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Additional considerations on the Iranian nuclear issue

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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We all know that the Russian Federation has been one of the true resolver of the Iranian nuclear issue, also within the negotiations that led the P5+1 to define the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

For Russia, the nuclear deal expands the economy, as well as the strategic rayonnement of an ally, namely Iran, which is necessary for Russia both in the Middle East and in the complex oil price system to resolve a question of life or death for it: the increase in crude oil prices. Not to mention that – in the new equilibrium resulting from the war in Syria – Russia supports the Shi’ite Republic insofar as the United States support Saudi Arabia and Turkey.It is worth recalling that it was the Lebanese Shi’ite Imam, Mussa Sadr – kidnapped in Rome, probably by Libyan agents – to decide the Syrian Alawites belonging to the Shi’ite universe.

Nevertheless, with caution and attention, Russia does not take part in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – hoping, on the contrary, to witness “a decrease of tensions between the two countries” and supporting all measures which can restore some sort of relations between the two Islamic nations.

However, is Russia a true ally for Iran?

From the viewpoint of the current war in Syria, Russia militarily supports Bashar el Assad, who is a staunch ally of Iran. The problem, however, is that the Russian Federation has no strategic interest in increasing tensions in the Middle East, which could cause a “domino effect” that would be very dangerous for Russian interests, as well as for its military and intelligence apparatus. Especially for the linkage between Ukraine and the Russian-Alawite actions in Syria. The costs of actions in Syria may lead to a decrease of the Russian engagement in another key area, namely Ukraine, while this country is essential to protect and manage Russia’ s oil and gas system, which reaches up to its primary market, namely Europe.

Hence, if the Greater Middle East flares up, considering the Syrian crisis, the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the gradual destabilization of the Shi’ite areas inside the Saudi Kingdom and the de facto closure of the sea routes south of Suez, then the overstretching of Russian military engagement would create severe economic and strategic problems that would be hard to solve for Russia. Conversely, the real keystone of the Russian system in the region could be Israel, placed at the centre of regional tensions, very efficient at militarily level, distant both from Iran and Saudi Arabia, and now alien to the US geopolitics in the region, as well as capable of managing a long war of attrition both with Shi’ites and Sunnis. And also capable of threatening fully credible retaliations.

We cannot make peace nor waging a war, throughout the Middle East, without creating a strategic correlation with Israel.The Palestinian movements of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and pre-Bashar Syria, knew this all too well.At the time, the solution was a long low-intensity war with the use of Palestinian terrorism against targets both in the Jewish State and, above all, in the territory of its traditional allies. Terrorism is a poor war which destroys the “enemy” peoples’ morale, but does not cause excessive damage to the military structures and facilities of the target country.

On the contrary, the case of ISIS/Daesh is different: a territorial jihad which is the background, – as hoped by Al Baghdadi – of the Sunni Islamic States after their destabilization and after the wiping out of the “takfiri” (apostate) rulers.Hence, in Syria, we are currently witnessing a real war along its borders because, after Al-Qaeda’s terrorism and the unsuccessful “Arab springs”, the region has no significant external strategic protection.

Not even Iran now wants a real war along its borders, since it has every interest in taking full advantage of the new economic and political climate emerged, especially with Europe, after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan.Therefore a “regional cold war” between Shi’ites and Sunnis in the Middle East is likely, once clarified to which sphere of influence Syria, or what will remain of it, belongs.However, how is the management of the P5+1 agreement with Iran progressing, which is the keystone of the whole Middle East current system?

At economic level, the Iranian government has set some productive sectors in which the Iranian-Russian trade will be enhanced.According to the plans of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, the funds given back to Iran and the increasing trade with the European Union, the United States, Russia and China will create the capital needed for the final economic takeoff of the country.

The productive sectors of Iranian-Russian trade regard the nuclear sector, armaments, natural gas and oil, of which a price correlation is envisaged between the Russian and the Iranian products.The geoeconomic tripartite relationship foreseen by Iran is the one with Russia, Iraq and Venezuela, while Russia proposes coordination with OPEC, as a whole, so as to proceed to an acceptable oil price increase per barrel.After signing the JCPOA, Russia and Iran have also decided to increase their economic exchanges from 1.5 billion US dollars in 2013 to 15 billion US dollars within the next five years.

This means that the Iranian ruling class is trying to rebalance and offset the economic opening to the West with an almost equivalent expansion of trade with Russia.Moreover, the Russian Federation is also planning to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in the nuclear sector, while it already supports the Iranian nuclear industry – and it will support it ever more in the future.

The “stance” of Ali Akbar Velayati, a close aide of Rahbar Khamenei for foreign policy, also defines that the future of the stabilization of the area stretching from Central Asia to the Maghreb region and the Middle East, through the Caucasus, will be permanently guaranteed only by a tripartite agreement between China, Russia and Iran.Europe is currently swinging between a useless and a ridiculous strategic stance and the United States have now made it clear to everyone that they are walking out of the Middle East – indeed, there is no effective alternative to this new geopolitical project.

The agreement envisaged by the Iranian leader is designed to eradicate the jihad, enlarge the area of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and to enable China to secure its great project of a new “Silk Road”, the so-called One Belt One Road which was announced by Xi Jinping in October 2013.Europe, which still delights in useless and expensive “peace operations”, which maintain and exacerbate conflicts rather than solving them, will have an Eastern border controlled by this Sino-Russian-Iranian axis.In this new area, the European Union will have no say in the matter, while – after the disasters made – the United States are walking out of the Middle East so as to focus on the project of a new “cold war” along the Euro-Russian border.

A strange strategic nonsense, probably useful to keep some grip on the geopolitical void that the European Union is today and to avoid the territorial, economic and military continuity that the Russian analysts, linked to the Eurasian project, are proposing to the now meaningless Europe.Moreover, in 1991, Iraq openly infringed the rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it had previously adhered.Khomeini, just risen to power, declared that nuclear energy was “satanic”, but then he had to change his mind.

In the lack of advanced conventional weapons, of well-trained forces and of an effective grip of the Shi’ite regime on much of the population, the only solution was nuclear weapons, which had been started by the Shah.

Meanwhile, pending the Implementation Day of January 16, 2016, as many as 593 individuals and companies connected to Iran’s project for uranium enrichment have been “pardoned” by both the United States and the European Union, including many Iranian transport companies, some banks, individual experts of nuclear technologies and many companies located outside the Shi’ite Republic.The reason for this is Iran’s compliance with the Agreement, parallel to the JCPOA, on the release of four prisoners held in its jails.Iran’s behaviour is what is defined as a “win-win” strategy in the mathematical game theory: you always win regardless of the game strategy.Hence, faced with Iran’s quick recovery of over 120 billion US dollars already frozen in foreign banks, each small-scale calculation shall be relinquished by the Shi’ite regime.

This means that Iran will be increasingly interested in putting an end to the Syrian game, after quickly annihilating Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate, which is the maximum strategic threat to Iran that would be blocked every channel with Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, in particular.This is also the problem of China, which cannot complete its operation of “New Silk Road” to Europe without eliminating ISIS/Daesh.And it is also the problem of the Jewish State, which has no interest in having, almost along its borders, a territorial jihad which could also set fire to the Palestinian radicalism inside and outside Israel.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent, in the coming months, the Shi’ite State will still need the Lebanese Hezbollah along the border with Israel or whether it will use them – as happens today – for its proxy wars to be managed without getting too much involved and soiling its hands.

It is easy to predict, for the “Party of God”, a future very similar to that of the North-American marines, and it is very likely for them to be present in Central Asia, in the predominantly Shi’ite areas of Saudi Arabia, in the Maghreb region and, in the future, even in Libya.However, at least 35% of the new funds recovered after the lifting of sanctions on Iran will serve to acquire new weapons, both Russian and Chinese one, as well as to allow the geopolitical shift of its nuclear threat from the territory of the Shi’ite Republic to that of a traditional ally, namely North Korea.

Yemen will host an Iranian nuclear power plant; after the current disaster, Syria will assign parts of its territory to Iran for its nuclear-conventional operations and nothing prevents Iraq from accepting the presence of Iran’s “forbidden” weapon systems on its territory.

Hence new weapons, instead of the old nuclear power, which does not allow a reasonable threshold for its use or for the credibility of a threat.The current strategic thinking is not interested in the old game, typical of the “cold war”, of the nuclear escalation which, as such, deters the opponent.The Iranian leaders’ current doctrine is to have useful weapons – a real deterrent, which can be used in the reality of regional clashes.It comes to mind the old Soviet strategy manual written by General Shaposhnikov, in which he defined the use of nuclear weapons in full continuity with conventional weapons. It was just a problem of tactical usefulness.

Therefore, after signing the JCPOA, Iran has chosen the credible and immediate threat instead of an old geopolitics of nuclear confrontation which becomes impossible through the gradual equalization of arsenals.Incidentally, if the nuclear threat becomes possible in continuity with a conventional clash, it will be good for the European and Italian decision-makers to rethink many of the clauses of the old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Italy signed in 1970 and still believes to be the “cornerstone” of its foreign policy.

The five-year conference of May 2015 on the review of the Treaty ended with no results, while in 1998 even Italy threatened to withdraw from the NPT if the legitimate nuclear powers did not guarantee our security and safety.It would be worth remembering that no one guarantees anybody’ security and safety: the Italian political theorist, Nicolò Machiavelli, used to remind us of the fact that “States’ own weapons” can make them safe, and he liked to repeat that States “cannot be maintained with words”.In addition, after signing the P5+1 non-proliferation agreement, Iran will become a legitimate regional power and thus an important mediator and broker of future regional conflicts.

And we must clarify how and to what extent we could later ensure the Israeli security and safety if a new August war, like the one which broke out between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli armed forces in 2006, happened.If the Jewish State collapses, the whole jihad will unite. It will definitely win in the Arab States still considered “moderate” and it will dangerously get close to Europe, without any control or supervision, thus knocking on its doors.As it happened on September 11, 1683, when the Polish cavalry defeated the Ottomans in Kahlenberg, at the gates of Vienna.Today Sobieski’s Polish cavalry is no longer there.

Indeed, the ideology of multiculturalism, of “submission” – as the French writer Houellebecq called it in his novel – no longer allows the battle of ideas or the preparation of the real battle.Hence, without a reliable centre of gravity for us in the Middle East, breaking the jihad’s line of continuity and enabling the European Union to remain safe within its borders – because Islamist terrorism can turn into an open war – there will no security and safety in the European landmass or in the Mediterranean basin.

Therefore we can think of a new negotiation of the P5+1 “contact group” on Iran’s missile system, allowing limited conventional weapons. We can also think of freezing Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions and then relying on a strategic tripartite relationship between Russia, China and EU-NATO.A tripartite relationship which should rebalance the strategic potential of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Iraq, thus keeping the nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India under control.

As we have already said, the United States have focused on their action for regionalizing the Russian Federation, which is not in Europe’s interest. They will also operate in Central Asia to control the Chinese power projection.Neither Iran nor China are focused on a short-term perspective but, as happened before World War II, today the West seems to be inebriated with quick fixes to be sold to the media for purely cosmetic geopolitical reasons.Therefore, both in Italy and in the rest of Europe, we should think of a less naive policy, more sensitive to old and new threats, which are changing shape and position.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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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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