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Tyrant Vs. Tycoon: Syrian President Starts A Public Fight With Billionaire Cousin

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Syria, rifts at the top of the country's regime are usually kept secret. But as the economy collapses, a power struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and the family oligarch has burst into the open. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The battle between tyrant and tycoon unfolds like a real-life television drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMI MAKHLOUF: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: In this video and others posted to his Facebook page, Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin, said to be the wealthiest businessman in Syria, lays bare his grievances.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAKHLOUF: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says the president is attacking his freedom and seizing his assets. And the very security forces he says he helped fund are arresting his employees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAKHLOUF: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: The videos are an extraordinarily public outburst in response to a government takedown of Makhlouf's empire. As well as freezing his funds, the government has suspended trading of his telecoms company on the stock market. Syrian state media has labeled him a war profiteer and says he owes taxes - maybe $180 million or more. He's even banned from leaving the country. It's a dramatic fall for a man known as Assad's business partner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Before the war, it was Syrians who singled him out as a symbol of a corrupt regime. Here's an opposition video from 2011 where the activist raps about Rami Makhlouf in Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "Bashar, you create new thieves every day," he says. "Shaleesh, Maher and Rami robbed my brothers and uncles."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "And he did so with Assad's backing. So why the attacks on him by the palace now?" Makhlouf didn't respond to NPR's requests for an interview via his Facebook page. Inside and outside Syria, rumors are flying. Some analysts say it's Russia trying to get money after its support of the regime in the war. Others say the president's wife, Asma al-Assad, is behind it. Sam Dagher, author of a book called "Assad Or We Burn The Country," says some of this may be true. But also, you have to start with the obvious.

SAM DAGHER: Concretely, we know that the Syrian economy is in deep, deep trouble. The situation is dire now. The reconstruction needs of Syria are estimated at anywhere between 350 to 400 billion.

SHERLOCK: And, Dagher says, weakening your ally has long been a strategy in the Assad family playbook, going back to the father, Hafez al-Assad, where they target people who got too powerful by helping the regime.

DAGHER: Each time the regime emerges from an existential crisis, we've seen this culling of the inner circle.

SHERLOCK: Makhlouf has been active in the civil war, even funding some militias and starting a political party. Ghadi Francis, a Lebanese journalist and expert on the war who says she's spoken with members of the Makhlouf family about the matter, says Rami's expanding influence might have concerned President Assad.

GHADI FRANCIS: You have a political party. You have even some supporters who are fighters and their families. And you have the social presence, and you have the businesses. Of course, there was going to come a time when things had to stop.

SHERLOCK: Francis says the Makhlouf family is trying to mediate.

FRANCIS: The problem is limited to Rami. It's not the family's problem with the president. And there's effort that has been put into solving the problems. This is what the family said. It's like I asked - OK? - and this was the answer.

SHERLOCK: And she notes...

FRANCIS: These people are cousins. These people have fought together.

SHERLOCK: These two regime families, the Makhloufs and the Assads, know that ultimately, their fates are tied.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.