The U.S. intelligence community’s focus on money flows in Syria is a reflection of the power structure in that country. As much as President Bashar al-Assad relies on family bonds and religious ties to hold his inner circle together, he also makes sure that his loyalists get a disproportionate share of Syria’s wealth.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the financial arrangements as “the real mortar that holds the regime together.” Assad loyalists are “heavily invested in the system,” Tabler said, and economically disinclined to see it end.
Perhaps the most egregious example of enrichment is Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s first cousin, who exploited his access and influence to take control of an estimated 60 percent of the country’s mobile phone market.
In turn, Makhlouf is accused of using his wealth to help finance the Assad military crackdown on opposition groups.
In an attempt to drive wedges into this economic web, the United States and the Arab League have frozen assets and imposed other sanctions on key figures in Assad’s government and security apparatus. Among them is Havez Makhlouf, Rami’s brother and a senior official in Syria’s intelligence service.
But wealthy Syrians have decades of practice of sheltering assets. Many rely on a secretive banking system in Lebanon in which numbered accounts may not even be associated with an individual’s name.
“Lebanon is the financial lung that allows Syria to breath,” said Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria,” which was published last year. “Elites in Syria are hedging their bets and looking at options. But I think it’s far from clear that anybody is ready to make a break.”
One senior Syrian official did so on Thursday, when the nation’s deputy oil minister became the highest-ranking civilian in the Assad regime to defect. But in an online video explaining his decision, Abdo Husameddine cited not economic pressure but disgust with Assad’s brutality toward ordinary citizens.
“You have inflicted on those you claim are your people a full year of sorrow and sadness,” Husameddine said, according to the Associated Press, “and pushed the country to the edge of the abyss.”