The Syrian regime has as much as $25 billion stashed in offshore tax havens and investments across the Middle East. Finding that fortune could be big business for an elite group of modern-day treasure hunters.
Even as the war in Syria rages and Bashar al-Assad clings to power, the race to find the regime’s vast—and mostly hidden—fortune is already underway. Experts say al-Assad and his associates have amassed as much as $25 billion through investments in banks, state industries and other concessions, and has stashed the money in offshore tax havens and in investments across the Middle East.
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs on the wall inside a Syrian state television and radio building in Damascus on August 6, 2012. (Khaled al-Hariri, Reuters / Landov)
Finding the money is of keen interest to the modern-day treasure hunters who specialize in recovering the wealth of fallen dictators. Sometimes called financial intelligence or forensic accounting, the industry comprises lawyers, accountants, ex-spies, former law enforcement investigators and even some retired journalists, all of whom look at the unrest in Syria as a business opportunity. Some firms charge several thousands of dollars per hour for the sleuth work of a team of six to eight investigators. Others get paid a “success fee,” a small percentage of the overall haul.
“I’m hunting myself and I want to be first in the queue for my clients,” says Steven Perles, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents the families of victims of terrorism. Specifically, Perles is gunning for $413 million for the families of two U.S. contractors who were beheaded by al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. In 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals awarded the judgment against Syria after it found Assad’s regime provided material support to the terror group. Perles said he has hired researchers to track down the assets.
In worst-case scenario to secure chemical weapons.
If—or when—Bashar al-Assad’s regime finally topples, the U.S. and its allies are considering sending forces in to protect the sites of biological and chemical weaponry that could fall into dangerous hands. This could take tens of thousands of ground troops to properly secure the areas against pillaging. “There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worst-case scenario,” an anonymous U.S. official told Reuters Thursday. Other diplomatic sources said as many as 50,000 troops might be needed to guard possibly dozens of chemical stockpiles and weapons sites across the country.
A wave of kidnappings after an alleged Hezbollah sniper was taken hostage and Bashar al-Assad bombed the Syrian city of Azaz is stoking fears of mayhem in Lebanon. Mike Giglio reports on the flashpoint for the violence.
In a video posted Tuesday on YouTube, three armed men, their faces concealed behind scarves, stand behind a captive in a white-walled room. They are identified as fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force in the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, broadcasting from Damascus. Identity cards are held to the camera that name the captive: Hassan Salim al-Mokdad, a man from a powerful family in Lebanon. His captors accuse him of being a sniper from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon and a close ally of Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
Screengrab of a video that allegedly shows Lebanese hostage Hassan Salim al-Mokdad. (Youtube)
The video has since become a flashpoint in a murky chain of events that has heightened long-standing concerns that the Syrian conflict will spill out across its borders—and that new groups from outside the country could be drawn into the mayhem.
On Wednesday, more than 20 Syrians were taken hostage inside Lebanon, where refugees, along with opposition fighters and activists, have been flocking as Syria’s conflict rages. In an interview with Lebanese television, members of the Mokdad family said they had abducted Syrians “affiliated with the Free Syrian Army” and would release them only in exchange “for our son Hassan al-Mokdad.” according to Now Lebanon.
The call for military intervention in Syria has grown more urgent in recent weeks. But it’s a call that should be resisted argues Christopher Dickey.
There's an urgent, somewhat desperate chorus of prominent voices—longtime advocates for reason and humanity in international affairs—who are calling on the United States and its Western allies to intervene in Syria directly and militarily. But despite their best intentions, their propositions sound a lot like the thankless adventures that Rudyard Kipling called "the savage wars of peace."
A Syrian man reacts after seeing the body of his relative buried in rubble after an air strike in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria on Aug. 15, 2012. (Khalil Hamra / AP Photo)
Anyone looking at images of the carnage coming out of Syria these days sympathizes with the desire to see the bloodletting end. Nobody in the West or in Israel wants to see the conflict spread, and, as the mass kidnapping in Lebanon of 20 Syrians on Wednesday suggested, there is every reason to fear that it will. So while it is worth listening to those who say they know how the Assad regime can be toppled more quickly, efficiently, and humanely than seems to be the case at present, it's also worth understanding why almost nothing that these people recommend will be done—and why what is being done, mostly in secret, is attracting so little praise.
In The New York Times, noted columnist Nicholas Kristof recently came out in favor of limited American military intervention against the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad. In a column headlined "Obama AWOL in Syria," Kristof (who opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003) quoted two Clinton administration officials, former Defense secretary William Perry and former secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Perry suggested a no-fly, no-drive zone. Albright said she favored intervention and more involvement, but "not on the ground." Yet when Perry and Albright were in office, the Clinton administration's own intervention record was decidedly mixed. The invasion of chaotic, enfeebled Haiti was a short-term success. The 1999 war that eventually won Kosovo its independence from Serbia (over Russian objections and outside the U.N. framework) was a model combination of Western air power and guerrilla warfare by the locals. But in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of people were butchered on Perry and Albright's watch, and the United States never intervened. Somalia was abandoned. The Bosnian war had gone on for three years before the U.S. finally helped tip the scale against the Serbs. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's brutal regime managed to hold on to power despite repeated bombings and U.S.-backed coup plots—and more than a decade of no-fly zones in both the north and south of his country.
As fighting in rebel strongholds continues.
A mass kidnapping of more than 30 Syrians in Lebanon has officials worried that violence is spreading throughout the Middle East region. Seven Lebanese hostages being held in Syria were also wounded Wednesday, with four others still missing, according to a rebel commander. Meanwhile, a Syrian government fighter jet struck the northern town of Azaz Wednesday, killing at least 30, and injuring at least dozens more, many of whom are women and children.
Hosting U.N. mission, near military compound.
Explosives hit a hotel used by the ever-shrinking force of United Nations monitors in Damascus on Wednesday. The Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility, allegedly targeting a meeting of top officials. Syrian state TV said the blast was caused by a bomb planted in a car parked at the hotel and at least three people had been injured, but none of them were U.N. monitors.
More than two dozen Syrian rebel leaders pledged to stop torturing and executing prisoners last week. But the soldiers on the ground don’t seem to have gotten the message.
After a video surfaced showing Syrian rebels executing four pro-government militiamen in Aleppo, more than two dozen rebel leaders—at the urging of human-rights groups—signed a pledge on August 8 to stop executing and torturing captives in their battle to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters capture two policemen who the FSA alleged are 'Shabiha' or pro-regime militiamen after the rebels overran a police station in Aleppo in July 2012. (Emin Ozmen, AFP / Getty Images)
Yet as The Daily Beast discovered during a disturbing and at times surreal visit to a detention center in Al Bab in northeastern Syria on August 10, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel-fighter force, still appeared to be involved in torture and abuse.
Their instruments of pain were on clear display: in the small dusty yard in front of the facility, not far from where guards lounged and smoked cigarettes, wooden sticks and iron bars were scattered in the shade, still coated with blood.
Syria’s highest-ranking civilian defector, former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, says he has ‘sacrificed’ himself for the cause—could he be ready for a prominent opposition role? Mike Giglio reports from Istanbul, where Hijab has landed.
After more than a week of intrigue, Riyad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister, made his first public appearance on Tuesday—and he came out charging hard against his former boss, the strongman President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime he was still party to at the start of the month. “The regime is falling apart morally, materially, and economically,” he said in remarks that painted a dire picture of Assad’s grip on power.
Riad Hijab, Syria’s defected former prime minister, speaks at a press conference in Amman, Jordan, on Aug. 14, 2012. (Mohammad Hannon / AP Photo)
Saying the Syrian military is “rusting,” Hijab claimed Assad now controls just 30 percent of the country's land.
Hijab’s unexpected defection caused a sensation last week: not only is he the top civilian defector, but Hijab also bolted from the regime just two months into the job. The interest surrounding his departure only intensified in the coming days, as even the country where he was residing remained a mystery. Initial reports, confirmed by Jordanian officials, were that he had fled to Jordan overnight. But Hijab was also rumored to be on his way to Qatar, and activists in Istanbul were then buzzing that he was amongst them in the Turkish capital, where the primary Syrian opposition body is based. He said Tuesday that he had spent three days hiding out in Syria during the news flurry, before escaping into Jordan with the help of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Clinton met with Syrian activists in Turkey, but not the Syrian National Council, ostensibly the revolution’s unified voice. Her snub seemed to stem from a desire to tell the fractious group to get its act together—and perhaps to signal that America is moving on.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian activists in Istanbul on Saturday, they were asked not to reveal what was said. But the message Clinton sent just by calling the meetings was already loud and clear—and thanks more to whom she decided not to talk with than with whom she did.
In Istanbul over the weekend, international attention focused on Clinton’s talks with the Turkish foreign minister, and the subsequent announcement that the United States and Turkey will analyze the possibility of a “no-fly” zone across the border in Syria—which would constitute a monumental international step in the bloody conflict that continues to rage in the bid to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Associated Press today that plans for a no-fly zone are “not on the front burner.” And in the large community of Syrian revolutionaries living in Istanbul to take refuge from the war, talk of the Clinton visit has centered on her snub of the main opposition group based in town.
The Syrian National Council was founded in Istanbul last year to give a unified voice to the revolution’s many fronts, as its counterpart in the Libyan revolution was able to do. Instead, much the opposite has ensued, and the SNC has gained a reputation for infighting and indecision. “The SNC is just not living up to what we thought it was going to,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summing up international consensus on the group.
On her visit to town, Clinton hammered this message home, ignoring the people who were supposed to be running the show, and choosing to meet with ground-level activists in their place. America, the message seemed to be, is moving on.
Government blames technical failure.
A Syrian warplane crashed over the eastern province of Deir el-Zour on Monday. Activists released a video that reportedly shows the Soviet-made MiG warplane catching fire before crashing down in flames. The pilot ejected before it crashed. The rebels claim they shot the plane down with ground fire. However, state-run media claims the plane was on a training mission and crashed due to technical error. SANA news agency says that a search has been launched to find the pilot.
Is the war in Syria becoming a regional struggle?
Just across the border from the war in Syria, in a house in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, Ismail Mohamed, a rebel soldier in a T-shirt and camouflage pants, opens his laptop and proudly displays a video. The video shows Mohamed sitting with two forlorn captives in the back of a van, glaring at them and contemptuously patting them on the cheek. The van was in Syria, Mohamed says, but the men are fighters from Iran. He is sure of it—so sure, he says, that he hadn’t thought to show their Iranian ID cards on camera before he handed his captives over to Turkish authorities. To him, their presence is just more proof that the rebels are fighting not only President Bashar al-Assad, but also his allies in Tehran. “We’re fighting against something very important,” he says, “the expansion of the Iranian revolution.”
The rebels say they are fighting Assad and his Iranian allies. (Adem Altan, AFP / Getty Images)
In recent weeks, Assad has watched his regime suffer a string of setbacks—from a bombing in Damascus that killed four members of his inner circle to a constant stream of defections, including that of his handpicked prime minister, who fled to Jordan last week. The rebels have even launched offensives in Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Nevertheless, Assad pushes on, pounding the rebels with tanks and fighter jets. Despite claims that the regime’s days are numbered, Assad’s persistence has lent credence to fears that the Syrian war will be a long bloody struggle—and that as it drags on, outside forces will come to play a larger role in shaping the country’s fate. To many rebels, the principal enemy is Iran, which has “bet the pistachio farm on Assad” in hopes that Syria will remain a political ally, says Karim Sadjadpour, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Iran is trying to buoy Assad with financial, military, and strategic aid. But Iran is stealth and tends to operate via proxy.” To the rebels, murky signs of Iranian meddling already abound. Last week, the rebels captured a busload of 48 Iranians outside Damascus who they say are members of the Revolutionary Guards. The regime has insisted that they’re just religious pilgrims, but according to The Wall Street Journal, the group booked their trip through a travel agency that “solely caters to members and families of Guards.” Meanwhile, in the Turkish border camp that houses the brass of the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel fighting force, rumors have swirled that Iranians are pouring into Aleppo. Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, the head of the FSA military council, told Newsweek that he believes Iranian snipers have been hiding on the city’s rooftops. “They’re in groups with Syrian security officers, so the Iranians can remain unseen,” he said.
On their part, the Iranians are painting the war as a wider international struggle against their man in Damascus. On a visit to the Syrian capital last week, a senior aide to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, went out of his way to warn that the Syrian uprising was “not an internal issue.” The aide appeared to be referring to a host of Iranian foes, including the United States, Turkey, and Qatar, all of which are publicly backing the rebels. But the longer the fighting continues, the greater the potential for Syria to become an arena for a larger struggle between Iran and its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Some among the Syrian opposition feel that such a battle is already taking place. As one veteran Syrian activist, Nasr Adin Ahmad, put it: “This revolution, it’s just like a chess piece between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
Last week’s U.N. General Assembly session on censuring Syria mocked the very notion of civilization, as one totalitarian regime after another took the microphone, writes Andrew Roberts.
If ever, in the dark recesses of the night, you start to doubt the essential decency of the West, or the foul, amoral, hypocritical viciousness of its totalitarian foes, then I have a foolproof remedy for you: attend a session of the United Nations General Assembly. As a happy by-product, it will cure you of any lingering doubts you might have had over the portentous, pusillanimous, utter uselessness of “the international community” into the bargain.
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari (shown on screen) speaks before a vote on a U.N. General Assembly resolution on Syria at U.N. headquarters in New York City, Aug. 3, 2012. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
Last Friday’s session—they’re not called “debates,” as that might imply democracy, the interplay of ideas, and the possibility of votes being swayed through reasoned argument—was on the “prevention of Armed Conflict: Draft Resolution A/66/L57,” which sought to put the Assad regime squarely in the dock for the murder of 17,000 of its citizenry. It further condemns “the increasing use by the Syrian authorities of heavy weapons, including indiscriminate shelling from tanks and helicopters, in population centers and the failure to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons to their barracks.”
The session started with the General Assembly’s president, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, saying that the “credibility of the United Nations is at stake,” as though it hadn’t been already shot through by Kofi Annan’s complete inability to affect events in Syria, with his six-point plan or in any other way. The secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, nonetheless expressed his “tremendous admiration for all [Annan] did,” without mentioning what that in fact amounted to.
John Cantlie, a veteran photojournalist, was captured by jihadis on his return to Syria, whereupon he discovered how dangerous that murky conflict can be, writes Mike Giglio.
It took just seconds for John Cantlie to know that he was in serious trouble. He had made several prior trips into Syria across the Turkish border, to cover the ongoing conflict between rebel forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad. Cantlie had even used the same guide and route before.
The French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier (second from right) watches as the coffin of French photographer Remi Ochlik is carried on to an ambulance in Damascus, March 3, 2012. (Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty Images )
On this latest trip in July, he and fellow photojournalist Jeroen Oerlemans were just an hour into their journey when they saw a rebel camp and walked up to it. As they did, Cantlie prepared himself for a warm welcome from the Syrians inside, who were always grateful when members of the international press arrived to document the bloody situation in the country. But when Cantlie and Oerlemans entered the camp, they didn’t find themselves among Syrians at all. Instead, they were surrounded by foreign fighters who had come to the country to wage jihad. The jihadis took away the photographers’ gear, questioned them angrily, and then led them away from the camp at gunpoint.
“You were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Cantlie remembers some of the fighters telling him as he was held captive over the coming days. The jihadis—who hailed from around the globe, including some from Cantlie’s native Britain—threatened to kill the two journalists, subjected them to mock executions, and sharpened knives in front of them as they promised to cut off their heads.
As fighting intensifies in Syria, three fragile states next door are being drawn toward the war
Ever since the fighting started in Syria last year, there’s been talk that its neighbors would get sucked into the fray. Well, now they have: Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq—all relatively weak and unstable in their own particular ways—tried to keep a distance from this war. But the conflict has come to them with a vengeance in the form of refugees, tribal links, political deals, and covert operations sponsored by other countries. We haven’t yet seen them in open combat, but there’s every reason to expect there’s worse to come.
Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country make their way to the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, July 31, 2012 (Muhammad Hamed, Reuters / Landov)
“We have to set very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she prepared to attend an emergency conference in Turkey on Saturday to address the Syrian crisis. “Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people.” Clinton didn’t elaborate, but such is the state of the fighting that American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar might have been the target of her remarks, and not just adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah.
The Middle East has a long history of strong nations fighting proxy wars on the territory of enfeebled ones. Ask the Lebanese, who lived through a full 15 years of savage conflict among a kaleidoscopic array of contending factions with various foreign backers in the 1970s and '80s. Much the same is happening now in Syria. But Lebanon was a tiny country where the fighting could be contained like a plague in a Petri dish. Syria is much bigger, with more neighbors, more players, more pathogens. The Turks, Saudis, Qataris, Iranians, Americans, Russians, and Israelis all have powerful interests in the outcome of the fight, and amid the confusion, the contagion spreads to those neighbors with the least resistance.
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Before jumping into Egypt or Syria, the U.S. needs to think about what comes next, next, and next. And then, don’t jump, writes Leslie H. Gelb.
A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.
There is no sign of capitulation as the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city heads into its 20th day.