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. Continue reading