Syrian customs officials have seized the assets of Rami Makhlouf, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, and others involved in Syria‘s private sector, citing “customs violations”.
It is the first such order issued for Makhlouf, who is the cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He has been accused of importing products – including oil and gas – without paying applicable charges and fees.
According to a statement issued by the General Directorate of Customs, the decision comes to “guarantee the rights of the public treasury from fees and fines due to a case related to violating import regulations and other fines”.
The value of the fees and fines Makhlouf owes is estimated at about 11 billion Syrian pounds ($21m).
The European Union and the United States have already imposed sanctions on Makhlouf, who reportedly controls up to 60 percent of Syria’s economy, which is now in shambles after more than nine years of war.
Media reports also revealed that the Syrian government imposed house arrest on Makhlouf earlier this year as part of a wide-scale campaign to limit the influence of businessmen during the war in Syria.
Chris Doyle, Middle East analyst and director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, described the move as an “extraordinary moment”.
“To see the regime taking action like this against somebody so senior and indeed, others who were part of this new crony capitalism … demonstrates that all is not well,” Doyle told Al Jazeera.
The Syrian government may be trying to “shore up its legitimacy at a time of real declining revenues and when so many Syrians are destitute,” Doyle noted.
“It could also be that given the regime has so little financial resource at the moment that they are trying to basically corral in as many millions and billions as they can in order to keep going.”
The move, he said, illustrates a major power play within the “inner ranks of the regime and a desire for its legitimacy to hold up”.
In recent weeks, the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted. Observers say the economic situation has been exacerbated since the uprising in neighbouring Lebanon began in October.
Lebanon, considered the financial lung for many Syrian businessmen, suffered a major financial crisis when its economy took a new fall due to continuing protests and political deadlock.
The latest move comes as Syrian government forces close in on the last rebel-held province of Idlib in Syria’s northwestern region.
The area sits on the M5 highway linking Syria’s capital, Damascus, with its northern city of Aleppo. Capturing the area would allow the Syrian government to connect cities under its control and would boost trade significantly.
Idlib, home to nearly three million people, has been under a relentless bombardment campaign since April of this year. Tens of thousands have fled to relative safety near the border with Turkey amid harsh weather and dire humanitarian conditions.