Rami Makhlouf: fallen Syrian tycoon gives mixed signals about fighting regime that brought him down

President Bashar Al Assad’s cousin less combative in his latest Facebook message

Rami Makhlouf, the billionaire cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has accused the state of pressuring him to hand over his assets.
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Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf made a cryptic pronouncement on the weekend, which dented his posture of defiance after the regime seized his known assets in the country.

On Sunday, in a statement on Facebook, the maternal cousin of President Bashar Al Assad quoted esoteric Arabic verse about a need for patience.

The verse Mr Makhlouf chose also seemed to suggest that people should surrender to their fate.

He fell out with Mr Al Assad after two decades as the money manager for the ruling family, and provided rare clues to the workings of the regime's ultra-secretive core.

It is comprised of the Assad family and other members of the Alawite minority that has dominated Sunni-majority Syria since officers who were mostly members of the Shiite sect took power in a 1963 coup.

“Whoever wants his life to continue, he should be patient about [knowing] the judgment of his destiny,” Mr Makhlouf wrote in poorly formulated Arabic.

“I will be patient until the merciful looks into my issue."

He was one of the Middle East’s richest people until the regime stripped him of his assets in the past few months.

Among the assets he lost are telecoms company Syriatel and Cham Holding, two of Syria’s biggest, and other de facto monopolies across the business spectrum.

Mr Makhlouf responded by going on Facebook with details of the relationship between security forces and businesses in regime areas and the structure the regime uses to hide its cash and evade western sanctions.

He indicated that he was instrumental in compensating Alawite families who lost members defending the regime in the civil war, describing his corporations as well run and crucial to the well-being of the Shiite minority.

Observers of the feud between Mr Makhlouf and Mr Al Assad, which became glaringly public in May this year, interpreted his latest remarks in two ways.

Either he had run out of allies, including Russian, or he would continue to counter the regime’s moves against him with Moscow using him to keep the Assads in check.

A senior Arab banker said that although Mr Makhlouf's whereabouts are unknown, his statements indicate that he has become isolated.

He said he would not have resorted increasingly to spiritual language had he remained “strong and powerful”.

“When weak, people like him change and become religious and spiritual,” the banker said from Dubai.

But a Syrian opposition figure, who declined to be identified, said Mr Makhlouf was sending a message to his Alawite supporters that he would continue to play the thorn in Mr Al Assad's side.

“I don’t think he is giving up,” the source said.

Until this year Mr Makhlouf was a member of a triumvirate that ruled Syria since the president inherited power from his father, Hafez Al Assad, in 2000.

The three men were Bashar, his brother Maher, who controls Praetorian Guard units of the regime, and Mr Makhlouf.

Regional bankers say a significant portion of the money that Mr Makhlouf controlled, through a network of front men, is in Lebanese banks.

Beirut’s banks largely prevented customers from accessing their dollar accounts in October-November last year to halt a run on deposits.

Mr Al Assad said this month that between $20 billion and $42bn of Syrian deposits are in Lebanese banks.

Without referring to Mr Makhlouf, he said the inaccessibility of the money was the core of the economic crisis in regime areas of Syria.