By: Ruth Sherlock
ISTANBUL, Turkey – The Syrian regime’s richest opponent, the business magnate Firas Tlass has pledged his fortune to the “revolution”, promising to fund rebel groups, humanitarian aid and an organisation to deal with the chaos after President Assad has gone.
In his first interview with a western newspaper since leaving Syria, the country’s biggest industrial tycoon has told the Daily Telegraph of how the ownership of his conglomerate of huge companies is to be given to a panel of leading opposition figures, and the profits used to help to build a democratic society in Syria.
“I am supporting a complete program [to oust the regime]. I am putting my fortune behind this, totally, until the end,” said Mr Tlass. “But this is nothing. If I give all my money it is not worth one gram of the blood spilt by the Syrian people.”
The Tlass family has long been a stalwart of the Syrian regime. Mr Firas’ father Mustafa Tlass and Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, worked together to bring the Assad family to power. His brother is the defected Brigadier General Manaf Tlass who was a close childhood friend of the Syrian president.
For decades the family benefited from its insider status. Firas Tlass was thought to have been influential on the privatisation process started by the regime in recent decades. Named Min Ajl Suriyya (MAS), or ‘For the sake of Syria’, Mr Tlass’ empire spans several industries in Syria, from roasting coffee beans to construction and is thought to be worth billions of Syrian pounds.
“What Syria gave me I will give it back to Syria,” said Mr Tlass.
After the collapse of the Syrian regime Mr Tlass said he plans to create a non-governmental organisation that will have formal ownership of MAS. “I am preparing the legal papers now. It will be owned by a panel of seven leading figures of the opposition, and I will make the accounts public and transparent,” said Mr Tlass.
The NGO will use the company’s profits to “prepare the people of Syria for new way of thinking”, said Mr Tlass: “My dream is that Syria becomes a real democratic country”.
His antipathy with the Syrian government stretches back for nearly a decade said Mr Tlass. “The Assad family thinks that they own this country and that the people in it are their sheep. Only the family owns the farm. Even us, people close to the regime, we were just seen as their guards. That’s how they work with Syria,” said Mr Tlass, recounting a catalogue of examples where businessmen who had garnered favour with the country’s leadership were given sizeable business contracts.
“In 2005 I made friends with part of the opposition. We put together a study for political, economic and social reform and sent it to Bashar. Two months later I received a cold reply asking me why, as a businessman I was dealing in politics?” said Mr Tlass.
Mr Tlass told the Daily Telegraph that he would never seek a political leadership role in a future Syria, but he dismissed exiled opposition groups, including the bedraggled Syrian National Council as lacking the vision saying Bashar al-Assad would stay in power for “50 more years” if they led the revolution.
Instead he said he would fund a new leadership from “inside Syria”. Refusing to give names he said a number of community leaders from cities across Syria were part of a group being groomed to form a transitional government.
“We need to create a national front, a council of 30 people that can form a transitional council and govern for the period up until the election of a new parliament,” said Mr Tlass.
The council should represent the dozens of groups that currently make up Syria’s fragmented opposition as well as Alawite figures from the ousted regime he said. “The Alawites look to the regime as their representatives, non-regime figures are seen as traitors if they join the opposition. We have to include some of the old guards”.
In the past weeks Mr Tlass had been speaking with key figures of the country’s business elite and working to convince them to join the revolution, he told the Daily Telegraph. As businesses close and the country’s economy slides to a standstill amid the civil war, the country’s commercial core is beginning to jump ship he said. Even business partners of Syria’s biggest businessman and regime loyalist Rami Makhlouf are beginning to move away from the Assad family he said.
“Most of Makhlouf’s business partners are leaving him,” said Mr Tlass. “Now we need the Syrian businessmen from inside and outside the country to group together and provide funds for the opposition”.