August 9th, 2012
07:38 PM ET

Al-Assad's inner circle, mostly family, like 'mafia'

From Jill Dougherty, CNN

Syrian Prime Minister Ryad Hijab defected this week, joining the list of several other high-level members of the Syrian regime who have abandoned President Bashar al-Assad as he struggles to maintain his grip on power.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Hijab's actions are another sign that al-Assad will fall.

"I'm not going to put a timeline on it," she said. "I can't possibly predict it, but I know it's going to happen as does most observers around the world."

But the prime minister is the head of the government, and the government does not rule the country. The real power in Syria is held by the true "insiders," al-Assad's blood relatives. 

Maher Al-Assad - Al-Assad's youngest brother and rumored to be Syria's second-most powerful man. He is head of the elite, rabidly loyal Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division.

Namir Al-Assad - The president's cousin who is one of the top leaders of the Shabiha, the mercenary force used to suppress the opposition.

Rami Makhlouf - The money behind the regime, al-Assad's first cousin is believed to be the richest person in Syria. He allegedly funds the regime's violent battle against protesters and rebels who are seeking to oust the president.

Ali Mamlouk - As the head of national security, Mamlouk had U.S. sanctions leveled against him for human rights abuses and violence against civilians. Almost all members of al-Assad's inner circle are Alawites, a minority Muslim group. Alawites make up less than 15% of the population. Three-quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.

Most of those who have defected are Sunni, including the prime minister.

In July, one of Syria's most senior diplomats, Nawaf al-Fares, defected, publicly embraced his country's uprising and called for a foreign military intervention. Al-Fares was Syria's ambassador to Iraq.

Manaf Tlas, a Sunni general in Syria's elite Republican Guards, also defected last month. Tlas is the son of a former defense minister and a cousin of a first lieutenant in al-Assad's army.

Syria expert Hussein Ibish said al-Assad's inner circle has only one message for its fellow Syrians. " 'It's us or the abyss,' " Ibish said. " 'Stick with us or you will be massacred in your beds.' "

The regime operates like an organized crime syndicate, he said.

"So it isn't possible to reform because what you would have to do to reform," Ibish said, "is start dismantling a mafia operation, a set of rackets, a set of interrelated criminal enterprises."

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