The conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf has revealed a number of facts. Despite the effect of subjective factors in manifesting and fuelling the conflict between the two men, this conflict constitutes a test of numerous issues and concepts in circulation both at the core of the Syrian crisis and on its surface, such as Russia’s capability to choose alternatives to Assad or the capability of any other Alawite side to replace Assad as far as the Alawite sect is concerned.

Reduction of the people to the supportive group

The Syrian regime has reduced the state to its agencies and establishments. This was a trick resorted to by the regime to legitimize its behaviours that are contrary to the logic of politics and governance. Thus, the regime would not act with the aim of satisfying certain interests of its staff or the groups associated with it. Neither would it get involved in disputes with internal parties with the aim of obtaining political gains. According to this perspective, it is an aloof entity that is not biased except in favour of the Constitution and regulatory laws. Therefore, its opponents are not just inferior to it, but also wrong and outlaw.

In the conflict between Makhlouf and the Palace (Assad and his wife Asmaa), the people was openly reduced to the loyalist category and, more straighforwardly, to the Alawite sect. Both sides have contested directly and explicitly to win over the sect. On the one hand, Makhlouf concentrated his assistance and bounties on specific geographical areas that mapped the distribution of the sect on the Coast and in the poor pockets in Damascus and Homs where the al-Bustan Association and the Ramak charity company are active. On the other hand, the Palace rushed to rectify the situation by attempting to close the loopholes through which Makhlouf reached out to the sect by confiscating his mechanisms (al-Bustan Association) and issuing decrees and resolutions that govern the relationship between the Palace and the sect, bringing the latter under his control by expanding the salary and pension structure to include injured militiamen and the families of those who got killed.

Apart from the Alawite sect, the people seemed to be classified into one of two categories: first, as a customer of Syriatel’s services who, in this capacity, is not required to be cared for. Rather, the company had to be preserved as the mechanism that absorbs the resources from that people to inject them into the state treasury and partly transfer them to the association funds that support the real people (the sect); second, as a redundant supplement to the sect, considering that the injured and killed belonging to the other components did not explicitly get involved in defending the regime, but were rather part of formations that aimed at providing self-protection for their components and are thus outside the new classification.

The shift in power balances

The Syrian regime managed to drive the revolution against it into the contexts of civil wars by sectarianizing the mobility and provoking sectarian fanaticism. In this pattern of conflict, the end results would not be in the form of changes in the constitutional mechanisms and authority structures, but rather in the power balances between components. There has to be a winner, regardless of the mechanisms and methods by which it arrives at this result.

One of the results of the war has been the occurrence of a major change in the power balances between the Syrian components. The Syrian majority has lost its weight and influence, either because it lost in the “civil” war or because of its association with the extremist movements, although that association had been forced or came about as a result of the utilization of this situation by other players to achieve political gains in the war by portraying it as part of the global war against terrorism.

This decline in the influence of the Syrian majority reflects the reduction of the effectiveness and influence of the Arab side which constitutes the strategic depth of this majority, and also the reduction of its roles after it had been a decision-making player in the war years, prior to the Russian intervention in Syria.

The entanglement between the geopolitical and the sectarian

Thanks to the developments of the war, the Alawite component has become the most important in Syria, not just in view of its capability to mobilize its potential to achieve its aims and of its unity, but also in view of its association with the geopolitical projects of the influential players involved in the conflict. The players of the Makhlouf-Assad game are aware of this equation, and each side tries to employ it to its benefit. This explains their heavy turn towards the sect while considering the other components as merely a redundancy on the margins of this component.

The land element has played an important role in this equation. The Alawite component controls the strategic space that constitutes the anchor of geopolitical projects of Iran whose modern-day strategy aims to access the Mediterranean which it considers a rescuer from its geopolitical crisis resulting from the US embargo on it with economic sanctions and close monitoring in the Arabian Gulf in light of a clear imbalance of powers between the two sides.

 

“Thanks to the developments of the war, the Alawite component has become the most important in Syria, not just in view of its capability to mobilize its potential to achieve its aims and of its unity, but also in view of its association with the geopolitical projects of the influential players involved in the conflict”

 

On the other hand, the Syrian Coast constitutes an integral part of the Eurasian map structure, that is the Putinesque version of the Russian geopolitical project. Therefore, Russia has not coincidentally built its military bases and concentrated its strategic assets in Syria either along the line of sectarian contact, in Hmeymim and Hama airport, or in the deep Coast, in the Tartus port. It has also concentrated most of its economic interests and investments in those areas exclusively. The size of the camps and bases built by Russia in this area indicates that the area is considered a stronghold and a shelter in case Russia is faced with resistance in the other Syrian areas. This in turn has fueled the feeling of superiority and importance among the Alawites who have become protected and who now have other options.

Those facts have reflected on the political positions of Russia and Iran that both care about the stability of the political and security structures in Syria. The two countries are also aware that any tampering with those structures would lead to collapses in the Syrian governing system. Throughout the war years, Russia and Iran have ruthlessly sought to adapt the Syrian body to this situation rather than adapt the authority to the post-Revolution Syrian reality.

Specifically, Russia, backed by Assad, wishes to re-formulate economic alliances in Syria as a tactical manoeuvre whose aim is to come up with a new picture of the situation that can be marketed to the external world. Makhlouf was an important actor in a historic moment that is over where he fulfilled the required role in supporting the regime that aspires to market a new picture that indicates its flexibility and adaptation to the requirements of the international environment. It also wants to get rid of all the burdens that hamper its progress towards this goal. Makhlouf himself is aware of this. In one of his recordings, he told Assad: “I shall not be a burden for you; I shall not embarrass you”.

Erroneous estimations

Makhlouf built his estimations in the confrontation with Assad on the latter’s fear of splits in the supportive environment (the sect), and also on the possibility of provoking against Asmaa al-Assad, being a Sunni side in the power equation who seeks to tilt the balance in the Sunnis’ favour. As evident from his threatening discourse, Makhlouf expected that Assad would subdue and give up his decisions before transforming them into concrete measures. But it seems that those estimations were wrong for the following reasons:

  • It has become evident that the Alawites are not ready to get involved in an internal conflict. They have just come out of an attrition that lasted long years. Besides, Makhlouf’s survival or displacement is not a crucial and existential issue compared to the war which they experienced in the past years.
  • Alawites are aware of the important status they achieved in the Syrian reality. They are also aware that this was largely possible thanks to their unity, as opposed to the other components which were torn and whose positions were weakened by internal strife.
  • Alawites fear that Rami Makhlouf could be involved in the game of the search for an alternative to Assad. This means that he himself would have an alternative if this project is materialized.
  • For Alawites, Assad is an international safeguard for them. Despite the importance of the economic factor for them, the displacement of Assad would amount to the removal of their political and security cover, which would be an adventure in light of the current local and regional circumstances.

Conclusion

Any conflict in Syria cannot be explained outside the country’s political and geopolitical contexts. This means both that whatever contradicts those contexts and affects their dynamism should be removed, and that the extent of the importance and effectiveness of local players is determined by the extent of their association and interaction with those contexts.

Whatever Rami Makhlouf’s move is called ‒ a protest, a revolution or an insurgency ‒ it was doomed. He would not be able to change through his personal account on Facebook what has been established in Syria by plenty of blood and money. Neither would he be able to stop the ongoing shifts in Syria according to the scheme of the Russian actor.

Latest Briefs