The billionaire cousin of Syria’s president has appealed to the authorities to release his staff, the latest development in a battle for control over billions of dollars among the pillars of the regime.
The politico-business drama playing out on the Facebook pages of Rami Makhlouf and on official media is offering a rare glimpse of front company structures and financial shareholdings linked to the innermost corridors of power in a country on paper ruled by the Arab Socialist Baath Party.
In a Facebook statement at the weekend, Mr Makhlouf called on the security apparatus to “stop persecuting loyalist patriots, concentrate on actual criminals, and release the employees they have under arrest.”
In recent weeks, authorities have arrested an undisclosed number of managers at the companies of Mr Makhlouf, the most prominent of which is telecom operator Syriatel.
The regime also seized his assets, froze personal and family bank accounts and placed a travel ban on him, a measure reserved mostly to political dissidents before the 2011 revolt against Assad family rule.
The travel ban indicates that Mr Makhlouf could be still in Syria, which would place him in a precarious position.
But some bankers who know Mr Makhlouf said they find it difficult to believe he could have been making his case so comfortably from inside the country.
The oligarch, 50, was one of the three most powerful men in the country before the feud burst out publicly this month with President Bashar Al Assad, and his brother Maher Al Assad, the de facto head of the military. The two brothers appear to have aligned against Mr Makhlouf.
In a video statement earlier this month, Mr Makhlouf said he has been the main financier of the same security operatives who have turned against him.
He indicated that the regime is after him for stepping in to help neglected Alawite families who had lost members defending the regime in the civil war.
Syrian businessmen familiar with Mr Makhlouf said he has been also financing parts of the Alawite religious hierarchy, long ignored by the Assad family, furthering his appeal within the Alawite community.
Mainly Alawite officers took power in a 1963 coup, setting the scene for another coup by Hafez Al Assad seven year later, which consolidated the Alawite ascendency and ushered five decades of Assad family rule.
“Despite the difficult conditions we have not forgotten our duty to our folks,” Mr Makhlouf said in his latest comment on Facebook, concluded with Quranic verse and Alawite religious terminology.
Mr Makhlouf said directed 1.5 billion Syrian pounds to charities he heads over a time period he did not specify. The today is equivalent to $2.7m (Dh10.7m) but was as much as $30 million before the Syrian pound started falling in 2011 from 50 pounds to the dollars to 1,400 pounds to the dollar.
Regional bankers say the rift between Mr Makhlouf and the Assads ultimately revolves around vast amounts of money the businessman and his father, Mohammad Makhlouf, have been managing over the past four decades on behalf of Bashar and Maher Al Assad.
Mr Makhlouf’s problems are also related his own wealth, parts of which he generated by stretching his primary role as the regime’s moneyman and branching out without giving cuts to others, a former associate of Mr Makhlouf said.
The source told The National that the best outcome that Mr Makhlouf could hope for would be a similar resolution to a rift between then-president Hafez Al Assad and his brother Rifat Al Assad in the 1980s, after Rifaat mounted a failed coup.
The regime gave Rifaat a reported $300 million and allowed him to leave Syria in 1984. The late Mustafa Tlass, then defence minister, declared Rifaat “persona non grata forever”.
“The regime will not kill Makhlouf if he is in Syria because Bashar and Maher want to know where the money is,” the former associate said. “They will spare his life because liquidating him would be too much for the Alawites.”
“After they extract the information from him, they will let him keep a few hundreds of millions of dollars and leave,” he said. “Just like the family did with Rifaat”