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The Palestinians Fabrications Concerning Jerusalem: What the Islamic Scriptures and Islamic History Instruct Us (C)

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From the above list contains the most reliable Islamic classical exegetes clearly sums up the issue and refute all political propaganda raised by Muslim and Palestinian politicians. These exegetes acknowledge that it was well-known Muhammad had night dreams and visions, but as about the Jewish Temple Mount there are no evidence and proofs relating to his political and religious activities.

Muhammad did not know anything about Jerusalem, let alone visiting it, and moreover building a mosque there. It is of note that during most of Muhammad’s prophetic career, Jerusalem was under Persian control (614-628). Byzantines returned triumphantly to Jerusalem only in 629.

Indeed, all Palestinian-Islamic assertions are fabrications based on myths with the aim of gaining political targets. The formula is crystal clear: as long as Jerusalem is under Islamic control, it is neglected and comes under oblivion. However, when Jews and/or Christians take control of the city, Muslim raise its artificial fabricated sanctity.

Furthermore, there is also the geographical terminology. The name al-Aqşā means “the most distant,” “the furthest,” cannot be tied or related to Jerusalem or anywhere in the Land of Israel for that matter, because it contradicts the Qur’an’s statement which calls the Land of Israel “the nearest place,” termed Adna al-Ard.

The phenomenon of denying Jewish history in Jerusalem and the existence of its two Temples is particularly perplexing since this denial contradicts the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an specifically mentions the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and states that the Children of Israel enjoyed two periods of political autonomy in the Land of Israel, and that during those periods they built the First and Second Temples which were destroyed because of their sins.

And we gave Moses the Scripture, and made it a guide for the Children of Israel. Take none for protector other than me… And we conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: You will commit evil on earth twice, and you will rise to a great height. When the first of the two promises came true… It was a promise fulfilled. Then we gave you back your turn against them, and supplied you with wealth and children, and made you more numerous… Then, when the second promise comes true, they will make your faces filled with sorrow, and enter the Temple as they entered it the first time, and utterly destroy all that falls into their power.

The problem with these false claims is also that they expose an important Arab-Islamic cultural traits which reveal ethnocentric views and claims. It presumes that everything belongs to Islam and nothing will be shared with others. Jerusalem is only sacred to Islam, and since it isn’t sacred to the Jews, they don’t have any rights to it.

History, Religion, and Politics Refute Any Ties of Islam to Jerusalem

Muhammad and the Sahābah

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount, called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is nobody knew of it among his friends (Sahābah), and even Muhammad himself did not know about it? He did not mention Jerusalem at all in his sermons and commandments; he did not tell his followers to worship Jerusalem, and above all, he did not send forces to conquer it from the infidels. He did nothing concerning Jerusalem. Is it possible?

The absence of Jerusalem is doubly surprising in light of the fact that in the 90 of 114 Meccan Sūwar the Qur’an frequently refers to stories from the Bible. Muhammad relates to many adventures of the Children of Israel, from Abraham and his sons in the Land of Israel and Egypt; continuing with Moses and the Children of Israel in Sinai, and the conquest of the Land of Israel; and ending with Kings David and Solomon and other Jewish prophets and figures. Kings David and Solomon resided in Jerusalem, the city of the Holy Temple. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is not mentioned, nor the Temple Mount in the Islamic Scriptures.

To comprehend how utterly strange is this phenomenon we must recall that the cities holy to Islam, Mecca and Medina, are described frequently, and these descriptions are accompanied by mention of historical events. Moreover, before Muhammad began his prophecy he engaged in commerce and once visited Damascus. Jerusalem was well known. Commercial caravans to Syria passed near Jerusalem. Still, total silence.

Moreover, one of his biographers, al-Wākidi, that his book, Kitāb al-Maghāzī details very carefully and authentically all of Muhammad’s wars and the places he visited and stayed. How that al-Wākidi does not mention this glorious event of Muhammad in Jerusalem and the mosque he erected there, if it was true? In two occasions the Hadīth mentions a city named Ilia, Madīnat Bayt al-Maqdis, but only in a geographic context and not in a political sense, and certainly not in a religious one concerning Islam.

He who is acquainted with Arab-Islamic political culture exactly knows this scenario is impossible. The admiration to Muhammad among the Muslims is total and absolute. If Jerusalem was important to Muhammad and if he had been there, his generation and later on all the believers would have known it and warship it.

None had happened, because nothing should have happened. The Sīrah (Muhammad’s biography) and the adīth (stories associated with Muhammad or about him as related by his confidants), which are an integral part with the Qur’an to comprise the Sharī’ah, contain extensive descriptions of Muhammad stories, declarations and activities. Still, Jerusalem is not mentioned at all. How could Mecca and Medina be mentioned so many times, while Jerusalem, which Islamic propagators establish as the third holiest city to Islam, is not mentioned?

‘Umar bin al-Khattāb, the Conqueror of Jerusalem

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is the Land of Israel was conquered by ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb in 634, but the Muslims did not bother to conquer Jerusalem until four years later? That is certainly an indication of the unimportance of Jerusalem as far as Islam is concerned. Had Jerusalem been of any real religious significance for Islam, it certainly would have been conquered as first priority.

Is it possible that ‘Umar bin al-Khattab, one of Muhammad’s closest confidantes, did not know there was a mosque on the Temple Mount that allegedly erected by Muhammad? Moreover, he entered the Temple Mount with a Jewish convert, Ka’ab al-Akhbar, as an instructor. ‘Umar turned to him to find the direction to pray towards Mecca. If there was already a mosque there that Muhammad had ostensibly built, wouldn’t ‘Umar have known about it, and wouldn’t he have prayed there?

Sure, there was no mosque there whatsoever. When Ka’ab, the Jewish convert, took off his shoes [in deference to the holiness of the Jewish shrine], suggested to build a mosque on the place of the Jewish Temple, ‘Umar angrily responded that Ka’ab had never really left his Jewish faith. He insisted that the Muslims are required to pray solely toward the Ka’aba in Mecca, and did not even listen to the idea of building a mosque on the Temple Mount.

In addition to the absence of any real significance of Jerusalem in the eyes of Islam, immediately after it was conquered, the Muslims reached an agreement of surrender with the Christian leadership and thereupon proceeded to leave Jerusalem and ignore it, preserving its Christian character. Had Jerusalem occupied an important religious role in Islam, the Muslims would have not abandoned it to the Christians immediately following its conquest and granted the Christians far-reaching autonomy in it.

These facts bring the Islamic propagation concerning Jerusalem to absurd and ridicule. If the al-Aqşā mosque indeed was located on the Temple Mount, could we imagine that ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb would belittle it and, by so doing, deny the validity of its source in the Qur’an? Obviously not. The fact is that there is no reference in the Qur’an to al-Aqşā or to any particular sanctity of the Temple Mount.

Moreover, After ‘Umar left the Temple Mount and signed a treaty of protection with the Christians, called Dhimma, he decided to establish the Muslim capital in Caesarea. Later on the capital moved to Ramle, the only city the Muslims built in the Land of Israel. Does it sound logical from Islamic perspective that had al-Aqşā been located in Jerusalem built by Muhammad, could ‘Umar or any Muslim blatantly disregard it and erect the capital in other cities? Indeed, ‘Umar did so because there was nothing out there in Jerusalem sacred to Islam.

Jerusalem under the Umayyad Dynasty (al-Khilāfah al-Umawiyyah)

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is Jerusalem continued to be in oblivion and negligence, and that the Umayyad’s capital was established in Damascus, and that still there was no prayer toward Jerusalem and even no known mosque there?

However, the internal war between Muhammad’s family and the Mecca-oriented group against the Umayyad’s Damascus-oriented Dynasty, brought a change. Due to the circumstances the Umayyads had to choose an alternative to the ājj in Mecca, and Jerusalem was chosen just because of its location.

For that reason, the Umayyad ruler, ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) built the first mosque ever, only in 691, in Jerusalem, called the Dome of the Rock, Qubt al-Sakhra’, on the Temple Mount. There was no religious decree or orientation there but pure politics. Why the Temple Mount? Because Jerusalem at that time was only a small part of what is known today as ‘the Old City.’ Another reason, the Umayyads wished to act against the Christians, where there was a church on the foundations of the Jewish Temple.

Only in 715 a second mosque was built by Suleiman, al-Walid’s son, called Masjid al-Aqşā. It was built 83 years after Muhammad’s death. From the emergence of Islam until 691 the Muslims built many mosques in all the lands they have conquered but not in Jerusalem. Is it something to consider?

A number of factors contributed to the decision to choose Jerusalem: First, the rebel forces of ‘Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr controlled the ijaz (Arabia) and prevented the Umayyad from taking part in the ājj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Furthermore, the Umayyad Dynasty sought to legitimize their control of Syria: they had competitors in Arabia as well as in Iraq for the control of Mecca. Finally, in the absence of a spiritual center, the Umayyad needed a location like Jerusalem.

The power struggle within Islam itself has brought Jerusalem to the core. The Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphs who controlled Jerusalem wanted to establish an alternative holy site if their rivals blocked access to Mecca. That was important because the ajj to Mecca was one of the Five Pillars of Islam. As a result, they built what became known as the Dome of the Rock shrine and the adjacent mosque. Indeed, all Umayyad’s sources reveal that Jerusalem was chosen for its geographical location and not for any Islamic reason connected to Muhammad.

Ya’qubi, the 9th century historian describes the issue: at that time ‘Abd al-Malik forbade the people of Syria to make a pilgrimage to Mecca because Ibn Zubeir, in Mecca revolted against him and forced the pilgrims the swear allegiance to him. Therefore, he built a dome over the Rock on Bayt al-Maqdis. Indeed, on the place of Jerusalem in Islamic tradition, S. D. Goitein takes issue about the role of the Umayyads in promoting the sanctity of Jerusalem.

It was not easy to change the Muslims’ consciousness concerning Jerusalem and ājj. That is why a new religious-educational orientation was established, called Fadā’il al-Quds literature. The target was clear: to make Jerusalem a place of sanctity for the masses under the Umayyads. However, when reading the material written on Fadā’il al-Quds the conclusion is clear: it does not say anything about Muhammad in Jerusalem and the erection of mosque there during Muhammad’s life. There was only a new invention of Jerusalem as a holy city deserves to serve the ājj ritual.

In this context, and for obvious political reasons, several clerics active during the period of the Umayyad dynasty set this holiness rating for Bayt al-Maqdis. They stated as follows: “prayer in Mecca is like one hundred thousand prayers, prayer in Medina is like one thousand prayers, and prayer in Bayt al-Maqdis is like five hundred prayers.”

According to al-Muqaddasi (985), an historian in Jerusalem (as his name testifies, referring to the Jewish name of Jerusalem), the Dome of the Rock sought to elevate and sanctify Jerusalem, thus serving as a counterweight to the Christian churches that dominated the city, such as the Church of the Sepulcher. That is why there sprung up an entire literature about the “praise of Jerusalem” (Fadā’il al-Quds). Still it was of note that the region’s capital was al-Ramlah and not Jerusalem. Moreover, this sanctity remained for only 60 years. When the Umayyad dynasty fell in 750, Jerusalem also fell into near obscurity for 350 years, until the Crusades.

Jerusalem Under the Abbasid Dynasty (al-Khilāfah al-‘Abāssīyah)

The House of Umayyad fell in 750, and the entire ruling family were slaughtered by the Abbasids. For 350 years, up to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, no Islamic entity displayed any interest in the city. The “Praise of Jerusalem” literature, that emerged for political reasons during the Umayyad dynasty and lasted at most 60 years, disappeared, and a new contradictory literature appeared that belittled the importance of Jerusalem.

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount, called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is a new Islamic literature considered Jerusalem a source of heresy and rejection of Islamic sacred writings? How that is in 1033 the Dome of the Rock, most symbolically, collapsed and no one bothered to restore it as a holy site of worship? In 1173 Benjamin of Tudela visited Jerusalem. He described it as a small city full of Christian groups with two hundred Jews dwelt under the Tower of David. No Muslim community was mentioned.

The Fatimid control of Jerusalem ended when it was captured by the Crusaders in July 1099. The capture was accompanied by a massacre of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. Jerusalem became the capital of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt, and Muslim mosques on the Jewish Temple Mount were converted for Christian purposes.

At the beginning, even the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders failed to arouse any sense of shock or cultural-religious humiliation around the Islamic world. The Christian Crusaders destroyed mosques and synagogues, and built churches on those sites. Most of all, they pointed to Jerusalem as the pinnacle of their religious campaign. Moreover, the Ayyubid Dynasty destroyed the walls in expectation of ceding the city to the Crusaders as part of a peace treaty.

The Muslims did not refer to the conquest of Jerusalem as a goal. Only a few voices mentioned the city, and only few sources can be cited in the reports of travelers of that period who barely mention Jerusalem in a religious context and certainly not as an important site for tourism. The religious side was much less even mentioned let alone practiced. It was pure politics. Infidels occupying a Muslim land, and from social-economic perspective impoverishment and misery of Jerusalem were at their peak.

However, through time there emerged some different voices, such as that of Ali the son of Tahir al-Sulami, a cleric who resided in Damascus, who preached the need for Jihad against the Crusaders. The 12th century Nur al-Din, the ruler of Aleppo and Mosul pressed hard for a Jihad against the infidels. For that he employed the religious motifs used by the Umayyads such as Fadā’il al-Quds. The Praises of Jerusalem literature had returned, and a new slogan flourished, to be used extensively later on against the State of Israel: “liberating al-Aqsa” from the infidels.

A genuine change in the attitude toward Jerusalem emerged only when Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi was dubbed the “liberator of al-Quds” in 1187, a cornerstone event founded in religious belief. The main motifs defined on the basis of the city’s sanctity deriving from the mosques found on the Temple Mount, and the fact that Jerusalem was the first Qiblah and the third Haram in Islam.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted until 1291, however, Jerusalem itself was recaptured by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in 1187. Yet, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi made no real efforts to make Jerusalem a religious center. No significant religious institutions were built in Jerusalem during his reign, and very soon he called on the Jews to return to their holy city. His success was more political than religious: he invested efforts in the struggle against the infidels, to gain sovereignty over what was called Islamic territory.

Upon termination of the Crusader era, Jerusalem again sank into relative oblivion and negligence. The rise of puritanical trends within Islam also contributed to the neglect of Jerusalem. The anbali exegete, Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) is identified with this trend more than anyone else. He was active in abolishing Jerusalem’s elevated status. He strenuously asserted that Jerusalem occupied no important religious role in Islam, and that the city’s prominence derived exclusively from Judaism and Christianity. In his Great Compilation of Letters, he stated that directing prayer toward Bayt al-Maqdis (the Jewish Holy Temple) was nullified, and whoever does so is a heretic, becoming an apostate (Murtad). If he doesn’t retract, he is to be executed. No later scholar could disagree with this rule nor with the traditions did he observe.

In fact, beginning with the 12th century, Islam became increasingly rigid and ceased absorbing new ideas. The gates of innovation (Ijtihād) were closed, and the era of Muhammad and the four Righteous Caliphs became the perfect way of life Muslims must follow and imitate. First and foremost among these was the notion that Jerusalem was not sacred. In any way it has become null and void, even heresy.

Though the short-period change of Jerusalem as being religious in Islamic conceptions was raised during the Umayyad’s rule and the Ayyubi’s, it was solely political, targeted against their enemies than religious feelings. It reappeared in the 20th century in the political struggle against the Jews and the State of Israel. It was not and still is not the mixture between religion and politics, but the political use of religion for political ends.

Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire (Osmanlī Devletī)

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount, called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is the trends revealed during the Abbasid rule became apparent during the reign of the Mamlūks who came from Egypt and secured their control over the Land of Israel and Syria after their victory over the Mongols in 1260? That fact is that Jerusalem once more fell into awe-full neglect and poverty with no economic or political support. Many public buildings constructed during the reign of the Mamlūks fell into disrepair or were closed. Even Safed and Gaza, small cities at that time, were granted status as independent provinces but not Jerusalem.

The rule of Suleiman and the earlier subsequent Ottoman Sultans brought an age of religious peace, were Jew, Christian and Muslim enjoyed the freedom of religion in Jerusalem. However, from Muslim perspective the four hundred years of the Ottoman rule, 1517-1917, Jerusalem remained in its inferior and impoverished status under the regional rule of Damascus (Villayet-province).

Though Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and reinforced public structures, soon after its conquest, these steps were taken merely because Jerusalem serviced the pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Cairo (Fustāt), Damascus (as-Shām), Constantinople (Istanbul), and other metropolitan centers were considered to be of religious significance and places of warship. Jerusalem was not part in this list. Jerusalem was certainly not on the same status as Mecca and Medina.

By the 19th century, Jerusalem had been so neglected by Islamic rulers that several prominent Western writers who visited Jerusalem were moved to write about it. French writer Gustav Flaubert, for example, found “ruins everywhere” during his visit in 1850. In Innocents Abroad, 1869, chapter LIII, Mark Twain described the condition of Jerusalem under Ottoman Muslim rule: “Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound… Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless… In chapter LVI: “Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur … the wonderful temple which was the pride and the glory of Israel, is gone, and the Ottoman crescent is lifted above the spot where, on that most memorable day in the annals of the world, they reared the Holy Cross.”

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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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