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The truce in Syria and the plans to cease hostilities

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime began on March 15, 2015 in the framework of the Arab Springs – in that case designed to destabilize Saudi Arabia. Unlike what had happened in the Maghreb region and in Egypt, Saudi Arabia managed the issue by putting severe pressures on the United States – the global managers of the “Arab Springs” – but, above all, by harshly repressing every internal rebellion.

The war in Syria coincided with the end of the reckless US plan to extend the “Arab Springs” to the whole Greater Middle East.

Rather than understanding that it was one of their defeats, the United States passively supported the Sunni jihad in Syria – and we cannot currently understand which their real goal was.

Was it to help the Saudi friends? Excessive. Was it the idea of democratizing the Arab world by using jihadists? Pure madness.

Was it to spite Iran by closing it into a Sunni pocket? And why?

Hence the war remained in Syria and Saudi Arabia could support all the forces that opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime – considered by Saudi Arabia, with some exaggeration, as a mere Iran’s emissary.

The self-proclaimed “Caliphate” or jihadists comically defined as “moderate”, everything was good to set the Middle East on fire.

And, we wonder again, why?

So far the Syrian war has caused over 300,000 casualties and 12 million displaced persons or migrants, thus also prompting the British Brexit and the European countries’ future nationalistic closed-minded attitudes.

Certainly you may think that destabilization throughout Europe – which now never notices anything – is an important strategic goal. However, who should contain Russia, according to the old Obama’s logic of the new cold war?

Talk about the heterogenesis of intents or the law of unintended consequences.

Furthermore, from the very beginning, Barack Obama has also supported the Saudi proxy war in Syria, by pushing the Russian Federation – which wanted to avoid being completely sealed up in the Mediterranean – to start its air raids on September 30, 2015, so as to support the Assads’ Alawite regime and oppose the network of Sunni jihadist groups backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

An alcoholic-style geopolitics.

Finally it is a mystery how it is possible for the United States to still think of supporting the jihadist gangs, in a fragmented and very unstable environment such as the Middle East.

The jihadists will not destabilize Russia – if this is what is sought. Putin got rid of them with two very harsh wars in Chechnya.

Finally Saudi Arabia wanted to close a vital strategic space for Iran, namely Syria; Erdogan’s Turkey wanted to extend its new caliphate to the Sunni majority in Syria and the United States wanted to support their Saudi and Qatari allies against Iran and its hegemonic ambitions on Shiite minorities throughout the Fertile Crescent.

However, can a superpower like the United States strategically think of destabilizing the whole Middle East, the region which has also built the US financial fortunes since the 1970s?

Hence, currently, the Syrian region highlights some objective factors: a) Obama’s policy of encircling Russia has failed definitively; b) Russia has succeeding in involving also Turkey – the second Atlantic Alliance’s power – in its Syrian project; c) the Sunni jihad supported by Saudi Arabia and its global and regional allies has lost its own challenge precisely on its ground.

On November 30, 2016 the jihadists were expelled from the suburbs of Damascus and from its aqueduct with an action of the Syrian Arab Army and Russia’s very effective air support.

Putin and Erdogan could reach their own agreement because Aleppo had been freed.

Moreover, the Russian agreements signed in Astana clearly state that all the various jihadist groups, adhering or not to the ceasefire of December 30, 2016, must immediately, and without exception, leave their positions in Syria.

As increasingly happens after acts of terrorism, with the brutal New Year’s attack in Istanbul, Turkey is bearing the brunt of its new pro-Russian stance.

A stance which, today, is already a strategic success.

A stance which is fully rational.

Erdogan wanted to conquer the whole Sunni Syria when Bashar al-Assad appeared to be weak, but currently he is satisfied with an Alawite regime not permitting the establishment of a “Kurdish state” between Syria and the Iraqi territory.

Therefore, also thanks to Barack Obama’s strategic foolishness, currently Russia gives the cards and controls the New Middle East game.

Hence if the United States want to rescue their power in the region, they shall avoid delegating their strategic interest in the Middle East to the Sunni powers.

Furthermore the United States must avoid unilateralism, thus accepting the fait accompli and creating their control areas, without hoping Saudi Arabia would do so on their behalf.

Israel is the real winner of this war: it sees all its historical enemies exhausted in a long and bloody war; it has an information exchange agreement with the Russian Federation and can control – better than in the past – the whole Golan Heights region, which is essential for its defense.

Finally, at political and legal levels, the restriction to Hezbollah and Iranian special forces’ operations in Syria – according to the Astana agreements – reflects Russia’s and Assad Syria’s willingness to expel all jihadist groups – and, hence, their supporters’ interests – from the territory.

Too much Iran’s involvement prompts and recalls Saudi Arabia and neither Syria nor Moscow have any interest in being involved in the final war between the two Islam’s schools of thought.

Therefore the Middle East is too important to be managed with proxy wars or with set-ups built only with words and for a very short lapse of time.

We must therefore change our conception of the whole region, which currently has the Syrian war at its core.

The Fertile Crescent is not only the channel between Europe and Asia, as in the British Empire’s days, but also an area acting as a buffer zone between two regions which will be crucial in the future: Central Asia and China.

It is also autonomous in its dynamics – for many years it has no longer been the Arab, Islamic or Jewish extension of the great powers’ interests.

Obviously the central point of this new set-up will be the Mediterranean, which will become the most important “regional sea” of the globe.

Just to paraphrase the old laws of British and American geopolitics, whoever dominates the Middle East controls the Heartland, but whoever is dominant in the “middle land” controls the Eurasian peninsula and the two oceans.

Thinking of the Fertile Crescent only in terms of oil or energy transits is certainly important but, by now, fully reductive and simplistic.

Nevertheless let us revert to clashes and fighting. To date, the local sources of the war in Syria give us some definite results: the jihadist groups have been expelled from Wadi Barada and Ghouta East with the Syrian Arab Army’s weapons and hence have broken off – out of spite – the negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The jihadist groups expelled from Wadi Barada and Ghouta East include also the Syrian Free Army – a coalition of “moderate” groups, according to the US State Department’s dangerous jargon – and the Army of Conquest, another coalition of small jihadist groups.

All groups and people who have always gone back and forth the self-proclaimed Daesh/Isis Caliphate and the so-called small jihadist groups.

In ever clearer terms, the truce of Astana is becoming the legal and military tool to quickly remove the jihadist pockets still remaining between the center of Syria and its Southeast.

Hence the truce will hold until the jihadists do not realize it is a powerful tool of war against them and – as claimed by multiple sources of the Syrian Sunni jihad – the “cease-fire” will end unilaterally, but with the jihadists out of all the strategic positions they held so far.

Without “America being able to do anything for us”, as one of the leaders of the Syrian jihad said.

Therefore the issue lies in definitely freeing Mosul – the Iraqi axis of the Syrian victory – where the elimination of the so-called “Islamic State” is entrusted to 50,000 units including Kurds, Iraqi intelligence services, Anbar Sunni tribes and paramilitary Iranian Shiites.

It is the real center of gravity of the war against the so-called “Caliphate”, which will be quick and effective when the various jihadist groups, adhering or not to the Astana Agreement, will get out of the way.

The other areas from which to currently expel jihadists are Maarat al Numan, Saraqeh and Sheikhoun near Idlib, Teir Maalah, north of Homs and Souha, east of Hama.

Hence, at strategic level, Russia and Syria are closing every escape route to the many Syrian jihadi groups, before launching – with the necessary forces – the attack on the so-called Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.

Therefore, politically, we can envisage the following scenario.

Russia has no interest in making its Syrian hegemony unipolar: Putin has repeatedly stated that the “truce way” is also open to the United States and even to Saudi Arabia.

Russia does not want to bear the whole Middle East burden upon itself – and rightly so.

Those who hegemonized the Middle East before Russia created the conditions for their ruin and the subsequent Middle East disaster – see the United States which, with the Bush’s and Obama’s administrations, made their interest overlap with Saudi Arabia’s.

Politically, the alternative options will be either a smaller Syria under Bashar al-Assad, who has anyway won his war, or a “Greater Syria” with an Alawite leader who can also be liked by the United States and the Sunni powers in the region.

Bashar al-Assad, however, has won and he will not get out of the way so quickly or easily.

And the Alawite leader shall also be liked by Israel, if he does not create problems in the Golan Heights and does not allow militants and advanced weapons to pass through the Heights up to the Lebanese border or even the areas of the Gaza Strip.

Israel, too, is one of the winners of this new Syrian war and has the right to have many of its demands accepted.

Russia will involve the United States in the final agreement, with some strategic guarantees and especially stable cooperation between the two countries throughout the Middle East, in addition to the acceptance of Russia’s primary interest in the region.

Security of Russia’s military ports on the Mediterranean; the right to be consulted on all matters regarding the Mediterranean; Russia’s business expansion throughout the region.

Under these conditions, the United States can rest easy and avoid Saudi Arabia’s subsequent destabilization, the Lebanon’s final cantonization, which is in nobody’s interest, and finally Israel’s very dangerous encirclement.

Forget about Obama’s anti-Semitic hysteria: if America does not keep Israel it cannot afford any independent policy throughout the Middle East.

The Jewish State could have an international guarantee, with a “stabilization” force similar to UNIFIL II in the Lebanon, but on its Northern borders and, above all, in the strategic link between these areas and the border with Jordan.

In fact, the game played by some Israeli analysts is very dangerous: they favour the anti-Iranian and Assad’s enemy groups so as to avoid the integration of the Shiite forces in the Golan Heights and the Lebanon.

A US-borrowed strategy that will only cause disasters in the medium term.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is essential for every geopolitical project in the Middle East, could be integrated with most of the Palestinian National Authority, a very dangerous failed state that is the offspring of the Cold War old logic.

Russia could be the reliable and credible broker for the Palestinians, with a view to settling the Arab-Palestinian issue, in connection with Israel.

At the end of Barack Obama’s two Presidential terms, the United States could reach an agreement with the Russian Federation for Syrian stabilization and for the final settlement of the Kurdish issue, by redesigning – together with Russia – the borders of a non-sovereign Kurdish area which, of course, cannot destabilize Turkey.

Turkey will be in a position to have what it has always wanted, namely a droit de regard on the Sunni majority in Syria and safe passage to Central Asian Turkmen areas.

Bashar al-Assad has won. He will not get out of the way easily and, moreover, we do not even understand why he should do so.

If he is politically smart and open-minded – as he has proved to be during the war against the Sunni jihad – he could avoid maintaining the aura of Alawite leader extended to all Syria and create, for himself, the image and project of leader for all Syrians.

Furthermore, Iran has gained what it wanted, namely the security of the Shiite areas on its Syrian border.

It will not want more than this, if there are those that will be able to deal with the tough but smart religious leaders of the Iranian Shi’a.

Who is the loser? Obviously the European Union.

It had proposed the previous two totally ineffective truces and it did not succeed in creating its own geopolitical autonomy between a flat reiteration of US slogans and its interest in curbing and controlling immigration, which was used as blackmail by Erdogan’s Turkey.

Currently, if the United States come back into the Middle East region, they can only do so as losers: accept the Russian conditions and start again from there, without being deceived by the siren songs of some of their allies’ Sunni jihad.

From this viewpoint, Trump’s signals are fully reasonable.

Israel can see all its enemies be exhausted and be content with it, or take control of the situation.

In the latter case, it will be in a position to involve the United States and Russia in the new negotiations between the Jewish and the Islamic States, outside all the Cold War old ideas: useless and dangerous territorial concessions; creation of strategically useless pockets southwards and eastwards; trade only on paper.

Old “cold war” junk that no longer serves anyone.

Either Russia will make peace prevail between the Jewish State and its historical opponents or the work made in Syria will melt away like snow in the sun.

Conversely, the new US President, Donald Trump, may rebuild the US hegemony over the Middle East, possibly by being the promoter of a military agreement between all parties that would mark the greatness, vision and far-sightedness of the new White House leader.

Meanwhile the European Union will stay idle faced with its demographic and strategic disaster, waiting for someone to solve problems on its behalf.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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

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

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

The Defectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Al-Bustan Association

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

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

The Father of the Desert Hawks

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

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

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

The Old Guard and the Special Services

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

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

Elements of Matriarchy

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

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

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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