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Syria seizes assets of Assad cousin and business magnate Rami Makhlouf

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and cousin Rami Makhlouf, one of the country's wealthiest businessmen.
(European Pressphoto Agency )

Syria has frozen the assets of President Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, a powerful businessman who recently complained of shakedowns by people close to the president.

In documents issued Tuesday by the legal affairs directorate of Syria’s Finance Ministry, the government placed a “provisional hold” on all assets belonging to Makhlouf, whose estimated fortune is worth billions of dollars, as well as those of his wife and children as “a payment guarantee” for sums owed to the government by mobile network provider Syriatel — the crown jewel of Makhlouf’s business interests. The government also ordered a five-year ban on Makhlouf contracting with public entities.

Makhlouf, 50, once a close adviser to Assad, has been viewed by critics as part of the corruption that has plagued Syria’s government. Washington sanctioned him in 2008 for using intimidation and his ties to Assad to “obtain improper business advantages” and protesters in the 2011 uprisings often denounced him.

For weeks, a confrontation has loomed between Makhlouf and state financial authorities, which insist Syriatel pay taxes and licensing fees amounting to 233.8 billion Syrian pounds, roughly $114 million on the black market rate. Last year, Syriatel, which has some 11 million subscribers and is the larger of the country’s two telecom operators, earned 221 billion Syrian pounds.

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Makhlouf has indicated he is willing to pay but disputes some of the details. In a Facebook post late Tuesday, he insisted the measures taken by the government against him were illegal and were using the fight with Syriatel as a way to push him out.

“The guys want the company, and they only care about controlling it,” he wrote. He did not identify “the guys.”

Since last month, Makhlouf, typically leery of the limelight, has appeared in a series of Facebook videos that have alternated between him pleading for help from Assad — whom he addresses as “Mr. President” — to expressing shock at what he called the strong-arm tactics authorities have employed against Syriatel employees, including imprisonment.

In his appearance Sunday, Makhlouf said unnamed parties in the government had tried to blackmail him into no-bid contracts with companies he said were associated with “war lords.” Also, he said, there were attempts to oust him from Syriatel’s board.

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“Everything is about threats? What sort of economy are we in where every word is a threat?” he said in a video posted Sunday. “In the war I didn’t give up, not on my country, my president, or my family…. It’s clear you don’t know me.”

Hours later that day, Syria’s telecommunications ministry said the two-week reprieve for Makhlouf to pay the money had ended and that it would now employ “all legal ways” to recover the money.

In the days after, a flurry of statements flew between Makhlouf and the Syrian telecommunications ministry, with each side accusing the other of wrongdoing.

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The quarrel comes amid unprecedented pressure on Syria’s local currency. In recent days, the pound — already battered by almost a decade of war, far-reaching sanctions and now the coronavirus outbreak — has nosedived to almost 2,000 pounds to the dollar on the black market. The government has scrambled to find additional sources of hard currency, including chasing after tens of billions of dollars smuggled away by loyalists.

Makhlouf helped bankroll the government’s war effort. In recent days, social media comments regarding his videos have contrasted the ascetic image he has projected with the public personas presented by his two sons, who live in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and routinely pepper their Instagram postings with images depicting a lavish lifestyle replete with luxury cars and private jets.

His supporters point to his charity works, including medical treatment for Syrian army soldiers as well as food assistance across the country.

Makhlouf grew up in wealth and influence as Syria moved to open its economy to private business. Using his ties to Assad, he became the central player in many of the country’s top industries, pushing out rivals or forcing them into giving him a share of enterprises in real estate, banking, construction, hotels, resorts, oil and gas, duty-free shops and telecommunications.

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Tuesday’s developments, analysts said, represent a spectacular fall from grace for a figure once deemed a pillar of the country’s leadership, which for decades balanced familial ties, clan loyalties and sectarian considerations to wield power.

“Makhlouf is finished,” Danny Makki, a Damascus-based Syrian analyst, said in a phone interview. “It’s the beginning of the end.”


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