Syria expert Bassma Kodmani explains the recent conflict between Assad and his cousin Makhlouf – and calls on Europe to take advantage of Russia’s discontent with the Syrian regime.
zenith: Over last few weeks, prominent businessman and Syriatel boss Rami Makhlouf has taken to Facebook to publicly criticise his cousin, President Bashar al-Assad. Why do opinions diverge on the scale of this conflict?
Bassma Kodmani: Everything concerning internal disputes of the ruling family is open to speculation. Nobody really knows, what happens between Assad and his family behind closed doors. Reliable information is hard to come by. Therefore, any assessments rely on very few sources. I do think, though, that this conflict between Bashar al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf is perceived as a serious issue by the Syrian regime.
Why do you think that?
First and foremost, Syria’s ruling family is broke. It has suffered under the sanctions. There’s basically no foreign investment coming into the country, and the little aid that does get in is not even enough to cover the needs of the regime’s supporters. This last point is crucial. Assad doesn’t care if the people of Daraa or Ghouta starve, but he depends on the support of those who have fought for the regime. These people need to be kept on side. So, it’s easy to see why Assad is in dire need of funds.
Where does Rami Makhlouf figure in this context?
Any financial help given to the Syrian people by anybody other than Assad himself poses a risk to his influence. The struggle within the ruling family dates back to 2000, when Assad first became president. Back then, Assad experienced difficulties consolidating his power and legitimacy, especially among family members. Not only the Makhloufs, but also his sister Bushra al-Assad and her husband, Assef Shawkat, were giving him a hard time.
‘The Makhlouf family used to be of a much higher social standing that the Assads’
How did Assad respond to pressure from within his family back then?
During that period Assad struck a deal with the Makhlouf family. They would support and advise him, and sure up elite support for his presidency. In exchange the Makhloufs would manage most of the country’s wealth. Simply put, political power and the security agencies are currently in the Assads’ hands while the Makhloufs control the economy.
Is this deal still in place?
When the war started things got complicated because Makhlouf had to fund pro-Assad militias. Faced with economic problems, the Assads began to think of the money made by Makhlouf-run businesses as state property, and therefore, they believed that they were entitled to a big slice of it. This attitude is what triggered the conflict.
So, is this conflict merely about money and economic influence?
Below the surface bigger issues might be at stake. The Makhlouf family used to be of a much higher social standing that the Assads. This was reflected in Hafez al-Assad’s marriage to Anisa Makhlouf. Now the economic situation has turned sour, the president fears losing his standing within his own constituency. The conflict has to be seen as a struggle for influence among members of the ruling family.
Some commentary has stressed the link between intrafamilial conflict in the Syrian regime. Do you see such a connection?
There is nothing to suggest that Russia is behind Assad’s move against his cousin. But it definitely coincides with Russian aims in Syria. In the current situation of economic suffocation, Assad is trying to get money from Makhlouf. Russia’s plan is for Syria to return to a form of normality, therefore, its top priority is to facilitate the flow of money into the country. That is why Russia is so angry about the international sanctions. It wants to demonstrate that Assad is capable of governing the country he has won militarily.
‘Assad obviously tries to play Iran against Russia’
Does Russia have any other interests in Syria?
Russia isn’t a homogenous actor. There are many different groups inside Russia that influence the country’s policy on Syria, such as branches of the military, the defence community, intelligence agencies, and businesspeople; all of whom have different interests in the country. Makhlouf’s behaviour could well be explained by the fact that he feels supported by some of these Russian circles, most probably those who have business interests in Syria.
Some have compared the conflict between Assad and Maklouf with that between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat in the 1980s.
The crucial difference is that back then Assad and his brother were in control of the entire country, including the intelligence agencies, the military, and the paramilitary groups. Today, the situation looks very different. Military control over Syria is shared between Russia and Iran. This makes it much more difficult for Assad to simply reassert his dominance and to exclude his cousin, like his father did in the 1980s. To do so, Assad would need to resort to using armed groups against Maklouf. He can’t rely on these groups as they’re no longer a cohesive force under a single chain of command. Therefore, it’s very unlikely Assad will actually use force against Makhlouf. The cousins can fight about money all they want, but when Assad wants to resort to force, he would need the backing of either Iran or Russia.
In a recent article for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) you wrote that “Russia now expresses its impatience with Assad publicly.” How does this affect the Syrian conflict?
I did use the term impatience, but I intentionally didn’t go any further and say that Russia has given up on Assad. The Russians need Assad, although they never liked him and always thought of him as stupid and incompetent.
How did Moscow reach such an unflattering assessment of Assad?
Assad forced the Russians into a full-blown conflict. And they hate him for it. Although they consider him useful for now, because they need him to sign off on everything they want. Russia needs phosphate and natural gas, as well as a port in the Mediterranean, military bases in Syria, and economic relations. Assad can fulfil those wishes, but when it comes to him making political concessions, Russia won’t get anything from him. He’s obviously trying to play Iran against Russia.
‘Europe and Russia could work together on distributing aid through trusted Syrians’
Is Russia’s anger only directed at Assad?
Russia has recently run a campaign in various government-controlled media outlets explicitly criticising Assad and implicitly Iran. Putin wants to remind the Iranians that they came begging for Russian air support in 2015 when they were no longer able to defend Assad. Russia wants to make the terms of the alliance crystal-clear. Without the Russian Air Force and Russian troops on the ground, Assad would no longer be in power.
And what is Russia’s message to Assad?
You must implement the political reforms we recommend because we’re the ones who saved your skin. This is a very strong message. In the medium term it may result in Russia abandoning Assad, but definitely not yet. I’m not optimistic that Putin has decided to move Assad out of the picture, not that anybody would know if he had decided to make such a decision. If he were to replace Assad, he would need time to prepare an alternative for an organised transition of power.
In your article you also wrote that “the time is right for Europe to assert its position on the Syrian issue with greater self-confidence.” Which role should the EU play in the current situation?
The EU is still punching far below its weight. It underestimates its own leverage. The EU could easily take advantage of Putin’s frustration with Assad’s style of governance. For example, Russia put its credibility on the line while negotiating a reconciliation agreement for Ghouta in the countryside of Damascus. But currently, Damascus distributes the humanitarian aid in a discriminatory way, punishing those who rose against the regime and reconstructing the houses of those who supported Assad. Putin is furious about this because he wants these areas to give up on opposing Assad and return to the fold.
How could the EU make the best out of this situation?
The EU should raise the issue of humanitarian aid distribution at the UN. It should remind the Russians that they themselves say that Assad is misconducting the aid supply, and ask why they insist that all aid has to go through Damascus and why they block cross-border aid distribution. Europe and Russia could work together on distributing aid through trusted Syrians if Russia pressures Assad to allow the work of Syrian aid workers. This way, the Europeans could negotiate room for manoeuvre for UN agencies and international NGOs to deliver humanitarian aid under more favourable conditions.
‘Have we seen any change of behaviour so far? – Zero!’
So, Europe shouldn’t directly pressure Assad?
That would simply be a waste of time. He doesn’t understand the carrot-and-stick approach. He just takes the carrots and ignores the stick as he always has, even before the uprisings in 2011. Therefore, Europe needs to work with Russia, not with Assad himself.
Are you saying the widespread narrative that there is no getting around Assad when it comes to Syria doesn’t apply?
I’m saying we should be honest about working with Assad. The question is not: should we work with Assad? But rather: should we work with Assad while he continues the same practices? Those advocating for working with Assad won’t change his behaviour. He has proved that he won’t change a million times. Should we actually continue to work with him, and then reinstate diplomatic relations, financial aid, and early recovery funds, while he is still arresting aid workers, returnees, and peaceful activists running their community work? Should we cooperate, while he’s torturing, killing, and not even releasing detainees? Have we seen any change of behaviour so far? – Zero!
But do you think the EU could induce a change of behaviour in Russia?
While Assad is only interested in holding on to his money and his position as president, even if the state lies in ruins, Russia is a rational player. It has strategic interests which makes it a real interlocutor. Working with Russia would therefore be much more productive than engaging with Assad.
Do you currently see the political will among major EU states to work with Russia?
There are very different positions within the EU, which makes it difficult to implement such a policy. European decision-making always resorts to the lowest common denominator, which is that humanitarian aid cannot be provided under the current conditions because of the need to abide by international humanitarian law.
‘HTS wants to control the border crossings in Idlib’
Is there any way out of this dead end?
I call on the Europeans to deal with Russia. Putin can pressure Assad into allowing UN officials to monitor the situation. Syrians who report to international agencies should be able to assess needs, deliver the aid and evaluate its impact. The entire aid process needs to be kept under control.
With regard to Idlib, the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) seems to have lost control over the region and revoke its former cooperation with Turkey, as a recently leaked audio recording indicates. What is your assessment of the current situation in Idlib?
HTS is blackmailing Turkey by threatening to not abide by the ceasefire to achieve some concessions such as keeping control of border crossings. This is vital to the survival of HTS. Less than a month ago, it wanted to open a checkpoint to the regime-held area in the south of Idlib, but the population protested strongly against that and prevented it from happening. HTS isn’t interested in fighting the regime anymore. It wants to govern the area and to do so, the group needs to attain the economic means by taking control of checkpoints through blackmailing Turkey. It’s common knowledge in Idlib, that HTS is not capable of fighting the regime without the support of other armed groups. Therefore, if the other groups are abiding by the ceasefire, I doubt that HTS can do much more than conduct a few suicide attacks along the frontline.
But is Turkey still willing to deal with HTS?
If Turkey actually decides that the time has come to eradicate HTS from the area, the confrontation is inevitable. Turkey is postponing the implementation of a full strategy against jihadists in Idlib for political reasons. Turkey cannot do this on its own. We need a comprehensive international strategy for Idlib, so simply asking Turkey to handle the situation by getting rid of the jihadists is not realistic.
‘I prefer to start with rebuilding the core functions of the state: Establishing the rule of law, rebuilding the judiciary as an independent source of power, and providing security’
What about the support for HTS in Idlib?
HTS is becoming more and more like Daesh as its support wanes. It acts in an increasingly totalitarian and repressive manner. The group has to increasingly rely on intimidation because society does not support it at all.
Is there any way to stop them?
Fighting HTS will require differentiating between the various members of the group. Some are ideologically motivated hard-core jihadists, others are financially dependent on HTS, and others are foreign fighters. The approach also needs to include mobilising the local population against HTS. The group will still be there in ten years if its only shelled from the air, as Russia has been doing for the past few months. Aerial bombardment can only form part of an overall strategy which needs to win the backing of the local population and requires the deployment of fighters on the ground.
What would be a realistic best-case scenario for Syria in five years?
The most important thing is that we ensure that Syria remains together as a nation state. To reach this objective, we need to clarify which political system, which administrative structure, which social contract, and which reconstruction plan is needed for Syria. And obviously, our central concern should be to bring back Syrian society. People talk about the state, the regime, and the country, but I rarely hear the word society mentioned. Any government that is unable to answer these questions will consign the country to ruin.
So, you’re rather pessimistic about the future?
I’m not naïve. We can’t establish a democracy with popular participation that produces the right results overnight. First of all, we need a security plan for Syria and a capable judiciary, obviously starting with a new constitution. When it comes to elections, I’m not sure what they would produce in the current mess with Syrians spread all over the world. Therefore, I prefer to start with rebuilding the core functions of the state. This process would include establishing the rule of law, rebuilding an independent judiciary, and providing security. This would be a realistic best-case scenario for Syria. If that works, we could maybe start organising representative popular consultations in five years.
Bassma Kodmani is a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva and headed the Arab Reform Initiative until 2019. In 2011 and 2012, she was the speaker of the Syrian National Council.