Minority report/Is the link between Assad and the Islamic State a Christian one?
By: Tony Badran
Published: 6/09/2014/Now Lebanon
Is the link between Assad and the Islamic State a Christian one?
For a long time, the conventional narrative about the rise of the Islamic State (IS) has been that the jihadist group owes its rise to financial support from Gulf donors. However, as it has been established over the past year, the IS had far more lucrative revenue streams, including from the sale of oil from the fields it has seized in eastern Syria. What’s more, the IS sold that oil back to the Assad regime. This financial dealing was but one aspect of the tacit, opportunistic understanding between Bashar al-Assad and the IS.
A report on Lebanese news site IMLebanon.org on Monday added more information to this angle, further denting the common wisdom regarding Assad and the IS. The report claimed to identify the middleman who handled the transactions between the regime and terrorist group. According to the site, the man is George Haswani, a Greek Catholic businessman from the town of Yabroud, near the Syrian border with Lebanon. The report claims that Haswani “was able to forge a relationship with the group that led to an understanding to transport crude from the fields it took over to regime areas, in return for cash and wire transfers, which he himself handled.”
Haswani’s name surfaced in late 2013/early 2014 in another mediatory role, namely the negotiation over the release of nuns then held by Jabhat al-Nusra in Yabroud. Reports at the time described Haswani as a businessman with “close ties to the Assad regime,” and “strong ties” to Assad personally.
A Syrian rebel commander told NPR’s Deborah Amos last year that Haswani “runs an oil and gas construction business with ties to Moscow.” In March, the Syrian pro-opposition website All4Syria provided more data on Haswani’s business and ties to Russia; information it said it obtained from someone who worked with him. Haswani was deputy general manager of the Banias refinery. He had studied in Russia, where he married his first wife. While in Russia, Haswani made contacts, “some of whom,” according to the website’s source, “had gone on to assume high-ranking positions in the Russian security establishment.” As a result, Haswani’s firm, HESCO Co., “secured contracts with Russian oil and gas firms, as well as in importing spare parts for Russian military vehicles and oil wells.” Haswani’s son-in-law, Yousef Arbash, runs his Moscow office. There, All4Syria’s report added, he works closely with Amjad Douba, nephew of former Military Intelligence chief Ali Douba, who has long been established in Moscow.
Specifically, HESCO is the subcontractor for Russian company Stroytransgaz. In an interview in June of last year, Arbash explained that HESCO has been “strategic partners” with the Russian firm, working on joint projects in Sudan, Algeria, the UAE and Iraq. Back then, HESCO had started working with Stroytransgaz to build a gas processing plant in Palmyra, which is supposed to be completed in the second half of 2014. The Russian company also signed a deal with the Syrian regime in June of this year for the first phase of an irrigation project for northeast Syria. The deal, valued at SYP30 billion ($194 million), is for the construction of a main pumping station in the Ain Diwar area, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, to draw water from the Tigris River. Haswani was present at the signing, and confirmed moving forward with the Russian company as its subcontractor “on vital projects in Syria despite difficulties in implementation.”
In the Syrian context, the ability to land such contracts would situate Haswani in the class of cronies that the Assad family and its Makhlouf cousins have cultivated and tied to their rule. The All4Syria report also claimed that Haswani’s second marriage was to an Alawite woman from Lattakia “connected to the Assad family.” This could further explain his privileged status and closeness to the ruling family, as well as Assad’s confidence in him as a middleman.
If the allegation regarding Haswani’s role as Assad’s intermediary with the IS is true, then it turns the conventional narrative regarding Assad and the IS on its head. The regime’s line is that Assad constitutes the best hope for protecting minorities from the IS. However, it may well turn out that it was a Christian crony of the regime who facilitated its dealings with the IS and directly contributed to the growth of the group.
The claim about Haswani paints a picture of cynical dealings between two monsters, with a Christian middleman handling their mutually-beneficial business. This underscores the problem with a sectarian approach to US policy in Syria, especially one premised on supposed Christian solidarity. Certain high-profile Christian figures, including some in the clergy, have advocated, implicitly or explicitly, aligning with Assad under the pretext of protecting minorities against the predations of the IS. However, not only is their position suspect, but also, some may themselves turn out to be accomplices to both Assad and the Islamic State.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.