How Assad MP struck business deal with Daesh
RAQQA/DUBAI: While Syrian President Bashar Assad was accusing the West of turning a blind eye to Daesh smuggling, a member of his Parliament was quietly doing business with the group, farmers and administrators in the militants’ former stronghold said.
The arrangement helped the Syrian regime to feed areas still under its control after Daesh took over the northeastern wheatgrowing region during the six-year-old civil war, they said.
Traders working for businessman and lawmaker Hossam Al-Katerji bought wheat from farmers in Daesh areas and transported it to Damascus, allowing the group to take a cut, five farmers and two administrators in Raqqa province told Reuters.
Al-Katerji’s office manager, Mohammed Kassab, confirmed that Al-Katerji Group was providing Syrian regime territories with wheat from the northeast of Syria through Daesh territory but denied any contact with Daesh. It is not clear how much Assad knew of the wheat trading.
Cooperation over wheat between Daesh and a figure from Syria’s establishment, which is backed by Iran, would mark a new ironic twist in a war that has deepened regional Sunni-Shiite divisions.
Reuters contacted Al-Katerji’s office six times to request comment but was not given access to him.
His office manager Kassab, asked how the company managed to buy and transport the wheat without any contact with Daesh, said: “It was not easy, the situation was very difficult.” When asked for details he said only that it was a long explanation. He did not return further calls or messages.
Damascus, under US and EU sanctions over the conflict and alleged oil trading with Daesh, strongly denies any business links with the hard-line militants, arguing that the US is responsible for their rise to power.
The self-declared caliphate they set up across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 has all but collapsed after Western-backed forces drove them out of their Iraqi stronghold, Mosul and surrounded them in Raqqa, where they are now confined to a small area. Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces are attacking them elsewhere, such as Deir Ezzor on Syria’s eastern border, where Kassab says he was speaking from, in a continuing struggle for the upper hand between world powers.
Five farmers in Raqqa described how they sold wheat to Al-Katerji’s traders during Daesh rule in interviews at the building housing the Raqqa Civil Council, formed to take over once the city is retaken.
“The operation was organized,” said Mahmoud Al-Hadi, who owns agricultural land near Raqqa and who, like the other farmers, had come to the council’s cement offices to seek help.
“I would sell to small traders who sent the wheat to big traders who sent it on to Al-Katerji and the regime through two or three traders,” he said.
He and the other farmers said they all had to pay Daesh a 10 percent tax, or zakat, and sold all of their season’s supplies to Al-Katerji’s traders under the multi-layered scheme.
Local officials said Al-Katerji’s traders bought up wheat from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and gave Daesh 20 percent.