Syria's top businessman and most notorious member of the country's leadership, Rami Makhlouf, announced Thursday he will be quitting business and moving to charity.
“I announce that I will not allow myself to be a burden on Syria, its people and president from now on," he said in Damascus, as reported by Bloomberg.
He said he will donate his profits from investments to charity and offer shares of his company, Syriatel, to the poor.
The move, if true, is likely a sign that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become so nervous about the protests in the country he is willing to sacrifice a confidant and close family member, reports the New York Times. Makhlouf is Assad's cousin.
The move by Makhlouf would be the first time since the protests began months ago that someone with so much power in Syria has been forced to publicly step aside.
The tycoon controls companies with monopolies or semi monopolies in a range of businesses including duty free, airlines, telecoms, real estate, oil, construction and import, reports Reuters. He has been under U.S. sanctions since 2008 for public corruption and was put under E.U. sanctions last month.
Makhlouf has been widely feared and condemned by Syrian protesters as he's become the face behind the regime's oppressive tactics and brutal crackdown.
Analysts warned, though, that Syrian protesters are likely to view Makhlouf's move with skepticism.
“The government is now using another set of cards, one that directly addresses the protesters’ demands,” Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, told the Times. However, 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.”
Meanwhile, there were reports Thursday that Syrian officials are rounding up males over 16 in villages and towns in the northern province of Idlib, scene of much unrest over the past few days.
The random detentions, reported by the Associated Press, were concentrated around the major towns of Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Numan and in nearby villages, an area where the army has massed troops for days in apparent preparation for a fresh military operation.