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.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, Syria's most influential businessman, is shown in this April 24, 2010 file photo.

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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.

They also swept through the region along the Turkish border Thursday, arresting males older than 16, mostly around the towns of Jisr al-Shaghour, the target of a military operation last week, and Maarat al-Nouman, The Washington Post reported. According to human rights activists, at least 300 people have been detained daily in the area. Syria has urged Jisr al-Shaghour residents who fled the town due to the military incursion to return, but few have been convinced.

"We are hearing that they are calling for people to return, but we know that we will die if we go back," a refugee on the Turkish side of the border told the Guardian.

Turkey seems to have received approval from the Syrian government to send food, water, medicine, and other aid to the roughly 10,000 Syrians stranded on the Syrian side of the shared border, the Post reported.

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes in the Guardian that the distance between the protesters' goals at the outset of demonstrations in March and today – regime change, for many – can be attributed mostly to Assad's brutality, which seems to continue escalating.

Last January Syria seemed to belong with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as the least likely candidates for revolution. If President Bashar al-Assad had run in a real election, he may well have won. It's difficult to remember today that most Syrians did credit, if grudgingly, the regime with ensuring security and prosecuting a vaguely nationalist foreign policy. It's that desire for security, the overwhelming fear of Iraq-style chaos, that keeps a section of Syrian society loyal to the regime even now.

To start with, although they were inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, most protesters didn't aim for regime change. The first demonstration, in the commercial heart of Damascus, was a response to police brutality. That ended peacefully, but when Deraa protested over the arrest of schoolchildren the regime spilt blood. Outraged, communities all over the country took to the streets and met greater violence, swelling the crowds further. A vicious circle began. All the intelligence and nationalist pretensions peeled away from the government to reveal a dark and thuggish core.

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