In Carnegie's Diwan regular survey of experts on matters relating to Middle Eastern and North African politics and security, Ziad Majed (among other researchers) analyzes the dynamics of the Assad-Makhlouf rift.
"The tensions inside the inner circle of the Syrian regime reflect three dynamics. The first pertains to the family. Since the Russian military intervention in 2015, followed by the death of Bashar al-Assad’s powerful mother in 2016, the Makhloufs (his mother’s family) have been gradually ousted from positions of authority. The measures against Rami, who once controlled more than 50 percent of Syria’s economy, complete this process—after his brother Hafez and father Mohammed. He is being replaced by businessmen close to Asma, Bashar’s influential wife, in an attempt to enlarge the regime’s clientelistic networks.
The second is related to Russian pressure on Assad. Moscow wants to restructure state institutions, reorganize the army, and centralize the decisionmaking mechanisms under its command, in order to negotiate reconstruction contracts with possible Western and Chinese partners and bring Russian companies and entrepreneurs into a fully controlled theater of operations. To achieve such a situation, Iranian influence within regime circles has to be reduced and Syrian tycoons with monopoles (and Iranian ties) should be sidelined. For Assad, this provides an opening to get rid of his cousin, with his bad reputation, and say he is doing his best to fulfill Russian requirements.
The third can be read through the analysis of the regime’s history and the tensions and defections it faced. After the removal of Rif‘at al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle, in 1984, of Ghazi Kan‘an, the strongman of the security services, in 2005, and of Assef Shawqat, Bashar’s brother in law, in 2012, the Makhloufs are now being targeted. This is not surprising in totalitarian regimes with sectarian, tribal, and familial considerations—often built on the basis of delicate equations.
All this means that the regime will be facing increasing pressure and internal struggles in the coming months. Russia needs official international recognition of its hegemony over Syria and its reconstruction projects. Iran will not agree to be marginalized. And Bashar is mainly concerned with his “reelection” in 2021. Meanwhile, other foreign actors, such as Turkey and the United States, are also reassessing their roles and reshaping relations with their local allies in Syria’s northwest and northeast in preparation for the next phases".