Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, shown attending attending a ceremony in 2010 to celebrate President Bashar al-Assad's 10th year in power. Photo: AFP / Louai Beshara

Pity Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man and a first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad. He posted two videos this month on social media in which he bemoaned the state of his businesses and the political pressure he was under. The videos were the first time he had complained publicly about a regime that appears to be turning on him.

At the end of last year, customs officials seized some of Makhlouf’s assets to pay overdue import fees of US$21 million; small change for a man estimated to control 60% of Syria’s economy, but a worrying sign of dissent within the very inner circle of the Syrian regime.

Makhlouf’s aunt was Anisa, mother of Bashar al-Assad. His father served Hafez al-Assad and all his brothers hold important positions within the regime. Alongside the Assads, the Makhloufs are the regime.

In this month’s videos, Makhlouf finally went public. He looked frightened and cowed, addressing the president directly. His telecom company, Syriatel, the crown jewel of his sprawling business empire, has been accused of owing hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes; he swore he always paid every penny owed.

He was being asked to step aside from his companies, he said. The security services had started “attacking people’s freedoms,” he said, and had arrested some of his staff.

His tone suggested he was shocked by the behavior of the very same security services he had spent two decades bankrolling. That one must have provoked hollow laughter from the millions of Syrians in exile.

The rift offers a rare glimpse of the power struggle at the very heart of the Assad regime’s inner circle. It also highlights the tussles between the regime and its new patrons over what the Syrian state will look like in the future.

Few will feel sympathy for Makhlouf, and rightly so. He is learning what the millions in refugee camps and exiled abroad already know only too well: that everyone is disposable to a regime fighting for survival. Nothing is more important; society, citizens and family ties can all be cast aside. The notorious slogan from the start of the revolution “Assad or we burn the country” wasn’t a threat – it was a policy.

But to understand what is happening in Syria now, it helps to understand what happened in Russia in 2003.

Back then, as President Vladimir Putin prepared for the election that would lead to his second term, he suddenly arrested the country’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and demanded vast sums in back taxes from his oil company, Yukos. Khodorkovsky went to jail and later into exile, and Yukos was forced into bankruptcy.

The targeting of Makhlouf follows the same trajectory and for the same reason – and will certainly end the same way. 

Seventeen years ago in Russia, Putin was building his own coalition of interests ahead of his second term, which meant that disobedient oligarchs such as Khodorkovsky had to be removed and their assets given to more loyal supporters.

A similar realignment is taking place within the Syrian dictatorship. As the civil war grinds down – if not to an end, then at least to a simmering status quo – the regime has to adapt to a new reality, one in which Iran and Russia wield outsize influence in a devastated Syria with few other foreign friends.

The Assad inner circle would prefer to rebuild the regime in the same corrupt image as before, maintaining family control over the political, economic and military machinery. But Russia in particular is exerting enormous pressure to loosen the grip of the inner circle, hoping to insert itself between the political and military leadership of the Alawites, the ruling sect, and the professional army and the economy.

Russia is also anxious to gain some political concessions on the constitution before Assad goes into the next presidential election, which is probably less than a year away. That would be the only way to gain sufficient international legitimacy to unlock the vast reconstruction funds that Syria desperately needs and that Moscow has no intention of providing itself.

Time is running out, and Moscow’s frustration is showing. For weeks now, Russian media outlets and analysts close to the Kremlin have been talking down Assad, blaming him for the problems in Syria. Alexander Shumilin, the head of the state-financed Europe-Middle East Center think-tank in Moscow, even said the entire issue “is with one person – al-Assad – and his entourage.”

These are serious warnings, and Makhlouf seems to be caught between these competing visions of a future Syrian regime. 

The Assad clan clearly intend to bring more stakeholders into the inner circle to shore up the regime and make themselves indispensable, which means distributing the spoils more widely. Makhlouf is the most high-profile casualty of this realignment.

Yet, extraordinarily, he does not appear to recognize the danger he is in. Handing over even a couple of hundred million dollars is surely preferable to losing his entire business empire. But breaking the regime’s omertà, as he has done, is a serious escalation, especially as he has no military rank or army division of his own to protect him.

For a man who has spent his life in the regime trampling on others, Rami Makhlouf does not seem to recognize the shadow of the boot that is already hovering over him.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.