Businessmen and BusinessMobs - (2 of 5) - Syria from the Silk Road to the Iron Yoke!

Ghassan Aboud 2021-06-28 00:00:00

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With the spread of the Arab Spring, a businessman from Aleppo visited me in the early sixties at the time in my office in Brussels. He told me how Bashar Al-Assad, through his puppet, Rami Makhlouf sent him a gang, which raped his wife in front of his own eyes, to force him sign a paper abandoning  the ownership of a commercial agency. He signed the waiver, took his family, and fled to Europe as a refugee.

 Such events may well be quite familiar and almost common to the Syrians who have already heard the likes of many.! It however opens our eyes to see how the Syrian economy is being derailed off its historical track in detriment to its development and its future growth at the hands of its own businessmen.

  

Syria from the Greater State country to a petite village state!

Damascus had lost its southern courtyard section, the Palestine plain up to the Red Sea, upon the creation of Israel in 1948. This had also led to cutting Damascus off its land trade links with Egypt and North Africa. Moreover, under the partitioning Sykes-Picot pact dividing Syria, Damascus lost much of its depth by slicing off the east of Jordan and Lebanon, resulting in a drop of the inter-trade with both to about 15% compared to the period before 1916.

As for Aleppo, it had suffered the deadliest catastrophe over the past 100 years! Its long history has never seen a time in which it became a low-profile insignificant city after its northern courtyard was sliced out from it. Cities were annexed to emerging Turkey in 1920 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, in the south of the Taurus Mountains regions:  Like Cilicia, Urfa, Maraş, Aintep, Mersin, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Tarsus, Adana, and Antakya. Then again, in 1936, it was bereaved of its Iskenderun territory / currently Hatay, which was also taken up by Turkey, in a political deal with the French occupation. All of those cities had an economy flowing into Aleppo's arsenal economy. Notwithstanding this, a vein that was still keeping its economy alive was the border with Iraq, which despite the 60 years since the Sykes-Picot pact, had never been walled off.  Until Hafez Al-Assad jumped to power and started carrying out his sectarian dogmas; he and cut his relationship with Iraq for almost the entire period of his reign. Subsequently, Aleppo went very low in business, after losing its extension and its trade with Mosul, the capital of northern Iraq. Given the fact that it was the only trading station that linked the east of Syria and northern Iraqi regions with the Mediterranean. Added to that, Hafez Al-Assad’s hostile policy towards Turkey in a destabilizing attempt, through his rendering support to the PKK factions, had led to the closure of the Turkish borders throughout his rule. 

This had turned Aleppo into a small city living on the memory of its ancient times, providing its commercial services to its residents only and to a few governorates around. Furthermore, the centralization policy that Hafez Al-Assad had adopted stole away from Aleppo its privilege of being an administrative center as well as the resulting service trade in favor of Damascus.

These factors altogether pushed the Aleppans to stand in solidarity with the “Katibat Attalia” (Vanguard Brigade) of the Muslim Brotherhood, who rose up against Hafez Al-Assad between 1978 and 1982. An uprising which ended up with Al-Assad launching a sectarian war against the city, destroying several neighborhoods, and killing over 10,000 persons from Aleppo, whereby several thousand of its educated youth had to flee, in addition to his ending the lives of about 10 thousand of its young intellectuals in his basement behind bars. 

The only period in which the economy of the city of Aleppo flourished during the sectarian Assadist occupation was during the era of Bashar Al-Assad’s succession to wield power in Syria. Under a deal he made with the Americans and collaborating with them to invade Iraq in 2003, he was forced to open the borders with Iraq to receive refugees. During this period, the Aleppo economy had further seen a boost following the improvement of the Turkish-Syrian relations, and the support that Erdogan provided to Bashar Al-Assad after a long history of animosity. The city had thus witnessed the flourishing of its trade and industry, until the outbreak of the revolution in 2011; after it had experienced impotence for over a century. Aleppo had then restored a simple glimpse of its historical glory in commerce. However, there was an irony in what was going on; the war that destroyed Iraq and dispersed its people was a blessing for the economy of Aleppo. The influx of refugees drove up rents and land prices.  The merchants of Aleppo invested in the requirements of the pre-, during, and post- Iraq war. Many of them had also received payments on multi-million dollar contracts they did not have to fulfill after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Syrian business community in between deep-rooted principled figures and rootless unprincipled leeches

The Syrian business community after the rule of Hafez Al-Assad can be divided into three types.

The first is the traditional one: Those are the remaining merchants and craftsmen of the ancient families in Damascus and Aleppo; other governorates of course have their share. Those were the ones who did not emigrate despite the pressures they were experiencing under the rule that came to power after unification with Egypt as well under the Baath party’s rule; given the nationalization acts and accompanying abuse this class had been subject to.

 

The majority of them are Sunni Arabs, and most are conservatives who reject extremism, jihadism, and fanaticism. Among them, we can find a score of Christians who fear a radical Islamist alternative that may persecute them. All the same, they hold no loyalty to Al-Assad; because of his policies that impoverished them and undermined the standing of their deep-rooted class. Something that even prompted some to seek his overthrow. This class, regardless of their affiliates’ religious background, is characterized by having similar traits: they hate making a risk, hope for a change that costs little in human and material costs, have a tendency to remain settled,  and fear of wars, especially civil ones. 

The following example will explain the reason for the migration of Christian merchants during the rule of the Al-Assad's father and son. In a discussion I had with one of the Syrian Christian gold traders and makers, I asked him why he and his family had wanted to emigrate in 2004?!  He said, “The jewelry trade and craft were no longer making money. At that time, the Syrians had become poor, our markets were little attracting deals with the neighboring countries, and the goldsmithing craft had become low in income. The profit we make from selling a ring, for example, was 50 Syrian pounds, equal to one dollar at the time!

According to the British writer "Patrick Seale", references and studies reported a narrative that the traditional merchants in Syria made a deal with Hafez al-Al-Assad at the beginning of his rule. It is said that they traded their political freedoms and their historical role in return for the stability that he provided after a series of coups, the left-wing military rule, and the nationalization policies (!?)

In my opinion, I would rather say about this point that “Seale” had a particular relationship with Hafez Al-Assad and is one of the key promoters of his rule, and hence renders his credibility at stake. It is true that the media took pictures of Hafez Al-Assad with the traditional businessmen such as the late Badr al-Din al-Shallah. Especially the picture in which Hafez Al-Assad appeared holding arm in arm with him heading to the ballot box during the 1984 referendum. The media also filmed several meetings of the father and son with a number of traditional Damascene and Aleppan merchants; meetings that were prompted out of fear and forcing the attendees to answer and out of protecting themselves from the wrath of the intelligence police service against them. 

We can cite evidence telling about their dissatisfaction toward the rule during that period in light of the fact that the merchants of Damascus tried several times to go on strike during the Baath rule as well as the Al-Assad father and son regime in 1964. That was in solidarity with the operations taking place in Hama and the destruction of parts of its old neighborhoods and the storming and destruction of the Sultan Mosque. In retaliation however, the sectarian National Guard militias broke down the shops. Once again, in 1965 they went on strike due to the re-application of the unjust nationalizations drive, enacted on a sectarian basis. Furthermore, they had a strike in the early eighties of the last century, after the sectarian Defense Brigades militia went wild in the streets removing the women headscarf off their heads and in solidarity with the massacres, the regime was committing in northern and central Syria. Another strike was staged at the beginning of the current revolution following the Houla massacre in May 2012. On all occasions, they experience brutal repression, their stores were opened by force, their goods ransacked, and they received threats from the villains Hafez, Rifaat Al-Assad and of late by Bashar that they would be killed.  In addition to this, Seale’s narrative is totally inconsistent with the traits that traditional businessmen in all nations have, including Syria, not to mention its inconsistency with the interests of the Syrian business class, as we have said. We believe that this is meanly an attempt to undermine the patriotism of the class that made the Syrian a nation that take top standing at the helm among other nations.

The second type is the parasite: A class created by the regime of Hafez Al-Assad that bourgeoned and still is since the end of the seventies of the last century. Those leeches prefer to be called businessmen, even though the Syrians calling them sarcastic and base nicknames that tell in short their rootless background and base corruption. 

The majority of them are an outcast of the Syrian communities, belonging to a number of sects. Among them are a significant number of Alawites* who were officers in the army or were related thereto. The most authoritarian among them are the families surrounding the Al-Assad family, such as Makhlouf, Shalish, Al-Akhras, and Jaber. Or those who have a relationship of marriage to them, such as Samer Al-Fawz, as reported by an American media. Some have in-laws relation to the Alawite families, such as Muhammad Hamsho, for example.  Others are just the scum of the clans, such as the Barri in Aleppo, or from the scum of the cities, like Husam Katerji. Statistics estimate that their number is about 200 high-ranking corrupt leeches, varying in number more or less according to Bashar al-Assad’s satisfaction towards them.  They are all business partners of Al-Assad and his family.  

They took advantage of their access to the family circle and monopolized capturing the tendering of public infrastructure projects or new projects that were put forward, such as banks, transportation, and contracting. Today, as a result of the deterioration and destruction that befell the country, many have turned to the trade-in manufacturing of illegal drugs, the trade-in raw materials that supply the manufacture of explosive barrels and other tools of mass killing, smuggling oil and gas, prostitution and whatever may be associated with it such as brothels and the like.  All of those provided the Shabbiha with transportation, food, and salaries.  Some of them have their own private militias, such as Rami Makhlouf, Ayman Jaber, Al-Katerji, and Berri.  As for the weapons, they were obtained from the state and army stores, which are controlled by the militias of Al-Assad and Iran.  The latter of which narratives have been widely reported that they have established a class of "businessmen" of its own, such as Muhammad al-Sawah and Samer al-Fawz. Those have nothing to do with what the principles of trade and business entail; neither do they provide a penny to the country’s GDP. They just suck up the country’s wealth and scatter the money whether by lavish spending or transporting abroad. They enrich themselves through all prohibited acts related to corruption, general crimes against the state and society, or crimes related to individuals, such as kidnapping, extortion, and the seizure of the citizens’ money. 

This corrupted class has another sub-leech group the number of which may be twice as much. They play brokerage roles and are managed and shared in by the security services.  One would find those bragging about calling themselves businessmen as well.  However, all of them, regardless of their ranks, have their interests tied up with and creep around Bashar Al-Assad’s survival in power. 

The third type is the immigrants: I consider them Syrians, although none was brought up in Syria, but rather grew up in different environments. Nevertheless, they have had a significant impact on the Syrian economy and Syrian life in the last quarter of the century, as well as on the Syrian revolution.

This group is in turn, falls into two categories: The first is the one migrating forever: It is distinguished by the fact that it has lost many of its Syrian characteristics. Some of its members hardly have anything to associate yjemselves with Syria except for few Arabic words uttered with a foreign accent. 

This is while others see Syria through the eyes of a tourist!? What concerns them about Syria and what one knows about it is not the oppression represented on the faces of its people wherever I meet any, nor the quarter-million lives who die annually as a result of medical errors and due to the deterioration of hospitals and their mismanagement. They do not care about the other quarter of million people who die annually in traffic accidents due to poor road organization and rampant bribery in traffic police departments. Nor do they bother about the disguised unemployment that exceeds 50%, the brazen unemployment that exceeds 15%, the unjustified poverty, though it is, in fact, an impoverishment policy, nor about the migration of young people to work abroad, so much so that the country’s households have become in dearth of and the attending social diseases of this plight; nor do they know the suffering of their families from the injustice of the courts and the overcrowding of innocent prisons! For them, Syria is just a summer resort, a nightclub, and a cheap, filthy evening. I have met a number the like of those during my travels. They considered the revolution a disaster for them because it deprived them of these advantages; it deprived them of the opportunity to brag about themselves as peacocks among their families and their old peers, a few of deceived among the heaps of stumbling folks!

Among those, a number of minority groups surfaced in reports about making arms deals that reached the Al-Assad militia including ammonium nitrate deals***. Some figures came into the scene also in diplomatic forums and headquarters, such as Western foreign affairs and embassies.  They carry out public relations campaigns for the Al-Assad regime, spreading lies and allegations against the revolution and that it is an extremist Islamic uprising, aiming to exterminate minorities, while the case is exactly the opposite:  A coalition of minorities to exterminate the majority! 

Notwithstanding this group, another has yet emerged, one of the fiercest, determined, and smartest fighters against the Al-Assad regime! A group that gave the revolution its blessing, supported with money, backed up with their attitudes, and have established several councils, especially in America and the active European countries. A group that bestowed and is still giving its best to help its people in salvation. I followed them myself as they establish councils and hold conferences to support the Syrian cause. They spend money in campaigns for parliament elections in the countries to which they migrated and elsewhere, to build up political support for their cause. And ranking high- in the positions they assume, yet they collect as much relief materials as possible and deliver them to the people inside Syria, be it medicines, hospital supplies, and schools’ needs.  Some of them are businessmen, such as Ayman Al-Asfari, from Britain. Some are scholars, such as Dr. Adnan Wahoud, in Germany. Besides hundreds of doctors, such as Dr. Samir Kazkaz, from Germany. I followed them myself. They are wonderful and loyal people. They coordinate with Orient Humanitarian Hospitals and others to perform free surgeries for those injured as a result of the crimes of Al-Assad and his allies. They pay for their tickets from their own pockets. They take up several operations all through the 24 hours. They sleep in simple field hospital rooms for a week or two. They eat whatever may be availed with their colleagues and patients, and then go back again to their country of immigration, time and time again. 

The other category is the temporary immigrants' category: The majority of those are based in the Gulf countries. They never cut themselves off from Syria throughout the period of their being expats, whether through construction, investment attempts, or support to their families and relatives. Most of them came from the countryside and small cities, and some are from Damascus and Aleppo. They all share one feature; that they all had not found an opportunity in Syria to prove their worth and eligibility. They just could find one in the Gulf. Predominantly, many of them are self-made. They started from scratch and were able to make outstanding records and become famous names in major commercial and service international companies’ arena, building sky tower buildings, great hotels, hospitals, clubs, and restaurants!

Very few if any among those one would find someone supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Some, however, failed to support the revolution for fear of repression. Many have practically been supporting the revolution and stick up with it. Each one lost millions of dollars as a result of Bashar Al-Assad’s seizure of their money and destruction of their property, as it happened with me.

I read several Western reports and watched documentary films showing a large number of middle-income business groups in the Gulf collecting money and sending it to the demonstrators in their cities, towns, and villages. They give helping hands to those afflicted and try to be humanitarian ambassadors for the cause of their country before the Gulf public opinion. 

Margins:

* Even the Alawites themselves make fun of these groups, and when they pass by their palaces, they say, “Soon, we will turn them into a hospital or a culture house when we get rid of you.”


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