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The Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups and International Relations: the 7th Century is Back (B)

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The main question is whether the West is capable of halting its internal decay and to revive itself, or whether it will be accelerated, leading to surrender to the Islamic civilization. At this point, we seek to make an important analogy. An analysis of the economic, religious and geopolitical parameters indicate that the era in which we live is astonishingly and frighteningly similar to the reality extant at the beginning of the seventh century: The Byzantine and Sassanid Empires were in the process of decay, while aggressive Islam, driven by religious ideology, rode by the expansionist wave, with wide-ranging processes of Arabization and Islamization of the conquered areas.

Indeed, the Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups pose an existential threat to the free world in four conspicuous trends: a) Utilization of indiscriminate terrorism, the Jihad of homicide bombers, lynching and slaughter; b) Operating an onslaught religious preaching to bring the believers back to the true Islam, and to convert infidels (Da’wah); c) Gaining control of the West by means of a combination of pleasantries and sweet-talking, while accusing it of colonialism and racism, and at the same time: using a thorough diplomacy of deceit; d) The uncontrolled immigration to the West and the demographic victory, by the Muslims’ women womb.

In contrast to these severe trends, the free world stands consumed by doubts and ignorance regarding the vital need to fight for its life and its freedoms. Why? a) Post-colonialist and post-modernist perceptions which are unfortunately so pervasive within the so-called the liberal intelligentsia, the media, and public opinion in the West. b) Strengthening the devastating influences of the “political correct” and the “mirror image” approaches in Western public opinion and policy-makers. c) A deep appeasement accompanied with hedonism, which is so characteristic to Western democracies. d) Conspicuous policy of attaining quiet and order at all costs, which sometimes becomes a sort of “protection money” to the violent and the aggressor. e) Weariness of violence, a deep wish of war-avoidance at all costs, a phenomenon concerning especially Europe.

Oriana Falacci, in her The Pride and the rage, addresses these trends:

Wake up people, wake up. Paralyzed by the fear of appearing racist, you do not understand or do not wish to understand that the reverse crusade has commenced. Drugged by the stupidity or shortsightedness of the adherents of political correctness, you do not internalize or do not want to internalize that a religious war is transpiring here. A war, whose objective is to conquer our souls and rob us of our freedoms. A war conducted with the goal of destroying our civilization and our way of life. Stunned by the preponderance of false propaganda, you do not or do not want to get it into your heads that if we do not defend ourselves, if we do not battle, jihad will win. It will win and destroy the world which we were able to build. It will make our culture and identity disappear.

Debating them is pointless; conducting a dialogue with them is useless; and demonstrating tolerance towards them is suicide. How is it that leftists never open their mouths against the Muslim world’s primitive, theocratic regimes, which have no democracy, no freedoms and no individual rights? Why were we killed and did we die in wars declared against the enemies of freedom and civilization? Are these principles invalid to the despotic Islamic regimes?

Enough of your double standards of morality; enough of your opacity; enough of your hypocrisy. Crickets of all countries and languages stop the confusion and start along the path to sobriety. The mountain of Islam has not moved for 1400 years; a mountain that consciously opts for primitiveness and ignorance and is ruled by fanatics. Europe is becoming a province of Islam.

Indeed, the religious foundation is the most decisive and significant in understanding the phenomenon. Huntington determined that civilizations are analyzed by means of history, language, traditions, and above all – culture and religion. The Free World, due to primal fears of returning to the religious wars of the Middle Ages, refuses to characterize the threatening reality as a religious conflict. In contrast, the leaders of the Islamic organizations intentionally employ religious terminology when coming to define their terrorist struggle and clearly declare that this is a religious war. For them it is a holy war, Jihad against the infidels, in which religion is the essence of the struggle integrated with colonialist dimension, and the model is Saladdin al-Ayubi, who fought the Crusaders.

Then, hypocrisy combined with much naiveté and ignorance and designed with an approach of political correctness, runs rampant: True, there are radicals among the Arabs and Muslims just as there are in all societies, but they are a minority, “weeds”. On the other hand, the majority is different and peace-loving, and one must not generalize. This is the problem with all of its severity. The relevant questions are:

a) If that is the true situation – how do we know this? Are there corroborating studies and data to substantiate this view? Or we only assume this is the reality, and perhaps the opposite is true, and the fanatics are the majority?

b) Even if a different majority exists, is its voice heard and does it influence the shaping of policy and the decision-making processes? Or we only supply excuses to the horrific phenomenon we don’t understand? Or is it only in our mirror image personality?

c) How many pressure groups and interest groups are there which actively function against Islamic fanaticism and Jihad terrorism? To what extent do they influence? Or we just ignore reality out of confusion? Or we think that our presumptions are true?

d) Where is public opinion voice, the political parties, the media, which prove, through their clear and loud activity, that there are other tendencies and other voices? Or we assume that this is the situation?

e) How many NGO’s are there acting against the terrorist organizations and preventing aid from their reach? Do they just even try to convince that the terrorists are mistaken? Or we just want to, we terribly wish to believe that there are?

f) If there are moderate peace-loving political leaders, where are they? What influence do they have? Is their voice heard? What do they declare and what do they do after the horrible acts of terrorism, except of blaming the US and the CIA, Israel and the Mossad?

g) Indeed, there are intellectuals, educated liberals, condemning wholeheartedly the hideous terrorist acts of the fanatics. However, what influence do they have? Who controls the Islamic communities and in the streets? Which voice is heard and is written in the communication Media? Who is more influential and admired by the youth, in the Madaris (religious schools) and in the mosques?

h) How many peace movements, pro-peace demonstrations and masses marching and rolling for peace and against the terrorist perpetrators can be identified in the streets? Or is it our imagination alone that we see?

Indeed, Nonie Darwish (FrontPageMagazine, January 7, 2005) is correct by blaming on the “silent Muslim majority”.

He is silent seeing the outrageous brutal inhumane terrorist attacks; and he do not act against the medieval-style behavior and practice in the Arab-Muslim world. Generations after generations, Muslims lived under dictatorships were trained to look the other side when Muslims torture and terrorize others. Their silence is in fact means aiding and abetting the cruel culture of hatred, terror, torture and beheadings. Most Islamic studies professors and Islamist groups in the West exercise their freedom of speech given to them, only to speak and argue against the West, Judaism and Christianity. However, they never criticize their culture of origin, and usually support it and serve as Da’wah agents. No matter what the West does, they voice criticism and aligning themselves with the liberal ‘hate America’ crowd in Western academia and media.

Islamism and the old defeated and failed ideology of pan-Arabism is what many of them advocating. They are silent in the face of Muslim poverty, corruption, neglect of human rights, oppression of women, honor killings, beheadings and stoning. They are not using Western freedoms as an opportunity to change their countries of origin, but as an opportunity to influence and change the West to be like the countries they came from. Their goal is also to keep Muslim communities in the West under their control and the control of Muslim world Mullahs, Sheikhs and religious fanatic dictators. Indeed, the silent majority is the problem. Their silence empowers terrorism and brutal dictatorships.

The trends so characteristic of Western democracies, the daily political give-and-take, the heated political debate, the variety of positions and opinions, the pluralism of attitudes – where are they in the Arab-Islamic world? The reality is that there are few who take a stand against, and they almost non-existent from influence and shaping policy point of view. This phenomenon does not stem out of fear of repressive government, but rather it is due to a tradition of authoritarianism at the foundation of the Arab tribal frameworks and the Islamic religion and due to lack of awareness and consciousness of sovereign citizenship. Although there is a reawakening of Arab intellectuals who harshly criticize Arab and Islamic regimes and societies and fanatical terrorism, the problem is that they remain an inconsequential minority lacking any influence.

Although they must be encouraged and provided with all forms of assistance, it is yet the hope that their entreaty will be larger in size and have more influence. Unfortunately, the opposite happens: Western policy suppresses them, because it does not fight fanaticism and aggressiveness, and pays lip service to the issues out of political considerations.

It is clear that the Muslim majority does not play an active role in terrorism and incitement, and the perpetrators of the Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups are perhaps a small minority. But one has to bear in mind that all the great revolutions in history were taken and executed by small groups of revolutionary vanguards. Moreover, it is also equally true that the majority does not oppose terrorism, fanaticism and violence. On the contrary, all indications are that they support it, admired the heroes, and are willing to assist them. He who wishes to comprehend the severity of this issue, all he needs is to investigate the place and the role of the youth, those youngsters in all Arab-Islamic states, including where they reside abroad in the West.

A second perspective to bear in mind is that the Arab masses were never in history a significant political player, and the leaders never took their opinions into consideration. The masses never participated in politics and did not influence decision-making processes and policy making. They have never chose leaders or overthrew regimes. Arab-Islamic politics have always unfolded at the level of a small group of the political elites. Indeed, the majority does not make its voice heard and does not express opposition to the atrocities, and this inaction transforms them into collaborators with evil.

The relevant questions to be asked compare to the situation in 50-40-30-20-10 years: are there more mosques than in the past? Are there more people returning to their religious roots? Are there more children named Usama (Bin Laden) and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi)? Are there more Islamic communities operating in the framework of Da’wah politics? Are there more terrorist acts or less? Is there more political stability in the Arab-Muslim states or less? Is the Islamic education more modern or does it continue to be traditional-religious? Are there more women wearing traditional clothes and a veil (Hijab, Niqab, Chador) covering their faces? Are the youth more open to other opinions and positions or are they leading the extremist fanatic trends?

There are more questions and indications to observe and to realize that the Muslim world is climbing the radical-fanatic path and accelerating its aggression and not vise versa. Or perhaps we are dealing with the fallacies of Western thinking and distorted mirror images that don’t want to realistically accept the situation? As long as there is no indication of these and other dimensions, perhaps it is more correct to say that no such Arab-Islamic majority exists.

Sigmund Freud was correct when he emphasized: When it comes to self-deception, human beings are geniuses. Albert Einstein claimed that there are two things that are infinite: The universe and human stupidity, although he was not quite certain about the former. He also claimed that the difference between the stupid and the genius is that the genius knows his limitations. Karl Marx noted that the third most significant force moving the wheels of history, after capital and violence, is human stupidity.

Erik Hoffer determines that the obsessive dealing with the chimera of the future is the flight of one unable to confront the present. Barbara Tuchman spoke of the March of the Folly, in which leaders led their people into national catastrophes. And in the Bible we find (Ezekiel, 13:10): “Because, even because they have seduced my people, saying, Peace; and there was no peace; and one built up a wall, and, lo, others daubed it with untampered mortar”. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah, 5:20).

Amnon Dankner, an Israeli journalist, relates to the free world’s opacity:

Most of the Western world has yet to internalize the fact that it is in the midst of a bitter war, which will last many years. Inundated by fear, ignorance and stupidity, they blame the United States and Israel, and claim that if only all of the Western countries would leave the Muslim world alone and if only Israel would submit or be eliminated, there would be no more claims and allegations by the Muslims; al-Qaeda attacks would cease; Usama Bin-Laden would settle down to his Qur’an studies; and the Islamic Caliphate State would become a charity organization.

Since the days of Hitler, the world has not witnessed propaganda as vitriolic as that emerging from the Arab-Muslim world. This is an ordered doctrine of burning hatred, animosity and contempt for the Western world, Western progress and Western culture. Just as with Hitler: One who fails to listen and read, one who does not take interest and scrutinize, one who ignores and ridicules – will not understand where he lives and what the future has in store for him and what is the meaning of the rhetoric, which is so venomous and the hatred, which is so fiery.

Western culture terrifies the Arab-Islamic soul, and that terror is joined by the profound sense of inferiority of a backward society, which lives a parasitic existence at the expense and thanks to the abilities of Western civilization. The Iranian advancement towards nuclear capability, the existence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and the availability of biological and chemical capabilities in the hands of Islamic terrorist organizations should terrify everyone.

Translation of the unprecedented hate rhetoric vis-à-vis the West with those capabilities – are awful portents for humanity. It is impossible to satisfy the monster by feeding it bits and pieces, like the weakening or elimination of Israel. The West must understand that it is confronting a voracious appetite of hatred. All of those advocating conciliatory steps, aid and rehabilitation are clueless as to what is really happening.

The issue of liberalization and democratization will be dealt separately. Yet, preliminary questions are to be asked: does Islam want to change and develop? Do the Arab-Islamic regimes aspire to achieve democracy? This is something that Western culture should bear in mind: Arab politics is comprised by authoritarian regimes and patrimonial leaders. There is no democracy, no political liberalism, no civil rights, no citizenship by a sovereign electing “people”, and no governmental responsibility accepting political transparency and responsibility. The political systems are not committed to socio-economic progress. In fact, they are against any action leading to this target, beyond a controlled framework.

Arab and Islamic leaders know that any real economic progress would bring overthrow of the regime and their own political liquidation. You cannot bring economic liberalization without political liberalization, and political liberalization means the total elimination of the authoritarian regimes, and theirs, as patrimonial leaders. They recall time and again the rapid economic and social changes that led to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu in Romania, and Gorbachev, in the Soviet-Union.

According to the Islamic religious groups it is very clear that there is no need for change, since everything is controlled by Allah, and due to the profound belief that the Qur’an contains all human knowledge from the beginning of history through the end of days, and that any change is heresy punishable by death.

In the Middle East, the problem is not economic development that will bring democratization and leads to political moderation. Arab-Islamic political culture demands strong political institutions and governmental authoritarianism, under the code of political stability. This reality is strengthened by the Islamic religion, which emphasize total obedience to the government, whatever are the deeds of the leader. Everything is due to the will of Allah, so, there is no regime responsibility.  

Haim Harari claims that the root of the problem is “the entire Muslim region is non-functional”. Twenty-two Arab countries, with a population of four hundred million, “with all of the oil and their natural resources have half of California’s GNP. This creates an unprecedented hothouse for the development of cruel tyrants, terrorism networks, zealotry, incitement, suicide murderers and economic deterioration”. They blame Western culture, the United States and Israel – everyone but themselves.

Four dimensions underscore this phenomenon: a) the Suicide Bomber. This is impressive and frightening, drawing hysterical media coverage. Money, power and murderous incitement are behind. b) Lies of hatred and murderous incitement. c) Money. One of the largest industries in the world in channeled to the cycles of murder and by means of charity and educational organizations, they program the minds of the young generation with hatred, lies and ignorance. d) Absolute violation of the rules. Fanatical terrorism violates of the rules of culture and morality. The Arab regimes externalize the frustration and misery of the masses to colonialism and to xenophobia.

To this reality the former Kuwaiti Communications Minister, Dr. Sa’d Bin-Tafla (June 8, 2004) has referred:

The violence of slaughter, anarchy and bloodshed is a cultural phenomenon. The religious faction sets the rules: To achieve victory or martyrdom in order to restore the Islamic Empire, which stretched from China to Andalusia; The Arab media assists them by painting the world in black and white; and the Arab culture stokes the fire. Are Zionism and Western imperialism connected to this? Absolutely not. A hundred thousand people were massacred in the name of Islam in Algeria over the course of ten years, by Algerians; in Iraq, before the American invasion, violence claimed the lives of more than a million Iraqis, Iranians and Kurds. In Saudi Arabia there is no occupation and no American army, and Moslems are murdered and massacred there. In Palestine there was violence before the advent of the Israelis and there is violence unrelated to them. Genocide is transpiring in Sudan, and the Arab world is indifferent. The Sudan is perpetrating genocide.

This is the “culture of backwardness”, which dominates the Arab world, in the words of Said al-Hammad of Bahrain (al-Ayyam, August 17, 2004), which led the Arabs and Muslims into quixotic wars against the West and globalization. The culture of backwardness also includes the “culture of terrorism”, which adopts the approach of beheading and crushing people; and the “culture of hatred”, which propagates in the minds and consciousness of the youth hatred for the world and for people whose opinions and thoughts are different than theirs.

In political-religious terms: There is an aspiration to bring the entire world under the rule of Islam, in the dynamic terms of perpetual expansion: the Chief Muslim Mufti of Australia and New Zealand, Taj al-Din Hamad Abdullah: “Australia was discovered by Afghani Muslims and the time has come to restore it to its rightful place within Islam.” That too was the resolution of the Islamic Conference, which was held in Riyadh and noted that Muslims remember Andalusia and seek to return to it (Saudi Gazette, March 1, 2005). Yusuf al-Karadawi: Islam will succeed in conquering Europe for the third time: after its two previous failures (in the 7th and the 17th centuries) – by means of the Da’wah.

Yet, it was the former first editor of the Israeli newspapwe, Maariv, Azriel Carlebach, who already in October 1955 wrote:

Has anyone ever gotten anywhere with the Muslims? And why is everyone constantly trying? This is the ignorance, which causes statesman to depict other nations as exact replicas of themselves. However the truth is simple and clear:

There never was, and never will be, any understanding between the world of Islam and the Western world. In all social and cultural areas, Islam is fascism. It is the paradigm of fascism. For generations Islam has educated to violate human nature: Not to utilize the mind and to reject individual rights. Islam has no aspiration towards a better world and the concept of advancement is non-existent.

There is no initiative and no attempts at improvement. They do not adapt the will of Allah and do not challenge the interpretation of the clerics. The motivation pushing Western man to have the land produce more bread has been stifled in the hearts of the Muslim man. Islam has stifled it. The cultured world defended itself against the monster for two or three hundred years. However, over the last two generations, the European nations have committed the fatal error of viewing Muslim man in their own image.

An inchoate mass of hundreds of millions Muslims throughout the world has arisen, a nightmare whose potential threat is enormous. The threat of the psychology of Islam, which lives in a world of delusion, afflicted with attacks of inferiority and delusions of grandeur, which repudiates all that is sacred to the civilized world.

The threat posed to the West by Islam is incalculably greater than that posed by communism. It is possible to speak to communism with the logic of give-and-take. But not with Islam. It is possible to forgive the ignorant “experts” in the State Department who do not understand Islam, however it is impossible to forgive the Israeli people. We should know. We help the world draw an image of Arabs that is the product of our wishful thinking. And we add insult to injury when we distort the picture and confine the debate to a border dispute. The Arabs proffer claims, acceptable to the West. However, that is not the source of its hostile position. And without the occupation and without the refugees, they would continue to oppose Israeli existence just as vigorously.

Above all, we have committed the sin of provincialism against the world and against ourselves. Most of the statesmen in the countries around the world can still sleep soundly. However, we, ourselves, minimize the nature of the true calamity, of which we are merely its incidental and marginal victims. As long as we don’t make an effort and succeed in bequeathing this insight to the world, the truth regarding Islam, we will always be the first victims of its ignorance.

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Middle East

Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

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Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.

The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.

The Defectors

The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.

The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.

One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.

There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.

The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.

Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid

The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.

Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.

Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.

Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.

One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.

Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.

Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.

The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.

The Al-Bustan Association

An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.

Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.

The Father of the Desert Hawks

One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.

An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.

Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.

The Old Guard and the Special Services

Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.

Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Elements of Matriarchy

Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.

Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.

On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.

On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.

The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

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