In March 2011, the protests of the Arab Spring spilled over to Syria. The demonstrations weren’t only directed at the potentate Bashar al-Assad, but also at the symbol of the corruption of the ruling regime, the businessman Rami Makhlouf. Makhlouf is a cousin of the president and owes his billion assets inter alia to his control over the tobacco trade. In May 2011, Japan Tobacco International supplied more than 4 million cartons of Winston-cigarettes to the Syrian state enterprise. Additionally to this official import, another supply goes to the Syria Duty Free Shops Ltd., an enterprise of the Makhlouf clan, via a Cypriot harbour. This smuggling activities have been revealed by an intern investigation team of JTI. When reporting his findings to the company’s management, the team leader, a former CIA agent, got fired. In the Syrian civil war, cigarettes have become a surrogate currency used by the Assad regime to pay the army and militia.
Big trouble at big tobacco. Tales of smugglers, mobsters, and hackers (2011)