Assad seizes assets of wealthy cousin after he issued rare public appeal for debt relief

A woman watches the Facebook video of Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf on her mobile in Syria’s capital Damascus – AFP

The Syrian regime has announced it will seize the assets of a wealthy businessman and cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, after he published a series of provocative video appeals where he begged for debt relief. 

A document signed by the Syrian finance ministry said it would take the assets of Rami Makhlouf, as well as those of his wife and children, as a “precautionary measure” to ensure his debts are paid. 

Mr Makhlouf was once one of Syria’s wealthiest men, with a business empire spanning the telecoms, construction and property sectors, as well as a member of the regime’s inner circle. 

But over the past few weeks, Mr Makhlouf appears to have angered Assad by publishing a series of videos where he asks directly for help in paying substantial debts and fines imposed by the regime as part of an ongoing regulatory dispute.  

The unprecedented, public display of discontent with Assad

is believed to have angered the dictator and brought to the surface a bitter feud at the heart of Syria’s ruling family. 

It has been speculated that the decision to impose the huge financial penalties on Mr Makhlouf may be linked with Syria’s ongoing struggle to repay debts to Russia for military and economic support.  

In Mr Makhlouf’s most recent video, he claimed that Syrian officials had told him to quit as the head of his telecoms operator, Syriatel. 

And in his first video, Mr  Makhlouf had claimed that he was struggling to keep his businesses afloat as a result of the fines. 

“We are ready to pay, but don’t have the cash ready to go, so we ask you, the state, to find a proper mechanism for us to pay without damaging the company,” he said in the Facebook video, where he asked for help more than dozen times.  

At the time, Syria analysts said that the move was likely to lead to adverse consequences for the businessman. 

Mr Makhlouf’s son, 22-year-old Mohammed Makhlouf, has boasted of his wealth in posts on social media, where he has posed with sports cars and speedboats. 

According to the regime, Syriatel owes 134 billion Syrian pounds, which due to severe inflation in the war-torn country is worth around $77m.