Shadow Diplomats: Honorary Consuls as Syria’s Foreign Gateway 

Hala Nasreddine
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 09.02.2023
Reading time: 16 minutes

This article sheds a light on some of the dubious honorary consuls through whom Syria, despite the regime of international sanctions, managed to maintain a window to the world

Following the 2011 Syrian uprising and subsequent waves of violence, most countries expelled the diplomats representing Bashar al-Assad. However, many overlooked Syria’s honorary consuls, allowing them to further their personal interests and those of the regime, which is still subject to international sanctions.

Shadow Diplomats is a cross-border investigative project, sponsored by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and New York based journalism outfit ProPublica, with the participation of over 150 journalists from nearly 60 news organizations in 45 countries, including Daraj.

First published in Arabic on November 15, 2022, this investigation sheds light on the most prominent Syrian honorary consuls suspected of corruption or exploiting their positions otherwise. As for the Syrians who managed to flee their country fearing violence and brutality: they were often shocked to see the regime’s representatives continuing to operate as honorary consuls on foreign soil. 

Nelly Kanou, former Syrian honorary consul in Montreal 

Global Affairs Canada, which manages the country’s diplomatic affairs, on February 26, 2016, issued a letter ordering the closure of the Syrian consulate in Montreal, stripping honorary consul Nelly Kanou of her title. The letter did not give any reasons. It just said Kanou – a supporter of Bashar al-Assad – could not continue carrying out her duties.

From a 2015 ruling by the Federal Supreme Court it appears that Nelly and her sister Tania illegally sold medicine worth US$ 1.5 million to Mont-Pharma, a Montreal-based export firm owned by a Jordanian businessman. According to Canadian website La Presse, most products ended up in the Middle East, 

Before the Pharmacists Syndicate’s Disciplinary Board, Kanou pleaded guilty to three charges. She admitted that, from 2008 to 2011, she had participated in selling drugs to a company exporting to the Middle East, without the necessary permits. 

The syndicate lawyer described the charges as “particularly worrying and serious with regard to the protection of the public.” Kanou’s lawyer argued that she acted on humanitarian grounds to help hospitals in her city of origin. 

According to La Presse, Kanou, until her dismissal, and one other honorary consul in Vancouver, were the highest representatives of the Assad regime in Canada, as most Syrian diplomats had been expelled in 2012. Syria’s diplomatic presence in North America has been very limited, since the 2012 Houla massacre in which 108 people were killed. 

Kanou told the Syrian Foreign Ministry that the Syrian opposition had fabricated the charges “because of her patriotic stance.” 

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Wassim al-Ramli, Refused by Canada

In September 2019, Syrian-Canadian businessman Wassim al-Ramli was appointed honorary consul of Syria in Montreal, even though Canadian magazine Maclean’s reported he had publicly declared his support for Assad. His car, a red Hummer, even bore the Syrian flag and a picture of Assad. Still, his appointment was at first approved by the Canadian authorities. 

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According to CBC, Ramli upon his appointment claimed his job was to work for all Syrians, regardless of their political views. Yet, he was one of the organizers of the pro-Assad demonstrations in Montreal, while he denied accusations that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. He also considered the White Helmets a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The White Helmets is a volunteer civil defense organization operating in Syrian opposition areas. According to Maclean’s, Ramli was furthermore associated with “the controversial pro-regime Syrian House in Canada/ Coalition of Syrian-Montrealers.” The latter raised funds for the Syrian Trust Agency for Development, which has been linked to diverting nearly a billion dollars in humanitarian aid to the Syrian regime. 

Maclean’s also reported that Ramli on June 17, 2019, was among a small group of Assad supporters at a fundraising event for the Canadian Liberal Party in the presence of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The latter even took a photo with Ramli.

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Only when people started criticizing Ramil’s appointment and signalled the threat it might pose to the safety of Syrians opposed to Assad, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland declared that appointing an Assad supporter to the position of honorary consul was “unacceptable.” She promised a quick response, and Ramli’s appointment was soon retracted.

Based on his case, the Canadian government in 2020 reconsidered the criteria for appointing honorary consuls. It reviewed the files of 330 honorary consuls in a report and discovered that 15 of them – their identities have not been made public – should be subjected to “deep scrutiny.” 

Obtained by The National Post, the report found there never were accurate criteria for appointing honorary consuls. It furthermore revealed that the decision to appoint Ramli was only based on reviewing his biography and some of his statements in English. 

The Law
The Syrian honorary consul is usually proposed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants before being appointed by presidential decree for a five-year renewable period as stipulated by the 2016 Legislative Decree No. 274. The decree furthermore determines that a honorary consul must be Syrian or of Syrian origin, residing in the country where the honorary consulate is based for at least five years. However, “a foreigner can be appointed if the national interest so requires.”

Article 14 in Chapter Five defines the honorary consul’s duties and powers, which include:
• Assisting Syrians residing within the consul’s jurisdiction by providing services, and defending their rights and interests.
• The cultural, economic and tourism promotion of Syria, and strengthening ties between the countries concerned
•  Studying the commercial and industrial movements in the country where the consul resides with the aim of promoting trade

Abd al-Rahman al-Attar: Honorary Consul in Portugal and Chemical Weapons

The late Abd Al-Attar was a Syrian businessman active in numerous sectors, varying from packaging and pharmacy to trade and industry. A member of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce for 34 years, he also held many prestigious posts, including the presidency of both the Syrian Red Crescent and the Syrian International Chambers of Commerce. 

He died on February 15, 2018, the same year Swiss broadcaster RTS revealed that four of the five tons isopropanol, which had been shipped four years earlier from Switzerland, never reached their official destination in Syria. Attar headed Syrian Mediterranean Pharmaceuticals Industries (MPI), the firm that imported the five tons of isopropanol at the time.

According to the OpinioJuris website, a subsidiary of the Swiss company Novartis in 2014 had licensed MPI to produce the Voltaren painkiller, a gel which requires the same chemical. Isopropanol is a so-called dual-use chemical, a substance that can be used for both beneficial and harmful purposes, for it is also a crucial ingredient for the notorious nerve agent sarin.

For that reason, sales to Syria had been banned by the European Union following the start of the Syrian war in 2011. A special permit was required. Nevertheless, according to RTS, the Swiss authorities considered there was no evidence of a link between MPI and the Syrian regime and allowed the sales.

However, Attar was known to be very close to the Assad regime. Political analyst Hosni Obeidi, director of the Center for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World, told RTS that Attar was a pillar of the Syrian economy. “Presiding over an organization as important as the Syrian Red Crescent, without the support and approval of the government, is impossible,” he said.

A document published by WikiLeaks quotes an acquaintance of Attar saying in 2010 that he is “one of the richest and most powerful men in Syria.” According to a leaked 2008 diplomatic cable from the US State Department Attar worked as a front to help Rami Makhlouf buy a plane when the latter was put under sanctions. Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, was long Syria’s richest and most powerful businessman. 

An investigation in which Daraj participated found that the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), which approved the export, is managed by just four officials who are overwhelmed with work and have very little time to investigate, as they receive tens of thousands of applications annually.

At the request of the Basel-based firm Brenntag Schweizerhall, they had approved the export of five tons of isopropanol and 280 kg of diethylamine in November 2014. Of course, they could not know that 80% of the isopropanol would never arrive at its destination.

According to an analysis of samples carried out by experts from the French government, the sarin gas used in April 2017 in the city of Khan Cheikhoun, where nearly 100 people died, was synthesized in particular from isopropanol. Yet, it cannot be said with certainty the poison was made of the Swiss shipment. 

According to an article in Foreign Policy, the Syrian Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a coalition of Syrian aid organizations, warned as early as 2012 that up to 95% of international aid sent to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent “has been confiscated by the regime.” Yet, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent condemned these “false, politicized and unconfirmed accusations.”

Distribution of Syrian Honorary Consulates

In June 2018, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published  a list of honorary consulates abroad:

• 8 in Africa (Cotonou/ Benin, Lagos/ Nigeria, Ouagadougou/ Burkina Faso, Libreville/ Gabon, Kampala/ Uganda, Monrovia/ Liberia, Abidjan/ Ivory Coast, Freetown/ Sierra Leone).
• 7 in Europe (Guadeloupe and Marseille/ France) Chisinau/ Moldova, Zagreb/ Croatia, Bratislava/ Slovakia, Odessa/ Ukraine, Bremen/ Germany.
* 17 in Latin America, including 5 in Argentina and 3 in Brazil.
• 1 in Sydney/ Australia• 2 in Asia (Manila/ Philippines, Bangkok/Thailand.
• 3  in North America (Vancouver and Montreal/ Canada, Panama/ Panama)

Abdelkader Sabra: Honorary Consul of Turkey in Syria

Abdelkader Sabra is a leading Syrian businessman working in various fields, most notably shipping, industry and tourism. Like Attar, he was a close business partner of Rami Makhlouf. Consequently, he was put under European sanctions from February 2020 to June 2021. 

However, on March 16, 2022, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) lifted them due to the European Union Council’s failure to prove Sabra supports the Syrian regime and benefits from it. Intelligence Online, a website specialized in security and intelligence issues, reported that the lifting of sanctions took place with the support of former French ambassador to Syria Charles Henri Darago, 

Although the ruling lifted the sanctions due to a lack of evidence, it recalled the suspicions on which Sabra was subjected to sanctions in the first place. This included press articles and research from multiple websites, indicating Sabra supported the Syrian regime financially through his off-shore companies. 

Residing in Lebanon since 2012, Sabra obtained Lebanese citizenship in May 2018, alongside a number of other men associated with the Syrian regime. They include Mazen Mortada and his brothers, Samer Foz and Farouk Joud, head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Latakia. 

All of them are “loyal and supportive of the regime and working as commercial fronts,” according to the 2020 report “Funding war crimes: Syrian Businessmen who kept Assad going,” which was issued by the Pro Justice Center.

Regarded as a pillar of the Syrian economy, Sabra is Director of the Syrian-Turkish Business Council, Vice-President of the Syrian-Russian Business Council and President of the Chamber of Maritime Navigation in Syria since its establishment in 2006. 

According to several media reports cited in the European verdict, Sabra was also Turkey’s honorary consul in Syria. Sabra admitted as much by saying he was Turkey’s honorary consul in Tartus from 2009 till 2020, but claimed the post did not involve an economic agenda. He only provided consular services and assistance to Syrian nationals, and participated in trade promotion. 

Sabra owns the shipping agencies Sabra and AKSSA, which has branches in Italy and Greece. Founded in 2002, AKSSA had a fleet of over 350 vessels in 2019, according to Syrian business website Eqtsad. 

Based on Decision No. 932 of the Syrian Ministry of Finance related to an infringement of import regulations, Sabra’s properties were seized in 2012. The matter was settled out of court and the seizure order was lifted after paying a fine.

Sabra is also managing director of the Sabra Group, which includes Riamar Shipping, which has eight ships moored in Tartus, and owns Yass Marine, with branches in Lebanon and Syria. According to a Reuters article published on November 15, 2013, the company began shipping goods to Syria from Ukraine, Russia, and Lebanon and was implicated in a food safety scandal.

Sabra is also a founding partner of the Phenicia Tourism Company.  According to The Syria Report, a few months after being established in 2013 the company was given a contract to develop and manage a four-star 150-bed hotel on Arwad Island by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism.

Finally, Sabra used to be a shareholder in Cham Holding, which was sanctioned due to its ties to Rami Makhlouf. Sabra acquitted himself and withdrew from the company. Yet, according to an article in French newspaper Le Monde on May 30, 2014, Sabra and Makhlouf collaborated on projects involving the import of food stuffs such as wheat, rice, sugar, and tea that are exempt from the EU embargo. 

Saeb Nahas: Honorary Consul and Shiite Mediator

The honorary consul of Mexico and Kazakhstan in Syria is also the “godfather” of Shiite religious tourism to Syria. In Lebanon he is known as Hajj Abu Subeih. One of the most prominent businessmen in Damascus, he is Saeb Shafiq Nahas, once known as “the most important businessman in Syria after Mohamed Makhlouf, father of Rami Makhlouf.”

Nahas was one of the businessmen providing the regime with financial and logistical support in the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Sectarian militia members from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon gathered at his Safir Hotel in Damascus’ Sayyidah Zaynab neighborhood. 

In addition, according to a Pro Justice study, he turned his farm on the Damascus International Road into a militia training ground under supervision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The same study claims he employed his medical company to serve the regime’s chemical program, which prompted former National Council President George Sabra in 2013 to call upon the US State Department to sanction Nahas “as one of Assad’s prominent supporters in the manufacturing and production of chemical weapons.”

“Nahas was one of the first among the Syrian bourgeoisie to join the regime, sharing the nation’s wealth in an unofficial alliance, disregarding any ethical standards doing business,” said George Sabra in an interview with Daraj. “He has been Rifaat al-Assad’s partner since the early 1970s when he was still simply a Peugeot car dealer.” 

Nahas plays a crucial role in relations between Syria and Iran,  as well as the Syrian regime’s relation with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. According to Syrian business website Eqtsat, “Nahas financially supported Shiite activities, especially in Lebanon, and especially those of Hezbollah.”

In 2015, the Central Bank of Syria announced that it was to confiscate Nahas’ money, as well as that of his children due to his failure to repay a loan from the Bank of Syria and Jordan, failing to pay fees and fines, and smuggling commodities. A court ruling was issued in favor of the government. 

However, less than a month later the decision was retracted and his seized  assets were “unfrozen.” Given Nahas’ strong ties to Iran, several sources stated Tehran had interfered directly to oppose the decision. Online daily Al-Madon dubbed it: “Iran protects Saeb Nahas from Asma al-Assad.” 

“What is notable is the swift reversal of the decision taken against Saeb Nahas, which is happening for the first time since the regime started the campaign led by Asma al-Assad against the traditional class of businessmen who have dominated the economic scene in Syria since the regime assumed power nearly five decades ago,” Al-Madon wrote.

Nahas has played a significant diplomatic role enhancing Syria’s connections with the outside world, especially following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. He helped reduce tension in Syria’s relations with the United States and France. In recognition of his efforts, French President Nicolas Sarkozy even offered him the Legion of Honor award. 

He played a similar role between the United States and Syria following the 2006 Lebanon War, as revealed by WikiLeaks on April 6, 2009. Officials from the American embassy in Damascus met with Nahas and his son Subeih “in a first attempt to bridge the gap between the Americans and the Syrian regime.”

It should be noted that Nahas had a close relationship with the vanished Lebanese imam Musa al-Sadr. According to Eqtsat, Saeb had conveyed a warning by Hafiz al-Assad to Musa al-Sadr not to travel to Libya during the era of Muammar Gaddafi. However, Al-Sadr insisted on going, and never returned.

There are various reports regarding Nahas’ fortune, which arguably exceeds US$ 100 million. Currently, his two sons, Mohammed Subeih and Hadi, are running the family business because of his old age. 

The origins of Nahas’ influence can be traced back to Bashar’s father Hafiz al-Assad, who supported Nahas’ economic endeavors and fostered trade with Iran. However, only under Bashar Nahas prospered and grew, spreading his work to Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan, and Sudan in addition to, of course, Mexico and Kazakhstan, as he became their honorary consul in Damascus. 

Ibrahim al-Ahmed: Syria’s former honorary consul in Moldova 

In 2017, the Moldovan authorities suspected the Syrian honorary consul in the country, Ibrahim al-Ahmed, of being involved in a case concerning Vyacheslav Philip, the Moldovan consul-general in Istanbul. The Syrian official allegedly “used his influence” to persuade people to pay bribes to expedite the processing of their documents at the consulate in Istanbul. 

According to the head of the Moldovan prosecution Philip was detained on November 16, 2016, at Chișinău International Airport following an investigation uncovering the fraud he had carried out in cooperation with Ibrahim al-Ahmed and his brother Talal. They both had previously been charged with corruption.

Philip received cash gifts between 2012 and 2016 to streamline consular services for seven individuals from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Syrian citizens paid bribes of US$ 1,000 to US$ 2,000. 

“We recently discovered … that all staff of this consulate is involved in acts of corruption,” Mihai Bălan, Director of the Moldovan Security and Intelligence Service told Romanian website Ziarul de Gardă (ZdG) on February 22, 2019. Both Philip and al-Ahmed denied the claims against them. 

In a prior case in 2015, Moldovan officials had investigated the Syrian honorary consul on suspicion of misusing his position after a Moldovan national had claimed the consul’s brother had requested €1800 “for helping her to get documentation permitting a relative residing in Syria to obtain a visa to Moldova.” 

According to the website of the Syrian Embassy in Bucharest, the Syrian Honorary Consulate was established in Chișinău by Presidential Decree No. 124, issued on 27 March, 2011, appointing Ibrahim al-Ahmed as Honorary Consul.

Consuls in the Margin

The following stories may seem less important, yet they show the methodology regarding the appointment of Syrian honorary consuls

Maher al-Dabbagh, Syria’s honorary consul in Sydney, Australia, in April 2018 hosted a conference following military strikes by allied forces on three Syrian sites. The crowd, according to Dabbagh, had come together to support Syria in its fight against “the tripartite onslaught against Syria,” while denying accusations Syria had ever deployed chemical weapons.

“The coalition countries prevented a committee from traveling to Douma to look into the purported chemical attack,” claimed Dabbagh, who was disappointed at Australia’s stance in favor of the West. 

Following Bashar al-Assad’s “victory” in the June 2021 presidential elections, Dabbagh declared: “The Syrian people have spoken and have not yielded to the pressure of Western countries hostile to Syria, saluting the courageous Syrian Arab Army fighting terrorism and protecting the homeland.”

The Association of Syrian Arab Expatriates and the Arab community in Sydney had expressed their dismay at the appointment of Dabbagh as honorary consul. In a signed statement, they demanded the Syrian ambassador to Australia to reconsider the decision.

Lawyer Susan al-Habbal, former honorary consul of Syria in Vancouver, is well-known for having strong ties to Assad and the Syrian regime. In August 2011, members of the Syrian community in Vancouver and Amnesty International demonstrated outside the Syrian consulate to protest against Syrian human rights violations and demanded Habbal’s resignation.

Raed Mahko was honorary consul in Montreal. He was appointed In January 2018, yet in May of that same year, the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC) found there was a conflict of interest, as Mahko was also an immigration consultant. He was forced to suspend his work as a consultant.

On August 22, 2019, the ICCRC ordered Mahko to cease providing advice to the Canadian immigration services regarding Syrian refugees for a period of two years. Mahko was discovered to have fabricated certain people’s presence in Canada to get a Canadian passport. As of 2019, there no longer is a Syrian honorary consul in Canada.

NOTE: Daraj contacted French diplomat Charles Darago, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Syrian honorary consulates in Canada and Moldova, and other individuals featured in this investigation with inquiries, yet did not hear back from them.

It should be mentioned that, despite these stories of regime-appointed consuls accused of corruption or otherwise immoral conduct, the British Foreign Office stated that Syria’s top diplomat in London resigned in protest against “the violent and oppressive’ acts of President Bashar Assad’s regime.”

Likewise, following the 2012 Houla massacre, Hazem al-Shahabi, Syria’s then honorary consul in California resigned, saying: “I have reached a point where silence or inaction is morally and ethically unacceptable.”

Hala Nasreddine
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 09.02.2023
Reading time: 16 minutes

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