Rami Makhlouf’s spat with Syrian regime over Syriatel deepens in document dispute

Rami Makhlouf in a video published May 17. (Screengrab)

The spat between Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf and Syrian government authorities continued on Monday, with the publication of official documents from Makhlouf's telecoms company becoming the latest point of dispute in the public information campaign between the two parties.

Syriatel’s chairman Makhlouf is President Bashar al-Assad’s first cousin and his businesses are seen as the economic arm of the regime’s structure. But recent government measures to seize his assets have prompted him to make unprecedented and rare public appearances, in the form of live video addresses to the President on his official Facebook page.

In his first address on 30 April, Makhlouf said Syriatel had been asked to pay $244.3 million and $254 million in tax fraud charges. Though he denied any tax evasion, he promised to pay the amount and asked al-Assad to re-distribute the money personally to “the poor.”

“The money has to be distributed by you, with your trust and assurances,” he said, warning al-Assad that some operatives in his government “could not be trusted.”

On Sunday, Makhlouf published a third video addressed to the president. He claimed there had been an attempt to coerce Syriatel into signing exclusive contracts with another company. He added that the pressure placed on his company would be a “catastrophe for the Syrian economy.”

The Ministry for Communications and Technology responded with a post on its official Facebook page, stating that Syriatel had “refused” to pay the tax charges and had missed the payment deadline by almost two weeks. “[The Ministry] confirms that it will proceed with all legal measures to […] recover the money which it is rightfully owed.”

People walk underneath an advertising billboard of Syria's largest mobile operator Syriatel, owned by businessman Rami Makhlouf, in the Syrian capital Damascus on May 11, 2020. (Reuters)

People walk underneath an advertising billboard of Syria's largest mobile operator Syriatel, owned by businessman Rami Makhlouf, in the Syrian capital Damascus on May 11, 2020. (Reuters)

Makhlouf then denied these allegations in a written Facebook post the following morning. He published a scanned copy of Syriatel’s letter to the government’s telecommunications authority, dated 10 May, which stated that the company will comply with the required payments, and requested to pay in installments.

Hours later, the Ministry posted its rebuttal on Facebook. It published a May 16 letter from two members of Syriatel’s executive team, who stated they were unable to obtain their CEO's permission to sign off on the payments to the authorities. “What the Syriatel Chairman posted on social media […] is part of a rogue and deceptive campaign to evade the payments to the public treasury,” said the Facebook post.

Makhlouf’s recent Facebook posts and videos indicate that he is unable to communicate directly with Assad. In the past, the tycoon could rely on his influential aunt Aniseh – Bashar al-Assad’s mother – to mediate with him. But in a sign that the times have changed, recent measures against Makhlouf include seizing his assets and arresting his employees.

A picture taken on July 17, 2010, shows Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf attending the ceremony of raising a Syrian flag on a 107-metre pole over Damascus to celebrate President Bashar al-Assad's 10th year in power. (AFP)

A picture taken on July 17, 2010, shows Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf attending the ceremony of raising a Syrian flag on a 107-metre pole over Damascus to celebrate President Bashar al-Assad's 10th year in power. (AFP)

Makhlouf's addresses have publicly revealed long-rumored rifts in the regime’s secretive inner circle. They come months after international sanctions on Syria were tightened and as the country faces bankruptcy. In his videos, he repeatedly references the influence that he holds in Syria’s Allawite community, which is one of al-Assad’s key powerbases.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 10:06 - GMT 07:06
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