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The United States in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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So far the United States and their coalition have conducted 12,199 aerial bombing operations in Syria and Iraq – exactly 8,322 in Iraq and 3,877 in Syria. Hence Inherent Resolve, the operation of said US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, has not at all been irrelevant at militarily level. If anything, it lacked a “war aim”, just to quote Von Clausewitz.

For the time being, the Inherent Resolve operation has destroyed 139 tanks; 374 Humvee, the specific armed self-propelled units produced by the United States and spread among all the warring factions; 1,162 Command and Control areas, especially ISIS ones and, more recently, areas of the Al Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda “branch” in Syria and in the Iraqi Shiite “Green Zone” around Baghdad; 5,894 buildings and 7,118 ISIS combat areas; 1,272 oil infrastructure units, including both wells and connecting lines, as well as 6,820 other unspecified “targets”.

But the central issue of the Syrian war is still centred on Aleppo: on May 7, 2016 Turkey sent its Special Forces to the Northern Syrian town, which is the real “centre of gravity” of this great and original proxy war, with a view to identifying the position of the ISIS missile launchers.

Moreover, Turkey also wanted to detect and follow the Kurdish movement lines in the areas east of Aleppo, so as to ban any YGP collaboration with the forces of the US-led Coalition and of the coalition coordinated by the Russian Federation.

As always happens, immediately after the “cease-fire”,   clashes started around the town in order to reposition the forces, soon after the diplomatic-political balances portraying the existing situation.

During the “ceasefire”, the side forces of Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, with support from Iran and the Hezbollah, tried to conquer the Handarat district, north of Aleppo, precisely while both the United States and Russia were about to close the negotiations.

Negotiations which they both need to definitively clarify the balance of power in their respective coalitions, as well as to refine the selection of future goals and to better observe the opponents’ strategy and tactics.

Handarat is the last ring of Bashar’s encirclement of Aleppo and we must not forget that very recently the Alawi regime has gained the support of a new pro-Assad force created among the Palestinians, namely “the Leopards of Homs”.

Even before, the Palestinian movement had shown its new pro-Alawi (and pro-Iranian) configuration with the creation of the “volunteer” militias for Bashar, called “the Khaybar Brigade” and Quwat al-Ridha, namely “the al-Ridha Forces”, integrated into the Hezbollah units in Syria.

Where there is no more Saudi support, no longer interested in Israel’s encirclement, there is the new Iranian geopolitics, interested in managing a dual war, the one against the ”Zionist Entity” and the other against what we might call the Sunni International.

And it is precisely on May 7, 2016 that Iran announced it had lost – in an ambush by the “Al Nusra Front” and the “Brown Berets” of the Turkish Special Forces – over 30 “military advisers” killed by a battery of MILAN anti-tank missiles bought and distributed by the Turkish intelligence services to the Al Qaeda section in Syria..

Hence Assad’s army difficulty in regaining full control of Aleppo, which is also the contact point between Syria and Turkey, as well as the hub of ISIS’ illegal trade, the point of friction between the Kurds and the other warring factions and hence the real goal of the current Syrian proxy war in the North.

This adds to the rebellion in the Hama prisons, another failure for the Syrian Arab Army.

Too many open fronts are the sign of imminent defeat.

In essence, Russia is realizing it can no longer sustain – on its own – the operations in the region without a collaborative relationship with the Unite States, while it has no interest in exploiting Bashar el Assad and especially the Iranians, who may have greater ambitions for the new Alawi Syria and even endanger the autonomy of the Russian bases in Latakia and Tartus, by surrounding them with Pasdaran cells to support Assad’s future regime – if ever any for the whole Syria.

Nor Moscow wants to increase costs and engagements in the Syrian region, already too expensive and anyway oversized compared to Russia’s real interests on the field.

Furthermore, the assassination of the Supreme Commander of the Lebanese “Party of God” in Syria, which took place on May 13, 2016 at Damascus International Airport, where the Hezbollah had their Supreme Command, is further evidence of the jihadist Sunni forces’ resilience in Syria, as well as of the structural weakness of Iran’s engagement in the region and the difficulties still incurred by Bashar el Assad in fully controlling his territory.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah in the Lebanon, is sure that this operation is the seal of a new unity of action between the United States and Russia in Syria, while the Lebanese victim was reprogramming the dislocation of the “Party of God” along the border between Syria and the Lebanon, which certainly neither Assad nor Russia likes.

Until few days ago, the latest Russian aircraft sorties hit east of Idlib, directly in the Aleppo area, then south of Hama, the area still held by the so-called “rebels” and finally Deir el Zour, in the West of the country.

Upon US request, however, both the United States and Russia immediately included Aleppo in the region of the current truce, which means that also Assad’s army has decided it would certainly opt for a “regime of calm” around that city.

Nevertheless Russia emphasizes that the Syrian Arab Army is still waging and fighting “a wide jihadist offensive in Aleppo”, implicitly backed by Turkey which, obviously, does not want a change of the US strategy and, above all, does not want to miss the strategic axis of the town where the soap was invented – a city which is the real gateway to Syria and its hub vis-à-vis the large Sunni jihad system.

Strangely Turkey – which is the second NATO armed force in terms of size – has not been reprimanded by the Alliance for its behaviour in Syria, but probably the Atlantic forces must face two long-term geopolitical problems: the increasingly evident US disengagement from the Greater Middle East, as well as the impossibility for the Alliance’s “EU pillar” to militarily take charge of the Syrian issue on its own.

Therefore we confine ourselves to a business as usual strategy and to paying lip service to humanitarian goals.

Currently the French and German Ministers for Foreign Affairs want an impossible long truce in Aleppo, so as to renew the Geneva and Vienna “peace talks” of the International Syrian Support Group, a diplomatic organization which met for the last time on May 17 (the day when the US offensive began) with the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the United Nations, always supporting the cessation of hostilities.

The operational, and still tacit, agreement between the United States and Russia might not go along the lines of the national cessation of hostilities – as precisely called for in Vienna as from May 17, but along the lines of a new distribution of costs and future areas of influence in Syria.

The “tacit agreement” in the region of a huge proxy war between Russia and the United States is supported even by Bashar el Assad, although we do not know until when.

So far it is supposed to be based on the fact that the United States are convinced that the Russian Federation has “a deep and unique knowledge of the ground”, which they still lack, while Russia still states it wants to military support the Alawi “legitimate government”.

Against this background, however, the real card to play is the Israeli one.

Last Monday, President Putin met secretly with the Head of the Israeli government, Netanyahu, both for an “exchange of information ad views” on the Syrian issue and for Israel’ support to the effective and definitive contact between the United States and Russia.

Hence the US allegations of a Russian “military intervention” in the region are soon dispelled, but covert and secret operations increase, also with the Jewish State’s brokerage, so as to unite the forces of the two major States involved in the Syrian region.

As we saw earlier, we cannot even maintain that the large US-led coalition has stood idle faced with the war operations in favour of the “moderate rebels”, at first – an odd invention of the US propaganda – and later, more decisively, against the Al Nusra Front and the huge jihadist Sunni system – which could be seen as a sort of acknowledgment of previous faults and mistakes.

Probably the United States do not even trust too much the autonomous and significant Saudi presence in Syria, and do not even want to provide – through the deterioration of the situation in the Syrian region – the opportunity for a full scale confrontation between Iran and the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia.

President Obama has well tried and tested the irrationality of the current Wahhabi ruling class.

And this is President Putin’s real victory.

The Head of the Kremlin who, even in the case of the Russian military aircraft shot down by Turkey, showed a strategic balanced and rational attitude which, however, will not be for free for Turkey when the dust settles and the situation gets back to normal.

Most importantly, President Putin has clearly calculated that the Russian direct and ongoing engagement would immediately call for equivalent American support, thus leading to Russia’s real goal of the war in Syria: to force the United States to hold talks on an equal footing, which Russia may also focus on the Ukrainian issue and the NATO and US actions along the new borders of the old Cold War in Europe.

President Putin’s strength and decision blocked the first US operations in Syria, designed to tacitly stop the expansion of Russia’s engagement.

During that phase the US goal was that the Russian troops could increase the Russian Federation’s weight at the final negotiating table.

Moreover, the United States have realized that it is not possible to contain Russia’s expansion in Western Syria and to fight ISIS at the same time, by possibly using the jihadist groups calling themselves “moderates”, sometimes trained – at the beginning of hostilities – by CIA before their moving to Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate.

The less naïve or incapable Europeans, however, have always denied there was a realistic plan to reduce the Russian clout in the Syrian region and have also stated that the cost of sanctions (and Russian counter-sanctions) is really too high, even compared to a final reasonable bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia.

The EU economy must not be killed to shape a bilateral deal which, however, could not occur.

Hence, precisely after the elimination of the Hezbollah leader in Syria, the United States decided to increase their military engagement in the country and, for the first time, again on May 17, the US F-16 aircraft bombed the jihadist forces around Aleppo, without hitting directly – as far as we know – the Iranian positions and the positions of the Lebanese “Party of God”, as well as the positions of the Afghan Shiites “volunteers” and the other 13 groups supporting the Pasdaran in Iran.

According to the data provided by our intelligence sources, the targets of the US air strikes were troops, bases and transport infrastructure used by ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, which, sensing the change in the US strategy, had already begun to fight even against the “moderate” jihad.

It is US sound support also for Bashar el Assad, but now we have got accustomed to these US sudden changes of strategy in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.

In this case, the primary issue for President Obama is obviously to quickly settle the Syrian issue, by recognizing Russia’s right to be present in Tartus and Latakia and in the whole local system, at least to prevent the Iranian expansion and to stabilize the presence – which could become dangerous – of Saudi Arabia, south and east of the State that the French colonizers wanted to be led by the Alawi minority, becoming officially Shiite only after the decision of the Lebanese Imam, Mussa Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.

The US F-16 aircraft took off from the Turkish base of Incirlik, which could lead us to think that also Turkey is not interested in an endless extreme radicalization of the Syrian “proxy war”.

Probably the United States have ensured to President Erdogan his droit de regard, namely some scrutiny on the Sunni majority in Syria, in discordant harmony with Saudi Arabia.

The F-16 aircraft hit Aleppo and Idlib, another difficult position for the axis between Assad and Russia.

The Turkish scrutiny will be curbed and restrained by the Russian presence on the territory, so as to avoid Turkish adventures in Central Asia which would do much harm also to the United States, thus calling them again into the region for a confrontation which could not but finally affect also China.

The US air strikes, however, have always been coordinated with the Russian command of the Humaynim base and “mediated” by the information available to the Russian and American officers in Jordan.

Hence, today, the contenders in the Syrian skies are ten: USA, Russia, Israel, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

Moreover, the US CENTCOM, namely the structure which commands and controls all American forces in the Middle East, has repositioned some of the Special Forces units at the Remalan base, in northern Syria, near the Kurdish town of Hassakeh.

Therefore some support of the US Special Forces is expected for the final taking of Aleppo, which is and will be the real turning point of the war in Syria.

But what will happen afterwards?

President Putin will sit at the negotiating table in Vienna or Geneva with the winner’s hard, but relaxed, look.

He will be in a position to keep his vital Mediterranean region, an ever more inevitable strategic counterweight as against the Western penetration in Ukraine, as well as an essential bargaining chip for negotiations both in the Middle East and in the Don region.

Conversely President Obama will be ensured an important role and place for the United States in Syria – at a time when the US-led Coalition forces become strategically irrelevant, despite the large number of operations carried out successfully – and will be in a position to have a right of direct strategic brokerage even with Bashar al-Assad, as in the good old days of his father Hafez.

Turkey will be in a position to have a controlled system of influence on the Sunni areas, with the guarantee – carefully monitored – it will break any relations with the local jihad.

Furthermore Saudi Arabia will not directly clash with Iran, at a time of economic difficulties for the Kingdom and of slow internal destabilization.

Iran will avoid radicalising the clash in its Shiite system that it has also shown to be unable to fully control, at least in an exclusively military way.

Moreover Israel will prove to be able to play its new role as great power broker in the Greater Middle East, as well as genuine regional and international power, by balancing itself with Russia and maintaining its old relations with the United States, thus playing a future role as “maverick” that currently nobody can fully predict.

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 “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. 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 “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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Who Will Rebuild Syria: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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After raging for eight years, the violent phase of the Syrian civil war seems to be reaching its final stages, with Idlib as the last holdout. Recently, leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey held talks in Sochi to discuss securing peace in Syria and preventing a large-scale military assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel enclave. World leaders have also discussed the the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged European Union countries to help rebuild Syria, arguing that it would lead to a faster return of refugees from Europe to their country. His efforts have so far been unsuccessful as EU countries refuse to participate in a rebuilding process that involves Bashar Al-Assad. Arab states are considering readmitting Syria into the Arab League and have shown interest in investing in the country’s reconstruction. However, the United States is pressuring the Gulf states to hold back on restoring relations with Syria and investing in its reconstruction. As such, it seems that in addition to Russia, China, Iran, and India are best poised to invest in and benefit from the country’s rebuilding. Former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura estimates the cost of Syria’s reconstruction to be 250 billion USD, while the Syrian government estimates the number to be 400 billion USD. Either way, the cost is too high for the Syrian government to finance on its own without the help of its leading businessmen and international partners and allies.

How the Civil War Changed Syria’s Economic Environment

However, during the eight years of ongoing civil war, some prominent faces in Syria’s economic arena have disappeared, giving way to new actors who have positioned themselves and their businesses to benefit from the vacuum created by the civil war and, therefore, became highly influential, obtaining access to Al-Assad’s ‘inner circle’. Some of Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle members were forced to flee the country, defect to the opposition, or remain neutral—thus losing their favourable position in this inner circle. This applies not only to the decision-making process, but also to the country’s internal economic process. The International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling argues that the war “forced large families to exile or to shut their businesses down and allowed a new generation of wheeler-dealers to emerge.” However, most of these actors and their assets have been sanctioned by the West due to their relationship with, and involvement in projects linked to the Syrian government. This creates a hurdle on the way to Syria’s reconstruction as many businessmen find their own funds—as well as international funds, companies and suppliers—inaccessible.

Economic Sanctions as an Obstacle

Economic sanctions have been successful in limiting the activity of Syria’s economic actors. It didn’t put them out of business as they have developed methods to bypass sanctions. Among those is establishing a close relationship with the Syrian government based on a system of ‘favors’, in which businessmen provide the government with some financial services in return for access to lucrative projects across the country. This poses several obstacles in the face of the country’s reconstruction. How independent are these businessmen from the government as economic actors best poised in terms of access and financial resources to rebuild the country? Given their proximate relationship to the Assad government, it is unlikely that they will gain access to foreign funds needed for the country’s rebuilding. Moreover, do their interests lay in rebuilding infrastructure and improving citizens’ living standards? Or will they rather pursue lucrative projects that are not entirely related to infrastructure, and therefore, will not bring significant benefit to the majority of the population? Furthermore, given the nature of the political and economic process in Syria, foreign companies will need to partner with local Syrian actors who have close ties to the government to be able to effectively invest and participate in the rebuilding process. However, these partnerships are restricted due to economic sanctions. As such, it is important to identify these local actors, their relation to the Syrian government and what initiatives towards rebuilding the country they have taken thus far. The most prominent and currently active businessmen in Syria can be divided into two groups: the ‘old guard’ who have been able to withstand local and external pressures and remain operable, and the ‘new guard’, who saw in the civil war the opportunities to gain access to financially beneficial economic sectors and projects.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘Old Guards’

Rami Makhlouf is at the top of the ‘old guard’ list. Even under Western sanctions, he is still successfully operating in the country. This is in great part due to his relation to Al-Assad: he is a cousin from mother’s side. Following the outbreak of the war, Makhlouf stated that he would turn to charity and no longer pursue projects that can generate personal gain. However, Makhlouf still has close ties with leading businessmen in the country and is active in several economic sectors, including telecommunications (he owns mobile network company Syriatel), import/export, natural resources, and finance. Moreover, the Makhlouf empire has branches in some European countries, and a team of lawyers creating shell companies and bank accounts to bypass economic sanctions. Therefore, even if at times he is not the face of projects, it is highly likely that Makhlouf is somehow still benefiting from his relations with other businessmen and his numerous shell companies.

Mohammad Hamsho is another infamous old guard who currently serves as Secretary of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and member of the People’s Assembly for Damascus. In 2018, Hamsho visited Tehran and met with Secretary General of Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Bahman Eshghi. During the meeting, both sides affirmed their determination to work on improving their economic relation, and signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries in various economic, trade, investment and production sectors. However, given that both countries are under sanctions, the magnitude of their economic cooperation is still hard to predict. Hamsho has been subject to US sanctions since 2011, but has been successful in having European sanctions lifted in 2014 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of his involvement with the regime. Two prominent Syrian businessmen who landed on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned individuals, published on January 21, 2019, are Nader Qalei and Khaled Al-Zubaidi. The two are leading actors operating in Syria with investments in the construction industry. One of their most significant investments is in the construction of Grand Town, a luxury tourist project. The Syrian government has granted Qalei and Al-Zubaidi a 45-year agreement for this project in exchange for approximately 20% return on revenue. According to the Council of the EU, Qalei and Al-Zubaidi benefit from and/or support the regime through their business activities, in particular through their stake in the Grand Town development. One of the most prominent actors in the country’s media sector is Majd Sleiman, otherwise known as the ‘intelligence boy’, son of Hafez Al-Assad’s cousin. Sleiman is currently the chief executive director of Alwaseet Group, one of the largest media groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. At the age of 25, he was already running several businesses and had established regional and international connections in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Europe and the United States. Even though Sleiman is active in the media and publishing sector, which is considered unprofitable, his companies received significant amounts of money from British accounts. This could be indicative of potential money laundering for the Syrian regime through British banks, via Sleiman.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘New Guards’

With some families falling out of Al-Assad’s favors, and others exiled or unable to operate due to economic sanctions, a few savvy businessmen found an opportunity to fill the newly created vacuum and establish ties with the Al-Assad government by providing it with much needed services. Most prominent among these ‘new guards’ is Samer Foz, a leading Syrian businessman, known for his ruthlessness in conducting business. In fact, in 2013, Foz served a six month jail sentence for killing a Ukrainian/Egyptian businessman in Istanbul, Turkey. Foz is involved in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy, including brokering grain deals, and a stake in a regime-backed joint venture involved in the development of Marota City—a luxury residential and commercial development project. After several of Al-Assad’s former business allies found themselves unable to continue their business activities, Al-Assad welcomed Foz to his inner circle. Moreover, after being heavily affected by the war, Syria’s agricultural industry suffered, and Foz positioned himself as one of the few businessmen with the ability to broker grain deals. As a result, he received access to commercial opportunities through the wheat trade. Through his investments in the food industry and some reconstruction projects, Foz made his way into the inner circle by providing financial and other support to the regime, including funding the Military Security Shield Forces. Notably, Foz maintains very close ties with Iran, as well as Russia and other Western and Arab countries such as Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon.

Another relatively new name to the arena of businessmen in Syria is Mazen Al Tarazi. Al Tarazi resides in Kuwait and has launched several campaigns in an attempt to get into Al-Assad’s inner circle. One of his campaigns was named “Returning to Syria” in which he pledged to bear the cost of Syrians wanting to return to their country. Moreover, in 2014, he assigned a plane at his own expense to transfer Syrians from Kuwait to Damascus, and back to Kuwait so they can cast their votes in the Presidential election. In 2017, his attempts proved successful and he was granted an investment license for a private airline in Syria, as well as other projects including a deal with Damascus Cham Holdings for a 320 USD million investment in the construction of Marota City. The Syrian Palestinian businessman benefited from his public support of the Assad government. In fact, according to Syrian media, Al Tarazi’s investment in Marota City is the first investment in Syria in which the investor’s share is greater than that of the public sector (51% of the project was owned by Al Tarazi and 49% by the Damascus Holding Company of the Damascus governorate). This investment, as well as his outspoken support for Al-Assad landed him on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned persons. The final businessman on the ‘new guards’ list is Samir Hassan, owner and agent of several companies in Syria, including Nokia and Nikon. After bad harvests due to war, he invested in imports of food supplies, in particular wheat, rice, sugar, and tea, and developed a close relationship with the Al-Assad family. During the civil war and against the background of improved relations with Russia, Hassan was named the Chairman of the Syrian-Russian Business Council, quite a prestigious position given the special relationship between Russia and Syria. Hassan’s investments in the food industry will also be vital during the reconstruction of Syria where he will be able to provide materials and products needed for reviving the agricultural sector, one of the greatest contributors to Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Trends in investments of Syria’s Businessmen

In general, businessmen involved in the Marota City and Grand Town projects have found themselves under Western economic sanctions. Most of Syria’s prominent businessmen have invested in these projects thanks to their connections with the government. In addition to some of the figures mentioned above, Anas Talas, Nazir Ahmad Jamal Eddine, Khaldoun Al-Zoubi, Hayan Mohammad, Nazem Qaddour, Maen Rizk Allah Haykal and Bashar Mohammad Assi have been recently sanctioned primarily due to their participation in the construction of Marota City. The Marota City and Grand Town projects are not essential for the country’s reconstruction, as they represent luxury residential and commercial projects and do not contribute to rebuilding the damaged infrastructure. However, several of the mentioned businessmen have been investing in infrastructure-related industries, such as the metal and steel industry, as well as the electrical and food industries. Recently, Hamsho bought “Al Sewedy Cables” factory, previously owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmad Al Sewedy, which produces electrical cables, towers, columns, transformers and circuit breakers, as well as a foundry (metal melting) factory that produces material for construction. Hamsho was able to acquire Al Sewedy’s company after it defaulted on loans given to it by the Islamic Bank of Syria and was sold in an auction. Foz has also been investing in former businessmen’s assets as he secured the ‘empires’ of two Syrian millionaires previously in Al-Assad’s inner circle. Emad Hamisho, previously known as the “economic shark” of Syria, and his family were sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Finance in 2013 after defaulting on a loan of 3.8 million Syrian Pounds he had borrowed from the real estate bank. In 2014, the sanctions were lifted without any clarifications on whether Hamisho had settled his account with the ministry or not. In 2018, the Ministry of Finance issued a new decision to sanction the assets of “Hamisho Minerals.” Foz saw an opportunity in it and swooped in. He entered into a partnership with Hamisho and created a new company where he heads the board of directors. Moreover, after a series of tightening measures initiated against him by the Syrian government in the early phases of the civil war, Imad Ghreiwaty decided to gradually transfer his investments abroad and resign from his position as the head of the Union of Chambers of Industry. His assets included a cables company, “Syria Modern Cables”, which Foz bought in 2017. Notwithstanding the manner of purchase, these initiatives are important for the country’s rebuilding, and are profitable for the investors, as they will provide construction material necessary for the reconstruction phase.

Financing Syria’s reconstruction

It is evident that rebuilding Syria will be largely controlled by Al-Assad’s inner circle of businessmen who have preferential access to investments and are best positioned to receive projects and tenders in the upcoming period. However, a few businessmen will not be able to rebuild the country on their own, and even the country’s most prominent and richest businessmen will find themselves limited in their activities due to imposed economic sanctions. While Syria’s allies are willing to help, and have already begun cultivating and consolidating relationships with local actors to gain access to the Syrian market, they are also facing certain limitations. Iran and Russia are constrained by economic sanctions of their own, whereas India and China are reluctant to invest unless they receive security guarantees to insure and protect their investments in Syria. Therefore, while both local and external actors are willing and seek to invest in the lucrative industry of Syria’s rebuilding, they are faced with many obstacles, including economic sanctions. The irony of the matter is that actors who have access and finances to invest in rebuilding Syria cannot do so since their access depends on their relationship with Al-Assad—a relationship that has provided them with opportunities and finances, and landed them on international economic sanctions lists that now restrict their ability to operate at their full capacity. With the United States and European Union unwilling to foot the bill, it remains to see whether the Gulf States will overcome Western pressures, restore ties with Al-Assad and invest in rebuilding Syria.

First published in our partner RIAC

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