The Palestinian Narrative Regarding Jerusalem
From the Oslo Agreement in 1993, Arafat realized that “Jerusalem” has to be the focal of the Palestinian Authority’s claims together with the “the occupation” slogan. Since, the Palestinian Authority has initiated an unprecedented campaign of historical revision and anti-Israel libels concerning Jerusalem. The aim of this strategy is being the erasure and denial of 3,000 years of Jewish history in Jerusalem to replace it as it was theirs.
On October 6, 2002, Arafat signed the “Jerusalem Law,” which states that Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state and emphasized complete Palestinian sovereignty over the city, including sovereignty over all of its holy places. Moreover, any agreement or law that contradicts this law and is concluded by any party whatsoever, would be considered null and void. The Jerusalem Law could only be amended by a majority vote of two-thirds of the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The Palestinian propagation indicates that Jerusalem carries a unique and total sanctity for Islam and the Palestinians in particular. It is the religious, political and spiritual capital of Palestine solely, and the Jews have absolutely no connection and no rights to it. Jerusalem is presented as an exclusively Muslim city and any Jewish life in Jerusalem is labeled as “Judaization.”
Indeed, they reach the highest fabrication and falsification ever by disregarding science, history and archeology. Even the past existence of the existence and all what is written in the Old and New Testaments is being denied. In their narrative, the entire al-Aqşā mosque, in fact the entire territory has always been through all history a purely Islamic property from the beginning of history, while Israel acts to destroy al-Aqṣā Mosque and to reestablish its fake Temple (al-Haykal al-Maz’ūm).
The Palestinian leadership’s declarations are pronounced thousands of times every year on the political, religious, educational and the communication outlets. It is as if they believe that he who reiterate his propagation more and more – is victorious.
These are uttered by the political leadership from Arafat and Abu Māzen (Mahmoud Abbās), through the religious leadership from Taysīr al-Tamīmī and Mahmoud al-Ḥabbāsh, and by the Palestinian ministers and political elite.
Herewith are quotations presented among the huge amount that exhibit and expose the Palestinian state of affairs concerning Jerusalem. It is worthwhile to state that as the Palestinian “Independence Day” was initiated from 1998, the chief onslaught to introduce the Jerusalem campaign has its peak from 2008 on.
Yasser Arafat’s uncompromising position on Jerusalem was presented to President Clinton, at Camp David talks:
The Palestinian demand for sovereignty over Jerusalem is not limited to the mosques on the Temple Mount and the Armenian quarter. It applies to the entire city. All of it. All of it. All of it. Palestinian peace is the peace of al-Aqṣā … Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the State of Palestine… We will redeem Jerusalem with our spirits and our blood. If we give up on Jerusalem, the entire Palestinian regime and political establishment will collapse. I will not betray my people. I will not sell Jerusalem. We demand full sovereignty over Jerusalem… This is not just the task of the Palestinian people. It must be advanced by the Arabs, the Muslims and the Christians.
In the resumption of the Intifada campaign, Arafat declared:
The Palestinian caravan is on its way to the first Qiblah and the third Haram, the place where our Prophet Muhammad descended to the sky. Noble Jerusalem, the Capital of the Palestinian State. We are at the center of world and Islamic campaign against Zionism and the imperialist aggressors.
Mahmoud Abbās (Abu Māzen), the Palestinian Authority Chairman is more extremist concerning his attitude of Jerusalem. For him, the Palestinian People was appointed by the entire Islamic Nation to be the guardian of Islam’s sacred property in Jerusalem. Abbas expresses the absolutist and uncompromising demand of the Palestinians to the effect that Jerusalem is entirely their property.
For example, in 2011 and 2012 he used the phrase “al-Haykal al-Maz’ūm” the fake Temple, more than 100 times. For him, the Palestinians are a nation entrusted by the entire Muslim world over the Islamic holy sites and there will be no concessions in Jerusalem. Therefore, bringing Jerusalem back to the hands of the Palestinians is Fard Ayn, a compulsory Jihad war on all the Muslims. Accordingly, his following declaration stormed and ignited “the Intifādah of Stones and Knives,” from October 2015.
We are in Jerusalem, and we will remain in it. We will continue to cling to every inch of its land…. We honor and salute the Murābitīn [those carrying out and fighting in the front, to protect the Islamic land]… We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah. Every Shahīd will reach Paradise, and everyone wounded will be rewarded by Allah… Jews are filth, they desecrate and defile Jerusalem… We won’t allow Jews’ filthy feet on our sacred sites… al-Aqṣā is ours… and they have no right to defile it with their filthy feet. We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem…. The Palestinians must prevent the Jews from entering the Sanctuary. This is our Sanctuary.
Here are few selections of his attitude of Jerusalem. These declaration represent, in fact constitute the basis of the Palestinians lies and fabrications.
Israel ultimately aim to destroy al-Aqṣā Mosque and build their alleged fake Temple… take over the Muslim holy sites, and destroy its institutions in order to empty it, uproot its residents, and continue its occupation and Judaization… There will be no peace and security unless the occupation will be evacuated from our holy city, the eternal capital of our state.
The Jews’ so-called Temple is nothing but legends and myths, and greatest crime and forgery in history. Jerusalem’s Jewish history is delusional myths. They are continuing their attempt to change Jerusalem… They imagine that by brute force they can invent a Jewish history. The story of the Temple is nothing but a collection of legends and myths… In the spirit of the delusions and legends, they try to get rid of al-Aqṣā and establish their so-called Temple – the greatest crime and forgery in history. Israel’s claim to al-Aqṣā is “empty and false… This is a falsification of the history.
We say to him [Netanyahu], when he claims that the Jews have a historical right dating back to 3000 years B.C.E., we say that the nation of Palestine upon the land of Canaan had a 7,000-year history. This is the truth, which must be understood, in order to say: you are incidental in history. We are the people of history. We are the owners of history.
Mahmoud Abbās’ speech in the “Jerusalem Conference” in Qatar:
Israel… uproots Palestinian history and culture in Jerusalem for thousands of years… Israel is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, to rid the city of religious and cultural structures, symbols and values… robbing Palestinians’ historical and religious character.
Mahmoud Abbās’ words at the International Conference for the Support of Jerusalem, organized by the UN, in Ankara, on May 12, 2014:
Palestinian presence in Jerusalem is dated 5000 years old. The Palestinians are the only permanent element in Jerusalem, while the others came and went. Israel threatens the city’s Islamic-Palestinian identity. Its grave dangers threaten Jerusalem…
Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories and preacher at al-Aqṣā Mosque [the Jewish Temple Mount]
The Jews say that this place was once the site of their temple. The truth is that there was never any Jewish temple during that entire period, and there was no prayer area there for Jews. Israel is threatening to destroy al-Aqṣā mosque in order to build its imaginary temple on its ruins. The esplanades of al-Aqṣā mosque, its walls and its structures are an Islamic endowment until the judgment day. Only Muslims hold the exclusive right to this place.
Sheikh Yusuf Idā’is, PA Minister of Religious Affairs,
Jerusalem and the al-Aqṣā Mosque belongs only to the Muslims, no matter how many forgeries and fabrications the occupation state makes. Muhammad’s night journey and ascent to heaven emphasize the Arab nature of Jerusalem and its Palestinian nature. The Arab and Islamic nations must defend al-Aqṣā Mosque, stand determinedly against settlers’ invasions to Judaize al-Aqṣā and defile it with Talmudic-Jewish ceremonies.
The following are selection of declarations and claims that appeared on Fatah television during three months alone as follows:
There was never a Jewish Temple in our Jerusalem. This is a legend and a myth invented by the Zionists to legitimize the Israeli imperialist occupation. Jerusalem was built by the Jebusite Arabs. Malchitzedek, the Arab king, built it six thousand years ago, and originally called it Yabus. There never was a glorious city so close to Allah’s kingdom as Jerusalem, and its inhabitants were originally Arabs. Its sanctity was shaped by Islam, beginning with ‘Umar Bin al-Khattāb, who captured the city from the Christian infidels… Israel will disappear from the map, like a chapter of history’s falsified pages. The Jews do not even have one stone in Jerusalem. Since time immemorial, there was only al-Aqṣā and there are no remnants of the so-called temple.
What the Jews are doing by digging in Jerusalem is a crime unprecedented in human history. It is an attempt to forge history. The Zionists produce stones with signs of their supposed “temple”. They move authentic Muslim stones and bring others instead, passing them off as Jewish stones. They even bring dead bodies from outside, as their ancestors. All of this is done to Judaize occupied Jerusalem, in order to substantiate the myth and legend that al-Aqṣā is where their temple stood.
Israel forges well-known historical facts taken from Palestinian heritage and ties them to a falsified Jewish history that is utterly absent from our land. Their so-called Temple is an attempt to rob Palestinian heritage, and Israel doesn’t have any history of its own.
Saeb Erekat, “I am the son of Jericho… the proud son of the Netufians and the Canaanites. I’ve been there for 5,500 years before Joshua Bin Nun came and burned my hometown Jericho.
According to Palestinians even the Jewish oath that reads “If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its purpose” (Psalms 137:5) was authored by a Crusader king and stolen by “Zionists” for political purposes. However, though the Palestinian Authority denied the Jewish oath regarding Jerusalem, it decided to create a similar oath as a popular indoctrination: “Let my right hand forget me, let my left hand forget me. Let the light of the eye and the sighs of the songs forget me… if I forget Jerusalem”. Every so often groups of children appear on Palestinian TV chanting “I swear by the tears of the child…in the name of the youth, Jerusalem will return to us… We will free every centimeter [of the city] from the hands of the infidel.”
The al-Aqsa Foundation statements are summarized as follows:
Those who founded Jerusalem were the Jebusite and Canaanite Palestinians, and they inhabited it in the fifth millennium BC. The holy city did not carry any Hebrew name in history, and the Hebrew language did not exist there or anywhere else, it was Aramaic. There was no Temple in Jerusalem… the tribe of Israel is a Yemenite Arab tribe that has passed from the world.
Our Jerusalem was never the capital of a thing called ‘Israel,’ not of the previous and not of the present entity. Jews have no connection to this land, not 3,000 years ago, and not 100 years ago. Israel has no genetic, anthropologic, national, or historical connection to the biblical Arab Yemenite tribe that is now extinct.
Salwa Ḥabīb, Deputy Minister of Jerusalem Affairs
The Palestinian people has been present in Jerusalem for thousands of years, whether it was in Babylon, Assyria or Canaan, the Palestinians gathered in the area before anything else, centuries before the Jewish religion… They are stealing history and geography.
Bahjat Ḥabāshneh, a Palestinian lecturer
There is no text, not in the Talmud and not in Jewish Bible that gives holiness to Jerusalem. The source of the sanctity and purity of Jerusalem, and the existence of a mosque in it are only in the Islamic texts.
Appraisal of Palestinian’s Narrative Concerning the Jews and Jerusalem
Comparing the Palestinians’ declarations to Islamic Scriptures and classical exegetes reveals the huge ocean-deep difference that brings to attention how the Palestinians not only distort and twist history but also invent a totally new fabricated history. Moreover, with their detached from reality propaganda they falsify and twist attested facts of history and science.
As typical of Arab-Islamic culture, the totality of the Palestinian’s demands is that no other religion has any significance in Jerusalem because everything there belongs to Islam. That view is accompanied by all-encompassing practical implications, namely the claim to total control of the entire area and utter rejection of all others claims to, or connection with, Jerusalem. Everything found in that area is the possession of Islam and theirs, for which they require no scientific and archaeological confirmation or evidence. Therefore, no other political-religious entity needs acquiesce to that claim. It belongs to them because they said so, without the need of scientific proofs, and if one disagrees, their reaction is murderous violence. That typically “totalistic” view is singularly applicable in the case of Jerusalem.
Dennis Ross, chief American negotiator, accounts the Camp David Summit of July 2000, and attributes much of its failure to Yasser Arafat, who not only repeated “old mythologies” but invented “a new one … [that] the Temple did not exist in Jerusalem but in Nablus.”
Palestinians’ outrageous statements and fabrication invented to promote false political agenda are part of ongoing efforts to negate Israel’s deep ties to Jerusalem, to challenge an essential element of the Jewish faith, to twist historical truths and facts, and to replace Jewish historical rights by their own.
For example, they should have known that “Jerusalem” is mentioned in the Jewish Bible 669 times and “Zion” appears 154 times, a total of 823 references. The Temple Mount (Hebrew: Har Habayit), is identified as the area of Mount Moriyah where Abraham offered up his son in sacrifice, and where the First and Second Jewish Temples were established. They are even mentioned in the Qur’an (17:2-8).
Arafat should have known that the pagan town of Nablus (the Arabic pronunciation of the Greek “Neapolis”) was founded by the Roman Emperor Vespasian several years after his victory over the Jews and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Therefore, the Jewish Temple sanctuaries could not be in Nablus. This is another fabrication from the Palestinian’s imaginative creation.
Another indication is that “Jerusalem” as an important political-religious aim was also not mentioned by Yasser Arafat’s Fath, (Ḥarakat Tahrīr Filastīn) established in October 1959, nor by Ahmad Shuqeiry’s Palestinian National Organization (Munazzamat at-Tahrīr al-Filastīnīyah) established in May 1964. In its original Covenant from 1964, there is no mentioning of Jerusalem whatsoever. Only in its amended Covenant from 1968 there was a slight change. However, only in the middle of the 1990’s Arafat “recalled” on Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.
Unfortunately the Palestinians efforts have succeeded, as the world is mired with politics and not with historical and scientific truth. The United Nations, the organization that is supposed to keep peace in the world, is now deadly controlled by the Islamic states under the title of Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which passes disgraceful and despicable imagined resolutions against Israel.
On October 20, 2015, the Palestinians, backed by six Arab states, succeeded in erasing the historical connection between Jews and the Jewish Temple Mount by UNESCO to list the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron; Rachel Tomb in Bethlehem are merely Muslim sites. The executive board of UNESCO adopted a resolution on April 15, 2016, that ignores the historic Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. The final resolution of October 13, 2016, refers to the entire Jewish Temple Mount area as the al-Aqṣā Mosque, the Islamic Ḥaram ash-Sharīf, the Noble Sanctuary. This is scandalous, appalling and deplorable; but this is the face of the UN=Islamic Nations.
The Palestinian onslaught to deny the connection between the Jews and Jerusalem, is part of a large strategy of Islamic appropriation of the Biblical Jewish past. Professor Jacob Lassner, Claims the “… the Muslim response to the Jews and Judaism stemmed from an intense competition to occupy the center of a stage held sacred by both faiths. The story of the Jews was a history that Muslims appropriated in the Qur’an, its commentaries and other Islamic texts.” The Palestinian version of the history of Jerusalem belongs to this category as well.
The best way to approach this refutations is precisely by analyzing ancient and medieval Christian sources, modern scholarship and archeological excavations. The references to Jerusalem in classical texts increase our knowledge of Jews and Judaism in the ancient world and demonstrate their historical attachment. Professor Lee Levine research brings excellent historical and archeological sources which clearly demonstrate the Jewish character of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period. Professor Eilat Mazar shows the amount of rich archaeological sources of the Temple Mount excavations and Jewish life in ancient times.
The ancient Greeks probably were the first to record information about the culture and political life of the Jews. Levine summarizes with huge evidence the varied reactions of Jews to the impact of Hellenism and the significance of Hellenization in Jewish history of the Second Temple and Talmudic periods. Professor Martin Goodman brings documents and huge evidence to the Greek and Roman attitudes to Jews and Judaism. One can analyze the issue from the negative side, the deep animosity of the Greek and Roman empires to the Jews.
The distinguished Professor Bernard Lewis notes that the Roman rulers renamed Judea “Syria-Palaestina” and Jerusalem as “Aelia Capitolina” in 137 CE, in order to “stamp out the embers not only of the Bar Kokhba revolt but of Jewish nationhood and statehood…” with the aim “of obliterating its historic Jewish identity.” Professor Peter Schaefer summarizes the issue: the animosity towards the Jews in the Land of Israel strongly proves the powerful presence of the Jews and their existence in the Land of Israel.
Indeed, from this short list of scientific historical and archaeological evidence from which one can clearly understand how the claims of the Palestinians, without any scientific corroboration, are ridiculous, detached from reality and based on mere lies and fabrications. More important, they also expose two big lies of the Palestinians: 1) the Islamic attitude towards the Jews; and 2) the Islamic relationships concerning Jerusalem.
To be followed.
Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort
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.
Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran
Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.
Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.
“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.
According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.
Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.
Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.
Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.
Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal. What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.
A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.
It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons
Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.
The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.
The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.
The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.
Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.
One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.
There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.
The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.
The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor
Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.
Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.
Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid
The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.
Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.
Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.
Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.
One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.
Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.
Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.
Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.
The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.
Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.
The Al-Bustan Association
An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.
Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.
The Father of the Desert Hawks
One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.
An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.
Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.
The Old Guard and the Special Services
Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.
Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Elements of Matriarchy
Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.
Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.
Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?
All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.
On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.
On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.
The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.
First published in our partner RIAC
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