Media reports by pro and anti-regime sites suggested a campaign was being pursued against Rami Makhlouf, possibly at the behest of Russia, a powerful patron of Syrian regime leader Assad that sought to undermine an influential businessman.

People walk past the looted premises of cellphone company Syriatel, which is owned by Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad, in Deraa March 21, 2011
People walk past the looted premises of cellphone company Syriatel, which is owned by Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad, in Deraa March 21, 2011 (Reuters)

Sanctions-hit Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf on Sunday said that security forces were arresting employees at his diversified companies in what he said was "mounting pressure" on him days after Syrian regime authorities asked him to pay hefty taxes.

Makhlouf, a maternal cousin of regime leader Bashar al Assad and widely considered part of the leader’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.

"Today pressures began in an unacceptable ways and the security forces, in an inhumane way, are arresting our employees," Makhlouf said in a video.

The security forces did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Addressing Assad in the video, Makhlouf said he had been asked to step down from the companies he runs, including Syriatel, the country's main mobile operator and main source of revenue for the sanctions-hit regime.

"Did anyone expect the security forces would pounce on Rami Makhlouf's companies who were their biggest supporters and their patron during the war?" Makhlouf said.

Makhlouf's videos on a new Facebook page seems to be a running public diary of the widening rift – and the fall from grace of a once-powerful tycoon.

Anti-Makhlouf campaign?

Media reports by pro and anti-government sites suggested a campaign was being pursued against Makhlouf, possibly at the behest of Russia, a powerful patron of Assad that sought to undermine an influential businessman.

Russian media reports in recent weeks have published criticism of corruption in Syria.

Others view the rift through the lens of the Assad family.

"The dispute is between Makhlouf and Bashar’s wife, Asma Assad, over who controls the economy," said a former Syrian diplomat, Bassam Barabandi, who defected in 2012.

Barabandi said Makhlouf's financial holdings and charities have played a central role during the war in financing and ensuring patronage, particularly among Syria's minority Alawite community — from which Assad hails.

Assad's wife has her own charity and has built herself a major public role.

Others researching Syria's complex business networks say the rivalry is with Assad's younger brother, Maher, an army general who also has expansive financial dealings and ties with Iran.

Makhlouf, who is four years younger than the 54-year-old Assad, had declared that he was stepping aside from business to focus on charity work in 2011, at the start of Syria’s conflict. 

But he remained associated with the regime. For the opposition, he has been the face of regime hard-liners and the decision to crack down on dissent.

Makhlouf pleads with Assad

In a 15-minute video, Makhlouf denied allegations that he evaded paying taxes for one of his largest business ventures, Syriatel, the biggest telecommunication company in the country. Syriatel has 11 million subscribers, with 50 percent of revenues going to the state.

"By God we are not evading tax or cheating the country and the state," Makhlouf said. "How can someone steal from his own family?"

Makhlouf complains about a campaign pursued by people he doesn’t name who he says always paint him “as the one who has done wrong, who is bad.”

At times he pleads, halts and repeats himself. And in an indication Makhlouf has no access to Assad, he addresses the regime leader: "Mr. President, I implore you, this is the truth."

"Here I want to address the president, to explain to him the circumstances of what is happening, to explain to him some of the sufferings that we are going through," Makhlouf said, remarks that could be considered tone-deaf in a country where nearly 80 percent of the people are poor.

The billionaire has been under US sanctions since 2008 for what Washington calls public corruption and it has since toughened measures against top businessmen who are close to him.

The European Union has also slapped sanctions on Makhlouf since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, accusing him of bankrolling Assad.

He became a hated figure to many pro-democracy protesters who rose up against corruption and the authoritarian rule of Assad in March 2011.

Source: Reuters