The Assad regime’s cautious dealing with Makhlouf raises many questions among Syrians

Observers speculate that Assad’s cousin still has wide support within the Alawite community and possesses sensitive financial information about the ruling elite.
Wednesday 20/05/2020
Combination of photos of President Bashar al-Assad and businessman Rami Makhlouf. (The Arab Weekly)
Combination of photos of President Bashar al-Assad and businessman Rami Makhlouf. (The Arab Weekly)

LONDON –The Syrian regime’s punitive measures against businessman Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of President Bashar Assad, have made waves in the war-hit country, but some are asking why the Syrian leader has not fully cracked down on one of his most vocal critics who is accused of corruption.

The Syrian regime’s apparent caution in dealing with the Makhlouf case has been attributed to the businessman’s broad support within the Alawite community, which Assad does not want to alienate, and a powerful network backing Makhlouf that could reveal sensitive details about the  Syrian leader.

Makhlouf, the head of telecoms company Syriatel who was once a member of the president’s inner circle, said May 19 that the government had ordered the seizure of his assets and barred him from doing business with the state for five years, escalating a dispute that has been deeply mixed in family affairs.  The sanctions on Makhlouf came after weeks of highly publicised disputes over outstanding payments that the government is seeking from Syriatel.

Makhlouf voiced his grievances on social media earlier this month, challenging claims that he owes the state any money and asking Assad to intervene to prevent his business from collapsing. Through several videos and statements posted on his Facebook page, Makhlouf indicated he has been isolated from the president and can only address him through social media.

Makhlouf said the government’s decree to confiscate his and his family’s assets is unwarranted because the claims against him involve the telecoms company Syriatel, which already sends 50% of its revenue to the state. Although official bodies have communicated notices to Makhlouf through the media, there was no official statement regarding the confiscation of assets Tuesday.

They “just want to control the company and they see nothing else,” Makhlouf wrote, without elaborating.

The order to seize Makhlouf’s assets came after a written warning from the telecommunications regulatory body that it would take legal measures against Makhlouf for refusing to pay some outstanding operational fees. Makhlouf challenged the statement, saying he has paid.

Rumours are now circulating that Makhlouf could have information that Assad is afraid of going public, including on Syria’s foreign relations. Makhlouf indicated he had sensitive information about Syria’s foreign policy relationships in an interview in 2011, when he said: “If there is no stability in Syria, there will be no stability in Israel. No one can guarantee Israel’s security if something happens to this regime.”

Despite being in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime, Makhlouf is thought to have the keys to the financial empire of the Assads, which began when Hafez Assad took power in 1970. With most of the family’s assets abroad, the Assads know Makhlouf is in posession of sensitive details about their finances, including the value and numbers of bank accounts, details about the network of companies that own tens of thousands of real estate assets as well as other companies that continue to operate in Europe, the Gulf and throughout the world.

The financial empire is run by Makhlouf, his sons, brothers and father Muhammad Makhlouf. The Syrian businessman is aware that if he is taken down, Assad will not receive the benefits of that complex business network.

Rumours are also circulating about Makhlouf’s relationship with Moscow. Assad is thought to fear that Russia could demand increased compensation for the military protection it provides to Syria’s regime if the extent of Assad’s wealth becomes known.