Syria’s Ruling Elite— A Master Class in Wasta

14 June, 2021
Damascus reimagined by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam -

Dam­as­cus reimag­ined by Syr­i­an artist Tam­mam Azzam — “Klimt free­dom graf­fi­ti,” 2013 (Pho­to Ihab Aljaby).


Lawrence Joffe

It seems almost taste­less to write about a sor­did fam­i­ly dis­pute over mon­ey in a coun­try which has suf­fered a decade of bru­tal war­fare. More than half a mil­lion have died in Syr­ia, most­ly civil­ians; anoth­er 12 mil­lion were forced to flee their homes. Thou­sands of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers remain “miss­ing”; and reports of tor­ture in both gov­ern­ment and rebel pris­ons are rife.

Yet in many sens­es the lit­tle pri­vate squab­ble goes to the heart of the cri­sis. And wasta is a key ingre­di­ent — one that assumes a new order of mag­ni­tude when it involves one man con­trol­ling 60 per­cent of a nation’s econ­o­my.

Syrian magnate Rami Makhlouf.
Syr­i­an mag­nate Rami Makhlouf.

That was the case with Rami Makhlouf in Syr­ia. First cousin to Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad, own­er of a fleet of com­pa­nies and trusts, both open ones in Syr­ia and clan­des­tine ones off­shore, Rami claimed to rep­re­sent some 200 for­eign firms and became the con­duit for near­ly every inward invest­ment in the land. Not much moved with­out his say-so. Each kick­back enriched him and fur­ther entrenched his pow­er. It was said he could sack any­one with a sin­gle tele­phone call. One for­mer Syr­i­an offi­cial esti­mat­ed his per­son­al wealth at eight per­cent of Syr­i­a’s GDP, or $62 bil­lion. And vir­tu­al­ly every­one had to kow­tow to a sin­gle fig­ure, which sure­ly con­sti­tutes the dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion of gross corruption.

The flag­ship of his enter­prise was Syr­i­a­tel, Syr­i­a’s main mobile phone provider and most lucra­tive indus­try. True to form, Makhlouf also enjoyed inter­ests in its small­er tele­com rival, MTN. Besides that he came to own duty-free shops in Syr­ia and enter­prise zones in Lebanon, and ran most of Syr­i­a’s engi­neer­ing and con­struc­tion, tourism and real estate, bank­ing and insur­ance, and oil and gas projects.

Merg­ers and acqui­si­tions Makhlouf-style meant send­ing in armed mukhabarat (secu­ri­ty forces) to fright­en com­peti­tors. This led the US Trea­sury to direct­ly sanc­tion Makhlouf in Feb­ru­ary 2008 for ben­e­fit­ing from “pub­lic cor­rup­tion.” The EU fol­lowed suit in 2012. Not that this stopped him. On the con­trary, Makhlouf gar­nered yet more wealth by offer­ing secret path­ways for illic­it mon­ey and appar­ent­ly drugs to flow in and out of Syr­ia. In April 2020, for instance, four tons of hashish were dis­cov­ered in Port Said, Egypt, wrapped in the pack­ag­ing of the Makhlouf-owned Milk­man company.


Keep­ing it in the family

Offi­cial­ly, the Ba’ath Par­ty has gov­erned Syr­ia since 1963 on the basis of “uni­ty, free­dom and social­ism.” Much of the Baathists’ appeal lay in the way they took on the cor­rupt Sun­ni busi­ness fam­i­lies in Alep­po and Dam­as­cus, who had dom­i­nat­ed Syr­i­an pol­i­tics under the French man­date, and imme­di­ate­ly after inde­pen­dence in 1946. Sup­pos­ed­ly the nation’s poor­er Sun­ni peas­ant major­i­ty, as well as des­ti­tute minori­ties, like the Alaw­ites, would be the new beneficiaries. 

In real­i­ty, after 1971 Syr­ia found itself sad­dled with a dou­ble-dynasty where­by one fam­i­ly (Assad) enjoys absolute polit­i­cal pow­er while their rel­a­tives by mar­riage (Makhlouf) have dom­i­nat­ed the econ­o­my. Bashar’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, forged this pact with his broth­er-in-law, and Rami’s father, Mohammed Makhlouf.

In a sense the sto­ry begins in 1958 when a young ambi­tious air force offi­cer from the minor Alaw­ite Kalbiyya tribe, Hafez al-Assad, mar­ried “above his sta­tion” Mohammed’s sis­ter, Anisa, from the Had­dad tribe. The con­tro­ver­sial tryst paid off when Hafez rose through the Baathist ranks and became Syr­i­a’s mas­ter in 1971. Mohammed, who died of Covid last Novem­ber, was duly award­ed the Syr­i­an nation­al tobac­co monop­oly. From this he branched out into oil — anoth­er strate­gic Syr­i­an asset — and by the 1980s “grew to con­trol the Syr­i­an econ­o­my behind the scenes,” accord­ing to Gulf News edi­tor Samir Salama.

And the next gen­er­a­tion con­tin­ued the for­mu­la after Hafez died in 2000. Rami would man­age busi­ness affairs while his cousins, Bashar and Maher al-Assad, would respec­tive­ly han­dle vir­tu­al­ly all state and secu­ri­ty mat­ters. Ana­lysts called it a sec­tar­i­an clique. Islamists famous­ly accuse the “deviant” Alaw­ite sect of priv­i­lege over­lord­ship. Yet many fel­low Alaw­ites remained mired in pover­ty and endure “unprece­dent­ed pain and bereave­ment,” made worse by war. This came on top of a Ba’athist and Assad-cen­tric par­a­digm that had dis­placed the ordi­nary Alaw­ite’s tra­di­tion­al wasta-based patron­age net­works based on clan and cleric.

In 2000 Bashar al-Assad came to pow­er on the promise of free­ing up Syr­i­a’s econ­o­my via dena­tion­al­iza­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion. Opti­mists felt change was in the air. Syr­i­ans soon real­ized, how­ev­er, that sup­posed neolib­er­al­ism mere­ly con­cen­trat­ed wealth in few­er and few­er hands. To sur­vive eco­nom­i­cal­ly, it helped to be Alaw­ite, not Sun­ni. And — most of all — to enjoy ties to the Assad/Makhlouf clan personally. 

Graphic courtesy  Arab News .
Graph­ic cour­tesy Arab News.

The Assad/ Makhlouf clique faced a tem­po­rary set­back when the cedar rev­o­lu­tion in Lebanon forced Syr­i­an troops out after a 29-year-stay in mid-2005. For decades Beirut had served as an essen­tial out­let to the world for a sta­tist and polit­i­cal­ly embar­goed Dam­as­cus. The next year, how­ev­er, Rami Makhlouf bounced back when he cre­at­ed his main hold­ing com­pa­ny, Cham Hold­ings, found­ed with $365M of cap­i­tal avowed­ly to “cham­pi­on” pri­vate sec­tor indus­tries. Offi­cial­ly Cham remains Syr­i­a’s largest pri­vate con­cern. Evi­dent­ly some major West­ern busi­ness opin­ion-for­m­ers bought the idea: just before the Syr­i­an upris­ing erupt­ed in ear­ly 2011, World Finance mag­a­zine gave Makhlouf an award for act­ing “as a sym­bol of pos­i­tive change with­in his coun­try,” and for his “vision­ary lead­er­ship and con­tri­bu­tion to the Syr­i­an economy.”

As John McHugo explained in his book Syr­ia: A Recent His­to­ry:

[Rami Makhlouf] con­trolled what should have been the show cas­es for a new, open Syr­i­an econ­o­my: the free trade zones and both the coun­try’s mobile phone oper­a­tors. Every­body knew that the new com­pe­ti­tion law was not going to be used to split up his busi­ness assets or those of oth­er key sup­port­ers of the regime. The small group of wealthy peo­ple at the top of soci­ety grew, as did the num­bers of poor at the bot­tom. Those in the mid­dle found them­selves squeezed.

“Nor­mal wasta” implies the lever­ag­ing of advan­tage via influ­ence to land a job, find a school place, avoid a fine or avoid police harass­ment. What made the Syr­i­an mod­el dif­fer­ent was not only its sheer scale, but the way it hard­wired cor­rup­tion into every aspect of state prac­tice. In 2020 Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al ranked Syr­ia 178th out of 180 coun­tries on its cor­rup­tion index.


All changed with the Arab Spring?

Then came 2011 and the Syr­i­an upris­ing. Sud­den­ly Rami’s face shared joint billing with that of his cousin the pres­i­dent on protest posters. Eco­nom­ic woes were a key fac­tor behind the rebel­lion, and no one sym­bol­ized wasta writ large more than “Mr 10 Per­cent,” Rami Makhlouf. 

Makhlouf duly pre­tend­ed to trans­form him­self from busi­ness­man to bene­fac­tor. He promised to divest him­self of his rich­es and almost seemed to con­fess to past excess­es. How­ev­er, as McHugo com­ment­ed: “Whether the con­ver­sion was sin­cere or not was beside the point: by then it was too late.”

In fact, Rami Makhlouf soon repur­posed his net­work to fund his own 30,000-strong pro-regime mili­tia via his Al-Bus­tan char­i­ta­ble asso­ci­a­tion. He also made Bus­tan the sole con­duit for essen­tial inter­na­tion­al aid which the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment was barred from receiv­ing. Wasta in new clothes, one could say. Makhlouf also proved his loy­al­ty to the regime by fund­ing the Syr­i­an Elec­tron­ic Army, an aggres­sive­ly Assadist social media fac­tion that oper­at­ed out of Dubai.

All the while Rami enjoyed pro­tec­tion (wasta in anoth­er guise) through his broth­er Hafez Makhlouf, head of the noto­ri­ous­ly vicious Dam­as­cus-based Sec­tion 40 branch of State Secu­ri­ty, and reput­ed­ly chief laun­der­er of mon­ey from Syr­ia to Rus­sia. Makhlouf also used the “Syr­i­an secu­ri­ty ser­vices and his per­son­al rela­tion­ship to Pres­i­dent Assad to intim­i­date and steal promis­ing busi­ness ven­tures” from oth­er Syr­i­ans, accord­ing to a leak from the US Embassy in Dam­as­cus, relayed in a 2012 Reuters report. That same arti­cle quot­ed one Dam­as­cus trad­er who said Rami even micro­man­aged the legal under­pin­nings of Syr­i­a’s econ­o­my dur­ing the ear­ly war years: “Makhlouf writes the laws, whether it is tax or trade law. The reg­u­la­to­ry cli­mate is tai­lored to his preference.”


Dethron­ing the Mon­ey King

But cracks start­ed to show in the Makhlouf clan façade. In 2014 Hafez Makhlouf was sud­den­ly removed from his intel­li­gence post. In 2016 Rami wit­nessed the death of his oth­er great pro­tec­tor, his aunt, the for­mi­da­ble Anisa Makhlouf, wid­ow of the late Hafez al-Assad, moth­er to Bashar, and moth­er-in-law from hell to Bashar’s ambi­tious Lon­don-raised wife, Asma — of whom more soon!

Stage three of the dra­ma began in late 2019 when the regime osten­ta­tious­ly launched an anti-cor­rup­tion dri­ve. Dic­ta­tors untram­melled by an inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry often use such cam­paigns to dis­guise what are in effect purges of foes or poten­tial rivals. Think of Putin impris­on­ing oil baron and Rus­si­a’s rich­est man in 2003, Mikhail Khor­dokovsky, on theft and tax eva­sion charges; or Sau­di Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman round­ing up tycoons at the Riyadh Ritz Carl­ton, and squeez­ing them for mon­ey; or Kaza­kh strong­man Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev hound­ing his wealthy son-in-law turned polit­i­cal rival, Rakhat Aliyev. The lat­ter fled Kaza­khstan in 2007 after being charged with kid­nap and “run­ning a mafia net­work.” He end­ed up dead in prison while await­ing tri­al in Vien­na in 2015 — a case that still trou­bles investigators.

Bashar al-Assad’s turn­ing on Makhlouf fol­lowed a sim­i­lar pat­tern, though so far has not result­ed in mur­der. Essen­tial­ly the pres­i­dent accused his cousin of reneg­ing on back-tax­es and insist­ed that he repay the equiv­a­lent of $180M. Some saw this as neg­a­tive wasta: an attempt to recoup loss­es and com­pen­sate Syr­i­a’s increas­ing­ly impa­tient allies, Iran and Rus­sia, who had com­mit­ted troops, weapon­ry and bil­lions of dol­lars into keep­ing the belea­guered regime afloat. To give just one exam­ple, in 2012 — three years before Rus­sia open­ly com­mit­ted its mil­i­tary to help­ing Assad sur­vive — Moscow flew in 240 tons of ban­knotes. One rea­son was to restore cir­cu­la­tion after Vien­na stopped a sub­sidiary of Aus­tri­a’s Cen­tral Bank from print­ing Syr­i­an lira. Anoth­er rea­son was sim­ply to prop up Syr­i­a’s ail­ing econ­o­my. Or per­haps the true inten­tion of tar­get­ing Makhlouf was to cut him down to size, after he had begun show­ing signs of polit­i­cal auton­o­my. Rami’s father Mohammed had been a stal­wart of the Syr­i­an Social Nation­al­ist Par­ty, an old rival of Ba’ath, more recent­ly brought back into the pro-regime fold. Rami was rumored to be bankrolling their sur­pris­ing­ly effec­tive mili­tia, cur­rent­ly fight­ing on the regime’s side. But who knows what the future holds? 

Rami also act­ed as a Robin Hood fig­ure to his Alaw­ite base in coastal Latakia province. He decried, if ini­tial­ly indi­rect­ly, the way Dam­as­cus had neglect­ed the fam­i­lies of the many Alaw­ite sol­diers and mili­ti­a­men who had died or were wound­ed fight­ing for the regime over ten years.

What­ev­er the case, “pun­ish­ing” Rami Makhlouf did noth­ing to restore vital ser­vices or help the 80 per­cent of Syr­i­ans who live below the pover­ty line. Accord­ing to the BBC in June 2020, 12 mil­lion Syr­i­ans need human­i­tar­i­an aid and a mil­lion face “food inse­cu­ri­ty” — in plain speech, they risk star­va­tion. Hyper­in­fla­tion has also tak­en its toll: between 2011 and 2016 the Syr­i­an lira lost 214 per­cent of its val­ue. By the end of 2016 it was esti­mat­ed that the Syr­i­an econ­o­my had shrunk ten-fold since the con­flict began. After a brief peri­od of sta­bi­liza­tion, coin­cid­ing with the regime’s mil­i­tary recov­ery, from the third quar­ter of 2019 to the present the lira has declined by a fur­ther 750 percent.

The prox­i­mate caus­es are the effect of puni­tive US sanc­tions aris­ing out of the Cae­sar Act, the col­lapse of the Lebanese econ­o­my next door, and the pan­dem­ic. Beyond that, Syr­i­a’s fun­da­men­tal finan­cial weak­ness pre­vents any easy recov­ery. Assad basi­cal­ly needs Rus­sia and Iran to bail him out… which rep­re­sents anoth­er form of wasta or “influ­ence” that Syr­ia could well do without.

Mean­while some sug­gest that by turn­ing on his cousin and liq­ui­dat­ing his assets, Bashar has in effect killed the gold­en goose. Rami Makhlouf allud­ed to this truth when he admit­ted in late 2020 that his chief role was purse-keep­er for the regime. Key to this oper­a­tion were, and are, sanc­tions-immune off­shore accounts run by the Makhlouf fam­i­ly, whose val­ue like­ly dwarves those of their more vis­i­ble enter­pris­es. As ear­ly as 2016 The Guardian revealed how Mos­sack Fon­se­ca and even HSBC had pro­tect­ed and assist­ed these hold­ings in Panama.

Rami's son Mohammed Makhlouf with his Ferrari in Dubai.
Rami’s son Mohammed Makhlouf with his Fer­rari in Dubai.


War with­in the clan

Makhlouf respond­ed by break­ing the fam­i­ly code of silence. He took to Face­book to reveal the extent of finan­cial ille­gal­i­ty over decades. In an unprece­dent­ed way he con­demned abuse of pow­er by those around Bashar. He shame­less­ly appealed to the “rule of law” and launched harangues against “war prof­i­teers.” Rami even used mys­ti­cal Alaw­ite ter­mi­nol­o­gy to appeal to his sec­tar­i­an base sup­port­ers. Makhlouf allies whis­pered about “neo-Ottoman” threats, a thin­ly veiled attack on Asma al-Assad and her large­ly Sun­ni busi­ness allies and rel­a­tives. But Rami Makhlouf hard­ly helped his cause by allow­ing his play­boy entre­pre­neur son, Mohammed, to tout his fast cars and flam­boy­ant lifestyle in Dubai on social media — an open insult to a des­ti­tute nation.

Oth­ers who had long envied Makhlouf’s priv­i­leges now wished to ben­e­fit from wasta too, like financier Samer Foz, or broth­ers Hus­sam and Baraa Kater­ji, war prof­i­teers who made mil­lions with oil deals, includ­ing in ISIS and Kur­dish-ruled areas (though pro-regime, the Kater­jis were born in Raqqa). Anoth­er is Muham­mad Hamsho, a pro­tege of Maher al-Assad, the pres­i­den­t’s broth­er and com­man­der of the pow­er­ful Repub­li­can Guard. Hamsho made his for­tune by monop­o­liz­ing the lucra­tive trade in scrap met­al, which he picked up for free from dev­as­tat­ed cities while regime gun­men ward­ed off poten­tial rivals.

Most dra­mat­i­cal­ly, the pres­i­den­t’s Sun­ni wife, Asma al-Assad (nee Akhras), began snap­ping up Makhlouf’s liq­ui­dat­ed enti­ties and par­celling them out to her rel­a­tives and allies. Asma cer­tain­ly has the skills to do the job. Before 2000 she had worked for Mor­gan Stan­ley and Deutsche Bank in Lon­don. She was about to pur­sue an MBA at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty when she mar­ried Bashar in Decem­ber 2000, six months after he assumed the throne. 

Asma set up the all-embrac­ing Syr­i­an Trust for Devel­op­ment, which cov­ers micro-cred­it, rur­al aid, can­cer care, cul­tur­al projects and the Shabab youth skills orga­ni­za­tion. In 2020 she essen­tial­ly swal­lowed up Makhlouf’s Bus­tan char­i­ty. After Dam­as­cus put Syr­i­a­tel into receiver­ship, Asma (known as Emma dur­ing her Lon­don school­days) swamped the board of the rival net­work, MTN, with her rel­a­tives, and renamed it Emma­tel. Appar­ent­ly Emma­tel is even doing busi­ness in rebel-con­trolled areas these days.

More than this, in 2014 she cham­pi­oned a Smart Card sys­tem to deliv­er fuel. And in April 2020 she helped her cousin, Muhan­nad Dab­bagh, and his Takamol Trad­ing Com­pa­ny, to expand its remit to deliv­er sub­si­dized food. Dab­bagh’s oth­er projects include a touris­tic out­fit called Noura Wings and a mys­te­ri­ous off­shore enti­ty, Petro­line. Yet once more there was a catch that smacked of wasta: nobody could access the e‑card with­out the right papers. And that meant proven loy­al­ty to the regime.

As for Rami him­self, lat­est reports say he is under house arrest north of Dam­as­cus. He still has a bolt-hole in Moscow where his sons and daugh­ters own $40M worth of res­i­den­tial prop­er­ty. Mean­while Assad is play­ing the clas­sic divide-and-rule tech­nique of dic­ta­tors and for­mer colo­nial mas­ters, by award­ing Rami’s younger twin broth­er, Ihab, 47, con­trol of what is left of Syr­i­a­tel. Maybe that also answers the gold­en goose conundrum…


Replac­ing the orig­i­nal Assad for­mu­la – but with what?

The year 2020 marked half a cen­tu­ry since Hafez al-Assad declared his Cor­rec­tive Rev­o­lu­tion. It sought to reverse the hyper-social­ist excess­es — as per­ceived — of the pre­vi­ous Baathist rulers. After all, Hafez brought Sun­ni mid­dle class busi­ness lead­ers back into the tent and allowed Sun­ni politi­cians to rise to the high­est min­is­te­r­i­al posi­tions. But as part of the deal, Alaw­ites were guar­an­teed the top secu­ri­ty posi­tions. And that is where true pow­er resided. There, and most of all, near to the hub of the Assad fam­i­ly itself. 

As civ­il con­flict swept every part of Syr­ia after 2011, the cor­rup­tion that fueled the upris­ing in the first place only wors­ened at the street lev­el. New pro-regime mili­tias set up armed check­points to extort bribes from inno­cent com­muters. Gangs of Assadist shabi­ha, or “ghosts,” and most­ly Alaw­ite smug­glers turned gun­men, quick­ly joined in. Some­times the threat is polit­i­cal, even dead­ly: pay a bribe or offer sex­u­al favors or sur­ren­der your pass­port, oth­er­wise we will turn you in to the author­i­ties for dodg­ing the mil­i­tary draft. Imag­ine the mea­sure of wasta influ­ence need­ed to get out of that fix!

As Nour Sama­ha wrote in late 2016: “War prof­i­teers have carved out a thriv­ing black mar­ket by cir­cum­vent­ing the sanc­tions regime, mak­ing mil­lions by import­ing and sell­ing much-desired goods rang­ing from Kit Kat bars to Cuban cig­ars. By amass­ing such prof­it and pow­er, they’ve come to exact an immense degree of con­trol over the lives of Syr­i­ans liv­ing in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled areas.”

Per­haps we should­n’t get too high and mighty about the inequities and iniq­ui­ties of Syr­ia; cor­rup­tion clear­ly exists all over, even in democ­ra­cies. Just this month uncov­ered IRS doc­u­ments showed that some of the rich­est Amer­i­cans — includ­ing Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos and War­ren Buf­fett — avoid pay­ing full income tax. Many pay none at all.

Cor­rup­tion in gen­er­al and wasta in par­tic­u­lar remains a huge prob­lem in the region too. Con­sid­er the way anger at nepo­tism and graft under­pinned the recent Jor­dan­ian “coup attempt.” Or the bribery charges against Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu in Israel, a land where even under the old­er social­ist Labor admin­is­tra­tions hav­ing “pro­tek­sia” (effec­tive­ly wasta) was the only to get ahead. Worse still, think of Lebanon where in 2019 some 54 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion report­ed hav­ing to use per­son­al con­nec­tions to access basic ser­vices; or the Mid­dle East gen­er­al­ly, where one in five women have expe­ri­enced “sex­tor­tion” when try­ing to get health care or education.

Yet Syr­ia today prob­a­bly rep­re­sents the most egre­gious exam­ple of the blend of vio­lence, state pow­er and social exclu­sion of whole sec­tors on polit­i­cal grounds. And chang­ing the faces from Makhlouf to Akhras is hard­ly a solution.


Gen­uine recon­struc­tion, or wasta remastered?

The war in Syr­ia is large­ly over at present, but for some fight­ing in Idlib. No one can tru­ly say how many bil­lions or even tril­lions will be need­ed to rebuild the coun­try. But who will invest? The USA, UAE, Ger­many and Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion forces launched a Syr­i­an Recov­ery Trust in 2013. Since then, numer­ous oth­er devel­oped nations have joined the scheme. But Dam­as­cus, Moscow and Teheran have large­ly shut them out of future plans, for polit­i­cal rea­sons. Instead, the regime set up in 2014 a Syr­i­an Recon­struc­tion Com­mit­tee that report­ed­ly uses new tax­es to pun­ish peo­ple in for­mer rebel areas. Once again, this seems like extor­tion writ­ten into the very law.

On the oth­er hand, this tax can only raise a pit­tance com­pared to what is need­ed to rebuild Syr­ia. Wasta alone can­not over­come eco­nom­ic real­i­ties. And with Rus­sia and Iran wary of plough­ing in yet more state mon­ey, espe­cial­ly giv­en their own eco­nom­ic woes, that means pri­vate investors have to enter the fray.

 Why should they, though, if there is no obvi­ous return on invest­ment? A year ago Moscow seemed to show aware­ness of this truth when semi-offi­cial Russ­ian news out­lets sug­gest­ed Bashar al-Assad should step down. Although quick­ly removed, these “tri­al bal­loon” op-eds argued that Assad had to restore good gov­er­nance and invite for­mer oppo­nents to par­tic­i­pate in a new con­sti­tu­tion. Only that way could Syr­ia begin to assuage and attract for­eign investors.

In short, some hope that the sheer enor­mi­ty of the Syr­i­an dis­as­ter means that Dam­as­cus — whether under Assad or a suc­ces­sor — must think beyond wasta. Then again, even if wasta is even­tu­al­ly defeat­ed — was it worth it for sur­viv­ing Syrians?



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