By Tim Lister and Jamie Crawford
Imagine controlling Syria's equivalent of Verizon, its duty-free stores, a chunk of its oil industry, a TV network and its choicest property developments. Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al Assad, did - and maybe still does. He is by all accounts the richest man in Syria, worth some $5 billion before the Syrian economy entered what U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford calls its "sharp downward spiral."
The Makhlouf family is one of a business elite that has done exceptionally well during the Assad dynasty. And its spectacular enrichment has fed resentment among ordinary Syrians.
"It's not a question right now of Alawites versus Sunnis," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told a Senate hearing Thursday. "It's a question of the Assad-Makhlouf mafia that has basically hijacked the entire state of Syria for four decades in order to enrich itself and protect itself against the Syrian people."
At a tearful news conference in June, Makhlouf announced he was giving up his business interests and investing the proceeds in charities to help victims of the unrest. He said then the gesture was because he was "so keen on preserving the nation, its land, its people and its leadership."
Few believed him. One Syrian critic blogged: "As for Santa Claus Makhlouf, who is showering us with his deeds, could he explain to us where did he bring his first millions from?"
In a rare interview the previous month, Makhlouf had told The New York Times that the regime would "fight until the end." Of its opponents, he said: "They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone."
The evidence of Makhlouf's promised philanthropy is yet to materialize - and to the Syrian opposition, he is still part of the "Assad-Makhlouf mafia." Protesters have attacked offices of Syria's mobile phone company, Syriatel, of which Makhlouf held at least 40% via a company he owned in the British Virgin Islands.
Some analysts believe he is helping prop up the Syrian Central Bank, whose foreign exchange reserves have withered under the impact of sanctions and the sharp devaluation of the Syrian pound.
"The rumor is that the Makhlouf family has been aiding the Assad regime through its financial resources to weather some of the negative effects of the uprising," says Aram Nerguizian, a Syria specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But of the man himself, there has been no sign since that June news conference.
The Makhloufs, an Alawite family as are the Assads, rose to prominence through the marriage of Anisa Makhlouf to the current president's father, Hafez Assad. She is still alive and regarded as an influential figure within the ruling elite. One of Makhlouf's brothers, Hafez, is prominent in the State Security Service.
Other families close to the regime have also profited from the Assad dynasty, often being called "abna al-sulta," Arabic for "sons of power." They have been awarded licenses as import agents and the lion's share of government contracts.
"They took on key parts of the economy as points of entry," says Nerguizian. "They don't really have a productive capability, they don't really re-inject capital. ... They are better known for hoarding their capital gains and not redistributing them."
Nerguizian says Bashar al-Assad's father had always ensured wealth was distributed from the merchant class to ordinary rural Syrians, but the son had made a crucial mistake in favoring the elites of Damascus and Aleppo. "And it's coming back to haunt them because it's one of the main points of contention that led to the cycle of uprisings in 2011," says Nerguizian.
Rami Makhlouf has long attracted the interest of the U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. In 2008, he was designated by the Treasury "for improperly benefiting from and aiding the public corruption of Syrian regime officials."
That move came 10 days after Saad Hariri, now leader of Lebanon's opposition Future Bloc, met U.S. diplomats in Beirut and alleged that Makhlouf had assisted al-Assad in moving funds to Dubai, according to U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.
The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control subsequently designated Syriatel and another company, Ramak, in which he had a controlling interest. The effect of designation is to ban any U.S. entity from doing business with the sanctioned companies.
Last year, it designated three more companies linked to Makhlouf, saying it had "reason to believe that Rami Makhlouf is dissociating himself (in name only) from his businesses and looking to safely store his wealth outside of Syria." The European Union has taken similar measures.
One of those companies, Cham Holding, held 65% of a joint venture with the British oil exploration company Gulfsands Petroleum. And through a company called al-Mashrek, Makhlouf owns nearly 6% of Gulfsands' shares. Gulfsands disclosed in August that it had suspended all payments to Makhlouf interests and suspended their voting rights.
Nerguizian says that unless al-Assad manages to suppress the unrest, the future for Makhlouf looks gloomy. The opposition, inside and outside Syria, "have made it very clear they are not looking to negotiate," he says.
"They're not looking for the kinds of political concessions that would allow elements like the Makhloufs to remain - let alone dominate in a political structure," he says.