The recent Syrian government action against Rami Makhlouf points to the under-fire business kingpin’s involvement in the illicit import of petroleum into Syria.
On December 19, Syria’s General Directorate of Customs ordered a preliminary freeze on a portion of Rami Makhlouf’s assets for customs violations, according to a copy of the legal action published by Moscow-operated RT.
Along with Makhlouf, the Customs order imposed asset freezes on three other individuals and Beirut-registered Abar Petroleum Service SAL for violating import regulations by smuggling 1.92 billion SYP (2.12 million USD) worth of goods.
As the Customs order was pursuant to a specific case (No. 243/2019) at Custom’s Anti-Smuggling Directorate, it stands to reason that Makhlouf, Abar Petroleum and the other targets of the assets freeze all participated in the same import violation scheme.
Although Syria’s Customs did not specify what goods were smuggled into Syria, Abar Petroleum was sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury in September 2018 on accusations that it worked “with the Government of Syria to evade sanctions and import crude oil and petroleum products to Syrian ports.”
The US stressed that Abar Petroleum “consigned on nearly all petroleum product shipments delivered by commercial vessels to Baniyas” that were not of Iranian-origin, indicating the Lebanon-based company might not part of the networks facilitating the movement of oil tankers laden with Iranian crude to Syria.
Makhlouf, one of Syria’s richest men and a maternal cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, has long faced accusations of corruption. Rumors began swirling in the summer of 2019 that Makhlouf fell out of favor with Assad and his wife, Asma, and that he had been placed under house arrest or been stripped of assets. None of these reports have been confirmed.
Abar Petroleum Fuel Procurement Network
Washington alleged that Abar Petroleum was part of “a large-scale fuel procurement network that operates entities in Syria, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates,” but made no mention of who owns or controls the company.
Lebanon’s online corporate registry profile for Abar Petroleum notes the company was co-founded in July 2011 by Bassam Sabbagh, who was sanctioned four months later by the EU for allegedly being a legal and financial advisor for Makhlouf. Sabbagh, a former member of the Paris bar now serving as a Syrian envoy, pursued an unsuccessful lawsuit for the EU to lift its sanctions on him.
Abar Petroleum’s ownership has since changed hands, with Ali Talal al-Hajj Ahmad now holding 99 percent of the firm and serving as its chair. Ahmad is also the majority owner of Jawa Trading SAL Offshore, a Beirut-based firm registered to conduct maritime transport, according to Lebanon’s online corporate registry.
Jawa Trading appears to be linked to the same “large scale-fuel procurement network” referenced to by the US Treasury, as the company’s chair is Lebanese businessman Fadi Nabih Nasser, who also sanctioned by Washington in September 2018.
“Nasser has arranged delivery of thousands of tons of fuel to Syrian ports and has received millions of dollars for facilitating such shipments,” according to the US.
Several Lebanon-based firms have been sanctioned by the US for serving as fronts for oil shipments to Syria, including from Iran. Press releases from the Treasury have all been circumspect on who exactly is controlling these accused intermediaries.