Leak could give Syrian opposition a new weapon against Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photo / AP
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photo / AP

Syria's democratic opposition is combing through this week's release of the "Panama Papers" to revitalise efforts to identify and freeze billions of dollars amassed by the family and friends of their country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

The papers, leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, have uncovered a web of shell companies and offshore accounts hiding wealth tied to prominent officials around the world. Among them are new disclosures about Rami and Hafez Makhlouf, the cousins of Assad who are estimated to have once controlled more than half of Syria's economy. The papers also document millions of dollars' worth of real-estate holdings belonging to Suleiman Marouf, an Assad ally based in London.

The Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a US-based group that supports members of the opposition who are not jihadis, said this week that the new information could be a map to uncovering Assad's ill-gotten wealth.

"For decades, the Assad family has stolen billions from the Syrian people and used it to fuel their indiscriminate slaughter, but we can now point to an exact path for these funds," said Yahya Basha, the coalition's chairman.

"We call on all bodies of the US Government to work to stop this despicable practice."

A US Treasury spokeswoman, Betsy Bourassa, declined to comment specifically on the new information about the Makhlouf brothers or Marouf. But she said, "It is important to note that the US Government intently focuses on investigating possible illicit activity, including violations of US tax laws or sanctions, using all sources of information, both public and non-public."

The Panama Papers come to light at a moment when the US Government has reduced the public pressure on Assad.

The trove of documents from Panama gives Assad's opposition a new form of leverage against his regime: money.

"The initial challenge in doing asset recovery is identifying assets and being able to prove those assets are stolen assets, to prove the nominal owner is not the rightful owner," said David Tafuri, a lawyer who has worked with Libya's transitional Government and Syria's democratic opposition on asset recovery. "To the extent these documents demonstrate this, it provides the clues the opposition needs to track down the assets and take legal action to recover them."

- Washington Post - Bloomberg

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