What is behind “fighting corruption” in Syria?

Rami Makhlouf - Murhaf Al-Akhras - Ayman Jaber (edited by Enab Baladi)

Rami Makhlouf - Murhaf Al-Akhras - Ayman Jaber (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Mais Hamad

During the recent months, the official Syrian media outlets have been discussing news about precautionary seizures and successive decisions that include the confiscation of the movable and immovable property of the major pillars and figures of the Syrian economy; thus, announcing the start of a new stage called “fighting corruption.”

In August 2019, Imad Khamis, head of the Syrian regime’s government, said that the State Treasury has recovered billions of Syrian Pounds due to the accountability of administrators and businessmen, without revealing at the time the accounting date or the amounts that were recovered.

The Head of the Central Organization for Control and Auditing, Mohamed Barq, said at the end of 2019 that the value of the misappropriation of public funds exceeded 5.8 billion SYP, and the recovered amounts are about 1.5 billion SYP.

These campaigns are met with skepticism on social media. In an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its Facebook page, 88% of participants considered this campaign as “media propaganda,” while the rest of them believed that it is a true campaign against corrupt persons.

Names that surprised Syrians

 The Decision No. 2495 of the Ministry of Finance, which was leaked on social media in July 2019, revealed that Hazwan al-Waz, former Minister of Education, was among the first names that reached the official media under the title “Corrupt persons surprising Syrians.”

The decision urged to seize the movable and immovable money estimated at 350 billion SYP against 87 people and their wives, including the minister al-Waz, on charges of replacing old laptops with new ones provided by organizations with others, and selling them.

Imad Khamis, the Syrian Prime Minister, said in an interview with the al-Watan newspaper on August 18, 2019, that “leaving the corrupt official after he was discharged is a mistake against the state and the law.” This statement was followed by a boom of official statements that continued over the last three months of the last year, declaring war on “corruption.”

The campaign consisted of news and decisions about implementing financial penalties, seizures, and restricting financial activity against a number of businessmen. On December 17, 2019, a decision to seize movable and immovable property for tax evasion was issued against the most notable figure among these businessmen, namely Rami Makhlouf, a relative of the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and four other businessmen, in addition to other commercial actors such as “Abar Petroleum Service.”

This policy opposes the way the official media deal with the issue of Rami Makhlouf’s involvement in tax evasion, which was revealed by the Panama documents in 2016, as the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) then framed it as being directed by the US against Russia and its allies.

“Big” names

 A Syrian journalist, who previously worked for the government newspaper “al-Baath” and who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that the word “corruption,” which is unfamiliar in the official media, was not used before the war in Syria to depict the first-class political and economic figures in state institutions.

However, the last three months of 2019 witnessed accountability campaigns closer to media defamation against seven of the senior figures in the Syrian economy, including Tarif Al-Akhras, Rami Makhlouf, Ayman Al-Jaber, Samer Al-Debs, Hazwan Al-Waz, and his assistant.

In the last days of 2019, Hossam Al-Qatirji’s name was added to the “Corruption List.” Al-Qatirji is the founder of the Al-Qatirji Company, one of the corporations that funded the Syrian regime with oil and wheat shipments from ISIS-controlled areas, northeastern Syria, then from the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) which expelled ISIS from the east of the Euphrates.

The government newspaper “Tishreen,” published an investigation, on December 29, 2019, accusing the company of transporting oil shipments mixed with water to Homs refinery. This was preceded by the leaking of a video circulated on local media on a large scale, on December 10, 2019, in which Al-Qatirji appears, accompanied by armed elements, roaming a military barracks in a procession, and the elements saluting him, to be followed by a recorded apology of al-Qaratji in the People’s Council, which was leaked.

Among the prominent personalities included in the seizure list are Tarif al-Akhras, the uncle of Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Akhras, the most prominent importer and exporter in Syria and owner of the Middle East Sugar Company.

A series of decisions was taken against Al-Akhras that restricted his granting of financial facilities or allowing him to move any of his accounts to what was said to be “obligatory to deposit in the Pound Support Fund,” and ended with the seizure of 100 billion SYP on the pretext of irregularities in customs clauses.

Real or fake campaign?

Molhem Jazmati, the researcher at the Syrian Economic Forum, told Enab Baladi that accountability is just a formal media propaganda, as there is evidence of state institutions concluding a number of projects with those accused of corruption cases.

Jazmati recalled the project to establish two oil refineries, the first in the countryside of Raqqa and the second on the Syrian coast, insisting that their contracts were concluded between the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources and the Al-Qatirji Oil Company, owned by Hussam Al-Qatirji, despite the application of many investors, including businessmen from outside Syria.

He considered that the process, despite its formality, is an attempt to circumvent European sanctions, by confiscating funds from figures who have been subject to sanctions, and granting them to new names and companies that can operate freely without barriers.

The worth and importance of seizures are nothing more than customs violations and fees, according to Jazmati, who considered that “if there is a real anti-corruption campaign then why aren’t businessmen tried and people aren’t informed of the trial and details of cases, while this is their right?”

On August 31, 2019, the British newspaper The Times” linked the campaign of seizure decisions with Russian pressure to pay the price of Moscow’s participation in the Syrian war, which is estimated at about $3 billion.

According to the “Aliqtisadi” website, the Ministry of Finance issued 538 decisions to seize the funds of 10,315 people from the beginning of 2019 until the end of September, and the value of the money claimed through these decisions reached 1.8 billion SYP, according to the Deputy Minister of Finance, Bassam Abdel Nabi.

What is a precautionary seizure?

 The “Syrian Lawyer Club” defines precautionary seizure as placing the debtor’s money in the hands of the judiciary to prevent it from performing any legal or material action that would lead to its exclusion or the exclusion of it from the General Security Department of the detaining creditor.

A precautionary seizure is not considered an executive measure, but rather a preventive measure, because it is not possible to execute the decision on the seized money except after the creditor obtains an executive document against the debtor, and that comes after the creditor’s right has been proven and he has obtained a ruling from the competent court that necessarily includes the validation of the precautionary seizure.

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