Uprooted Entrepreneurs form ‘Little Damascus’ in Northwest Syria

Idlib

Idlib (Syria), London – On a bustling street in northwest Syria, young restaurateur Abdulrahim Abulezz serves up juicy chicken wraps crafted according to a traditional recipe from his hometown Daraya, which he left last year.

His restaurant Sultan Daraya sits in a row of shops and eateries run by Syrians who quit their formerly rebel-held towns around the capital Damascus under deals with the regime, said an Agence France Presse report.

With names like Madaya Supermarket and Ibad al-Rahman’s Damascene Delicacies, the shops have turned this quarter of rebel-controlled Idlib into a “Little Damascus.”

Sultan Daraya’s sandwiches are a particular hit among those missing a taste of home.

“We named it ‘Sultan Daraya’ because that’s where we came from,” said 24-year-old Abulezz, the restaurant’s enterprising owner.

His specialty is the mouthwatering shawarma sandwich, filled with chicken roasted on a vertical spit and shaved onto a bed of pita bread stuffed with tomatoes, spicy peppers and special sauces.

“We bring the spices and prepare our traditional Damascene hot sauce. That’s why our shawarma is distinctly Damascene,” Abulezz said proudly.

“We even add a Damascene marinade to the roasted chicken — a secret recipe that no one knows here.”

The blend hails from his family’s restaurant in Daraya, one of the first towns to revolt against Syria’s regime when protests broke out in 2011.

At the time, Abulezz left university to join rebels defending Daraya, which soon came under crippling regime siege.

But in August 2016, he was among thousands of fighters and civilians bussed out of the town to opposition-held Idlib after a settlement with the regime.

About two months ago, Abulezz opened up Sultan Daraya in Idlib city.

He now boasts seven employees: five from Daraya, another from third city Homs which the regime also recaptured after rebel evacuations, and Abu Ali, from Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

As he shaved chicken slices from the spit, 25-year-old Abu Ali crooned a nostalgic ode to Damascus.

“Most of my customers are people from Madaya, Zabadani, Daraya and Moadamiya al-Sham,” Abulezz said, listing towns around Damascus under “reconciliation” deals.

“Everyone from the capital’s suburbs has chased these Damascene specialties,” he said.

Indeed, Daraya natives were flocking to Abulezz’s restaurant on the day of AFP’s visit.

Abu Hamdan, a furniture seller living in Atmeh near the border with Turkey, said he eats at Sultan Daraya “just to remember the smell of Damascus.”

“Coming to these restaurants reminds us of Daraya, of its people and their food. Being displaced is like sucking the soul out of the body,” the 50-year-old said.

Carpenter Abu Imad, 50, is also a regular visitor.

“I come to Idlib city every time I need to buy some merchandise, so we drop by friends from our hometown,” Abu Imad said.

“I don’t have a favorite dish. I come here to remember, to go back to the good old days of Daraya.”

Along the same street lies Ibad al-Rahman’s Damascene Delicacies, which dishes out hummus, fava beans drizzled in olive oil, and deep-fried falafel.

The owner, 22-year-old Mohammad Nuh, also imported his succulent recipes from his family’s restaurant in Daraya.

“When I was 10, my father had a restaurant in Daraya. My brothers and I used to work there, which is where I learned the trade,” he told AFP.

“I prepare the food here the exact same way.”

Inside, his three employees are cubing fresh tomatoes, chopping parsley bouquets, and dipping mashed chickpea mixtures into sizzling olive oil to make falafel.

“I had to go into debt to open up this restaurant. It took a lot of hard work, but finally I have my own place,” Nuh said.

“It was a coincidence that we all ended up on this street. Most of us didn’t know each other before, but we opened several different businesses,” he said.

Just like Sultan Daraya, Nuh’s restaurant attracts customers whose palates are used to Damascene flavors.

“Idlibis love hot sauce so much — they put it on everything. This ruins the food,” Nuh said.

“We’re introducing them to new recipes so they can actually taste the dish and its ingredients.”

One regular is Abu Mukhtar, who hails from Madaya, another town near Damascus that has been evacuated.

“We Damascenes are known for our love of good food, which we always found in local restaurants in Daraya, Madaya, or other areas in the suburbs,” said Abu Mukhtar.

The lanky, silver-haired Syrian teamed up with other Madayans to establish a supermarket named after their beloved hometown.

“We decided with neighboring businesses also owned by displaced people that we’ll shop at each others’ places for mutual benefit.”

Channeling Trump? Beleaguered Netanyahu Assails Media

Netanyahu

Directly addressing his nationalist base, a beleaguered leader accuses the news media of obsessively promoting a liberal agenda, conducting a “witch hunt against me and my family,” and trying to overturn unpalatable electoral outcomes through sinister legal machinations.

This may sound like President Donald Trump. But this time it is Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, said an Associated Press report on Thursday.

Netanyahu has always had a thorny relationship with Israel’s prominent media outlets, where top writers, broadcasters and editors are generally more open to peace-seeking concessions to the Palestinians than the prime minister’s nationalist Likud Party is. But his comments at a Likud Party rally on Wednesday evening — days after police revealed he is a suspect in several corruption cases — were an escalation that could have been lifted directly from Trump’s playbook.

With hundreds of adoring supporters cheering wildly, Netanyahu launched into a tirade, accusing the media and political opposition of conspiring to topple him when he cannot be defeated at the ballot box. He carefully avoided any mention of the police and prosecutors who are conducting the actual investigation, said the AP.

“The thought police in the media work full-time to set the agenda, and woe to anyone who veers away from it,” said Netanyahu. “We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government.”

The crowd chanted “Down with the Media,” and one member held a large placard with a vulgar English expression against the media in front of the TV cameras. A reporter from the Times of Israel news site said Netanyahu supporters hurled insults and epithets at him, while a Channel 10 TV reporter was surrounded by a group of people who taunted him.

The tactic of attacking the media to deflect attention from political and legal trouble also seems part of an emerging zeitgeist in authoritarian-leaning countries these days.

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, independent media have been taken over by Kremlin-friendly figures and muckraking reporters have faced dismissals and even death. In Recep Teyep Erdogan’s Turkey, scores of journalists are in jail, and in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the independent media is regularly vilified.

But the most striking parallel, of course, is with Trump, who has constantly attacked the media, especially after he won the Republican nomination about a year ago and many American media outlets began in earnest to fact-check his statements and frequently conclude he has a penchant for uttering provable falsehoods.

Netanyahu rarely gives interviews or holds press conferences, preferring instead staged photo opportunities, handout videos or statements delivered on Facebook and WhatsApp. His government is pushing to close the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, accusing it of incitement. And like Trump, Netanyahu has feuded with several prominent TV journalists over their coverage. When Trump visited Israel in May, Netanyahu and his wife Sara commiserated with Trump and his wife Melania about the perceived unfairness of the media.

The situation is not clear cut. Just as Trump has the support of some right-leaning newspapers, and conservative radio and TV outlets, there are equivalents in Israel, including newspapers and websites allied with the religious and nationalist camps that support Likud. One newspaper, Israel Hayom, was founded by Netanyahu’s billionaire supporter Sheldon Adelson and often serves as a virtual mouthpiece for the prime minister.

But when Netanyahu attacks the media, he is referring to Israel’s venerable established publications and the main private broadcast channels.

The main boogeyman for his supporters is probably the liberal Haaretz newspaper, which is generally critical of Netanyahu. Its editorial line staunchly backs a liberal world order, and it supports far-reaching efforts to reach a deal establishing a Palestinian state and ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Part of the equation may relate to societal divisions. As in other countries, Israeli journalists disproportionately hail from parts of society — more secular, more educated, more urban and attuned to other cultures — than the base that supports insular policies and autocratic leaders, which can lean toward rural, uneducated and religious, reported the AP.

Netanyahu’s base, for example, is heavily populated with Israel’s less-privileged: Jews of Middle Eastern descent living in poorer provincial towns alienated from the European-descended “elites” who remain predominant in academia, the legal system, the security establishment and the media.

Netanyahu’s version of “draining the swamp” — one of Trump’s campaign touchstones — is “changing the elites.”

Netanyahu’s own background — the secular, European-descended, American-educated millionaire son of a professor — seems to bother his base no more than Trump’s wealth and Ivy League background disturbs his voters in rural America and the rust belt.

It has all added up to an effective “us versus them” approach that has repeatedly worked for Netanyahu throughout his three-decade political career.

While all Israeli leaders have had difficult relationships with the media, Netanyahu has taken things to a new level, said Eytan Gilboa, a professor of communications and politics at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

He called Netanyahu’s war on the media a “smart tactic.” He said both Trump and Netanyahu realize the public’s generally negative image of the media makes it an easy target.

“These tactics work very well with the base, but they also spill over to the general public,” he said. “They both understand they can discredit the media and the result is further mistrust in the media.”

Lost in the debate seems to be that the media had nothing to do with the investigations into possible bribery, fraud and penchant for expensive gifts by the prime minister. The scandals were compounded last week with the announcement that a longtime Netanyahu aid, Ari Harow, had agreed to testify against his former boss.

Gilboa said Netanyahu knows it would be crossing a line to go after police or prosecutors. Instead, he seems to be hoping that the public attacks on the media will somehow pressure prosecutors to back down.

“The left has no connection to the criminal investigations that are gaining momentum against Benjamin Netanyahu. The media is also playing third fiddle in this story. The people running the investigations are public officials whom Netanyahu himself appointed,” wrote columnist Ben Caspit in the Maariv daily.

“The thing that is toppling Netanyahu is his behavior throughout the years,” he added.

Disabled Egyptians Make Prosthetic Limbs for Poor

Egypt

An Egyptian development organization that manufactures products for the disabled has opened a workshop in Cairo to make prosthetic limbs for the poor, staffed by workers with disabilities who could otherwise struggle to earn a wage, said a Reuters report.

The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services aims to foster social and cultural development in Egypt and has been given $91,000 in funding by the Japanese government.

Its prosthetic limbs department, which has been operating for six months, aims to produce 200 limbs this year and increase output in future.

The workshop is part of a program through which the organization aims to help disabled people into work, enabling them to earn an income and contribute more to society, said Michael Saad, who supervises the program.

“By using this program, our main goal is to show that the disabled are proactive individuals in society, that the disabled are in need of some support in order for them to become proactive and productive,” Saad added according to Reuters.

The organization also has a factory that produces between 1,000 and 1,500 mobility devices such as wheelchairs and crutches each year. A mobile van service is used to deliver their products free of charge, and to provide routine maintenance for their users.

One worker said being employed at the workshop had renewed his self belief.

“Disability is psychological not physical,” said Raouf Nady Helmy. “When you begin working on your career you will feel like you were dead and that you came back to life.”

In Syria’s Moadamiya, Former Rebels Hide from Conscription

Syria

London – After fighting against Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad for six years, rebel soldier Abu Mohammed laid down his arms as part of a peace deal in his home town of Moadamiya last year, said a Reuters report on Thursday.

But he has now fled Syria into Turkey. His reason: the Syrian regime told him to report for duty and he feared being sent to his death fighting his former allies or ISIS terrorist group.

“We’re tired of war and bloodshed, we’ve had as much as we can take,” Abu Mohammed told Reuters in a phone interview from Turkey.

The 27-year-old, who declined to give his full name, said he had signed onto the peace deal in Moadamiya, a Damascus suburb that was a rebel stronghold until last year.

He said he had been told the Moadamiya agreement would exempt him from frontline duty. “We stayed in the town on that basis.”

But this spring, he heard that men from Moadamiya had been conscripted not to serve locally but to fight for the regime against the opposition fighters.

Reuters could not independently verify the account of other soldiers from Moadamiya being taken to fight on front lines, but it echoed that of a second former rebel from Moadamiya.

Declining to be named, he said defectors were being sent to the front lines in breach of agreements communicated to them verbally by what is officially termed a “reconciliation committee”, consisting of officials and local representatives of a defeated area.

The regime minister responsible for local agreements, Ali Haidar, denied the state had broken any commitments in Moadamiya, saying accusations it had were being promoted by foreign states and rebels “annoyed” by the agreements.

He said many former rebels had joined regime forces, and hundreds had been “martyred in the front lines against terrorism”.

The rapid succession of agreements in former rebel strongholds near Damascus such as Daraya, Qudsaya and al-Tal underline how far the scales have tipped in Assad’s favor in the war that spiraled out of protests against his rule in 2011.

Fear of conscription has been a major sticking point in the local agreements, a diplomatic source said, helping to encourage residents to leave for rebel-held areas of northern Syria in what Assad’s opponents call a policy of forced displacement.

The regime has given safe passage to thousands of rebels and civilians out of regime-held territory under the deals.

The psychological scars of Syria’s seven-year old conflict run particularly deep in Moadamiya. The area was one of several near Damascus targeted by chemical weapons in 2013. The West blamed the regime for the attack which used sarin gas. Damascus denied any role.

The local agreement for the area resulted in hundreds of rebel fighters and their families being evacuated to Idlib. Others, like Abu Mohammed, decided to remain behind and turn in their weapons.

As part of the agreement, the Syrian state flag was raised again over regime buildings in Moadamiya. Restrictions on movement in and out of the area – which is still surrounded by regime forces – were eased.

There is no longer any armed presence inside the town, even from the regime side, according to several residents and former opposition activists contacted by Reuters.

Yet the second former rebel contacted by Reuters by phone said he and around 100 others there had gone into hiding, fearing enlistment to a front line where he might be killed.

“The defectors are now stuck in Moadamiya, they won’t leave,” said the former rebel, who defected to the rebellion in 2012 during his military service and who refused to give his name for fear of discovery.

He said he was recently summoned to a meeting where defectors were threatened with arrest if they did not show up for duty. “Some of them joined up, others didn’t,” he said.

“I thought of leaving, but my financial situation is very bad,” he said, adding that he would need to pay people smugglers $2,600 to get out Syria.

“I can’t think of anything now. I have nothing to think about, I have no dreams or a future.”

Abu Mohammed said he was smuggled out to Turkey with the help of friends in rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria. He said he had sold his house in Moadamiya to finance his passage.

A 50-year-old man whose two eldest sons face conscription said in a separate telephone interview that they needed “psychological preparation” if they were to return to the regime forces.

“For a young man who not that long ago was fighting the regime, after six years of war – if you now make him join the side he was fighting against, this is a problem,” said the man, who gave his name as Mahmoud.

Besieged Syria Town Swaps Meat for Mushrooms

Douma

In a humid room in the besieged Syrian town of Douma, Abu Nabil inspects the pearly white mushrooms sprouting from white sacks hanging from a ceiling.

The oyster mushrooms poking out from holes in the bags are now a substitute for meat in the rebel stronghold, where a regime blockade has created food shortages, said an Agence France Presse report.

Abu Nabil walks between the sacks inspecting the clusters of mushrooms emerging from the plastic and checking the internal temperature to ensure conditions are optimal for the unusual crop.

Mushrooms are not a common crop in Syria, and rarely feature in local cuisine.

But in the Eastern Ghouta region, a key rebel bastion outside the capital Damascus, years of regime siege have put traditional staples like meat far beyond the reach of ordinary people.

The Adala Foundation, a local NGO, began thinking about ways to help residents in need of nutritious alternatives.

“We turned to cultivating mushrooms because they’re a food that has high nutritional value, similar to meat, and can be grown inside houses and basements,” said Abu Nabil, an engineer who is project director.

“We were looking for a good source of proteins and mineral salts as an alternative to meat, which is very expensive,” added Adala’s director Muayad Mohieddin.

“We discovered the idea of mushrooms as a solution.”

Eastern Ghouta has been under siege since 2013, leaving locals to rely on food produced locally or smuggled in through tunnels or across checkpoints.

While the area was once an important agricultural region for Syria, mushrooms were not a local crop.

“This type of cultivation was totally unknown in Ghouta before the war,” said Mohieddin.

“We learned about it by searching on the internet for places in similar (wartime) situations to Eastern Ghouta,” he added.

The NGO discovered mushroom farming required neither large amounts of space, nor major financial investment, making it a good fit for their needs.

To cultivate the mushrooms, the project’s workers begin by sandwiching thin slices of high-quality mushroom between pieces of carton and placing the samples in sterile plastic containers.

Over the course of 15-25 days, the mushroom slivers begin to process fungus that is then removed and mixed with sterilized barley grains to create “seeds”.

Next, straw that has been boiled until sterile and then drained is placed on a table and sprayed with gypsum to prepare it for the “seeds.”

Finally, the straw is packed into the sacks, with the mushroom starters sprinkled at intervals on top of the straw as it is layered in.

The bags are transferred to a room known as an incubator where they are suspended from the ceiling for between 25 to 45 days, and each produces between four and five mushroom harvests before being replaced.

The project relies on generators to keep conditions steady at 25 degrees centigrade and 80 percent humidity, reported AFP.

But with fuel also in short supply and expensive, the generators are fed with a locally produced fuel that is extracted from plastic.

In the three months since the project began, the NGO has distributed mushrooms across Douma and other parts of Eastern Ghouta free of charge.

“We distribute nearly 1,300 kilograms of mushrooms a week to 600 people,” said Abu Nabil.

“The distribution is free for the poorest families, and for those suffering malnutrition or spinal cord injuries that need lots of nutrients,” he added.

It’s a major boon for people like Um Mohammed, a mother-of-four, who can only dream of affording meat at prices of around $10 a kilogram.

“If you’re able to get mushrooms, it’s a huge blessing,” the 50-year-old said.

“It’s as though you’re eating a dish of fish or chicken or meat,” she added, preparing a dish in her sparsely furnished home, wearing a black robe and headscarf.

Abu Adnan al-Sidawi, 30, had never even tasted mushrooms before he received them through the project.

“I received a bowl of mushrooms three or four weeks ago,” said Sidawi, who suffered multiple fractures in his leg and back in an air strike in April.

“I didn’t know what they were and I’d never eaten them before. I learned how to cook them from the internet,” he said.

“On the first day, I fried them up with some onions, and on the second day I cooked them in a yogurt sauce,” he said, lying on a bed in his house.

“Mushrooms are delicious cooked and we liked them in the yogurt sauce,” he said with a smile.

Like many adults in Douma, the city’s children were also unfamiliar with the ingredient.

At one psycho-social center, the children saw mushrooms for the first time when they were distributed during the fasting month of Ramadan, an employee said.

“I organized a small workshop to teach them about it and how it is cooked,” said the employee, who asked to be identified as Rasha.

“When I showed it to them, they said to me: ‘Miss, what is that? A flower?'”

ISIS: A ‘Caliphate’ that Dies, but an Organization that Lives

ISIS

Rabat – The successive defeats of ISIS reveal a clear discrepancy between western researchers and specialists about the future of the terrorist organization and the nature of its internal changes after the possible death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and loss of its capital in Iraq.

Senior Research Fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research Francois Burgat said that the heavy defeat of ISIS in Mosul does not mean the end of the group, because the political reasons that produced it still remain.

In fact, there are three main factors that allow ISIS to continue to exist and renew itself. The first lies in the phenomenon of colonialism and new colonialism in the Middle East. This impact of this phenomenon on the Arab social geography in the Middle East has produced a mixture of political Islam and terrorist movements.

On this note, Burgat said that the roots of ISIS can be traced to the nature of international politics in the region, as well as local factors. He said that the roots go back as far as 1999 when Jordanian authorities released Abou Musab al-Zarqawi from jail. The world soon found itself faced by this man’s ardor and the strategic errors of former US President George W. Bush and Barack Obama that led to the rise of the black ISIS flags across vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, noted Burgat.

Based on this, he stressed that all theories on the formation of extremist movement that ignore the ties of hegemony between north and south are ineffective. He explained that these theories only focus on the instigators of violence without pausing on the circumstances that produced extremism.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute echoed these stances, remarking in an article in The Atlantic in September 2016: “To understand the Middle East’s seemingly intractable conflicts, we need to go back to at least 1924, the year the last caliphate was formally abolished.”

The second factor, said Burgat, is a phenomenon that goes beyond religious intolerance, but is at the same time a product of a political crisis. This is embodied in the “Syrian predicament.” He explained that the regime of Bashar Assad is the main reason that has led to the establishment of the ISIS plague.

“The rise of ISIS has been without a doubt one of the strategic goals of the regime. Its birth in this way was clearly facilitated through its various agencies. There is no doubt that since the early days of the crisis, Bashar Assad did all he could so that this scarecrow could play its role in the fastest and most attention-grabbing way to influence the international public,” he added.

The third factor for ISIS’ continued existence is religious intolerance, which is the product of the first two factors. Burgat said that the terror group’s religious rhetoric is only a factor that furthered intolerance.

ISIS persists in Iraq

Based on the above, the current political crisis raging in Iraq and Syria justifies ISIS’ control of some regions that it considers to be part of its alleged state despite the bitter defeat that it faced in the capital of its alleged caliphate. The group is still present in Iraq’s Dajla, Euphrates, Kirkouk and al-Jazeera provinces. ISIS actually only controls Talaafar in al-Jazeera where it is besieged by the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces.

Given the situation on the ground, the group is suffering from internal organizational problems that have led it to declare Talaafar independent from its “caliphate.” This in turn led to internal fighting between the group that left four of its members dead on July 14.

Why do the terrorists persist?

French political scientist Olivier Roy attributed the persistence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria not to the “Islamization of intolerance,” but to the fact that terrorism and terrorism groups are phenomena that are created by political crises. Burgat meanwhile stressed that it was impossible to separate the internal roots of organizations from the foreign policy of western powers in the Middle East.

He noted that terror groups create new mechanisms to adapt to their internal changes and they also change up the ways to confront the western “colonial” powers. The latest movements of ISIS reveal that it is aware of the severity of the defeats that it has suffered in the latest battles. It has also tried to “overcome” the difficulties it is facing in Iraq through establishing a new center for itself in the city of al-Mayadeen in Syria’s Deir al-Zour.

In Syria’s Raqqa, ISIS is still withstanding the assault against it and it preparing for the upcoming Talaafar battle that will pit it against Iraqi forces, the international coalition and Popular Mobilization Forces.

Generally, terror experts and specialists agree that the international battle against ISIS is gradually achieving its goals in destroying the terrorist group’s myth and ability to hold ground that it has seized. The successive defeats, said American terrorism expert Aaron Y. Zelin, will not lead to ISIS’ defeat. It will continue to pose a terror threat, but it will no longer have the excuses that the extremists use to continue in justifying the continuity of their alleged state, even if this state is a diminished version of what it used to be.

Burgat meanwhile said that the Mosul battle saw the world offer the keys of a destroyed Sunni city to Shi’ite or Kurdish militias. This has thereby postponed the problems that the international community has failed to resolve. This phenomenon will continue in Iraq, Syria and other similar countries, as long as solid political institutions capable of defeating the deep causes of extremism are not built.

Political failure has made ISIS one of the main characteristics of the general political crisis that Iraq has been suffering from since 2003 and Syria since 2011. The ongoing ineffectiveness of the political institutions of these two countries in overcoming violent sectarianism and ensuring the political participation of all parties in the democratic process has made the chances of defeating terrorism close to nil, warned Burgat.

*Khalid Yamout is a visiting political science professor at Morocco’s Mohammed V University

Iran Gains Ground in Afghanistan as US Presence Wanes

An Afghan police officer at his unit’s outpost overlooking the districts north of Farah, the capital of the province that goes by the same name. In October, the Taliban overran posts like this one in a siege. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Afghanistan-The New York Times recently published a report by Carlota Gall revealing extensive details on how the relationship between the ruling authorities of Iran and the Afghan Taliban evolved.

Gall explains how fervent hostility between the mullah regime in Tehran and the hard-line fundamentalist movement was transformed by US intervention in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks turning it into cooperation at the levels of training, finance and armament.

It shows how the Afghanistan scenario resembles what happened in Iraq after 2003, when Tehran did not oppose the US invasion but sought to drain and blackmail US forces as soon as Washington achieved its goal by overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime and handing over power to pro-Iran forces.

A police officer guarding the outskirts of this city remembers the call from his commander, warning that hundreds of Taliban fighters were headed his way.

“Within half an hour, they attacked,” recalled Officer Najibullah Amiri, 35. The Taliban swarmed the farmlands surrounding his post and seized the western riverbank here in Farah, the capital of the province by the same name.

It was the start of a three-week siege in October, and only after American air support was called in to end it and the smoke cleared did Afghan security officials realize who was behind the lightning strike: Iran.

Four senior Iranian commandos were among the scores of dead, Afghan intelligence officials said, noting their funerals in Iran. Many of the Taliban dead and wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the insurgents had been recruited and trained, village elders told Afghan provincial officials.

The assault, coordinated with attacks on several other cities, was part of the Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power. But it was also a piece of an accelerating Iranian campaign to step into a vacuum left by departing American forces — Iran’s biggest push into Afghanistan in decades.

There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are showing up. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor.

Over the past decade and a half, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence.

In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.

One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized, without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of more than 500 miles.

But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort.

“Iran does not want stability here,” Naser Herati, one of the police officers guarding the post outside Farah, said angrily. “People here hate the Iranian flag. They would burn it.”

Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.

“The regional politics have changed,” said Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a senior intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah Province. “The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.”

Iran and the Taliban — longtime rivals, one Shiite and the other Sunni — would seem to be unlikely bedfellows.

Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban when their militias notoriously killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian government journalist in fighting in 1998.

After that, Iran supported the anti-Taliban opposition — and it initially cooperated with the American intervention in Afghanistan that drove the Taliban from power.

But as the NATO mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began supporting the Taliban to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the cost of the intervention so that they would leave.

Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State, which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.

In the empty marble halls of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, the ambassador, denied that Iran was supporting the Taliban, and emphasized the more than $400 million Iran has invested to help Afghanistan access ports on the Persian Gulf.

“We are responsible,” he said in an interview last year. “A strong accountable government in Afghanistan has more advantages for strengthening our relations than anything.”

But Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps act as complementary arms of policy — the first openly sowing economic and cultural influence, and the second aggressively exerting subversive force behind the scenes.

Iran has sent squads of assassins, secretly nurtured spies and infiltrated police ranks and government departments, especially in western provinces, Afghan officials say.

Even NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan at the time, Gen. Sir David Richards of Britain, discovered that Iran had recruited his interpreter, Cpl. Daniel James, a British-Iranian citizen. Corporal James was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending coded messages to the Iranian military attaché in Kabul during a tour of duty in 2006.

More recently, Iran has moved so aggressively in bulking up the Taliban insurgency that American forces rushed to Farah Province a second time in January to stave off a Taliban attack.

“The Iranian game is very complicated,” said Javed Kohistani, a military analyst based in Kabul.

Having American forces fight long and costly wars that unseated Iran’s primary enemies has served Tehran’s interests just fine. But by now, the Americans and their allies have outlasted their usefulness, and Iran is pursuing a strategy of death by a thousand cuts “to drain them and cost them a lot.”

An Ambitious Expansion

The depth of Iran’s ties to the Taliban burst unexpectedly into view last year. An American drone struck a taxi on a desert road in southwestern Pakistan, killing the driver and his single customer.

The passenger was none other than the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A wanted terrorist with an American bounty on his head who had been on the United Nations sanctions list since before 2001, Mullah Mansour was traveling without guards or weapons, confident and quite at home in Pakistan.

The strike exposed for the second time since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad the level of Pakistan’s complicity with wanted terrorists. It was the first time the United States had conducted a drone attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, a longtime sanctuary for the Taliban but until then off limits for American drones because of Pakistani protests.

Yet even more momentous was that Mullah Mansour was returning from a trip to Iran, where he had been meeting Iranian security officials and, through Iran, with Russian officials.

Afghan officials, Western diplomats and security analysts, and a former Taliban commander familiar with Mullah Mansour’s inner circle confirmed details of the meetings.

Both Russia and Iran have acknowledged that they have held meetings with the Taliban but maintain that they are only for information purposes.

That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement.

But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013.

Set on expanding the Taliban’s sway in Afghanistan, he was also preparing to negotiate an end to the war, playing all sides on his terms, according to both Afghan officials with close knowledge of the Taliban and the former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.

It was that ambitious expansionism that probably got him killed, they said.

“Mansour was a shrewd politician and businessman and had a broader ambition to widen his appeal to other countries,” said Timor Sharan, a former senior analyst of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has since joined the Afghan government.

Mullah Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban government in the 1990s, according to Mr. Kohistani, the military analyst. Their interests, he and other analysts and Afghan officials say, overlapped in opium. Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of the drug, and Iran the main conduit to get it out.

Iran’s border guards have long fought drug traffickers crossing from Afghanistan, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban have both benefited from the illicit trade, exacting dues from traffickers.

The main purpose of Mullah Mansour’s trips to Iran was tactical coordination, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At the time, in 2016, the Taliban were gearing up for offensives across eight Afghan provinces. Farah was seen as particularly ripe fruit.

Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.

Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.

“He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept their orders,” he said.

Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran, said Haji Agha Lalai, a presidential adviser and the deputy governor of Kandahar Province.

On his last visit, Mullah Mansour traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to meet someone very important — possibly Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the former Taliban commander, who said he had gleaned the information from members of Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.

Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in the town of Zahedan, said Mr. Lalai, who spoke with relatives of the Taliban leader.

He was almost certainly negotiating an escalation in Iranian and Russian assistance before his death, Mr. Lalai and other Afghan officials said, pointing to the increase in Iranian support for the Taliban during his leadership and since.

But the meeting with the Russians was apparently a step too far, Afghan officials say. His relations with Iran and Russia had expanded to the point that they threatened Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.

The United States had been aware of Mullah Mansour’s movements, including his ventures into Iran, for some time before the strike and had been sharing information with Pakistan, said Seth G. Jones, associate director at the RAND Corporation. Pakistan had also provided helpful information, he added. “They were partly supportive of targeting Mansour.”

Gen. John Nicholson, the United States commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said President Barack Obama had approved the strike after Mullah Mansour failed to join peace talks being organized in Pakistan.

Col. Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London, said he believed that the American military had been making a point by striking Mullah Mansour on his return from Iran.

“When they target people like this, they follow them for months,” he said. “It was smart to do it to cast suspicions on Iran. They were trying to create a gap between Iran and the Taliban.”

But if that was the intention, Mr. Lalai said, it has not succeeded, judging by the way the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has picked up his predecessor’s work.

“I don’t think the contact is broken,” he said. “Haibatullah is still reaching out to Iran. They are desperately looking for more money if they want to extend the fight.”

Intrigue in ‘Little Iran’

There is no place in Afghanistan where Iran’s influence is more deeply felt than the western city of Herat, nearly in sight of the Iranian border.

Two million Afghans took refuge in Iran during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Three million live and work in Iran today. Herat, sometimes called “Little Iran,” is their main gateway between the countries.

People in Herat speak with Iranian accents. Iranian schools, colleges and bookshops line the streets. Women wear the head-to-foot black chador favored in Iran. Shops are full of Iranian sweets and produce.

But even as the city is one of Afghanistan’s most decorous and peaceful, an air of intrigue infuses Herat.

The city is filled with Iranian spies, secret agents and hit squads, local officials say, and it has been plagued by multiple assassinations and kidnappings in recent years. The police say Iran is funding militant groups and criminal gangs. A former mayor says it is sponsoring terrorism.

Iran is constantly working in the shadows. The goal, Afghan officials say, is to stoke and tip local power struggles in its favor, whether through bribery, infiltration or violence.

One day in January, Herat’s counterterrorism police deployed undercover officers to stake out the house of one of their own men. Two strangers on a motorbike seemed to be spying on the house, so secret agents were sent out to spy on the spies.

Within hours, the police had detained the men and blown their cover: They were Iranian assassins, according to the Afghans. The passenger was armed with two pistols.

Forensics tests later found that one of the guns had been used in the murder of an Iranian citizen in Herat 10 months earlier, police officials said.

The two Iranians are still in Afghan custody and have yet to be charged. They have become a source of contention between Iran and Afghanistan.

Iran disowned them, pointing to their Afghan identity cards, but Afghan officials paraded them on television, saying they were carrying false papers and had admitted to being sent by Iran as a hit squad.

The Afghan police say they have arrested 2,000 people in counterterrorism operations in Herat over the last three years. Many of them, they say, are armed insurgents and criminals who reside with their families in Iran and enter Afghanistan to conduct dozens of attacks on police or government officials.

Iran is set on undermining the Afghan government and its security forces, and the entire United States mission, and maintaining leverage over Afghanistan by making it weak and dependent, Afghan officials say.

“We caught a terrorist who killed five people with an I.E.D.,” a senior police officer said, referring to a roadside bomb. “We released a boy who was kidnapped. We defused an I.E.D. in the city.”

Flicking through photographs on his phone, he pointed to one of a man in a mauve shirt. “He was convicted of kidnapping five people.” Much of the kidnapping is criminal, for ransom, but at least some of it is politically motivated, he added.

The 33-year-old, English-speaking Farhad Niayesh, a former mayor of Herat, is even more blunt, and exasperated. He says the Iranians use their consulate in the city as a base for propaganda and “devising terrorist activities.”

“Iran has an important role in terrorist attacks in Herat,” Mr. Niayesh said. “Three or four Iranians were captured. They had a plan against government officials who were not working in their interest.”

Members of Parliament and security officials say Iran bribes local and central government officials to work for it, offering them 10 to 15 Iranian visas per week to give to friends and associates. Afghans visit to conduct business, receive medical care and see family.

The Afghan police have uncovered cases of even deeper infiltration, too. A female member of the Afghan police service was sentenced to death, accused of being a secret Iranian agent, after fatally shooting an American trainer in the Kabul Police Headquarters in 2012.

“Our western neighbor is working very seriously,” said the senior Afghan police official in Herat who requested anonymity because of the nature of his work. “ We have even found heavy artillery to be used against the city.”

Iran is supporting multiple anti-government militant groups in half a dozen western provinces, he said. The Afghan police, despite a lack of resources, are working to dismantle them.

“The same sort of people are still in the city,” he added. “They are doing their work, and we are doing our work.”

Peace or Proxy War

The death of Mullah Mansour removed Iran’s crucial link to the Taliban. But it has also fractured the Taliban, spurring a number of high-level defections and opening opportunities for others, including Iran, to meddle.

An overwhelming majority of Taliban blame Pakistan for Mullah Mansour’s death. The strike deepened disillusionment with their longtime Pakistani sponsors.

About two dozen Taliban commanders, among them senior leaders who had been close to Mullah Mansour, have since left their former bases in Pakistan.

They have moved quietly into southern Afghanistan, settling back in their home villages, under protection of local Afghan security officials who hope to encourage a larger shift by insurgents to reconcile with the government.

Those with family still in Pakistan live under close surveillance and control by Pakistani intelligence, said the former Taliban commander, who recently abandoned the fight and moved his family into Afghanistan to escape reprisals.

He said he had become increasingly disaffected by Pakistan’s highhanded direction of the war. “We all know this is Pakistan’s war, not Afghanistan’s war,” he said. “Pakistan never wanted Afghanistan to be at peace.”

The question now: Does Iran?

Citing the threat from ISIS as an excuse, Iran may choose, with Russian help, to deepen a proxy war in Afghanistan that could undermine an already struggling unity government.

Or it could encourage peace, as it did in the first years after 2001, for the sake of stability on at least one of its borders, prospering with Afghanistan.

For now, Iran and Russia have found common cause similar to their partnership in Syria, senior Afghan officials and others warn.

Emboldened by their experience in Syria, they seem to be building on their partnership to hurt America in Afghanistan, cautioned the political analyst Mr. Sharan.

As American forces draw down in Afghanistan, jockeying for influence over the Taliban is only intensifying.

“Pakistan is helping the Taliban straightforwardly,” said Mr. Jehan, the former Afghan intelligence official who is now governor of Farah. “Russia and Iran are indirectly helping the Taliban. We might come to the point that they interfere overtly.

“I think we should not give them this chance,” he added. “Otherwise, Afghanistan will be given up to the open rivalry of these countries.”

Some officials are optimistic that Iran is not an enemy of Afghanistan, but the outlook is mixed.

“There is a good level of understanding,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s chief executive, said of relations with Iran.

“What we hear is that contacts with the Taliban are to encourage them to pursue peace rather than military activities,” he said.

Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the governor of Herat, warned that if Farah had fallen to the Taliban, the entire western region would have been laid open for the insurgents.

Iran’s meddling has now grown to the extent that it puts the whole country at risk of a Taliban takeover, not just his province, he said.

But it could have been prevented, in the view of Mr. Sharan.

“The fact is that America created this void,” he said. “This vacuum encouraged countries to get involved. The Syria issue gave confidence to Iran and Russia, and now that confidence is playing out in Afghanistan.”

(The New York Times)

Solace of Orphaned Children of Defeated Libya Extremists

Libya

Traumatized by war, their extremist parents either killed or missing, 28 children have found solace in each other at a Red Crescent center in Libya’s third city Misrata, said an Agence France Presse report on Friday.

Whether they’re jumping up and down on mattresses or playing in the yard, the boys and girls stick together, like siblings, the older ones looking out for the little ones.

Last December, fighters loyal to Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord, many of them from Misrata, prised the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte out of the grasp of the ISIS terrorist group after several months of battle.

Children of the defeated extremists were left in a state of physical and psychological trauma, Red Crescent spokesman Ali al-Ghwell told AFP during a tour of their camp in Misrata, half-way between Sirte and the capital Tripoli.

They had survived months of food, water and medical shortages on top of constant bombardment that had left them jumpy at the slightest noise.

Some emerged with injuries to the head, stomach or limbs.

Mohamed, a slight boy of five, had to have his right arm amputated, compounding the misery and his sense of isolation and disorientation.

Ali Mohamed Ahmad, a Red Crescent volunteer, recalls how he had to win over the boy with patience and attention before a smile finally returned to his face.

“I tried all the time to communicate and play with him for him to learn to have confidence in me,” said the volunteer in his early 20s.

Now, seven months on from the rescue of 52 children aged between five days and nine years from the ruins of Sirte, Mohamed was seen running and shouting with his new extended “family” before throwing himself into Mohamed’s arms.

Those with at least one Libyan parent have been handed over to family members living in the country. For children of foreign extremists, the situation is more complicated.

In June, eight Sudanese children, including a one-year-old baby, were repatriated to Khartoum.

Tunisia and Egypt have so far failed to respond to Libyan Red Crescent requests for assistance with around 15 children of their citizens left without guardians.

“I hope they’ll be able to go back to their countries one day and reunite with family members,” said Ahmad, the volunteer.

Until that time, the Red Crescent says it is doing its best to provide the children with an oasis of calm and stability, away from the chaos of Libya where rival authorities and a myriad of militias vie for dominance.

It provides the extremists’ offspring with professional medical and psychological care. And “we’re doing our best to find a prosthetic arm for Mohamed”, said his carer Ghwell.

Four Countries later, One Syrian Refugee Achieves Dream of Becoming a Doctor

Brimo

Ten years, four countries, four medical schools and 21 houses later Tirej Brimo, a refugee who fled the Syrian war, is finally a doctor, said a Reuters report on Friday.

Having been just 10 months away from graduating with a medical degree at a university in Aleppo, Brimo was forced to flee his homeland in 2012 due to the war, crisscrossing the Middle East before arriving in Britain in 2013.

Last week, he graduated from St. George’s University of London – after having been turned away by several medical schools – and is now embarking on his career as a junior doctor in the National Health Service in the north of England.

Brimo expressed his joy with a Facebook post that he said went viral, being shared over a thousand times.

“War can take everything from you except your passions and your love and for me to not give up on my dream and on who I am – I simply rejected the unfairness of life,” Brimo, 27, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As a refugee he said he knows what it is like to lose everything and understands the value of compassion – a key attribute of a doctor.

Brimo hopes to “serve humanity” wherever that may be.

“I feel attached to both Syria and the UK. Syria is the sorrow that breaks my heart every single day, the UK is the place that loved me, welcomed me and believed in me – I can’t wait to start contributing to the community,” he said.

Working as a phlebotomist to support his studies, Brimo said language was the biggest hurdle initially, as he had to shift from studying in Arabic to English.

“When my friends did an hour of work I used to do two, to make up for the language challenge,” he said.

“I love the English language!”

Brimo won praise from London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

“Congratulations to Syrian refugee Dr. Tirej Brimo. Londoners are proud you’ve graduated as a doctor here in our city,” Khan tweeted.

Brimo hopes other refugees can be afforded similar opportunities and support.

“Someone once told me, life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, life is about learning how to dance in the rain. I know how difficult it is to go through wars. My message would be, don’t give up on yourself don’t give up on your dream … one day you will get there.”

Tareck El Aissami… Venezuela’s Next President?

Aissami

London – Perhaps “state of doubt” could be the term that most accurately describes the current situation in Venezuela, this Latin American country that used to be one of the richest in the world due to is massive oil reserves. Now, the country is suffering from a major economic and political crisis, whose outcome is difficult to predict.

Up until 1999, Venezuela had been ruled by the right and centrist wings, but that year, the system was toppled by late leader Hugo Chavez, who brought about a new “21st century socialism.” The system was kept in place by his successor Nicolas Maduro, who is now facing one of the worst economic and social crises in the modern history of South America.

Many have turned to the Venezuelan president’s second in command, Tareck El Aissami.

Many see the Syrian native as Maduro’s potential successor, describing him as the strong “man in the shadows”, who has found himself in the spotlight.

Socialist Maduro is facing daily opposition protests by the citizens against his government. The leader has however sought to escape his current problems with the formation earlier this week of the Constituent Assembly that has the power to rewrite the constitution. Clearly, Maduro is seeking to weaken the opposition-controlled parliament through the formation of this assembly. The parliament is controlled by the liberal right opposition that is backed by some neighboring countries, and more importantly, the United States and European Union.

The outlook for Venezuela seems complicated as the economic crisis has led to a major shortage in food and medicine and amid a political crisis that observers believe will take a long time to be resolved. At a time when the leftist government is keen to tighten its grip on power, it seems that negotiations between it and the opposition will not be possible at this moment given the rising death toll in the protests that have raged for months. The opposition itself seems divided over a number of issues, but they are united over their desire to overthrow Maduro.

Options for change

Despite all this, many observers believe that the options for change in Venezuela lie either through a real negotiation process that would lead to a middle ground that appeases the government or opposition. This could take the form of the establishment of a transitional government or an overhaul of the cabinet and system of governance.

The armed forces, however, are a central component of any possible change in the country, noted experts. Chavez, who led the 1999 socialist revolt, was an army officer. Today, many active and retired officers hold government positions.

Vice President and Interior Minister Aissami is one of the non-military “graduates of the Chavez school”, who can replace Maduro.

As commander of the defense and security council of Venezuela, Aissami is responsible for national defense and the strategy of maintaining internal security in the face of protests and disturbances. He is in fact the second man in the pyramid of power in the South American country.

Despite this, analysts and researchers in the US and Colombia, Venezuela’s “right-wing” neighbor, have not ceased their campaign of accusing him of all sorts of charges, ranging from money-laundering to corruption to supporting terrorism. These are all claims that Aissami has denied and which he considers to be an integral part of the political war that Washington is waging against the leftist system in Caracas.

Profile

Tareck Zeidan El Aissami was born on November 12, 1974 in El Vigía, Mérida in western Venezuela. He is the son of a Druze immigrant family that came from Syria’s Sweida region. He was born to Zeidan “Carlos” Amin El Aissami and a mother from the Lebanese Maddah family. He grew up among five children, is now married and has two children of his own.

During his youth, Aissami became a member of the local Arab Baath socialist party in Venezuela. He was a supporter of Chavez during his failed coup in February 1992.

He is also a direct blood relative of Shibli Aissami, general aide of the popular command of the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party.

The Aissami family originally hails from the town of Amtan in the southern Syrian district of Sweida and the town of Hasbaya in southeast Lebanon. Aissam is the name of a small village that lies on the eastern foothills of Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) in western Syria.

His mother’s Maddah family hails from the town of Maymas in Hasbaya in southeast Lebanon.

Radical student activity

Tareck El Aissami attended the University of the Andes (ULA) in Mérida where he studied law and criminology. While still a student, he met Adan Chavez, former minister of education (from 2007-2008) and the older brother of the future President Hugo Chavez. Influenced by the older Chavez, he soon became close to him and became active in leftist student groups that are inspired by revolutionary movements. Aissami soon joined the Utopia leftist student movement and eventually was elected head of the university’s student union.

A few days after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tareck and his father Zeidan attended a press conference by the Iraqi ambassador to Venezuela to voice their solidarity with the Iraqi people. That year marked the beginning of Tareck El Aissami’s relationship with Hugo Chavez. During his post graduate studies, Aissami, began supporting Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement. He continued to bolster his ties with Chavez following his graduation and many of the friends he made during his university years went on to assume government positions under the late leader’s rule.

Aissami kicked off his rapid political rise after the success of Chavez’s 1999 and 2013 “revolt”. He was elected to parliament in 2005 and in 2007 was appointed deputy interior minister for citizen security.

His major political leap however took place in 2008 when Chavez appointed him interior and defense minister. He retained these two portfolios even after being elected governor of the state of Aragua in 2012.

After Chavez’s death and Maduro’s ascension to power in 2013, Aissami remained a key figure in political life and he was chosen as vice president in January 2017.

A Colombian academic pointed out that the constitution does not grant the president of Venezuela power over security agencies. Aissami is in fact the real head of national security and defense through his command of the defense and security council.

Accusations and denial

Along with his rise in the political ranks, western intelligence, political and economic circles were attempting to charge Aissami with all sorts of accusations. Director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and security and terrorism expert Joseph Humire accused Aissami and First Lady Cilia Flores of running a major criminal organization in the Venezuelan government.

Aissami’s appointment as vice president was considered “very controversial” on the local and international scenes due to his alleged connections to drug trafficking and terrorism, said Humire. Aissami’s role in drug trafficking came to the forefront in 2010 after the arrest of Walid Maklad, a major drug trafficker. The Venezuelan of Syrian origins was arrested in Colombia.

Maklad alleged at the time that the Venezuelan government also had ties with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), organized crime and drugs smuggling operations.