The Syrian civil war is an unfathomable and ongoing tragedy. In addition to the direct destruction and loss of life, the war has plunged Syria’s already troubled economy into an even deeper crisis. A shocking 90% of the Syrian population lives in extreme poverty, and roughly 60% of the country does not have adequate food. Since 2010, the economy has contracted by 60%, while inflation has increased by over 300% and the value of the Syrian lira has depreciated by over 700%. Yet President Bashar al-Assad and his loyal networks of regime insiders and elite businessmen continues to profit, thanks in large part to rampant corruption. Assad and his friends have diverted tens of millions in humanitarian aid, forced families of detainees to pay bribes to visit them or win their release, and pocketed and re-sold rationed wheat on black markets. Most recently, the Syrian regime and its business partners have turned the country into a narcostate. In a damning investigation released at the end of 2021, the New York Times found that the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army—commanded by Assad’s younger brother, Maher al-Assad—is behind the production and distribution of the amphetamine captagon.
This story sounds depressingly familiar: In all too many countries, a tiny elite of privileged insiders gets rich from corrupt practices, while ordinary people suffer extreme deprivation. But in Syria there is a twist: In the last two years, the Assad regime has also been carrying out a ruthless anticorruption campaign, one that has targeted some of his own loyalists. For example, in 2020 Assad went after his cousin and close friend Rami Makhlouf, a once-untouchable business tycoon who at one point was estimated to control 60% of the Syrian economy. More recently, Assad detained and seized the assets of five loyal executives at Syria’s second-largest cellphone company.
This seems like a paradox: Assad’s anticorruption campaign is unfolding alongside his circle’s ongoing abuses of power. But in fact this is true to form. Starting during the reign of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez Al-Assad (henceforth Hafez), the Assad regime has followed a pattern of “patronage and pruning” to manage the inherent tension between, on the one hand, cultivating elite support by allowing loyal elites to exploit public power for private gain, and, on the other hand, preventing public discontent with corruption from getting so out of hand that it threatens the regime’s stability and authority.
Understanding Assad’s playbook requires a discussion of how patronage became the prevailing mode of political organization in Syria under Hafez. Before his presidential reign, Hafez founded a Secret Military Committee that conspired to build an underground Ba’ath party behind the previous regime. Hafez leaned on friends and relatives in minority sects (Alawites, Christians, and Druze) for over a decade to build control across the government. These personal networks ushered him into his appointment as defense minister in 1966, setting the stage for his military coup in 1970. After seizing power, Hafez then employed an extensive patronage system to further legitimize his authority. Hafez, an Alawite himself, appointed hundreds of Alawites and friends from minority sects to command a variety of political institutions, including military intelligence services, elite military units, the Regional Command, and various other bureaus. These bureaus were then tasked with winning over elites in Syria beyond Hafez’s close circle, such as businessmen and large corporations. To court the elite, Hafez’s regime used state resources to give these private actors government appointments, loans, land grants, and off-the-record relief from state regulations. As these patronage networks proliferated, government contracts were awarded almost entirely based on familiarity and cronyism. Heavy-handed distribution of patronage to supporters solidified a corrupt bureaucracy that made simple administrative tasks a “Kafkaesque torment” that couldn’t be performed without under-the-table bribes.
By 1980, corruption was getting out of control. Considerable government resources were being drained and public resentment was growing—with this resentment sometimes manifesting in uprisings, most notably an insurgency in the city of Hama. Hafez feared that citizen unrest was weakening his grip on power. Part of his response involved violent repression, including the near-levelling of Hama and the indiscriminate massacre of thousands of Syrians in 1982. But after Hafez managed to quell the immediate unrest with violence, he turned to mitigating the underlying tensions that had contributed to this regime-threatening crisis. Recognizing corruption as one of the main causes of citizen anger, in 1985 Hafez launched an anticorruption campaign targeting his own cronies. Over the course of several years, Hafez’s anticorruption drive took down multiple businessmen (liquidating their assets in the process), as well as officials at the Ministry of the Treasury. The campaign also urged military divisions of notable officers, and even derogated and exiled Hafaz’s brother and vice president Rif’at al-Assad.
But Hafez’s anticorruption campaign had to have its limits. Turning away from patronage completely was impossible for a regime built on patronage, and attempting to do so would risk upsetting too many of Hafaz’s various friends in high places, thereby posing as much or more of a threat to his rule as citizen anger over corruption. So, rather than genuinely seeking to uproot patronage, Hafaz adopted a strategy of “pruning”: He trimmed the edges of the patronage system, attacking some of the most egregious and high-profile abuses, while allowing the overall system to continue to operate. Indeed, when Hafaz removed corrupt officials, he would promote replacements from minority sects who were also selected on the grounds of familiarity and political loyalty rather than merit.
The patronage-and-pruning cycle recurred in 2000 when Bashar al-Assad took over as president. At that time, the Syrian public was increasingly angry about the widespread corruption in the country. Assad saw this anger as a threat to his power. Hoping to appease the public and mitigate threats to his regime, Assad launched his own anticorruption campaign, pruning the regime of many Hafez-era Alawite and minority loyalists across military and political bureaus. Taking after his father, even as he took these high-profile actions to demonstrate the seriousness of his crackdown on corruption, Assad in fact kept the patronage machine rolling along, appointing new friends to high-level positions. Indeed, despite public removals of several old-guard cronies, reports from the early 2000s show that, on balance, the number of Alawite and minority friends in official positions may have actually increased, and by 2005, levels of corruption surpassed those of the Hafez era. The Assad family and friends siphoned off roughly 85% of oil revenues that year, government “mafias” controlled most of the economy and entrepreneurial environment, and bribes became a public, normal part of daily life.
Assad’s anticorruption efforts waned in the build-up to the conflict in 2011. Faced with a revolution, Assad leaned heavily on the patronage system to ensure loyalists remained on his side, locking in a status quo of corruption among political and military elites that’s considered even worse than before the war.
This brings us back to 2022. Assad’s circumstances today are different in key areas than Hafez’s. Assad faces a protracted war, heavier sanctions, and pressure from foreign allies in Russia, Iran, and Lebanon. Despite these new circumstances, Assad’s recent actions align with what we’ve seen before. With corruption getting out of hand and society increasingly disgruntled—as demonstrated by major street demonstrations in the city of Sweida earlier this year—Assad is again employing a “pruning” strategy, announcing high-profile actions against corruption and patronage, and sacrificing some loyalists in the process, to try to tamp down public anger and keep the citizens quiescent. Viewing in historical perspective, Assad’s current anticorruption moves represent the use of a standard play in a five-decade-old playbook.
For Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, anticorruption efforts—in the form of targeted pruning—are implemented when their rich and powerful friends become too rich and too powerful, provoking a dangerous level of public anger and resentment. At that point, old loyalists get purged and replaced with new ones. But the system doesn’t change, and ordinary Syrian citizens remain left to fend for themselves.