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

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

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

The Defectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Al-Bustan Association

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

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

The Father of the Desert Hawks

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

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

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

The Old Guard and the Special Services

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

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

Elements of Matriarchy

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

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

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner RIAC

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How the Guardian newspaper fulfills George Orwell’s prediction of ‘Newspeak’

Eric Zuesse

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On Sunday April 15th, Britain’s Guardian bannered “OPCW inspectors set to investigate site of Douma chemical attack” and pretended that there was no question that a chemical attack in Douma Syria on April 7th had actually occurred, and the article then went further along that same propaganda-line, to accuse Syria’s Government of having perpetrated it. This ‘news’ story opened [and clarificatory comments from me will added in brackets]:

UN chemical weapons investigators were set on Sunday to begin examining the scene of a chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, which had prompted the joint US, French and British strikes against military installations and chemical weapons facilities near the capital, Damascus.

The arrival of the delegation from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came as the Syrian military announced that it had “purified” [no source provided, but this — from 7 March 2018 — is the only source that existed prior to the April 14th missiles-invasion of Syria, and its meaning is very different: the region of eastern Ghouta, of which Douma is a part, after a two-month campaign that killed nearly 2,000 civilians [no source provided as regards either the number, or that all of them were ‘civilians’ and that none of them were jihadists or “terrorists”], following years of siege.

The propaganda-article continued directly: “Units of our brave armed forces, and auxiliary and allied forces, completed the purification of eastern Ghouta, including all its towns and villages, of armed terrorist organisations,” the general command statement said.

No source was provided for that, but this sentence is a sly mind-manipulation, because here is what the Syrian Government’s General Command had actually said: “Statement of the Army General Command declaring Eastern Ghouta clear of terrorism” as headlined by the Syrian Government itself.

In other words: the Guardian’s ‘journalist’ had substituted the word “clear” by the word “purify” and did this after having already asserted but not documented, that the Government had just completed “a two-month campaign that killed nearly 2,000 civilians.” When the Syrian Government announces that an area has been “cleared of terrorists (or of terrorism),” the U.S.-allied propagandist uses the word “purify,” such as “purified the region of eastern Ghouta” or “the purification of eastern Ghouta, including all its towns and villages, of armed terrorist organisations.” But by the time that the reader gets there to “purification … of armed terrorist organisations,” the reader has already been doctrinated to believe that Syria’s Government is trying to “purify” land, or perpetrate some type of ethnic-cleansing. That’s professional propaganda-writing; it is not professional journalism.

Later, the article asserts that, “The OPCW mission will arrive in Douma eight days after the chemical attack, and days after the area fell to the control of Russian military and Syrian government forces. That delay, along with the possibility of the tampering of evidence by the forces accused of perpetrating the attack, raises doubts about what the OPCW’s inspectors might be able to discover.” However, a fierce debate is being waged over whether this was not any real “chemical attack” but instead a staged event by the jihadists in order to draw Trump back into invading Syria. In other words: any journalistic reference yet, at this time, to the event as “the chemical attack” instead of as “the alleged chemical attack” is garbage, just as, prior to the guilty-verdict in a murder trial, no journalistic reference may legitimately be made to the defendant as “the murderer,” instead of as “the defendant.” That is lynch-mob ‘journalism’, which Joseph Goebbels championed.

The Joseph-Goebbels-following ‘journalist’ has thus opened by implying that the Russia-allied Syrian Government is trying to crush a democratic revolution, instead of the truth, that the U.S.-allied Governments are trying to overthrow and replace the Russia-allied Syrian Government. It’s a big difference, between the lie, and the truth.

Another story in the April 15th Guardian was “Pressure grows on Russia to stop protecting Assad as US, UK and France press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles” and this one pretended that the issue is for “Russia to stop protecting Assad,” who is the democratically elected and popular President of Syria, and not to stop the invasion of Syria since 2011 by U.S. and Saudi backed foreign jihadists to overthrow him. Furthermore, as regards “press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles,” the real and urgent issue right now is to allow the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into Douma to hold an independent and authoritative investigation into the evidence there. Russia pressed for it at the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. and its allies blocked it there. But the OPCW went anyway — even after the U.S.-allied invasion on April 14th — and this courageous resistance by them against the U.S. dictatorship can only be considered heroic. Now that they are there, the remaining jihadists in Douma are firing shots at them to drive them away.

That type of ‘news’-reporting is virtually universal in The West, among the U.S. and its allied governments, which refer to themselves as ‘democracies’ and refer to any Government that they wish to overthrow and replace by their own selected dictator, as ‘dictatorships’, such as these regimes had referred to Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria forever, and Ukraine in 2014. It’s Newspeak.

first published at strategic-culture.org

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The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism in the Era of MbS – an Update

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. One major reason for doubts about the Al Sauds’ viability was the Faustian bargain they made with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan, intolerant, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.

It was a bargain that has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of ultra-conservative Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant, geopolitical elements of the Wahhabi worldview are ballpark. With no accurate date available, they range from $75 to $100 billion.

It was a campaign that frequently tallied nicely with the kingdom’s deep-seated anti-communism, its hostility to post-1979 Iran, and the West’s Cold War view of Islam as a useful tool against Arab nationalism and the left – a perception that at times was shared by Arab autocrats other than the Saudis.

The campaign was not simply a product of the marriage between the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis. It was long central to Saudi soft power policy and the Al Saud’s survival strategy. One reason, certainly not the only one, that the longevity of the Al Sauds was a matter of debate was the fact that the propagation of Wahhabism was having a backlash at home and in countries across the globe. More than ever before theological or ideological similarities between Wahhabism or for that matter Salafism and jihadism were since 9/11 under the spotlight.

The problem for the Al Sauds was not just that their legitimacy seemed to be wholly dependent on their identification with Wahhabism. It was that the Al Sauds since the launch of the campaign were often only nominally in control of it. They had let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and that can’t be put back into the bottle.

That is one major reason why some have argued in the past decade that the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis were nearing a crunch point. One that would not necessarily offer solutions but could make things worse by sparking ever more militant splits that would make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere in multiple ways including increasing sectarian and intolerant attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The rise of Mohammed bin Salman clearly challenges these assumptions. For one, it raises the question to what degree the rule of the Al Sauds remains dependent on religious legitimization as Mohammed moves de facto from consensual family to one-man rule in which he anchors his legitimacy in his role as a reformer.

It also begs the question of what would ideologically replace ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam as Saudi Arabia’s answer to perceived Iranian revolutionary zeal. The jury on all of this is out. They key lies in the degree to which Mohammed is successful in implementing social and economic reform, his yet to be clarified definition of what he envisions as moderate Islam, and what resistance to his religious redefinition and social reforms will emerge among members of the religious establishment and segments of the population.

Mohammed has so far dropped tantalizing clues, but neither said nor done anything that could be considered conclusive. In fact, what he has not done or said may be more telling, even if it would be premature to draw from that conclusions of the potential limits of change that he envisions. On the plus side, he introduced social reforms that enhance women’s opportunities and relaxed restrictions on cultural expression.

At the same time, he has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and positioned them, including key vehicles like the World Muslim League that the government used to fund and propagate ultra-conservatism, as forces against extremism and militancy and in favour of religious tolerance and dialogue. In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.

Saudi officials have spoken of a possible halt to the funding internationally of religious institutions although an apparent agreement to pump $1 billion into the building of hundreds of mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would suggest otherwise. The failure in Brussels and the fact that there is little reason to believe that the religious establishment has experienced a true change of heart or that Saudi Arabia has satisfactorily completed a revision of its text and religious books suggests that the kingdom is ill-prepared to propagate a truly moderate form of Islam in Bangladesh or anywhere else.

In some ways, the question is whether this matters as much outside the kingdom as it does domestically. The parameters have changed with Mohammed’s grip on power but the fact that the religious establishment was willing to ultimately compromise on its theological principles to accommodate the political and geopolitical needs of the Al Sauds has been a long-standing fixture of Saudi policy making.

For the Wahhabi and Salafi ulema, the public diplomacy campaign was about proselytization, the spreading of their specific interpretation of the faith. For the government, it was about soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincided, and at times they diverged.

Yet, more often than not the requirements of the government and the family took precedence. While contacts between Wahhabi and Deobandi scholars from the Indian sub-continent go back to the 1930s, if not earlier, Saudi scholars were willing to put their differences aside as Deobandis emerged as a powerful force among the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s and subsequent anti-Shiite strife in Pakistan.

The problem in mapping the financial flows of the campaign is that the sources were multiple and the lines between the funding streams often blurred. No doubt, the government was the major funding source but even than the picture is messy. For one, who constitutes the government? Were senior princes who occupied powerful government positions officials or private persons when they donated from their personal accounts in a country in which it was long difficult to distinguish between the budget of the government and of the family?

On top of that, the government had multiple funding streams that included the foreign ministry using its network of diplomatic missions abroad, the multiple well-endowed governmental non-governmental organizations such as the Muslim World League that often were run with little if any oversight by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood with their own agenda, institutions in the kingdom like the Islamic University of Medina and its counterparts in Pakistan and Malaysia, as well as funds distributed by Islamic scholars and wealthy individuals.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that there was no overview of what private donors were doing and who was a private donor and who wasn’t. This pertains not only to the blurred lines between the government and the ruling family but also to Saudis of specific ethnic heritage, for example Pakistanis or Baloch, as well as Saudi intelligence. At times members of ethnic communities potentially served as government proxies for relationships with militant anti-Shiite groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Taiba and their successors and offshoots in Pakistan.

Further complicating a financial assessment is the lack of transparency on the receiver’s end. In some cases, like Malaysia the flow of funds was controlled by authorities and/or a political party in government. In others like Indonesia, money often came in suitcases. Customs officials at airports were instructed to take their cut and allow the money in with no registration.

In other words, while the Saudis donated they seldom prior to 9/11 and the 2003/2004 Al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom exercised control over what was done with the funds. The National Commercial Bank when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution had a department of numbered accounts. These were largely accounts belonging to members of the ruling family. Only three people had access to those accounts, one of them was the majority owner of the bank, Khaled Bin Mahfouz. Khaled would get a phone call from a senior member of the family who would instruct him to transfer money to a specific country, leaving it up to Khaled where precisely that money would go.

In one instance, Khaled was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then defense minister, to wire $5 million to Bosnia. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Khaled sent the money to a charity in Sarajevo that in the wake of 9/11 was raided by US law enforcement and Bosnian security agents. The hard disks of the foundation revealed the degree to which the institution was controlled by jihadists.

At one point, the Saudis suspected one of the foundation’s operatives of being a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. They sent someone to Sarajevo to investigate. The investigator confronted the man saying: ‘We hear that you have these connections and if that is true we need to part ways.’ The man put his hand on his heart and denied the allegation. As far as the Saudis were concerned the issue was settled until the man later in court testimony described how easy it had been to fool the Saudis.

The measure of success of the Saudi campaign is not exclusively the degree to which it was able to embed religious ultra-conservatism in communities across the globe. From the perspective of the government and the family, far more important was ultra-conservatism’s geopolitical component, its anti-Shiite and resulting anti-Iranian attitude.

The man who was until a couple of years ago deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that professes to be anti-Wahhabi, symbolizes the campaign’s success in those terms. He is a fluent Arabic speaker. He spent 12 years in the Middle East representing Indonesian intelligence, eight of those in Saudi Arabia. He professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and at the same time warns that Shiites, who constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population and that includes the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years, are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. This man is not instinctively anti-Shiite but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel.

The result of all of this is that four decades of funding has created an ultra-conservative world that lives its own life, in many ways is independent of Saudi Arabia, and parts of which have turned on its original benefactor. A study of Pakistani madrassas published earlier this year concluded that foreign funding accounted for only seven percent of the finances of the country’s thousands of religious seminaries.

The fact that ultra-conservatives are no longer wholly dependent on Saudi funding is a testimony to the campaign’s success. This realization comes at a crucial moment. Post 9/11 and even more so in the wake of Al Qaeda attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia in 2003/2004, Saudi Arabia has introduced strict controls on charitable donations to ensure that funds do not flow to jihadist groups.

There is moreover no doubt that Saudi funding in the era of Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to revert to what it once was. The Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques, the relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the World Muslim League’s newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue as well as its effort to reach out to Jewish communities would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long funding of ultra-conservatism.

Yet, there are also indications that Mohammed bin Salman is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. The US Treasury last year designated Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist on the very day that he was in the kingdom to raise funds. Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s border with Iran and Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups.

Abu Turab’s visit to the kingdom came at a time that Saudi and UAE nationals of Baloch heritage were funnelling large amounts to militant anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Islamic scholars in Balochistan. It is unclear whether the funds were being donated with Mohammed bin Salman’s tacit blessing.

What is clear, however, is that the funding and Abu Turab’s visit coincided with the drafting of plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so. The funding nevertheless raises the question how clean a break with support of ultra-conservatism Mohammed bin Salman is contemplating.

Edited remarks at The Middle East and the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC 18-19 April 2018

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Middle East

Where will the proxy war in the Middle East last?

Sajad Abedi

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A direct US strike on one of the Syrian Army bases is a new development in the terrorist war that began six years ago against Syria. The attack, which took place after accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in the region of Khan Sheikhon in the Syrian Arab Republic, raised several questions, among which are the most prominent:

What are the realities and purposes of using chemical weapons in the current situation? Why did the Western countries accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons without any documents and opposed the Russian request to form a neutral truth-clarifying committee to clarify the facts? Why the US government headed by Donald Trump did does not pay attention to Russia’s request for unilateral action to ignore international law and interference in other domestic affairs? What does it mean to handle this attack? What are the likely outcomes and consequences of this attack?

1- Syria after the use of chemical weapons in arid groups in the East Hemisphere region in 2013 and tensions in the area after the threat of a massive attack on Syria by former US President Barack Obama by mediating Russia he agreed to destroy his chemical weapons in order to prevent any excuse and accusations from the United States and Western countries. As a result, the United Nations Monitoring Committee (UNSC) announced that it was carrying out its mission in full cooperation with the Syrian government, under the supervision of the United Nations, the Syrian Chemical Weapons Depot.

The purpose of the Syrian disarmament was to prevent Syria from attacking bases of armed groups in the eastern submersion. The goal was also to create space for Syria, and to intervene in the United States to shift the balance of power in favor of armed groups. The Zionist regime, the Zionist lobby in the United States, the warlords and anti-Syrian states, were pushing for such an approach to force Obama to engage in a frantic war in Syria.

Now under the conditions of the Jabhat al-Nusra in Khan Sheikhon region, a chemical strike has taken place that the Syrian army has managed to defeat the attacking armed groups in the suburbs of Hamma and remove the areas under the control of this group. The army also plans to continue fighting in other areas of armed groups and to launch attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra bases in the province of Idlib. With the support of the allied army on all fronts and the achievements of many, as well as the removal by the White House, the Department of State and the United States Mission to the United Nations, that the US government’s priority is the defeat of ISIS, Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian people should determine the fate of Assad. These issues have led to the outrage of the terrorist armed groups and their supporting countries and the American warlords. Hence, they have taken measures to use chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhon and have accused the Syrian army of using this type of weapon to achieve the following objectives.

They are struggling against the Syrian government by accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons that were sacrificed by a number of citizens. They demanded that they undermine the status of the Syrian government in international circles and any negotiation.

They are also pushing for the Syrian government to squeeze on the military front to force the army to attack terrorists at various fronts to prevent the terrorists from defeating and collapsing. The goal is to give the terrorists fresh breath and to rebuild their queues once again.

The warlords have called on Trump’s positions to change their position on Assad and the fight against terrorism to attack Syrian military bases, especially military airports. This is a topic that the Washington Research Center has been reporting on. French Foreign Minister Marc Ayro said the chemical test was a testament to the new US administration after its position on Assad’s fate.

2- Accordingly, Western countries quickly accused Assad of using chemical weapons and opposed Russia’s request for a neutral truth-clarification committee to determine the facts. They tried to achieve the stated goals and mislead public opinion and cover the realities and exonerate the Nusra Front. They also demanded that chemical weapons remain in the hands of the terrorist groups if they continue to use it and continue their erosion wars in Syria.

3- The US government’s move to launch a missile attack on the Syrian airspace appears to be in contrast to the Tramp position. He has surrendered to warlords. He wants to align with the warlords, in order to reduce the opposition that the supporters of the supporters of the terrorist groups inside Syria have taken to take action. He also wants to show off with Obama, who hesitated to attack Syria in 2013.

But the US invasion showed that Washington is attacking the government, the Syrian people and the Syrian army with the help of the terrorists, and that the terrorists are instrumental in serving US plans to occupy Syria. America is the largest terrorist country in the world and a terrorist organization. It does not fail to ignore international law and the sovereignty of other countries, and always plays the role of police in the implementation of forest law. It has a right to charge, convict and enforce justice.

4.Consequences of probability

Indeed, the US invasion of Syria has shown that America is directly involved in the terrorist war against Syria. The move came after the West realized that the terrorists were on the brink of destruction, and that the victory of the Syrian national government and the axis of resistance were decisive. The role of the United States will prove this to the people of Syria, the Arab countries and the world’s public opinion that what is happening in Syria is the plan of America, the West, Zionism and the reactionary Arab state aimed at destroying Syria and destroying its national system.  This has led the Syrian people to support more than their leader, and his legitimacy and his unique role in confronting colonial forces, terrorism and Western-affiliated institutions are strengthened.

The US attack on Syria has led Russia to end its air coordination with the United States in the Syrian heavens. This is a practical measure against the ignorance of international law by the United States and its neglect of Russia’s position. Russia emphasized that the Syrian army did not carry out a chemical attack, and the army had no chemical weapons, and these were terrorist groups that possessed chemical weapons. Hence, it is better not to accuse the Syrian government of any reason and evidence. There is no doubt that Russia’s reaction to the developments in Syria will be great. This does not allow US fighters to cover the Russian missile defense coverage. In addition, it is likely that Moscow will provide advanced weapons to the Syrian army to defend against any attack on missiles and fighter jets. It is not possible for Russia to neglect this attack that ignores Russian red lines in the Syrian territories. This is particularly the case when US attacks on Syria and its attempt to rid the terrorists of failure to Russia’s strategic goals of sending its troops to Syria.

US action on the Syrian army’s attack will not only lead to a conflict with the Syrian army and its allies. But there is also the possibility of a conflict with Russia. This is the issue Moscow and Washington are trying to avoid. Because of this will lead to a world-wide destruction of devastation.

Hence, it is likely that the US invasion would be to reduce domestic opposition that Tramp has faced since coming to power in the United States. He has called for this attack to strengthen his position against his enemies without rejecting his opposition to a new and more costly war than the Iraq war.

Trump has said he wants to get the US economy out of recession and solve the US unemployment crisis, and to repair US infrastructure that needs a trillion dollars.

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