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The Muslim Brotherhood/Al-Qaeda Connection

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As former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi’s trials continue, it’s enlightening to consider what is likely to be one of the centerpieces of the trial: longstanding accusations that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party worked with foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, against the national security of Egypt.

Based on these accusations of high treason, Morsi and others could face the death penalty.

Concerning some of the more severe allegations, one of Egypt’s most widely distributed and read newspapers, Al Watan, recently published what it said were recorded conversations between Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri’s brother.

In these reports, Watan repeatedly asserts that Egyptian security and intelligence agencies confirmed (or perhaps leaked out) the recordings.

Much of the substance of the alleged conversations is further corroborated by events that occurred during Morsi’s one-year-rule, most of which were reported by a variety of Arabic media outlets, though not by Western media.

In what follows, I relay, summarize, and translate some of the more significant portions of the Watan reports (verbatim statements are in quotation marks). In between, I comment on various anecdotes and events—many of which were first broken on my website—that now, in light of these phone conversations, make perfect sense and independently help confirm the authenticity of the recordings.

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The first recorded call between Muhammad Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri lasted for 59 seconds. Morsi congratulated Zawahiri on his release from prison, where he had been incarcerated for jihadi/terrorist activities against Egypt, and assured him that he would not be followed or observed by any Egyptian authorities, and that he, Morsi, was planning on meeting with him soon. Prior to this first call, Refa’ al-Tahtawy, then Chief of Staff, mediated and arranged matters.

The presidential palace continued to communicate regularly with Muhammad Zawahiri, and sources confirm that he was the link between the Egyptian presidency and his brother, Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born leader of al-Qaeda.

It should be noted that, once released, the previously little-known Muhammad Zawahiri did become very visible and vocal in Egypt, at times spearheading the Islamist movement.

The next recording between Morsi and Zawahiri lasted for 2 minutes and 56 seconds and took place one month after Morsi became president. Morsi informed Zawahiri that the Muslim Brotherhood supports the mujahidin (jihadis) and that the mujahidin should support the Brotherhood in order for them both, and the Islamist agenda, to prevail in Egypt.

This makes sense in the context that, soon after Morsi came to power, the general public did become increasingly critical of him and his policies, including the fact that he was placing only Brotherhood members in Egypt’s most important posts, trying quickly to push through a pro-Islamist constitution, and, as Egyptians called it, trying in general to “Brotherhoodize” Egypt.

This second phone call being longer than the first, Zawahiri took it as an opportunity to congratulate Morsi on his recent presidential victory—which, incidentally, from the start, was portrayed by some as fraudulent—and expressed his joy that Morsi’s presidency could only mean that “all secular infidels would be removed from Egypt.”

Then Zawahiri told Morsi: “Rule according to the Sharia of Allah [or “Islamic law”], and we will stand next to you. Know that, from the start, there is no so-called democracy, so get rid of your opposition.”

This assertion comports extremely well with his brother Ayman Zawahiri’s views. A former Muslim Brotherhood member himself, some thirty years ago, the al-Qaeda leader wrote Al Hissad Al Murr (“The Bitter Harvest”), a scathing book condemning the Brotherhood for “taking advantage of the Muslim youths’ fervor by … steer[ing] their onetime passionate, Islamic zeal for jihad to conferences and elections.” An entire section dedicated to showing that Islamic Sharia cannot coexist with democracy even appears in Ayman Zawahiri’s book (see “Sharia and Democracy,” The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 116-136).

The call ended in agreement that al-Qaeda would support the Brotherhood, including its international branches, under the understanding that Morsi would soon implement full Sharia in Egypt. After this, Muhammad Zawahiri and Khairat al-Shater, the number-two man of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, reportedly met regularly.

It is interesting to note here that, prior to these revelations, U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson was seen visiting with Khairat al-Shater—even though he held no position in the Morsi government—and after the ousting and imprisonment of Morsi and leading Brotherhood members, Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham made it a point to visit the civilian Shater in his prison cell and urged the Egyptian government to release him.

The next call, recorded roughly six weeks after this last one, again revolved around the theme of solidifying common cooperation between the Egyptian presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and al-Qaeda and its jihadi offshoots on the other, specifically in the context of creating jihadi cells inside Egypt devoted to protecting the increasingly unpopular Brotherhood-dominated government.

As I reported back in December 2012, Egyptian media were saying that foreign jihadi fighters were appearing in large numbers—one said 3,000 fighters—especially in Sinai. And, since the overthrow of the Brotherhood and the military crackdown on its supporters, many of those detained have been exposed speaking non-Egyptian dialects of Arabic.

During this same call, Zawahiri was also critical of the Morsi government for still not applying Islamic Sharia throughout Egypt, which, as mentioned, was one of the prerequisites for al-Qaeda support.

Morsi responded by saying “We are currently in the stage of consolidating power and need the help of all parties—and we cannot at this time apply the Iranian model or Taliban rule in Egypt; it is impossible to do so now.”

In fact, while the Brotherhood has repeatedly declared its aspirations for world domination, from its origins, it has always relied on a “gradual” approach, moving only in stages, with the idea of culminating its full vision only when enough power has been consolidated.

In response, Zawahiri told Morsi that, as a show of good will, he must “at least release the mujahidin who were imprisoned during the Mubarak era as well as all Islamists, as an assurance and pact of cooperation and proof that the old page has turned to a new one.”

After that call, and as confirmed by a governmental source, Morsi received a list from Zawahiri containing the names of the most dangerous terrorists in Egyptian jails, some of whom were on death row due to the enormity of their crimes.

In fact, as I reported back in August 2012, many imprisoned terrorists, including from Egypt’s notorious Islamic Jihad organization—which was once led by Ayman Zawahiri—were released under Morsi.

One year later, in August 2013, soon after the removal of Morsi, Egypt’s Interior Ministry announced that Egypt was “preparing to cancel any presidential pardons issued during Morsi’s era to terrorists or criminals.”

During this same call, and in the context of pardons, Morsi said he would do his best to facilitate the return of Muhammad’s infamous brother and al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Zawahiri, back to Egypt—”with his head held high,” in accordance with Islamist wishes—as well as urge the U.S. to release the “Blind Sheikh” and terrorist mastermind, Omar Abdul Rahman.

In March 2013, I wrote about how Morsi, during his Pakistan visit, had reportedly met with Ayman Zawahiri and made arrangements to smuggle him back to Sinai. According to a Pakistan source, the meeting was “facilitated by elements of Pakistani intelligence [ISI] and influential members of the International Organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The gist of the next two calls between Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri was that, so long as the former is president, he would see to it that all released jihadis and al-Qaeda operatives are allowed to move freely throughout Egypt and the Sinai, and that the presidential palace would remain in constant contact with Zawahiri, to make sure everything is moving to the satisfaction of both parties.

Zawahiri further requested that Morsi allow them to develop training camps in Sinai in order to support the Brotherhood through trained militants. Along with saying that the Brotherhood intended to form a “revolutionary guard” to protect him against any coup, Morsi added that, in return for al-Qaeda’s and its affiliates’ support, not only would he allow them to have such training camps, but he would facilitate their development in Sinai and give them four facilities to use along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

That Libya is mentioned is interesting. According to a Libyan Arabic report I translated back in June 2013, those who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were from jihadi cells that had been formed in Libya through Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood support. Those interrogated named Morsi and other top Brotherhood leadership as accomplices.

More evidence—including some that implicates the U.S. administration—has mounted since then.

Next, Watan makes several more assertions, all of which are preceded by “according to security/intelligence agencies.” They are:

  • That Morsi did indeed as he promised, and that he facilitated the establishment of four jihadi training camps. Morsi was then Chief in Command of Egypt’s Armed Forces, and through his power of authority, stopped the military from launching any operations including in the by now al-Qaeda overrun Sinai.
  • That, after Morsi reached Pakistan, he had a one-and-a-half hour meeting with an associate of Ayman Zawahiri in a hotel and possibly spoke with him.
  • That, after Morsi returned to Egypt from his trip to Pakistan, he issued another list containing the names of 20 more convicted terrorists considered dangerous to the national security of Egypt, giving them all presidential pardons—despite the fact that national security and intelligence strongly recommended that they not be released on grounds of the threat they posed.
  • That the Muslim Brotherhood’s international wing, including through the agency of Khairat al-Shater, had provided $50 million to al-Qaeda in part to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

One of the longer conversations between Morsi and Zawahiri reported by Watan is especially telling of al-Qaeda’s enmity for secularist Muslims and Coptic Christians—whose churches, some 80, were attacked, burned, and destroyed, some with the al-Qaeda flag furled above them, soon after the ousting of Morsi. I translate portions below:

Zawahiri: “The teachings of Allah need to be applied and enforced; the secularists have stopped the Islamic Sharia, and the response must be a stop to the building of churches.” (An odd assertion considering how difficult it already is for Copts to acquire a repair permit for their churches in Egypt.)

Zawahiri also added that “All those who reject the Sharia must be executed, and all those belonging to the secular media which work to disseminate debauchery and help deviants and Christians to violate the Sharia, must be executed.”

Morsi reportedly replied: “We have taken deterrent measures to combat those few, and new legislative measures to limit their media, and in the near future, we will shut down these media stations and launch large Islamic media outlets. We are even planning a big budget from the [Brotherhood] International Group to launch Islamic and jihadi satellite stations to urge on the jihad. There will be a channel for you and the men of al-Qaeda, and it can be broadcast from Afghanistan.”

Undeterred, Zawahiri responded by saying, “This [is a] Christian media—and some of the media personnel are paid by the [Coptic] Church and they work with those who oppose the Sharia… secularist forces are allied with Christian forces, among them Naguib Sawiris, the Christian-Jew.”

Morsi: “Soon we will uphold our promises to you.”

In fact, there was a period of time when the secular media in Egypt—which was constantly exposing Brotherhood machinations—were under severe attack by the Brotherhood and Islamists of all stripes (comedian Bassem Youssef was the tip of the iceberg). In one instance, which I noted back in August 2012, six major media stations were attacked by Brotherhood supporters, their employees severely beat.

The last call recorded between Muhammad Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri took place on the dawn of June 30, 2013 (the date of the June 30 Revolution that ousted Morsi and the Brotherhood). Morsi made the call to Zawahiri in the presence of Asad al-Sheikha, Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff, Refa’ al-Tahtawy, Chief of Presidential Staff, and his personal security.

During this last call, Morsi incited Zawahiri to rise against the Egyptian military in Sinai and asked Zawahiri to compel all jihadi and loyalist elements everywhere to come to the aid of the Muslim Brotherhood and neutralize its opponents.

Zawahiri reportedly responded by saying “We will fight the military and the police, and we will set the Sinai aflame.

True enough, as I reported on July 4, quoting from an Arabic report: “Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Muhammad Zawahiri, is currently planning reprisal operations by which to attack the army and the Morsi-opposition all around the Republic [of Egypt].” The report added that, right before the deposing of Morsi, Zawahiri had been arrested and was being interrogated—only to be ordered released by yet another presidential order, and that he had since fled to the Sinai.

Also on that same first day of the revolution, Khairat al-Shater, Deputy Leader of the Brotherhood, had a meeting with a delegate of jihadi fighters and reiterated Morsi’s request that all jihadis come to the aid of the presidency and the Brotherhood.

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As Morsi’s trial continues, it’s only a matter of time before the truth of these allegations—and their implications for the U.S.—is known. But one thing is certain: most of them comport incredibly well with incidents and events that took place under Morsi’s government.

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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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Middle East

Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

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