After more than 40 days of absence, Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, wrote again on his Facebook page saying that most of his male employees were detained and only the females are left.
“For the past six months, the security arrests against our employees did not stop. They arrested most of the men on our frontlines and now we only have the women,” Makhlouf wrote.
On April 30, Makhlouf had went online in an unprecedented social media appearance that baffled the public, denouncing a recent tax fraud bill that had been slapped on his telecoms business Syriatel.
“After not obtaining what they wanted … and after all the measures they took, including banning all our companies, accounts, and properties, they were still not satisfied. They closed down several companies arbitrarily, and hence laid off hundreds of employees,” the tycoon’s latest Facebook post said.
Syria’s richest man
Makhlouf is Syria’s richest man and al-Assad’s maternal first cousin. He was known as the “exclusive agent of Syria,” whose dominance over the economy for over two decades served to bankroll the regime and the Assad family.
But in the past year, measures to seize his assets and dissolve his networks indicated that he had fallen out of favor with the president.
“They are threatening the men with fabricating currency charges against them to get fabricated confessions … while they overwhelm them in other ways to submit to their demands,” Makhlouf said.
In January of this year, al-Assad took emergency steps to halt the fall of the local currency, forbidding the use of anything other than Syrian pounds for transactions and punishing the act with prison and hard labor.
The spat between the cousins has sparked a flurry of speculation about intrigue at the palace. Many have suggested that Makhlouf has a rivalry with Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, whose family network competes with the Makhloufs for the spoils. Others point to pressure from Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.
These measures come as the country faces bankruptcy from nine years of devastating war. The US and EU recently tightened their sanctions on regime affiliates including Makhlouf, with the US Caesar Act coming into effect. The Syrian pound has plummeted and locals have reported the price of basic goods has increased 500 percent.
The cash-strapped regime, which claims it has won a war against terrorism, has said it is cracking down on corruption to save the country’s devastated economy. In August last year, al-Assad ordered Syrian businessmen, including Makhlouf, to pay millions of dollars into the Central Bank.
Then, in October, al-Assad told state-television that he was asking “everyone who wasted state funds to return the money.”
On May 21 authorities seized Makhlouf’s assets and those of his family, and issued a temporary travel ban. On June 1, his Syriatel shares in the Damascus stock market were suspended.
“Where is the law? Where is the regime? Where is the constitution that protects the innocent? Have they [Makhlouf’s employees] become terrorists to be treated this way and get detained for several weeks for nothing?” Makhlouf wrote.
Makhlouf’s role in the war
The first comment on Makhlouf’s post read: “This is the money of the people. You and your family stole it, and now the government is returning it. Why are you surprised? I just hope they [the government] doesn’t steal it for their own pockets.”
A Damascene businessman who manages a company affiliated to Makhlouf’s recalled the tycoon’s willingness to intimidate and extort as he expanded his empire. “What goes around comes around. Today, Rami is appealing to law. Where was the law back then when he stripped people of his properties?” he told Al Arabiya English.
Washington slapped sanctions on Makhlouf in 2008, stating that he “used intimidation and his close ties to the Assad regime to obtain improper business advantages at the expense of ordinary Syrians.”
When anti-regime protests began in the city of Dar’aa in 2011, Makhlouf was evoked in slogans as a “thief.”
The role he then played in the ensuing war would only reinforce his position. Makhlouf maintained his position at Syriatel, laundering money for the cash strapped regime, funding loyalist militias supporting al-Assad, and paying reparations to the families of fallen soldiers.
He sided with Bashar’s view that a show of strength was the only solution to the growing protests. His brother Hafez Makhlouf, a senior intelligence official, is believed to have given the orders to shoot to kill on the demonstrators, which led to thousands of deaths.
Among the “humanitarian work” that Makhlouf refers to in his videos, is his charity Al-Bustan, which funded a militia of the same name. Experts say the militia was among the most brutal and its fighters were paid twice the Syrian Army’s salaries.
Another revelation from Makhlouf’s videos was his patronage of the Syrian intelligence services during the war, a dreaded institution whose members are currently facing trial in Europe for crimes against humanity.
The sprawling security apparatus that was developed during the Cold War with the help of the KGB and other Soviet-backed secret services has been essential to the Assads’ rule, and Bashar’s crackdown on peaceful protestors after 2011.
Outraged that his own employees had been arrested by this secret police, Makhlouf described himself as the apparatus’ “biggest donor” and “biggest servant” during the war, and asked: “Could anyone have pictured the security services targeting [my] companies?”