Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf said on Sunday that security forces have started arresting managers at his companies, in the latest development in the first public rift within the inner circle of President Bashar Al Assad's regime in four decades.
In unprecedented criticism of the Alawite-dominated security apparatus, Mr Makhlouf said security forces are complicit in an attempt by people he did not identify to take over his businesses, illustrating that "people's liberties" are being attacked. It came after the government said he must pay taxes, an order that he disputed.
The telecommunications billionaire says in the ten-minute video: "who would have thought that these Intel agencies would come to Rami Makhlouf's companies and arrest our workers when I was the largest supporter [financier] of these agencies".
“Today the pressures began in an unprecedented way and sadly in an inhuman way. The security forces have started arresting our employees,” Mr Makhlouf said, adding that those arrested are managers.
Mr Makhlouf broadcast another video about the issues last week. In the footage, he spoke with an Alawite accent, in an apparent attempt to arouse sympathy within the community that has controlled the state since 1963, and repeatedly invoked God and Quranic verses, although he is not known to be religious.
He invoked God and the Quran again on Sunday and spoke in an uncharacteristic soft tone, in contrast to his reputation for roughness.
An Arab businessmen recalls sitting in a car while Mr Makhlouf was driving in Damascus before the 2011 revolt when a traffic cop stopped the car for speeding. Mr Makhlouf, he said, got out of the car and rushed toward the policeman, and spalled him in the face for daring to stop someone as important as him.
His de facto monopolies before 2011 covered telecommunications, duty free shops, privatisation projects, large real estate developments as well as stakes in banks and financial brokerage. Although he said at the outbreak of the revolt that he would devote his time to charity, businessmen say he became a major player in the war economy.
"I am being asked to move away from [my] companies and execute instructions while I am blind folded,” he said from an unknown location.
Mr Makhlouf, 50, said he is appealIng to Mr Assad to “put a limit to the interference by those surrounding the decision maker [the president] because these transgressions have become unbearable, intolerable, disgusting and dangerous."
“This is called repression and infringement on private property. Mr President, the security agencies have started transgressing on the people’s liberties."
The security apparatus, which killed and made thousands of civilians disappear since the 2011 revolt, underpins five decades of Assad family rule over Syria.
The revelation of the moves against Mr Makhlouf, if confirmed, would be an escalation of pressure against one of the most powerful men in the country. Mr Makhlouf is also the maternal cousin of the longtime Syrian leader who has been accused by human rights advocates of war crimes across nine years of revolt and civil war.
The world's chemical weapons watchdog said last month that Mr Assad's air force attacked a rebel town with sarin and chlorine in 2017, and that the attacks "would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities" of Syria's military command.
The last time a rift so deep and so public within the Alawite inner circle of the regime occurred in the 1980s, when Hafez Al Assad's brother Rifaat was forced to leave Syria, after Assad foiled an attempt by Rifaat to seize power.
Rifaat Al Assad at the time headed the Defense Brigades, the forerunner of the elite Fourth Mechanised Division headed by Maher Al Assad, the president's brother, who also is a patron of a network of business associates.
Mr Makhlouf does not have any significant armed units under his control but insiders say he controls billions of dollars on behalf of the inner circle, causing friction between him and Maher Al Assad.
The Alawite triumvirate of Bashar, Maher, and Makhlouf has de facto ruled Syria since Bashar Al Assad inherited power from Hafez in 2000. The three men have broadly divided their authority along political, military, and business lines.
Mr Makhlouf, did not say how many people have been arrested. But the announcement by one of the Middle East’s richest men, whose rise he owes to his close personal ties with Bashar, indicates huge volatility within the inner circle.
Mr Assad has not commented on the troubles of his cousin after the authorities demanded that Syriatel, the telecom monopoly he controls, pays at least 130 billion Syrian pounds ($250m) in taxes.
His previous videos, posted on a new Facebook page, seemed to be a running public diary of the widening rift — and the fall from grace of a once-powerful tycoon.
Media reports by pro and anti-government sites suggested a campaign was being pursued against Mr 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. But Mr Makhlouf gave no indication that external powers were involved.
Mr Makhlouf said in the previous video on Sunday that he could not meet the taxation demands asked of him, which the government confirmed of about 130 billion Syrian pounds ($250 million).