[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap] audi columnist, Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Latif Aal al-Sheikh: The ideology of the al-Salafiyah al-Jihadiyah movement is similar to, or even worse than the Nazi ideology. Both Jihadi-Salafi and Nazism are based on hatred and physical elimination of the other. Both ideologies share hatred of the other and eliminating through his physical extermination – and they have many other common denominators as well.
After the ruin, destruction, and bloodshed that Nazism brought upon mankind, the number of its victims reached tens of millions, the world arose to fight against this murderous ideology, and all steps were taken on the ideological, cultural, and political levels, to prevent this ideology from spreading anew.
The question arises is why, in light of the similarity between these two ideologies, we haven’t learned a lesson, and why we are not fighting against the foundations of al-Salafiyah al-Jihadiyah, its religious scholars, its theoreticians, and its preachers, just as we deal with criminals, murderers, and robbers? The concept of jihad has become a destructive terrorist concept, a call to murder.
In his next article titled “On the Contrary, They Are Worse than the Nazis and Stray More from the Right Path,” al-Sheikh writes: The terrorists have sullied Islam with blood and tarnished its name through violence, killing, explosions, and destruction, it is the obligation of clerics and everyone involved in Da’wah before anyone else to defend the religion and the peaceful people from among the Muslims and others. Have the clerics of our times fulfilled their duty? The most direct answer is: Sadly, no!
Imagine that the way of dealing with statements by al-Salafiyah al-Jihadiyah is comparable to the West’s way of dealing with Nazism, would TV channel, like the Qatari al-Jazeerah dare to spread this ideology and demand ‘freedom of speech’? Everybody knows that this channel in particular has had the greatest media impact on the shaping, spreading, and strengthening of this dangerous trend, and that it provides it with wide space to express its ‘acts of heroism’, its statements, and its videotaped operations, to the point where it has become the primary platform of [al-Salafiyah al-Jihadiyah] as is happening today in Iraq.
Therefore, one of the primary missions of the international community today is to repeat its experience with Nazism and to deal with this dangerous barbarian culture exactly as it dealt with the Nazi culture. If this does not happen, the near future is liable to bring consequences of which will be far more severe for all of humanity than [the consequences] of World War II (al-Jazeerah (Saudi Arabia), July 10, 2005, and July 24, 2005).
Umran Salman, a Bahraini journalist living in the U.S., criticizes the Sunni silence over the extermination of the Shi’ites in Iraq: Aren’t the Arabs Ashamed When Some of Them Massacre Iraqi Citizens?
When the Jordanian terrorist, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, declared war against the Shi’ites in Iraq, to blow up children, women, and the elderly, none of the Arabs uttered a word and none shed a tear for the thousands of Iraqis being murdered. Don’t the Arabs feel sense of shame when some of them kill and massacre Iraqi citizens? Don’t they feel pangs of conscience when they try to come up with excuses and justifications for the murderers and criminals whom they call the ‘resistance?’ How can they be silent and ignore declaration of the extermination of millions of people because of their sectarian affiliation? How is one to [describe] the Arab silence in light of the murder of Shi’ite Iraqis and their intimidation in the most despicable and base of ways? The murderers declare their positions publicly and consider them Jihad for the sake of Allah. How is one to explain [the silence of] politicians and members of the media?
What can we say in light of the attitude of the Arab media and the Arab satellite channels in particular, which report the killings, the slaughters, and the suicide bombings among Iraqi citizens coolly. The war being waged by the terrorists against the Shi’ites in Iraq is among the acts of collective extermination, which is rare in modern history.
There has been no case in the past in which somebody has declared a similar war against a race or a group as a whole, except Nazi Germany against the Jews. Muslim scholars in Arab countries have issued dozens of Fatawa about current political issues, but have not issued even a single fatwah declaring bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, or al-Zarqawi to be infidels. The world is witness that the Arabs and the Sunnis are silent and standing idly by, and some are even welcoming, the cold-blooded murder of the Shi’ites. They will bear this mark of shame for all eternity.
The Sunnis have persecuted the Shi’ites, declared them infidels, and continue to treat them in their countries as second-class citizens and have returned today to complete what they started in previous centuries. In the 21st century they are continuing their massacres and crimes against them, in full view of the world. Do these people not feel the shame and disgrace that shroud them? (www.elaph.com, October 15, 2005: MEMRI, no. 1010, October 21, 2005).
Saudi author, Badriyya al-Bishr, a lecturer in social sciences at King Saud University, in an article titled: “Imagine You Are a Woman”.
Imagine you’re a woman. You always need your guardian’s approval regarding each and every matter. You cannot study without your guardian’s approval, even if you reach a doctorate level. You cannot get a job and earn a living without your guardian’s approval. Imagine you’re a woman and the guardian who must accompany you wherever you go is your 15-year-old son or your brother. Imagine you’re a woman and you are subject to assault, beatings, or murder. In the event that your husband is the one who broke your ribs [people will say] that no doubt there was good reason for it.
Imagine you’re a woman whose husband breaks her nose, arm, or leg, and when you go to the Qadi to lodge a complaint, he responds reproachfully ‘That’s all?!’ In other words, beating is a technical situation that exists among all couples and lovers. Imagine you’re a woman and you are not permitted to drive. Imagine you’re a woman in the 21st century, and you see Fatawa by contemporary experts in Islamic law dealing with the rules regarding taking the women of the enemy prisoner and having sexual intercourse with them, even in times of peace.
Imagine you’re a woman who writes in a newspaper, and every time you write about [women’s] concerns, problems, poverty, unemployment, and legal status, they say about you: ‘Never mind her, it’s all women’s talk’ (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 9, 2005: MEMRI, no. 1012, October 24, 2005)
The liberal Bahraini journalist, ‘Umran Salman, explains Arab-Muslim hatred. Hatred in the Arab and Muslim world is a general phenomenon that is not limited only to the Americans. It is possible that the Arabs and Muslims hate each other no less than they hate others. In the 1990s, over 200,000 citizens were killed in Algeria, most of them by extremist Islamic groups. What was the response of most of the Arabs and Muslims?
Presenting justifications for the murderers and terrorists. During those years, the Taliban movement also abused Shi’ites, Azeris, Tajikis, and other minorities, and no one did anything to stop it. In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, occupied it, and expelled its residents. What was the response of the Arabs and Muslims? Nothing. On the contrary: Most Arabs and Muslims supported Saddam. And in 1991, Saddam murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds, and Arabs and Muslims did not condemn it.
These days, Arab militias, supported by the Khartoum government, are continuing their racist campaign of annihilation against the African Muslims in Darfour. In Iraq, al-Zarqawi and the terror groups affiliated with him are slaughtering Shi’ites and blowing up their mosques and their schools, after declaring war on them. In both cases, none of the Arabs or the Muslims are acting to prevent this, or even to condemn the deeds.
In total, during a single decade alone no less than half a million Arab and Muslim victims were murdered by Arabs and Muslims. In addition, the religious, ethnic and national minorities in the Arab world, Shi’ites, Isma’ilis, Jews and Christians have been subject to humiliation, persecution, as characterized by racism.
The United States response to terror attacks of September 11, 2001, was aimed at accomplishing three goals:
First, to strike a crushing blow against the al-Qa’idah’ and its allies in the Taliban in Afghanistan. This goal was accomplished;
Second, to destroy the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein and of the fascist Ba’th party in Iraq. This goal too was accomplished;
Third, to spread democracy and freedom in the Middle East. This project will continue for decades to come, but will it succeed?
The first blow infuriated the Islamists; the second blow infuriated the pan-Arab nationalists; and the third blow infuriated the Arab regimes. Gradually, an unofficial alliance emerged between these three parties, with the long-term goal to thwart the new American policy.
Since this alliance is too weak to respond militarily, it responds in the media, the educational systems and the mosques with propaganda, as to distort the image of the U.S. in order to make the Arab citizens loathe everything American. This [propaganda] machine operated at full power in order to brainwash the Arab citizens, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to fan the hatred against the U.S. (Mideast Transparent, October 25, 2005: MEMRI, no. 1016, November 2, 2005).
The Liberal Tunisian Dr. Iqbal al-Gharbi, in an article titled “Whither the Arabs and Muslims in the Age of Forgiveness and Pardon?”
The Muslims must take responsibility for their past, must stop blaming others, and must be self-critical. We still insist that we are always the victims, and that we are always innocent. Our history is angelic, our imperialism was a welcome conquest, our invaders were liberators, our violence was a holy jihad, our murderers were Shuhada’, and our defective understanding of the Qura’n and the daily violation of the rights of women, children, and minorities were a tolerant Shari’ah.
Since our societies have known, to date, only a culture of resentment, of hatred, and of seeking vengeance [the question arises] whether we are capable of reconsolidating cultural, moral, and humane relations with the other? Is it possible for us to abandon our current cultural heritage that is full of great illusions and of denigration of the other? There is no doubt that aggression, invasions, and wild acts of annihilation are engraved in human history and widespread across the globe amongst both Muslims and non-Muslims.
But what differentiates us today from others is the extent of our awareness of history… and the extent to which we justify in the name of Islam. What is happening today is an attempt to falsify our history in line with the extreme Islamist movements that call for a return to the illusion of the purity of the era of the first caliphs.
This comes at a time when the historical facts show clearly that the [early Islamic] state that we ennoble with an idyllic nature was a state of civil strife. Why are we hiding the facts and misleading our children? Why don’t we call things by their name, and set them in their historical context? Why do we insist on beautifying our history and on living outside it?
The new ideological atmosphere obliges us to adopt human rights, and to treat these rights as a cultural value and as an achievement – not as merely a tactical maneuver, waiting for a change in the international balance of power, or for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. We must take a number of practical steps: we must renounce, once and for all, the Islam that is awash with accusations of unbelief and treachery that divides the world into the camp of Islam and the camp of unbelief, the camp of war and the camp of peace.
This division destroys any serious dialogue between religions and cultures. We must renounce the dhimmi laws, and apologize to the Christian and the Jewish minorities. We must put an end to our changing of the facts, and to the miserable fabrications that we created in an attempt to prove that these minorities enjoyed a high status in the Islamic state. We must assess Islamic history objectively, and issue an historic public apology to the Africans who were abducted, enslaved, and expelled from their homes.
The Arabs and the Muslims played a sizeable role in this loathsome trade. They alone caused the uprooting of 20 million people, from among the victims of the slave trade. We must apologize to the religious minorities and the small schools of Islamic thought, such as the Isma’ili, the Bahai, the Alawi, and the Druze, for the humiliation and denigration they suffered. Why don’t the Sunnis ask forgiveness from the Shi’ites for the slaughter at Karbala, and for the assassination of Hussein [the grandson of Muhammad], so as to bring to an end the painful past.
By bearing responsibility for our deeds and mistakes, we will abandon our narcissistic self-aggrandizement. Psychology teaches us that every person and every cultural group becomes more mature as it moves from the stage of placing responsibility and blame on others to the stage of self-examination and self-criticism (Metransparent, October 17, 2005: MEMRI, no. 1019 – November 4, 2005).
Regarding its years-long policy of granting safe haven to Muslim extremists; enabling them to spread their ideas in schools, mosques, and the media; giving them legal protection, in the name of freedom of expression and individual rights; and increased criticism of the “silent Muslim majority” and “moderate Muslim intellectuals”, who capitulate to Islamist pressure and do not speak out decisively. Europe must change its lenient treatment of Muslim extremists. Saudi intellectual Mashari al-Dhaydi wrote:
The time has come for those who turn a blind eye to notice that the enemies of freedom have, unfortunately, exploited the atmosphere of freedom provided by the European countries, to spread religious fanaticism everywhere. People who disseminate the ideological and political platform of bin Laden are the greatest enemies of the freedom that the European countries defend. Fundamentalist terrorism knows no borders, and it also threaten the West (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 12, 2005).
‘Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, director-general of the al-‘Arabiya TV channel, called for the expulsion of Muslim extremists:
For over 10 years now, we have warned against the dangers of leniency, not tolerance, in handling the extremism that is now spreading like a plague among Muslims in Britain. We were never understood why British authorities gave safe haven to suspicious characters previously involved in crimes of terrorism. Why would Britain grant asylum to Arabs who have been convicted of political crimes or religious extremism, or even sentenced to death? The terrorist groups make the most of freedom of speech and movement, by spreading extremist propaganda.
The time has come for British authorities to be realistic and resolute regarding extremism, before complete chaos is unleashed onto British society. In the past, we told you: ‘Stop them!’ Today, we tell you: ‘Expel them’ (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 9, 2005).
Incitement on the Internet must be stopped. One terrorist group murders and a group of extremists justify the act, incite, and recruit others. The Internet has become a main tool for the terrorists. This is the most important and effective medium in corrupting Muslims’ thinking. The source of intellectual danger today is the media, as a whole, including the Internet. It must be censored (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 18, 2005).
Arab columnist Diana Mukkaled writes that The BBC ”Panorama” special dealt with Islamic leaders in Britain who expressed their support for suicide operations against Israeli civilians yet condemned the London attacks. The questions that preoccupy Europe today is who are the enemies living among us; why do they label others as infidels; and why do they hate us?
British Muslim leaders expressed their viewpoints with the belief that ‘We are the believers and the people of paradise and they are the unbelievers and the people of hell’. Such is a language that is present on a daily basis and hardly any [Arab] broadcasting channels are free of such dispute. Yet within the minds of those who propagate these acts, lies the belief that the world will not heed their message when repeated in Arabic on Arab broadcasting channels.
These people will use different terminology when speaking in English on foreign television networks. The world is closely watching of what is written and broadcast in all Arab media. Therefore when a Muslim clerics referring Jews as “grandchildren of monkeys and pigs,” it is inevitable that such words will reach millions of people around the world. The problem does not lie in what the BBC said, but rather in what we say (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 1, 2005).
The Islamist’s answer to the liberals’ criticism came from British Islamist Dr. ‘Azzam al-Tamimi. On August 29, 2005, he argued that Muslim critics are Islam’s worst enemies, whereas support from non-Islamic sympathizers is Islam’s greatest asset. He calls these liberal writers “traitors” and says that without their help, “Blair and Bush, and the leaders of Australia and New Zealand, would not have dared to act impudently toward Islam and the Muslims… but for the traitors among us,” who help them in a “frenzied attempt to destroy Islam.” In a BBC interview al-Tamimi stated: sacrificing myself for Palestine is a noble cause. It is the straight way to pleasing Allah, and I would do it if I had the opportunity” (BBC interview: November 2, 2004. al-Quds al-‘Arabi, MEMRI, September 7, 2005. No. 980).
al-Tamimi’s argument echoes a similar accusation by sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, the head of the Islamist al-Muhajirun movement in Britain, who was deported to Lebanon. He termed “the notorious fundamentalist” by the London Arabic-language daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. In his interview, Bakri said: “The Muslim community in Britain allows itself to join the British intelligence, security, and army. Therefore, I consider them responsible before Allah…” He also said, “I accuse those recruited by the British government, and they must account for their actions before Allah.”
There is no doubt that the forces of the extreme right and the racist movements and the Zionist lobby in this democratic system have been full of rancor and hatred, and that these events gave them the opportunity to spew their venom. while they justify the violations of human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law, under the pretext of fighting Islamic extremism and terrorism. Despite their small numbers, they are widespread, and the danger posed by those traitors, who reside in the liberal democratic countries is even higher than the rulers of Arab countries. These traitors are a far cry from the giants of the British left, Ken Livingstone and the fighter George Galloway who has allied himself with Muslims. The traitors are a small group full of envy and rancor. In our long-term war of defense against injustice and aggression, we will find in our midst leaders, politicians, writers, and academics standing in the other camp against us. They are the enemy (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 30, 2005).
The Director of MEMRI Reform Project, has summed up the situation of the few Arab Intellectuals and reformists, stating that they are under threat by the Islamists. The restrictions placed on intellectuals’ freedom of expression in the Arab world and the death threats from Islamists are hampering the activities of reformist, secular, and moderate Arab intellectuals. Many of them have found asylum in Western countries, and are attempting to impact Arab and international public opinion from there. Some have stopped writing; others have been forced to request protection from the authorities (MEMRI, November 23, 2005, no. 254). This horrific situation has much worsened through the years to 2016:
Muhammad Sa’id al-‘Ashmawi, an Egyptian judge and author, threatened for his interpretation of Quoraanic verses according to their historical context, which was perceived by Islamists as undermining their religious validity.
Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, a reformist author who teaches political science at Kuwait University, published a public request for political asylum in a Western country. Accused of contempt for Islam, after he wrote in June 2004, in a Kuwaiti paper, that he would prefer his son study music rather than Qur’an. Claimed that there is a connection between studying Islam and reciting the Qur’an, and terrorism and intellectual backwardness.
Lafif al-Akhdar, accused of an anti-Islamic book defaming Muhammad. He issued a call urging civil society organizations around the world, and especially human rights organizations, to take legal measures to protect him. His chief accuser is Rashed al-Ghanushi, one of the extremist Islamists who enjoys political asylum in Britain, incites extremist Islamists to kill al-Akhdar.
Sayyed Al-Qimni, an Egyptian reformist author and researcher received death threats from Islamists, announced in July 2005, that he was retracting everything he had written in the past, and would no longer write or appear in the media. He had been spared a fate similar to that of the assistant editor of the al-Ahram, Ridha Hilal, who disappeared in August 2003 and the Egyptian security services have been unable to locate him or to discover what befell him.
Arab intellectual reaction to this was: what is the difference between killing a man with a gun and issuing a fatwah permitting his killing? We all know how these stories end: somebody accuses someone else of heresy and a third person, seeking reward in the hereafter, physically eliminates the one accused of heresy. The clerics who incite to terrorism are inciting the Muslim youth to carry out suicide acts and to murder innocent people. This is an incitement to murder the free intellectuals who call for democracy, secularism, and modernism. This is a religious terrorism.
Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi accused Arab governments, which cannot do anything when it comes to clerics who sanction bloodshed. What have the Arab authorities done about Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi? What have the Western governments done about Rashed Al-Ghanushi, who lives in London? And what has Saudi Arabia done about the 26 clerics who published a fatwah legitimizing jihad in Iraq, which is, in essence, pure terrorism?
The international community should establish an international tribunal to try these people. The terror against the intellectuals reveals the cultural bankruptcy of the Arab regimes and of the Arab peoples. By Allah, the West should not be condemned for thinking that every Muslim is a terrorist, when it sees all these shameful deeds and the Muslims remain as silent as the dead.
The martyrs of free thought are such as Farag Foda [an Egyptian intellectual who was assassinated by fundamentalists] Hussein Muruwwa and Mahdi ‘Amel [Lebanese intellectuals who were assassinated by fundamentalists], Mahmoud Taha [a Sudanese intellectual who was executed by Hassan al-Turabi], Ahmad Al-Baghdadi [a Kuwaiti intellectual who was jailed for his views].
Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran
Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.
Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.
“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.
According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.
Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.
Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.
Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.
Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal. What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.
A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.
It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons
Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.
The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.
The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.
The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.
Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.
One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.
There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.
The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.
The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor
Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.
Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.
Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid
The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.
Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.
Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.
Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.
One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.
Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.
Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.
Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.
The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.
Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.
The Al-Bustan Association
An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.
Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.
The Father of the Desert Hawks
One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.
An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.
Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.
The Old Guard and the Special Services
Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.
Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Elements of Matriarchy
Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.
Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.
Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?
All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.
On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.
On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.
The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.
First published in our partner RIAC
Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?
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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