The rare instance of dissent within Assad’s inner circle indicates Syria’s ruling regime is facing unprecedented pressure from within.
Makhlouf posted a video to social media in May in which he “lashed out against Assad’s ‘inhumane’ state security forces,” Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya reported Wednesday.
“Mr. President, the security forces have started attacking people’s freedoms,” Makhlouf said.
The defiant statement reportedly shocked Syrians, exposing a rift within the ruling regime rarely, if ever, seen by the public.
“Through Syria’s ten-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,” Al Arabiya noted.
Now, Assad and Makhlouf are at odds over money. This year, Syrian security forces began raiding Makhlouf’s telecoms company, Syriatel, in a tax dispute. Police detained dozens of Syriatel’s employees for questioning over “fund transfers to front companies set up by Makhlouf in the British Virgin Islands and Jersey,” a Damascus banker with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
With Syria’s economy imploding following years of war, Assad has recently pushed to confiscate the billions of dollars held by Makhlouf in offshore companies. For several years, Makhlouf has allegedly been building his own private wealth behind the president’s back through shell companies despite “acting as Assad’s trusted money keeper and family treasurer” for decades, according to the report.
“Makhlouf would buy supplies and equipment for the government from companies that he ultimately owns. He would create these shell companies that would be suppliers,” a shareholder in Makhlouf’s real estate developer, Cham Holding, and former Makhlouf associate told Reuters.
“A former business associate and a banker said Makhlouf had created a network of front companies, including in neighboring Lebanon, where he generated his own money separate from the funds Assad asked him to place in safe havens on behalf of the ruling family. They didn’t quantify the sums of money involved,” the report stated.
In a social media post on July 26, Makhlouf admitted to setting up such firms, insisting that “these companies’ role and aim is to circumvent sanctions,” not self-enrichment.