Attempts to cover up corruption: Syrian regime looks for monetary savings
Hassan Ibrahim | Muhammed Fansa
The past weeks have witnessed a peak in the regime’s decisions regarding the dismissal of third-or-fourth-level officials and arrests or prosecution procedures that appear to be to combat corruption in a country that is in last place on the list of least corrupt countries.
Some of the measures were not officially announced and remained trapped in leaks by knowledgeable people; pictures circulated as accountability decisions, and recordings of people who held positions being taken behind bars, such as the arrest of Ibrahim Khader al-Salem, the former governor of Latakia, (Bashar al-Assad’s hometown), in cases of corruption and waste of public money.
These cases appeared on the media front, but they do not restore or patch the extent of corruption that Syria has reached because cases of financial corruption in ministries and institutions of an economic and administrative nature have increased, according to a report released last April by the state-run Central Organization of Financial Control (COFC).
Corruption eats away at the joints of institutions
The percentage of amounts discovered in corruption cases that were required to be recovered amounted to more than 104 billion Syrian pounds ($13.7 million), of which only seven billion Syrian pounds were recovered, according to the COFC report.
The investigation cases were distributed among 20 ministries, and the amounts discovered and requested to be recovered in foreign currencies in these ministries amounted to $1,687,000, in addition to 250,000 euros and 10,000 Chinese yuan. Of the total, only $21,000 were recovered.
Compared to the volume of funds discovered and required to be recovered during the years 2020 and 2021, the volume of funds increased significantly in 2022 in all sectors. During the year 2021, the report of the Central Organization of Financial Control revealed the volume of amounts discovered in corruption cases, and it amounted to 22 billion Syrian pounds, and in 2020 the amount discovered and required to be recovered amounted to 6.7 billion pounds.
Corruption afflicts more than two-thirds of the world’s countries, according to Transparency International’s 2022 report, in which Syria ranked penultimate, as the Syrian regime’s control over the joints of the state led to Syria competing for the last positions in the organizations’ rankings of the most corrupt countries.
Syria ranked last on the list of least corrupt countries, according to the classification of the Global Risk Organization for the year 2023, which specializes in risk management services.
According to the classification issued on November 8, Syria is ranked 196th last among the countries ranked after Yemen, South Sudan, Congo, and North Korea.
On December 9, when it marked the 19th anniversary of the United Nations Convention against Corruption, to highlight the close link between anti-corruption, peace, security, and development, the US Embassy in Syria said that the latter is still classified as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Through its account on the social media platform X, the American Embassy in Syria explained that the economic downturn in Syria is caused by the administration and corruption for which the Syrian regime bears responsibility, indicating that one should not be deceived by the regime’s talk.
“Syria is still ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world (178/180). Do not be fooled by the Assad regime’s assertions. Syria’s economic downturn is mostly due to mismanagement and corruption, for which the regime bears responsibility,” the US Embassy posted on X.
Top Governor arrested
The investigation and imprisonment of the governor of Latakia is a precedent in Syria, and corruption files and those responsible for them are usually covered up, but at the end of last September, the security forces arrested Ibrahim Khader al-Salem from his home in the city of Latakia. He was taken to Latakia Central Prison, al-Bussa, pending investigations into ten allegations.
A footage of al-Salem in court with handcuffs on his hands was circulated or leaked, and Enab Baladi was able to find out the charges against him, most notably money laundering, dealing in currencies other than the Syrian pound, wasting public money, bribery, changing organizational characteristics, permitting building violations, and expropriating state lands.
A source familiar with the progress of the investigations, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that there is great secrecy in the investigation process and that the prosecution file against al-Salem has been kept by the Public Prosecutor in Latakia.
The source added that, in addition to the governor, there are about ten former officials from Latakia who are with him in prison, including the director of real estate departments, Jihad Hatoum, and the former mayors of Latakia, Mohammad Fawaz Hakim and Ahmed Wazzan, Yasser al-Boudi, assistant director of real estate departments, and the businessman and contractor Youssef al-Hajj, a person who previously held the position of Director of Technical Services, and a member of Parliament after his immunity was lifted, without the source mentioning their names.
The biggest charges against the governor concern the Zaytouna suburb, which is considered one of the largest residential projects in Syria.
According to the information obtained by Enab Baladi, the lands of the suburb cannot be sorted due to the presence of old zoning plans and places for schools, in addition to the overlap of heirs in most of the lands of the suburb, and also the presence of public property and gardens, but the detained governor took advantage of his powers and granted the contractor, Youssef al-Haj, all the necessary facilities to initiate the suburb’s construction project about six years ago, which is currently considered one of the most prestigious neighborhoods of Latakia.
Among the files being investigated with al-Salem, according to the source, is his agreement to construct violating buildings in exchange for obtaining a full floor for each violation and changing organizational characteristics as commercial buildings were converted to residential ones to build more homes, even though the land may not be suitable for building several floors above it.
Residents and local news pages doubted that all these corruption files, whether public or hidden, are not a justification for al-Salem’s arrest, as the Zaytouna neighborhood was built without any questions being directed to him, and he is protected by Presidential Advisor Buthaina Shaaban, as he is one of her relatives and is said to be her brother-in-law and her sister’s husband. Enab Baladi was unable to confirm the latest information, while his support from Buthaina Shaaban is not hidden in Latakia.
Escape and staying out of sight
Ammar Ahmed Saqr, former Director of Social Affairs and Labor, has been missing for about 45 days, while information indicates that he is now outside Syria, where he fled to Lebanon after learning of his imminent arrest in connection with corruption cases.
In addition to Saqr’s escape, information obtained by Enab Baladi from an informed source says that a senior manager in the Red Crescent branch in Latakia is still out of sight against the backdrop of corruption and the theft of humanitarian aid that was coming to those affected by the earthquake. The value of the stolen goods is estimated at about 22 tons, which amounts to billions of Syrian pounds.
According to Enab Baladi’s information, Saqr’s file was exposed during the visit of the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, Louay al-Munjid, to Latakia last June, and his meeting with the heads of civil and charitable organizations there, where many files were discussed, including accusations of corruption that were directed at Saqr and several other officials, including a senior director of Syrian Red Crescent.
However, the situation remained calm for the director of affairs, who is supported by his brother, the director of the National Defense in Syria, Fadi Saqr, who is said to have facilitated his brother’s escape to Lebanon.
Ammar Ahmed Saqr has been appointed Director of Social Affairs and Labor since 2020, and before that, he was Director of Tourism in the same governorate.
Engineer Rasha Suleiman was appointed director of affairs in Latakia in mid-November, coinciding with the disappearance of the previous director.
“Poor performance”; Turning a blind eye
Most of the dismissal decisions carried the reason of “poor performance” without clarifying its nature, leaving people out of their positions, with others being renewed, which opens the door to questions about the reasons and effectiveness of these measures.
Unusually, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers published decisions issued by Prime Minister Hussein Arnous to dismiss a number of officials, citing “poor performance” as the reason for the dismissal.
The most recent of these was on December 14, canceling the assignment of Bashar al-Azzawi to the position of General Manager of the Latakia Poultry Facility for the same reason.
Two days earlier, Arnous issued another decision to cancel the assignment of Ali Dassem Abboud to the position of Director General of the General Printing Corporation due to “weak performance.” For the same reason, on November 13, Arnous dismissed Obaida Adeeb Gabriel from the position of Director General of the Syrian Airlines Corporation.
Dr. Karam Shaar, director of the Syrian program at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, told Enab Baladi that the reason for the increase in the pace of exemptions or arrests under the pretext of fighting corruption and seizing funds is the deterioration of the economic situation in Syria, and the regime’s attempt to “look for monetary savings” anywhere possible.
Shaar explained that these arrests or isolation operations are for people who do not have strong ties to the Syrian regime or its government, meaning that they have strong ties to the security services linked to the regime, describing these people as still “untouchable.”
The expert added that there is a state of implicit acceptance by the Syrian regime that any employee in the public sector needs to “steal in order to live,” even if this employee occupies low or high positions as the general director of an institution, or even a minister in the government, as an amount of $20 or $30 a month can’t cover living expenses.
The minimum government salary is 186,000 Syrian pounds. The US dollar is trading at 14,200 SYP according to the S-P Today website, which covers the trading rate of the Syrian pound to the dollar.
Shaar stated that the regime follows a policy of “turning a blind eye” to corruption as long as it is “within reasonable limits,” describing the corruption situation in Syria as “government-induced corruption” because the regime appoints employees with salaries that cannot cover living expenses, pushing people to corruption, and bringing the regime “huge gains.”
This gain will be evident in the future when any political dispute occurs between the regime and a public or private sector employee who is corrupt by evading taxes, for example, and the regime can put him in prison under the pretext of violating the law, according to the economic academic.
This situation has made Syria, over the last four or five years, according to Transparency International, always among the five worst countries and in the penultimate place in the latest classification, which gives the country an image that its government is corrupt to the “bones,” according to Shaar.
Laws and decrees issued by the regime’s president contribute to facilitating cases of corruption, including Electricity Law No. 41 of 2022, which allowed the regime’s inner circle businessmen to engage in electricity production, thus serving as an “entrance to corruption.”
On July 6, the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) issued Resolution No.904/LE, which includes “the characteristics of bank cards issued by banks operating for industrial establishments, and the mechanism for settling transactions executed using these cards on point-of-sale devices distributed in chambers of industry and commerce and gas stations operating by the state-owned the Syrian Petroleum Storage and Distribution Company (Sadcob), and Golden Gate Company, to be used to pay the price of petroleum derivatives sold to industrial facilities.”
According to the decision, the Golden Gate Company has become the only private company that has the right to sell fuel to industrialists and economic operators at profits that are considered good, especially with the periodic decisions to raise fuel prices.
The company’s ownership belongs to the Qaterji family, which is considered one of the newly wealthy people close to the Syrian regime, which allowed the expansion of the family’s influence and the strengthening of its presence in the country’s economy.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Latakia, Linda Ali, contributed to this report.
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