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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (B)

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The deepest crisis of our world today is of leadership. What happened in the first half of the 20th century was a crisis of world democratic legislature, the inability of the parliamentary to act according to its authority and to impose restriction on the executive.

The result was the breakout of the two World Wars. Unfortunately the beginning of the 21st century witnesses the crisis of leadership, the weakness of the executive to follow a bold courageous policy. The immediate result is the power vacuum created that has led to the encroachment of Islam as the main actor of world politics.

Leadership is not ready to admit the problematic nature of its “mirror imaging”, works to avoid cognitive dissonance and at the same time is busy with appeasement. This means that it has closed its mind to any trend or development that is not acceptable to, and refuses to believe that the problems created originate from its own values and policy. From its point of view, even if the existing reality does not portend good tidings, the leaders work by the approach “minor changes to the midway point”.

That is, in the last analysis, the situation is OK, and the problems that have burst into the open are small and soluble. The main thing is to continue with the policy and not to stop. But the critical question that must be asked of citizens who look at a failing policy and at the conduct of their leaders, is: If the state were a business enterprise, whom would you appoint or choose to run it? And what would you do as chairman of the board of directors of the company, when you realize that the management has failed and is covering up? Would you allow it to continue with the disastrous policy? Now, here we are only dealing with a business. What happens when the failure might bring the state to the brink, and even more, endanger the existence of peoples?

Who is the realist leader as against the extremist? Was it Chamberlain, who promised peace, or Churchill, who promised blood and tears? Was it Clinton, who appeased North Korea, or the Prime Minister of Israel, Begin, who bombed the Iraqi atomic reactor? He who sells dictatorship of utopia and peace now, or he who shouts loudly that the enemy is here and we must fight? He who cried out in the 1930s that the Jews must eliminate the Diaspora before the Diaspora eliminates them, or those who did not believe that the holocaust could occur? Was it Huntington, who offered “the clash of civilizations”, or those who accused him of not understanding Islam?

In reaction to these critical remarks, about the “mirror image” that expresses flaws of leadership, the retort came: Don’t the leaders know this? Aren’t they aware of these phenomena? Don’t they have this information? The answer is clear. They know and see everything, and the information at their disposal is good and much more plentiful than would allow them to overlook key features. But they are politicians, and the most outstanding traits of this breed are their evasiveness and refusal to admit failure. Have you ever seen a gambler losing almost everything get up from the table? No. He will risk what is left, out of the hope that he will regain what he has lost. This picture very much fits political leadership. Politicians’ egoism, their conceptual misdoings, their distorted perceptions are deep and complex. They will not admit failure, and they will certainly not retreat from the line of policy that they have shaped.

As for Islam, Winston Churchill wrote in his two-volume work, The (Nile) River War: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries… The fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog… Insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live… Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities…but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.” Churchill concluded: “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith… the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc, the President of the Oxford Union and a member of the British Parliament, wrote in The Great Heresies (1938): “Mohammedism was a perversion of Christian doctrine… The success of Mohammedanism…was an extreme simplicity which pleased the unintelligent masses… Will not perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed Mohammedan world which will shake off the domination of Europeans – still nominally Christian – and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization?…

The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam… anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom… yet over and over again they have suddenly united under a leader and accomplished the greatest things…”

Belloc concluded: “…Now it is probable enough that on these lines – unity under a leader – the return of Islam may arrive. There is no leader as yet, but enthusiasm might bring one and there are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date perhaps not far distant.”

The First Cultural Flaw in Thinking: The Arab Personality

Arab society is mainly tribal-nomadic, with its outstanding trait being clan loyalty and the anarchy of the desert. Most of its values were shaped in the Jahiliyah. , The important values in Arab conceptions and behavior reflect the pre-Islamic ideals. In the Jahiliyah age, it is stated that “The Arabs did not know Allah and his Messenger and the rules of the religion.”

Therefore, it is defined as “the period of ignorance”. However, since the researcher Goldziher, it has been agreed that the Jahiliyah was a period of wildness, savagery, tribal jealousy and idol worship. The tribe made up the exclusive social-cultural unit. It was in constant conflict with other tribes over sources of subsistence. The political struggle principally embodied the scarcity of resources against the many demands to obtain them. This was a society of, “His hand shall be against all men,” as God said of Ishmael.

The two most important activities of the Arab tribes were constant fights and quarrels on other tribes, embodied by raids (Ghazawat) with the aim of taking booty (Ghanaem), the utmost: kidnapping women and boys and girls. The reason was power politics. Women represent a producing babies machinery and boys as fighters. The bigger the tribe was from fighters on the battleground perspective, the stronger, victorious, and respected it became.

Under Islam, Muhammad took this situation and funneled it into a total warfare against the infidels. From now on Muslims love and cherish other Muslims while they hate and fight the infidels. This has become a religious commandment called al-Wala’ wal-Bara’. Therefore, the social-political tribal syndrome of raids-booty has become a religious fighting-call to battle the infidels wherever and whenever they are. These traits had also been showed in the scourge of Islamic slavery of more than two hundreds of millions of black and white slaves from Africa, Asia and East Europe. It was also shown by the Devshirme system employed by the Ottoman Empire, of kidnapping young boys and girls, converting them to Islam and using them as soldiers, administrators and concubines.  

The extended family-clan-tribe syndrome was as follows: the head of the tribe was the Sayid, who was elected from among by the small group of the elders, and was only first among equals in status. This reality runs all Islamic history and contemporary: the leaders are from among the military or from the respected tribes serving as Sultans or kings. The Muslim peoples have never chosen or elected their own leaders, and were never part of the decision-making processes. They have not shaped or influenced the decision-making process as tribes, before Islam, as subjects of an Islamic empire, and as a contemporary inhabitants of the state political system. One cannot find citizenship, and sovereign electing people in Arab-Islamic political system.

Among the tribes was the Haram area, a place of agreed upon neutral holiness. It was a place for clarifications and intertribal agreements. From this, the Arabs accumulated immense experience in conducting negotiations. Thus, structures developed for obtaining mediation and compromise that were institutionalized. These were called “mechanisms of Wustah or Wasat.”

Despite their desert character, the city was the Arabs’ focus of change and political activity. Mecca was a center of trade and pilgrimage, since it was on the caravan routes. This is the Islamic strategy today in the Free World territories: occupation comes from the cities, and the main activity to achieve this goal has been in the city.

Religion had secondary importance in Jahili society. Religious customs were observed out of tradition and feelings of respect for forefathers, but religion was fetishist, and values were fatalistic, out of absolute faith in the decrees of fate. Secular values took a central place, and were expressed in the concept of manliness (Muruwwah), which meant the whole set of traits of the perfect Bedouin. The most important framework was preserving tribal solidarity (‘Asabiyyah). The tribe was the foundation for personal and group existence.

The critical phenomenon in its importance to Arab-Islamic society is honor. A man’s honor is Sharaf. It is flexible, dynamic, and subject to change in accord with his deeds. A woman’s honor is ‘Ird (also meaning her pelvis). In contrast to a man’s honor, it is firm and permanent. The woman grows up with her honor, and her most important role is to preserve it. The moment that a woman’s honor is lost, it cannot be restored, and a man’s honor is severely wounded. Indeed, Muslim society is based on the virginity of its daughters. Honor is the most important supreme value in Arab life, more important than life itself. A man without honor is considered dead. Hence the saying, “It is better to die with honor than live with humiliation.”

A man’s place in the tribe, as well as the tribe’s place among the tribes, was according to the measure of his and its honor. When honor was harmed, shame was caused which originated in public exposure, overt to everyone, a phenomenon which severely humiliated a man. Indeed, the Arab individual is caught up throughout his whole life in intensive activity to avoid shame and advance his honor. The central means for this was vengeance. Honor is restored only when vengeance has been carried out in public and is known to all.

This syndrome: honor-shame-vengeance is of highest importance in Arab-Islamic life, and is the focus of all other cultural traits analyzed herewith. Everything stems from this syndrome and everything is influenced from it. Publicity is the measurement, the variable that determines the action.

Tribal tradition and clan loyalty had dominant influence in society. Likewise significant were blood ties within the extended family and the clan, which determined group loyalties and identifications. Most of these social traits exist to this day, and influence the functioning of Arab society as a primordial system in which symbolic values are more important and esteemed than concrete values and the overall, holistic system of beliefs. This is “a shame society”, in which everyone must behave according to the accepted norms and internalize his own feelings in the system of group behavior.

A significant phenomenon that typifies the Arab is a basic lack of trust, indeed, suspicion, and hostility toward the “other”, even if he is a neighbor and member of the same clan. This is a central phenomenon in social life, which goes to an extreme of course when non-Muslim foreigners are involved. All the mechanisms of receptions and the intensive activity of welcoming and hospitality are meant to create a defensive barrier, to soften the threatening interpersonal encounter. For this purpose, the political system has proven itself so very flexible and deeply adaptable. Life in such a hostile environment, and with resources so hard to get, has created a society of adaptability that comes to terms with reality. Political conformism is required as well as acceptance of rules of behavior, which define the society’s goals in religious terms.

This reality expressed too the collective’s superiority over the individual. In contrast to modern societies which promote the individual’s interests, and in which the ethos is what the individual takes and receives from the generality, in Arab society, the ethos is what the individual does for the collective. There is a communal consensus in contrast to an individual’s opinion. Islam does not encourage individualism, rather favoring organized, orderly authority. The individual does not exist by his own right, and he and his opinions are unimportant, except through his belonging to a group framework.

This is based on the Hadith attributed to Muhammad: “The opinion of the many [clan, tribe, religious community] cannot be mistaken.” There is nothing more contemptible than individualism, which is viewed as factionalism and as harming the achievement of goals. This is also the basis for the attitude towards political opposition, which is not accepted in principle. Therefore, one may analyze the Arab personality as moving along a continuum in accordance with the following criteria:

a) The syndrome of honor–shame–vengeance. When shame (‘Eb) has taken place, Arab personality urge him to act with unrestrained cruelty and violence in the pursuit of vengeance (Intiqam, Thar). Indeed, the means for preserving honor and even reinforcing it is revenge. In the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab-Muslim perspective is clear: Israel is guilty and deserves to suffer vengeance due to its very existence as a Jewish state, when there is no Jewish people; due to its location as a state in the heart of the Arab world, when it divides the Arabs, preventing them from reaching their goals; and due to its activity as a violent state, expanding to obtain additional Arab territories.

Can a solution be reached in these circumstances? The answer touches more on the balance of forces and Israel’s effective deterrence than on issues of honor, since in the last analysis, national interests are what decide. Nevertheless, the issue weighs heavily on attaining legitimacy and assent (if only resigned and reluctant) for Israel’s existence.

b) Internalized personality in contrast to externalized personality: Jews and Christians internalize the guilt. The Jews extend one cheek in the sense of, “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have committed crimes,” while Christians extend the second cheek, in the sense of “mea culpa.” In contrast, the Arabs externalize guilt: “Do I have a problem? – You are guilty!” Among them, there is no attempt to compromise. They have no tolerance for the justice and rights of the other. From their vantage point, justice and rights are totally on their side. Among Arabs and Muslims, one will not find the phenomenon so typical of Judeo- Christian culture: doubts, a sense of guilt, the self-tormenting approach, “Maybe we were not entirely OK,” or “Maybe we need to act or react differently.”

These phenomena are totally unknown in Arab-Islamic society towards outsiders. They have no doubts about their positions or the justice of their side. They have no sense of guilt that they may have erred. They have no twinges of conscience nor any regret that they may have done wrong to anyone else. From their viewpoint, they have no problem concerning the infidels. The phenomenon of the homicide bombers, mistakenly called suicide bombers, is an indication. There is no condemnation, no regret, no problem of conscience among Arabs and Muslims, anywhere, in any social stratum, of any social position. For the most part, there is total support without reservations. And if there are doubts, they have to do with the effectiveness of the phenomenon, not with condemnation of it.

c) Factionalism vs. Unity. The Arab personality oscillates in the space between the anarchic Arab character, separatist and violent, and the need to act jointly to achieve goals. This is the syndrome of polar reversals between factionalism and unity, between competitiveness and cooperation, between the aspiration for tribal freedom, the free spirit of the desert, and accepting authority and submitting to government. This is the syndrome between the stormy, violent personality, and the demands of society and the environment for conformity and submission. This is the syndrome between clan loyalty and tribal separatism, on one hand, and accepting tyrannical, authoritarian rule submissively, without challenge, on the other.

In this anarchic and violent society, the fear of social breakdown and disorientation is paramount, and dictates passive patterns of behavior. Above all, the most important continuum for understanding the Arab personality is that between submission to and fawning over those with perceived power, at one end, and cruel, violent, anarchic, unrestrained wildness, at the other.

Hostility and suspicion are dominant characteristics in the Arab personality. This is expressed by the saying: I and my brothers against my cousins’ sons; I and my cousins’ sons against the neighbor; I and the neighbors against the other. On one hand, flattering welcomes and gestures of politeness, but at one and the same time, continuing suspicion of the other and his intentions. The custom of hospitality, which is so famous an Arab social phenomenon, can be seen in the context of obtaining honor and externalizing it towards the environment. The mechanisms of reception and the polite welcomes in Arab society are meant to soften the interpersonal encounter which is so oppressive and threatening, to create a defense barrier.

d) The Collective Culture of Stubborn Social Limits. Characterizing Arab personality are various taboos and prohibitions of social and class hierarchy, in a constant attempt to be “OK” and to protect the accepted rules, to avoid failure in a matter that is likely to embarrass or to shame your rival in public. This refers to a puritanical society of firm prohibitions, which is based on its daughters’ virginity. This is a culture of hierarchy and discipline, of stiff homogeneity, contrasting with the pluralism and competition which indicate flexible heterogeneity in Western culture.

This is a culture wherein rumors are an integral part of social activity, and they quickly become absolute truth which cannot be challenged. It has to do with exaggerations, flights of fancy, and especially, in a society that believes in conspiracies, a society wherein every date is important, that remembers everything and forgives nothing. This is a society wherein the lie is an essential component of behavior patterns, and lying is endorsed by religious sages.

The famous Muslim theologian, al-Ghazzali, claimed that the lie is not wrong in itself. If the lie is the way to achieve good results for Islam, then it is permissible. It is necessary to lie when the truth might lead to unpleasant or undesired results. This is a society in which looking someone straight in the eye is forbidden, since it constitutes a challenge. There is also the prohibition to use the left hand, “the dirty hand”. Body language, like the manner of walking and the way of sitting, is very prominent. Indeed, the Arab personality is very diffuse from the structural and stratification standpoint.

e) The language as a cultural phenomenon, which makes it possible to understand the social environment and communicate with it. Language is critical in importance in Arab culture. The Arabs are motivated by admiration for the Arabic language and wide use of witticisms, sayings, fables, and allegories, as a filter of high importance for preventing shame, and consequently, for evading frictions and conflict. These bring the Arab personality to pathos and bellicose rhetoric, and from here to exaggerating reality, to overemphasis, to overstatement.

In all forms of interpersonal communications there are several phenomena: exaggeration in describing events (Mubalaghah); personal boasting of one’s deeds (Mufakharah); and repeated stressing of words (Tawqid). The role of the word in the Arab world (the word is a decoration) is totally different from that in the West (the word is a commitment). For the Syrian poet, Qabbani, the Arabs have been subject to 1,500 years of imperialist occupation by poetry.

What happens in the cultural encounter between the overstatement approach of Arab culture and the understatement approach of Western culture? Indeed, the influence of the Arab language on the behavior of the Arab personality is astonishing. Not only are they convinced that it is the most beautiful of all languages, but also that it proves their superiority and the superiority of Arab culture.

The Arab linguist al-Tha`alibi stated: “Whoever loves the Prophet, loves the Arabs. And whoever loves the Arabs, loves the Arabic language. The Prophet Muhammad is the most excellent of all prophets; the Arabs are the best, most admirable people of the world; and the Arabic language is the most excellent of all tongues.

f) The Phenomenon of Time. This too is a cultural matter totally different from its counterpart in Western culture. Western culture sanctifies the “here and now”. It wants “to make time”, to achieve everything now, to arrive much more quickly anywhere. In contrast, in Arab culture, there is time in abundance. It can be wasted indefinitely. After all, it is not necessary to do everything here and now. This is the reason for the totally different approach to negotiations among the Arabs, for the lack of speed in agreeing to accords, and for the tendency to postpone till tomorrow dealing with complex problems. In Western culture, everything is viewed as a “window of opportunity”, in an admired and attractive expression. Meanwhile, in Arab culture, the belief is that one should not hurry, since haste is the work of Satan (al-‘Ajalah Min al-Shaitan).

An apt summary of the matter was written by the famous Egyptian journalist, Muhammad Hassanayn Haykal, former editor of the daily, al-Ahram:

Arab logic tends to retreat in the direction of the instinct. Our thoughts are dust while our emotions are fire. We were and still are tribes, raging at one moment and quiescent at another. We hold our weapons in front of one another, and later we clasp each other’s hand and embrace as if nothing had happened.

The late Fuad Ajami proves that the kind of Western modernity that the Arabs imported gave birth to a monstrous, arid world, a false image of modernity, since they have no spirit of curiosity, nor hunger to know by totally changing values, nor openness to absorb and process other matters.

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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

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

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

The Defectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Al-Bustan Association

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

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

The Father of the Desert Hawks

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

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

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

The Old Guard and the Special Services

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

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

Elements of Matriarchy

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

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

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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