[Marxism] NATO intervention in Syria

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 14 09:56:54 MDT 2012

On 3/14/12 12:45 PM, Eli Stephens wrote:
> The fact is that the U.S. government and its allies have long been after
> regime change in Syria. As in the case of Libya, the Syrian state is not a
> workers' state nor a socialist country, even though there is substantial
> state ownership of large industrial enterprises. In a document assessing the
> country, the U.S. State Department complains that Syria has ³failed to join
> an increasingly interconnected global economy.²

NY Times April 30, 2011
Syrian Businessman Becomes Magnet for Anger and Dissent

BEIRUT, Lebanon — When protests erupted in March in the forlorn Syrian 
border town of Dara’a, demonstrators burned the president’s portraits, 
then set ablaze an unlikely target: the local office of the country’s 
largest mobile phone company, Syriatel, whose owner sits at the nexus of 
anger and power in a restive country.

Syriatel is owned by Rami Makhlouf, first cousin and childhood friend of 
President Bashar al-Assad and the country’s most powerful businessman. 
In the past decade, he has emerged as a strength and a liability of a 
government that finds its bastions of support shrinking and a figure to 
watch as Mr. Assad’s inner circle tries to deal with protests shaking 
his family’s four decades of rule.

Leery of the limelight, he is alternatively described as the Assad 
family’s banker or Mr. Five Percent (or 10, or whatever share gets the 
deal done). His supporters praise him for his investment in Syria, but 
they are far outnumbered by detractors, who have derided him in protests 
as a thief or worse. Sometimes more than Mr. Assad himself, he has 
become the lightning rod of dissent.

“We’ll say it clearly,” went a chant in Dara’a. “Rami Makhlouf is 
robbing us.”

Egypt had Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate who favored tight Italian suits 
(and now faces trial in white prison garb). In Tunisia, it was Leila 
Traboulsi, the hairdresser who became the president’s wife, then a 
symbol of the extravagance of the ruling family. Mr. Makhlouf, 41, is 
Syria’s version, a man at the intersection of family privilege, clan 
loyalty, growing avarice and, perhaps most dangerously, the yawning 
disconnect between ruler and ruled that already reshaped authoritarian 
Syria even before the protests.

Like Mr. Ezz in Egypt, he has become a symbol of how economic reforms 
turned crony socialism into crony capitalism, making the poor poorer and 
the connected rich fantastically wealthier.

“A huge liability,” was how a Syrian analyst described him.

“On the economic side, he really symbolizes what the people hate about 
the regime,” said the analyst, who asked not to be named. “They hate the 
security services and they hate Rami Makhlouf. On the economic side, 
Rami symbolizes the very worst about the way the country is run.”

An e-mail sent to Mr. Makhlouf’s company on Saturday, asking for 
comment, went unanswered. Calls to the headquarters seeking comment were 
not answered Saturday.

The origins of Mr. Makhlouf’s wealth mirror the consolidation of the 
Assad family’s rule over Syria. Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, a former air 
force commander who took power in 1970 and soon forged an alliance 
between officers like him from the Alawite minority and Sunni Muslim 
businessmen in Damascus, the capital, offered privileges to his wife’s 
family, the Makhloufs. Mr. Makhlouf inherited the mantle, while his 
brother, Hafez, went into the other family business — state security — 
taking over as intelligence chief in Damascus.

“Together they make quite a duo,” an Obama administration official said.

Though prominent even before Mr. Assad’s ascent in 2000, Mr. Makhlouf 
grew even wealthier as he and Egyptian partners won one of two mobile 
phone contracts. (The partners were eventually forced to sell.) Syriatel 
has about 55 percent of the market, Syrian economists say. As the 
reforms moved Syria away from a state-led economy, he penetrated the 
economy’s most lucrative sectors — real estate, transport, banking, 
insurance, construction and tourism — and his interests run from a 
five-star hotel in Damascus to duty-free shops at airports and the 
border. He is the vice chairman and, Syrian analysts say, the real power 
in Cham Holding, which was set up in 2007 with 73 investors and $360 
million, in what seemed an attempt to tether wealthy Sunni businessmen 
to the government. It has effectively been charged with renovating 
Syria’s aging infrastructure, attracting Arab capital in another network 
of support for Mr. Assad’s rule.

Some praise him for the work, especially employees in Syriatel, whose 
sleek offices and good salaries make it the first choice of many young 
graduates for jobs.

“No one can say he spends his money in nightclubs with girls,” said a 
manager at Syriatel who only gave his first name, Muhammad. “He spends 
his time thinking how to build a new Syria. He is the ideal for Syrian 
youths as a successful businessmen.”

But many contend his success came by way of no-bid contracts and 
leverage with the force of the state behind it, where the government and 
his interests are merged. A former government adviser recalled Mr. 
Makhlouf’s father insisting on amendments to a banking law, even after 
it was passed by Parliament. (It was revised, he said.) The American 
government, which imposed sanctions on him in 2008, accused Mr. Makhlouf 
of manipulating the judicial system and using Syrian intelligence to 
intimidate his rivals.

“Everybody knows that you can’t do anything without him,” said Amr Al 
Azm, a Syria expert and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. 
“He has his fingers in so many pies. Anything you want to do you partner 
with him, or you give him a share.”

In a country where criticism of Mr. Assad himself was long taboo, 
Syriatel became an early proxy for protest under his rule, much of which 
centered on the government’s failure to profit from the sale of its license.

Riad Seif, an opposition member of Parliament, criticized what he called 
irregularities in the phone licenses and was soon arrested and 
imprisoned. So was Aref Dalila, another dissident. Rami Nakhle, an 
activist who fled Syria for Lebanon in January, began an Internet 
campaign to boycott Syriatel in 2008 over its high fees. They urged 
people to switch off their phones for four hours on the first day of the 
month. An online petition that he and other young activists circulated 
received 5,000 signatures.

“We were touching Rami Makhlouf but not naming him,” Mr. Nakhle said. 
“We were doing something political but in a way that we thought was safe.”

His efforts were humbled when the mother of one of his friends figured 
out what they were doing. She smashed her son’s laptop, Mr. Nakhle 
recalled, and barred him from the Internet for a month. “Do you want to 
disappear?” he recalled her asking her son.

Like Mr. Ezz’s place in Egypt, Mr. Makhlouf’s profile illustrates deeper 
changes in Syria that have made the uprisings more than simply calls for 
individual rights.

Mr. Assad’s father was famous for his ability to hold together disparate 
elements of the country, most remarkably in 1982, when merchants in 
Damascus sided with the government in its brutal suppression of an 
Islamist revolt that culminated with the killing of at least 10,000 
people in the central city of Hama.

Since then, the tacit understanding that underlined his rule — Alawite 
officers and Sunni merchants — has weakened, as the sons and grandsons 
of those Alawite officers enter business. Administration officials and 
economists say there are growing indications that support of the 
traditional Sunni commercial elite has begun to falter, too.

Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of 
Oklahoma, called Mr. Makhlouf “the tendons that reach out to the new 
capitalist class that was empowered.”

But others see him as more divisive, emblematic of a state that once 
brought electricity to every town but, as in Egypt, can no longer afford 
the social contract of taking care of its people’s needs. As that 
falters, figures like Mr. Makhlouf grow richer, alienating the 
traditional elite and people who view him as a symbol of injustice.

“Ideologically the regime doesn’t stand for much anymore beyond the 
interests of certain individuals,” said Nadim Houry, a researcher with 
Human Rights Watch in Beirut. “ He’s a symbol of what is perceived as 
private interests controlling large chunks of Syria’s economy.”

Even some sympathetic to the government have speculated whether Mr. 
Makhlouf might be sacrificed in an attempt to preserve the government, 
as Mr. Ezz was early on. But, others note, Mr. Ezz never had the ties of 
blood and clan that matter so much in Mr. Assad’s Syria.

“Right now, they will do anything to hang on to power,” the Obama 
administration official said. “That might lead them to do something, 
kick Rami aside, but I don’t see it going there quite yet.”

The official added: “At the end of the day, they’re family.”

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