Syrian army officers arrested in alleged crackdown on Makhlouf loyalists
The Syrian regime appears to have intensified its campaign against high-ranking figures and officials accused of loyalty to businessman Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of President Bashar Assad.
Over the past few days, the Syrian Army seems to have been caught in the crossfire of the family rift, with 15 army officers of different ranks in the capital arrested by Syria’s secret police on charges some have linked to the Makhlouf affair.
Several sources said the regime’s secret police carried out the campaign targeting army commanders for allegedly “dealing with foreign entities and embezzling state funds.”
Speculation was rife over the reasons for the security crackdown. Some media sources said the detainees had been caught up in foreign espionage, while others said the matter was linked to the ongoing dispute between the Syrian regime and Makhlouf.
Many observers claimed the charges brought by the regime against 15 officers are groundless, and that they are being targeted due to their loyalty and proximity to Makhlouf.
The regime’s new move comes just weeks after a campaign aimed at clearing out Syria’s state institutions of anyone close to or loyal to Makhlouf.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the officers had previously threatened to “scorch the earth” if any harm were to come to Makhlouf.
Among those arrested was the head of the communications department at the State Security Agency, a critical institution that the regime has relied on to stay in power since the beginning of the war in 2011. The body was created in late 2010 with the aim of merging security branches concerned with communication, tracking and espionage.
The department’s mission is to track and monitor all communications and conduct periodic checks of offices of senior leaders and sensitive places for possibly planted espionage devices. The department also checks and controls all communication devices imported from abroad.
“The Syrian regime’s secret police is pressing ahead with its new security campaign targeting members and officers within the regime forces,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
“During the past few hours and days, the Syrian security services arrested more than 15 members and officers of the regime’s forces from different ranks in the capital Damascus and its countryside, on charges of dealing with external parties and embezzling funds from state treasures,” the statement added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had previously shared information about the regime’s intelligence services continuing their security campaign, targeting installations and institutions belonging to Makhlouf.
About 12 new ex-fighters from Al-Bustan Association were arrested after raids carried out by the regime’s secret police in the presence of Russian security officers.
The observatory said that the arrests carried out by the Syrian regime’s intelligence services were mainly concentrated in the Latakia governorate.
Last week, Makhlouf criticised the regime and its security forces for arresting his senior staff members in a post on his official Facebook page.
In the post, Makhlouf said that in the past six months, there had been continuous arrests of senior male employees of his companies, leaving the offices with a female-only staff.
Makhlouf then added that the security apparatus “was not satisfied” with holding only men “and started pressuring the women in our institutions by arresting them one by one.”
He considered these acts another form of coercion, but did not elaborate.
The latest campaign brings the number of detainees accused of loyalty to Makhlouf to 71 managers, employees, technicians and fighters since the start of a security campaign last April on establishments and institutions owned by the businessman in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and Tartous.
The targeted institutions include 40 establishments affiliated with Syriatel and 31 of Al Bustan Association.
Though many link the dispute within the Assad family to the US’s imposition of sanctions under the Caesar Act, others say it points to Assad’s broader concerns about his future if he were to be defied by Makhlouf, who carries significant influence abroad, especially with Russia, Damascus’s top ally.
Many sources say the recent wave of arrests, including of army officers, confirms that the Syrian president believes the goal of the Caesar Act is to overthrow him after he has clung to power for nearly a decade with Russian and Iranian support.
The Syrian leader now appears to be attempting to clear out the army of any potential defectors.
A rift between Assad and Makhlouf emerged in May, exposing the financial core of Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime and a huge business network to which the two cousins are associated.
Makhlouf has been embroiled in a power struggle with the state since 2019, when authorities seized control of his charity, Al-Bustan, and dissolved militias affiliated to him.
When the finance ministry in December froze the assets of several businessmen over tax evasion and illicit enrichment, the Syrian press said Makhlouf, his wife and companies were included.
In a bid to replenish state coffers, the government last month ordered the seizure of assets from Makhlouf and his family.
Days later, Syria’s justice ministry announced a travel ban on the tycoon, who is believed to be in the country.
The government has justified its latest measures by claiming Syriatel owes it money, including outstanding fees for maintaining its operating license.