Anisa Makhlouf: The mother of the Syrian regime

Anisa Makhlouf: The mother of the Syrian regime
Syria has been ruled by the Assad-Makhlouf clans for close to five decades. Hafez al-Assad's wife, Anisa, was key to this union and helped Bashar's father rise to power.
5 min read
10 February, 2016
The Assad-Makhlouf dynasty has ruled Syria 'with an iron fist' [AFP]

On Saturday, Syrian state media announced the death of Bashar al-Assad's mother, Anisa Makhlouf, putting to rest persistent rumours about her demise.

It is difficult to see what impact - if any - Makhlouf's departure could have on the future of Syria, given her largely reclusive life.

The first lady was often portrayed by state media in rather patriarchal terms - a doting mother than tended to the needs of her family, while her workaholic husband, Hafez al-Assad, took care of Syria.

Pro-regime media announced the death on Sunday with a rather subdued eulogy to the first lady's role, who retained the title long after her husband's death.

Makhlouf accompanied Hafez on "several business trips outside Syria" one state media said in its obituary to Anisa.

"[She] was concerned with the issues of women, family affairs, martyrs, martyrs' children, the elderly, and orphans, and alongside him was part of the process of establishing modern Syria throughout 30 years." 

Mother and wife

Although the regime carefully crafted Anisa's public profile, analysts believe she played a prominent role behind the scenes.

She was also seen as part of the old guard, and some have linked her to the regime's brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, through her relationship with her son, President Bashar al-Assad.

The brutal crackdown confirmed that the young president would follow a path similar to his father when dealing with dissent.

This extinguished any final hopes that Assad would take the more conciliatory approaches of "next generation" Arab leaders such as King Abdullah of Jordan and King Mohammed of Morocco.

Damascus' clampdown sent Syria further down the path trod by previous generations, whose response to dissent was nearly always bloody and brutal.

"What we know is restricted to people who fled the regime or what she said in public because she was a pretty reclusive figure. But what we can gather is that she was a driving force behind the family," said Chris Doyle, director of Caabu, a British-Middle East policy reform group.

"She was crucial to Hafez's assent to power in the first place. She came from a notable Alawi clan, which allowed him to go forward in terms of social mobility."

Anisa was crucial to Hafez's assent to power in the first place
- Chris Doyle, Caabu

Although both families were Alawites from Latakia province, the Makhloufs were distinct in that they were an established clan with lineage, unlike the Assads.

This gave the Makhloufs some prestige while the Assads had a low social standing, leading members of Anisa's family to oppose a union.

Family faultlines

Ideologically, the two families also differed - with Hafez a Baathist and Anisa's father connected to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The political differences were said to be so vast that the father initially opposed a marriage between Anisa and Hafez.

"Anisa played a vital part in establishing Hafez's power and gelling the families together," said Doyle.

The Makhloufs with their history in business took a prominent position in the regime. Some have described them as the "financiers" of the Assad-dominated government. They are also said to take part in some of the shadier sides of government business.

In more recent years, Rami Makhlouf, Anisa's nephew, grew immensely wealthy controlling some of the country's largest conglomerates and trade zones with Lebanon.

Some say he controls 60 percent of Syria's economy, while others give him a more modest personal wealth of $6 billion. 

Anisa played a vital part in establishing Hafez's power and gelling the families together
- Chris Doyle, Caabu

"That essentially privatised the Syrian regime. While he may have had these companies - such as Syriatel - in his name, it is quite clear he was doing so on behalf of the wider family." 

This underlined Makhlouf - and Anisa's - relationship with the regime and the endemic cronyism for which Damascus is known.

"She made him more worldly-wise and has been described as a key adviser to Hafez, someone who is seen as having a fairly hard line on most things including the control of Syria," said Doyle.

Read also: The Assad family ties to Israeli business tycoon

Both were from a generation of Arab and Syrian nationalists and most likely resented the Franco-British agreement to dissect Lebanon from Syria after the First World War, along with Turkey's annexation of Arabic-speaking Hatay province.

This belief in Syria's right to dominate its smaller neighbour is something she carried throughout her life.

"There was a report in 2005 that she was steadfast against the withdrawal from Syria and believed that Lebanon was as much a part of Hafez's legacy as Syria was."

Another sign of Anisa's hard-line views was her belief that Basel, Bashar's brother, should take the reins when Hafez died. After Basel's death in a car accident, she pushed for another brother, the brutal, military commander Maher to takeover.

"That must have set up some form of resentment that his mother didn't favour him," noted Doyle.

Iron hand

[Click to enlarge]

Bashar was said to be viewed by his father and brothers as the weakest of the siblings, and this bullying would likely have had an impact on him.

"She was key in their upbringing, even more than their father, and I think Bashar craved attention from his father who didn't spend as much time with his children as they would have liked," said Doyle.

Despite some degree of power shared out to people outside this family circle, the powerful positions held by Makhlouf and Assad family members highlighted the nepotism within the regime.

Family members were also said to have acted outside the law, and often understood their own impunity.

These crimes were often dealt with inside the family circle.

One example was Atef Najeeb - Bashar's cousin - who controlled intelligence in Daraa, and was said to have ruled the province with an iron fist.

It was in his prisons that 13-year-old Hamza Khatib was brutally tortured to death at the start of the uprising, and this killing was seen as instrumental in setting off the wider revolution.

Atef was described by The National as "the man who ignited the revolution" but many say that he was protected from punishment by Anisa.

During the war, there was speculation about whether Anisa moved to Dubai with Bashar's influential sister Bushra, after her husband was killed in a bomb blast.

Although attributed to the rebels, many believe that Assef Shawkat, deputy minister of defence was killed by the regime and might have been about to defect.

What we do know, according to regime media, is that Anisa died in Damascus and no doubt in luxury and with first-class healthcare, while Russian planes bombed Aleppo and a regime offensive caused tens of thousands to flee the city.

We might never know the extent to which her power reached in the regime, but Bashar's upbringing at her side no doubt played a pivotol rule in shaping how he has ruled the country.