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Aleppo under siege: USA lets Russia claim diplomatic advantage

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] C [/yt_dropcap] onflicts in Middle East resembling a new World War launched by Bush administration to ensure energy security, are now focused on Syria where many foreign powers, led by USA one the one hand and Russia on the other, are targeting Muslims in Sunni nation ruled by a Shiite Assad who apparently wants to rule the nation of Syrians forever.

Syria has been under siege for years since the onset of Arab Spring and both the government and the Opposition forces keep claiming victories off and on but the war continues, killing and mutilating Syrians.

Bush Junior has made the US government a war machine fully engaged invasions, destabilization, destructions. US generals have demonstrated an impressive aptitude for moving pieces around on a dauntingly complex military chessboard in Islamic world. Brigades, battle groups, and squadrons shuttle in and out of various war zones, responding to the needs of the moment. The lesser theaters of conflict, largely overlooked by the American public, that in recent years have engaged the attention of US forces, a list that would include conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. This engagement in wars have made Islamic world insecure. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been spared so far essentially for strategic reasons. The two principal conflicts of the post-9/11 era: the Afghanistan War, now in its 16th year, and the Iraq War, launched in 2003 and (after a brief hiatus) once more grinding on. Wars have helped USA control entire world.

Syria seems to have slipped out of US control and fallen into Russian orbit. Five years since the conflict began, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and almost 11 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes. In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, determined to stay in power at any cost, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war. Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energized and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assad’s’ rule.

Assad control of Aleppo city parts

Reports suggest that Syrian government forces have captured a key part of eastern Aleppo, splitting rebel-held territory. Both state TV and the monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the district of Sakhour had fallen to the Syrian army.

The Syrian army and their allies launched a major offensive to retake control of Aleppo in September. Thousands of civilians have fled rebel-held eastern Aleppo districts after a weekend of heavy fighting. Hundreds of families have also been displaced within the besieged area. Russia says its air force is active in other parts of the country, but not operating over Aleppo. While it is very difficult to find out exactly what is happening in besieged eastern Aleppo, several key districts appear to have fallen to the government, leaving very little, if any, of the northern part of the rebel-held enclave still under the rebels’ control.

There were 250,000 people in need of assistance in eastern Aleppo, 100,000 of them children. The situation on the ground in eastern Aleppo is almost beyond the imagination of those of us who are not there. State TV quoted a Syrian military source as saying that government forces “are continuing their advance in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo”. The US led opposition had lost more than third of the area it controlled in Aleppo city during the recent advance. The east of Aleppo has been held by rebel factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad for the past four years. In the past year, Syrian troops have broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Things have turned out very differently.

Meanwhile, Russia has rejected US calls to halt bombing eastern Aleppo. Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

As reports coming in, the Assad government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria, portions of Aleppo and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.

Rebel groups continue to jockey against one another for power, and frequently fight each other. The Free Syrian Army has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front have gained in strength.

Syria under threat

In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People’s Council of Syria was held in 2012.

On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulema. They labeled Assad as the “enemy of Allah” and called for a jihad against his rule Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad’s coming to power to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development, shocking the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” The regime survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assad’s death. He initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.

The Assad government opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration then began to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicizing Syrian repression of Kurdish and Sunni groups, and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences, as the opposition supported by the Obama regime was dominated by jihadist elements.

Syria is now a major war theater where foreign forces are busy killing Muslims and destroying the nation. .

In the history of Syria – a Sunni nation- many events contributed to its gradual weakening. In the recent past, a severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest. Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, a Shiite, ordered a military crackdown on the Sunni led Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Recently, even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising.

Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

Having left with no alternatives, no polls Sunnis and minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. An international coalition led by the USA has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as IS and ISIS and there could be more to be invented by CIA and Pentagon) group since 2014.

In 2013, ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria after overrunning large portions of Iraq. Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria are seeking self-rule in areas under their control. This has alarmed Turkey’s government, which fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result. In response to attacks within Turkey, the Turkish government has bombed Kurdish targets in Syria. Kurdish groups have also clashed with al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

It appears USA and Russia had informally decided to take opposite sides in Syrian War Theater. In September 2015, Russia launched a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as rebel groups backed by Western states. In October 2015, the USA scrapped its controversial program to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.

Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences. Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups in Syria. Many of those fighting come from outside of Syria. Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighter.

Although the USA has stated its opposition to the Assad government, it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which US President Barack Obama had previously referred to as a “red line” that would prompt intervention.

Fluid situation and enter Russia

Syrian war is a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian Government and its various supporters, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the ISIL. The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.

As Assad government was facing rout at the crushing attacks of US led Opposition forces, Russia came to the rescue of Assad and his rule. Russian forces, enjoying a free hand in Syria, have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo. Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Russia carries out its first air strikes on 30 September 2015 and Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. On 10 November 2015 the Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

Obviously, on instruction from Washington, Turkey shot down on 24 November a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border; Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria December 2015 – January 2016 and declares Latakia province rebel-free. Syrian army 24 March 2016 backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra. In September 2016, Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Russian goal

Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days. It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian and Syrian military goals are not identical. While the Syrian government insists it still wants to recapture all the territory it has lost, Moscow’s approach is very different. Unlike Syria and Iran, Russia has no interest in fighting for territory. In defending Assad, Moscow had sought to steadily destroy the moderate Syrian opposition on the battlefield, leaving only jihadist forces in play, and lock the USA into a political framework of negotiations that would serve beyond its current Democratic shelf-life. In both respects, Russia has been successful. Ultimately, the Russian goal is to lock in gains for Syria via ceasefires, while slow-rolling the negotiations to the point that true opposition to the Syrian regime expires on the battlefield, leaving no viable alternatives for the West in this conflict by 2017. Russia’s intervention, however, does not seek to minimize losses.

The Russian air force has deployed some of its most modern aircraft to Syria, though the same cannot be said for the munitions they employ. The Russian air campaign overall has relied upon the use of “dumb bombs” of various types, a major distinction with modern Western air campaigns, where almost all of the munitions used are precision-guided. Russian Special Forces and artillery have been engaged on the ground. Long-range missile strikes have been conducted from Russian warships and submarines. Even Russia’s only aircraft carrier is now on its way to the region.

The Syria operation has also provided an invaluable opportunity for Russian generals to try out their forces in operational conditions, as well as offering something of a “shop-window” for some of Russia’s latest military technology. Russian military sees this as an opportunity to test new or modern systems; experiment with network-centric warfare capability; and to present evidence of the success of military modernisation.” This helps Moscow to showcase its new combat systems for West Asia and elsewhere. .

Syria has become a kind of sampler of Russian military capabilities. Israel could be disappointed.

Russia’s air campaign: Key moments

30 September 2015 – Russia carries out its first air strikes. Syria says it requested intervention to help in “the fight against terrorism”. 10 November 2015 – The Syrian army, aided by Russian strikes, lifts two-year-long siege by IS on the key Kuwairis airbase in eastern Aleppo province, marking its first victory against IS since the Russian intervention.

24 November – Turkey shoots down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Turkish-Syrian border

December 2015 – January 2016 – Benefiting from Russian support, the Syrian army makes territorial gains in various parts of Syria and declares Latakia province rebel-free

24 March 2016 – Syrian army backed by Russian strikes inflicts a major symbolic and strategic defeat on IS, recapturing the historic city of Palmyra

September 2016 – Russia acknowledges providing air cover to the Syrian troops in their bid to seize control of Aleppo city.

Diplomatic advantage

The diplomatic consequences of the Russian intervention have also been a plus for Moscow. Its active military role in the WA region has reshaped its relationships with Israel, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Israel and Russia have developed a significant level of “understanding”. Israeli air operations against the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, for example, have not been hindered by Russian control of significant parts of Syrian air space.

Attacks on Arab Muslims by any nation are good enough for Tel Aviv seeking to weaken entire Arab world. Russian attacks in Syria are welcome in Israel

Relations between Moscow and Tehran (Syria’s only other significant ally) have developed, and even the enmity between Moscow and Ankara has been diminished, with both countries realising they have to accommodate – at least to an extent – the other’s regional aims. Arabs are slowly shedding the Americophobia.

It is US-Russia relations that have been most profoundly influenced by Moscow’s intervention in Syria. At one level, Syria can be added to Ukraine as a dossier where the USA and Russia are failing to find common ground. But Russia’s military role ensured that the Assad leadership was not going to be removed from the chessboard. This made Washington revise its own approach and pursue what has largely proved an illusory effort, to develop some kind of partnership with Russia.

The indiscriminate nature of the Russian and Syrian air campaigns – exemplified by the current struggle over Aleppo – has certainly not won Russia many friends in the West, however. Russia has been accused by several governments of barbarity and potentially committing war crimes. According to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 4,000 civilians have been killed in one year of Russian strikes. Russian casualties in Syria are difficult to estimate. Helicopters have certainly been shot down, and several members of Russia’s Special Forces are known to have been killed in combat.

Western public opinion seems largely unmoved by the struggle; perhaps to an extent a reflection of war weariness in the wake of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there has been a good level of confusion. Many in the West, sceptical about their own governments’ records, seem unwilling to get excited about what Russia is up to.

The importance of information operations was most clearly illustrated by the extraordinary concert mounted in the ruins of Palmyra after its recapture from so-called Islamic State (IS) by Syrian forces.

The Kremlin has skillfully managed how the Russian public sees this intervention. Given the woeful state of the economy, Russian leaders have always been concerned that Syria would come to be viewed as an undue burden, though victory in Syria would make Russians happy. Specialists interpret the Kremlin’s decision in March to announce a significant reduction of its air power in Syria as an attempt “to cash-out the political gains at home and recast the war in the public’s mind”.

Western expectations of political peril for President Putin have, so far, simply not been realized. Rather than a prolonged campaign, Russia’s combat operations have become the new normal. Those expecting Russian support behind Vladimir Putin to collapse, either over Ukraine, or Syria, or the economy, have thus far been proven wrong. The Kremlin is demonstrably more adept at securing public approval, or apathy, than commonly acknowledged in the West.

But the overall level of casualties appears to have been limited, and news of combat deaths (like those among Russian forces in eastern Ukraine) is restricted – another reason why there has been no domestic backlash against the Syrian adventure.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The “strategic impact” of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. “Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory,” an expert says. The Syrian army remains a shambles, Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage with USA. .

Aleppo was once a place of culture and commerce, with a jewel of an old city that was on Enesco’s list of world heritage sites. Now, the five-year civil war that rages in Syria has left much of it destroyed and divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and the rebels the east. A month ago, government forces re-imposed a siege on the east, and launched an all-out assault to take full control of the city, accompanied by an intense and sustained aerial bombardment.

Activists say the offensive has left hundreds of civilians dead, but the government and its ally Russia have denied targeting them and blamed rebel fighters for operating in residential areas. But what about the 275,000 people who are trapped there? Where are they getting their food from? Do they have enough water and medicine?

In August, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that 35,000 people were internally displaced inside eastern Aleppo, some of whom were in official shelters run in abandoned buildings, others staying with family or friends, and still others sleeping outdoors in parks and streets. Not many will have been able to leave since then – and it is likely that the number of people not sleeping in their own homes has gone up. And even those who are still at home know they are not safe. People are saying there is no safe place to go. There may be many who are staying in places that they don’t consider being adequate but they’re staying anyway.

Nearly half the people who live in besieged Aleppo are under the age of 18. Many of their schools have closed or moved. Some of the buildings have been bombed, while others are being used as shelters for displaced people, or fighters in the conflict are using them for military purposes. It might be difficult to imagine any child going back to school when bombs are falling.

People are buying water from wells and privately-owned water tankers, and carrying it home in buckets. Many have reported that it tastes bad, and there is no guarantee that it is free of disease. It is hard to say whether anyone has died of hunger in the siege because with aid agencies unable to get inside, they cannot accurately diagnose the level of malnutrition.

Many doctors have fled the city as refugees or been killed in the fighting, and there are just 30 doctors remaining in eastern Aleppo. Using the UN’s estimate for the number of people trapped there – 275,000 – that means there is roughly one doctor for every 9,100 people. This in a place that is being bombed every day – at least 376 people were killed and 1,266 wounded in the first two weeks of the latest government’s assault, according to the UN.

The places where doctors work have been repeatedly targeted by government and Russian air strikes, activists and charities say. The UN says six hospitals are still operating, although they are only partially functional. Two hospitals have been almost totally destroyed in the past two weeks, and three doctors and two nurses killed. The few remaining hospitals are collapsing under a flow of hundreds of wounded lying in agony on the floors of wards and corridors.

It has long maintained a small naval base on the Syrian coast and has close ties with the Syrian military, being its principal arms supplier. Syria had become Moscow’s last toe-hold of influence in the region. It was the fear of this relationship unraveling that prompted President Vladimir Putin to act.

While it is Russian air power that has been the main focus of news reporting on the Russian intervention, it is as much the intensified training and re-equipping of the Syrian army that has also been a crucial factor in helping to turn around President Assad’s fortunes.

Russian forces have been operating in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for a year. Their impact has been significant. When they arrived, there were fears that government forces were close to collapse. This position has largely been reversed. It is the Syrian government – while still fragile – that is now on the offensive with a brutal bid to recapture the whole of the city of Aleppo.

Initially seen by US analysts through the prism of recent Western military involvements in the region, many pundits were quick to dismiss the Russian effort as likely to fail. The Russian military, it was said, was not up to expeditionary warfare. Russia would quickly find itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire.

Things have turned out very differently.

Roger McDermott, senior fellow in Eurasian studies at the Jamestown Foundation – and a long-time watcher of the Russian military – says: Western observers have been generally impressed by Russia’s deployment in Syria, mainly reflecting a sense of disbelief that they proved to be capable of planning, executing and sustaining such a complex operation and dealing with the logistical issues involved in supplying forces at great distance from Russia.

But what exactly were Russia’s goals in intervening in the first place? Russia, of course, has had a strategic relationship with Syria going back to Soviet days.

Observation

USA created all problems in Syria but now Russia has all diplomatic advantages to win a powerful point over its nuclear rival America. The siege is pushing people towards starvation and serfdom.

The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country’s borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.

Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting. Although a ceasefire announced in February 2016 has limited fighting in some parts of Syria, recent government air strikes in Aleppo have prompted uncertainty about the ceasefire’s future. But with much of the country in ruins , millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatized by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.

Syrian war has killed thousands, produced innumerable refugees. As Syria’s war reaches another grim milestone, refugees fleeing the 5-year conflict face greater hurdles to finding safety while international solidarity with its victims is failing to match and reflect the scale and seriousness of the humanitarian tragedy.

UNHCR provides basic and necessary humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees with urgently needed relief – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes, household items, diapers and hygiene supplies, and jerry cans.

By its own standards, Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a success on several levels. The real question is whether this situation can last. Put it another way, is there any clear exit strategy for Russia that might enable it to bank its gains and end its losses?

Russia’s strategic goals are vague. The exit strategy, if there is one appears rooted in strengthening the fighting power of the Syrian army and securing some long-term political settlement that demonstrates Russia has returned as a great power. The strategic impact of Russia’s intervention still remains in doubt. Such gains are readily lost and can prove illusory. The Syrian army remains a shambles; Iran is attached to Assad, while Russia is more interested in the grander game with the USA. And without a political settlement to secure them, these accomplishments can vaporize, as Russian patience and resources become exhausted. Russian leadership knows that this could take years and would rather cut a deal while possessing the military advantage.

The USA was compelled not just to deal with Russia as a diplomatic equal but also to shift its own stance towards the Assad government to one – that for all the obfuscation – falls well short of its long-time insistence that President Assad had to go, as the essential pre-condition for any negotiated settlement.

Not many powers like Israel are happy that the USA has not invaded Iran to equalize its destruction efforts in Iraq- both Shiite dominated Muslim nations in West Asia.

Neither the end of war in Syria nor peace in West Asia is the major concern of USA or Russia, or UNSC.

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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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