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Surge of Russian influence in Middle East at US expense

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] merican efforts to support the opposition by arming them directly and through Arab nations have brought Russian forces there and now Russia is firmly footed in Syria, influencing Arab nations and Israel. With which it coordinates certain terror operations.

Syria is unofficially divided and destabilized, thousands of Muslims have been murdered by all “stake holders” in Syria, both Muslim and non-Muslim as well as anti-Muslim forces – objective of global anti-Islamism and Islamophobia.

Fall of Aleppo

Shift in Russian policy for West Asia by joining the fighting foreign forces led by USA, destabilizing Sunni Syria misruled by a Shiite president, has worked miracles for president Putin as Russia is seen as a formidable force in the world to take on US militarism..

Syrian Aleppo has finally fallen to Russian forces favoring President Assad.

As Aleppo rebels are defeated in an asymmetric fight, and UN and Western leaders prove unable to protect civilians from what they expect to be retribution by the regime, comparisons abound to the Russian pounding of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the 1990s, and the Serbs’ slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995.

Russian intervention in Syrian war has now almost ensured, thanks to president Putin’s firm commitment to dictatorial dynastic misrule of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad that he can just enjoy his remaining life without even holding any referendum, let alone elections, to continue his misrule and claim legitimacy for presidency for the rest of his life.

Apparently, for the Arab nations and Iran, fear of America would soon be the fact of the past as the ongoing Russian war maneuverings in Syria targeting Muslims in the Arab nation may have impressed the rulers in the region as well as Israel and, more importantly, Russian effort is helping Assad stay in power against the will of the world’s super power USA. Having complicated the conflictual situation in Syria, Americans do not seem to have clues to end the war and possibly looking to the Kremlin to find some solution, even if not a long term one.

Ending wars of course is not the US idea.

Syrian leader Assad’s key allies Russia and Iran could claim that the victory over rebels in Syria’s second city Aleppo advances their standing in the region in the globally.

The bombardment of rebel-held east Aleppo by Russian forces, the Syrian army, and Iran-led militias has been unprecedented in its intensity, even by the standards of Syria’s brutal six-year civil war. The blitz has also been effective at removing rebels – some of them backed by the USA, others Islamic jihadists ¬– from their most significant urban stronghold in Syria.

Russia dramatically stepped up its intervention in September last year, its first projection of hard power beyond former Soviet borders in decades, reportedly at Iran’s request. Soon after, Obama said “it just won’t work,” and predicted that Moscow would get stuck in a “quagmire.”

President Putin, however, has pointed to Western failures in Syria, and last week told the NTV channel that “the world balance is gradually being restored. The attempts to create a unipolar world failed.”

So Russia seems to have outsmarted its arch rival USA in Syrian war but with no quick end to the conflict, they are likely to push for a political solution if they sincerely seek peace in West Asia.

With Russia maintaining upper handling war operations in Syria, Arab nations could now rely on Russian terror goods instead of depending on costly US weaponry.

Iran’s challenges

For Iran, that means expanding the influence of its “axis of resistance” against the USA, Israel, and their allies. For Russia, it marks a critical step toward restoring past influence, even as American power projection and willingness to engage in the Middle East declines. “This is what really matters to Iran and Russia, that the political, geo-strategic project of the anti-Assad and anti-Iranian position has failed, and it has been buried in the Aleppo rubble,” says a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics who has studied the history of ISIS. “Syria really could be a signpost for the emergence of a new international system.”

Iran has supported Assad from the start with advisers – losing numerous high-ranking officers along the way – and mobilized the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. It has also marshaled thousands of Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan to fight in Syria.

Few predict that the departure of rebel forces from Aleppo means the end of the Syrian war, which will continue as a guerrilla fight on many other fronts. And analysts say there are limiting factors to the current ascending influence of Iran and Russia. The brief cease-fire that fell apart did so amid wrangling between Russia and Iran about how and whether rebel fighters – all of them considered “terrorists” by pro-Assad forces – and tens of thousands of trapped civilians could be evacuated from the remaining sliver of ground they control.

The Assad “victory” in Aleppo has also been dented by Islamic State (IS) fighters’ recent recapture of Palmyra, the ancient city held and damaged by IS earlier in the war that was reclaimed by Assad forces with great fanfare last spring. “There was big hope that this victory in Aleppo would shatter the morale of the Syrian opposition, and it would begin to crack, and there would be serious defections,” says a defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta in Moscow.

Iran faces its own challenges, not least because of uncertainty about how a new government under President Donald Trump may improve ties with Russia at Iran’s expense. So it, too, is inclined to seek a political solution. The perception in Tehran is there is no military ending in Syria.

In other words, since Assad has won the nasty battle and would stay forever, it is a good time to go for a negotiated solution, because from a position of strength it is easier to convince Assad to give concessions, rather than a position of weakness. Some conservative factions in Iran revel in the Aleppo victory of “resistance,” that view “is not going to be shared universally. Iranian forces are also overstretched. We know there is no light at the end of the tunnel. “Any tactical closeness of Russia and the US may hurt Iran, and so their preference would be to quickly turn that victory into a negotiated solution.

That is to say if USA, Russia and Syria think seriously about   ending war and rebuild the economy of Syria and strengthen Mideastern politics and economy.

Unfinished task?

However, even after seizing all of Aleppo, Assad still controls only one-third of the country. Russia and Iran therefore see the war in Syria as continuing, and are likely to press for a political solution to the conflict.

President Assad is celebrating his most significant battlefield victory so far, even though Iran-Russia squabbling interrupted what was supposed to be a final cease-fire, and images showed block after block of pulverized neighborhoods – punctuated by terrified citizens’ please on social media “save Aleppo.”

Assad told Russian television that liberating Aleppo doesn’t end with liberating the city itself, it needs to be secured on the outside. The next target, he said, “depends on which city contains the largest number of terrorists.” But the strategic reverberations of Aleppo’s fall reach far beyond Syria’s second city and signify a retooling of power dynamics in the Middle East.

It is here that Russia and Iran invested military power and orchestrated an outcome they desired, preserving the Assad regime and preventing a takeover by USA or ISIS and even greater chaos. At the same time, they defeated the half-hearted effort pursued by anti-Islamic USA and its allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to remove Assad by backing rebel groups.

There was a triumphant tone in Iran, as well. “Resistance paid off; the horns of America and House of Saud broken,” ran one headline in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper. “The liberation of Aleppo is the defeat of all political, military and arrogant powers in one spot of the Muslim world, where the flag of resistance has been hoisted,” declared Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

The human cost continues to grow, with the fight for Aleppo and its years of regime barrel bombing in the city contributing heavily to the war’s death toll of some 470,000. Among reports of atrocities on both sides, the UN said that 82 civilians had been killed by pro-Assad troops as well. Heavy shelling of the city resumed with the collapse of a Russia-announced deal for the departure of rebel fighters. n“For Aleppo they gathered everything they could. Hezbollah brought in two fresh brigades.… The Russians organized a Grozny-type very heavy barrage that worked. But at the same time, the Syrian second-rate infantry was overrun in Palmyra, caches of weapons were seized, intervened in the morale-crushing effect of Aleppo.

Yet as Russia stepped up its intervention in Syria, the quagmire scenario grows, along with the risks. Russia waited a bit to launch the final hit on Aleppo. An official from the Kremlin had explained in May that it will be a bloodbath in Aleppo and Russia had to make a serious political decision. As the extent of that bloodbath sinks into the Sunni Muslim world, there can also be repercussions over murdering Sunnis in Syria. There is none indeed to shed tears over the genocides of Muslims anywhere in the world, including Syria or Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Millions have been slaughtered by fascist forces led by USA and EU and supported by Israel and its state terror ally India.

Another limit may be the cost for Russia, which one general recently said has shipped 700,000 tons of terror goods like military equipment and weaponry to Syria via the Bosporus waterway in Turkey. The problem is how long Russia can maintain such a policy, when it runs out of resources with Western sanctions remain in place and notwithstanding Russian efforts to end or at least ease they refuse to end the economic punishment of the Kremlin. And that is a serious burden on the Russian navy and the Russian budget. There is also the problem of Russian morale here just of American prestige.

Russia’s experience in other conflicts, therefore, is behind its push for a political settlement.

The Syrian army is thinly spread and dispersed in many areas. Assad can never impose his centralized control on all of Syria anymore. In fact, what we see today as a significant military gain for Assad, could, experts say, easily mutate in a year or so into Afghanistan of the 1990s. And Russia knows this.

Without a political settlement, Syria will remain a battlefield for many years to come.

What is Russia’s goal in Syria?

Hard pressed by its economic sanctions, Russia with its intervention in Syria has clearly challenged the imperialist unilateralism, any way and under President Trump no more such military misadventures could be expected. President Obama made a decision not to involve, not to entangle, not to invest major political and military capital in the Middle East. “It’s not the lack of capability; it’s the lack of will”. The frequent WH statements about ending US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no desire to start new ones is encouraging. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a strategic investment, and so far the returns are excellent.

A year ago the Kremlin appeared to be stepping up its role in the Syrian crisis, possibly laying the groundwork for a new strategy against ISIS in the region. In order to achieve meaningful results on the ground, Russia would need to send thousands of well-trained troops to Syria as well as a significant amount of military equipment. Presently there are well less than one thousand of Russian personnel operating in the country, and judging by recent images of Russian landing ships crossing the Bosphorus, trucks and armored personnel carriers. The news of Russian troops appearing across Syria has appeared in numerous media outlets around the world in recent days.

The financial burden of engaging in fighting in order to help Assad’s army regain ground without any guarantee would be extremely heavy on the Russian budget. Some suggested that just as in previous years, Russian specialists are merely training Syrian President Assad’s army to use Russian equipment that Moscow keeps sending to Syria, while others went as far as to suggest that newly-arrived Russians are fighting on the front lines alongside the Syrian army.

Only a few months ago, reports suggested that Russia could have been changing its Syria strategy and might abandon Assad. Russia even withdrew its diplomatic staff from Damascus and stopped honoring its agreement with Syria to maintain Russian-made fighter jets. But now there is no denial that in recent months Russia has slightly intensified arms deliveries to the Assad government. In fact, the latest data shows that in the first 8 months of 2015 Russian southbound landing crafts passed the Bosphorus 39 times, compared to 36 times in the same period of 2014.

After Ukraine, Moscow can’t afford another major deployment of troops, both financially and politically especially with western sanctions in place. Moscow knows the price of such a policy all too well. The US reaction to initial reports of Russia boosting its presence in Syria was quite harsh. White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested that Russia’s involvement would lead to an escalation in the conflict and even to direct confrontation with the coalition taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Direct involvement in this crisis is also risky due to Western sanctions that theoretically could be toughened over Syria.

Russia and Syria reactivated the 1980 “friendship” treaty that sees Moscow taking over the Latakia air base. Russia has reportedly delivered its newest BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (APCs), Ural trucks and shipments of firearms to the Syrian government. It has also allegedly started assembling prefabricated buildings for 1,000 military specialists in Latakia to establish a broad anti-ISIS coalition. Russia has been continuously delivering cargo to Syria, both humanitarian and military. As well, Russia could be setting up a mobile air traffic control unit.

Are Russian forces really fighting for Assad? Vladimir Putin’s intentions with regards to Syria are both domestic and foreign, particularly . Despite reports claiming that Russian troops were seen taking part in action in Syria, engaging in direct fighting is off the table for the Kremlin, at least for now. Probably the most important reason why Russia would think twice before sending its troops into battle in Syria is that it would certainly be used for PR purposes in Russia’s North Caucasus by ISIS to recruit new Russian-speaking fighters. But it would be even more detrimental to the Kremlin if ISIS captured a Russian soldier in Syria whose brutal execution would set large groups of Russians against the Kremlin’s irresponsible strategy.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Moscow continues to provide military equipment per previously signed contracts; in addition, Moscow continues to send Russian military specialists to train the Syrian army to use this equipment. Some reports suggest that most equipment that Russia delivers to Syria these days is intended for the military base in Latakia.

Observations

By increasing its military presence in Syria, Russia may also be raising the ante in the ongoing negotiating process with the Assad government. So much so, now Western governments would have to deal with Russia instead of Assad regarding Syrian future or military deals. .

The big question now is whether the USA under Trump will continue to push Europe to hold Russia accountable — something that is currently in doubt, given President-elect Donald Trump’s open admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his selection of Russia-friendly Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson for very important post of secretary of state. President-elect Donald Trump’s Russian sympathies have raised the possibility of a shift in US foreign policy vis-a-vis Moscow.

The devastation in Aleppo and the rollover of sanctions against Russia was part of the EU summit agenda on December 15.   While the summit ultimately sent a strong message to Moscow about the EU’s willingness to extend sanctions and support Ukraine, in reality EU foreign policy towards Russia is predicated on what happens next in terms of US foreign policy and the ongoing political maneuverings in Syria. European Union leaders recently decided in Brussels to extend sanctions against Russia until July –sanctions that were imposed after the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014

The moot question is will the anti-Islamic nations , condign Arab countries, leave Syria even without going for the rebuild costly operations from Syrian resources by dividing the construction-destruction works   among all of them, and China and Israel- the anti-Islamic nations waiting for orders?

Clearly Russia has firmly stay put in West Asia including Mideast and the Sunni Gulf states are already singing military deals with Moscow, pushing the US super power, the traditional shareholder in the region, to sideways.

Russia’s expanded role in Syria is yielding some benefits. Moscow is being courted by Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, and is rebuilding ties with Turkey and Egypt – all of them traditional US allies. Palestinian leaders have also requested Putin’s help in convincing arrogant Israeli PM B. Netanyahu to resume peace talks – a role long played by Washington. Israel just wants bogus talks and it abruptly cancels by putting conditions, difficult for the Palestinians to accept. .

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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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