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Are things turning sour between Assad and Syrian businessmen?


President Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf’s assets have been seized, according to some sources.

Is it just a warning, or the beginning of an outright purge within the Syrian financial elite? Rumors have been circulating for days about Rami Makhlouf, the richest man in the country, who happens to be the president’s cousin. Both the opposition and the West believe him to be at the heart of an intricate, corrupt network.

It started at the beginning of last week, when various sources and media outlets, for and against the regime, stated the businessman was under house arrest and that his assets had been seized. They claim this was ordered by the president under the guise of “fighting corruption”. Many of his companies have been targeted, including the mobile network provider Syriatel. Some sources also claim that his two brothers, Iyad and Ihab Makhlouf, are also under house arrest. Others say that as many as 29 other businessmen today find themselves in the same position.

On the internet, social media users were quick to compare this to the Ritz-Carlton episode in Riyad two years ago, when the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated purges among the richest of Saudi society.

A political source in Damascus confirmed to L’Orient-Le Jour there has been ongoing enmity between the presidency and three businessmen - and partners : Rami Makhlouf, Houssam el-Katerji and Mohammed Hamcho. To this day, the reasons behind the falling out remain unknown, but according to the same source, el-Katerji and Hamcho are not under house arrest: Mohammed Hamcho was seen last week at the Damascus International Fair. Because it affects the tightly closed circle of the Syrian business bourgeoisie, a group that has benefited greatly from the economic liberalization of the country and the protection of the Assad clan, the rumors have resulted in various interpretations, sometimes far-fetched, and so far unverifiable.

The first, and most common version of the story, claims that Russia, the regime’s ally, has asked the president to reimburse them for billions of dollars for the country’s accumulated debts, the suggestion is that these funds will be retrieved from Rami Makhlouf. Another interpretation is that the businessman was getting too close to the Iranians. Last but not least, some say that it all started because of rivalry between the cousins and that President Bashar al-Assad, jealous of Rami, and considered him to be a little too influential amongst the Alawites.

Another tycoon, Firas Tlass, son of Moustapha Tlass – a former Syrian Minister of Defense who fled to Paris in 2012 after joining the opposition -, has given his own version of the story on his Facebook page. According to him, Bashar al-Assad allegedly asked his cousin Rami to give him two billion dollars, which he refused to do. Agents from the palace security office then went to flush out all the managers within the companies that Rami Makhlouf unofficially ran. Here are where the rumors of people being summoned and roughed up come from.

International sanctions

It is no secret that the Assad and Makhlouf families are intimately linked, and so is their fate. Mohammed, Rami’s father and brother of Anissa, Bashar’s mother, was in charge of the clan’s treasury. In Ziad Majed, Farouk Mardam Bey and Subhi Hadidi’s book, “Dans la tête de Bachar el-Assad” (In Bachar al-Assad’s Head), the family is described as the “pillar of what Hafez built and passed on to his son”. Rami Makhlouf grew up with the Syrian President and is said to have heavily participated in the financing of the 2011 repression as well as the war efforts, particularly by paying the chabbihas’ salaries.

The powerful businessman is said to be in control of almost 60% of the Syrian economy, from mobile telephony to tourism, luxury boutiques, transportation, oil, banks, and even food products. Under international sanctions for the past 11 years, Rami Makhlouf has been described in American diplomatic memos as the “poster boy of corruption” in Syria. Abhorred by the Syrian opposition, disliked by the international community, he has tried to better his image by - seemingly - getting rid of his commercial interests in Syria.

Since the Assad clan matriarch, Anissa Makhlouf, passed away in 2016, family ties seem to have unraveled a little, according to some analysts. Former French ambassador in Syria Michel Duclos describes the man as being “the clan’s predator in chief” in his book “La longue nuit syrienne” (The Long Syrian Night). In an article published online last week regarding the rumors about Rami Makhlouf’s whereabouts, The Syria Report states that “something is now broken between the Assad and Makhlouf families”, and that “there is no doubt Rami’s businesses are [being] targeted”. “Conflict between the two can only be a consequence of deep rifts, and not only geopolitical ones. It must be linked to something much more personal, such as Bachar’s fundamental interests, than pressure from Russia”.

As for the other two men at the heart of this issue, theirs are the largest fortunes in the country, fortunes that only grew during the war, according to the Damascene source.

Just like Rami Makhlouf, the MP and billionaire Mohammad Hamcho benefited from his ties to the regime and invested in multiple sectors of the Syrian economy. Since 2011, he has been under European and American sanctions, especially due to his - very - close ties to Maher al-Assad, Bachar’s brother.

As for Houssam al-Katerji, who is also under international sanctions, he became known to the public after a Reuters investigation titled “How a businessman struck a deal with Islamic State to help Assad feed Syrians” was published in 2017. Originally from Raqqa, the MP is said to have used his company, Katerji, to directly supply farmers and administrators in areas controlled by the Islamic State with wheat. Other articles mention his role in aiding the signing of oil transportation contracts from areas controlled by Kurdish groups.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 30th of August)

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