With interests in real estate, airlines, energy and telecommunications, the Syrian regime is believed to control a fortune worth well into the billions. For years, U.S. authorities have targeted that money in hopes of destabilizing the regime.
In particular, the U.S. has set its sights on Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad believed to be worth $5 billion. A 2008 State Department cable uncovered by WikiLeaks calls Makhlouf "Syria's poster boy for corruption," and suggests highlighting his activities in hopes of eroding public support for the regime.
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"Corruption is a theme that resonates here, as every Syrian has been a victim of it," the cable said.
The cable, which preceded a move by the U.S. Treasury Department later that year to designate Makhlouf as a beneficiary of the regime's corruption, lays out a strategy to maximize the impact of the designation.
"In some of the largest economic sectors—electricity, petroleum, and telecommunications—Makhlouf has used government instruments to squeeze out legitimate businessmen, receive lucrative public contracts, establish cash cows and then milk them with impunity from oversight or competition," the cable said. "Significantly, several of his ventures exploit weaknesses in the Syrian economy and undermine reform efforts while increasing the burden on Syria's lower classes."