Syrian authorities froze the assets of President Bashar Al Assad’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf on Tuesday in the latest development in the rift that has been tearing apart the innermost circle of the regime.
The finance ministry said on Monday that it placed a “precautionary holding” on his “physical and monetary” holdings, the latest measure in a de facto takeover of assets he controls.
The seizure includes the assets of his wife and children, according to a document seen by The National.
The letter said the measure was a "repayment guarantee" on taxes owned by telecom company Syriatel, the jewel of the crown in his empire and the cash cow of the inner circle.
Moves by the regime to remove Mr Makhlouf from companies he controls accelerated in the two weeks when the tycoon made public a tax dispute over Syriatel.
The authorities say Syriatel owes 234 billion Syrian pounds, equivalent to US$4.7 billion before the Syrian pound started collapsing in 2011.
Regional financiers have cautioned against seeing the dispute from the angle of corporate governance or a struggle for the control of one company.
They said Syriatel's problems are indicative of a battle between Mr Makhlouf and the Assad family over tens of billions of dollars the businessman and his father managed on behalf of the inner circle for decades.
Mr Makhlouf has said his troubles started last year but no one has been able to point to the precise incident that prompted the rift in Syria's triumvirate of Mr Assad, his brother Maher Al Assad - the head of the elite Fourth Mechanised Division - and Mr Makhlouf.
Many in Middle Eastern business circles see a major behind-the-scenes-role for Maher Al Assad in the all-out, but gradual, offensive against Mr Makhlouf, which so far has fallen short of physically harming him.
Maher Al Assad has a big business patronage network of his own and has clients in the finance ministry, so is unlikely to have targeted someone as powerful as Mr Makhlouf without the approval of the president, as well as his brother.
The maternal cousin of the two Assads, Mr Makhlouf has been taking to Facebook, mainly to appeal to the Alawite constituency of the regime.
He made it clear that undermining him endangers the Alawites as a whole and that the security apparatus he bankrolled has gone a step too far by joining the campaign against him.
In his latest video on Sunday, Mr Makhlouf said that he had agreed to pay past taxes that the authorities had demanded.
A letter from Syriatel to the government dated May 10 said the company was ready to pay immediately "a first instalment to be determined on the basis of the liquidity available to the company".