Assad's tycoon cousin pleads for help on Facebook after regime seizes assets, in sign of growing rift

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Rami Makhlouf, one of the richest men in Syria, breaks ranks, begging Assad for help in a Facebook video where he denies he evaded tax

World | The Independent

An apparent spat in the once tight-knit family of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deepened overnight Thursday when his tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf made a rare direct appeal for help on Facebook over an order to seize his assets and impose fines.

Mr Makhlouf, Mr Assad’s maternal cousin and one of the wealthiest men in Syria, took to the social media platform to defend his businesses against accusations of tax evasion, breaking the usual silence of the president's closest cadres.

In December, Syrian officials took the extraordinary step of seizing Mr Makhlouf’s assets and charging him millions of dollars in fines after he was accused of importing smuggled goods into the country.

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It was part of a so-called anti-corruption probe that hit several other figures in Syria’s private sector. Many believed it was part of a move to force Syria’s richest to give back wealth to save the country from bankruptcy amid mounting pressure from Syria’s long-term ally Russia.

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Mr Makhlouf, who is a major shareholder in state mobile company Syriatel as well as an owner of luxury hotels and other businesses, had been known for years as Mr Assad’s main financial ally.

He has been repeatedly sanctioned by the US and the European Union since 2008 because of his financing of the regime. Before the 2011 civil war, he was believed to control more than 50 per cent of the country’s economy.

Mr Makhlouf's sons Mohamed and Ali have gained notoriety for documenting their extravagant lifestyles including expensive cars, luxury resort holidays and water sports on their popular Instagram accounts. 

But in desperation, Mr Makhlouf appears to have taken the unusual measure of speaking out publically by posting his woes on his Facebook page.

Directly appealing to the president in a 15-minute video, Mr Makhlouf claimed he had been ordered to up to 130 billion Syrian pounds ($250 million) in fines for tax fraud, money he said could see his business “collapse.”

He claimed his company paid 12 billion Syrian pounds in tax last year and shares the profits equally with the state.

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Repeatedly pleading, he vowed not to embarrass the Syrian president or be “a burden” but maintained he received threats.

“I beg you… we are not tax-evading,” he said.

It is not known what first sparked the rift in the Assad family, however there has been growing speculation that Russia, fed up with the protracted and expensive war in Syria, has piled pressure on the Syrian president.

Russia has been a key backer of the Syrian government forces throughout the country’s civil war.

Rami Makhlouf appeals directly to President Assad for help on Facebook (screen shot from Rami Makhlouf's Facebook page)

However there have been a number of recent articles in Russia media criticising the Syrian president and endemic corruption in the country.

Bloomberg reported this week that Russia was growing increasingly impatient with Assad, amid an oil price collapse and the coronavirus pandemic, and so was keen to extricate itself from the war.

The news agency said an article briefly appeared a news website linked to Kremlin insiders, attacking Mr Assad as corrupt.

Other articles and commentary have been published levelling criticism against the government in Damascus for being inflexible in negotiations with the opposition, Bloomberg said.

  • Assad's tycoon cousin pleads for help on Facebook after regime seizes assets, in sign of growing rift photo


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