Is Syria Suffering From a Family Business Conflict?

As a professional peacemaker, I tend to look at conflicts from the perspective of the people instead of politics. In the process of mediating thousands of conflicts, large and small, I find that conflict dynamics tend to fall into predictable patterns. This is especially true in family business conflicts. The same themes arise over and over again such that the conflict dynamics are predictable and systematic.

 While reading about the Syrian uprising some months ago, I read a brief mention of President Bashar al-Assad's younger brother, Maher. Maher, as it turns out, controls the military and is apparently the one responsible for the violent oppression of the protesters. I had wondered about that because Bashar was trained as medical doctor--an opthamologist---with no interest in politics or power until he was recalled to Syria by his father, the late Hafez al-Assad. So why would a western-trained physician married to a British-born Syrian woman who was a Citibank investment banker, lead his country into civil war? It began to sound like a classic family business conflict. When I started digging, I found all of the elements that I routinely see in deep conflicts. Of course, this is all highly speculative as I have never met the Assads or anyone that knows them. However, the superficial parallels to the trajectory of a family business suggest that the Syrian civil war is the result of an on-going, essentially unresolved, family business conflict.

 Here's the analysis I have constructed from the public records.


The Family Business Founder


Hafez al Assad assumed power in Syria, founding the family business. He essentially forced a buyout in a bloodless military coup in November 1970 as he capitalized on  internal conflict between the Baath Party’s more moderate military wing and more extremist civilian wing. Like any family business founder, he established an authoritarian regime with power concentrated in his own hands. His thirty-year presidency was characterized by a cult of personality, developed in order to maintain control over a potentially restive population and to provide cohesion and stability to the government. This management approach to government, while creating stability and wealth for the family, came at a cost. Dissent was harshly eliminated, the most extreme example being the brutal suppression in February 1982 of the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the country’s economy suffered, and progress was hindered by an overstaffed and inefficient public sector run overwhelmingly according to Baath Party dictates.

 From the founder's perspective, however, all was well. Hafez had three sons, Basil, Bashar, and Maher, and a daughter Bushra. As is typical in many family businesses, the oldest son Basil, was crowned as the successor and heir-apparent.

 From a young age, Basil was groomed to be the next president of Syria. He was chief of presidential security while running a highly publicized anti-corruption campaign within the regime, and frequently appeared in full military uniform at official receptions, signaling the regime's commitment to the armed forces. He also had a reputation for driving fast cars and living a faster life.


The Succession Plan Goes Awry


In January 1994, driving his Mercedes at high speed through fog to Damascus International Airport  Basil crashed into a motorway roundabout and died instantly. The succession plan was just thrown out the window, and with it the seeds of future conflict were sown into the soil of Syria. Basil was sometimes referred to as "Basil the Martyr", and numerous squares and streets have been named after him. His statue is found in several Syrian cities, and even after his death he is often pictured at billboards with his father and brother. Thus, in his death, he continues to symbolize the aspirations of his late father.


The Physician Turned Dictator


Unlike his brothers, Basil and Maher, and his sister, Bushra, Bashar al-Assad was quiet and reserved. Bashar had no interest in politics or the military and, until Basil's death, never talked about politics with his father.

 Bashar excelled during his primary and secondary education in the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus. In 1982, he graduated from high school and studied medicine at Damascus University. In 1988, he graduated from medical school and began working as an army doctor in Syria's biggest military hospital. Four years later, he went to the United Kingdom for postgraduate training in ophthalmology. Bashar became fluent in French and English, and while in London, met and married a Syrian-born British investment banker. At the time, Bashar had few political aspirations and looked destined to have a normal professional career as a second son of a political leader. Thus, to his surprise, he was recalled in 1994 to join the Syrian army, after Basil's unexpected death. Without his consent, he had been appointed by his father as the family successor.

 Over the next six and half years, until his death in 2000, Hafez groomed Bashar for power. To establish his military credentials, Bashar entered the military academy at Homs. He was fast-tracked to colonel in five years. To consolidate the military power base for Bashar, old divisional commanders were retired and replaced with young Alawite officers loyal to the family. In public affairs, Bashar was granted wide powers. He became a political adviser to his father, was head of the bureau to receive complaints and appeals of citizens, and led a campaign against corruption.

 Hafez al Assad died in 2000. The Syrian parliament immediately passed a law reducing the qualifying age for president from 40 to 34 and unanimously affirmed Bashar as president. In a general referendum, Bashar received 97 percent approval from the Syrian public.


The Younger Brother-Power Behind the Throne?


Maher al-Assad, Bashar's youngest brother, was born on December 8, 1967. Like his brothers and sisters, he was raised out of the public spotlight. Maher went to the Academy of Freedom School for his secondary education and studied business at Damascus University. After graduation, he pursued a career in the military. When Basil died, Maher was considered as a possible successor to Hafez. Maher's reputation as hot-tempered perhaps influenced Hafez's decision to appoint Bashar as heir to the family business.

After Basil's death, Maher assumed command of a brigade in the Republican Guard and distinguished himself as a good commander. His time as brigade commander allowed him to gain valuable military experience and build personal ties with his officers. After the death of his father in 2000, he was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel. and became commander of the Republican Guard. The Republican Guard is a 10,000 strong unit whose loyalty is said to be guaranteed by the revenue it receives from the Deir ez-Zor oil fields. Maher also became commander of the army's elite Fourth Armored Division.

 In June 2000, Maher was elected to the ruling Baath Party's central committee.

 Maher  has been alleged to be deeply involved in many corrupt schemes. According to Fortune Magazine, Maher benefited from the billion dollar money laundering operation at the Lebanese al-Madina bank. Al-Madina was used to launder kickback money of Iraqi officials and their partners in  illegal profiteering from the UN's oil-for-food program. Sources put the amount laundered through al-Madina at more than $1 billion, with a 25 percent commission going to Syrian officials, including Maher.

 Maher has often appeared in public with Bashar and is said to be one of his closest advisers.

 Maher, along with his brother-in-law General Assef Shawqat, who is married to sister Bushra, and Bashar are said to form the inner circle of power in the Assad regime. Shawqat was the former head of intelligence.

 Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in mid-March, Maher's troops have played a key role in violently suppressing protests in the southern city of Daraa, the coastal city of Banias, the central province of Homs and the northern province of Idlib.

 The United States imposed sanctions on Maher for human rights violations in Syria. The EU sanctioned Maher for being the principal overseer of violence against demonstrators during the 2011 Syrian uprising.


Conflict Over Direction of the Family Business


As I noted above, father's governance of the family business was characterized by stability and centralized rule based on his personal authority. Bashar, faced with the difficulties of his time, chose to lead ‘his’ Syria in a different direction. These ‘plans’ for a regime change received wide attention under the metaphor ‘Damascus Spring’ and included broad economic and political reforms. It was a period of high optimism among the Syrians: the period saw the emergence of some seventy ‘dialogue clubs’ for discussions between Syria’s civil society and its political elites - opposition parties played an active role in this period - and two private magazines, Ad-Dumari and Al-Iqtisadiyya, began operations. Bashar had great liberalizing plans as indicated by his inaugural speech to the nation on July 17, 2000.

 His plans were short-lived, however. Maher, apparently incensed at the loss of power, position, and privilege a liberalized Syria would mean, eventually convinced Bashar to back away. Bashar quickly learned that he was surrounded by men who ascended to power under the old patronage system. They were inclined not to give up their power to the masses.




The US-led invasion of Iraq ended the Damascus Spring as the Syrian elites feared liberalization would destroy their power, position, and privilege.  Bashar probably was moved away from his personal inclinations by a complex calculus that included his sense of obligation and loyalty to his father and family, his belief that Maher as his replacement would be a real tyrant, his thought that he could play a moderating force on the extreme elements of the Syrian leadership, concern for his personal safety and security and that of his family, and protection of his personal position, privilege, and power. As a result, he acceded to his brother's advice and allowed the government to clamp down again on dissent, liberalization, and creation of a civil society based on the rule of law.

 The decision led to another 10 years of relative stability in Syria. However, the oppression of the Sunni majority, the continued corruption, and the absence of economic opportunity for young Syrians created the same dynamic as was seen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In this case, however, the family's business partners, Russia, China, and Iran, have provided shelter from the rest of the international community. Civil war has been the result.

 At the present, I would guess that personalities dominate the inner circle. Bashar is by far the best educated, but is quiet and reserved. Maher is not stupid, but apparently has a violent temper that is just barely controlled. We don't know much about brother-in-law Shawqat, but it does not take much to imagine that the former head of the state intelligence apparatus is strong-willed. It looks like two against one in the family board room fights.


Bashar's Dilemma


I would not be surprised if Bashar al-Assad to this day is deeply conflicted over his choices. He might be a true tyrant, but his background, education, professional training and chosen life trajectory before recall to Syria suggests otherwise. I think Bashar al-Assad is a liberal man caught in a Byzantine world of Syrian politics and power. He cannot escape safely because he knows too much and has compromised too much. I doubt, however, unless he is deeply self-deceptive, that he sleeps well at night. He might be fooling himself, but I think he is too intelligent to be completely self-deceptive.


Advice from the Family Business Consultant


The business is bankrupt. It was probably insolvent at the time Bashar took it over from his father. His reorganization plan had no chance of success because the entrenched interests could not tolerate the change. Yet, his plan was probably the only path to avoid eventual violence and civil war. Bashar has no easy way out. If he could find a way to move his family to safety, he might consider resigning. His brother Maher or brother-in-law Assef Shawqat would probably assume power, and the civil war would intensify as the insurgents saw his resignation as validation of their power. From Bashar's perspective, resignation would make matters worse, not better, for the Syrian people. He has already been labeled a war criminal for allowing his brother to brutalize civilian populations. He probably faces indictment from the ICC for war crimes and human rights abuses. Resignation would also be a betrayal of family, which is unthinkable in his culture.

 Remaining in power is not viable either. Even the normally quiescent and malleable Arab League has condemned his government and is preparing to impose stiff sanctions. Turkey has threatened to cut off Syria's electricity. Both the US and the EU are escalating economic and political sanctions. Only the objections of Russia and China prevent the Security Council from condemning the Assad regime and bringing the full force of the international community against it.

 If this were a true family business, my advice would be to sell or liquidate. The conflict will only destroy the remaining family wealth. Even if the current civil war can somehow be stopped, there is no long term upside for the Assad family. The oppression will not stop the protests and cannot contain the Sunni majority forever. The dramatically changed political environment in the Middle East no longer tolerates autocratic rule when that rule is harsh and despotic. Thus, the new business environment dictates a radical change in strategy.

  And, at the end of it all, there is the moral dilemma. How does a liberally trained opthamalogist married to an investment banker live with himself over the deaths of 4,000 civilians, clear and present inequity and injustice, and continued government sanctioned-violence perpetrated in his name?

 My advice, as a professional peacemaker, is to resign and face the consequences of past decisions. The shame of family betrayal will be great, but staying in the business will only lead to greater personal, family, and national betrayal. The Assad family business conflict doesn't seem a lot different than a lot of other family business conflicts and the outcomes are just as sad and predictable.



Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker, professional mediator, and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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