A feud over money in Syria’s ruling clan shows a threat to Bashar al-Assad’s authority may ultimately come, not from the battlefield, but from once loyal allies and Syria’s crumbling economy.
In May, Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf, a cousin and long-time ally of President Bashar al-Assad, took a once unimaginable step.
In a video he published on social media, he lashed out against Assad’s “inhumane” state security forces. “Mr President, the security forces have started attacking people’s freedoms,” Makhlouf said.
The outburst shocked Syrians, and exposed a rift at the heart of the ruling elite. Never before had such a senior figure spoken out against the regime from within Damascus.
Through Syria’s 10-year civil war, Makhlouf had helped Assad evade Western sanctions on fuel and other goods vital to his military campaign. He was part of the president’s inner circle, accused by the United States of exploiting his proximity to power to enrich himself “at the expense of ordinary Syrians.” His business empire spanned telecoms, energy, real estate and hotels, looming large over Syria’s economy.
But now the two men were locked in a battle over money. Security forces had recently raided Makhlouf’s telecoms company, Syriatel, in a tax dispute and detained dozens of employees for questioning….
Reuters spoke to more than 30 sources – including people close to the Assad and Makhlouf families, local businessmen, and Western intelligence officials – and reviewed official documents to chart the breakdown of a family alliance that stretched back two generations. Many of the sources declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In interviews, these sources described how:
• In expanding his business empire over two decades, Makhlouf kept some of his wealth hidden from the president.
• In May 2019, Assad instructed Syria’s intelligence chief to track down Makhlouf’s estimated billions of dollars of riches stashed abroad.
• After a decade of war, Assad is so desperate for cash that in Sept 2019 the central bank summoned Syrian tycoons to a meeting and ordered them to hand over some of their fortunes.
“Makhlouf has brought into the open the feud within the regime,” said a person with ties to the Assad family.