Middle East

Syrian Elite to Fight Protests to ‘the End’

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s ruling elite, a tight-knit circle at the nexus of absolute power, loyalty to family and a visceral instinct for survival, will fight to the end in a struggle that could cast the Middle East into turmoil and even war, warned Syria’s most powerful businessman, a confidant and cousin of President Bashar al-Assad.

Multimedia

The frank comments by Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon who has emerged in the two-month uprising as a magnet for anger at the privilege that power brings, offered an exceedingly rare insight into the thinking of an opaque government, the prism through which it sees Syria, and the way it reaches decisions.

Troubled by the greatest threat to its four decades of rule, the ruling family, he suggested, has conflated its survival with the existence of the minority sect that views the protests not as legitimate demands for change but rather as the seeds of civil war. 

“If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he said in an interview Monday that lasted more than three hours. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”

Asked if it was a warning or a threat, Mr. Makhlouf demurred. “I didn’t say war,” he said. “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer, don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”

His words cast into the starkest terms a sentiment the government has sought to cultivate — us or chaos — and it underlined the tactics of a ruling elite that has manipulated the ups and downs of a tumultuous region to sustain an overriding goal: its own survival.

Though the uprising has yet to spread to Syria’s two largest cities — Damascus, the capital, seemingly tranquil, and Aleppo, a key conservative bastion, has been relatively quiet — the protests have unfurled in Damascus’s suburbs and across much of the rest of the country, building on longstanding neglect of the countryside and anger at corrupt and unaccountable security forces. While the government offered tentative concessions early on, it has since carried out a ferocious crackdown, killing hundreds, arresting thousands and besieging four cities.

“The decision of the government now is that they decided to fight,” Mr. Makhlouf said.

But even if it prevails, the uprising has demonstrated the weakness of a dictatorial government that once sought to draw legitimacy from a notion of Arab nationalism, a sprawling public sector that created the semblance of a middle class and services that delivered electricity to the smallest towns.

The government of Mr. Assad, though, is far different than that of his father, who seized power in 1970. A beleaguered state, shorn of ideology, can no longer deliver essential services or basic livelihood. Mr. Makhlouf’s warnings of instability and sectarian strife like Iraq’s have emerged as the government’s rallying cry, as it deals with a degree of dissent that its officials admit caught them by surprise.

Mr. Makhlouf, a childhood friend and first cousin of Mr. Assad, whose brother is the intelligence chief in Damascus, suggested that the ruling elite — staffed by Mr. Assad’s relatives and contemporaries — had grown even closer during the crisis. Though Mr. Assad has the final say, he said, policies were formulated as “a joint decision.”

“We believe there is no continuity without unity,” he said. “As a person, each one of us knows we cannot continue without staying united together.”

He echoed an Arabic proverb, which translated loosely, means that it will not go down alone.

“We will not go out, leave on our boat, go gambling, you know,” he said at his plush, wood-paneled headquarters in Damascus. “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He added later, “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

Mr. Makhlouf, just 41 and leery of the limelight, stands as both a strength and liability of Mr. Assad’s rule, and in the interview he was a study in contrasts — a feared and reviled businessmen who went to lengths to be hospitable and mild-mannered. To the government’s detractors, his unpopularity rivals perhaps only that of Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard and the elite Fourth Division that has played a crucial role in the crackdown.