Syrian government freezes assets of Assad cousin

The move to seize the assets of the businessman is the latest in a dispute that began to heat up late last year.

al-monitor A woman watches the Facebook video of Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf on her mobile in Syria's capital, Damascus, on May 11, 2020.  Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

May 19, 2020

The Syrian government ordered the assets of President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, to be frozen in the latest episode of the regime’s attempt to isolate the business magnate.

A Syrian Finance Ministry document posted online ordered a “precautionary hold” on Makhlouf’s assets, as well as those of his immediate family.

The document justified the seizure as a “guarantee of repayment” of taxes allegedly owed by Syria’s largest telecommunications company, Syriatel, which Makhlouf owns.

Makhlouf went public with the dispute over the past few weeks in a series of videos posted online, refusing to step down as head of Syriatel and appealing to Assad directly. Makhlouf said in his latest video Sunday that some of Syriatel’s employees had been arrested and he was unable to contact them.

The billionaire regime insider is estimated to control some 60% of Syria’s economy. Syriatel is the country’s largest telecommunications company, but Makhlouf also has significant stakes in construction, real estate and Syria’s oil trade. Makhlouf’s father, Mohammad, was also entrusted with regime assets by Assad's father, Hafez, when he was president.

The current dispute began to heat up late last year, but went public recently as Makhlouf posted three videos to Facebook over the past two weeks in which he affirmed his allegiance to the regime and accused Syria’s feared intelligence services of acting unjustly.

Syria’s telecommunications regulatory body on May 1 gave Syriatel four days’ notice to accept a repayment plan for some 230 billion Syrian pounds (about $450 million).

Experts have offered a variety of possible reasons for the recent moves. US and international sanctions on Syria have plunged the country's currency to record lows at a time when the regime is seeking to normalize foreign relations and attract investment after the country’s devastating nine-year civil war.

The move by the Finance Ministry raises questions about the dynamics within the tight inner family circle of the Assads.

Makhlouf’s sons may have also posed an image problem for the regime, as they have flaunted their exorbitant wealth on social media at a time when many Syrians living under government control are struggling to afford daily necessities.

Criticism has also surfaced from Russia, Assad’s main backer in the war, though the Kremlin’s influence in the dispute, if any, is not clear.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings