Murtaza Hussain reports: In early 2011, as protestors demanding political reform took to the streets of Syrian cities, Rami Makhlouf, a powerful businessman and confidant of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sat down for an interview with the late New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid.
The Assad dynasty had ruled Syria unopposed for decades. But the regime, along with a nexus of political and economic elites, was shaken. Uprisings had recently deposed longstanding dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. In a region suddenly electrified by the prospect of political change, many began to speculate that Syria’s ruling elite might be next.
In the interview, Makhlouf issued a grim warning to Syria’s opposition and its sympathizers.
“Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime,” he told Shadid. “Don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”
“They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”
Five years later, against the predictions of many, the Assad regime has maintained its grip on power. And, as Makhlouf promised, many have suffered to make this possible. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and maimed, while the fighting has reduced ancient cities like Homs and Aleppo to rubble.
Syria’s tragedy also has a global dimension, and that is the exodus of an estimated 5 million people from their homes in Syria over the last five years. The refugees have left on foot, packed into ships, and entrusted their lives to smugglers in an effort to escape their ravaged country. Hundreds of thousands of them have landed on the increasingly unwelcoming shores of Europe. Nearly 3 million now live in Turkey alone.
Unlike its citizens, however, Syria’s regime shows no sign of departing. In a recent interview, Assad vowed to rule Syria at least until 2021, while his government has pledged to take back “every inch” of Syrian territory from opposition control.
Outside powers may be tempted to accept this state of affairs, and to accept Assad as a partner in stabilizing Syria. President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that his administration could work with Assad, even tacitly praising him in a debate for being “much tougher and much smarter” than U.S. leaders. [Continue reading…]