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Rami Makhlouf
Rami Makhlouf

Family matters

(dp-news-The economist )

On Thursday, night Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon who is also a cousin of president Bashar Assad and a member of his inner circle, announced he would be stepping back from business to focus on charity work. Since protests began in March he and his businesses, particularly Syriatel, a mobile network, have been targets of protesters' rage. He has grown ever more ostentatiously wealthy since the government has made small steps to liberalise the economy, amassing interests in oil, transport and real estate among others.

Mr Makhlouf, who is the richest man in Syria, looks like he is meant to be a scapegoat. He is already the object of American and EU sanctions and his companies are likely to be targeted when further measures are announced next week. He is reported to have sold some of his businesses including his chain of duty free-shops and transferred funds abroad in recent weeks to avoid sanctions.



Exactly what Mr Makhlouf, who is believed to have helped to prop up the Syrian pound and the nascent stock market as turmoil has gripped the country, will divest himself of is unclear. He said he will sell 40% of Syriatel and donate the proceeds to charity. He also pledged not to run any more projects for personal profit and to transfer his property to the state. But his interests include shares and partnerships in numerous other companies and he has plenty of cronies to shore up his interests.

Watchers in Damascus, angered by the continuing bloodshed and cynical after many broken promises of reform, are dubious that Mr Makhlouf will keep his promises. The regime's readiness to humiliate one of its own demonstrates the pressure it is under. But Mr Makhlouf, who helps to bankroll Mr Assad and to run the country, is unlikely to go far. Even if he goes, the regime will still profit from him; SyriaTel is contracted to give 50% of its revenues to the state. Sceptics in Damascus point out the other reforms announced by the government have amounted to little. Even if Mr Maklouf goes, his family run plenty of other businesses and his brother, Hafez, is Damascus's intelligence chief.

Chants against Mr Makhlouf rang out yesterday as protests erupted across the country. Thousands gathered last night in front of the houses of the dead in Deir Ezzor. One was killed in Aleppo, the first violence the city has seen. Hama, where residents say they have pushed out the security forces and torn down posters of Mr Assad, was noticeably free of fighting.

Meanwhile, forces continue to sweep the restless north-western province of Idleb. Thousands have fled to Turkey as several villages and towns in the area, including Badama and Kherbet al-Jawz just kilometers from the border, report troops closing in and gunfire. A peaceful resolution to the crisis looks farther off than ever.

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