BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s telecommunications authority on Sunday said a deadline for a cellular company owned by the cousin of President Bashar Assad to pay back its debts to the state has ended, adding that legal measures will be taken against the company to recover the money.
The announcement came hours after Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, released a new video in which the businessman said he was asked to step down from the leadership of Syriatel, the biggest telecommunication company in the country. Syriatel has 11 million subscribers, with 50% of revenues going to the state.
The new video by Makhlouf, the third in less than a month, was another hint of a rumored major rift in the tight-knit Assad family, which has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years.
Makhlouf was once described as central to Syria’s economy and a partner to the president. His videos, posted on a new Facebook page, seem to be a running public diary of a widening rift — and the fall from grace of a once-powerful tycoon.
In the latest video, Makhlouf, who is under American and European sanctions, vowed not to give up the company and apologized to his arrested employees, whom he was unable to get released after they were detained in recent weeks. Makhlouf did not say who had called on him to step down.
The Syrian Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA that Syriatel had refused to pay fees to the state, therefore “Syriatel will be responsible for all the legal repercussions” for refusing to give back the dues.
In his first video in late April, Makhlouf pleaded with Assad to help prevent the company’s collapse through excessive and “unjust” taxation.
That month, Makhlouf had been 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 the series of videos by Makhlouf over the past month.
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.