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The Political Isolation of Lebanese Sunnis

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The delicate fabric that is the Lebanon polity, only recently rewoven after decades of civil war, is once again on the verge of unraveling.

Recent events—between the ascendance of Shiite groups through the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to the current Syrian civil war—have caught one of the most prominent sectarian groups, the Sunnis, unprepared. How this has come about is a convoluted tale of jockeying for power between rival politicians and ethnicities.

Sunni Enfeeblement

It is ironic that Lebanon’s Sunni population, long ascendant in that region and identified with the governing powers since the days of the Umayyads (c. 661 C.E.) and through the Ottoman period (ending in 1918), has virtually been bereft of communal autonomy. Sunnis became junior partners in ruling Lebanon with the Christian Maronite population after independence in 1943. But the rise to power of Hafiz al-Assad and his Alawite relations in neighboring Syria in 1970 brought marginalization of the Sunni majority there, which quickly spilled over to affect Lebanese Sunnis as well. The eviction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (secular though largely Sunni in religious background) from Lebanon in 1982 then left them vulnerable to the emerging Shiite power block as well as to resurging Maronites.

Shiites made their forceful entry into the Lebanese political system in the name of resisting Israeli occupation. They built up their forces in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and have managed to keep the national army outside their areas of influence. But the Jewish state has not been the only target of their violence and machinations. Shiite and Druze militiamen eliminated the rival Sunni al-Murabitun militia in 1985. Then in 1989, the outspoken Sunni grand mufti Hassan Khalid was assassinated. However, this was neither the first—nor would it be the last—political murder to roil the Sunni community.

Beginning with the assassination in 1951 of Riad as-Sulh, a prominent Sunni politician and cofounder of independent Lebanon, Sunnis searched for leadership outside the territorial boundaries of the fledging state. The appointment of Rafiq Hariri as prime minister in 1992 got their hopes up for making it back to the center stage of Lebanese politics. Hariri came into office with strong Saudi backing and French blessing and was determined to resurrect the 1943 Maronite-Sunni “gentlemen’s agreement” for governing Lebanon. His rise to power coincided with the political mobilization of Shiites into two major groups with the Amal movement implementing the schemes of the Syrian regime while Hezbollah submitted itself to the dictates of Iran’s supreme leader.

Hariri presumed he could integrate the Shiite community in his accommodationist project for Lebanon. While he managed to win the trust of many Maronites, his success in collaborating with Amal depended on maintaining a working relationship with a hard-to-please regime in Damascus. Moreover, his ability to enlist the cooperation of Hezbollah proved futile because the latter had an opposing vision for Lebanon. In 2005, Hariri paid with his life for promoting a project that, if successful, would have undermined Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and blunted Iranian determination to become a greater regional player. Hariri’s assassination amounted to a political coup, removing Lebanon from the camp of Arab moderate states and advancing the interests of the Syrian-Iranian axis.

The March 14 Coalition’s Unfulfilled Promise

Hariri’s assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution which, in turn, inspired the formation of the March 14 Coalition that drew from the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Trend party, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, Maronite Christian Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF), and the largely Maronite Phalangists associated with the Gemayel family. Shortly afterward, the Syrian army exited Lebanon. In June of that year, the coalition won a majority of seats in the parliament and Fuad Seniora formed a new cabinet that promised to prosecute Hariri’s assassins. Its efforts seemed to bear fruit when in March 2006 the United Nations Security Council issued resolution 1664 to form a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to investigate the assassination.

The July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah altered the balance of power between the March 14 Coalition on the one hand and Hezbollah and its allies on the other. Despite heavy losses and a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, Hezbollah portrayed the outcome of the war as a divine victory and accused Seniora’s government of colluding with the United States and Israel to destroy a patriotic Lebanese party. By November, Hezbollah and Amal had withdrawn their ministers from the central government to protest its stand on the special tribunal, triggering a wave of protests against it. A state of paralysis persisted until May 2008 when Hezbollah stormed predominantly Sunni west Beirut and disbanded the ragtag and poorly-led Future Trend militia. This incident convinced Jumblatt that the power of arms had become more important than the ballot box in ruling Lebanon. This also got Christians within the March 14 Coalition thinking about the significance of their role in the alliance. Their doubts increased when President Michel Suleiman designated Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad as prime minister in 2009. The new prime minister immediately decided that he needed to be on the good side of the neighboring Syrian regime to have a smooth stay in office and appealed to Saudi King Abdullah to arrange for him to visit Damascus and meet with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The joint visit to Beirut of King Abdullah and President Assad in July 2010 “to defuse tensions about [STL’s] impending indictment of Hezbollah members,”[1] highlighted both Syria’s resurgent role in Lebanon and an overall regional preference for stability over justice. The final act of the 2005 coup that began with the Hariri assassination took place in January 2011 when Syria’s Lebanese allies pulled their ministers out of Hariri’s cabinet and forced its dissolution. The March 14 Coalition has failed to govern Lebanon and the Future Trend had demonstrated its inability to lead.

The Limitations of the Future Trend

The Future Trend party suffered from two fatal shortcomings. First, its total dependence on Riyadh for political direction limited its options because the Saudi royals chose not to pursue an aggressive Lebanon policy. Since Hariri’s assassination, which created a vacuum in Sunni leadership, the Saudis have come to believe in the need for a plurality of leadership within the Sunni community.[2] This may be the reason why they quietly welcomed the appointment of Najib Miqati, a Sunni politician with somewhat pro-Syrian credentials, to the office of prime minister after the collapse of Saad Hariri’s cabinet.[3] The second fatal flaw was Hariri’s political inexperience, exacerbated by his apparent lack of self-assurance and poor speech delivery; his inability to properly read his inaugural parliamentary speech when he became prime minister invited the ridicule and laughter of other members of parliament and elicited public dismay.

The leaders of the Future Trend are not oblivious to its limitations and realize that the party must behave in a conciliatory manner toward other sects because its Saudi patron keeps it on a short leash. When a Saudi newspaper mocked Maronite patriarch Bishara al-Rahi for visiting Damascus, Lebanese Maronites responded by hanging a banner portraying King Abdullah on a playing card holding a blood-dripping sword.[4] Had the banner been hung in a different country, the Saudi response would probably have been extreme, but an exception was made in the case of Lebanon. Second Saudi deputy prime minister Prince Muqrin assured Lebanese officials that Riyadh “will not take any measures against Lebanese citizens working in the Kingdom … [and] we have no intentions to withdraw deposits from Lebanese banks, whether by the cabinet or investors.”[5]

Conflict in Syria and Impact on Lebanon

The Syrian war has given impetus to renewed Lebanese Sunni militancy, attracted direct Hezbollah involvement, caused Christians to reposition themselves politically, and has left the Future Trend bereft of allies and in a state of powerlessness. Many former supporters have shifted their allegiance to Sidon’s Salafist sheikh Ahmad Asir who has transitioned himself from being merely a fiery preacher into a fiercely anti-Hezbollah partisan. The frequent sit-ins he has organized to demand disarming Hezbollah appeal to most Lebanese Sunnis. Asir has called for the release of militant Sunni detainees suspected of affiliation with Islamic terrorist organizations, on whose behalf mainstream Sunni politicians had been hitherto reluctant to publicly advocate. Much to the chagrin of Lebanese Christians who extol the army as a virtuous and upright institution, Asir slammed its legal apparatus: “I say to the military law that we do not have faith in your investigations and the justice of your military tribunal.”[6] He made his remark to demand the release of some 480 Sunnis who had been in jail without trial since 2007 on suspicion of membership in the Fatah al-Islam militant group. He said government officials had told him they could not try them because of the unavailability of a courtroom big enough to hold all of them.[7] The founder of Lebanon’s Salafist movement, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, urged the Lebanese military establishment to rectify its path and “cease to act as an Iranian-Syrian tool of subjugating Sunnis, otherwise I would issue a jihadist fatwa against trespassers of our rights.”[8] When Asir and a group of his followers sought to spend a picnic day at Faraya ski resort in the Maronite heartland in Keserwan, locals cut off the road leading to the resort; a local dignitary told correspondents that “this visit is unwelcome, and blocking the road demonstrates our opposition to it.”[9]

As the Syrian civil war takes on a greater sectarian complexion with many Christian Syrians fearing for their safety, their Lebanese brethren’s sudden warming to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime has startled the Sunnis. They disapproved of Maronite patriarch Bishara Rahi’s urging of the international community “to refrain from making decisions aimed at changing the region’s regimes.”[10] Rahi even asserted that “Syria was closest to democracy in the Arab world.”[11] As if his statements were not enough, he broke a 70-year-long Maronite patriarchs’ boycott of travelling to Syria though the sect’s holiest religious places are located there. The patriarch’s landmark visit to Damascus underscored the extent of Lebanese Christian change of heart vis-à-vis the Assad regime.[12] Sunnis have found it difficult to come to terms with this shift, especially in view of Maronite vaunting of their heritage of fidelity to authenticity, fondness for democracy, and respect for the conscience of the human individual.[13]

The influx across the border of Syrian refugees has further complicated Lebanese politics. Whereas Sunnis have called for accommodating them, Maronite responses range from concern about their numbers and the duration of their stay to outright hostility. The Phalangist Party complained that the arrival of a large number of Syrian refugees to Lebanon had taxed the country’s meager resources and called for tightening border controls.[14] Another Maronite politician, Minister of Energy Jubran Bassil (son-in-law of the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader Michel Aoun) went to the extent of proposing shutting the border to prevent further refugee arrivals.[15] Even though the Lebanese government has—thanks to U.S. pressure—halted the deportation of the mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, it continues to pursue “a systematic policy of harassment to coerce as many of them as possible to return to their country.”[16] Christian- and Shiite-controlled security forces regularly stop Syrians at checkpoints and “physically abuse them in detention centers.”[17] Despite an official policy of dissociation from the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese government has done nothing to curb Hezbollah’s direct involvement in it and has been openly violating the sanctions regime against Damascus. The frequent burials of Hezbollah militants killed in obscure missions eventually compelled Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to allege that “party members had fought Syrian rebels … but they were acting as individuals and not under the party’s direction.”[18] Nasrallah’s deputy, Na’im Qassem, subsequently admitted that Hezbollah had armed and trained Shiite villagers in Syria in the Orontes River basin. He argued that these villagers were actually Lebanese nationals who had found themselves annexed to Syria as a result of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.[19] In this way, the ripple effects of Syria’s crisis have spilled across the border, drawing Lebanon’s Sunnis into an increasingly fraught situation.

Sunnis versus the Rest

Sunnis sense that there is a tacit agreement among other Lebanese sects against them. While the continuation and escalation of the Syrian insurgency has given hope of redemption to many Lebanese Sunnis, it has caused heightened anxiety among Christians and Shiites. It is not difficult to see an emerging grand alliance of historical minorities in Lebanon but one that differs markedly from past associations. The Sunni “awakening” in both Syria and Iraq has caused Christians in the March 14 Coalition to see eye to eye with the Shiites on the need to alter the rules of the country’s political game in stages, beginning with parliamentary elections.

The formation of inter-sectarian electoral tickets with Sunnis no longer appeals to Christians. The media outlets of Hezbollah and its allies have consistently complained that the multi-confessional electoral districts at governorate level had previously led to the election of Christian parliamentary deputies by Sunni voters. During the talks leading to the May 2008 Doha agreement, Michel Aoun insisted that the next parliamentary elections be held at the sub-governorate level as per the 1960 electoral law.[20] When the 2009 parliamentary elections did not give the March 8 Coalition a legislative majority, Aoun’s son-in-law, Jubran Bassil, demonized the 1960 electoral law as “an act of large scale robbery of Christian rights.”[21]

Phalange parliamentarian Sami Gemayel joined rival Aoun in speaking out against reintroducing an electoral law on the basis of multi-confessional lists: “We will no longer tolerate the marginalization and misrepresentation of Christians who prefer not to vote in districts with Muslim majority because they know their votes will not make a difference.”[22] In responding to criticism over his unexpected position on the parliamentary electoral law, Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea stated that his party was “playing a complicated political game over the parliamentary electoral law … The LF was misunderstood, and it was wronged at different instances over its position.”[23] The Lebanese Forces, too, could not distance itself from the changing mood of Lebanese Christians, dismayed by the proliferation of Middle Eastern jihadism in general and Lebanese Salafism in particular.[24]

Hezbollah and Michel Aoun Reform and Change Parliamentary Bloc rejected the Future Trend’s compromise hybrid electoral draft law and insisted on the adoption of the Orthodox Gathering Electoral Proposal.[25] Settling for a hybrid electoral draft law, which combined the winner-takes-all system and the proportional electoral system, would have denied the Future Trend and its allies in the March 14 Coalition a majority in the parliament. It fit well into Lebanon’s politics of accommodation and sectarian balance. This led Nabih Berri, the speaker of the House and leader of Amal Movement, to withdraw the hybrid proposal saying it had become a point of contention among rival groups.[26]

Conclusion

On March 22, 2013, Prime Minister Najib Miqati tendered the resignation of his government since he could no longer tolerate Sunni ridicule as being a Hezbollah stooge. Matters came to a head when Aoun barred him from extending the term for six months of the Sunni chief of the internal security forces, who had reached retirement age. It was at that point that Miqati decided that enough was enough. The arduous task of naming a new prime minister came up again less than two years after Miqati’s cabinet won the vote of confidence in parliament. Syria’s burgeoning conflict and Hezbollah’s desire to mitigate mounting Sunni-Shiite tensions drove them to make a tactical retreat and to name Tammam Salam as a politically innocuous Sunni prime minister. Salam, who hails from a previously prominent Sunni political Beiruti family, became a de facto member in the March 14 Coalition after Saad Hariri secured him a parliamentary seat in 2009.

Portrayed by the March 14 Coalition as heralding a comeback reversing Hezbollah’s political coup d’état that toppled Hariri’s cabinet in 2011, Salam’s designation to lead the republic’s seventy-third cabinet actually confirms Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon. In a country where politicians disagree on everything, the fact that Salam received the nomination of 124 of the parliament’s 128 deputies suggests a preference for maintaining the status quo. Contrary to Geagea’s boasting that Salam’s designation was 100 percent made in Lebanon, media reports indicate that Saudi Arabia played a decisive role in making it happen.[27] For their part, Lebanese Christians endorsed Salam’s candidacy with the understanding that he would work with them to adopt an electoral law that emancipates them from the hegemony of Sunni numbers at the election poll. Securing his approval, the Maronite patriarchate took the lead in demanding that the Ministry of Interior take measures to annul the 1960 electoral law. Sunni involvement in Lebanese politics had undergone a full cycle from a key role to a minor one.

While the Sunnis have clearly failed to anticipate the specter of a grand Christian-Shiite alliance, the essence of Lebanon’s politics is unlikely to change. Still, Beirut’s current sectarian lineup on political issues may eventually give way to another lineup with different actors on vital economic resources. A new flashpoint is already looming on the horizon over the discovery of vast natural gas resources off the Lebanese coast.

Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

[1] The Daily Star (Beirut), Aug. 2, 2010.
[2] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Oct. 18, 2012.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Al-Anwar (Beirut), Feb. 19, 2013.
[5] Naharnet (Beirut), Mar. 10, 2013.
[6] An-Nahar (Beirut), Feb. 24, 2013.
[7] Sawt Beirut International (Beirut), Feb. 23, 2013.
[8] An-Nahar, Mar. 2, 2013.
[9] Saidaonline (Sidon), Jan. 24, 2013.
[10] El-Nashra (Beirut), Sept. 5, 2011.
[11] Ibid.
[12] An-Nahar, Feb. 9, 2013.
[13] See Bulus Na’man, “The Maronite Way of Life: Constants and Variables of Living,” Haliyyat, 39 (1985), pp. 11-28.
[14] An-Nahar, Mar. 11, 2013.
[15] Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (Beirut), Feb. 7, 2013.
[16] BBC Arabic (London), Jan. 25, 2013.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Oct. 5, 2012.
[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Mar. 12, 2013.
[20] Beirut Observer (Beirut), Oct. 2, 2012.
[21] Al-Rai (Kuwait City), Mar. 2013.
[22] Naharnet, Jan. 14, 2013.
[23] Ibid., Mar. 9, 2013.
[24] El-Nashra, Mar. 18, 2013.
[25] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 12, 2013.
[26] The Daily Star, Feb. 28, 2013.
[27] Al-Qabas (Kuwait City), Apr. 6, 2013.

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Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

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Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.

The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.

The Defectors

The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.

The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.

One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.

There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.

The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.

Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid

The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.

Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.

Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.

Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.

One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.

Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.

Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.

The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.

The Al-Bustan Association

An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.

Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.

The Father of the Desert Hawks

One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.

An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.

Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.

The Old Guard and the Special Services

Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.

Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Elements of Matriarchy

Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.

Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.

On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.

On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.

The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.

First published in our partner RIAC

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