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October 30, 2005
Syrian Power Brokers Start To Disperse

As more pressure gets applied to the Bashar Assad regime to answer for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, it looks like the impulse to run has become irresistable for some members of the autocracy. The New York Times reports that Assad's wealthy and powerful cousin, Rami Makhluf, has fled Syria for the UAE as the country becomes more dangerous for those who prop up the erstwhile opthalmologist on his creaky throne:

During a United Nations investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that threatens the power of President Bashar al-Assad, a first cousin who is one of the most powerful businessmen in Syria has left the country.

While it remains unclear why the president's cousin, Rami Makhluf, left - his allies say he is in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, working on the expansion of his business empire - many people with close connections to the ruling Baath Party say his departure underscores the investigation's threat to the Assad family's grip on power.

Already, the United Nations has implicated important Syrians in the killing of Mr. Hariri in February, and the Syrian government has since been searching for a formula to satisfy its international critics without undermining its authority at home.

The UN has identified members of Assad's family as suspects in the assassination conspiracy, notably his brother Maher and brother-in-law Asef Shakwat, the commander of the military intelligence apparatus that struck fear into Lebanese for a generation. Makhluf, however, wasn't one of the suspects. The Makhlufs come from Assad's mother's family and comprise some of the richest supporters of the regime. Their wealth helps prop Assad the Younger on his perch as the nominal head of the regime.

If the monied class has truly begun to flee Syria, as the Times suggests, it's not because they conspired to assassinate Hariri and want to get out. Those who conspired against Hariri would find it much safer within Syria than outside of it. Until the regime collapses, they will never have to face a trial for his murder, unless Assad coughs them up as part of an arrangement to keep himself in power -- and even then, those big enough to get Assad off the hook at first would inevitably wind up implicating him in the end.

The flight of Makhluf means something entirely different, if it truly is flight. Monied interests will go to the places of greatest security in times of trouble. For decades, the Makhlufs have seen the Assads as that kind of guarantee. If Rami senses that his cousin can no longer provide that kind of assurance, fleeing to the UAE on the notion that he needs to take care of his finances abroad signals that even the closest bonds of support for the Assaf regime have weakened, perhaps fatally for Bashar.

The Times reports also that Bashar may have ordered Rami to leave in order to clean up the culture of corruption and recapture the confidence of the Syrian people. That rumor may sound good in Western circles, but the Syrians don't vote and don't have any freedom to express themselves in Assad's Ba'athist state. The Assads did not come to power or maintain it through populist means, nor are they beloved in any sense of the term. If the Syrians asserted themselves in a populist movement, it wouldn't be to keep Bashar on the throne, and Bashar knows it.

The only analysis of Rami's apparent flight is that the Assad regime has come to an end, for all practical purposes. If the Security Council puts a squeeze on Syria, it will utterly collapse. The Americans and the French should work quickly to ensure that the UN takes some sort of decisive action and that supporters of democratization stand ready to apply the coup de grace that will end the tyranny of the Assads for good -- and replace it with a democratic republic that will further isolate Iran in Southwest Asia.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 30, 2005 6:33 AM

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» Bullets, Not Ballots from Hard Starboard
Over the past week or two Ed Morrissey has been enthusiastically talking up the possibilities for bringing about regime change in Syria via the Franco-American-UN-multilateralist-diplomatic route. Most recently, last Saturday: As more pressure ... [Read More]

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