Syria: Is Assad’s Clan Turning Against Him?
Growing ambitions and soap operatic history inside his own family challenge Bashar al-Assad’s rule, as Syrian forces try to snuff out a growing popular revolt.
Despite the end of the 48-year state of emergency, signed this week by President Bashar al-Assad, protests were continuing Friday. It is just one more outward sign of the sinking faith in the regime's durability. Decrees are signed, but "security forces don't obey the law," says one Syrian commentator on the Internet.
Indeed, some now believe that inside the regime, the President isn't as powerful as he might seem. One activist said: "We wonder who really makes decisions in this country."
Assad's ability to govern has been questioned from the outset, in 2000 when he replaced his father as President of Syria. Critics wondered how the then inexperienced 34-year-old could lead a regime where many didn't want him as leader. More than 10 years later, however, he seemed to have proven his authority to the point were political analysts thought that he would avoid the wave of Arab uprisings sweeping the region's dictators.
Unlike his former Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, Assad is seen as a zaim, or Arab leader, because of his openly anti-Israeli and anti-American stance. His popularity was bolstered by an all-powerful system of coercion and the work of the country's intelligence services.
However, since February, there have been several contradictory statements and rumors of rivalry within the Assad clan, which have revived the idea that the regime is facing internal struggles. "These divisions are real," says a Syrian businessman who has met Assad several times. "The President and his wife Asma are reformers but they don't make all the decisions. Bashar al-Assad is torn between his family's interests – his brother, his sister and his uncles have considerable influence – and his duty towards his country."
Relationships have always been troubled among the Assad children. The eldest, Bushra, is said to be influential and authoritative. Her relationship with Asma is strained. She accuses her sister-in-law of being too present in the media. Her youngest brother Maher shot her husband Assef Shawkat in the stomach in 1999 in the middle of the presidential palace.
Despite Maher's warnings, Bashar made Shawkat a close ally by putting him in charge of the army's intelligence services. In late 2008, they had a falling out with rumors of an attempted coup. But Shawkat has reportedly since been forgiven.
Maher also claimed his stake inside the clan, giving the President a much needed though sometimes intrusive support. He is the real "leader" of the army, applying pressure on all policy issues – even foreign affairs – and is thought to be more of a hard-liner than his brother, and is said to be hot-tempered. For critics, he personifies the regime's brutality.
"This bickering comes from the lack of leadership," says a political analyst in Damascus. "The regime does not have a long term vision, which explains the stupidity of its reaction in Daraa," where protests started on March 15 after kids were arrested and tortured for painting anti-government graffiti.
The way the family works is still unclear. Only Hafez al-Assad's iron-fisted rule was able to quell his own brothers' personal ambitions. One of them, Rifaat became a dissident in 1983. The fighting that ensued nearly shattered the unity of the dominating Alawi minority, whose cohesion and support are the backbone of the regime.
From Spain, where he now lives in exile, Rifaat and his sons Sumar and Ribal constantly challenge Bashar through their TV station ANN TV. Though their influence in Syria is questionable, other members of the clan who have stayed in the country could potentially turn against the president.
Like Mundher and Zawwaz, the president's cousins live like militia leaders in the Alawi mountains, the family's birthplace in Western Syria. "The family gives them some leeway and the current crisis is a perfect opportunity," says an expert on Syrian affairs.
Residents of Latakia and Banias accuse them of having stirred up religious tensions between Sunnis and Alawis at the beginning of the uprising by sending text message warnings: "Alawis are descending from their mountains to attack Sunnis' and "Sunnis are out on the streets to massacre Alawis." Residents also accused their militia known as the Shabiha of attacking their town.
There is another powerful family besides the Assads: the Makhlouf family. The ties between the two Alawi families date back to Hafez's wedding to Anisa Makhlouf. During the bitter battle between Rifaat and Hafez, the Makhloufs took Hafez's side and obtained wealth and influential positions in return. Rami Makhlouf, a rich businessman, is seen as the symbol of the regime's corruption. He is nicknamed "the king of Syria" while Bashar is only the president. His brother Hafez Makhlouf is the head of the Damascus security forces.
"The president wasn't made for the position he is in today," says a Syrian political analyst. "You can't improvise being a dictator. His father had to work, scheme, eliminate to gain power and consolidate it, while Bashar belongs to a generation of young heirs like Mohammed VI in Morocco or Abdullah II in Jordan who received power without really understanding how it works."
Brought to power by a system created by his father, but one that he doesn't control, Bashar al-Assad seems weakened. This could coalesce the family around new members who have become more powerful recently, and who would do anything to protect their interests.
Photo - Martijn Munneke