When Hafez Al Assad died in 2000 after three decades of iron-fisted rule, he set a model of communal behaviour upended by a political and business scandal shaking his minority Alawite sect to the core.
Assad’s funeral in his home village of Qardaha in the Alawite Mountains near the Mediterranean coast was entirely Sunni, without a hint of the esoteric faith to which he belonged.
A protege cleric from Damascus, who had spent his life preaching obedience to the Assads, presided over the ceremony.
Nowhere in the televised funeral was an Alawite rite detected or an Alawite accent heard, although the sect had dominated the state and the security apparatus since mostly Alawite officers took power in a 1963 coup.
So it was highly unusual when Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man and Bashar Al Assad’s cousin, partly spoke with an Alawite accent in viral Facebook videos over the past week. As a staunch backer of the Alawites, his fall from grace and apparent threat to his power base in Syria strikes at the very heart of the ruling sect.
Breaking a taboo by using the sect’s religious terms in a public broadcast, Mr Makhlouf signalled that the security apparatus was moving against him because he had expanded his efforts to help fellow Alawites without permission from the top.
Mr Makhlouf made clear that in the past eight years he has been plugging perceived neglect of ordinary Alawites by supporting families who had lost members defending the regime. Before the 2011 revolt against the Assad family’s rule, the sect comprised about 10 per cent of Syria’s population, which then was 20 to 22 million.
Regional bankers who dealt with Mr Makhlouf said he has also been financing Alawite clerics the Assads had traditionally treated with suspicion because some of them had baulked at showing total obedience to the ruling family.
The tycoon’s fortune came largely from monopolies the Assads had awarded him and his father over much of the economy.
Mr Makhlouf is also widely seen as a frontman for Mr Assad and his brother Maher Al Assad, who oversees the Alawite praetorian units entrusted with defending the core of the regime.
Alawites have comprised most of the officer class for decades, partly as a result of their promotion in the military by the French colonialists of Syria in the 1930s and 1940s.
Still, the Assads assigned sensitive military hardware, such as artillery units within reach of the presidential palace in Damascus, only to members of Alawite clans regarded as ultra-loyalists.
Mr Makhlouf is now believed to be out of sight in the Alawite Mountains near Qardaha, the same rugged region where Hafez Al Assad’s Soviet-style mausoleum stands.
The late dictator feared being buried, as is customary among Sunni inhabitants of Damascus, as he did not trust his grave would be left unmolested in perpetuity.
In 2013 rebel groups, some linked to Al Qaeda, came close to Qardaha before being repelled, but not after overrunning several villages and killing more than 100 Alawites, as well as taking at least a similar number hostage.
Many in the opposition, even secular figures, regarded the offensive as partial retribution for the hundreds of thousands of Sunni civilians who regime forces killed or disappeared since the 2011 revolt and the ensuing civil war.
But the inter-communal settling of scores has also been a hallmark of the Alawite Mountains, and members of the sect traditionally fled there when they felt their existence was at stake.
When Hafez Al Assad died in July 2000, many Alawite families left Damascus to their original mountain enclaves, fearing Sunni retribution if the succession did not work.
Mohammad Makhlouf, Rami’s father, played a central role behind the scenes in ensuring the transfer went smoothly, as did his sister Anissa, Hafez Al Assad’s late widow and Bashar Al Assad’s mother.
Hafez Al Assad had surrounded Bashar with Sunni figures who introduced him to Sunni urban merchant families and helped him adapt his mannerisms to fit the Sunni mainstream. Bashar married from the Al Akhrases, a Sunni family from Homs who had business dealings with the regime.
Bashar Al Assad and Rami Makhlouf were close friends before Assad became president.
But Mr Makhlouf was not liked by the two powerful brothers of Bashar: Bassel, the former heir apparent who died in a car accident in 1994, and Maher, who leads the elite Fourth Mechanised Division of the Syrian military and has expanded his business network in the past eight years.
The death of Hafez Al Assad set Mr Makhlouf on a course to become a member of an Alawite triumvirate — Bashar, Maher and himself. Some of the spoils also went to the senior Alawites who disproportionately occupied the top echelons of the army, security and the state, as well as their Sunni business associates and informants.
The Alawite rise from the fringes of Syria to absolute control of the country’s resources for the past 57 years resulted in steep societal changes, compounded by the spoils of a de facto takeover of large parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and the war economy since 2012.
While researching a book on Syria in the late 1990s, Palestinian scholar Hanna Batatu sat next to a group of Alawite intelligence operatives at a bar in a state-owned hotel in Damascus.
He approached the group and started asking about their peasant backgrounds, only to be grabbed and thrown in jail. Eventually he published the work, about Syria’s peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables and their politics.
A Sunni academic living in the UAE recalled that his family had an Alawite maid in their house when he was growing up in Damascus. The maid married an intelligence operative and quit in the late 1960s.
“She came a couple of years after with an armed guard in a black Mercedes, knocked on our door and ordered my mother to kiss her feet, although we had treated her as a member of our family,” he said.
His mother did as she was told. Others who challenged what they described as the Alawisation of the state were jailed.
Among them was prominent writer Michel Kilo, a Christian imprisoned in 2006 for three years after writing about officers’ tombstones in his home town of Latakia on which he observed mostly Alawite names.
The coastal city was overwhelmingly Sunni and Christian until preferential treatment attracted Alawites from the mountains to state security jobs. Latakia’s Bauhaus and Marseilles-style architecture gave way to a skyline of bland residential towers and fortress-like compounds for myriad secret police organisations.
While conducting research on the make-up of the manager class in the bureaucracy, also in 2006, Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni was arrested and spent five years incarcerated as a political prisoner. After his release, Mr Bunni said data he had collected indicated that the manager ranks were almost exclusively Alawite.
The regime has had few qualms about punishing Alawite dissidents. Aref Dalila, a former dean of economics at Damascus University, criticised monopolies awarded to Mr Makhlouf and was gravely ill when the regime released him in 2008 after seven years in jail on the assumption he would soon die. Against the odds, Mr Dalila survived a huge lung operation in Damascus and is now in exile in Dubai.
Abdel Aziz Al Khayyer, a friend of Mr Dalila from Qardaha, remained in Syria despite his opposition to the regime. Security forces abducted Mr Al Khayyer in 2012 and he disappeared.
But Mr Makhlouf is a casualty of the system of repression he championed. His quest for survival has exposed socio-economic rifts within the Alawites, challenging the regime’s narrative that the community is monolithic in its support for the Assads.
A European lawyer who has had close dealings with Mr Makhlouf told The National the tycoon retains support among a significant proportion of Alawites who regard the Assads as having treated them as cannon fodder, and among a long-neglected Alawite clerical establishment.
“Makhlouf’s message has been that Assad lost Lebanon and then large parts of Syria, and now he is going to sink the Alawites by targeting the only financial trustee who has been helping the community,” the lawyer said.