The Race is On For Assad's Billions

08.17.12 6:20 PM ET

Assad's regime in Syria is collapsing and there are many individuals eager to claim the billions of dollars in wealth he possess. Some seek reparations for acts of terrorism. Others seek to take back wealth from corrupt benefactors of the regime. Eli Lake reports:

Finding the money is of keen interest to the modern-day treasure hunters who specialize in recovering the wealth of fallen dictators. Sometimes called financial intelligence or forensic accounting, the industry comprises lawyers, accountants, ex-spies, former law enforcement investigators and even some retired journalists, all of whom look at the unrest in Syria as a business opportunity. Some firms charge several thousands of dollars per hour for the sleuth work of a team of six to eight investigators. Others get paid a “success fee,” a small percentage of the overall haul.

“I’m hunting myself and I want to be first in the queue for my clients,” says Steven Perles, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents the families of victims of terrorism. Specifically, Perles is gunning for $413 million for the families of two U.S. contractors who were beheaded by al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. In 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals awarded the judgment against Syria after it found Assad’s regime provided material support to the terror group. Perles said he has hired researchers to track down the assets.

In Paris, the Syrian National Council, the main coalition of opposition groups, has already started to interview firms that can help find the money, says Ismael Darwish, a former banker and staffer with the SNC. Darwish says he first started meeting with financial intelligence firms in February. “They did not want to talk about a success fee,” he said. “At this point it’s too risky, they don’t know how much they can trace and how much they can recover.”

But investigators would be smart to act quickly, before the money they seek to recover ends up out of reach entirely. Syrian opposition and Treasury Department officials say they have already started to see confidantes of the Assad regime begin moving assets into Russia, whose government has not adopted sanctions that would freeze such accounts.