Assad’s Son, Math Competitions, and Solving the Syrian Nepotism Equation

One of many tweets by journalists and commentators about Hafez Al-Assad’s ranking at the Math Olympiad in Brazil. | Credit: @AASchapiro

On July 17, Hafez Al-Assad, the son of Bashar Al-Assad, participated in the International Math Olympiad competition in Brazil as a member of the Syrian national team. Hafez scored last on the team and received one of the lowest rankings in the entire Olympiad competition. Syrian commentators were quick to ridicule his scores, but their commentary overlooked how Hafez gained admission on the team in the first place. There are no available details about the qualifying process, but one simple answer is that, as the son of the President, Hafez had priority to enter the prestigious competition – a practice of nepotism so common in Syria that many overlooked it. Syria has a long history of nepotism within its government and economic institutions. As a form of institutionalized corruption, nepotism must be addressed during Syria’s transition to ensure that government is ethical, impartial, and representative of all Syrians.

Nepotism is the use of power to provide jobs or other opportunities to unqualified or undeserving family or friends – a form of corruption because officials use public office for private gain. While there is no international standard for combatting nepotism, there are some international instruments that provide guidelines and principles. For example, Article 25(c) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that citizens have “the right and the opportunity” to access public service roles “on general terms of equality.” Moreover, Articles 7 through 9 of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) encourages countries to create systems to prevent conflicts of interest, institute codes of conduct for public officials, and establish objective criteria for issuing government contracts.

Countries have adopted these principles into their national frameworks in various ways. Some countries include anti-nepotism and conflict of interest provisions in their constitutions. Such is the case in Article 26 of Colombia’s constitution. Other countries maintain ethical standards or codes of conduct to establish clear guidelines for public officials. While codes are important to set standards, the difficulty is often in upholding those standards in practice. For example, Jordan adopted a code of conduct for public sector employees that was a positive step towards implementing UNCAC, but the Jordanian government has struggled to fully operationalize it among all bureaucratic agencies.

In Syria, nepotism has been a longstanding practice used by the government to maintain power and loyalty. The Makhlouf and Tlass families have particularly benefited from their proximity to the Assad inner circle. In 2001, Rami Makhlouf, a first cousin of Bashar Al-Assad, and his telecommunications company Syriatel received one of two contracts for mobile phone operators in Syria. Manaf Tlass, a son of former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, benefited from his friendship with Assad by becoming a commander to the Republican Guard, an elite military regiment. Similarly, his brother, Firas Tlass profited off the sales of clothes, food, and medicine to the Syrian army. Marrying into a prominent family can also lead to government-sponsored benefits. Assef Shawkat, a low ranked military official, rose in prominence after marrying Bushra, the daughter of Hafez Al-Assad. Not long after, he became the Deputy Chief of Military Intelligence and later, its head.

Nepotism in Syria is not limited to garnering influence from the three most powerful families. According to sources inside Syria, the members of other influential Syrian families have been able to skirt mandatory military conscription by receiving exemptions for their sons. Meanwhile, the government detains the sons of uninfluential families at checkpoints to serve in the army, even if they have already served one or more deployments. Despite reports that Russia has pressured the Syrian government to tighten the issuing of exemptions, the Syrian army continues to remain an institution of haves and have nots.

Post-conflict, Syria will need to tackle nepotism as an essential part of any anti-corruption reform effort. Addressing the issue will involve institutional reform, including the restructuring of norms and values and the altering of bureaucratic processes, rules, and systems. Institutional reform is an essential component of transitional justice and is critical to post-conflict governments embracing principles of impartiality, transparency, and accountability.

In the context of nepotism, a future Syrian government will need to enshrine decision-making on the basis of merit and need, not on the basis of loyalty or proximity to power. The initial hiring of civil servants should involve a merit-based recruitment process that rewards professionalism and mitigates preferential treatment. Once in public service, individuals should adhere to conflict of interest policies that mitigate the influence of private interests in government business, with disclosure requirements if and when a personal conflict may occur.

But it is not enough to have written policies and procedures. Transparency allows citizens to monitor whether the standards are being upheld. After the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government passed an Access to Information law. Civil society organizations such as Al Bawsala have been integral in monitoring implementation of the law by creating a database of resources for citizens to navigate municipal bureaucratic processes. A future Syrian government could learn from Tunisia in passing a similar law, and Syrian civil society organizations could maintain pressure on public officials and question nepotistic practices.

Furthermore, Syrian citizens must have the ability to file complaints regarding nepotism. Laws should safeguard public servant whistleblowers from retaliatory action. Once submitted, an independent Ombudsperson should be able to investigate complaints, exposing problems in government practices. If necessary, the Ombudsperson should also be able to issue fines or take legal action against public officials.

Syria’s nepotism problem will not be easy to solve. Besides instituting anti-nepotism policies, implementation and compliance with such policies takes time and political will. If a future Syrian government is to regain the trust of its people, it must show that it represents all Syrians and not only the well-connected few.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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