BEIRUT – A cousin who has been a bulwark of support for President Bashar Assad posted a video on Facebook late Thursday pleading with the Syrian leader to prevent the collapse of his major telecommunication company through what he called excessive and “unjust” taxation.
The unprecedented video pries open what has been rumored as a major rift in the tight-knit Assad family, which has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years.
Disputes and intrigue are not new to the family, including feuds and defections within its inner circle, particularly in the course of the country's nine-year war. But the public airing of grievances is extremely rare, perhaps a reflection of the multitude of players vying for influence in the fractured country.
The cousin, Rami Makhlouf, was once described as central to Syria's economy and a partner to the president. His video, posted on a new Facebook page, seems 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 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.
Others view the rift through the lens of the Assad family.
“The dispute is between Makhlouf and Bashar’s wife, Asma Assad, over who controls the economy,” said a former Syrian diplomat, Bassam Barabandi, who defected in 2012.
Barabandi said Makhlouf's financial holdings and charities have played a central role during the war in financing and ensuring patronage, particularly among Syria's minority Alawite community — from which Assad hails.
Assad's wife has her own charity and has built herself a major public role.
Others researching Syria's complex business networks say the rivalry is with Assad's younger brother, Maher, an army general who also has expansive financial dealings and ties with Iran.
Makhlouf, who is four years younger than the 54-year-old Assad, had declared that he was stepping aside from business to focus on charity work in 2011, at the start of Syria’s conflict. But he remained associated with the government. For the opposition, he has been the face of government hard-liners and the decision to crack down on dissent.
The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Makhlouf for his role in supporting Assad’s regime.
In his 15-minute video, Makhlouf denied allegations that he evaded paying taxes for one of his largest business ventures, Syriatel, the biggest telecommunication company in the country. Syriatel has 11 million subscribers, with 50% of revenues going to the state.
“By God we are not evading tax or cheating the country and the state,” Makhlouf said. “How can someone steal from his own family?”
Makhlouf complains about a campaign pursued by people he doesn’t name who he says always paint him “as the one who has done wrong, who is bad.”
At times he pleads, halts and repeats himself. And in an indication Makhlouf has no access to Assad, he addresses the leader: “Mr. President, I implore you, this is the truth.”
“Here I want to address the president, to explain to him the circumstances of what is happening, to explain to him some of the sufferings that we are going through," Makhlouf said, remarks that could be considered tone-deaf in a country where nearly 80% of the people are poor.
A Western diplomat who follows Syria, and who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the video reflects a deepening family feud in which Makhlouf has been pushed out after “he overplayed his hand.”
Reports first surfaced last year of troubled relations as news of a government campaign against Makhlouf and his businesses began to trickle out. Initial reports said he was under house arrest, and then a series of stories appeared about him being fined and having his holdings confiscated.
Last month, a shipment of dairy products from one of Makhlouf's businesses was confiscated in Egypt, reportedly with drugs hidden in the cargo. On his Facebook page, Makhlouf called the incident a set-up aimed at “defaming" him.
Then, in late April, Makhlouf was told to pay the equivalent of $180 million purportedly owed to the government by his telecom companies, according to The Syria Report, which follows the country's economy. That claim appeared to be the trigger for Thursday's video.
In response to Makhlouf's video, the claiming authority said the money was for overdue operational costs since 2015 and urged him to reach a restructuring deal. Tax evasion, the statement said, is handled by another body— indicating more is yet to come.
At the end of the video, Makhlouf says he will pay what he is asked but calls on Assad to oversee how it is spent.
Barabandi said Makhlouf appeared to be trying to remind Assad that he still holds some influence. “In other words, if you lose me you lose the Alawite community,” the former diplomat said.
“This is something unheard of before, for someone (from the family) to speak out in this manner publicly.”
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.