Bashar al-Assad has been presiding over one of the Middle East’s most disastrous civil wars for nearly a decade. But his hold on Syria could slip due to opposition from family members, unprecedented protests, and sweeping new U.S. sanctions.
A House Divided
There are indications that Assad could be losing support from his own family, including Rami Makhlouf, his first cousin. Makhlouf, who controls most of the country’s telecommunications sector, is Syria’s wealthiest man. With sanctions buffeting Iran, which is a major regime ally, and economic collapse devastating Lebanon, which holds $40 billion worth of Syrian assets and serves as the country’s main link to the global economy, the Syrian government is desperate for cash. To boost its coffers, the state demanded hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes from businesses that have profited from the conflict, including Makhlouf’s. There has since been a falling out between the cousins, and Makhlouf has publicly criticized Assad.
This could be a turning point, experts say, since Makhlouf is a powerful and popular figure, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians relying on his businesses, militias, and charities for their livelihoods. Other family members have followed Makhlouf’s lead in speaking out against the regime, and more Syrians could feel emboldened to do the same.
The struggling economy worries the public as much as it does the government. More than 80 percent of Syrians live in poverty, and the value of Syria’s currency has dropped sharply, from 700 pounds to the dollar in January to 3,500 in June. Protests have erupted in regime-held cities—where public shows of dissent are rare—with hundreds of demonstrators calling for Assad to step down.
Demonstrations of this scale have not occurred since the 2011 Arab Spring protests calling for democratic reform. Syria expert Rime Allaf argues that a growing number of Syrians now believe Assad’s government is incapable of reform and would rather see it forced out. But the regime isn’t backing down, and has begun arresting protesters and organizing counterprotests.
The Caesar Act
The most formidable threat to the regime is the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a bipartisan U.S. law that came into force on June 17. It sanctions Assad’s family members, as well as any entity worldwide that invests in regime-held areas. Removing the sanctions would require the regime to stop air strikes against civilians and the use of chemical weapons, restore countrywide access for humanitarian groups, release political prisoners, allow displaced Syrians to return home, and hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable.
By sanctioning entities of any nationality, the act aims to discourage countries—especially along the Persian Gulf and in Europe—from pursuing reconstruction deals and normalized relations with Syria. It also increases the pressure on Assad to allow a peaceful political transition, which the UN Security Council has called for since 2015.
But some analysts worry that the economic costs are more likely to hit Syrian civilians. To mitigate their suffering, the law allows sanctions waivers for humanitarian organizations, and the United States pledged nearly $700 million in additional aid, including to regime-held areas, on June 30. But more could be done to ensure sanctions only hurt the regime, says the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Mona Yacoubian. That could include streamlining the waiver process for aid organizations, avoiding sanctions that disrupt aid supply chains, and providing more assistance to refugees in Lebanon, which has the world’s largest population of displaced Syrians, Yacoubian told CFR.
A Relentless Regime
Despite these new threats, many analysts expect the regime to endure. The Assad family is no stranger to internecine conflict, so the Assad-Makhlouf drama could ultimately have little effect. As the government has previously shown, it’s not shy about cracking down on protests, which it could do again to prevent a new revolution amid its financial crisis. And the regime could circumvent the Caesar Act by using well-connected elites, warlords, and local brokers to do business with the rebel-held north, which is excluded from the sanctions, writes the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Kheder Khaddour.
Moreover, Assad still has the backing of Iran and Russia, whose support has helped him retake control over most of Syria. Yacoubian argues that this will be enough to weather the storm. “I don’t think this combination is enough to bring the regime down,” she says. “It just means, unfortunately, more suffering for ordinary citizens.”