How Assad Funds the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 29, 2015

George Haswani (AP Photo)

George Haswani (AP Photo)

The United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four individuals and six entities connected to the regime of Bashar al-Assad on November 25 for helping to transfer Syrian government funds to the Islamic State (IS), and for assisting in Russia-connected schemes to help the Assad regime evade the international sanctions imposed on it. While the sanctions freeze all assets of the individuals and entities that are under U.S. control and ban Americans from transactions with them, the most significant effect of these sanctions is political: the revelation of details about how Assad strengthens the Islamist terrorists he claims to oppose to discredit and destroy the rebellion against his regime.

Three of the designated men and the five of the designated entities relate to a web of Russian-connected companies and front companies, from Cyprus to Belize, which are helping the Assad regime and its Central Bank gain access to the international financial system from which it has been isolated for money laundering.

OFAC sanctioned Mudalal Khuri, a Russia-based Syrian businessman, for “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of previously designated entities and individuals,” namely the Syrian regime, the Syrian Central Bank and its governor Adib Mayaleh (sanctioned in July 2012), and Central Bank official Batoul Rida (sanctioned in March 2015). Khuri owns five of the six entities designated on Wednesday, and also “represents regime business and financial interests in Russia”.

Also sanctioned is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a “wealthy Russian businessman,” who holds dual Syrian citizenship. Ilyumzhinov is a former president of the autonomous Russian Republic of Kalmykia and is a long-serving president of the World Chess Federation. Ilyumzhinov “is linked to financial transactions involving Khuri-associated companies as early as 1997 and owns or controls the Russian Financial Alliance Bank [RFAB], along with Khuri,” OFAC says. Khuri is RFAB’s chairman and Ilyumzhinov is a major shareholder. RFAB itself was also sanctioned. In 1999, when Ilyumzhinov was president of Kalmykia, an advisor of his “was convicted … for the murder of an opposition journalist who reportedly was investigating an offshore business registration mechanism in Kalmykia tied to Ilyumzhinov.  Russian authorities subsequently closed the offshore business registration mechanism after concluding that it was being used for illegal purposes.”

The third individual sanctioned was Nicos Nicolaou “for materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of designated entities and individuals including the Government of Syria, Ioannis Ioannou, Piruseti Enterprises Ltd., and Khuri.” Ioannou and Piruseti were designated in October 2014. Nicolaou is “a director and officer for numerous Khuri-linked companies,” and in mid-2014 “authorized a decision … for Cyprus-based Primax Business Consultants Limited,” of which he is director and secretary, “to open euro, U.S. dollar, and ruble bank accounts at a Russian bank for a company partially owned by Khuri.” Primax was among the six OFAC-sanctioned entities.

The other entities designated were Hudsotrade Limited “for being owned or controlled by Khuri, Nicolaou, and Primax”; Ezegoo Investments Ltd. “for being owned or controlled by Ioannou, Khuri, Nicolaou, and Primax”; and Kremsont Commercial Inc. “for being owned or controlled by Khuri and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria.” Treasury adds that “Kremsont is a Belizean front company” controlled by Khuri.

The most interesting and in many ways the most important of the U.S. Treasury sanctions were levied against George Haswani for acting as “a middleman for oil purchases” by the Assad regime from IS through his HESCO Engineering and Construction Company, which was also sanctioned. Much credit has to go to Tony Badran, who pieced this together more than a year ago. In his outreach to the West, one of Assad’s main arguments is that whatever the crimes of his regime, he is the last line of defence for Syria’s Christians. An irony, then, that it should be Haswani, a Syrian Christian, who has been the conduit by which the regime is providing the funds to strengthen the IS terrorists it claims to oppose.

Haswani is married to an Alawi woman connected to the Assads, putting him in that category with the Makhloufs as a senior retainer of the Mafia-clan regime in Syria. Haswani also holds Russian citizenship and is deeply connected with Moscow’s State-run energy sector. “HESCO is the subcontractor for Russian company Stroytransgaz,” Badran writes. Joint HESCO-Stroytransgaz projects have taken place not only in Syria but Africa, the Gulf, and Iraq. Haswani was hit with European Union sanctions in March, which among other things disclosed that HESCO was jointly running a natural gas production facility in Tabqa with IS. Haswani has appealed the E.U. sanctions, but the fact that Assad and IS are de facto partners in the running of Syria’s energy market is hardly a secret.

Syria’s refineries and power-plants, most now in IS-held territory, are run by regime specialists and IS takes a majority cut either in kind (often electricity) or in cash from the regime. Indeed, paradoxically, it is these areas of most direct cooperation between Assad and IS where they engage in some of their very few clashes because, as a Syrian oil executive explained, “This is 1920s Chicago mafia-style negotiation. You kill and fight to influence the deal, but the deal doesn’t end.”

The evidence that the Assad regime was hell-bent on mobilizing its old terrorist assets to make Salafi-jihadists the face of the insurgency has been available to anyone willing to see for many years—this blog had an evidence compilation in March 2014, and an update in September 2014. Assad’s intention in strengthening Islamic extremists within the insurgency—assisted by Iran and Russia—is to frighten the population into rallying around the regime and warding off international assistance to the rebellion (and perhaps even gaining international support in putting the insurgency down). Put simply: the current interest of Assad is making the IS problem worse. The regime will look to suppress IS eventually but only once, as in Algeria, the dictatorship has destroyed all non-extremist antagonists and discredited the entire idea of opposition by associating it with extremism and bloodshed. Whatever this makes the Assad regime, it isn’t a counterterrorism partner.



UPDATE: A serious estimate of IS’s oil income in October 2015 suggested that IS was producing 50,000 barrels of oil per day, of which 20,000 were bought by the regime. If true, this means the regime is responsible for 40% of IS’s oil income.

19 thoughts on “How Assad Funds the Islamic State

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