The former President of Syria, Hafez Assad, is often credited with running the country according to certain balances.
Putting aside his tyranny and injustice, the elder Assad did distribute the pieces of the Syrian pie in manner that satisfied the majority.
Unlike his young and inexperienced heir, Bashar, the elder Assad did not handout key economic positions blatantly to his family and friends, but focused his attention on the Damascus traders.
Those reins of distribution, however, have slipped from the hands of the younger Assad as a result of a number of reasons. One of those is that Bashar’s uncle, Mohammad Makhlouf managed to expand his influence in economic policy under Bashar, and in doing so, managed to ruin it.
There are also perhaps other psychological factors to consider about Bashar personally. Bashar exhibited an inferiority complex after the death of his older brother and Hafez’s chosen heir, Basel, in a car accident in 1994. This complex manifested itself in attempts to prove himself, assert his position as President and demonstrate that he was not a puppet for ‘Abu Rami’.
Since Assad junior inherited power, the Syrian economy underwent serious structural distortions. Bashar's cousin, Rami Makhlouf became the custodian and partner across the most important economic sectors, resulting in some businessmen acquiring massive wealth and power. Makhlouf took over foreign companies, and external trade contracts, cementing the family as dominant, at the exclusion of the traditional Syrian bourgeoisie and commercial traders.
It was this dominance and waste of Syrian resource before the uprising that prompted many disgruntled businessmen to secretly and indirectly fund the revolution. Capital cities abandoned Bashar, who chose to repress the people’s revolution of dignity, justice, and freedom with iron and fire. The regime instigated a policy of collective punishment, using not just airplanes and ballistic missiles, but also bombing, dismantling, and transferring business facilities to the Syrian coast, the center of the Assad family’s Alawite clan. This was reinforced by a parliamentary decision to form a union of the chambers of industry.
Businessmen began to face persecution, prosecution and even death sentences. For example, the son of the former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and others have been condemned to death. The aim of this strategy was not only to obtain political and economic bribes, but the accusations of disloyalty and treachery against anyone opposing the military solution served to help sever people’s historical and geographic ties.
In the same manner, the regime knocked the head of anyone who did not help finance its war against its own people. It continued to pressure and oblige traders, industrialists and investors to help shoulder the cost of an endless war.
Seizure of assets is another weapon historically used by the regime to damage reputations and prevent anything that did not match their ‘development and modernization’ policies. The regime’s acquisition of the deceased economist, former minister of industry and state planning, Issam Al Zaim is considered a great example of this policy.
But after the revolution, the acquisition policy evolved, affecting all those who did not participate in financing the war. The seizure of the assets of Mohammed Anzarouti – a friend of the President and his older deceased brother Basel, as well as the owner of the Katakit facility – on the pretext of financing terrorism, is another example of a message of "no mercy" by the regime. It is also noteworthy that Anzarouti owns a stable of Arabic horses and his ex-wife, Majd Jadaan is the sister of Bashar’s brother Maher’s wife, Manal Jadaan. The Syrian Finance Ministry issued decision Number 1928, confirming that Anzarouti’s assets were to be seized for “financing terrorist groups, conspiring to destabilize the country and provoke civil and sectarian strife”.
The regime continued this policy, targeting businessmen including Samia Hamsho, Mohamad Rabie, Mohamad Mohyiddin Khayat, Khaled al-Mahameed, Mohamad Rahaf Hakmi, Walid al-Zoubi, Ghassan Abboud, Abed Al-Kader Al-Sankari, Ismael Al-Saidi, Nazir Shaheen, Hasnaa Al- Bosh, Mohammed Rashed Shaheen, Mohammed Motaz Khayat, Raslan Khayat and many others.
The policy stifled dissidents, politicians, commentators and even religious men. Veteran dissident and Christian, Michel Kilo along with his wife and children were affected, as were outspoken Imam Saryah al-Rifai , his wife and children, former Syrian ambassador in UAE Abdullatif a-Dabbagh and his wife Lamia Al-Hariri, the former Syrian ambassador to Cyprus and many more. The charges against them always contradicted their state duties to ensure the charges would be upheld, like what happened with defected Prime Minister Riad Hijab.
When a number of Syrian businessmen, including Anas al-Kozbari and Ratib al-Sallah launched the Arabic Conscience Initiative, the regime ceased its pattern of asset seizures briefly, but soon returned to the policy.
Now, the practice is being used through accusations of non-payment of loans and poor project implementation. Just days ago the regime authorities concluded the following:
– Vimpex company, owned by businessman Nabil Al-Kouzbari is in debt with a loan to Byblos Bank worth 540 million Syrian Pounds (SP) and another to Audi Bank worth 254 million SP. The company had previously held contracts with government agencies worth hundreds of millions of Syrian Pounds. Kouzbari is one of the most important founders of the banking sector in Syria.
– Companies owned by Imad Ghreiwati owe debt on loans worth 850 million SP, including 94 million SP from Bemo bank. It is noteworthy that these companies are still working and have contracts with the government in the public sector worth millions of Syrian Pounds. He has benefited from the retail in foreign exchange; however, no payments have been paid on these loans.
– Al Mutanabbi Company, owned by businessman Muwaffaq Qaddah. Qaddah received a loan from Bemo bank worth 133 million SP. His son Talal received another loan from Audi Bank. Both have not met their payments.
The regime is no longer satisfied with the line that “whoever is not with us is against us”, but has extended this idea to “whoever is not with us is a traitor, an agent and corrupt”. Ghriewati, charged this week, is the former President of the Union of the Chambers of Industry. Kozbari, one of Syria’s most influential businessmen is known as the “banknote emperor”, while Qaddah is one of the biggest Syrian investors in the UAE, and was previously provided with government land in Damascus for securities exchange, for free.
All of this indicates that the President is burning his bridges and seeking to takeover all investment projects as leverage before Geneva II talks.