In the summer of 2018, the Syrian real estate broker Ahmad Humam Haidar was receiving wellwishers for Eid al-Adha at his home in Deir Qanoun, a small town in the southwest of Syria. At one point, he slipped US$ 1,000 into the hands of one of his guests as an e’idiya (Eid present). That guest was Munir Abu Kahla, Secretary of the Baath Arab Socialist Party (BASP) in Qudsaya, the city Deir Qanoun is administratively affiliated with.
The little favor served its purpose. Two months later, Abu Kahla duly appointed Haidar’s relative Mahmoud as head of Deir Qanoun, a position Haidar had bribed himself into in 2003 and which he held onto until 2012. Buying positions of power in Syria is nothing new.
In 2011, Syria was ranked 129 on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Ten years later the same index ranked Syria as the world’s 2nd most corrupt, a position it has in fact held since 2017. In states ruled by cronyism, money talks.
What has changed in this “bribes business as usual” is that in an economy crushed by sanctions, where 90 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, people can be bought for much less. In 2003, Haidar paid US $3,000 to become head of his own municipality. Eight years later, he installed Mahmoud for a third of that amount.
“Whoever refuses orders is considered a rebel against the party,” Abu Kahla threatened members of the municipal councils affiliated with Qudsaya in October 2018 while directing them to “elect certain names,” including Haidar’s relative.
By bribing officials of the party and mukhabarat (secret police), Haidar, himself a member of the BASP Central Committee, continued to have numerous relatives appointed to official positions in the Wadi Barada region of the Rifq Dimashq Governorate (Damascus Countryside), where Deir Qanoun is the center of his fiefdom.
In October 2022, Haidar managed to have Mahmoud appointed as a member of the Executive Office of the Damascus Countryside Provincial Council. Another relative, Mutasim Haidar, has become Secretary of the Damascus Countryside Branch of the BASP’s Revolutionary Youth Union, while Khaled Haidar is a member of the Executive Office of the Damascus Governorate Peasants’ Union. Haidar’s brother, previously a member of the Damascus Countryside Provincial Council, has become director of the Educational Guidance Department of the Martyr Mohsen Makhlouf Educational Complex (MMEC).
Over the past 20 years, to maintain his grip on power, Haidar has greased the palms of petty officials like Abu Kahla, who became MMEC director in 2020. Still serving as BASP Division Secretary in Qudsaya, Abu Kahla recently was elected as a member of the Local Council of Damascus Countryside. But, while he and others in Haidar’s pocket dream of becoming members of parliament, Haidar aspires to become prime minister.
In pursuit of his goal, Haidar in September 2017 was seen performing the Eid al-Adha prayer alongside President Bashar al Assad in the Qalamoun area of the Damascus Countryside. However, less than five months later, on January 24, 2018, things turned sour as it appeared Haidar had purchased a fake PhD.
Haidar fled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was sentenced in absentia to 9.5 years in prison for illegally seizing state-owned lands. However, he kept his seat as a member of the BASP Central Committee. In the UAE, he married a woman from the Assad clan, although it is not clear how close she is to the Syrian president.
Having remained in the UAE for three years, Haidar paid USD 500,000 in bribes to overturn the court ruling and return to Syria in good standing. Once back, he continued to buy off officials to gain favor as one of the regime’s favorite business and political figures. Haidar’s grab for power shows how the Syrian regime has endured on a path of dirty politics for over a decade since the popular protests sought to topple it.
US$ 7 Million
Haidar’s quest for clout was never easy or straightforward. Raised as an orphan after his father was killed in a village quarrel, he entered the Faculty of Law in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the shy, unemployed student loitered every morning in front of the family house overlooking the village square with other jobless young men, waiting for a chance to work.
Unemployment had been high in the area since the 1970s, when the regime expropriated much of the farmland for “projects of public benefit,” such as a school or university. However, what was actually built were villas, a five-star hotel and an equestrian complex for nouveau riche party officials.
After Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency in 2000 and announced an opening up of the Syrian economy, Haidar’s prospects improved. He quickly learned how to capitalize on his roots in the Damascus Countryside. In June 2003, he became head of the Deir Qanoun municipal council after paying SYP 150,000 (US$ 3,000) to influential mukhabarat and Baath party members to ensure a win in the local elections.
In the first decade of Bashar’s presidency, a more open national economy attracted both Arab and Syrian expatriate capital. The injection of Gulf money was part of a soft power strategy to acquire regional influence through patronage. Some of that money was pumped into the real estate market.
Property values rose in the Damascus Countryside with the launch of several luxury property projects in 2005, including the UAE-funded Eighth Gate, built near Haidar’s hometown of Deir Qanoun at a cost of US$ 500 million, and the Damascus Hills, which cost some US$ 3.4 billion.
Syrian developers also tried to attract Gulf investment for their projects. In 2005, ground was broken for the Sheikh Zayed Suburb (SZS), an upscale gated community developed by the Baraka Cooperative Society for Housing (BCSH), named after the late Emirati ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The SZS project overlooks Qura al-Assad, a town of luxury villas inhabited by influential regime figures such as Bushra al-Assad, the president’s sister, and Major General Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, head of the BASP National Security Bureau. Attracted by such prestigious neighbors, many of Syria’s wealthiest BASP socialists bought luxury villas in SZS, despite it being built against the law as the Tishreen newspaper reported.
Haidar capitalized on the development. In four years, while being head of the Deir Qanoun municipal council, he pocketed SYP 350 million (US$ 7 million) in bribes for licensing 500 villas in SZS. The other 2,000 villas remain unlicensed. Between 2005 and 2013, BCSH paid some SYP 4 billion (US$ 80 million) in bribes to state officials to build SZS.
Meanwhile, Haidar kept moving closer to the regime’s upper echelons by working his business, BASP and mukhabarat connections in tandem, having each layer serving the other. In March 2010, Haidar was tasked with running Qura al-Assad after its head was sacked on corruption charges. In that position he continued in contracting, construction and brokering real estate deals. He renovated senior officials’ villas, for example, one of which was owned by General Ghassan Bilal, an assistant to Maher al-Assad, President Bashar’s brother and commander of the elite Fourth Armored Division.
In 2011, Haidar received SYP 50 million (US$ 1 million) for brokering the sale of 30 square kilometers in Deir Qanoun at a price of SYP 125 million (US$ 2.5 million) to Ayman Jaber, who is married to President Bashar’s cousin. Haidar handed his share to Bilal as a gift. On the land Jaber built a school he called Al-Nawadir.
When the popular protests broke out in March 2011, Haidar changed his tune. But not for long. During the first six months of the uprising, he stood with many of his fellow villagers on the side of the revolution. Demonstrations took place in Basimah, Ain al-Fijah, Deir Muqrin, Kafir al-Zayt and Deir Qanoun calling for the overthrow of President Bashar’s regime.
The locals’ main grievances with the regime dated back to the 1970s when their lands were expropriated. In the 1990s, the regime also piped the Barada River from its source to the capital without giving the valley’s residents a fair share.
Like the protestors, Haidar wanted the regime to fall but not for the same reasons. He wanted to be freed from the grip of his backers whom he had to pay hush money to keep the files on his corruption a secret – an economy of extortion that ran on routine blackmail.
Haidar used to drive around the valley in his black Range Rover without being bothered. He spent evenings playing cards and smoking hookah in the nearby villages of Al-Hussainiya, Ain al-Fijah and Ain al-Khadra along with protest leaders and, later, leaders of the armed opposition.
However, he quickly recanted these allegiances when a patrol of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate (AFID) arrested him. They found weapons and an illegal Thuraya satellite phone in his car. Haidar bribed his captors to let him make a call. In tears, he pleaded with an influential businessman, who took his case to General Bilal. The latter in turn contacted AFID director Major General Jamil Hassan, one of the most feared regime figures.
Haidar arrived at Bilal’s office with teary eyes, saluted him and sat silently for a few minutes, before Bilal released him. A few days later, Haidar took a gift to General Bilal, thanking him and offering his loyalty. From that day on, Haidar changed his behavior and began holding banquets and parties at the Al-Reem Tourist Complex in Deir Qanoun for the Republican Guard and mukhabarat to strengthen his connections.
With Assad on the Battlefield
As the revolution fragmented into armed factions pitted against one another, the economic situation deteriorated and the real estate market stagnated. Haidar once again put his broker’s expertise at the service of influential regime figures, including prime ministers Adel Safar and Wael Al-Halqi, and Mohammed Saeed Bekheitan, the Assistant Secretary of the BASP Syrian Regional Command, helping them to sell some of their properties, including villas in SZS.
In return, they appointed him to several official positions. He became a member in the Damascus Countryside Provincial Council, director of the Internal Trade Directorate, deputy minister of economy, and chairman of the board of directors of the General Organization for Free Zones. And, finally, Bekheitan in March 2015 appointed Haidar secretary of the BASP Damascus Countryside Branch, making him a member of the BASP’s Central Committee along with the country’s top eighty politicians.
As the armed conflict wore on, the security situation in Deir Qanoun worsened, making it difficult for Haidar to move and imposing new responsibilities on him. Between 2012 and 2017, the army besieged numerous Barada Valley villages. Hundreds of civilians were killed, while the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front assassinated dozens of pro-regime civilians and officials.
For five years Haidar convinced the regime not to target Deir Qanoun. He controlled the entry of food, medicine and fuel supplies. He established groups affiliated with the pro-regime National Defense Forces militia (NDF). By keeping his area stable, he also kept his real estate stake and prevented his hometown from being demolished or occupied by the military as happened elsewhere.
However, Haidar also infiltrated opposition ranks with relatives, some of whom proved equally fickle. For example, in June 2013, Haidar’s relative Adnan, emir of an anti-regime faction part of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement (ASM), executed an opposition fighter without trial. He then defected from the ASM, which condemned the crime. The former emir then formed a group affiliated with the NDF and worked on guarding Haidar until being killed by ISIS in 2015.
During the siege between 2012 and 2017, opposition factions tried to assassinate Haidar. Twice they planted an explosive device on the road leading to his house. They put him on their hit list for “attempts to split the ranks of the revolutionary factions” and “help the regime bombing the valley.” Haidar’s bodyguards thwarted the attempts. As a result, Haidar became more cautious. He did not visit the valley very often and when he did, he was accompanied by dozens of armed volunteers.
Meanwhile, Haidar’s hold on his home turf remained firm. In coordination with the army, Haidar controlled the valley’s main entrance at Ras al-Amud. Here, during the last battle for the valley, which took place between December 23, 2016, and January 29, 2017, regime forces and the Russian military, alongside pro-regime real estate brokers, negotiated with the armed opposition and the local community to hand the Barada Valley over to the army. While the Russians just wanted a solution, Assad’s negotiators wanted the region at any cost.
Their opponent was a tough negotiator, retired Major General Ahmad al-Ghadban, a former commander of the 14th Division Special Forces. According to people who attended the negotiations, Ghadban, who represented the local community, had sought a peaceful solution that would spare the Barada Valley a military incursion. In contrast, Haidar sought “to protect his village and property.”
Haidar hated Ghadban, as the latter had belittled him by calling him “the kid” and refused to sit with him at the negotiation table. On January 14, 2017, Ghadban was killed at the checkpoint at Ras al-Amud right after a negotiating session. Two weeks later, the Syrian army recaptured the Barada Valley after destroying the villages of Bassimeh, Ain al-Fijah and Ain al-Khadra. It then expropriated most lands, bulldozed most homes, and banned residents from returning.
As a regime man, Haidar on the one hand made himself indispensable, while on the other he protected his stake in his home territory. He continued attracting volunteers to join pro-regime militias such as the BASP Brigades and the Fifth Storming Corps. Dressed in military uniform, he spoke to the new fighters about “the greatness” of President Bashar and “love for the homeland,” thus parroting BASP school book catchphrases. Dozens of these fighters would die, their corpses returned to their families as “martyrs.”
Downfall and Escape
Haidar’s downfall ultimately was his desire for legitimacy as a member of the technocrat class, the new generation of experts and consultants, assisting Bashar since the beginning of his reign, both independents and Baathists. His father Hafez had ruled Syria by coordinating local administrators, including tribal and religious leaders, within the Baath Party under the supervision of the mukhabarat.
In contrast, Bashar began to run the country as a corporation, with himself as owner and such figures as his cousin Rami Makhlouf and businessman Mohammad Hamsho as managers of certain branches. To attract investors, the corporation needed technocrats. As a result, the pressure to stand out as a highly-trained, well-educated member of the elite got fiercer.
In 2006, Haidar first tried to buy a university degree from Russia, where he stayed for a while, allegedly, for a medical treatment. But the purchase fell through. Around 2014, Haidar successfully bought a doctorate through a local network. In 2016, he furthermore bribed a (forcibly) displaced man – whom the author will not name for safety reasons – to take the law exams in his place. This is how Haidar managed to graduate from Damascus University the following year.
In 2018, Haidar applied to the Ministry of Higher Education to certify his forged PhD. However, Prime Minister Imad Khamis discovered the case and informed President Bashar. On January 24, 2018, Haidar was sacked from his position as a BASP branch secretary “because he forged a university degree, and for many other reasons.” The regime did not disclose any of the “other reasons.”
Haidar fled to the UAE. A verdict was issued in absentia, sentencing him to 9.5 years in prison. The reason given was that Haidar had transferred real estate owned by the municipality of Qura Al-Assad worth SYP 5 billion (US$ 10 million) to himself. Pro-regime media failed to mention the accusation.
Haidar had prepared for the deal by giving two luxury cars to Alaa Munir Ibrahim, Governor of the Damascus Countryside between July 2016 and December 2020. Ibrahim, whose wife is a cousin of President Bashar, was later dismissed from his position without explanation. Haidar bestowed more gifts on other influential figures, including Major General Mohamed Dib Zaitoun, who a few months later became head of the BASP National Security Bureau.
While in exile, Haidar married a woman from the Assad clan and regularly attended Syrian national events, such as the presidential elections and the opening of the Syrian pavilion at Expo Dubai. He also continued to publish Facebook posts about President Bashar and his brother Maher. He posted their photos with captions expressing pride, good wishes and congratulations. He also followed up on events in his village, offering condolences at funerals and congratulating couples at their weddings, even attending some of them via WhatsApp.
On a different note, Haidar in December 2018 posted a Facebook video threatening to expose corruption cases in Syria. He stressed his motive was a statement made by Prime Minister Imad Khamis “about fighting corruption,” which “belittles the minds of the people.” Haidar deleted the video shortly after and later denied the threat he had made.
Meanwhile, corruption in the real estate sector continued to dog his hometown. In 2019, SZS changed its name to Rabiyat al-Sham. The Baraka Cooperative Society for Housing (BCSH) elected a new board of directors, which included Hamza Assef Shawkat, son of President Bashar’s brother-in-law. Mohamed Zeidan, son of the late Major General Izzat Zeidan, a former commander of the Syrian forces in Lebanon, became chairman.
In February 2021, Zeidan said that 52 villas had been returned to their owners after their ownership had been fraudulently changed. Recently, pro-regime media outlets have indirectly referred to Haidar’s corruption and reported that the entire five-kilometer area of SZS properties is in fact illegal.
“The purchasing of SZS lands and [the project’s] construction were done in collusion with the Deir Qanoun municipality [during Haidar’s era],” the state-run Tishreen daily quoted Samer Baitamouni as saying in January 2020. “[All of that] was against regulations and without a license. Some buildings were built too close to high-voltage power lines, and others were built outside the BCSH’s holdings.”
Baitamouni headed a government committee investigating the case. In the same article, Tishreen accused Mohamed Subhy al-Hawa, the BCSH’s first president, of “escaping to Paris in 2012 after stealing SYP 800 million (US$ 11.2 million) from the BCSH fund.”
Hawa denied the allegations by saying his work had been overseen by the authorities and that a senior military figure had assured him he could return to Damascus since “his record is clean.” Hawa went on to accuse Haidar of “stealing” properties, including his own, in Deir Qanoun, Yaafour, Al-Dimas, Qura al-Assad and Jdeidet Al-Shaibani. On his Facebook page, Hawa estimated the value of “stolen” real estate at US$ 10 million.
“Haidar was behind the jailing of [BCSH accountant] Samar al-Nayef, so he could seize Tallat Al-Wadi, [a housing project in Deir Qanoun worth US$ 12 million].” Until 2020, less than 20 out of a total of 2,400 SZZ subscribers actually resided there. Until this very day most villas remain unfinished concrete skeletons.
A Lawyer After All
Despite such setbacks, Haidar managed to engineer his return to Syria and the regime’s good grace. He had his sentence annulled by paying US$ 500,000 in bribes. Some US$ 200,000 went to the judges looking into his case, while US$ 100,000 went as a donation to the Al-Areen Humanitarian Foundation, run by President Bashar’s wife Asma. I was unable to determine where the rest of the money went.
With the groundwork laid, Haidar on July 18, 2021, returned to Syria. One year later the Syrian Bar Association (SBA) in the Damascus Countryside made Haidar a certified lawyer. On August 15, 2022, the SBA Council granted him membership, even though his being a BAR member violates the law.
Besides having bribed someone to take the bar exam for him, Haider does not meet the conditions for membership. According to Law No. 30 of 2010 regulating the legal profession, a request for membership should be registered in the Roll of Attorneys (RoA) and Haidar should have followed a two-year training period at an attorney’s office. Yet, his name never appeared on the RoA application list, while up to one year prior to the SBA decision, he had spent three years in the UAE.
The law furthermore stipulates that those seeking RoA registration must maintain permanent residence within the jurisdiction of the SBA branch where they apply, have a good character, and have not been convicted of a crime incompatible with practicing the legal profession. If an aspiring lawyer does not meet these conditions, he will be removed from the RoA application list.
Striking a Balance
With his prestige freshly burnished, Haidar will cling on even more to the Syrian state and its president. He will not be able to change his loyalties, as long as the regime, in cooperation with Iran, remains the strongest party in Damascus Countryside. The alliance leaves Haidar’s projects and prospects hanging in the balance of regional politics.
Since the Assad regime recaptured Aleppo in December 2016, Iran’s influence in Syria has steadily grown. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has launched several military projects to bolster its strategic gains. Among the most important of these is the Imam Hossein Garrison (or Al-Shaibani Garrison) in Damascus Countryside, which houses some 3,000 Revolutionary Guard members, as well as Afghan and Lebanese militiamen. Like so many other regime projects, the garrison was built on land confiscated by the state in the 1970s.
In April 2018, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, showed a satellite image of the Imam Hossein Garrison, describing it as Iran’s “central induction and recruitment center in Syria.” The garrison borders Jdeidet Al-Shaibani to the east, Deir Qanoun and Sheikh Zayed to the west, Qura al-Assad to the south and other villages of Wadi Barada to the north and east.
Iran’s influence extends across the Barada Valley, honeycombed with military sites that have been declared off-limits to all parties, except the Syrian army and its allies. While the area is under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defense, Iran de facto controls many of these sites, including the Al-Dimas Airport, which is regularly targeted by the Israeli air force.
A military source said that, according to the Ministry of Defense, the Syrian Fourth Armored Division (FAD) also controls more than 105 square kilometers in the Damascus Countryside. Some 70 square kilometers of that area are empty. The same source said the Republican Guard controls an area of similar size. “These areas that are not or partially occupied have almost paralyzed urban planning for the Damascus Countryside as there are military units everywhere,” the source added.
Given the array of forces, Haidar is currently stuck on one square of the chessboard with nowhere to jump to. Although he is a patient man
who can endure humiliation, he, like any other pawn, is also expendable. When he can no longer pay bribes, he will likely be replaced with another face that can be used and abused at a cut-rate price, as Bashar al-Assad’s machine keeps producing ever more corruption, nepotism and decay.