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5 June 2006

Who’s who

Syria's top ten political power-brokers. Research

By Nkem Ifejika

Riad Seif
Dissident MP

In September 2001, as leader of the National Dialogue Forum, Seif hosted a meeting where the lecture topic was political reform and democratic elections. Twenty-four hours later he had been arrested. Released last January, he declared: “The regime cannot be reformed. It must be changed.” He has resumed his role as figurehead of the Damascus Spring intellectual pressure group and has been arrested and released again at least once.

Riyad al-Turk
Grand old man of Syrian dissent

A familiar face to generations of Syrian jailers, the 76-year-old was first arrested in 1952, fully 13 years before President Bashar al-Assad was born. At that time he was a student activist, and was held for his membership of the Syrian Communist Party. He spent 18 years in prison between 1980 and 1998, and in 2001 he was jailed again for 15 months for saying on al-Jazeera Television, on the death of Hafez al-Assad: “The dictator has died.”

Bashar al-Assad
President and regional Ba’ath Party secretary

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This London-trained ophthalmologist, who took over after his father’s death in 2000, did not foresee the troubles his regime now faces. Though his accession brought hopes of reform and a change from dictatorial ways, he soon oversaw a curtailing of political rights and freedoms, imprisoning many who showed dissent. This has not brought stability, however, and the regime has faced international isolation since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon, as well as internal power struggles that could end Assad’s rule.

Abdul Halim Khaddam
Loyalist-turned-opponent

Vice-president of Syria for 21 years, Khaddam resigned last year and moved to Paris, subsequently giving a TV interview criticising the regime’s blunders in Lebanon and even accusing Bashar al-Assad of involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. He announced he was

forming a government-in-exile

and has predicted that the Assad regime will fall in 2006.

Asma al-Assad
First lady

Born and educated in Britain (she was known as Emma at her Church of England school in west London), the former Asma al-Akhras abandoned a career in merchant banking to marry Bashar. She is said to have toured Syria incognito after their wedding to meet the people and “see who they are”. As a glamorous, fashionable first lady, she has broken the mould – her mother-in law was rarely seen in public – and helps give the regime an air of modernity.

Omar Amiralay
Film-maker and activist

The documentary film-maker and producer describes himself as a “civil society activist”. In 2000 he was one of the signatories to a document demanding the end to the state of emergency, imposed in 1963. With works such as A Flood in Ba’ath Country, he is known both at home and in international film circles.

Major General Ghazi Kanaan
Former head of intelligence

Kanaan was found dead in his Damascus office last October, but he still casts a shadow over Syrian politics. As chief of military intelligence in Lebanon for almost 20 years, he was instrumental in establishing Syria’s grip on its neighbour, and with a network of influential friends is held responsible for assassinations and heroin trafficking. Officially he shot himself while UN inspectors were investigating his role in the killing of Rafiq Hariri, but rumours of murder abound.

Michel Kilo
Imprisoned journalist

The veteran journalist was arrested on 14 May for “inciting religious and racial divisions”, publishing “mendacious and exaggerated reports with the aim of discrediting the government” and “defaming the president and the courts”. Although Kilo has not been a direct critic of the Assad regime, he had recently become one of the most prominent signatories of a joint Syrian-Lebanese petition urging the creation of a new relationship between the two countries.

Rami Makhlouf
Businessman

Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the president and a leading member of the Assad clan, is the most powerful businessman in Syria. He controls 55 per cent of Syria’s mobile-phone market through Syriatel, as well as owning real-estate, hotel, transport, retail and import-export businesses. Though he is still in his thirties, his wealth has been estimated in the billions of dollars, a fortune the government’s critics insist is built entirely on corruption. It is said that no foreign company can do business in Syria without Makhlouf’s approval and involvement.

Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni
Opposition leader

Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood since 1996 and exiled in London (Syrian law condemns Brotherhood members to death), Bayanouni has become the greatest ideological threat to the Assad government. He insists he had no involvement in the Brotherhood’s revolutionary activities in the 1970s and 1980s, and is today described as “oozing moderation”. With Abdul Halim Khaddam, he recently issued a call for a change of government.

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