Let us elaborate this by relating to misconceptions in Western public opinion concerning the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first misconception is the number of fatalities. Since WWII, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the national conflict with the lowest number of victims, and at the same time, with the world’s highest number of publications in the academia and attention in the media. Palestinians dead by Israel will cause endless headlines and articles all over the world, but Palestinian massacre and murder by other Palestinians will receive only few lines. That is also the case with the Arab states.
Moreover, if entire villages are destroyed in Sudan and a genocidal apparatus occur there, or when many Arab states are set on fire with huge massacre and destruction as in the last five years of “Islamic Anarchic Tribal Winter” (mistakenly called “Arab Spring”) there will be only moderate attention if any on TV. The amount of attention the so-called Palestinians get from the international media and world public opinion is amazingly huge and at the same time baseless compare to other world situations.
There is another and more dramatic countdown – the total amount of those killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1882 up to 2006 are 75,000. 85% of them are from Arab states, and almost half of them Egyptians. Only 9000 were Palestinians killed by Israel, most of them during the two Intifadas (1800 and 3,700). Not millions. Not hundreds of thousands, and not tens of thousands.
Compare this to the 20 to 30 thousands Palestinians killed by king Hussein of Jordan in one month, in September 1970; or to the 8000 Palestinians killed by the Syrian President, Asad, in Lebanon in November-December 1983; or to the 6000 Palestinians killed by their own brothers in the “Arab Revolt” of 1936 to 1939; or to the hundreds killed only the few months in Gaza by the war between Hamas and Fath, in 2007; or to the destruction of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, during the war in 2014.
Compare this to the millions killed in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, or the total destruction of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen as states and societies during the last five years of the Islamic Anarchic Tribal Winter.
Compare the situation of the millions of Arab refugees, running from their ruined cities and villages, being under real annihilation, to the situation of the so-called “Palestinian refugees.”
Compare the billions of dollars the Palestinians get, for the rehabilitation of these refugees (and mostly goes to terrorism and corruption of their leadership), and what the Arab, only Arab, refugees get. They have nothing and get nothing. One group gets everything and the other group, much bigger in numbers, gets nothing.
Compare the 4.5 million Palestinians “refugees” get a monthly generous food parcel, education and social assistance, so that at least a billion of people around the world never dream to have and never get.
Compare the 4.5 million Palestinians who live in proportional social and economic prosperity to the standard of living of at least 80 other states around the world, including Arab states.
According to the UN data, one billion people around the world earn less than two dollars a day. The UN has coined the term the “Fourth World” relating to these peoples. One will not find even one Palestinian among them.
According to the UN data, 40% of world population drink polluted infected water, and thousands of children die every day only for that reason. One will not find even one Palestinian among them. They get fresh high quality water from Israel, who thanks to its sophisticated industry can export water from this desert area.
Indeed, the Palestinians get so much money and attention as compare to so many other countries and people around the world that it has become a disgrace to the world. They are the only people that gets more and more and they do not work for it.
The second misconception, a most important one, is related to the meaning of occupation. When Palestinians say ‘Israeli occupation,’ it is not the 1967 occupation, but the 1948 occupation, and it is not the 1967 borders and not the 1947 borders, but the entire territory of Israel. When they murder and massacre Israelis by inhuman terrorism, it is not because of the “occupation”, and not because of the “settlements”, but because Israel is a Jewish Zionist state living on that land, even one inch of this land.
The so-called “occupied territories” have no relevance to the conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is just another problem in a large set of complex issues which firstly must be focused on the recognition of Israel as a state and as a nation. Let me elaborate this by quoting the formal Palestinian ideological attitude toward Israel, so as to expose what they mean by “occupation.”
In the Palestinian National Covenant of the PLO, one can find the following declarations as a political ideology:
Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. Thus it is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase. The Palestinians assert their absolute determination and firm resolution to continue their armed struggle for the total liberation of Palestine (Article 9). The liberation of Palestine means to repel the Zionist and imperialist aggression, and aims at the elimination of Zionism from Palestine in its entirety (Article 15). The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 are entirely illegal (Article 19).
The Balfour Declaration , the Mandate for Palestine [1919 and 1920], and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void. Claims of historical or religious ties of the Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history. Judaism, being only a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own. They are only citizens of the states to which they belong (Article 20).
The Palestinian people, expressing himself by the armed revolution, reject all solutions which are substitutes for the total liberation of Palestine (Article 21). The liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist presence and will contribute to the establishment of peace (Article 22). This Charter shall not be amended save by [vote of] a majority of two-thirds of the total membership of the National assembly of the PLO [taken] at a special session convened for that purpose (Article 33).
As for Hamas, in its Charter it declared clearly:
Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it… [Hamas] strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine (Article 6). The Islamic Resistance Movement is one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders. It goes back to 1930’s, and it includes the struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1948 war and all Jihad operations… The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the and kill the Jews, and when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees, the stones and trees will say O Muslims, O the servants of Allah, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him (Article 7).
The land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf (endowment) until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to deny that. Palestine in its entirety belongs only to the Palestinians. This is the law governing the Islamic Shari’ah (article 11).
Nothing is more significant or deeper than Jihad against the Zionist enemy. Resisting and quelling the enemy become the individual duty of every Muslim, male or female. Abusing any part of Palestine is tantamount to abuse part of the religion [which means death]. There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad to eliminate the Zionist invasion. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors (Article 13). It is the utmost necessary to instill the spirit of Jihad in the heart of the Muslim nation (Article 15)… Jihad is the path, and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of all wishes…
This is the ideology. There is no mentioning of the occupation of 1967 borders or peace with Israel in any borders. Indeed, it has never been “the occupation of 1967” but Israeli legitimacy to exist as a Jewish Zionist state.
What about the operational level? The town of Sderot is not in the 1967 occupied territories, nor the town of Ashkelon or all the villages and Kibbutzim around Gaza. They are all in the 1948 Israeli territory, but they are shelled and bombed on a daily basis.
Israel has left Gaza to the last inch in August 2005, by its own decision; willingly. And what happened? Is there peace and tranquility around? The situation has worsened and exacerbated without any comparison to the past when Israel was in Gaza. Hamas has won over the Palestinian Authority, and there erupted three small wars over Gaza. Billions of dollars continue to pour to Gaza, and the result? All the evidence prove that a fourth small war is coming, and the Hamas government continues its aggression.
If the problem is 1967 borders, why do they continue bombing Israeli cities inside the 1948 border? If they are innocent in their demand to free only the 1967 occupied territories, why do they terrorize and shell the 1948 territories? If they want to liberate the 1967 territories, why do they use homicide bombers against Israeli citizens inside the 1948 borders? If the issue is 1967 borders, why do they dig tunnels into Israeli area to hit villages in the 1948 borders?
The clear proof is found in Gaza. Israel has totally retreated from Gaza, to the last soldier and settler to the last cm. there is no occupation in Gaza. And what happened? Hamas won the elections; Iranian officers, Hizballah personnel and al-Qaeda groups are already in Gaza, now the members of the Islamic Caliphate State.
Indeed, on June 20, 2007, Islamist websites posted a 13-minute video, titled: A message from Jaysh al-Islam to ‘Izz Al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, congratulating the establishment of Islamic Emirate (al-Khilafah al-Islamiyah) in Gaza. On June 25, 2007, al-Qaeda deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, calls on Hamas to enforce the Shari’ah in Gaza and to become the front-base of World Jihad. Muhammad Nazzal, a Hamas leader, has declared: if al-Qaeda wants to come to Palestine, they are welcome.
Domestically, there was chaos and anarchy in Gaza between the Palestinians groups themselves. They murdered and butchered each other; they killed injuries in the ambulances and in hospitals; they burn out mosques and shelled universities; they targeted women and children; and all these done openly and it was televised, without any reaction or even attention of world public opinion. One can find TV executions done by the Hamas terrorists against Fath terrorists in the streets. Had Israel done much less than these atrocities, the entire world would have erupted in rage against Israel. Moreover, had Israel given Abu-Mazen full support he would have not survive as the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas won in the so-called West Bank.
Indeed the problem is not, and it has never been the 1967 occupation. Moreover, the conclusion of “the 1967 occupation” will not end the conflict, perhaps, as the Gaza example teaches us, will exacerbate it.
Arab and Palestinian leaders continue to sell the fraudulent mantra that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the heart of the problem and the cause of hostility and violence in the Middle East,” but they know that this claim has not a grain of truth. The conflicts and foci of violence in the Middle East are many and sundry, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of them, and is definitely not the problematic one.
The Arab and Palestinian leadership rides on this wave, in order to hide the collective Arab shame over the lack of unity and the hostility among themselves, and in order to “threaten’ Western interests in the Middle East and to gain its support. The Middle East is almost ruined out of the last five years of atrocities and the disappearance of the state system. There are failed states in the Middle East, and Israel has nothing to do with it, but still has become in world public opinion as the scapegoat to these disasters.
The third misconception is that when the Palestinians declare the two-state solution, it also includes the implementing of “the right of return” of the Palestinian refugees inside the Israeli state. When Israel and the world refer to “the Jewish and Palestinian state solution,” the Palestinians declare instead “the two states solution.” The difference is huge and decisive. They do not mean a Jewish state beside a Palestinian one, but a Palestinian state beside a multi-national or all its citizen state, very soon to become another Palestinian state. Abu Mazen and all the Palestinian leadership clearly declare they will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Then, on what terms we talk about?
Indeed, the Palestinian demands are as follows: first, the total Israeli retreat to the 1967 borders, and then to solve the refugee problem inside Israel in its 1967 borders, according to Saeb ‘Areqat and Abu Mazen himself, seven million Palestinians. This is not a peace solution, but a peace of the grave for the Jewish people. In the long run it means one big Palestinian state from the Sea to the River. It also means with high probability, the end of Jordan, being a part of historic Palestine, and Palestinians being 70% of its population.
Two states will disappear for the establishment of one Palestinian state that already exists de Facto: 94 percent of the Palestinians in western area of the Jordan live by their own governmental system and under a Palestinian rule.
The fourth misconception is the belief that Palestinian society is ready and willing for the historical compromise with Israel. Well, Habeas Corpus. Please, anyone who thinks he can, please do it; please, prove it is possible. Sadat came to Jerusalem. Please bring the Palestinians to take his model. Indeed, monitoring the Palestinian communications media; reading the total incitement in educational institutions; listening to the sermons in the Mosques; watching the leaders’ declarations and their political and social agenda; and listening to the anti-Semite speeches and declarations thundering in the streets – all these uncover an atrocious picture as to the nature of Palestinian hostility toward Israel.
Unfortunately, the result will be very highly disappointing to any optimistic person who has a good will and a political drive to bring calm to this area. Anyone will find out that it is very complex attempt to conclude peace with a society that has undergone such processes of socialization and indoctrination of hatred and animosity; that has poisoned its own youth with so highly venom of incitement. Before everything else, we must cut off the vicious circle of the deadly indoctrination to death and Shahadah, homicide bombings, among the Palestinians.
This is the reason why there are the Israeli road barriers. Yair Lapid, one of the Israeli leftist journalists and novelists, has addressed a British lecturer, after the UCU ban on the Israeli academia:
You are right. The most humanitarian act is to take off the security barriers. However, In that case I will die, and I really do not want to die. The only thing that interest me is that the bus my daughter takes to reach her target will not be exploded by a so-called freedom fighter. She only wants to live. Please, promise me this, and you will see all the barriers vanish. Promise me that the terrorists will not use innocent people – small kids and old ladies, or other means to pass over weaponry and bombs devices for murdering Jews in Israel, and you will not see security barriers and other barriers. Promise me to stop the vicious unprecedented phenomenon of the homicide bombers and you will not find barriers. All I ask is just you to understand that I do not want to die. And please don’t tell me that the problem is the occupation. Palestinian terrorism was perpetuated in the 1920’s and 1930’s, much before Israel was established. The occupation should be removed, but terrorism and homicide bombers must be stopped much before. I want to live. So is my family, and this is my utmost priority; and this is why the barriers are so important.
The fifth misconception is related to the religious variable when discussing tolerance. We can unfortunately conclude that in the Middle East, for the time being, religion is not a constructive factor to bringing peace and harmony. Let’s look at the balance sheet:
In Palestine. The Christian plight in Mandatory. Palestine represents the harsh situation and their persecution. From almost 18% of the overall population in 1948, they are now less than 3%, and countdown continues. In 1948, the Bethlehem area was 87% Christian. In 1990, it became 60%, and in 2005 it is less than 15%; and todat only few percent. Joseph Farah, a Christian Arab details: They are being driven out. They are being murdered. They are being systematically persecuted. This is a massive display of ethnic cleansing and population movement which is covered up by the international media. But the worst is that the perpetrators of these crimes successfully blame Israel for committing them.
In Sudan. There were three waves of genocide onslaught against the black Christians of the south in which millions have massacred and annihilated. The third one, since 1983, an estimated 1.5 million Christians have died from war crimes, and about 2 million have become refugees. Sudan’s genocidal campaign of massacre, torture, rape and starvation is most significant in the world. Sudanese now massacre black Muslims by hundreds of thousands in Darfur, creating 2.5 million new refugees, only because they are black Muslims and not Arabs. This is one of the greatest holocaust to a people since World War II, second only to the Jews and the Armenians.
The man who has uncovered the hideous atrocious massacre in Darfur, is brian Steidel, a volunteer in the Peace Force. One can watch his dreadful film “the Devil on the horseback.” It is worth mentioning that Sudan is an honorable member in the UN Human Rights Committee and other UN committees, and presiding some of them. However, compare this genocide massacre and the attention it gets compare to how the Palestinians are lucky to get all international attention and support, while they are committing the terrorist crimes.
In Iraq. The Christians were 5% of the population in 1930, and now they have almost annihilated – less than 1%. First, there was Saddam Hussein; then when Iraq has become a failed state, due to the US march of folly in the Middle East, the Muslim groups and organizations are perpetrating a genocide against Christians, including the destruction of world historical heritage sites.
To this story of the mass genocide one may add the persecution of the Kurds by hundreds of thousands, and since 2003, another front has been opened: the massacre of Muslim Shiites by Muslim Sunnis through terrorist acts, by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. He should be regarded perhaps the greatest terrorist ever, who was the father and the Mentor of the Islamic Caliphate State. `Umran Salman, a Bahraini journalist, assesses: Not since the Nazi era has there been anything like the declaration of war on the Shiites in Iraq. The Sunnis persecute the Shiites and declare them infidels. al-Qaeda is waging a war of collective extermination against the Shiites in Iraq.
In Egypt. There is constant harassment and persecution of the Coptic Christians. The Egyptian reformist, Tarik Heggy details: the Copts live in a deep religious intolerance, hateful fanaticism and mortal persecution.
In Algeria, the government embarked on a campaign of forced Arabization of the non-Arab Berber Muslim population, including social and economic harassment. From 1992 there is an internal civil war with 130,000 of fatalities.
In Lebanon, the Christians comprised 86% of the population in 1920, and now they are less than 20%, and counting down.
Majid Aziza, an Arab liberal scholar analyzes the plight of the Christians in the Muslim world: They are massacred and tortured, their communities were destroyed, and the acts of coercion, discrimination, and collective expulsion have caused the almost disappearance of the Christian from the Middle East
Gaza has shown the worst behavior of civil war, to the extent that Watch Organization accused both sides with perpetuating war crimes against civilians. We hear new songs: Fath accuses Hamas of perpetuating Nazi means, being blood suckers. Abu Mazen has declared: “Hamas are the sons of evil… the worst enemies of the Palestinians… they deserve death… Hamas have brought Hezbollah and Iran… This is a struggle against the Emirate of Darkness and Backwardness. Gaza will turn into a Taliban-style Islamic emirate with Iranian and Syrian support…”
Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort
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.
Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran
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
Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons
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 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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