Cracks in the Assad Facade

Walid al-Muallem’s death underlines the fall of the old guard that long served the Assad regime

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Cracks in the Assad Facade
Syria’s longtime foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, speaking at the General Assembly on September 28, 2019 in New York City. He died aged 79 last month/ Kena Betancur/ Getty images

Rawad made a habit out of checking his Facebook memories every day. He mainly looks for the embarrassing posts that he had published in the decade since he started using the social media platform, either to delete them or share them with a self-deprecating caption in order to elicit a laugh from his friends. 

On Nov. 15, the 29-year-old civil engineer, who asked for his name to be changed for security reasons, saw a post he had published that day in 2018, in which he expressed belief that life in Syria was about to become much better. The Syrian government, with which he sympathizes, had recently managed to drive opposition forces out of several provinces, including Damascus and its countryside, wedging them into the northern and northwestern parts of the country.

“That post I did not delete; I shared it because I wanted to show everyone how naïve I was just two years ago,” Rawad said. “Most of us today wish to go back to how the situation was before, even when the battles were just outside Damascus.” 

Rawad lives in the capital and has chosen to side with strongman Bashar al-Assad because he believes that the alternative would be Islamist theocracy, a narrative that the regime propagated even before the 2011 uprising broke out. 

So when he heard the news on Nov. 16 that Syria’s longtime foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, had died aged 79, he grew frustrated. The septuagenarian diplomat had worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates for 56 years, and was minister for the last 14 of those. 

“Whatever one says about Muallem, he was well respected, even by his foes,” Rawad wrote on Facebook that day, restricting the audience of the post to his friends only. “You might like him or hate him, but you must admit we are not left with that many respectable characters.” 

Over the years, ordinary citizens who support Assad, or are simply trapped in areas controlled by his regime, have generally come to differentiate between two kinds of powerful people in their country. In the first, they see illustrious and eloquent diplomats, traders whose wealth and reputation predates the Syrian civil war or even the regime itself, and industrialists who advocate for their respective cities’ prosperity.

In the second group, however, they see individuals who are much harder to admire: newly-minted lawmakers who, up until recently, were commanding brutal auxiliary militias, and businessmen of whom no one had heard of five years ago who had somehow built enormous wealth during the war.

In 2020, popular figures representing the first group were repeatedly stripped of their influential positions while the others consolidated power at their expense. Muallem’s death underlined the rising fortunes of Syria’s new elites, exacerbating Syrians’ fear of the warlords’ growing power.

“The thing is, I do not fear that we will have a warlord as foreign minister, but, I mean, we have them everywhere right now so even that does not feel out of the question,” Rawad told Newlines.

As the living conditions of Syrians worsen, their complaints and criticism on social media increase, albeit without ever crossing the red lines. Over the five decades of its reign, the Assad regime, with its family members’ influence and control over intelligence and security apparatuses, has distinguished itself from state establishments such as the council of ministers. Syrians understand that there is the regime and there is the government. When people criticize ministers, there is always someone to remind them that the minister has no real power in this country. That lack of authority allows people to feel safe criticizing, or even mocking, ministers and prime ministers; rarely does anyone get prosecuted for it.

But the case of the foreign ministry is special: In 50 years, the regime only had three foreign ministers.

Muallem was always revered by regime supporters who viewed him as an excellent diplomat, even if they sometimes made fun of some of his remarks such as “we will forget that Europe is on the map,” which he said in 2011 in response to European Union sanctions on Syria and “who is [Mike] Pompeo? I don’t know him,” which he said in 2019 after being asked to comment on a statement made by the U.S. secretary of state.

“Muallem’s foreign minister role has involved precious little foreign diplomacy in recent years, meaning his often wildly inaccurate talking points were not exposed to direct scrutiny or ridicule,” said Emma Beals, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “Instead, he walked the line Assad’s foreign minister is expected to walk, maintaining the party line, outlasting several U.N. special envoys to whom he gave up precious little, and providing a consistent counterpart to Syria’s allies who are by and large unencumbered by the transience of electoral democracies.”

On Nov. 22, Muallem’s longtime deputy, Faisal Mekdad, was appointed foreign minister – a sufficiently safe and expected choice that did not stir any negative feelings in pro-regime circles. Still, Syrians continue to fear the warlords’ growing power at the expense of the old guard.

A factory owner from Aleppo said that most industrialists can only sit back and watch while “whales swallow the market,” referring to the Syrian regime’s cronies. 

“I have been an industrialist for around 30 years and, now, I look around me and do not recognize any of the names that monopolize the market,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They were all enriched by the war … and they are the only ones who get [state] support.”

The industrialist said that his sector is able to help the country’s economy get back on its feet, yet it has not received any help from the state in order to revive its activity. 

“Our industries and trade have been badly hit since 2011-2012 and yet we receive no support,” he said. “The support only goes to [the war profiteers], unfortunately.” 

Many Syrians have lost hope in their government’s ability, or even willingness, to make their lives better. The country is now battling with a historic bread crisis that sees thousands of Syrians waiting in seemingly endless queues in front of bakeries every day. Moreover, more families than ever fear the cold of winter because a devastating fuel shortage means that they will probably not be able to warm up their homes. An underreported outbreak of COVID-19 has aggravated an already war-ravaged health care system and inflicted further damage on the economy and the lives of civilians. 

“Never once did I imagine that my ambitions would go from buying an apartment or a nice car to buying bread or filling up my mother’s car with gasoline.”

“The war profiteers get richer while Syrians reach historic levels of poverty,” Rawad said. “Never once did I imagine that my ambitions would go from buying an apartment or a nice car to buying bread or filling up my mother’s car with gasoline.” 

After two delays caused by COVID-19, Syria finally held parliamentary elections in July. The results were far from satisfying for those who still had hope in the Syrian regime’s ability to reform itself and move forward, or to even remain where it was without backsliding. Even the staunchest of regime supporters knows that the Syrian parliament is no more than a rubber-stamp body that exists to applaud and cheer every word Assad utters or every decision he makes. 

But Syrians had hoped that even a neutered parliament would represent the people’s interests, rather than the warlords’. Unlike previous elections, when the results could easily be guessed before they were announced, this one was not devoid of surprises. Just before election day, Mohammad Hamsho, a major Syrian businessman and trader from Damascus who is believed to be a business associate of Assad’s brother, Maher, dropped out of the race. He was at the helm of the leading list of candidates running in the capital, guaranteed to win. 

A few days later, election results showed that the chairman of Syria’s Federation of Chambers of Industry, Fares Shehabi, whose popularity skyrocketed among regime supporters over the past decade, was defeated in his hometown of Aleppo. The winner was a businessman despised by many in Syria’s industrial capital and little known a few years ago, Hussam Qaterji. 

Both Qaterji and Shehabi are ardent regime supporters; the latter even takes it upon himself to employ his English language skills and tech savviness in trolling journalists on Twitter and defending the Syrian regime on every occasion. Shehabi was outraged at his defeat, and he implied that senior Baath Party officials alongside war profiteers were behind it. 

Syrians queue up to buy bread in a rebel held neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo on July 12, 2016/ Karam Al-Masri/ AFP via Getty Images

A millionaire who “chose not to abandon his city even though he easily could,” as his supporters often describe him, Shehabi often clashed with the Syrian government and other members of parliament, when he himself was one, on behalf of Aleppo, repeating how it is the country’s industrial and economic heart and how it has long been overlooked. Qaterji, on the other hand, earned his power by funding militias and trading oil under the table on behalf of the regime, first with ISIS then with the de facto autonomous Kurdish administration governing eastern and northeastern Syria.

Later, in September and October, Syrian governorates held their local chamber of commerce elections. Thousands of traders cast their votes for the figures who could best represent their interests and fight for their rights on the board of directors of each governorate’s respective chamber. Prominent pro-regime figures, including the editor-in-chief of a pro-regime Syrian newspaper, warned of the growing influence of war profiteers, charging in a Facebook post that “dirty money should not buy positions, and [those who pay for it] certainly do not deserve them, and cannot represent you.”

After the results, however, that editor-in-chief, whose social media posts are restricted to friends only, declared that “money has won,” as old-money traders lost in many governorates – most notably in Damascus, where many of the chamber’s leading members did not even run for mysterious reasons. 

Several of the 12 members who were elected to the board of directors of the capital’s chamber of commerce were unknown to most Damascenes. One name that stood out in the list of winners was, as many had feared, Wassim Qattan, a notorious businessman of whom no one had heard until recent years. Qattan’s emergence as a powerful investor perplexed everyone when he, out of nowhere, took over a big mall outside Damascus in 2017. He has since invested in a great deal of public establishments and commercial centers, which suggests he is one of the regime’s business associates. 

Despite winning the highest number of votes in the Homs Chamber of Commerce elections, businessman Antoun Daoud dropped out of the board of directors. In a Facebook post, he said that he encountered “a new atmosphere, to which we are not accustomed, and things went in a direction contrary to that which we were hoping for.”

With the tightening noose of sanctions around the Syrian regime’s neck, it is likely that it will continue on the same trajectory of enriching its cronies who help it remain afloat. Syria, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism since 1979, came under new U.S. and EU sanctions after its violent repression of peaceful protests in 2011. Since then, the regime has grown increasingly isolated as officials, ministers, generals, businessmen, and establishments were targeted by such sanctions. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which was signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump in December 2019 and went into effect in June, has targeted more individuals and establishments associated with the regime, as well as its enablers abroad. 

The regime is more desperate for money now than at any other point in the past decade. It has been reduced to asking citizens entering the country to exchange $100 at border crossings or in the airport, at the official exchange rate, in order to scrape together some revenue. It has also allowed some Syrians in the country to pay an exemption fee in lieu of the compulsory military service, a policy long considered a taboo.

“The recent direction of travel for the government of Syria has seen them elevate war economy actors and cronies who can thrive in a political and economic environment detached from formal and international banking and trading systems,” Beals said. “The regime is consolidating behind its pariah state status for the foreseeable future, and is ensuring it can operate somewhat effectively through illicit markets and means.”

Muallem’s death was more tragic to a myriad of regime sympathizers, given the course that their country has taken in the two years since the armed conflict started to wind down. They now witness in horror the decline of the old guard and the rise of warlords as one of the defining features of Assad’s proclaimed victory over a shattered Syria. 

“Everyone knew battles were going to be a temporary thing no matter how long they lasted,” the Aleppo industrialist said. “But now battles are almost over and yet the country is still headed towards the unknown. … No one has its interest at heart.”

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