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How to interpret the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s allies

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The crisis between Qatar and much of the new “Sunni” NATO – as some US media already call it today – consists in a formal series of 13 requests  that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the Emirates, Bahrain, and even Mauritius, have made – as an ultimatum – to Qatar:

1) to break off any diplomatic and economic relations with Iran; 2) to immediately close the Turkish military base near Doha and, anyway, put an end to military cooperation between Qatar and Turkey; 3) to immediately close Al Jazeera, an old TV created on the ruins of the BBC broadcasting in Arabic and later de facto monopolized by the Muslim Brotherhood; 4) to make the members of the Qatari Royal House no longer fund networks such as Arabi21, RASSD, Araby al-Jadid and Middle East Eye. “Araby al Jadeed” is a brand-new all-news network created in March 2014 and organized by Azmi Bashara, a former member of the Israeli Parliament, broadcasting from London, Beirut and Doha, with 150 employees, while the above stated Middle East Eye is currently led by David Hearst, formerly foreign editor-in-chief of the London Guardian.

The network Middle East Eye has been blocked by the Saudi authorities and by the other Emirates.

The other requests are the following: 5) Saudi Arabia has asked Qatar to stop funding groups or individuals designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAEs), Bahrain and Egypt, as well as providing data and information.

Well done. Some terrorists designated as such by Saudi Arabia are defined in the same way also by the West. It is the case of Hajjaj al Azmi, a Kuwaiti citizen who often lives in Doha. In the list of the 13 requests also the “Benghazi Defense Brigades” are mentioned, namely a militia created in June 2016 to oppose the forces of  Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity.

The Benghazi Defense Brigades cooperated with the ISIS “Caliphate” in its operations at Suq al-Hout and in Sirte.

The Saudi list includes Abdullah Bin Khalid al-Thani, former Interior Minister of the Emirate, linked to the 9/11 jihadist operations.

However, let us be honest and face it. Prince Turki bin Faisal was the leader of Saudi intelligence services for 23 years since 1979 until ten days before the 9/11 attack. Is it by mere coincidence?

According to well-known data, Nawaf bin al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mindar, who both arrived in the United States for the 9/11 attack, were managed by the Saudi intelligence services.

Al-Bayoumi, selected by the FBI exactly as a Saudi agent, had huge funds in the United States granted by Saudi Arabia through the company Dallah Alco.

Al-Bayoumi was connected with Fahad al-Thumairy, Director of the Saudi Ministry for Islamic Affairs. However, let us not focus on the 29 pages taken from the US report on Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attack.

This would get us very far and would shed light on many facts and events that are currently taking place, not only in the Middle East.

Strategically, the issue of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Islamic terrorism has been long lasting: the jihad – which the West has foolishly favoured – has become the primary geopolitical agent throughout the Greater Middle East and also in the rest of the world.

This was solely Westerners’ fault since they had every chance to force Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Iran, the Lebanon, Iraq and all the other Islamic regional players in the Middle East to be more reasonable and become somewhat milder as to the “sword jihad”.

Nevertheless, Quos Deus perdere vult, dementat.

As things stand now, without a change there is no solution for this situation. We will be confronted with the remote-controlled jihad and later we will ask those maneuvering it for money to be rescued from an economic crisis that is also caused by the crazy geopolitics of the whole West.

Currently Saudi Arabia invests approximately 20 billion US dollars for infrastructure in the United States, as well as six billions for 150 Black Hawk helicopters to be used in the its kingdom.

If all goes well, at the very quick pace recently imparted to reach economic diversification, Saudi Arabia will go ahead according to its program  “Vision 2030” by selling,  at first, Saudi Aramco on the market.

This is another important fact to understand today’s events.

Nevertheless the project “Vision 2030” also proposes measures which may still generate tension, such as the increase in tariffs, rates and taxes, although with a fall in the unemployment rate from 11.6% to 7%.

Furthermore Saudi Arabia envisages primary support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The Saudi public Fund devoted to SMEs, namely Musharakah, has already 4 billion Saudi riyals, equal to approximately 6 billion US dollars.

In short, Saudi Arabia wants to rapidly diversify its oil-dependent economy and grow up to becoming the 15th global economy in 2020.

Special Economic Zones will also be created and foreign direct investment (FDI) will rise from the current 3.8% to 5.7% .

According to Al Saud’s plans, the private sector is expected to reach 65% of GDP as against the current 45%.

If Saudi Arabia does not bring the whole Peninsula and the Sunni world up to speed according to this program, “Project 2020” is clearly doomed to failure. Another rational motivation for the anti-Qatar diktat.

Let us now move to request 6.

Against this background, Saudi Arabia asks Qatar to “break off relations with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the “Caliphate”.

Let us analyze data.

In 2008, the leader of Qatar, Emir al-Thani, held a meeting between all parties present on the Lebanese political scene, by showing clear support for the Shiite movement of the “Party of God” and its allies, especially for the many Iranian foundations operating in Beirut.

It is worth recalling that exactly in 2008, the Sunni Lebanese leader,  Rafik Hariri (whose economic fortune had started in Saudi Arabia), was  killed, probably by a joint operation of some Shiite countries.

Recently the Qatari Emir has also spoken of Hezbollah as a “resistance movement”, adding that it is “not wise” to oppose Iran.

Al-Thani has also said that such news were manipulated, but obviously this just exacerbates the situation.

The issue, however, is not only geopolitical, but also economic.

Qatar is a relatively small, but not irrelevant oil producer, with 620,000 barrels a day. However, it is the first natural gas supplier in the world and – according to 2016 data – it exports 77.2 million tons mainly to the East.

However, why is there no OPEC for natural gas, which would avoid the politicization of the search of market shares between producers?

Meanwhile, the United States is becoming the largest natural gas producer in the world, with a 2016 extraction level equal to 23%, while in 2001 the share of shale gas in North American extraction was a mere 1%.

Hence it is obvious to imagine how prices and market shares will change with this mass of liquid gas in Europe and Asia. It is also easy to imagine how the  economies depending on natural gas in the Middle East would end up if the United States became more aggressive on the global liquid gas markets.

European markets’ net dependence on African and Middle East gas imports and rigid pricing of liquid gas on Asian markets, as well as the huge investment needed for extraction and transport infrastructure, are all factors which – unlike what happened for oil – prevent the creation of a global natural gas market protected by a single producer cartel.

This is why there is no OPEC for gas and this is particularly the reason why the oil exporters floundering in the financial crisis want to back the large gas extracting countries into a corner and later possibly expropriate them.

Hence Saudi Arabia’s and its allies’ current crackdown on Qatar poses a major economic problem for al-Thani’s Emirate, considering that all the ships flying the Qatari flag have been forbidden to dock in the Saudi and Emirates’ oil and gas terminal of Fujariah in the Persian Gulf.

For the time being the Emirate “punished” by Saudi Arabia has reassured its customers, especially the Asian ones and the major one, namely the Japanese Jera buying Qatari gas with long-term contracts, about the regularity of supplies, but nothing prevents delays and additional costs from  occurring,  which will soon affect Italy as well.

Furthermore the oil price fall had created a 98 billion US dollar deficit in Saudi Arabia’s public finances.

In a logic of looting, which Quran rules permit, the easiest solution is to put a strain on the richest opponent.

However, besides creating debt securities, Saudi Arabia will sell significant shareholdings of its oil companies, but above all of Saudi Aramco – and this is a central factor, as already mentioned.

Economic diversification is therefore an immediate need for Saudi Arabia  and this explains most of the current internal conflicts among the “Seven Sudayri” of the Al Saud family, who have been ruling and deciding the fate of much of the Arabian peninsula since the time of the Wahhabi uprising.

However let us continue with the requests made by Saudi Arabia and its  allies to Qatar.

Again to continue the discussion of “request” 5 to Qatar, we are talking about 59 individuals and 12 institutions which, according to Saudi Arabia, support, organize and fund terrorism.

The list of organizations obviously include the charities linked to al-Thani’s family, but there are also Saraya al-Ashtar, an organization of “occasional terrorists” linked to Hezb’ollah in Bahrain; the “February 14 Coalition”, again operating in Bahrain in favor of the Shiite majority in the country; the “Resistance Brigades”, again active in Bahrain; Saraya al-Mukhtar, a Shiite League operating in the al-Khalifa’s kingdom, and finally Harakat Ahrar Bahrain.

Judging from this list, it seems that Daesh-Isis is not a terrorist organization  and the same holds true for al-Qaeda.

That is true, but they are Sunni organizations.

Moreover, a few days ago the British media published very compromising documents on the Saudi leaders’ funding  to all jihadist terrorist organizations.

Again according to the latest data, the money spent by the Saudi ruling class to spread Wahhabism (and Salafism) in the world – both ideological foundations of contemporary jihad – is currently at least 5.2 billion US dollars.

Hence the oil powers are brutally demanding Qatar, the world’s gas leader, to extradite “terrorists” (but only the Shiite ones) and not interfere in domestic affairs or grant citizenship to Saudi, Egyptians and Emirates’ citizens who are wanted in their countries of origin.

These are requests 7 and 8 of the cahier de doleances issued by Saudi Arabia and its allies, also supported  by the short-sightedness of the US intelligence services.

However, it is now well-established that in 1996 the Qatari royal family  hosted and protected Khalid Sheik Mohammed, thus saving him from a US arrest warrant issued against him who is considered one of the “masterminds” of the 9/11 attack.

It has also been ascertained that a member of al-Thani’s family provided a safe cover in Doha to Al Zarkawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, during his many transfers to and from Afghanistan.

Later the Iraqi Prime Minister, al-Maliki, openly accused Qatar of backing al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate.

However, why is Qatar supposed to support Daesh-Isis, mainly funded by its Saudi arch-enemy?

Simply because the Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate perpetrated at least three attacks on the Saudi territory in 2015, 2016 and 2017, for which it duly claimed responsibility.

As to request 9, Saudi Arabia and its allies – supported by the United States that found out that the country organizing terrorists is only the Shiite Iran – oblige Qatar to suspend any aid to their internal political enemies hosted by the Qatari Emirate and immediately inform the Sunni authorities (indeed Qatar, too, is strictly Sunni).

Moreover, Saudi Arabia and its allies ask Qatar to align itself with Saudi Arabia and with the other signatories of the diktat list at “economic, political, social and military” levels, following the indications of the Treaty reached between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2014.

In particular, the above mentioned Treaty regards Qatar’s end of money and weapon supplies, as well as logistical support, to groups and individuals hostile to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Egypt and in the various Gulf Countries, obviously including Saudi Arabia.

The 2013 and 2014 agreements were secret agreements, but the topic is primarily the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now secretly operating in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Gulf – and listens on al- Jazeera the sermons of Shaykh al-Qaradawi, the most authoritative theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is worth recalling that it was exactly a Saudi university professor of the Muslim Brotherhood who radicalized Osama bin Laden who, until then, had been a cheerful Westernized young Saudi tycoon.

The list of the thirteen requests ends with two recommendations: firstly, to undergo monthly supervision during the first year and, for the following ten years, to be monitored, again on a yearly-basis, and anyway decide on  the list of the thirteen requests within ten days.

Obviously Qatar, which so far has not accepted the thirteen requests – has  immediately turned to Turkey, governed by the AKP, a party born from a rib of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to Iran.

As is well-known, the United States initially supported the Saudi requests – although it later remembered that its central command for the whole Middle East was in Qatar, at the al-Udayd base.

If Qatar loses its tug-of-war with Saudi Arabia and its allies, its large  financial reserves will be hoarded by Saudi Arabia to back its project for stabilizing State budgets and rapidly achieving economic diversification, which is at the core of  the new King Muhammad al-Salman’s policy line.

Qatar has a sovereign fund of 355 billion US dollars and owns 30 billions worth of securities and shares, as well as an unknown, but definitely huge amount of other investments outside the Emirate.

Moreover, the Saudi royal family pays a high price – with a public debt that would have forced Saudi Arabia into default by 2018 – for the huge funds and loans granted to terrorist organizations in Syria, Yemen and  Iraq – all jihadist militias now out of the new balance of power and obviously defeated by the new connection between Russia, Iran, Syria and, in the future, Turkey.

Furthermore, in an already problematic situation, the bloody suicide rush to forcedly reduce oil prices – mainly targeted against the US shale oil – has depleted the public finances and the private incomes of the Wahhabi Kingdom.

Hence, with his victory, President Trump – who played many of his electoral cards precisely on the North American economic recovery to be funded with “unconventional oil and gas” – as shale is officially called – has unintentionally triggered off a tough internal power struggle within  the Al Saud family.

The first faction wants to rebuild an effective relationship with Russia and China, so as to stabilize prices and, in the long run, stop pegging the Saudi oil to the US dollar, which will shortly be only the financial instrument of the globalization of North American shale oil – a direct competitor of the Saudi one.

On the contrary, the opposite faction wants to preserve the already strong relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, so as to use the US economy as a carrier for the increasingly necessary and quick diversification of the Saudi economy, which is still heavily oil-dependent.

A factor linked to this new US-Saudi bilateralism is also the Saudi pressure against the New Silk Road of China, which is currently the number one enemy of US geopolitics and that the pro-American Saudis want to drive away from all the Gulf countries.

Conversely, it is almost useless to note that Iran has always been an essential passage point of the One Belt and One Road initiative (OBOR) designed by China.

It is also worth recalling it was Qatar, jointly with Iran, to open the first yuan “exchange centre” throughout the Middle East on April 14, 2015.

In addition to the above-mentioned monetary exchange and clearing centre for the Chinese and Middle East currencies – and it should be noted that yuan-denominated oil contracts between China and Iran are already in place – the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China also operates in Qatar.

If the yuan (and the ruble) became the new benchmark for gas and oil, the US dollar good days would be over since it could no longer lay onto the US-dollar denominated international trade the imbalances and asymmetries of public debt (which, including households’ and companies’ debt, accounts for 345% of the US GDP) and of its trade deficit.

“The dollar is our currency, but your problem” as a FED Governor said to his European counterparts.

Meanwhile, the new Saudi king, Muhammad bin Salman, is planning and designing a new 2 trillion US dollar sovereign fund, with a view to putting an end to the Saudi oil-dependence “within the next twenty years.”

Again according to the pro-American faction of the al-Saud family, the new sovereign fund is expected to invest half of its capital abroad, obviously without ever affecting Aramco, the world’s first oil producer and second holder of world reserves.

Said faction does not show any particular problem with oil price fluctuations, as has already demonstrated by trying – in vain – to push the US shale oil out of the market.

If the oil price increases, there will be more money available to Saudi Arabia for stepping up economic diversification. Even if the oil price  decreases there would be no problem: the Saudi oil has the lowest unit extraction cost and the country will always be in a position to sell its products on the fastest-growing and most liquid market in the world, which is currently the Asian one.

Once again Qatar’s primary role in the Japanese and Chinese energy system is very annoying for Saudi Arabia.

Everything will change in the Middle East when, at the end of hostilities in Syria, Israel shall face a number one enemy, namely Iran, which is currently strengthened by the new balance of power prevailing in Syria (and in the Lebanon) and shall also come to terms with what is increasingly becoming the “lesser evil”, namely Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism.

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

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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

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

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

The Defectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Al-Bustan Association

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

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

The Father of the Desert Hawks

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

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

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

The Old Guard and the Special Services

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

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

Elements of Matriarchy

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

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

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner RIAC

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Middle East

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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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