An extraordinary media appearance from one of Syria’s most powerful businessmen close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gives a rare glimpse into rifts in the regime’s inner circle.
In a video broadcast live on Facebook, Rami Makhlouf, chairman of the state-owned telecoms company Syriatel, opposed recent government measures to seize his assets. Syriatel he said, had paid $23.4 million in taxes for 2019 and 50 percent of its profits went to the government. “For every lira we make, the state takes another lira” he said.
Yet government auditors, he said, had now ordered him to pay an additional $244.3 million and $254 million, more than 20 times the amount. “I spend 10 million liras on my employees, they tell me to cut it to 5 million liras,” he said. “These are real expenses. They are not made up.”
For years, Damascus’s decisions and spending have been controlled by the Assads and a small, elite circle of relatives and family friends. Though feuds and rivalries are often rumored, they are seldom made public.
“To have it aired so openly is rare and incredible,” said journalist Sam Dagher, author of Assad or We Burn the Country.
“Makhlouf, you thief!”
“People are saying there is money I have to pay, regardless of my charitable work,” he said. “We are not playing games. You are our people, our family. Would anyone steal from themselves? These businesses are to serve you, not me. I am a small, small, part in this.”
Makhlouf also described the humanitarian aid that he had provided to through his charities. “At the beginning of the war in 2011, when I found myself a burden to you, I withdrew from my businesses and dedicated myself to humanitarian work,” he said.
One of his charities, Jamiat al-Bustan, funded Allawite militia and made payments to the families of fallen fighters.
“In other words, he warns that if Bashar loses him, he also loses [support from] the Allawite community,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and activist.
“There’s no money hidden beneath the tiles”
In the video, Makhlouf claims the new taxes will cause the company to “fall apart,” and requests a payment plan. “There’s no money hidden beneath the tiles,” he said, citing the salaries of Syriatel’s 6,500 employees as an expense.
He agreed to pay the sum in full, but insisted that Assad personally oversees its redistribution to the country’s “poor”. “The money has to be distributed by you, with your trust and assurances,” he said, “I don’t trust anyone else.”