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The significance of Iran’s presence in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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At least since 2014 the presence of Iranian forces in the Syrian war has certainly ensured both political stability and military success on the ground for Assad’s regime. Some Syrian sources maintain that since December 2013 Iran’s engagement in the Syrian conflict has cost at least 6 billion US dollars a year, while other Western sources think the financial support provided has been twice as much.

With at least 3,200 soldiers and officers from the Revolutionary Guards and other Shiite semi-official organizations, composed mainly of Afghan and Pakistani militants, Iran is second only to the Russian Federation in terms of engagement in the Syrian war to support Assad.

Moreover, Hezbollah – the Lebanese militant Shiite faction – is present in Syria with at least 4,500 soldiers and officers, but there are other Shiite groups, such as the People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), the former “popular defence brigades”, operating in the Syrian region.

In all likelihood, it was Iran to persuade Russia to intervene in support of  Assad, but the logic of Russia’s presence in the Syrian war is much more complex than it may appear at first glance.

In fact, the Russian Federation has placed the war against Daesh-Isis at the centre of its presence in the Syrian region, thus creating a new network of relations with the whole Arab world, including the one previously connected to the United States.

Russia made it clear it was necessary to eradicate the most immediate and severe danger for all Sunni Arab States, namely jihad, and this has led to its establishing new and effective relations with all those States.

Furthermore, Russia’s presence is a sign conveyed to Westerners that Syria’s “cantonization” will never be accepted by the Assads’ Russian traditional ally because this would mean creating missile, terrorist, geoeconomic and naval positions that would directly undermine Russian interests in both the Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East, up to the Southern borders of the Federation.

Let us examine, however, the forces still operating in the Syrian war, including the smallest ones.

In addition to the friendly countries operating on the ground, support for Syria – including at military level – is provided by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Polisario Front, also in clear contrast with Morocco, which indirectly supports – also through Saudi Arabia – the forces of the Syrian Democratic Army that is armed and supported mainly by the United States.

Besides the aforementioned Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, on the ground there are also some Palestinian groups and some Iraqi forces supporting Syria, especially with regard to intelligence and military activities on the border between Syria and Iraq.

Diplomatic support to Assad-led Syria is provided by Oman, Bolivia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Syrian Alawite regime is also backed militarily and economically by Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Vietnam and India.

Russia has also sent to Syria some Chechen and Dagestan battalions as combat forces.

However, the opponents of the Assad regime – and hence of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – include many groups of various origins, obviously all Sunni. Let us analyse them.

Jabhat al-Nusra, now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, is a network created by al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria in 2011 – which became known in January 2012, during the possible Syrian “Arab Spring” – which also operates in the Lebanon, as well as in Syria.

Since its inception said movement was supported by Qatar and Turkey.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya is a coalition of jihadist groups  supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, as well as Kuwait and Qatar.

Therefore, if Syria remains a Shiite Iran’s ally, at geoeconomic and political levels the strategic risk for the Gulf Emirates and for Saudi Arabia itself may become very high, especially in a phase of oil and financial crisis such as the current one.

Iran’s control over the Greater Middle East and the Persian Gulf would block any geopolitical autonomy of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with evident repercussions on the management of their oil resources.

The groups opposing Assad’s regime also include Asala wal-Tamiya, a coalition supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Indeed, it was armed precisely by the United States and in the past it had operational links with Daesh-Isis.

Jabhat al-Shamiyah is an alliance of nineteen jihadist groups originating from the Muslim Brotherhood and this is exactly the reason why a Syrian ally like Egypt tacitly supports Assad’s Alawite regime.

Jaysh al-Muhjahiddin is a further alliance of various Sunni guerrilla groups, all trained in Qatar, which in December 2016 merged with two other jihadist groups and later joined Ahrar al-Sham.

Therefore tribal equilibria, strategic and operational advantages, as well as interests of the funding countries, are at the origin of this multiplying and merging of militant jihadist groups.

Ajnad al-Sham is a typically Salafi group, always operating closely with Ahrar al-Sham.

Jaysh al-Islam, identified as terrorist organization by Russia, Egypt, Iran and Syria, is the second main pole of the Saudi indirect presence in Syria.

On the contrary, the groups siding with the Syrian Baathist government include Quwat Muqatili al-Ashair, a tribal force in which there is also a Druze contingent.

The list of these groups also include Liwa al-Jabal, consisting of five units  originating from the Suwayda Governorate.

The pro-Assad forces count also Saraya al-Tuhid, the fully Druze force allied with Hezbollah, which was created in October 2016.

It is also worth recalling Labuat al-Jabal, the female Druze brigade created in July 2015.

Again in the Suwayda Governorate there is Qatib Jalamid Urman, patrolling mainly the border between Syria and Jordan. The Druzes operate also with Qatib Humat al-Diyar.

The Syrian Christians contribute to defend Assad’s regime with Asad al-Qarubim, a brigade created in 2013 after the attack on the Saidnaya Monastery.

There are other five Christian brigades, divided between Damascus, Homs and Quraytin, which were established to defend the Christian holy places in Syria and currently operate – together with Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army – throughout the Syrian national territory.

Conversely, Quwat al-Ghabab are the brigades created by the Greek-Orthodox communities and operate in Hama, Latakia and Tal Uthman.

The list of the groups siding with Assad’s regime also include Quwat Wad al-Sadiq, created in 2012 at the Sayyidah Zaynab Shiite Shrine near Damascus, which is connected with Hezbollah and composed of both Shiites and Druzes.

It is also worth recalling Liwa Muqtar al-Thiqfi, created in 2016 in memory of the ancient commander who attempted to avenge – against the Umayyads – the sacrifice of Imam Husseyn.

It operates on the Latakia front and is directly linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Unlike the other smaller brigades, it is a force of approximately 5,000 units.

Again in the Latakia area, there is Saraya al-Arin, a Shiite group founded in 2015, while Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is present in the ​​Sayda Zaynab region, the centre of the traditional Shiite presence in Syria.

The group Liwa al-Imam Zayn Abidin, created in 2013, operates in Deir el Zur, the place at the core of the clash between what remains of Daesh and the Syrian regime, which has just been liberated by the “tigers”, namely the special forces of the Syrian Arab Army.

On the contrary, Liwa al-Jalil, the Galilean brigade founded in 2015, is a secular, leftist, nationalistic, Arab and pro-Palestinian organization.

The Syrian-Palestinians also operate within Quwat al-Jalil, created in 2011, while the “Leopards of Homs” (Fuhud Homs),  a special operations regiment, operates in the desert areas around Homs and have also participated in the Syrian Arab Army’s actions in the Daraya region.

Also Liwa Qibar, established in 2013 and counting  4,000 units, is active in Homs.

It has also operated at Hama and al-Mansura.

Qatib al-Jabalui is an Alawite military structure operating in Homs, Dara, and in the Jazal areas.

Another of the many pro-Assad groups, namely Fuj Mughuyr al-Badiya, set up in 2015, has carried out its actions in the desert of Homs and Aleppo. It is connected to the Shaytat tribe that is active in Deir El Zur.

Also Liwa Asad al-Huseyn was created in 2015 and is mainly active in Latakia.

Liwa Dir al-Watan was founded in 2015 and designed with the specific aim of defending Damascus.

These are the main groups supporting Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, accounting for 50% of its forces.

This means that all the brigades listed here are worth 50% of the Syrian Arab Army.

Furthermore, in Syria, Hezbollah immediately divided into two groups: Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi, fighting mainly in the Tartus and Aleppo regions, and Quwat al-Ridha, operating in Damascus and in the neighbouring areas.

Both groups operate in close contact with Assad’s forces.

While Russia wages its war in Syria, Iran tightens the clamps on the Syrian forces.

In the Qalamun region there is also Quwat Dir al-Qalamun, namely people’s brigades trained by the Syrian Arab Army that control the Al-Hadath pipeline and participate in the clashes against jihadists between Aleppo and Nassiriya.

People’s brigades coordinated by the Syrian Air Force military intelligence operate also in Hama.

Finally, the Fifth Assault Corps is a counterinsurgency organization set up in 2012 within the Syrian Armed Forces with the fundamental support of Hezbollah and Iran.

It is present in nine Syrian provinces and supervises enlistments, as well as closely controlling Syria’s civil society.

Hence what does Iran want to obtain with its engagement in Syria?

Firstly, Iran obviously need to establish safe transit routes to logistically support Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

This is the real strategic danger for Israel, rather than the danger constituted by the Golan Heights, which have somehow already been made safe.

Secondly, an equally important Iranian goal is to closely monitor the Euphrates valley, which is rich in oil deposits that must not be acquired by the United States and its allies, still present north of the Euphrates.

With a view to accomplishing this strategic linkage, the Shiite Republic must transit through Iraq so as to reach Aleppo from Palmira.

Another Iranian route to penetrate the Syrian desert could start exactly from Deir El Zor and later expand into the Hasakah Province.

In fact, Iran has already sent over 3,000 Revolutionary Guards and People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), namely the Shiite paramilitary forces, to the area between Tanaf and Deir El Zor.

As to the other channel, considering that there are no significant Shiite, Druze or Alawite forces in the region, the Pasdaran are dealing directly with the Sunni tribes between Hasakah and Aleppo.

Russia, however, is backing the Iranian operations with its air forces.

Nevertheless Russia will not accept Iran’s gradual penetration of the Syrian State and military structures for a long period of time.

For the time being, precisely with a view to blocking Iran’s influence, the Russian Federation’s proposal has been to quickly establish a Fifth Division of the Syrian Arab Army.

This would obviously serve to absorb – under the Syrian command – the tribal and territorial forces that could soon become pawns of the Iranian game in the Syrian desert.

Nevertheless – as is locally customary, and considering that the ongoing war has even enhanced these traditions – the various militias that have so far agreed to enter the Fifth Division have maintained their chain of command and their tactical and strategic autonomy.

Hence, Assad, is about to accept – de facto if not de iure – the Iranian droit de regard enabling it to control his territory and his armed forces.

Therefore, in the absence of a rational US strategy in Syria and vis-à-vis Iran, Russia thinks that the best thing to do – at least for the time being – is to support Iran in Syria and Iraq so as to exploit its potential against the United States and keep the Turkish ambitions on Western Syria under control.

This happens while the Kurds are turning into a pro-Western militia to control Turkish operations in Syria – in tacit agreement with Russia.

 Moreover, the United States has already decided to defend the YPG Kurds (and, in the future, the PKK ones) only against the Turkish aims, while Iran and Russia will try to control all Syrian borders, including those with Turkey where US interposition forces are currently present.

Hence either the United States sends other troops to control Iran’s expansion within Syria – for the time being favoured by Russia – or the United States is bound to withdraw completely from the Syrian-Iraqi region.

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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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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