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A Solution for an Unsolvable Problem? Recognition of the State of Palestine – by Israel, now!

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The new Swedish government officially recognized on October 30, 2014 the State of Palestine (1) . British Parliament voted two weeks earlier on a resolution in favour of backing the recognition of the Palestinian State (2) . And even the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini spoke during her first official visit to Israel and Palestine in November 2014 in favour of the recognition of the Palestinian State (3).

Already on November 29, 2012 United Nations General Assembly, voting by an overwhelming majority, accorded Palestine “Non-Member-State” observer status in the UN. Did these important acts change anything on the ground? Certainly not. The only recognition which would count would be the one expressed by the State of Israel – in its own interest. Officially the government of Israel is in favour of the so-called two-states-resolution. So, what has been going wrong, why the world is waiting since the Oslo and Washington Peace Accord for the decisive step?

As a matter of fact the Oslo and Washington Peace Accord was too vague for the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the right to exist in recognized and secure borders for Israel, and the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by the Israelis in 1967.  

While the PLO “recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” and “accepted United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338” , Israel “in response, decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process” (5).

In a retrospective view for the PLO the recognition of Israel was obviously connected with the withdrawal from all occupied territories according to UNSC Res.242 und 338. (4) Careful reading of Chairman Arafat’s letter does not allow another interpretation of, while for Israel the recognition of the PLO did not mean the same, neither the total withdrawal from occupied territories, in particular not from in the meantime annexed areas like East Jerusalem or from the settlements, nor in any way a recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state. To some extent this is also the continuity of different interpretations in the past, in particular of UNSC Resolution 242. While Israel reads from the formulation “Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” (6), that this does not request the withdrawal from “the” territories and therefore not from all occupied areas, the Arab and in particular the Palestinian side has a complete different view, based on the preamble of 242:  “Emphasising the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war…” (7).

So the future failure of the peace process was built in from the very beginning.

In the Israeli view not only the negotiations of the most difficult questions in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians were postponed but the solutions were in no way anticipated, for the Palestinians the solution was already fixed by the implementation of Resolutions 242 and 338 and only the implementation was postponed and subject to further negotiations.

This may explain also some (past) patience of the Palestinian side with delays regarding timetables for Israeli withdrawals from territories, because one day they would have withdrawn from the whole West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem and would have given up the settlements. Taking into account how difficult it was for them to accept even 242 and the principle right of Israel to exist and the opposition to this recognition by radical forces in the own camp, it seems that Arafat for a long time thought that the Israeli also need to overcome a strong opposition on their side to the recognition of a Palestinian state on the whole of the occupied territories, but at the end he expected the compromise, that would combine the Arab and the Israeli reading of 242, namely full withdrawal of Israel behind the borders of 67 (Arab view) and recognition of the State of Israel within these borders (Israeli view). Why would that mean already a compromise in the Arab view? Because first of all they never accepted the creation of the state of Israel by the UN in 48, and secondly, the borders Israel before 67 were only cease fire lines and include also a large area dedicated by the UN in 48 to the Arab state in Palestine.

Indeed there has been strong opposition on both sides against the implementation of the Oslo accord, even to the particular interpretation of the “own” side. Gush Emunim (the religious settlers movement) and the parties of the far right have fought against the abandonment of the occupied territories and even a broad majority of the moderate Israelis has been against compromises on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the total abandonment of all settlements (of the latter because of the rejection of the claim that any territory should be “judenrein” (8). Hamas, because of religious arguments, and other radical groups because of their political opposition to Arafat and Al Fatah insisted on the right to establish the own state on the whole territory of Palestine, that includes all of Israel. Despite a series of incidents, including the shooting in the Mosque of Hebron and the assassination of Rabin and continuous attacks in Israel by Hamas and Jihad, Israel and the Palestinian side stuck for a long time to the Oslo process.

It seems that the crucial point was reached in Camp David (9), although this may look paradoxically.  Not only in the Israeli view Barak offered to Arafat a maximum, “more than the majority of Israelis would agree, much more than Arafat could reach in the future”. But it was also a conditional offer – it must be the final solution. Arafat would have had to give up any more claims. No real share of Jerusalem, to accept an archipelago of Israeli settlements, or to say it in a more drastic language, more than 200 stings in the flesh of a Palestinian state, divided by countless Israeli corridors to the settlements. This “offer” was the offence to Arafat, not the visit of Sharon to the Al Aksa, which was of course helpful to mobilize the Palestinian public.

Arafat came to the conclusion that further negotiations are senseless (and that was exactly the message he got from Barak –“You will never get more…”). The consequence was the 2nd Intifada, to which Israel reacted in a way, which strengthened day by day the radical Palestinians. In particular Israelis demands of periods of total non-violence before resuming talks with the Palestinian side made Hamas, Jihad and the Al Aksa Brigades the masters of the game. Being totally opposed to the resumption of talks it was easy for them to achieve their immediate goal. Arafat, afraid of loosing his leadership, at least had to tolerate, and within his own Al Fatah camp may be even to authorize or to facilitate some actions.

Israel reacted not only with a definite refusal of talks with Arafat, but in the end with the well-known military action including the siege and humiliation of Arafat. Although stressing that the IDF does not want to stay in the Autonomous Area and he will find “somebody” to negotiate, it seems obvious that Sharon did not have any exit strategy nor do his successors.

The situation far away from peace culminated once again in more and more sophisticated missile attacks of Gaza based Hamas on Israel and the well-known Israeli retaliation on Gaza in 2014. Both sides did not care about heavy criticism from many sides.   

Indeed, a solution cannot be imposed from outside. The parties of the conflict must find it.  While Fatah has shown in the past flexibility (certainly not always for the better, but still), Hamas does not or cannot because of its fundamentalist ideology. Sharon although not of the calibre of Begin, who made peace with Egypt, and his successors showed at the end some flexibility. It is obvious that Israel as a democracy cannot remain forever or even survive as an occupying force. One the one hand this was recognized by the withdrawal from Gaza, on the other hand the Israeli forces are still in the West Bank and claim to return to Gaza whenever they want. Hamas seems not to be ready to recognize Israel under what conditions ever and not to accept the agreements of PLO with Israel. So for the moment the crisis seems to be unsolvable. Is there any solution?

The solution would have to start at that point, where the Oslo Agreement was too vague and gave space to quite different interpretations.

What Israel needs most desperately, is the right to exist in peace and security within the borders of 1967. Everything else should be subject to future negotiations, although it would be clear that there are some emotional issues like the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, which go beyond. But it would be an illusion that all open questions could be solved by the peace agreement. For the moment both sides are not able to accept the (necessary) compromise in a long list of sensitive questions as there are e.g. not only Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, but the settlements (and here in particular those in the area of Jerusalem), the return and/or compensation of refugees, the exact borders, future share of resources (water!) etc..

What the Palestinian side needs most desperately is the recognition of an independent, sovereign state with the opportunity to exist in peace and security, but also in dignity. As Israel should be recognized at least within the borders of 1967 that means the recognition of a Palestinian state on the territories of the West Bank and Gaza, occupied by Israel in 1967 (except the Golan Heights) (10). Again, everything else should be subject to future negotiations (between the two states!), including the exact borders. The agreed principle, however, should be, that this Palestinian state will include the vast majority of these territories and sovereign rights in the Arab part of Jerusalem, which will be the capital (not automatically the seat of all authorities). If the Palestinian side can reach this, it would certainly also strengthen Fatah and force Hamas to accept the reality.

Therefore any new agreement should start with:

A mutual recognition of the State of Israel and the Palestinian State, for both with the right to exist in peace, security and dignity; i.e. for Israel within the borders before 1967, for the Palestinian State on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 (except the Golan Heights) and sovereign rights of this state in (East) Jerusalem, which will be also recognized as its official capital. (11)

Israeli territorial claims beyond and the exact borders of the Palestinian State, with the understanding that it will contain in any way the vast majority of the territories in question, as well as the details of sovereign rights in (the Arab part of) Jerusalem will be subject to negotiations between the two states.

Not depending on these negotiations free access to the believers of all religions concerned to there sanctuaries (list should be established by the parties) will be granted and guaranteed by both states. Real estate property of religious institutions and communities will be respected by both states.

A mutual recognition that due to the history and demography there is no space for “ethnically clean” states; therefore there is in principle the right of Arabs to live with equal rights in the State of Israel as well as the right of Jews to live with equal rights in the Palestinian State. The same applies to all ethnic and religious minorities in both states. The right to return for refugees will be subject to negotiations due to principles to be already agreed.

The State of Israel and the Palestinian State will establish a close co-operation in many fields, in particular in
•    the protection of ethnic and religious minorities (12)
•    the protection of and to access to religious sanctuaries (including cemeteries)
•    the economic area with a view to a free trade area and a customs union
•    the use of natural resources, in particular water
•    border and air space control
•    internal security, in particular prevention of and fight against terrorism
•    general for the implementation of all current and future agreements

The State of Israel and the Palestinian State will negotiate as equal partners in the spirit of good neighbourhood the following subjects:
•    the concrete co-operation in the fields mentioned above
•    the exact borders of both states on the basis of the mutual recognition
•    a time-table for the hand-over of areas within those borders and for the time being still occupied by Israeli armed forces
•    the establishment of joint security check points between Israeli and Palestinian controlled areas
•    the sovereign rights of the Palestinian State in the Arab part of the City of Jerusalem and the status of that as the official capital; from the very beginning Israel will recognize e.g. the “Orient House” as a place where only the Palestinian State will exercise sovereign rights;
•    the use of a corridor between the two parts of the Palestinian State (West Bank and Gaza Strip)
•    military defence and military assistance
•    the future of Israeli settlements with various options
•    the compensation for lost property of Palestinian refugees and the right to return for certain groups of refugees
•    the right of residents of both states to opt for the citizenship of the other state
•    the setting-up of joint bodies or authorities, in particular for common administration of natural resources, air control, border control, combat terrorism
•    creation of a joint parliamentary delegation or assembly
•    common human rights standards, probably based on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (13)
•    joint co-operation with neighbouring countries, in particular in economic matters (14)
•    …..

Such an agreement should be guaranteed by the UN, USA, the EU and Russia and recognized by the Council of Europe, the League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. (15)

Furthermore it should be accompanied by financial assistance from the USA and the EU and others (e.g. Norway or Switzerland) in the areas of
•    a fund for compensation of lost property of Palestinian refugees
•    a Palestinian Recovery Programme (PRP)
•    establishing common authorities
•    institution building of the Palestinian State

Other organisations (in particular the Council of Europe) could assist in various areas, like review of history textbooks, human rights education, education for democratic citizenship, institution building, training of young leaders, youth exchange, protection of ethnic and religious minorities, multicultural and inter-religious dialogue etc..

The founding father of Israel, Theodor Herzl, told his fellow Jews “If you will it, it is not a dream”. If both sides will peace, it will not be a dream. But they have to will it now!

(1) www.government.se/sb/d/19375/a/249204
(2) 67th UN General Assembly, 44th meeting
(3)  Jerusalem Post, November 10, 2014
(4)  Chairman Arafat’s letter to Prime Minister Rabin from September 9, 1993
(5) Prime Minister Rabin’s letter to Chairman Arafat from September 9, 1993
(6)  UN Security Council Resolution 242(1967) par.1 (i)
(7)  UN Security Council Resolution 242(1967) 2nd paragraph of the preamble
(8)  « cleansed of Jews », Nazi terminology for areas where all Jews have been either deported or murdered.
(9)  2000 Camp David Summit in July 2000, with US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat
(10)  The Golan Heights have been annexed by Israel and are a question between Israel and Syria, now overshadowed also by the civil war in Syria.
(11)  The late famous mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek had already the vision that the city could be shared as their capital by the two states.
(12)  e.g. Armenians, Bahaï, Bedouins, Druse, Samaritarians, etc.
(13)  A possible European contribution could be to accept both states as observer states or even as associated members to the Council of Europe with a view to open the ECHR to them.
(14)  Several personalities such as former Jordan Crown Prince Hassan, Chairman Arafat and others and institutions such as the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs saw the Benelux as a model for regional cooperation of Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
(15)  Taking into account the large number of Arab citizens of Israel the Arab League could consider a special relation with Israel, e.g. observer status for certain areas

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Middle East

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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