow provided Minsk with reduced-price oil in exchange for loyalty, a relationship that came to be known as “oil for kisses.” But the relationship between the countries reached its nadir over the winter as Belarus resisted Russia’s efforts at integration. Russian oil exports to Belarus have been reduced by around half this year, forcing Minsk to shop elsewhere.
The country has received shipments from Azerbaijan, Norway, and Saudi Arabia, but U.S. support for a longtime Russian ally will not go unnoticed in Moscow.
Odds and Ends
Top-secret suds. A researcher at the investigative journalism site Bellingcat found that it is possible to track the movements of some U.S. military and intelligence personnel using a social networking app for beer fans called Untappd. The app lets people upload geotagged photos of the beer they are drinking, including at sensitive installations such as the CIA’s training camp known as the Farm in Virginia. One thirsty user checked in at the Farm—and 500 other places including military locations throughout the Middle East, possibly revealing the movements of a CIA officer.
It’s not the first such device to accidentally give away the location of supposedly security-conscious operators: In 2018 the use of Fitbit revealed U.S. military bases worldwide.
That’s it for this week.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack