BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s most powerful businessman, a confidant and cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, announced on Thursday that he was quitting business and moving to charity work, Syrian television said. The move, if true, would suggest that Mr. Assad was so concerned about the continuing protests that he would sacrifice a relative to public anger.
Blakis Press/Abaca USA
Rami Makhlouf is closely entwined with the Syrian government.
The businessman, Rami Makhlouf, a 41-year-old tycoon who has emerged as a lightning rod in the three-month uprising against Mr. Assad’s rule, is almost synonymous with the excesses of the Syrian leadership. Offices of his mobile phone company, Syriatel, were burned in protests, and his name was chanted in denunciation in demonstrations.
Though opposition figures doubted the sincerity of the move, even a symbolic gesture may prove important, as Mr. Assad faces the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule. For the first time since the uprising began, analysts said, a figure deemed a pillar of the leadership was forced to at least publicly step aside, a startling concession for a tightknit ruling elite bound by family and clan loyalty.
“The government is now using another set of cards, one that directly addresses the protesters’ demands,” said Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University. “Makhlouf is a symbol of the corruption in the regime.” But, he added, “as a change of heart for the regime, the decision has come too late, and it’s not going to be accepted seriously by protesters.”
In a news conference carried by the Syrian state news agency, Mr. Makhlouf portrayed his move as an act of generosity, though it was unlikely that any such decision could take place without the consent and perhaps the insistence of Mr. Assad.
Mr. Makhlouf said that he would offer shares of Syriatel, Syria’s largest phone company, to the poor and that profits would go, in part, to families of people killed in the uprising. He said profits from his other endeavors would go to charitable and humanitarian work. He vowed not to enter into any new business that would bring him personal gain.
The move represented a humiliating moment for a man who is leery of the limelight, only rarely grants interviews and is described by detractors as the Assad family’s banker or Mr. Five Percent. The ascent of Mr. Makhlouf, at the intersection of power and privilege, mirrored the Assad family’s consolidation of power in Syria over the past four decades: his father Mohammed, Mr. Assad’s uncle, was a magnate in his own right, and Rami Makhlouf’s brother, Hafez, is the intelligence chief in Damascus.
Mr. Makhlouf’s supporters praise him for investment in Syria’s dilapidated infrastructure, and the sleek offices of Syriatel are a sought-after destination for the urban young and educated. But they are far outnumbered by detractors, who call him a thief, and his unpopularity rivals perhaps only that of Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher, a feared and reviled figure who commands the military’s Republican Guard and the elite Fourth Division.
Mr. Makhlouf’s influence is so great, and his connection to the leadership so deep, that opposition figures derided the move as propaganda. Others speculated that it was devised to avoid sanctions imposed on him by the European Union, which included him on a list of 13 figures subject to a freeze on assets and a ban on travel to the bloc.
The United States imposed sanctions on him in 2008, accusing him of manipulating the judicial system and using Syrian intelligence to intimidate rivals.
“There is no transparency in his declaration because we don’t know what he owns and how much money he has,” said Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Association for Human Rights. “It is a step designed for media consumption only.”
But diplomats have said that Mr. Assad himself was angered by an interview that Mr. Makhlouf gave The New York Times in May, which offered a rare insight into the thinking of an opaque government. The frank comments amounted to a public relations disaster for a government facing mounting international pressure over a ferocious crackdown that, by activists’ count, has left 1,300 dead and more than 10,000 in detention.
In the interview, he said the government would fight to the end in a struggle that could cast the Middle East into turmoil and even war, suggesting that the ruling family equated its survival with the existence of the minority sect that buttressed its power and that viewed the protests not as legitimate demands but as the seeds of civil war.
“If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he said in the interview. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”
Though Syrian officials quickly distanced themselves from the remarks, saying Mr. Makhlouf held no official position in the government, opposition figures and diplomats seized on the remarks as evidence of a government unwilling to change.
In some ways, the remarks were a candid take on a sentiment the government has sought to cultivate since the uprising erupted in March — us or chaos.
“They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone,” Mr. Makhlouf said.
Though prominent before Mr. Assad’s ascent in 2000, Mr. Makhlouf grew wealthier as he and Egyptian partners won one of two mobile phone contracts. His partners were eventually forced to sell. As Syria moved away from a state-led economy, he penetrated the economy’s most lucrative sectors: real estate, transportation, banking, insurance, construction, a five-star hotel in Damascus and duty-free shops at airports and the border.
He is the vice chairman of Cham Holding, set up in 2007 with 73 investors and $360 million in what many portrayed as an attempt to tether wealthy businessmen to the government. Syrian analysts say he is the company’s real power.
He was reported to have sold his duty-free shops to a Kuwaiti company in May, though some suggested that the move was intended to avoid sanctions.
The announcement by Mr. Makhlouf comes a day before weekly protests that have convened after Friday Prayer. Diplomats say Mr. Assad is also preparing a speech as early as Sunday that Syrian officials have described as significant, perhaps inaugurating a more serious government effort to engage the opposition in dialogue.
Nada Bakri contributed reporting.