Tyrant, war criminal, mob boss or, to his loyalists, their shrewd saviour: views about Bashar al-Assad rarely fall in between. As the Syrian leader faces a presidential poll on Wednesday – the result a foregone conclusion – a truer test of the authority he wields across a broken country has taken shape away from the political banners and faux campaigning.
In battered towns and villages, ravaged by a decade of savagery, the now veteran president has been clawing back losses, consolidating himself as the only figure who could plot a course from the ruins of the region’s most devastating modern conflict. Slowly, over the past year, Assad and his extended family have been shoring up their influence. Seldom seen during much of the crisis, he has become a fixture in what remains of Syria’s industrial heartland, visiting factories, pressing employees on their hardships, and hosting delegations with an ease few observed at the height of the fighting.
Syria’s allies Russia and Iran may have done the heavy lifting to save the regime from defeat on the battlefields but a more traditional structure, the house of Assad, has been just as integral in holding the country together from within. The husk of Syria is, in many ways, more under the Assad family’s control than at the war’s outset. Power structures established over four decades have anchored dynasty and dictatorship.
As the civil war ground to a stalemate, and Islamic State (Isis) was defeated, Assad and his wife, Asma, made an extraordinary move to oust Syria’s wealthiest man. Rami Makhlouf, a first cousin of Assad and financial consigliere, was an untouchable – until all of a sudden he wasn’t.
In early 2020, Asma al-Assad took over the charity foundation Makhlouf had used to provide for the families of loyalists killed in the fighting. “At that point, Bashar and Asma had worked out where money was still coming into Syria,” said one senior Syrian businessman, now exiled from Syria for supporting the 2011 revolution to topple Assad. “There was the UN system and charities. Asma consolidated all charities under her auspices and Rami very quickly lost his role as a patron. The rest was easy.”
Next, Makhlouf was stripped of his shares in the mobile network Syriatel – one of the few cash cows left in an economy ravaged by sanctions, a collapse in neighbouring Lebanon, a plunging exchange rate and soaring inflation. The consortium he had established as the biggest investment vehicle in Syria was also taken off line. The Assads now controlled the finances, and Makhlouf was left pleading his case in a series of Facebook videos, the last of which he posted two weeks ago lamenting his change of fortunes and claiming a “miracle” would soon take place in Syria.
Many observers say the only real miracle will be if the presidential election returns Assad for another seven-year term with less than a 90% majority. The US and EU describe the poll as illegitimate, because it does not include all of Syrian society – much of north is not under central government control – and does not abide by UN terms aimed at ending the conflict.
The ease of Makhlouf’s ousting and the consolidation of Assad’s control over the country’s revenues has fed regular comparisons to a mafia system, which uses weak state structures to bolster its hold and keep followers under tutelage.
“The key moment for Bashar was when his mother, Anisa, died [in 2016],” the senior businessman said. “It opened the gates for Asma, and Bashar felt freer to do what he wanted. Anisa was a hardliner. She insisted on repressing the protesters in 2011.”
The violence that followed displaced half of Syria’s population, with half of them remaining outside its borders, while more than 500,000 people were killed and the economy disintegrated.
Four Syrian businessmen who spoke to the Guardian said they had been extorted in recent months by Syrian officials, who had arrived at their office claiming fees were outstanding on imports or inventories.
“They came to my friend’s workshop and sales yard claiming to be from customs,” said one senior businessman. “They started with an outlandish demand and got it down to $400,000. It was a shakedown plain and simple. They are broke and are trying to recoup money wherever they can. They lost tens of billions in Lebanon, and there are no revenues coming in.”
Another businessman, in Syria’s third largest city, Homs, said he was visited in March by security officials who claimed he was in arrears. “After a week I could fix this, but it cost me $180,000 and I had to give the major a car.”
Syria’s emergence as a mafia state surprised many who had met Assad in the early years of his presidency, but others who dealt with him extensively said the outcome was never in doubt.
A former CIA near east operations officer who knew the Syrian leader said: “Assad is the Tony Soprano of the Middle East – at bare bones a mob boss with omnipresent family crises and rivalries, overseeing a crime syndicate simply designed to enrich himself and his family, and always willing to inflict violence to achieve his goals.
“Yet he also has a charming side, just like the HBO character, which has fooled generations of American and European leaders who called on him. One would have thought that killing hundreds of thousands of his countrymen and committing war crimes would have changed world opinion.
“It is clear that the notion of Bashar the progressive that was pushed in the early 2000s – the dashing young ophthalmologist trained in the UK, in love with western technology, married to a beautiful former banker – was all a farce. And for many of us Syria watchers, we argued in vain that Bashar was anything but a mafia don. Perhaps it was the simple hope that the Arab spring would take hold in Syria that clouded collective judgment, or that the strength of a highly educated population would be able to rise up and be a model for the Middle East.
“The bottom line, however, is that Bashar was a pure product of his father, and Syria was destined to suffer with him on the throne. He would never relinquish al-kursi (the chair) under any circumstances other than death.”
A first cousin of Assad, Ribal al-Assad, who has lived in exile for the past two decades, said the global community seemed to have given up on Syria. “The world is allowing him to hold this election,” he said. “There has been nothing to be optimistic about for the past 10 years. There are many good Syrians living abroad, smart, decent people who have looked at the opposition and said, ‘If these are supposed to be the new guys, they’re worse. And we’re not going to join the regime, it’s a dictatorship. And we’ll be on the sanctions list the next day.’”
Among the Syrian diaspora response to the election has been mixed, with crowds in neighbouring Beirut attacking flag-waving convoys travelling to the Syrian embassy to cast pre-poll ballots, and several Lebanese officials saying those voting were being forced to do so. Turkey and Germany have banned voting, with legislators describing the poll as “theatrical” and a “farce”.
“When it’s all boiled down, the family is still in charge,” the senior businessman said. “They are very sensitive to internal issues and they know how to manage them. They have a saying: ‘You may not have to listen to your cousins, but you do need to listen to their mothers.’”