Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., Grace Wakim & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.
Allah Akbar (meaning God is Greatest) is a colloquial expression commonly used by Muslims, especially in the Arab world, to praise God and express commitment to the religion of Islam. Muslims often use the term to express emotions, such as gratitude, fear, and joy.
Sometimes, it is overused and clichéd—to the point of losing its intended meaning—such as when chanted during soccer matches.  To many in the West, Allah Akbar represents a petrifying expression, especially when used in relation to al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’, version of their so-called “martyrdom” operations. However, for the people of Mosul, it should now serve as one of the most meaningful phrases. Indeed, as the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State is drawing to an end, the citizens of Mosul can joyfully repeat this familiar term—and without any terrorism connotations or undertones.
The military assault to recapture Mosul from ISIS started in October 2016. At the time, ICSVE researchers wrote, Competing Interests, Civilian Confusion, Conspiracy Theories and Chaos in the Assault on Mosul. Now, facing liberation, we wonder whether the same observations apply post-liberation? Will the sectarian conflicts that already existed well before ISIS took over territories in Iraq be more accentuated following the fall of ISIS? Can those who lived under ISIS, particularly impressionable youth who have become entrenched in ISIS’ doctrines and their malevolent beliefs, be able to recover? Can they be rehabilitated in detention? If so, can they safely be reintegrated into communities ravaged by the brutalities of ISIS?
Many would argue that by losing Mosul, ISIS lost an important battle. There are still many unknown challenges, however, and celebrations for some have been cut short by worrying signals of potential strife to come. Despite losing their territory, ISIS is still recruiting online while its homegrown and directed “lone wolf” extremists have, and continue to be, deployed around the world. Their threat remains global. Locally speaking, in Iraq, ISIS still has many of their members and supporters hiding out in urban environments and refugee camps, among others. Peshmerga leadership shared with ICSVE researchers that they have pieced together a list of approximately 20,000 ISIS cadres and ISIS affiliates and supporters. This crucial intelligence is being used to target and hunt down such individuals in the region.
ISIS militants are also known to pursue defectors who flee the group, as revealed in our interviews with ISIS prisoners. One Iraqi boy who escaped ISIS in the past year and made it into a refugee camp told ICSVE researchers how his ISIS emir repeatedly contacted him, stalking and telling him that he could not leave and that he needed to act as a sleeper agent. His safety and true separation from the group actually came with arrest. Yet, Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, shared that when youth or family members of ISIS cadres are arrested and detained, authorities often face legal, process-related, and ethical barriers in assessing how to deal with them. While at the same time, we heard repeatedly a genuine desire by prison and government officials to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth.
In addition to challenges associated with rebuilding and reconstructing the physical Mosul, the challenge of rewiring the psychological state—at a minimum, to its pre-ISIS capture state—of its residents will remain a daunting task, particularly in the context of children who were molded under ISIS’ tutelage and the wider traumatized population. The citizens of Mosul have witnessed beheadings, hand-cuttings, torture, murders, and other forms of violence. In some cases, some even had to reluctantly participate and engage in these activities. ISIS defectors told ICSVE interviewers how men and women, and even children, were forcibly gathered to watch the beheadings of people on the streets, which represented ISIS’ way of making clear that any resistance was futile and would lead to brutal punishment. The group put big screens up in the streets to inundate residents, including children, with their propaganda videos and atrocities—all framed in terms of glorious actions and with the purpose of desensitizing its residents to violence. Defectors spoke about the normalization of brutality, among both children and adults. One ICSVE interviewed defector expressed concerns about the dangerous effects of violence on children in particular—that is, how they will ever be recovered after having grown up under extreme brutality.
Populations in conflict zones almost always have high rates of traumatization and usually display serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Saddam’s Baathist regime, the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion, and the post-2003 events that further widened the Sunni-Shia divide and violence are deeply entrenched in Iraq’s collective consciousness, creating a normalcy in repeated traumatization and post-traumatic arousal states among the general population. One woman who escaped to Baghdad after being subjected to the brutal rule of ISIS relayed her inability to stop compulsively washing her hands, and even her hair, sometimes using harsh bleach to attempt to, as she described, “remove from her body, and her mind, the dirty realities of life under ISIS.” Trauma is rife throughout the population, and mental health issues can be expected to be as well.
Recent research by the organization Save the Children revealed that Mosul’s children have shown “dangerous levels of psychological damage,” and even exhibited “toxic stress” signs, all conditions that affect children’s “mental and physical health.” The organization is trying to raise awareness about the issue as well as asking for funding and support from the government of Iraq to provide trained psychologists for the affected populations. Many other organizations are also providing mental health support for internally displaced people, but there still exists a huge need for long-term help, especially in the case of those who are not easy to identify and reach.
According to government officials in Iraq, an estimated half a million youth lived and served under ISIS-dominated territory in Iraq. Some became Cubs of the Caliphate. Others attended ISIS schools where beheadings and brutality served as the norm. Even those kept at home still witnessed atrocities out on the streets. Having the appropriate treatment and care is crucial to prevent those kids who did not get sucked into violence, including those who did, from continuing a path set out by ISIS to continue the cycle of violence and become perpetrators of violence themselves.
ICSVE interviews with government officials and mental healthcare practitioners in Iraq revealed that, generally speaking, Iraqis, and Syrians for that matter, often have strong stigmas against addressing mental illness or pursuing psychological therapy altogether. Equally important, Iraq is bereft of many of the well-trained psychologists and psychiatrists they once had, with many having moved to the Gulf States and Jordan during the 2003 U.S.- led coalition invasion of Iraq. In 2006, when we introduced the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the U.S. Department of Defense to address the 23,000 detainees and 800 juveniles held at the time in Iraq, we found it difficult to find qualified Iraqi psychologists and social workers. The situation has only worsened since then. How will the psychological problems be dealt with remains yet to be discovered.
Laudably, the Prime Minister’s office in Iraq has already introduced a number of measures focused on education and deploying psychologists to survey teachers and youth in the affected areas to learn how to identify and serve their needs. Similarly, prison officials in Iraq are also looking at how to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programs for youth currently imprisoned who served under ISIS.
There appears to be hope on the part of the government of Iraq to release youth who served under ISIS while their elder cadres who organized and took part in systematic rapes, beheadings, and killings will generally face death sentences. The will of Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, to rehabilitate and reintegrate detained youth and the spouses of ISIS cadres and their children who have been detained in camps—with their movements restricted—is laudable. More importantly, such efforts are necessary as this is not a problem that interested parties can overlook or kill their way through—there simply are too many youth and families who have been affected. These are complex issues that require effective rehabilitation and careful release programs that work not only with the youth held in prison but also with their family members and communities to whom they are being released.
A senior police officer in the Mosul region whose brother was abducted by Islamic State militants told journalists, “I am affected — and there are a lot of people who are affected like me…[I] don’t believe that anyone who lost a family member will forget this.”  Indeed, the fact of having served under ISIS is not easily forgivable, even for youth who did not rape, torture, or kill, as well as ISIS family members—including the wives of ISIS members—who did engage in or carried out such atrocities. The fact of having served or having been a family member of cadres in such a heinous organization can make it difficult to be welcomed back or to live safely in one’s community without social stigma or actual revenge occurring.
Arguably, one of the thorny problems is that Iraqi culture assumes a culture of revenge, enacted in the years of absence of adequate safety and security in many areas of Iraq. With the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq, Iraqi society has witnessed tribes, militias, and individuals often taking matters of justice into their own hands. Sectarian violence unleashed by Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq slashed open societal rifts that have not yet healed. This was followed by revenge narratives that became especially pronounced during the period of Maliki’s second term in power—often seen as largely responsible for sidelining the Sunni population in Iraq and eventually leading to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. To this this day, such narratives still permeate popular culture on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Revenge attacks and killings continue to occur in post-ISIS Mosul as well. In an area near Mosul, fifteen family members of ISIS cadres were reportedly beaten to death while spouses of ISIS cadres report being terrified. ISIS youth we interviewed in prison in Kurdistan also expressed fears that if released Shia death squads would hunt them down and kill them. Indeed, stories abound of Shia militias who have taken justice into their own hands, throwing ISIS cadres off cliffs and conducting systematic summary executions—to just name a few. There are also reports of young people being detained and brutally attacked while fleeing Mosul without any proof of them being ISIS members. The Associated Press (AP) reported the Iraqi government forces at checkpoints treated those fleeing from Mosul as ISIS’ family members versus as innocent civilians fleeing a terrorist group. Unless addressed, such stereotypes will further widen the gap between the people of Mosul and the rest of the population of Iraq.
One interesting effort at reconciliation and healing has been made to break through the ideological indoctrination and terror techniques that ISIS engaged in and break stereotypes they instilled in the youth of Mosul and the rest of Iraq. This effort brings together hundreds of Sunni young men from Mosul who lived under ISIS rules to meet with Shia’ people from Iraq’s southern provinces. It was made to break the misconception that both groups harbor about each other. The initiative was filmed and is called Hala Bikkon, or You’re Welcome.
The short documentary showcases young men of Mosul who were taught by ISIS that the southerners [Shia’] were their enemy and told to wipe them from the face of the earth, now meeting these Shia in person. One of the young men states, “When Daesh came, we were told that people of the south hated Sunnis, southerners were going to kill us.” While the sectarian strife in Iraq is longstanding, and although many of the young men knew that such characterizations were only partially true, if true at all, they did not feel equipped or courageous enough to argue with Daesh.
That Sunni and Shia citizens alike call today for unity in Iraq and to denounce the ethnic and sectarian division that Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq unleashed after the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq and that Daesh has been capitalizing on—and trying once again to magnify—is commendable. One of the bus riders optimistically asserted that despite ISIS’ evil indoctrination, “the youth of Mosul have not been influenced by Daesh’s ideology,” instilling hope in the viewer. The filmed visit between the two groups of young men went well, and trips to other places in Iraq are being planned in the future. This and similar initiatives are important and necessary to rebuild unity across sectarian divides that terrorist groups have exploited, but they also have to happen on the higher policy and grassroots levels as well as be reflected in actual governance and security measures. The simple breaking of stereotypes is unlikely to be enough to rebuild confidence and trust between the different ethnic groups who have experienced all the brutality that has transpired.
Any efforts at rehabilitation of ISIS youth, spouses and wider family members must seriously take into account the issue of deep traumatization and family and community reintegration. In a context in which collective punishment is occurring and revenge is at times generalized to anyone connected to ISIS, the government of Iraq will have to find a way to carefully work not only with former cadres and family members they wish to release back into society, but also with their communities, tribes, and wider family members who must be ready and willing to take them back.
Our ICSVE research already revealed setbacks with Yazidi boys, who after being forced into the Cubs of the Caliphate, were released back to their traumatized mothers (who had also witnessed the killings of their family members and who may also have been rape victims). These boys had been ideologically indoctrinated into ISIS, witnessed extreme brutality, were taught to be brutal themselves, and were then released back to their equally traumatized mothers without any good treatment. They are reported to be confused and aggressive while their mothers are unable to cope in the face of these young boys predictably acting out their overwhelming trauma in extreme conduct disorders. In Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, ICSVE researchers were also informed about a young boy who had been part of ISIS and was released without any adequate planning and preparation while his parents had gone missing. Having nowhere secure to return to, the boy went back to his ISIS connections. Meanwhile, human rights workers, as well as family members of ISIS cadres, report being on the receiving end of threats. They are told to leave, face collective punishments, round-ups, and detention of entire families.
Reconciliation and peacebuilding in post-ISIS Mosul, including post-ISIS Iraq, requires strong political will and determination. Strictly speaking in the context of liberated Mosul, sentiments and attitudes of projecting collective guilt upon those who lived under ISIS must be countered. The manner in which justice and reconciliation is carried out in post-ISIS Mosul will have a huge bearing on the future Shia-Sunni relationship in Iraq. Equally important, while crimes against all communities must be investigated, acts of arbitrary revenge towards select communities must be avoided at all costs. Such crimes must beinvestigated and properly dealt with when they do occur. Security and justice for all is paramount to successful rebuilding. Such an approach is necessary to safeguarding the long-term success of Iraqi forces in defeating ISIS in Mosul, and in the wider Iraq, and to minimize the prospect for the reemergence of conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. By the same token, those who once lived in the ISIS-held territory in Iraq must begin to trust their government and have confidence in their ability to provide for their security and ensure justice.
Given that in reality it is impossible to eliminate everyone who fell prey to ISIS and who offered support to them, a transparent legal mechanism must be put in place to sort out those who are truly guilty and separate them from those able to be rehabilitated and reintegrated. Robust deradicalization and post-traumatic stress disorder programs then must be introduced to address and heal the wounds that exist in the psyche of young children, families, and wider communities. Failure to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth, particularly those who lived under ISIS, could jeopardize the long-term success of the successful operation against ISIS in Mosul and potentially result in the return of ISIS or other radical violent elements representing the Sunni struggle in Iraq through violence. Arguably, these rehabilitation efforts are costly and will not be easy to achieve, but the costs of failing are even higher in terms of seeing a resurgence of ISIS or similar to ISIS ideology and violence.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, A., Wakim, G., & Shajkovci, A. (July 27, 2017) Ensuring a Long-term Win Against ISIS In Mosul: The Need for Rehabilitation, Reintegration & Restoring Security and Justice. ICSVE Research Reports
Grace Wakim – is a Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) working on the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project and providing linguistic and subject matter expertise on the Middle East. She is a native Arabic speaker and has a BA in English with a concentration in Linguistics from George Mason University. She comes from years of experience working in the Arab media where she was a promotion producer for different Arabic channels, including news channels. She is pursuing an advanced degree in International Security.
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. Prior to joining ICSVE, Ardian has spent nearly a decade working in both the private and public sectors, including with international organizations and the media in a post-conflict environment. He is fluent in several languages. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He also holds several professional certifications in the field of homeland security as well as a professional designation for his contributions to the field of homeland security and homeland security efforts in general. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism courses.
 See for example Daniel Engber. Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/09/god_is_still_great.html
 ICSVE Interviews with officials at the Ministry of Peshmerga, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).
 Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. “ISIS Defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC, 2016.
 Save the Children (July 5, 2017). “Mosul’s children mentally scared by brutal conflicts,” available at http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/2017-07/mosul%E2%80%99s-children-mentally-scarred-brutal-conflict
 ICSVE interviews with officials in Baghdad, Iraq. “Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Terror,” Conference (March 29-30, 2017).
 First author personal accounts in Iraq while tasked with the program.
 In both cases ICSVE researchers have been giving their time and expertise to aid in such efforts; Charles Stafford. (July 2017). “Iraqi prison hopes to reform ISIL recruits. “Al-Jazeera. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/video/news/2017/07/iraqi-prison-hopes-reform-isil-recruits-170721114348232.html
 Anna Lekas Miller. (July 19, 2017). “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq,” The Intercept. Available at https://theintercept.com/2017/07/19/revenge-attacks-on-families-of-isis-members-could-start-a-new-cycle-of-violence-in-iraq/.
 Anna Lekas Miller. “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq.”
 Patrick Cockburn. (July 18, 2017). “More than just revenge: Why ISIS fighters are being thrown off buildings in Mosul.” Independent. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-mosul-iraq-fighters-killed-thrown-off-buildings-reasons-corruption-revenge-patrick-cockburn-a7845846.html; Zubeda, Personal communication (July 2017).
 Associated Press. (July 2017). “Tensions rise in waning days of Mosul battle.” Available at http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/world/2017/07/05/iraq-mosul/103456696/
 Human Rights Watch. (July 13, 2017).”Iraq: Alleged ISIS families sent to ‘rehabilitation camp:’ Evictions, detentions amount to collective punishment.” The Intercept. Available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/iraq-alleged-isis-families-sent-rehabilitation-camp; ICSVE researcher personal communication with human rights advocates. Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).
Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort
Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.
To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’
Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.
The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.
Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.
One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.
Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.
“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.
While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.
The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’
The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’
This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.
Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.
While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.
In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.
Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.
The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.
The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.
Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.
Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.
The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.
A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.
Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.
As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.
Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran
Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.
Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.
“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.
According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.
Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.
Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.
Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.
Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal. What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.
A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.
It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons
Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.
The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.
The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.
The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.
Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.
One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.
There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.
The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.
The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor
Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.
Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.
Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid
The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.
Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.
Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.
Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.
One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.
Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.
Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.
Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.
The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.
Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.
The Al-Bustan Association
An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.
Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.
The Father of the Desert Hawks
One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.
An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.
Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.
The Old Guard and the Special Services
Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.
Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.
Elements of Matriarchy
Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.
Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.
Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?
All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.
On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.
On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.
The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.
First published in our partner RIAC
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