Syria’s top tycoons who have publicly voiced their grievances have revealed a power struggle among the ruling family as they try to consolidate power after nine years of war, analysts said.
After years of silence, business magnate Rami Makhlouf this month in two Facebook videos exposed his struggles with the regime led by his first cousin, President Bashar al-Assad, in what analysts say to be a last desperate fight.
“He can feel the pressure build up to marginalize him,” Jihad Yazigi, director of the economic publication TheSyriaReport, told AFP.
“He tried for a long time to resist before throwing away his last card and exposing the family dissent,” he said. “But it will cost him dearly.”
Makhlouf, 51, who faces both American and European sanctions, has been considered a pillar of the Assad regime since the president succeeded his father in 2000. Makhlouf’s money was used to “crush the protests “when the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, noted Gauthier Rybinski, editor-in-chief of FRANCE 24 International Affairs.
He chaired a business empire, notably at the head of the largest mobile operator in Syria, Syriatel.
But problems have been brewing since last summer when the authorities took control of his charity, Al-Bustan, and disbanded the militias affiliated with him.
When the Ministry of Finance froze the assets of several businessmen in December due to tax evasion and illicit enrichment, the Syrian press reported that Makhlouf, his wife and his businesses were included.
Assad said in October that he had “called on all private sector actors who squandered public funds to return money” in an effort to consolidate public finances.
“Everyone wants a piece of the cake,” said Rybinski. “The only problem is that the cake almost no longer exists.”
Syrian expert Fabrice Balanche said that these anti-corruption campaigns were often more political in nature.
“Anti-transplant campaigns in Syria are recurrent because they are ineffective. The goal is simply to cut down the trees that have grown too large,” he told AFP.
Makhlouf’s business empire, which Yazigi estimated “billions of dollars”, has grown over the years to include stakes in telecommunications, electricity and real estate.
“There were many sectors in which no one could work without going through him,” he added.
Balanche said he continued to prosper during the war, importing agricultural products and hydrocarbons.
“Thanks to front companies, he was one of the few who could circumvent the sanctions and bring freight ships to Syria,” he said.
Makhlouf kept a low profile throughout the war, giving a rare three-hour interview to the New York Times in May 2011, months after anti-government protests.
“Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to the regime,” he said.
The demonstrators had pointed the finger at him with slogans such as “Out, out, out, Makhlouf get out” or “We want to speak openly, we were robbed by the family of Makhlouf”.
Upon his surprise return on May 1, Makhlouf urged Assad to order Syriatel to “reschedule” up to $ 185 million in tax payments.
In a second video on May 3, he accused the security services of detaining employees to intimidate him from leaving his businesses.
“Did anyone ever think that the security agencies would come for Rami Makhlouf’s companies, when he was their biggest … sponsor throughout the war?” He asked.
The war-based Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of its employees had been arrested.
An Arab diplomatic source in Beirut said that the Syrian government had managed to extract money “from a number of businessmen”.
“But it seems that Makhlouf refused to pay what was asked of him in light of reports that he even tried to withdraw money from the country,” the source told AFP.
He said the main causes of his downfall appeared to be the growth of his empire and the “urgent need for state liquidity due to the economic crisis”.
The Syrian pound has dropped to record levels on the black market, and food prices have doubled in the past year.
Some reports have pointed to pressure from Assad’s ally, Russia, who may demand payment from Damascus for its military intervention to consolidate Assad.
Other reports indicate that President Asma’s wife could have played a role in the row involving Makhlouf.
Yazigi said she could try to secure her son’s future, but said there was not enough evidence to prove it.
The case recalls a previous family feud, when almost four decades ago, Assad’s father banished his brother after mounting a failed coup against him.
“Bashar gets rid of a bulky cousin, just like his father got rid of Rifaat al-Assad in the 80s,” said Balanche.
In Makhlouf’s case, “Assad will be quite happy to cut his wings because he is still his cousin”.
But “in this type of autocratic regime, it is good to remember from time to time that no one is safe”.
Diplomatic source close to Assad government told French daily Le Figaro that Makhalouf “was also paying the price for the behavior of one of his sons last week, who had a photo on Instagram in front of his red Ferrari in Dubai”.
At a time when the Syrians are “suffering,” the source continued, “the intelligence services wanted Assad to react.” By taking his cousin, Assad sent a signal to the Syrians that he “does not hesitate to fight corruption in his own family”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)