Who Governs Syria?
The following is an article by a Russian expert on Middle Eastern affairs. It is a serious article and is aimed at informing academics and policy makers in Russia as to the history and nature of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The picture is complex and involves the family and friends of the Syrian President, their rivalries, and their political and financial assets. One cannot help but be reminded of the internal workings of the great American Mafia families of a half-century ago. But this family is armed with an army and an air force.
Who Governs Syria?
By Kirill Semenov, Head of the Center for Islamic Studies of the Institute for Innovative Development
This article was published in the framework of the partnership between Expert Online and the Russian Council of International Affairs. (Translation by Livingston Merchant)
As a result of the military conflict in Syria, the complex structure of the inner circle of President Bashar al-Assad has undergone changes, but not the system of government itself, which will inevitably have to have a profound reform. The three pillars of the Syrian ruling regime since the coming to power of 1971 of Hafez al-Assad to the present remain the BAATH party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elite was formed around these three pillars. The top of the pyramid is the inner circle - a narrow group of those most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on decision-making is due not so much to positions occupied as to membership in the al-Assad family or other special relations with it. In this closed environment, there were and still are groups that could also compete with each other.
The military conflict in Syria changed the structure of the inner circle . In particular, the adoption of decisions became influenced by the figures who rose during the civil war. In turn, other representatives of those surrounding Bashar al-Assad were forced to flee the country and actually move to the opposition camp.
Those who Passed to the Opposition
In particular, this refers to the influential Circassian clan of the Tlas family. It was headed by the former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas (1972-2004) who died in 2017) - one of the closest associates of Hafez al-Assad. It was to Mustafa Tlas that Bashar al-Assad owed much to his coming to power when, after the death of Hafez al-Assad, part of the Syrian elite advocated the transfer of power to Maher, the brother of Bashar.
The Tlas family could become the second most influential family in Syria after the al-Assads themselves, not inferior in importance to the relatives of the mother of Bashar al-Assad from the clan Mahluyfov. The son of Mustafa Tlas, Firas, was one of the wealthiest Syrian tycoons with interests in many areas of the Syrian economy. He has the second largest fortune in the Syrian Arab Republic. Rami Mahlouf, the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, was ahead of him.
Mustafa and Firas Tlas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlas subsequently financed the rebel units of the Faruk Brigade, which acted in Al-Rastan's hometown for the Tlas family in Homs. Following Firas, his younger brother, Manaf Tlas, who also served as commander of the 105th Brigade (according to other sources, the 104th) of the Republican Guard followed his emigration. After he moved to Jordan, he tried to start there the formation of an opposition Syrian national army, which was to replace the Free Army of Syria. However, this project ended in failure.
A member of the inner circle of the Al-assad family, who fled the Syrian Arab Republic after the start of the revolutionary events, was also another former (2009-2011) defense minister, Ali Habib Mahmud. Unlike the Tlas family, who are Sunnis, Habib Mahmud is an Alawite. He can be considered the most senior representative of the Alawite minority, who declared support for the Syrian revolution. At the first stage, he supervised the suppression of the uprising, and sanctions were even imposed against him. But after Ali Habib Mahmud was removed from his post, he established ties with the rebels and left the country.
There is reason to believe that the flight from the country of the Tlas family and Ali Habib Mahmud was not due to their support of the opposition as such, but to the alignment of forces in the Syrian leader's environment. Relatives of Bashar al-Assad found a reason to get rid of influential competitors from the inner circle , accusing them of both sympathy and connections with the rebels, and inability to suppress the insurrection. In such a situation, the Tlas brothers and Mahmud had no choice but to go to the camp of the opponents of the regime.
Representatives of the Tlas family and Habib Mahmud theoretically have a chance to return to active participation in the political life of Syria. Everything will depend on the course and direction of the peace process in this country. They are considered acceptable figures for both the opposition and part of the Ba'ath apparatus. If it comes to the formation of a government of national consensus, then the Tlas brothers could get portfolios , and under certain circumstances - even lead it.
The Explosion Factor on July 18, 2012
Another important event that changed the alignment of forces in the inner circle of the regime was the explosion on July 18, 2012 at the headquarters of the National Security Council in Damascus, for which the group Liwa al-Islam claimed responsibility. In this sabotage action, several influential representatives of the close circle of the Al-Assad family were killed. The most significant figure among them, who had great weight in the decision-making by the Ba'athist leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic, was the son-in-law of the Syrian president, Assef Shaukat, the husband of Bushra al-Assad.
Asef Shaukat's relations with some members of the al-Assad family were quite complex. On the one hand, he was considered a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London, after the death of his brother Basil. On the other hand, Shaukat was in conflict with Maher, the younger brother of Bashar. According to some reports, in 1999 Maher al-Assad shot at Asef and wounded him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the triumvirate of Asef Shaukata, and Bashar and Maher al-Assad that was called the top of the pyramid of the inner circle. Shaukat also held high official positions in the country's leadership. In particular, he was the head of military intelligence (2005-2010), deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Arab Army (2010-2011), and from April 2011 until death - chief of staff of the Syrian Arab Army.
Maher al-Assad and Rami Mahluyu - on Top of the Pyramid
The flight from the country of the Tlas family and the death of Asef Shaukat led Bashar’s younger brother Mahar and his cousin Rami Mahluyu into the closest circles of Bashar al-Assad. They came to have the decisive say in decision-making, despite the fact that they do not have any key positions in the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Maher al-Assad is currently considered as the second most important person in the SAR after the country's president. He oversees the Republican Guard and de facto is the commander of the 4th Panzer Division (he was officially commander of the 42nd brigade of this division, and Major General Mohammad Dirham was officially registered as division commander). These elite units are responsible for the protection of government facilities and defense of the capital.
In addition to command posts and seats in the Central Committee of the Ba'ath Party, Maher al-Assad is also a financial tycoon. According to some reports, Maher al-Assad could have made up to a billion dollars by supplying food for the regime of Sadam Hussein in Iraq, and then further increased his fortune after financial manipulation of the bankruptcy of the Lebanese bank al-Madina. Moreover, the Sheraton chain of hotels in Syria, as well as some mass media, for example Cham Press, etc., belonged to the sphere of its financial interests. Thus, in addition to the loyal parts of the 4th division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad has also an economic component of his own influence.
Maher al-Assad has had rather difficult relations with the second most influential person in the current circle surrounding the Syrian president and his own cousin Remi Mahlouf. Their relationship can be as partners in certain areas. In particular, it is known about their joint pre-war business projects in Lebanon and the UAE. However, in other spheres they can rather act as competitors.
An important business partner representing the interests of Maher al-Assad in the business community is Mohammad Hamshaw. He participates in the financing of various pro-government media, for example, the Addounia Holding , owns Hamsho International Group, has stakes in Middle East Marketing and Syria International for Artistic Production, as well as in the Al-Sham Holding. Mohammad Hamshaw is also the link between the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Remi Mahlouf.
In general, Maher al-Assad is quite an independent figure. He can openly express his disagreement with certain decisions of Bashar al-Assad and is able to impose his own line. It is Maher al-Assad who can be considered the main supporter of the war party in Damascus. He is also counted among the main conductors of Iran's interests in the Syrian leadership. Relations between Mahar Al-Assad and the Iranian special services were noted. In particular, it is known about his initiatives to attract Iranian military specialists even at the very beginning of the internal conflict. In addition, it is in the subdivisions controlled by Maher al-Assad that branches of Shiite paramilitary structures are being formed. Thus, within the framework of the 4th division, the Shiite battalion Seif al-Mahdi is being created.
In due time his contacts with Iran also became the basis for rumors spread by pro-opposition sources about alleged conflicts between him and Bashar al-Assad. So, in 2016, reports began to appear about the removal of Maher al-Assad from the command of the 42nd Brigade and transfer to the second-rank post in the General Staff with the promotion to rank to the Major General. This was due to the quarrel between the brothers, the result of which was the honorable exile of Maher al-Assad. Then, in January 2017, Maher al-Assad was accused of attempting a military insurrection against Bashar al-Assad with the support of the Iranians. This was allegedly connected with his disagreement with the line of the Syrian leadership to join the peace process and negotiations with the opposition. However, in the summer of 2017, Maher al-Assad was seen at the head of the same 4th division during operations in the south of Syria, in the province of Deraa.
However, the exaggeration of such rumors about a possible conflict between the al-Assad brothers really reflects some fears that if the peace process reaches the point when it comes to transferring power to the government of national accord , the supporters of the hard line and the conservative wing the Ba'ath Party, associated with Iran, will be able to count on Maher al-Assad. He has the necessary influence in the power structures, has also a serious financial base, and most importantly - the willingness to make any sacrifices to achieve his goals, which he has demonstrated once, including brutally cracking down on peaceful protests during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.
The next most important and influential person in Syria after Maher al-Assad's is Rami Mahlouf. Rami Mahluyf, along with the Syrian president and his brother Maher al-Assad form a triumvirate of Syria's most influential people. Rami is the richest tycoon in the country. His fortune is estimated at $6 billion. He is a co-owner of SyriaTel, the largest mobile operator in Syria and Cham Holding. Cham Holding controls the most profitable areas of services in Syria, including hotel business, restaurant chains, travel companies, as well as the airline Syrian Pearl Airlines. In addition, Rami Mahlouf is a major shareholder in a number of banks, such as the International Islamic Bank of Syria, the al-Baraka Bank, the International Bank of Qatar, the Cham Bank and the Bank of Jordan in Syria. As is well known, the Mahlyufov family has close ties with the British business interests. In particular, their capital is present in the British oil company Gulfsands Petroleum. In the sphere of interests of Rami Mahlouf are media, among them are al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. In general, according to some sources, Rami Mahluyf controls up to 60% of the Syrian economy.
Using his connections, influence and capabilities, Rami Mahluyf, despite the sanctions imposed on him, carries out an important mission for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling elite of the Syrian Arab Republic, which is to find ways to circumvent these restrictions. To this end, he used three Syrian companies close to the government - Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing, Pangates International and the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to create shadow companies in the Seychelles. To further the same mission, Rami Mahluyf is also involved in the Eastern European companies controlled by him - the Polish DOM Development Holding and the Romanian Rock Holding.
The al-Bustan Association
An important element of Mahlouf's empire is the al-Bustan Association, created by him as a charitable foundation, which was supposed to solve humanitarian problems arising during the civil war in Syria. It is known that this association received payments from UNICEF in the amount of $267,733. In reality, al-Bustan has become the main source of financing for various paramilitary groups of the so-called Shabiha, which is not affiliated with the official power structures of the UAR. In fact, through al-Bustan, Rami Mahlouf created his own, controlled only by private military companies. To the most famous formations connected with al-Bustan, one should include Dir al-Vatan (Shields of the Motherland) or special forces, Fuhud Homs (the Homs Leopards). Through the funding of these structures, which are also connected with the air force's intelligence, Rami Mahluyf probably could secure his own position in this Syrian special service. Thus, Rami Mahluyf, in the conditions of the civil war in Syria, was able to acquire all the necessary attributes of influence, primarily financial power and his own militarized formations.
Rami Mahlouf could be counted among the supporters of the peace process as soon as he is interested in unblocking his own foreign assets and lifting his sanctions, which can only be possible with Mahlouf's contribution to the Syrian peace settlement. He already filed suits in this regard in the courts of Switzerland. On the other hand, it is clear that his financial well-being will entirely depend on the preservation of the current regime in power.
Father of the Desert Falcons
Among the Syrian figures who were able to strengthen their own positions in the course of the internal conflict and gain influence over the decision-making by the Syrian leadership, Ayman Jaber should also be singled out.
He is an oil tycoon who has controlled and secured oil and gas production in most of the areas in the territories occupied by regime forces, and actually had a monopoly on their supply to the government. In addition, Ayman Jaber heads the Syrian Council for Metallurgy, and is a shareholder of a number of structures together with Rami Mahluyf and other Syrian oligarchs. Numerous private military companies controlled by Ayman Jaber are used to protect the mineral deposits. Some of them are turned into elite assault units, for example, the Desert Falcons (Sukur al-Sahra) and the Sea Commandos . They were led by the brothers of Ayman Jaber: Mohammed, who also has his own business in Russia, and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence of these groups became excessive. In particular, in the summer of 2017, the Desert Falcons were detained and refused to pass the government motorcade to the zone controlled by them. This led to the arrest of Ibrahim Jaber. The Desert Falcons were reassigned to the 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, where they were also part of the Sea Commandos financed by Ayman Jaber.
Another influential Syrian oil tycoon, close to the country's leadership is George Hasvani, owner of the company HESCO. It is financed by the Dir al-Kalamun units (Kalamun Shields), which are part of the 3rd division of the Syrian Arab Army. He is also connected with Russian business and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some accounts, he also has Russian citizenship.
The Old Guard and Special Services
The representatives of the so-called old guard associated with Hafez al-Assad, as well as special services, continue to continue to influence the adoption of political decisions in the UAR. In particular, the influential patriarch of the Syrian political scene is the 77-year-old Foreign Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic, Walid al-Muallem, who in the last years of the presidency of Hafez al-Assad was Syrian ambassador to the United States.
Among the leaders of numerous security structures is the former head of the Main Security Directorate, Ali Mamluk. He retained his position in this special service after he became head of the Regional Security Bureau of the Ba'ath Party (the Bureau of National Security of Syria) in 2012, the body that oversees the work of the entire intelligence community of the Syrian Arab Republic. According to several sources, he is an experienced politician who successfully maneuvers between Russia and Iran, finding support for his own initiatives both in Moscow and Tehran. In addition, this is the man from the Syrian leadership with whom the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf as well as Turkey are ready to work,. It is Ali Mamluk who is given very delicate instructions for conducting closed negotiations with the external opponents of the regime. They consider him a figure at the head of the Syrian special services, who, in addition, is also a Sunni, a “ handshake” [one they can trust]. In particular, Ali Mamluk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Elements of Matriarchy
Speaking of those who have an impact on decision-making in the UAR, it is impossible not to mention the female factor. Certainly, Anisa Makhlyuf, the mother of Bashar and Maher, played a significant role in maintaining the balance in the al-Assad family and smoothing the contradictions between the brothers Bashar and Maher. As some observers note, the relationship between brothers began to sour after their mother's death in early 2016.
Asma al-Assad, the wife of the President of the country, also has some influence, the degree of which, however, remains unclear. At the same time, there are numerous non-governmental organizations and foundations, the founder of which was Asma al-Assad. Through these structures, the funds of international organizations were also used, which went to support the victims of the conflict in Syria, despite the sanctions imposed on Asma al-Assad. In turn, another influential woman of the al-Assad family - Bushra, the widow of Asef Shaukata, also retains a certain degree of influence and has business ties with Rami Mahluf.
Transformation of the Political Architecture?
Currently, all the main threats from the ruling regime in Syria are managed. However, it should be borne in mind that this was achieved thanks exclusively to external intervention. Russia and Iran played the main role in preserving the al-Assad family and its closest neighbors. Without their participation in the conflict, most likely, the outcome of the military confrontation would not end in favor of the regime.
At the same time, if the regime wins the war, it will not yet have won over the world. All the problems that led to the revolutionary situation in the country, during the war only worsened. So, the level of corruption and concentration of capital in a small number of persons reached unprecedented heights. If deep reforms are not carried out in Syria that will affect the basis of the current system, the country is in for collapse and a new round of escalation.
At the same time, while the al-Assad family has administrative power, no real reforms are possible in the country. There can only be talk about some half-measures and the imitation of transformations. Therefore, it is advisable to continue to rely on the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in particular, regarding the need to form a new executive body.
It seems that the most acceptable option would be to transform the country into a parliamentary republic, depriving the head of state of a significant part of the authority and administrative resources. In any case, without the full involvement of the Syrian opposition, including the armed groups, in the process of transformation, it will be difficult to achieve positive changes in the absence of those factors that could stimulate Damascus to conduct real, rather than demonstrative reforms.