The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has amassed up to $1.5bn (£950m) for his family and his close associates, according to analysts, despite moves in London, Switzerland and the US to freeze the assets of his regime.
Many of Assad’s assets are held in Russia, Hong Kong and a range of offshore tax havens to spread the risk of seizure, according to London-based business intelligence firm Alaco.
A myriad of companies and trusts are understood to have been deployed to disguise assets that ultimately belong to members of the Syrian regime.
Iain Willis, the head of research at Alaco, said the millions of pounds frozen in UK bank accounts make up just a fraction of the regime’s estimated global wealth.
In peacetime, the Assads and their close friends owned around 60% to 70% of the country’s assets, from land and factories to energy plants and licences to sell foreign goods. But Assad would find it difficult to liquidate such assets in the event of his regime’s collapse.
“In terms of realisable assets, it’s likely to be in the region of $1bn to $1.5bn (£636m to £950m),” said Willis. “This would be in line with Egypt’s Mubarak and the Marcoses of the Philippines.
“These are held, not just by Assad himself, but by extended family members, by second cousins, uncles, business partners and their advisers.
“Those funds are likely to be held in places like Russia, maybe Dubai, Lebanon, Morocco, even Hong Kong, but the assets themselves are likely to be worldwide.”
The Swiss authorities have frozen 50m Swiss francs (£32.5m) of funds belonging to Assad and other top officials in recent months. Switzerland says it has targeted at least 127 officials and 40 Syrian companies related to the Assad regime.
In the UK, £100m of Syrian regime assets, mostly cash held in bank accounts, have been frozen over the last 14 months.
The Swiss have fallen into line with the EU after Brussels proscribed a total of 129 individuals and 49 companies, seeking to freeze their assets wherever it can find them.
Last year, Swiss prosecutors froze roughly €3m (£2.3m) held in a Geneva bank by Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad, on grounds of suspected money laundering. The money was unfrozen after he appealed, saying it pre-dated sanctions imposed by the Swiss last May.
Makhlouf’s brother Rami is a key fixer for the Assad family and has amassed a fortune since Assad took power in 2000. He is believed to be Syria’s richest man.
Willis said Assad’s resistance to sharing the country’s assets among a wider group of military and diplomatic officials may be one reason he has few friends during the crisis.
Makhlouf reportedly once attempted to wrest the country’s main Mercedes car dealership from a prominent family outside the Assad circle. Mercedes refused to export cars to the country while the dispute continued and Makhlouf was eventually forced to hand back the licence. But this is believed to be a rare incident.