On Monday, Rami Makhlouf, Syria's most powerful businessman, spent over three hours chatting with Anthony Shadid of The New York Times about the Syrian uprising at the luxurious Damascus headquarters of his cell phone company, Syriatel. Those seem to be three hours more than the Syrian government would have preferred.
In the interview, Makhlouf warned that instability or regime change in Syria could provoke sectarian strife and throw the Middle East–including Israel–into chaos. He said that economic reform must come before political reform, that the government would fight "until the end," and that Syria's ruling elite, consisting of President Bashar al-Assad's relatives and peers, developed policies as "a joint decision."
The interview may not have gone over well among that very inner circle. In a letter to the editor at the Times today, Syria's ambassador to the U.S. reminded people tersely that Makhlouf is "a private citizen in Syria" who "holds no official position in the Syrian government and does not speak on behalf of the Syrian authorities." On Twitter, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter tried to interpret the ambassador's words: "Shamed? good cop bad cop?" The letter, she wrote, suggests that the regime regrets Makhlouf's interview with the Times.
Before we consider the question Slaughter's raises–who exactly is Rami Makhlouf? Shadid explains that the 41-year-old business tycoon is Assad's childhood friend and first cousin. In a profile in late April, Shadid explained that Makhlouf, who is also from Assad's minority Alawite sect, is a "man at the intersection of family privilege, clan loyalty, growing avarice and, perhaps most dangerously, the yawning disconnect between ruler and ruled." The BBC notes that "no foreign companies can do business in Syria without his consent" and The Telegraph adds that Makhlouf is "thought to have control of over 60 percent of the Syrian economy." In other words, he's an incredibly influential, controversial guy.
While supporters extol Makhlouf for investing in Syria and providing employment there, Shadid observes, Syria's protesters have increasingly directed their ire at him and the corruption and cronyism he represents. In the southern city of Daraa, for example, demonstrators torched Syriatel's local office (see photo above) and chanted, "We'll say it clearly. Rami Makhlouf is robbing us."
The other interesting wrinkle here–and there doesn't appear to be much reporting on this–is that Makhlouf owns Syria's largest cell phone company and cell phones are at the very heart of the Syrian uprising, since activists are using them to share amateur videos and photos with the international community. The Telegraph says Makhlouf is "believed to have played a key role in cutting off communications in restive Syrian cities." According to AFP, Syriatel and another phone company, South Africa's MTN, offered customers one hour of free calls back in April "in recognition of the people who stood with" Assad.
Makhlouf is also the target of international sanctions. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Makhlouf in 2008, claiming Makhlouf had scored lucrative contracts by manipulating the Syrian judicial system and using Syrian intelligence to intimidate his competitors. The E.U. leveled sanctions at Makhlouf earlier this week, charging him with facilitating violence against protesters by bankrolling the regime (Makhlouf's brother, Hafez, the intelligence chief in Damascus, is also the target of U.S. and E.U. sanctions).
Might the regime throw Makhlouf under the bus? An unnamed Obama administration official tells Shadid that the Syrian regime "will do anything to hang on to power, which "might lead them to … kick Rami aside, but I don't see it going there quite yet." Michael Young at Lebanon's Daily Star, however, believes Makhlouf didn't need authorization from the Syrian regime to make his comments to the Times and was simply offering the "harsher alternative" if Assad's current approach to the uprising is "rejected by the international community." The Assads and the Makhloufs, he writes, "can either stand together behind repression, or fall apart."