The War Has Arrived Inside the Assad Family

Syria’s dictator crushed an uprising—but the ground may be crumbling beneath his feet.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma arrive at the Elysee palace on July 14, 2008 in Paris.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma arrive at the Elysee palace on July 14, 2008 in Paris. DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP via Getty Images

In the 1920s, Ali Sulayman al-Wahhish earned the nickname Al-Assad, or The Lion, for entreating the French to protect the minority sect of Alawites in a Syria dominated by Sunni Muslims. “Al-Assad” had a ring to it, so Ali made it his last name. Little did he know that his progeny would not only rule the country but one day squabble over the spoils of a state lying in ruins.

The rift was visible in the early 1980s as Ali’s son Rifaat allegedly tried to dethrone his elder brother and then-president, Hafez al-Assad, who himself had usurped power in a coup a decade earlier. Hafez successfully sidelined Rifaat and taught his son Bashar al-Assad how to stop rebellions—familial and otherwise—in their tracks. Bashar paid close attention, as attested by his bombing of cities across Syria and the killing and displacing of millions who stood against him in the uprising that began in 2011. He also kept a tight grip on his dozens of cousins through a combination of monetary incentives and an ever-lurking threat to their lives.

Last month, however, the unthinkable happened. Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s maternal cousin and one of the family’s richest members, challenged the president’s decision to charge him $230 million in back taxes, shredding the frail veneer of family solidarity. Since then, several Assad cousins have publicly questioned the efficacy of Bashar’s government, indirectly taking aim at him. Makhlouf’s criticism seems to be an inflection point for the Bashar regime. If Bashar loses the loyalty of his family and other co-religionists, it’s fair to wonder whether he can survive in power at all.

While Makhlouf seems to have interpreted the imposition of back taxes as a provocation, Bashar may have seen it as a demand for reciprocity. Makhlouf is estimated today to be worth $5 billion, wealth he only acquired because his businesses—which include Syriatel, the country’s biggest telecom company—had the blessing of the regime. Now that the Syrian state has been plunged into crisis by economic sanctions—the Syrian pound devalued from 50 pounds per U.S. dollar in 2011 to more than 3,000 pounds per U.S. dollar in 2020, and 90 percent of people are believed to be living in dire poverty—it wants Makhlouf’s assistance to keep it afloat. But that rationale has not proved persuasive for Makhlouf.

In May, Makhlouf published several amateur video clips online that, while wrapped in courtesies, warned Bashar that he risked losing the support of the broad swathe of Alawites—including militiamen—on the tycoon’s payroll. Makhlouf exploited old sectarian tensions as he insinuated that the fault lied with the president’s Sunni wife, Asma, who he alluded was trying to steal Alawite money, thus casting doubt on Bashar’s own commitment to his sectarian group.

The dispute has given fresh hope to Bashar’s challengers within the regime. They hope that Makhlouf may have weakened him irreparably among Alawites and opened space for challenging his role atop the regime, even as it is widely taken for granted that Bashar would violently resist any direct opposition from within his family.

Indeed, that has been a consistent pattern. Ribal al-Assad, the 45-year-old first cousin of the president and his uncle Rifaat’s son, is one of those who have been at the receiving end of Bashar’s ire. In 1994, outside the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, Bashar called him names and the altercation turned ugly. Frightened, Ribal’s father booked him a flight and asked him to leave. At the airport, gun-toting presidential guards fired shots and hung around for two and a half hours to arrest Ribal. He was apprehended but let go after Rifaat threatened Hafez al-Assad that he would fight in every street in Damascus “if a hair on his son’s body was harmed,” Ribal told Foreign Policy.

Ribal now lives in Spain in self-imposed exile and was at home in lockdown when he got a text with Makhlouf’s first video clip. He described it as a “menacing gimmick” and said he laughed when he first saw it. “I personally know Rami; he is a coward. He won’t go against the regime. He is nothing without Bashar,” Ribal said. “You can lose your life for much less, let alone challenging Bashar on social media. This is just a show. Bashar is using Rami to tell the Russians that he will lose support among the Alawites and that it would affect their interests in the coastal area where the Russians have their naval base and airport.”

Ribal recounted the events on Oct. 20, 1999, when his family home on the shores in Latakia came under attack by soldiers of the regime to ensure that Bashar—and not Ribal’s father, Rifaat—succeeded Hafez as national leader. “My uncle, Hafez, was ill, and succession was a matter of time. The regime wanted to pass the baton to Bashar and make sure there was no opposition to his ascendency and that they would crush anyone who would oppose it. That is why they attacked our house and supporters.”

Many of Rifaat’s children swore allegiance to Bashar and continued to live in Syria but still nurse grievances. One of them, Douraid al-Assad, was known to toe the regime line and sing Bashar’s praises—until recently. In a scathing tweet May 7, soon after Makhlouf released his videos, Douraid asked Bashar to meet the hundreds of relatives who share his last name but have not enjoyed his privileged life. “They say Syria is ruled by the Assad family,” Douraid tweeted. “I have a request. 100 to 200 members of the family have never met you and they want to see you. Many of them have grown up, had children but only seen you on TV.”

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat now based in the United States, said Douraid’s newfound courage has an ulterior motive. “Such brazenness was never tolerated,” Barabandi said. “Now Douraid is challenging Bashar openly to present his father, Rifaat al-Assad, as an alternative. If Douraid did not feel the community was angry at Bashar, he would not dare say this.”

Ribal and Douraid’s opposition is partly motivated by their family’s claim to political power. But other family members, including cousin Gen. Adnan al-Assad simply feel left out of the family business and deprived of the wealth it has brought to the likes of Makhlouf. Adnan ran a militia and fought on the side of Hafez against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in what has come to be known as the Hama massacre, in which thousands of brothers and civilians were killed. But in a letter he wrote to Makhlouf recently, he suggested that he felt inadequately compensated for his loyalty.

While he opposed the tycoon for crying wolf and described him as “the blue whale among the whales of money,” he painted himself as the real victim of a corrupt regime and took a careful dig at his cousin the president. “I have been selling my properties to meet the needs of my family, as my salary is just about $50 after 42 years of military service,” the letter said. It read like a sycophantic ode interspersed with a litany of complaints of how he had repeatedly been taken advantage of by the regime.

Back in October, Arab media reported on a more open challenge to Bashar’s government by the family of his aunt Bahija. Her son Ghaydaq fought for Bashar in Deir Ezzor during the uprising and yet was killed afterward in Latakia in clashes with a regime soldier who had come to arrest him on obscure criminal charges. Ghaydaq’s family vowed revenge in a Facebook post, but fearing repercussions, they later deleted it.

As the economy tumbles, average Assad supporters are beginning to wonder if their sacrifices have been worth it. Loyalists have paid for Bashar’s survival in blood, losing hundreds and thousands of men during the uprising. At the end of the war, they expected to reap some material profit—more jobs, promotions, or preferential treatment in government-awarded business contracts. Instead, the bankrupt government has left them poorer and hungry. Barabandi, the former Syrian diplomat, said that the Alawites are flabbergasted at the Makhlouf-Bashar saga. “They think they lost so much and there was no reward in the end,” Barabandi said. “They are fuming when they see these two cousins fight over billions as the common man struggles for pennies.”

Several Syrian experts told Foreign Policy that there is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad is losing support among Alawites. But they also say that the regime continues to control the country with an iron fist and it is premature to count on Bashar’s vulnerability. It is no secret that Ribal and Douraid al-Assad wished that their father, Rifaat, and not Bashar, had succeeded Hafez. But the old man’s past is stained with allegations of participation in the Hama massacre and, now at 82 years old, it is likely too late for him to fight his way down a bloody road to Damascus. Ribal, however, is young and admits he would like to be active in Syrian politics. “I want to, of course, but as opposition and not be part of any government at this stage,” he told Foreign Policy.

The other family that has been itching to make a comeback is that of Mustafa Tlass, long-time regime loyalists who defected during the uprising. Tlass’s son Manaf was in Bashar’s inner circle and a top military commander. Now based in Paris, Manaf has suggested in Russian media that there are alternatives to Bashar if Russia was interested in backing them. Manaf’s brother, Firas Tlass, who is a Syrian businessman currently based in the United Arab Emirates, thinks that Manaf is an alternative to Bashar and wants to play a role in Syrian politics, but he would return to Syria “only when Bashar leaves.”

For now, Russia seems more interested in controlling rather than replacing Bashar al-Assad. Going forward, he will find it harder to control the country—but it will be easier than ever for Russia to control him.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra