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Friday, June 17, 2011

Syrian tycoon steps aside as Arab rulers seek alternative to crackdowns

Syria's President Bashar Al Assad appears to be turning more and more to a tiny coterie of relatives, the backbone of a family dynasty that has kept Syria's 22 million people living in fear for decades.(Ap photo)
Syria's President Bashar Al Assad appears to be turning more and more to a tiny coterie of relatives, the backbone of a family dynasty that has kept Syria's 22 million people living in fear for decades.(Ap photo)
If Rami Makhlouf’s decision to quit business and take up charity means anything, it is that autocratic rulers like embattled Syrian President Bashar Al Assad may be looking for alternatives to the brutal violence they employ in failed attempts to suppress massive anti-government protests.

The decision by Mr. Makhlouf, Syria’s most powerful businessman and a confidant and cousin of Mr. Assad, came shortly after Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi sent an envoy to Washington to explore a deal.

The envoy suggested that Mr. Qaddafi was willing to withdraw into the desert so that technocrats could form a transitional government together with anti-Qaddafi rebels.

Saif al-Islam, one of Mr. Qaddafi’s sons, suggested that elections could be held in Libya in the presence of international observers within three months.

The efforts by men like Mr. Qaddafi and Mr. Assad look like too little too late and are likely to fuel the protests rather than dampen them. Some opposition figures believe that Mr. Makhlouf’s move is an attempt to circumvent US and European sanctions imposed on him and other members of Mr. Assad’s closest circle. The EU is expected to announce new sanctions within days.

Mr. Qaddafi, battered by the NATO air campaign against his compound and his forces and allied aid for the rebels, nonetheless maintains a popular base. Rebels fear that his continued presence in Libya would allow him to sabotage a transition away from his 41 years of autocratic rule.

If anything, Mr. Qaddafi’s overtures signal that the NATO and rebel campaign is starting to hit home.

Mr. Makhlouf’s decision is believed to be a ploy to take the sting out of Friday prayer protests in Syria. It’s a ploy that is unlikely to work despite the fact that Mr. Makhlouf, a 41-year old tycoon, is the lightning rod of the three-month old protests against Mr. Assad’s regime. Mr. Makhlouf’s businesses have been the targets of protesters who repeatedly burned offices of Syriatel, his telecommunications company.

Rather than be persuaded to demur, protesters are likely to be encouraged by Mr. Makhlouf’s departure and Mr. Qaddafi’s overtures.

Mr. Makhlouf’s quitting business constitutes a victory, albeit a small one, for the protesters who want an end to corruption and see the tycoon as a symbol of a corrupt and nepotistic system. It is the first time that one of Mr. Assad’s closest associates is forced to step aside and constitutes a major concession on the part of Mr. Assad, who is surrounded by close-knit group of family members and associates. Mr. Makhlouf presented his decision as an act of generosity rather than a concession.

Mr. Makhlouf may well have been the easiest member of Mr. Assad’s circle to be offered as a sacrificial lamb. The businessman warned in a rare interview in May with The New York Times that Mr. Assad’s government would fight to the end in a battle that could increase turmoil in the region and even lead to a regional war with Israel.

Mr. Assad quickly distanced himself and his government from Mr. Maklouf’s remarks, but the damage had been done. Mr. Makhlouf effectively portrayed Mr. Assad and his cohorts as unwilling to make concessions despite the president’s promises and determined to cling to power at whatever cost.

Mr. Makhlouf told the state-run Syrian News late Thursday that he would offer Syriatel shares to the poor and would donate part of the company’s profits to the families of people killed in the uprising.

More than 1,400 people are believed to have so far been killed in Mr. Assad’s crackdown. Thousands more have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.

What Mr. Makhlouf’s move really means may become clear when Mr. Assad gives an expected speech in the coming days that Syrian officials bill as significant. For the president’s gesture to have any meaning, he will have to halt his brutal crackdown on the protesters and announce far-reaching political and economic reform. Even that may no longer be enough for Syrians to accept Mr. Assad as their legitimate leader.

For now, there is little indication that Mr. Assad is about to mend his ways. Syrian security forces in the last 24 hours deployed in remote towns near the border with Iraq to control volatile tribes in the area. The deployment is similar to a move last month along the Lebanese border and this month along the frontier with Turkey that sent thousands of Syrians seeking refuge with their neighbors.

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