Syrian tycoon decries 'inhumane' security forces in unprecedented criticism
Sanctions-hit Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf said on Sunday that security forces were arresting employees at his companies "in an inhumane way", amid pressure on him to step down from his business empire and pay millions of dollars in taxes.
Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and widely considered part of the president’s inner circle, has a business empire that ranges from telecoms and real estate to construction and oil trading.
He played a big role in financing Assad's war effort, western officials have said. His wealth was estimated to be worth $5bn before the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011.
The video appears to confirm the most significant power struggle within the heart of the family since Bashar took over from his late father Hafez in 2000. It also points to severe strains within the Assad government as the Syrian economy collapses and the civil war grinds on, analysts told the Washington Post.
“It’s very big,” Bassam Barabandi, a former diplomat who defected from the Syrian Embassy in Washington in 2012 told the Post. “Rami was in the inner circle from day one of Bashar’s rule. He’s built into the regime. To take him out would be like a divorce.”
"Today pressures began in unacceptable ways and the security forces, in an inhumane way, are arresting our employees," Makhlouf said in a video in an unprecedented attack on the powerful security forces by one of the country's most influential figures.
"Mr President (Assad), the security forces have started attacking people's freedoms. These are your loyal supporters... The situation is dangerous and by God, if we continue, the situation of the country will be very difficult," Makhlouf said.
Syrian security forces did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.
Makhlouf has long been seen as a pillar of Assad's government and has been targeted by US and EU sanctions over that support. He has held leading roles in multiple businesses, including Syria's largest mobile phone provider Syriatel, AFP said.
Still, rumours have swirled in recent months of souring ties between the businessman and Assad, who is spearheading an anti-graft campaign.
On Thursday, Makhlouf posted his first video on Facebook urging Assad to help Syriatel after the state demanded a large payment the tycoon described as "unjust".
In a second filmed statement on Sunday, Makhlouf again urged the president to intervene over alleged pressure to distance himself from his companies.
"Would anyone ever have thought that the security agencies would come for Rami Makhlouf's companies, while he has been their biggest supporter and sponsor throughout the war?" asked the businessman, who is believed to be in Syria.
"I am asked today to distance myself from the companies and implement instructions," Makhlouf continued, alleging he had been told, "either you give in, or we throw all your people in jail".
In December, Syrian authorities froze the assets of several businessmen for tax evasion and illegal enrichment during the nine-year civil war. The Syrian media said Makhlouf and his wife were among those targeted.
Shoring state finances
In an interview with Syrian state television in October, Assad said he had "called on everyone in the private sector who has squandered state funds to return the money".
He said the objective was to shore up state finances, not to put people on trial.
Makhlouf became a hated figure to many pro-democracy protesters who rose up against corruption and the authoritarian rule of Assad in March 2011.
Makhlouf, who belongs to Assad's Alawite minority sect that holds political power in Syria, owes his fortune to Assad and was seen by many Syrian businessmen and others as a front man for the president and other members of the ruling family.
Makhlouf said in Sunday's video that he would not bow to pressure to hand over his wealth to powerful rivals, whom he did not identify.
"This is an attack on private property. What I already have is something I cannot give up," he said defiantly.