Assad stalwart bows out in move to placate Syrian protesters
Rami Makhlouf, President Assad's cousin and a business tycoon depicted as synonymous with Syrian corruption, announced on state TV that he was quitting.
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Rami Makhlouf, Syrian business tycoon and cousin to President Bashar al-Assad, says he is quitting business and putting his profits into charity. The move that was announced on state television is being billed as a concession to one of protesters' many demands for reform, although they said his departure alone is not enough.
Mr. Makhlouf holds unrivaled economic clout in Syria. He controls the country's main cellphone company as well as a bank, airline, and construction company (among others). He has been under US sanctions since 2007 for public corruption and was recently placed under EU sanctions.
The New York Times notes that Makhlouf has long been reviled for his business dealings and has become a "lightning rod" in the Assad regime during the uprising – offices of his cell phone company have been burned in the protests and his name has been shouted by demonstrators. He is "synonymous with the excesses of the Syrian leadership" for many Syrians.
As a member of Mr. Assad's inner circle, his resignation is a milestone in the uprising – it is the first time a "pillar" of the regime has been forced out. Such a concession would be noteworthy anywhere, but it is particularly significant with Assad's regime because of the tight ties holding the country's elite together, the Times reports.
“The government is now using another set of cards, one that directly addresses the protesters’ demands,” said Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University. “Makhlouf is a symbol of the corruption in the regime.” But, he added, “as a change of heart for the regime, the decision has come too late, and it’s not going to be accepted seriously by protesters.”
Increasingly isolated, Assad appears to be turning closer to his family, the backbone of the regime, the Associated Press reports. His younger brother Maher is perceived to be leading much of the crackdown. He is the commander of the army's 4th division, its best-trained force, as well as several units of the Republican Guard, which is in charge of protecting Damascus.
Security forces took over another northern town on Friday, the Associated Press reported. Most of the residents of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 along the highway between Damascus and Aleppo, fled ahead of the security forces' arrival.