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Palestinian Myths: Building a National History (A)

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The Palestinians demand the entire territory of Palestine, “from the Sea to the River.” They have never abandoned their claim, and they are not ready to get any compromise and to reach to any agreement that gives them less than the entire territory.

One of the important strategies is their claim that they are an ancient and indigenous people in the territory of the Land or the Land of Israel. However, the claim is a total fabrication, and fails to stand up with any historic scientific scrutiny. Before the British Mandate, during the 400 years of the Ottoman Empire rule, this territory was an administrative one, divided into several Sanjaks (sub-provinces) under the Vilayet (province) of al-Sham (Damascus) that has neither a political unit nor a national entity.

All scientific and governmental German and British data and surveys clearly show an underdeveloped deserted land composed mainly of primitive hamlets. These including French historian Constantine Volney (Travels through Syria and Egypt, 1798); the mid-19th-century writings of Alphonse de Lamartine (Recollections of the East, 1835); Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad, 1867); reports from the British Consul in Jerusalem (1857), and many others.

The Ottoman’s census of 1882 recorded only 141,000 Muslims in all the historic Land of Israel, although the real number is probably double, since many hid to avoid taxes. The British census in 1922 reported 650,000 Muslims. Family names of many inhabitants attest to their origins: Elmisri, Misr, Masarweh (Egyptian), Chalabi, Horani (Syrian), Mughrabi (North Africa), Ajami (Persian), Halabi (Aleppan), Kurdi (Kurdish), and many more. Yet, the most comprised of Bedouin tribes from Jordan and Sinai.

The multifarious origins of these “Palestinians” involve family, tribal, and sectarian rivalries. They were attracted to the relative economic prosperity brought about by the Zionist Movement and the British. In 1934 alone, 30,000 Syrian Arabs from the Hauran region moved across the northern frontier into Mandatory Palestine. They even dubbed Haifa Um el-Amal (‘the city of work’). As for Nablus, based on the number of buildings in photos taken from Mount Gerizim, the population in 1909 could not have been greater than 2,000 residents.

‘Palestine’ has never been a territorial-cultural and political unit. The same refers for “Palestinians”. There were no people or a nation in history called by that name. The word “Palestine” was born only in the 20th century by the British. The land was officially named “Palestine” in English, “Filastin” in Arabic, and “Palestina (E.I.: the Land of Israel)” in Hebrew. The British could have chosen the name “The Holy Land” or other name, or even the Land of Israel, or other name with no historic relevance. In that case, there could have been no “Palestine” and no “Palestinian People.”

Consider the possibility the British have chosen the name “Jupiter.” In that case one would have hearing of a Jupiterian people fighting to liberate its Jupiterian land from the Jews, which have a four thousand documented written and proven history.

The fact is that all over the Mandatory period, Arab inhabitants avoided using the Arabic name Filastin, but the name “Arabs.” They considered themselves as Syrians, and the land was for them Southern Syria, part of the Syrian country. Only the Christian elite did make formal use of the name “Palestine.” This was the case almost till the middle of the 40ies of the 20th Century.  

Even the Palestinians themselves, leaders and the common people, had not considered themselves “Palestinians,” and had not referred to the territory as “Palestine,” and did not dream to establish a Palestinian State. The fictitious Palestinian people consists of an aggregation of clans and tribes drawn from the far-flung areas of the Middle East and North Africa.

An important episode is understanding the origin of the Arabic word “Nakbah,” disaster. The Palestinians refer to the name, after the book written by Constantine Zureiq, Ma’na al-Nakbah, as related to their disaster in the 1948 war. However, the original use of “Nakbah” was in 1920, the San-Remo Conference that confirmed the Mandatory system and the division of “Palestine” from “Greater Syria” (Antonius, the Emergence of Arab Nationalism). That is the Nakbah, disaster, of what was later on recognized as Palestinians was not the establishment of the State of Israel, but the partition of the territory known as Southern Syria (Suriya al-Janubiyah) taken out from its country origin, Syria, to become a separate territory by the British and French (Meinerzhagen, Middle East Diary).    

In 1945, the renowned Arab historian Philip Hitti vehemently claimed before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry that no Palestine had ever existed in history and there were no such Palestinian people. This was also the official position of the Palestinian and Arab representatives themselves to all international committees in the 1940’s. During the 1950’s, in all international conventions and the Arab leaders’ declarations, there was no “Palestinian people” nor “Palestinian refugees” problem but “Arab refugees.” Even as late as the UN Resolution 242 of November 1967, it mentions only “Arab refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees,” or a “Palestinian people.” One has also to recall that the Partition Plan of November 1947, mentions on an Arab state.

Indeed, contrary to the Palestinian’s propaganda and the “peace activists” lies in Europe, the small amount of people gathered from many places of the area around and consisted mainly by Bedouins never had a state and have never comprised a nation. Therefore, the later-on called Palestinians never “gave up in 1948 of 78% of Western Palestine, and they are ready to accept only 22% of the land,” as they claim in their fraud propaganda. This is sheer fabrication.

The later-on called Palestinians were not a political player in 1948; they were in a status of refugees under the control of Jordan and Egypt, until 1967, and they continued demanding the entire territory, and they have never given up the demand on every inch of it. They have never recognized the Jewish rights and they continue to demand Israel’s annihilation. It is only on them to prove, whether they are willing to reach a compromise. Since they discovered that they cannot achieve this by war, they work to implement the political course and are assisted by Europe to obliterate Israel from within (the “right of return” of the refugees) and by de-legitimization of Israel by the image and precedent of South-Africa (“Israel is an apartheid state”; “Israel is a racist state”).    

The Palestinian Authority propagation provides fabricated answers to the questions of national identity; historical roots of the Palestinians; and the nationality of the country called Palestine. If there is no Palestinian historical record to satisfy that need, myths and lies are concocted, and the education system is to serve as the most effective tool to mold and to shape the new generations and to create out of nothing a Palestinian history over the territory called Palestine.

This is the information the Palestinians get by propagation by all the social media:

a) To the question, who the Palestinians are? The answer is: the Palestinians are descended of the seven peoples of Cana’an. The educational and the communication media praise the Cana’anite origins. Palestinian academics explain in total fraud and twisted historical facts that even Israeli archaeological finds bolster the claim of the Palestinian-Cana’anites origin in the land, without any reliable sources.

Contrary to the numerous references in the Qur’an of the history of Banu Isra’il, the Children of Israel, the righteous side, and their victories over their Cana’anite enemies, the evil side. It also contradicts Allah’s Covenant with Jews, being the chosen people, the only people who deserve to inherit the land (5:21; 7:137; 17:104), to be known al-Ard al-Mubarakah (the blessed land); al-Ard al-Muqaddasah (the Holy Land); Ard Bani Isra’il (the Land of Israel).

b) To the question concerning the historical rights of the Arabs over Palestine, the answer is that they are ever since the dawn of history, and it is totally only theirs. They reiterate the following, in the educational system and the media: “Palestine is our country… through Jihad our country shall be liberated… Jihad and sacrifice become a personal duty on all the Palestinians… Draw your sword and let us gather for war with blazing fire for slaughter. go forward crying: Allahu Akbar.”

c) To the question concerning Jerusalem, the answer is that it is an ancient Arab city, built by the Jebusite Arabs before Islam. It is thousands of years old, its most ancient name, Jebus, is derived from the ancient Arabs, the Jebusites. Muslims must wage a Jihad war to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque from the Zionist conquest.

This ideological propaganda is accompanied by a sophisticated strategy in Western public opinion. The Palestinians initiated a highly successful campaign to assimilate into the European consciousness that Israel is the last remnant of colonialism implanted in the Middle East by European imperialism, so as to intensify the European guilt remorse: a) Israel occupies the land belonging solely to the Palestinians; b) Israel has uprooted the Palestinians as a nation, and scattered them out of their land; c) Israel continues to liquidating the Palestinians’ national and social heritage, by implanting a phony foreign culture.

The repeated stress of the Palestinian educational system on the ancient Arab identity of the land is obviously geared to posit Palestinian antiquity, absolutely imagined and fabricated without any need to produce scientific historical evidence to sustain the claim, is the main of Arab cultures. They need no proofs. However, these lies succeed internationally out of ignorance and lack of scientific historical knowledge.

All the educational system and the PA media, mainly TV, use these daily repeated variety of claims by showing a map of the Middle East in which Israel does not exist and is replaced in its entirety by a country called Palestine. Under the words “our country Palestine”, the map replaces all Israel, which does not exist at all. The entire territory is Palestine. A map entitled “Map of Palestine before and after the war of 1967” defines the area of the State of Israel as the Arab lands conquered before 1967, while the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are defined as the Arab lands conquered in 1967. Maps of the Middle East in which Israel does not exist and its area is marked as “Palestine”, appear in all textbooks.

A map which accompanies the lesson which is compulsory to all pupils: “Palestine is our Homeland”, encompasses the entire State of Israel and specifies Israeli cities and villages as Arab even though most of them date from biblical times: Safed, Acre, Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth, Beit She’an, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Beersheba, and other Israeli cities. A drawing shows a woman waving the Palestinian flag while in the background is the map of Palestine in the place of all Israel. All the geography books mark the entire territory of Israel as Palestine.

The Palestinian Television shows the same map, many times on a daily basis, at the beginning and the end of every news report. This substitution of Palestine for anything Israeli, and official Palestinian media even mark all Israeli technological scientific achievements as Palestinian origin.

These passages, and there is a huge amount of material, point to the tenacity in which the PA instill into the minds of its children, from the early ages of childhood the necessity and inevitability of a prolonged Jihad to liberate all Palestine. The insistent demand that the children should be prepared to fight and die in the service of this dream. Rejection of Israel, Zionists and Jews, which is based on moral, political, nationalistic as well as religious considerations, is absolute and total.

This whole historical structure that has been invented and fabricated by the Palestinians exposes the real traits of Arab-Islamic culture, and they instill it into the minds of children as an irrefutable truth, without any evidence or scientific sources. In so doing, they omit, refute and deny other’s heritage and existence. There is no mentioning of the Jews and acceptance of their historical claims. Unfortunately, because Western ignorance is so pervasive and there is also the human Western belief that in every issue there is truth, the Free World yields to these atrocious hideous blames of Israel.

The Zionist ideology which nurtures the Jewish State is the paradigm of racism, apartheid, imperialism and ethnic cleansing, and doomed to failure. Jewish qualitative characters are notorious, for they are treacherous, disloyal, and corrupt. They are plagued with racist beliefs and racial discrimination like Nazism, and the construct of Satan. Israel is brutal, fascist and genocidal. The best is Arieh Stav, Peace – Arab Cartoon, Shaarei-Tiqva, Ariel Center for policy research, 1999. From that time on, one can fill many huge volumes of this material.

The scientific and political truth is that there has never been a Palestinian history; never been a historical Palestinian country and sovereignty; never been a historical Palestinian nationalism, let alone an independent nation; never been a Palestinian ethnicity, a Palestinian language, and a Palestinian societal groupings and institutions. There was no Palestinian archaeology, no Palestinian population or settlements, and nobody knew historically and accepted politically a Palestinian state and a nation. What we see now is a new creation of a distinct Palestinian national identity only from the last seventy years. The Palestinian identity has been emerged and created because of the Israeli creation as a state in 1948, and the Israeli military victory in the 1967 war.

Palestinian nationalism is an entity negatively defined, by its opposition to Zionism, and not by its national aspirations due to historical and political facts. What unites Palestinians has been their opposition to the Jewish state and the desire to destroy it.

Along all the first half of the 20th century, the local inhabitants consisted of diverse individuals, several tribes and clans, some prominent families in cities, mainly a nomadic tribes, and new migrants from Syria, Egypt and Trans-Jordan and other places. The important issue is that they certainly did not consider themselves as a nation, and they were not considered by anyone as such, and their focus of identity was parochial – tribal and Hanulah, city dwellers, Ottoman subjects and later on Syrian residents.

They lived in the geographic area that historically belonged to Syria, and politically called under the British Mandate as “Palestine” in English. However, the concept of a ‘stateless Palestinian people’ is a fabrication, the big lie of the Middle East contemporary politics. The Palestinians have received billions of dollars from the international community tunneled directly to terrorism and corruption.

In fact, the so-called patriotism of indigenous Arabs has flourished only when non-Muslim entities (the Crusaders, the British, and the Jews) have taken control of the area called the Land of Israel. Not amazingly, when political control returns to the Arab-Muslim hands, this ardent patriotism magically wanes and the territory went into a political oblivion. This is the historical proven fact for 1400 years.

Arab representative government has never been established in Palestine, either in 1948 or during the next 19 years of Arab rule until 1967. Because other Arabs co-opted the Palestinian cause as a rallying point that would advance their political interests. The real change came only after 1967, with the inspiration of Arafat, the creator of the Palestinian people and identity and the establisher of its political center.

He who really wishes to get good reliable knowledge about the Palestinian situation, it is highly recommended to separate the sophisticated propaganda from the real issues and situations.

It is highly important to compare the Palestinians’ socio-economic and political situation and at least 80 countries from the third world, including some Arab states. At the same time one has to recall that this relatively high Palestinians standard of living is out of international money donation and not their work. They received money much higher than the monies given to recover Europe after WW2 with “Marshall Plan.”

It is no less important to have good knowledge how that is the Palestinians have received billions and billions of dollars, while taking perhaps the lion’s share of world humanitarian support, putting aside and neglecting at least one billion people around the world who get nothing and are literally dying.

It is easy to have pictures of the Palestinians cities and villages to really understand the relatively high standard of living as compare to the Third World countries, including Arabs, and again to recall they were all out of the international generosity that stops there and very scant poor donation given to other peoples.

When one gets the reliable information and discard the propaganda, he understands that the continuation of the conflict with Israel is a must for the Palestinians. This is a highly profitable industry they don’t want to stop. Without it they will have to get up tomorrow and start working for their living.    

Professor Fuad Ajami, of John’s Hopkins University (NYT, June 19, 2007) sees this as sheer fantasy. An accommodation with Israel is imperative, but the Palestinian leaders still demanding to have it all “from the River to the Sea.” The Arab states have compounded the Palestinian radicalism, granted them everything and nothing at the same time, and there was thus no need for the Palestinians to moderation and realism. The Palestinians should know better, Ajami continues, no Arabs wait for Palestine anymore, and aside from a handful of the most romantic messianic Israelis, there is a recognition that the Palestinians must come to term with reason and live in peace with Israel, or to drop off the history.

Today, As Israel celebrates 68 years of independence, new publications appear by the Palestinian Authority that actively disseminates its ideology that denies Israel’s fundamental right to exist in any borders. The PA regularly proclaims and actively teaches Palestinian children that all of Israel is an illegitimate “occupation,” and that all Israeli territory is occupied. Palestinians are regularly and intensively taught to anticipate a future without Israel when all of its territory will be part of the “State of Palestine.” These are also Abu Mazen’s declarations, for example on October 28, 2015, and March 11, 2016, in the official PA TV.

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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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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