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Arab Liberals on Arab Political Life (A)

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he Egyptian liberal intellectual, ‘Amr Isma’il accuses that the main issue is Arab culture that externalizes the guilt, irresponsibility, and inability to change the culture (www.elaph.com, October 31, 2004 – MEMRI, November 19, 2004, No. 816): “Why can’t the Arabs see things as the rest of the world? Why do we always feel that someone is conspiring against us, and that he is the cause of our problems, our cultural and economic backwardness? Why are we not able to criticize ourselves? Why do we talk by means of bullets, car bombs, and violence of suicide bombing?

Why do we kill and slit throats in the name of Allah and at the same time protest angrily when others depict Muslims as terrorists? Why are we the only nation that still uses religion, Islam, and the name of Allah in everything: politics, economics, and science? We kill in the name of Allah, we blow up people in the name of Allah, and we slit throats in the name of Islam. Why we do not ask ourselves why no other religious group perpetrates these acts of atrocity? Why we do not ask ourselves what are the roots to our extremist thinking and who should be blame for? Why we always blame others of intervening in our internal affairs, and we do not look at our deeds?

Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian American intellectual, declares: ‘Arab’ means never having to say you are sorry (http://www.think-israel.com): “To expect Arab and Muslim leadership to apologize is a reflection of the West Naïve and wrong expectations of Arab culture. In the Arab world, to take responsibility and say sorry is taken as unmanly sign of weakness that means more trouble. Those who admit guilt are given no mercy and end up taking all the blame and being brutally punished. It is a norm for Arabs to deny a fact and blame others, rather than admit to the wrongdoing and apologize.

In our politically correct liberal culture, the media and academia would urge to a collective self-psychoanalysis, to uncover the root causes of how we could have caused such evil behavior. This is not the case of the Arab world. How can anyone expect them to apologize for deep-rooted cultural and religious mission to defeat or kill infidels? Most Arabs still blame Israel for 9/11.

How can we expect these countries to sincerely cooperate with the international community to end terror and its barbaric brutality? Americans should stop judging other countries with the American value system, and especially stop expecting Arab-Islamic culture to respond rationally according to Western standards. Arab media never miss an opportunity to give the masses their daily dose of fear of America. What we see out of the Arab world is anger, hatred, revenge and a culture out of control.

The Tunisian intellectual and thinker, al-‘Afif al-Akhdar, analyzes and criticizes Arab cultural values and characters (www.elaph.com: MEMRI, May 4, 2003. Nos. 439, 499): All the peoples of the world are moving forward along the course of history towards globalization, a society of knowledge, and political modernization – all but the Arabs, who race in the opposite direction. The Eastern European countries have moved peacefully with speed from murderous Stalinist totalitarianism to democracy, from economic backwardness to continuing economic growth.

The Muslims are moving with rapid steps from backwardness into sub-backwardness, and from poverty into sub-poverty. The peoples of mankind are governed by the law of progress, while the Muslims are governed by the law of regression.

The insane obsession with vengeance has robbed the Muslims minds of the ability to think reasonably. That is why they are incapable of identifying their real problems and defining their political, educational and social priorities. In contrast to almost all other societies, Arab-Muslim societies are completely closed and irrational.

Their obscurantist religious culture is a terrible obstacle hindering their transition to a society less closed, less oppressive and less hostile towards the individual, to the woman, to the non-Muslim, towards the rational and the modern. This deep-rooted culture of tribal vengeance in Arab collective consciousness is a fundamental driving force, which has transmuted this consciousness into a fixated, vengeful mentality, instead of transforming it into far-sighted thought and self-criticism.

The culture of tribal vengeance haunts not only in our relations with the outside, but also our relations with each other, between Arab countries and within each country, from honor crimes to tribal and factional strife and state wars. The hysteria of vengeance on the West and on Israel has disastrous results. The policy of vengeance that prevails especially among the influential elites has banished any rational policy from the domestic decision making, just as people afflicted with depression.

al-‘Afif al-Akhdar discusses Arab identity crisis and its education (www.elaph.com., June 15, 2003- MEMRI Special Dispatch Nos. 499 and 518): Why is it that our countries are among the wealthiest in natural resources and poorest in human resources? Why does the world’s human knowledge double every three years while with us, what multiplies several times over is illiteracy, ideological fear and mental paralysis? Why expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, and appeasement horrify us, and in cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and even call it heroism and martyrdom?

Distorted thoughts lead the Muslim to think that he belongs to ‘the best nation created for human beings’ that Allah designated it to guide and lead humanity. This is the reason why the Muslims find it impossible to imitate others and learn from them. Ethnocentrism leads them to believe that since the language of the Arabs is the mother of all languages, anyone not completely fluent in it considered an animal and a barbarian, and that since its culture is the most divine, and its religion is the only true religion, then the other cultures are unworthy and other religions are mere vanity, and both deserve to disappear or to be subjugated.

Muslims still believe that Islam is the supreme religion, and the Arab nation is the most important of all nations. However, the Arabs’ repeated defeats tell them that they are the last in line among the nations. This contrast-ridden discourse is the source of the Arabs psychological and social ills, and of their grave identity crisis.

The religious media and education to this situation provide an easy answer: Since we have given up our religion, Allah has given us up. Therefore, let us set out on a campaign of return to Allah and to the Golden Age, riding on a belt of explosives. Religious education systematically produces generations of people stricken by the madness of pure religious identity, such as the racial purity madness of the Nazis. For Nazism, this meant that the ‘master’ Aryan race had to destroy the ‘inferior’ races. In Islam, it means that the only ‘true’ religion must triumph over the other religions that are ‘false,’ and their fate is Hell. This belief of Islamic identity led them to megalomania, fanaticism, self-segregation, and terrorism.

The obligation to fight the infidels has created a psychological barrier between Muslim Arabs and modern culture, and has led them to an internalization of the view that modern institutions, sciences, universal values, and technology created by the infidels are heresy too.

Why did Germany and Japan not retaliate for their wounds after World War II with responses similar to ours? The answer is, because religious narcissism was not internalized in their modern cultures and adopting secularism prevented them hallucinatory responses. They imitate the West, assimilating into it, while we fought with it, struggled against it, and became locked in on our own values. The amok-struck Islam, the Islam of ‘conflict with the infidels’ and military vengeance against them, has lost its ability to unfurl the real problems openly and search for realistic solutions. This ‘conflict with the infidels’ is the hard core of Islamic fanaticism and the main reason for the conduct of terrorism.

Arab-Muslims must give up the requirement to confront the infidels, not to use jihad until the Day of Judgment; to abandon the loyalty to the Qur’anic ‘Verses of the Sword;’ to change the attitude towards the rational, the women, and the non-Muslims; to give-up the dreams of liberating Palestine to the last grain of earth, and regaining Andalusia. Yet, the most important is the total change in educational teachings of the youth in which the Arab world remains locked.

The author and journalist, Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi (www.rezgar.com, August 14, 2004: MEMRI, September 20, 2004. No. 786) condemned the growing support for terrorism and extremism in the Arab world, and the rejection of moderation and reason.

If the Arabs had today a well-burnished mirror in which they can see themselves, they would be stricken by fear and panic at the sight of themselves. The image is that we have become the most terrorist nation and the greatest spillers of blood in the world. The image is that we have become a nation devoid of reason.

What happened to the Arabs in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, Yemen, and in other countries? Why have the Arabs gone crazy in such a manner? Is it a result of pervasive corruption prevalent in governmental institutions? Did this occur because of the dark religious educational system which incites to war against modernity, democracy, and permits the spilling of the blood of its supporters?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that the intellectuals have distorted the truth? Is it a result of the frightening spread of illiteracy and cultural ignorance in the Arab world that the vast majority does not read, does not know, and does not think? Is it a result of the proliferation of political totems in Arab life such as Abd al-Nasser or Saddam Hussein, or in counterfeit religious totems such as Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and many others?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that terrorist groups have huge incomes from charity organizations streaming in daily from good Muslims from the world? Did this occur as a result of the huge sums that the terrorists obtain by hashish and opium trade? The Islamists who hijacked Islam are now leading the flocks of Arabs towards the annihilation of human history.

Indeed, the Arabs have turned into slaves of blood-drenched religious totems. The Arabs think in a medieval fashion regarding politics, society, economy, and education. They are still living in the Middle-Ages, and they are slaves to a medieval mentality and to thinkers from the Middle-Ages. The Arabs have distanced themselves from reason, and speak to the world with the sword, the axe, the knife, and armies of masked bandits.

Journalist and former Kuwaiti communications minister Dr. Sa’d bin Tefla (Jordanian TV, June 8, 2004: MEMRI, August 24, 2004. No. 770), rejects the notion of blaming Zionism and imperialism of the Arab harsh and fanatic situation:

Zionism and imperialism have nothing to do with our culture of violence and religious extremism. Slaughter, anarchy, and bloodshed in no way resemble Jihad according to the Shari’ah. The anarchy and terrorism are indications of a culture of collective suicide. This culture of violence emanates from the spread of the extremist religious trend.

We are all responsible for this culture, and that Zionism and Imperialism have nothing to do with it. It is no less wrong to say that violence is the result of occupation, since it has cultural roots. Unfortunately, this culture of violence has existed before the Americans came to Iraq and the Gulf; before the Israeli occupation of Palestine; and before the American occupation of Afghanistan.

The number killed in Algeria surpasses the number of Palestinians killed by Israel. Before Iraq was occupied, there was violence that killed over one million Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, and Kuwaitis. This was not done by the Zionists or America, but by Arabs and Muslims.

The reformist Arab diplomat who writes under the pseudonym Abu Ahmad Mustafa (al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 13, 2003) quotes Saudi philosopher Abdallah al-Qassimi, who said many times that ‘the greatest distance between two points in the world is the distance between an Arab’s words and his deeds.’

We have become accustomed to not asking questions and not searching for the truth. We must examine our history, our books, and our stories with an open mind without hatred and blaming of the other. ‘Islam is the solution’, is not true. Islam is not the answer. It is hidden in sick minds brainwashed with hatred for the brethren living nearby and peoples living miles away.

How can an intelligent person state or assert that we are a nation that preaches love among people, when in our own home we carry out ugly deeds and are silent about the disgrace? What is to blame is the culture of submission comes from the clerics of past and the idols of today.

Our struggles are connected to the past, not to health, not to education, not to human rights, not to general freedoms and political reform. We live in a situation in which most of our thinking is directed towards what happens after death, to the next world and not today.

Arab Liberal Columnist, Zuheir Abdallah (al-Hayat, MEMRI, August 12, 2003. No. 551) blames Arab fascism tyranny and Islamism for failing to achieve any accomplishments for the Arab world.

The Arab world were taken over by despotic tyrannical regimes. The economic and scientific growth regressed and reached the bottom level, in comparison to the rest of the countries in the world. Arab fascism and fundamentalist Islam have nothing to offer the people, except empty slogans revolving around themes of resistance and struggle.

Let us ask ourselves what did we offer for ourselves and the rest of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution to this day, from human sciences and inventions or any other added value to civilization? Unfortunately, the answer is: almost nothing. The Arab world is in deep backwardness.

After the Chechnya terrorists attack in Beslan, Nonie Darwish has published an article (http://www.noniedarwish.com) that she is not surprised of the Arab Islamic behavior.

Unfortunately, the world media is not doing its job in telling the Arab World about it. CNN feels that being “objective” is never to blame Arab culture, and it ends up supportive of Arab views in its delivery of news in the Middle East and around the world.

The horrible news from Chechnya, the Philippines, India, the Sudan or Pakistan, were always covered up and twisted to portray Muslim terrorists as innocent victims of terrible discrimination. These murderers were always portrayed as “freedom fighters” who needed to rise against the majority Christian or non-Muslim population. My culture of origin turns into robotic monsters with a wish to destroy life on earth in order to go to heaven. This is the basic of Arab-Islamic culture and religion.

Where are Muslim demonstrations against terror? All I’ve ever noticed following 9/11 were celebrations throughout the Arab world. I decided to make a stand against the Islamic culture of terror. It is time for the world media and the UN to take a serious stand against Islamic, yes, Islamic, terror. Oil rich Arab countries finance terrorism or teach that terrorists are heroes going to heaven. No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” and no diluted language by the international media.

The out-of-control culture in the Middle East needs a wake-up call and a dose of reality. What is needed immediately is a united world stand against the Arabs’ stagnant and barbaric view of the world. We should demand from our media to report the truth and not stand as an obstacle in facing and fighting danger. The world cannot stand by, confused and equivocal about 9/11 and Islamic terrorism any more. Please, America and the good people of the world, save my Arab culture of origin from itself.

Nonie Darwish has ongoing criticized Arab-Islamic culture (http://www.noniedarwish.com):

Once beautiful culture has now decayed, very sick, and unable to accommodate other religions or cultures. This sickness is now contaminating the West through the terror of jihad. People who criticize the current culture of Islam are not the threat to Islam; rather, the silence and justification of 9/11 by Muslims is Islam’s true enemy. The Arab-Islamic world has lost its moral equilibrium, added to their paranoia and obsession with Israel.

Islam is cracking out from its core. This is a culture in convulsions, using anything and everything as weapons against the rest of the World. Instead of using reason to reform their religion and join the rest of the civilized world in a peaceful co-existence, they choose violence through their ancient doctrine of jihad. The end result is masses submitting to the terror of dictatorships in an oppressive social structure.

There is no tolerance in Islamic society to differing views, and freedoms are rare assets. In Islamic culture, one is accountable to everybody for one’s behavior. This is a collective culture. Paradoxically, submission is that it creates people who are extremely sensitive to criticism and with chauvinistic impulses. You thus see a loyal, submissive polite Muslim turn violently angry over the slightest differences of opinion. People explode in illogical overreaction to trivial disagreements.

The mothers of suicide bombers are speaking and living a life that is against the normal impulses of Motherhood. The religious and political indoctrination through tyranny pushed them against themselves and their child into insanity. Hate is a motivation for jihad and also helps unite the Muslims, in compliance. The use of fear and hatred is a very primitive but very effective tool. This manipulation of human beings has reached an art form in Muslim culture. The enemy of Islam becomes a very necessary part of the religion, since it contributes to the unity of Muslims and ensures compliance. This unity has to be fed, cultivated and nourished constantly at all levels of education and the media through hatred to the other.

The infidels are extremely useful in Arab-Islamic culture. There is less cohesion between Muslims as a result of love, compassion, constructive activities for the common good and working together for improving society and economy. Image and reputation is of utmost importance between Muslims and especially in front of foreigners. Their first instinct is always to lie, even in situations that do not require lying, to show only the good side and shame those who don’t go with the lie for the sake of saving face.

Oil money from Saudi Arabia got more and more influential in reviving the more extreme form of Islam among more moderate and poorer Muslim countries. That same Wahhabi sect was responsible for 9/11. It was a call of warning from Saudi extremists to Western civilization. They announced to us loud and clear ‘we are coming to Islamize you the same way we did to moderate Arab countries.’ All the Saudis want is to spread Islam and to be the Mecca of the World.

Arab columnists have published articles critical of the view that the main motivation to terrorism is poverty or despair. The main reasons and most important factors in motivating terrorism are cultural and religious. The incitement by religious and political leaders encourages conducting terror operations. Muhammad Mahfouz, a Saudi columnist claims (Saudi Gazette, December 30, 2004: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853):

The only way to end violence and terrorism is to fight a cultural and ideological battle. Terrorism is one of the most dangerous problems encountered in recent times, for it undermines the stability and security of all human societies. An external and superficial probing of the problem will not be effective until we delve deeply into its Islamic cultural and ideological roots. The relationship between the phenomenon of terrorism in Islamic society and culture is like the relationship between the cause and consequence. This may explain the reason why youths belonging to rich families and others from well position in society are implicated in terrorist crimes.

This means that financial and economic factors cannot be associated with this fanatic ideology and terrorism. It is cultural and religious factors that motivate to murder innocent people and not poverty. The only way to put an end to the wave of violence and terrorism is to fight ideological cultural battle against terrorism carried out by a group of brain-washed youth, influenced by glamorous slogans. Without fighting this fateful battle, we will never succeed in eliminating the menace on civilization. Any delay in fighting this ideological cultural battle will drag us to the abyss of instability. We need more than ever to dismantle the cultural and ideological incubators which feed this phenomenon and mold it socially and culturally.

The elimination of terrorism and violence are associated with uprooting the culture of violence which promotes killing, justifies terrorism, and provides it a legitimate cover. The security battle will not help much in putting an end to this phenomenon. On the contrary, it may give it a justification to continue. We need transparency and courage to put an end to this poisonous menace, and any laxity in this matter will cost more lives and destruction. Thus, the coming battle is the battle of culture, to fight and defeat terrorism in all its stages.

For ‘Abdallah Rashid (al-ittihad, January 10, 2005: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853) it is clear:

The greatest mistake of social and political commentators is their attributing the cause for the spreading of terrorism in the Arab and Islamic world to the lack of social justice, the situation of poverty, and the harsh social conditions in most of the Arab and Islamic countries. The socio-economic situation of most of the terrorists who participate in the criminal operations around the world is very good. They are from well-off families, with high education and good jobs, and many of them are even married with children.

Most of the volunteers who went to Iraq to join al-Qaeda terrorist groups are from Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States [61%!]. They come from families that are not poor and from a social environment that does not suffer from economic problems and wretchedness. The simple reason is the terrifying brainwashing suffered by most of the Arab youth at the hands of ‘religious clerics,’ the media, and particularly at the hands of the extremists with backward views. They nourish the Muslim youth with various kinds of racist views, destructive extremist principles, and nurse them with hostility, hatred, and resentment towards others.

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Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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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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