GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Last February, at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening sale in London, David Hockney’s iconic 1966 painting The Splash was sold to an unidentified buyer for a record price of £23.1 million ($28.6 million). News quickly surfaced that the mystery buyer was billionaire entertainment magnate David Geffen, who decided to splurge shortly after selling his Beverly Hills mansion to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for $165 million. Geffen had owned the painting previously, but sold it in 1985 to another private buyer.
Why are we telling you this in a story about Syria?
Amid the chaos and carnage there, news of the secretive Splash purchase was used to fuel a wholly separate tale of intrigue among the ranks of a very different, and very sinister international elite. In this version of events, picked up throughout the region’s press outlets and social media, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad bought the painting as a gift for his British-born wife, Asma, once dubbed “A Rose in the Desert” by Vogue magazine, but now emerging more like the Cersei Lannister of her devastated country.
Whatever the truth of the Hockney sale, for many in the Middle East the notion that the Assads would make such a selfish purchase at a time when their country lies in ruins seemed perfectly believable.
When Asma was celebrated in Vogue nine years ago (the article has since been deleted), she and her husband were portrayed as a dynamic young couple (he was 46, she was 36) and as potential reformers among the retrograde dictatorships and monarchies of the Arab world. She was attractive, well educated and comfortable in her well-cultivated, upper-middle-class London accent (more so than her local Arabic). It was easy to imagine her capable of curbing her husband’s worst authoritarian tendencies while steering Syria toward greater openness. They had cute kids. She was espousing worthy causes and working with nonprofit NGOs.
So, if she was known for spending lavishly on jewelry and clothes, nobody much cared outside the country’s borders, and for Vogue, so much the better.
But that was before Assad treated protests as rebellion, responded with savagery, and a civil war began that to date has killed some 500,000 people, even as half the country’s population is displaced internally or has fled to exile as refugees. The conflict spawned huge migration flows in 2015 that massively disrupted European politics, feeding into the hateful xenophobia of the far right. The chaos, and to some extent Bashar al-Assad’s cynical tactics, also helped nurture the rise of the barbarous empire of terror that called itself the Islamic State.
Inside Syria there had always been skepticism about the fawning international coverage of Asma, which even before the hard times served to strengthen the perception that despite her charitable enterprises, the first lady lacked any real connection to ordinary citizens. It was clear to anyone who dared look that the regime her husband led was structured to serve a shrinking class of ever more wealthy elites, and Asma was no paradigm, she was a problem.
Certainly that’s the way her husband’s mother saw things.
Anissa Makhlouf, wife of the dynasty’s founder, Hafez al-Assad, grew up in humble rural surroundings in a nation where members of the Alawite sect that she and her husband and his closest allies belonged to were regarded as heretical peasants, even after Hafez, an air-force general, seized power in 1970. Following the death of Hafez in 2000, and the succession of Bashar, Anissa became very much a power in her own right. She did not trust her son’s London-born wife, and she used her influence to marginalize Asma’s public role as well as Asma’s access within the regime.
But Mother Anissa died in February 2016 at the age of 86, and since then, Asma, now only 44, has seen her star rise considerably, cultivating an independent power base for herself and her immediate family that challenges other more established members of the extended Assad clans.
Once upon a time, many in the West thought that Asma could help restrain Syria’s crony capitalism and brute backdoor dealings, but Bashar’s wife has proved herself highly skilled—indeed, among the most adept and potentially deadly—at navigating the country’s maze of rival cliques for her own benefit.
Anissa Makhlouf’s dislike for her daughter-in-law was a reflection of her concern about Bashar al-Assad’s own lack of support among the people as well as within the ruling family and the highest echelons of the regime. Known for being meek and under-appreciated with a distinct inability to look people in the eye, the weak-chinned Bashar prior to 1994 had never been considered for the role of president. His father had groomed his far more charismatic and handsome older brother Bassel as heir apparent. But Bassel died in a car crash in 1994.
Even then, Bashar kept a low profile in London, studying optometry in Britain, where he first met Asma, far from palace intrigues.
In the BBC documentary A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad, a British tutor hired by the family to teach English to the late Bassel remembered his first experience with Bashar as an entirely unremarkable exchange. “I once met Bashar as he was coming into the home, and he didn’t make eye contact with me,” the tutor said. “He just, kind of was looking down at my hand, and stuck out his own hand, and that was it. I remember thinking that the father certainly made a good choice in choosing Bassel as his successor.”
After Bassel’s death, Anissa pushed Hafez to select Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, to take Bassel’s place as the next president of Syria. But Hafez knew Maher’s reputation as a hothead prone to violence. Bashar’s other brother, Majid, was purportedly a heroin addict who suffered from a mental disability and could not be trusted to lead. This left Bashar, much to the chagrin of the disapproving mother, to take the reins.
Following Hafez’s death in 2000 and Bashar’s appointment as president, Anissa used her influence to strengthen the position of her other relatives to become the true centers of power within Syria, operating around Bashar rather than through him.
Maher al-Assad, the favorite, was given control of key military units such as the Republican Guard and 42nd Tank Battalion, which oversaw and controlled profits from key oil wells in the country’s eastern Deir Ezzor province.
Anissa’s brother Muhammad Makhlouf and his sons, Hafez, Ayyad, and Rami, already towering figures within the regime, significantly expanded their influence beginning in 2000, following Bashar’s appointment.
That year, Rami Makhlouf founded and became CEO of Syriatel, one of only two telecommunications companies in Syria that would go on to dominate 70 percent of the domestic market. Makhlouf and his father, Muhammad, eventually would build a massive business empire and net worth estimated to top $5 billion, while Hafez and Ayyad Makhlouf exerted increased dominance over state security apparatuses. Asma, meanwhile, remained largely on the sidelines.
“Before the revolution, regime censors wouldn’t even let us journalists refer to Asma as ‘first lady,’” according to Iyad Aissa, a Syrian opposition journalist who has written extensively about the inner workings of the Assad family, speaking on an Arabic language broadcast. “We were only allowed to describe Asma as ‘the president’s wife,’ unlike Anissa, Bashar’s mother, who was always known as ‘first lady’ during the reign of the father, Hafez.”
Over the years, rivalries within rivalries developed. Maher al-Assad saw Muhammad Makhlouf, who chaired Syria’s Euphrates Oil Company, as a threat to his de facto control of petroleum resources in Deir Ezzor.
The Makhloufs would also develop increasingly close ties to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a secular ultranationalist political party founded in 1932. Hafez al-Assad had built his power through the revolutionary Arab nationalist Baath party, which first seized power in 1963, and the SSNP over the years was seen sometimes as a rival, sometimes an ally. But it had a strong base of popular support, especially in the Alawite heartlands, including the Makhloufs’ hometown of Bustan Basha.
The vast majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, many of whom eventually, over decades, became sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups the Assads then moved to crush. Secular parties like the SSNP and Baath became especially attractive for ambitious religious outsiders, including Christians as well as Alawites. Although the religious-ideological dynamic changed when the Islamic Republic of Iran forged a Shi’a-Alawite alliance with Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s, the party structures remained.
Throughout the 2000s, Rami Makhlouf and other members of the family regularly drew on the SSNP to cultivate an independent source of support for themselves outside the scope of the ruling Baath, and before long the SSNP came to be called, only half jokingly, “Rami’s party.” After the popular uprising began in 2011, SSNP cadres would serve as the core of pro-regime militias specifically loyal to the Makhlouf clan.
In the first decade of Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, the British-born Asma, whose roots are among Sunni merchant families from Homs and Damascus, was not a significant player. Hacked emails published in 2012 quoted her saying “I am the real dictator.” But not until after Anissa’s death would Asma have the opportunity to involve herself and her relatives more directly in Syria’s politics and economy—and move against rivals in the Makhlouf clan, in particular its leading mogul, Rami Makhlouf.
On May 4, 2020, Rami Makhlouf went missing.
Guernica37, an international law and human-rights NGO based in the U.K., issued a press release that day claiming Makhlouf fled to the United Arab Emirates, but it is unclear whether Makhlouf, sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department since 2008, is truly in the UAE or seeking refuge elsewhere. That same day, Syrian Republican Guard units seeking to arrest Makhlouf raided his villa on the outskirts of Damascus, failing to turn up evidence of his whereabouts.
Previously, security forces stormed the offices of Syriatel, arresting 28 high-ranking officials, and arrested Wadah Abd al-Rabu, editor in chief of the al-Watan newspaper, one of Syria’s most prominent pro-regime media mouthpieces, which Makhlouf has owned since 2006.
As the showdown took shape, Rami Makhlouf issued a series of stunning rebukes to Assad and his regime in two videos uploaded to his personal Facebook page on April 30 and May 3. “Can you believe it?” Makhlouf asked in the second video, “Security services have stormed the offices of Rami Makhlouf, their biggest funder and supporter, most faithful servant, and most prominent patron throughout the whole of the war… The pressure being put on us is intolerable, and inhumane.”
The crux of the dispute is control of Syriatel, a joint public-private partnership half owned by the state, which is entitled to roughly 50 percent of the company’s profits in addition to taxes and other state fees. On April 27, Syria’s Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority (TPRA) announced that Syriatel and the country’s only other telecommunication service, MTN, collectively owed $449.65 million to the country’s treasury in annual profits required to be shared with the state. MTN has announced that it intends to pay its $172.9 million share, but Makhlouf has remained defiant.
“The state has no right to this money, and it’s turning its back on previous agreements made years back,” Makhlouf declared. “I’ll soon be releasing documents that I’ve already submitted to the relevant authorities clearly demonstrating why they have no right to this money,” he added.
In a state known for carrying out the wholesale slaughter of those who test its authority, Makhlouf’s audacity addressing the president like that sent shockwaves throughout the country. But it’s not surprising. This is the culmination of explicit efforts by Asma, Maher, and Bashar al-Assad over the last year to strip Rami Makhlouf and his relatives of their power in Syria.
These maneuvering began last August, following Russian demands that the Syrian regime pay back between $2 billion and $3 billion in past due loans, at which point regime security forces put Rami Makhlouf under house arrest in an attempt to force the telecoms mogul to foot the bill.
By September, Asma and a cadre of loyal officials who previously worked in her network of NGOs launched a hostile takeover of the Bustan Cooperative, a charitable organization run by Makhlouf through which the salaries of SSNP and other militiamen loyal to Rami had been paid.
In October 2019, it was also announced that Asma would be establishing a third telecommunications company in Syria that aimed to seize market share from Syriatel. Lastly, Syria’s Ministry of Finance issued two separate orders on December 24 and March 17 to freeze assets owned by Rami Makhlouf’s Abar Petroleum Services company that were later used to plug budget deficits within the country’s General Customs Directorate.
The targeting of Makhlouf’s assets meanwhile comes as those belonging to a number of Asma’s Sunni relatives have grown significantly.
Beginning in 2016, shortly after the death of Anissa al-Makhlouf, members of Asma’s family reportedly took control over significant parts of the market for basic goods in Syria. This followed the introduction of a smart card program to purchase products including rice, gas, bread, tea, sugar and cooking oil.
The contract allegedly was given to Takamal, a company run by one of Asma’s brothers and Muhannad al-Dabagh, Asma’s cousin via her maternal aunt. Local media investigations of the company have alleged that a percentage of proceeds reaped from the purchase of goods using smart cards are re-deposited into accounts owned by Takamal’s governing board, run by Asma’s relatives.
In December 2019,while many of Rami Makhlouf’s assets were being frozen, those of Asma’s paternal uncle, Tarif al-Akhras, were being thawed. Syria’s Ministry of Finance had had them locked down for more than a year.
Al-Akhras, who owned a small trucking business in Homs prior to 2000, used his niece’s connection to the ruling family to expand his networks. He then began taking part in shipments of food and other goods that ran through Syria into Iraq as part of the Oil for Food Program prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Ever since, al-Akhras’ work has expanded into the maritime shipping, construction, real estate and meat packing sectors. Currently, he and other members of Asma’s inner circle stand to see their fortunes continue to improve.
Asma’s move into the economic sphere has coincided with her victory over a year long struggle with breast cancer. The First Lady formally announced her recovery in August, just before security services put Rami Makhlouf under house arrest. Since then, Syria’s Desert Rose has continued if not increased her prolific media appearances documenting her seemingly tireless charitable work across the country.
With her newfound economic foothold in place, Asma appears most focused on grooming her children to take their place in the 50 year Assad-Baath party dynasty, often bringing young Hafez, Zain and Karim al-Assad on frontline trips to visit wounded soldiers and inaugurate the opening of new facilities from children’s hospitals to newly built schools for the gifted.
As the war winds down, and Asma’s oldest, Hafez, begins his 18th year, talk has already emerged in pro-regime news outlets and on social media discussing his qualifications to succeed Bashar. Taking the lead himself, recently Hafez has begun conducting his own visits to sites across the country, following clearly in his mother’s footsteps.
The Russians who saved Bashar’s regime over the last five years, have grown weary of his corruption and wary of his Iranian allies. Maybe Asma imagines they would be open to new faces, albeit with the same name.
More than ever, since her recovery from cancer, Asma has been keen to re-cultivate the image of the savior queen that she held and then lost in 2011, one ready and poised to bring up the next generation of Syrians, a woman whose soft touch can heal the country’s wounds.
Some world leaders, having long ago succumbed to grim fatigue where Syria is concerned, may be willing to pay lip service at least to this charade. Following a near 10 year lapse, Syria’s Desert Rose could be looking to bloom once more.