The House of Assad evokes an imperial sense of power, or at least its trappings, with iconography that one scholar described as infused with “laudatory slogans and sempiternal images.”
But my first impression of Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and one-time confidante, was of his unassuming quality. Here was a tycoon, a figure as rich as he was loathed, who eschewed formalities and ceremony. I had seen it before, in men like Saad Hariri, a former prime minister in Lebanon, lavished with so much privilege and so much wealth that pretensions become unnecessary. Even his most brazen threats seemed more pleading than menacing, as if I should understand the logic behind them. Don’t the Israelis know that they will suffer if we do; don’t the Europeans; don’t the Americans realize that we are the bulwark before forces that they can’t imagine — Islamists, chaos, wars roiling an already combustible region?