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Islam: Beheadings, Decapitation, and Butchering

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The horrible pictures of the atrocious ritual beheadings of ICS, the Islamic Caliphate State, on the Internet, have shown an ugly face of Western leaders, avoiding and denying what is crystal clear, as if these heinous acts are not Islamic, and continuing their march of folly as if Islam is a religion of peace and compassion; as if ICS and Qaeda are in fact not Islamic; and as if these and other Islamic terrorist organization hijacked Islam, in order to smear it and de-legitimized its presence in the West.

However, these denials are not only a mental blindness processes of run-away leaders, but also represent Western demise and submission to Islamic encroachment.    

Let’s think. Do beheadings not represent the tenets of Islam, or perhaps beheadings are the most typical element characterizing Islam? Here is the short Islamic history record: The ritual beheading has a long precedent in Islamic theology and politics, as the cultural favorite form of execution. The practice of slitting the throats of the opponents meant to reassure rulers; to terrorize foes; to secure alliances; and to impress the masses of the power imposed by the ruler. Above all, it has been a cultural-religious-ideological trait.

To smite the neck was not only the order of the Qur’an, and the interpretation of the Islamic exegetes. This is also the interpretation the great Islamic theologians and historians, like al-Tabari and al-Zamakhshari. The most influential modern exegete who interprets and explains these passages of the Qur’an is Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi. He argues that under no circumstances should the Muslims start taking captives, but only after the enemy has been completely crushed. It is the task of the Islamic government to decide if it is necessary to kill prisoners, and he cites many historical examples of Muhammad ordering execution of prisoners.

Yusuf Ali, the acclaimed translator of the Qur’an interprets beheading as utilitarian: the neck is among the only areas not protected by armor, and mutilating an opponent’s hands prevents him from again wielding his sword or spear. In the famous battles of early Islam, Muhammad ordered to cut-off the heads of the enemy leaders and to put them on swords.

In the famous battles of early Islam, Muhammad ordered to cut-off the heads of the enemy leaders, and to put them on swords. Ibn Sa’d featured how the Muslims have dealt with Muhammad’s enemies: they cut off Muhammad’s enemy head and they cast his head before Muhammad, and he praised Allah on him being slain.

The well-known slaughter during Muhammad’s period was the beheadings of the Jewish Bani-Quraythah tribe after the battle of al-Khandaq. The Hadīth of Sahīh Muslim and Sahīh Bukhārī and the Sīrah of Ibn Ishaq clearly reveal that Muhammad ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 to 900 men of Bani Quraythah tribe at Medina for allegedly plotting against him. The men were lined up on huge dug up trenches and were brought out five or six at a time and beheaded. The women and children were taken as reward of booty to the Muslims. They were Islamized and traded off as Slaves.

In 680, the head of Hussein bin Ali was cut-off, put on a silver platter, and sent to Damascus. With him, the heads of all of Hussein’s 71 companions including a one-year-old baby boy were also chopped off.

During the Muslim occupation of Syria in 634, 4000 Christians were massacred; in Mesopotamia between 635 and 642, all Monasteries were destroyed and Monks were slain. In Egypt the Muslim conquerors slaughtered large groups of Christians, including women and children. Carthage was demolished and its people slain.

The Abbasids while taking control of the Islamic empire beheaded and massacred the Umayyads, their own brothers of religion, to the last person and baby.      

From the 11th century, Muslim massacred large groups in India, quoting the Qur’an’s order to have slain the idolaters. In the year 1193, a Muslim general order to slaughter 50,000 Buddhists, declaring them as idolaters who had no right to live. In the Gujarati Sultanate of Western India, Sayyid Muhammad Jawnpuri (d. 1505) asserted that he was the Mahdi, and after accused of takfīr, he was beheaded with his followers.

Yusuf b. Tashfin (d. 1106) conquered Western Sahara and central Spain, and after the battle of Zallaqa in 1086, he had 24,000 corpses of the defeated Castilians beheaded, piled up and sent to all the major cities of North Africa and Spain as an example of Christian impotence. This became the rule where Christians were beheaded after any lost battle.

The Ottoman Empire was the decapitation state par excellence. Upon the Ottoman victory over Christian Serbs at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Muslim army beheaded the Serbian king and thousands of Christian prisoners. At the battle of Varna in 1444, the Ottomans beheaded King Ladislaus of Hungary. Upon the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans sent the head of the dead Byzantine emperor on tour to major cities in the sultan’s domains. In 1456, the sultan allowed the grand mufti of the empire to personally decapitate King Stephen of Bosnia and his sons, even though they had surrendered and, seven decades later, the sultan ordered 2,000 Hungarian prisoners beheaded.

In the early nineteenth century, even the British were victim to the Ottoman scimitar. An 1807 British expedition to Egypt resulted in “a few hundred spiked British heads left rotting in the sun outside Rosetta. In 1842, the Afghans massacred 2000 British soldiers in Kabul, including their wives and children, by slitting their throats and hanging their heads on the walls of the city.

In Sudan, in 1880, Muhammad Ahmad declared himself Mahdi and led Jihad against the Ottoman Empire, by beheading his opponents, Christian and Muslim alike. The British governor, General Gordon, and his garrison had all been beheaded by the Mahdi. In Somalia, the rebel Mullah, had a large collection of Italian and British heads.

In recent history, beheadings in the name of Islam have become a show in front of world spectators on Arabic satellite stations and the internet.

In Afghanistan, in the 1980’s, 3000 Soviet soldiers were massacred and their heads cut-off by the Mujahideen. In 1986, the head of William Buckley, the CIA’s Beirut station chief was cut-off. The Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl’s decapitation in February 2002, catalyzed this cultural practice. The beheading of Nicholas Berg, Eugene Armstrong, Jack Hensley, and others from Korea, Bulgaria, Britain, Japan, including many Muslim Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and in Chechnya. The Dutch beheading of Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, in Amsterdam in November 2004; the Egyptian Coptic family in New Jersey in January 2005; the slaughter of Rafsanjani in Paris.

Beheading has particular prominence in Saudi Arabia. In 2003 alone, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia beheaded more than fifty people. Over the past two decades, the Saudis have decapitated at least 1,100 for alleged crimes. In Iran the average of the yearly beheadings is 25. That is what we know about.

To the ignorant Western public opinion, Islamists sell a twisted and false reality, as if “beheadings are not mentioned in the Qur’an at all” (Imam Muhammad Adham al-Sheikh, head of the mosque in Falls Church, Virginia); “there is absolutely no religious imperative for this” (Asma Afsaruddin, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame); “beheadings do not represent the tenets of Islam” (Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as well as the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC)).

Unfortunately, Western news media, academics and intelligentsia’s denial, out of political correctness, or their bias, or out of ignorance, has twisted the reality of Islamic history and propagated such lies. It is ordered literally in the Qur’an as a religious duty:

I shall fill the hearts of the infidels with terror. So smite them on their necks and every joint, and smite off all of their fingertips (Sûrat al-Anfāl, 8: 12).

When you clash with the unbelievers, smite their necks until you overpower them, and then bind the prisoners tightly… (Sûrat Muhammad, 47: 4).

To smite the neck is not only the order of the Qur’an and the interpretation of the Islamic exegetes, but they even put stress on the legitimate reasons to do so to the enemies of Islam, whether they are infidels, people of the book, or apostate Muslims. This is also the interpretation the great Islamic theologians and historians, like al-Tabari and al-Zamakhshari. The most influential modern exegete who interprets and explains these passages of the Qur’an is Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi, who argued that under no circumstances should the Muslims start taking the enemy soldiers as captives, but only after the enemy has been completely crushed. It is the task of the Islamic government to decide if it is necessary to kill prisoners, and he cites many historical examples of Muhammad ordering execution of prisoners.

The siege and occupation of Constantinople (1453) is well known in its bloody savagery history by Ottoman Muslims. The Ottomans, Seljuk Turks, a tribe from Central Asia who appeared in the 11th century. The first blockade occurred between 1390 and 1402, which was failed. Then came the double siege of Constantinople, in 1411 and 1422, which were unsuccessful. But these failures strengthened the Ottomans’ will to occupy the city, as the model for the destruction of Christianity, with bloody results.

The occupation of Constantinople (İstanbul’un Fethi), the capital of the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire on 29 May 1453, witnessed the great massacre of Christians. It marked the end of the Roman Empire, which lasted for 1,400 years. The city became Istanbul, the new Capital of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, by Sultan Mehmed II.

After the occupation, Mehmet II allowed his troops to plunder the city for three days and spoils of war, like women and possession. The Ottomans made a great slaughter of Christians through the city. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and 30,000 civilians were enslaved. The sea was full with huge piles of the Christians bodies floating around. Eyewitnesses described the horrors of massacres and rapes, without any resistance. They were intent on pillage and roamed through the town killing, raping, taking captives, and using all sorts of beheadings and decapitating. Rape was the most common. The frantic brutes stormed into the young girls and women, tore them, raped them at all sorts, and made them submit to the most terrible outrages. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and crushed to the stones. Temples, holy icons and books were desecrated, pillaged and set on fire. The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.

The massacres in Greece and the Balkans. From 1453 with the fall of Constantinople until the revolution in 1821 Greece was under the cruel occupation of the Ottoman Turks who control the entire Middle East and the Balkans, to the gates of Vienna. Their rule was cruel, fanatic and barbaric, in which collective punishment of beheadings, rapes and kidnapping was on daily basis. Military attacks were part of the system, like the attack on the inhabitants of Chios, in April 1822, resulted in the deaths of twenty thousand civilians, and the forced deportation into slavery of almost all the surviving seventy thousand local inhabitants.

For almost three hundred years, beginning from the late 14th century, the Ottoman Empire used the Devshirme system (collection). Christian boys and girls between 7 and 18 but mainly between 7 and 10, from the Balkans, were kidnapped and forcefully converted to Islam as slaves to serve the Ottoman government, mainly the military: the cavalry (Kapıkulu Süvari, the Cavalry of the Porte) and infantry (Yeni Çeri, the New Corp, transliterated as Janissary). The girls were taken as concubines and slaves.

The Devshirme was a ‘forcible removal’ of children of the Christian subjects from their ethnic, religious and cultural environment. It was cruel penalization imposed on the Balkan peoples since their ancestors resisted the Ottoman invasion. It was a periodic conscription of kidnapped tribute boys and girls from their families and communities to be molded into Ottoman praetorians owing their total allegiance and literally their life to the Sultans. From Islamic perspective, “The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession”.

The Armenian Genocide (Medz Yeghern, “Great Crime”). The word “genocide” is the combination of the Greek prefix geno- (tribe or race) and caedere (to kill in Latin). It is defined as “a systematic organized and premeditated extermination of a people and a nation.” The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in 1948, defined genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including by the means of killing members of the group.

The Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against its religious-Christian minority was the first modern mass murder in large scale. It was started on April 24, 1915 and ended with the estimate death toll of almost 1.5 million victims.

For the objective of executing the genocide, Special Forces (Teşkilat-i Mahsusa) were organized by the Turkish government. Like other mass-massacres during Islamic history, and followed by the ICS (Islamic Caliphate State) massacres and ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria, the Armenian Genocide has been an organized policy and it was legitimized by state laws.

The preamble to the genocide was the Hamidian Massacre. On 1 October 1895, 2,000 Armenians massacred in Istanbul, and very soon it engulfed the rest of the Armenian-populated provinces, with 100,000 and 300,000 victims. It was followed by Adana Massacre of April 1909, ended with a total of 30,000 victims.

Deportations. On 29 May 1915, the Central Committee of the Young Turks passed the Temporary Law of Deportation, and the mass slaughter of the Armenians ensued, and their property was confiscated. The systematic mass murder of the Armenians was “authorized and organized by the government,” in the face of the world. It was clear that the deportation order was genocidal. Theodore Roosevelt would later characterize it as “the greatest crime of the war.” World media reported it almost on a daily basis, and yet nobody did anything to stop it.  

Death marches and systematic starvation. The Armenians were marched out to the Syrian town of Deir al-Zour. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian deportees were forced to march to the Syrian Desert without food and drink, condemned to death.

Concentration camps. A network of 25 concentration camps situated in the region of Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria, was set up by the ottoman Government, as to dispose of the Armenians who had survived the deportations and massacres. They also used Mass burnings, drowning, poison and gas slaughtering, and Typhoid.

Like ICS today, the Turks decapitated the heads of many Armenians, mainly their political and intellectual elites and displayed them of central public places. They served as a model to the systematic policy of extermination.

Confiscation of property. Following Abandoned Properties Law, the Ottoman parliament passed the “Temporary Law of Expropriation and Confiscation”, on 13 September 1915 that all property, including land, livestock, and homes belonging to Armenians was to be confiscated by the authorities.

The Greek genocide was the systematic massacre of two million Christian Greeks, instigated by the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War and its aftermath (1914–22). This included massacres and extermination; forced deportations and death marches; and ethnic cleansing from their historic homeland in Anatolia. By the end of the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war, most of the Greeks of Asia Minor had either fled to Greece or had been exterminated. The remaining were transferred into Greece under the terms of the “1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.” The Ottoman government was accused of crimes against humanity, and the International Association of Genocide Scholars passed a resolution in 2007 recognizing the Ottoman Empire massacre against Christian minorities as genocide.

The genocide of Buddhists and Hindus. The Brutal Islamic Jihadi campaigns against the infidels have reached its peak concerning the genocide of Buddhists and Hindus. Though every country the Muslim Jihadi invaders conquered has a separate history of blood bath, plundering, rapes, and slavery, however, Buddhists and Hindus perhaps have taken the lion’s share. From the 8th to 18th century, the number of the butchered Buddhists and Hindus is between 80 and 90, these figures exceeds all the massacres carried out all over the world put together. The number of Hindu and Buddhist slaves and raped women kept as sex slaves is almost the same.

Just imagine, the two perhaps most horrible states concerning the treatment of women, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Buddhist before the Islamic occupation. Just imagine the horrors the Muslim invaders brought to the peoples: plundering, torturing, crucifying the males, while shouting the frantic cry, “Allahu Akbar,” and meanwhile raping the wives and daughters, to begin to understand how that is these countries has become Muslim.

Starting in 712, Muslim jihadi raiders, headed by Muhammad Bin Qasim, entered the port city of Dubal, near todays Karachi, plundered palaces and temples, killed vast number of men and carried off their women and children to slavery, after mass rape and torture. Hajjaj Bin Yousef, the governor of Iraq, wrote to him, quoting Surat Muhammad, 47:4: when you encounter the infidels, strike off their heads. This command of Allah must be obeyed and followed. You should not be fond of mercy. Able-bodied men are to be killed and their women and children are to be enslaved. This order was obeyed on the attack of the city of Brahminabad, when massacring over 10,000 men and enslaving their women and children, after mass-rape. The same process with huge butchering occurred in Afghanistan by Mahmud al-Ghazni in Afghanistan, starting in year 1000, and was the tide of plundering, butchering, mass-rape and slavery endorsed and executed over 800 years on the vast lands of Asia.

Perhaps the worst of all Muslim invaders was Timorlane. His invasion of Hindustan, Tuzk-i-Taimuri, records:

“In a short space of time all the people in the fort were put to the sword, and in the course of one hour the heads of 10,000 infidels were cut off. The sword of Islam was washed in the blood of the infidels. The Muslims set fire to the houses and reduced them to ashes, and they razed the buildings and the fort to the ground. All infidel Hindus were slain, their women and children and their property and goods became the spoil of the victors. One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were on that day slain. Maulana Nasiruddin Umar, a counselor and man of learning, who, in all his life, had never killed a sparrow, now, in execution of my order, slew with his sword fifteen idolatrous Hindus, who were his captives.”

The fate of the Hindu women captured alive by Muslims was worse than death. Even as their fathers, husbands and children lay killed they had to dance and sing before Muslims and after mass rape they would then be given in slavery to the Muslims.

One can conclude with the harsh situation of contemporary Christians in the Middle East. Among the so many anomalies of Obama Administration, like the refusal to label “Islamic” and “terrorism,” and to continue labelling Islam as a religion of peace, the most vicious is his refusal to call the persecution and annihilation of Christians in the Middle East as genocide. What is happening to religious minorities in the Middle East is not only prejudice and persecution, but systematic extermination.

One has to recall that the Middle East is the embodiment of Arab Islamic total imperialism and colonialism. The European, Soviet and American imperialism were here and gone. The Arab-Islamic imperialism has occupied the Middle East and perpetrated systematic policy of Arabization and Islamization in the entire region, by exterminating its genuine peoples.

Today the Christians have become an extinct species in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have been driven from their ancestral homes; have been slaughtered, butchered, crucified and beheaded; and have been raped and desecrated by the Muslims. However, this is also true to slaughtering of Muslims who do not behave according to the strict order of the Shari’ah, and they are labelled as infidels too. Iraqi Christians were about two million, now tens of thousands left. In Syria, out of 1.2 million, perhaps three hundred thousand left, living in deep intimidation and harsh conditions. Only in Egypt, due to the military regime of al-Sisi, the Christians’ condition is better, after they have passed through persecution, women kidnapping, and conversion to Islam during the short-lived period of Mursy Muslim Brotherhood’s regime.  

These events occurred all along Islamic bloody history do tell us why Muslims today who strictly follow Islam want to carry out the same things of the Islamic past. It leaves no doubt that the events on our screens today, the beheadings, the barbarism, the bombs are a byproduct of an Islamic era that is being revived by the fanatic Muslims all over the world.

Middle East

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Middle East

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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