9 Sep 2023
Der Spiegel (Investigation), with Christoph Reuter and Karam Shaar together with the Syria Sanctions Policy Program
This is Der Spiegel’s coverage of the debut project from the Syria Sanctions Policy Program. The Arab League had hoped that welcoming Syria back into its ranks might slow down the flow of drugs coming out of the country. But as the case of business executive Mahmoud Aldij shows, Assad's mafia-like structures remain deeply entrenched.
8 Sep 2023
Observatory of Political and Economic Networks and Omran for Strategic Studies (Special Report), with Karam Shaar, Mohamad Orwani, Traci Lawrence, Baraa Khurfan, Muhsen Al-Mustafa, and Wael Al-Alwani
This is the debut project from the Syria Sanctions Policy Program (SSPP). A new travel agency with offices in Damascus and Dubai recently announced direct flights from Damascus to European cities for the first time in over a decade. Our research reveals that the agency and its Greece-based “exclusive” partner airline are associated with drug kingpin Mahmoud Abdulilah al-Dj, who has been sentenced to death in Libya for drug trafficking. Al-Dj is also the exclusive agent of US-sanctioned Cham Wings in Libya, which has been accused of money-laundering throughout the Levant and transporting weapons and equipment for the Assad regime. We’re concerned that the Greek airline, Air Mediterranean, could wittingly or unwittingly be doing the same. The report highlights the need for enhanced monitoring of the activities of drug kingpins and the affiliates of the Assad regime. Among other recommendations, we call on the European Union (EU) to consider blocking Air Mediterranean from operating in EU airports.
24 August 2023
Atlantic Council (Op-ed)
The security, health, and geopolitical impacts of captagon’s proliferation in the Middle East have jolted many countries around the world into action. Both consumer and transit countries in the region are enhancing their interdiction capacities and considering the normalization of relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which controls areas where most captagon originates. The Biden administration has announced an interagency counter-captagon strategy and has imposed joint sanctions with the United Kingdom and European Union on Syrian and Lebanese actors involved in the industry. Additionally, Captagon has been included in the US-led Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats. In this piece, I argue that these responses are myopic, partial, and occasionally misguided. Instead, I advocate for comprehensive, long-term, and smart policy solutions.
14 June 2023
Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (Research Paper), with Wael Alalwani, Mohammad Orwani and Dima Mohammad
This report presents the most comprehensive attempt to date at understanding the breadth and nature of the ongoing narcotics crisis in the Middle East, by analyzing two bespoke databases: one compiling and classifying the 1,251 publicly reported drug seizures in Arab Asian countries between 2016 and 2022, and another mapping 712 individuals and entities involved in narcotics supply from Syria and Lebanon using primary and secondary sources. The report also estimates the profits generated by the industry and their political economy implications.
24 May 2023
Newlines Institute (Research Paper), with Caroline Rose
Amphetamine-type stimulants, known as "captagon," are flooding the Mediterranean-Gulf region, with a staggering 370 million pills seized in 2022 alone. The Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, is the primary sponsor of this drug trade, which adversely affects the health and security of consumer countries. This report presents the first comprehensive analysis of the regime's narrative on narcotics, both domestically and internationally, comparing it with their actions on the ground. It examines 612 articles from the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) with "narcotics" in the title between 2015 and 2022, supplemented by data from Syria's submissions to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), statements from regime officials, and death sentences related to narcotics. Additionally, we analyze existing literature and reported seizure announcements, focusing on 2021 and 2022, where the seizing authority identifies the origin of captagon shipments.
17 Mar 2023
Middle East Institute (Op-ed)
On Monday, the EU will hold an international donors’ conference in Brussels to raise funds for Turkey and Syria’s recovery from the devastating earthquakes that struck in early February. While Turkey’s foreign minister will speak before the pledging session, no one will represent or even speak on behalf of Syrians. I hope this op-ed conveys the feelings of at least some Syrians to the donors before making their pledges.
13 Jan 2023
Atlantic Council (Op-ed), with Said Dimashqi
In this article for the Atlantic Council, Said Dimashqi and I argue that a world where US sanctions on Syria have fewer humanitarian side effects and a stronger impact on the Assad regime does exist. We do so by highlighting the existing shortcomings in sanctions and what needs to be done.
09 Dec 2022
OCCRP (Investigation), with Rana Sabbagh, Lara Dihmis, Sami Shahrour, Alexander Dziadosz and Jacob Greenwald
Syria’s recent licensing of a third mobile operator, Wafa Telecom, looked like another effort by the Assad regime to seize control of the few remaining profitable sectors in the country. In this Observatory of Political and Economic Networks-OCCRP joint investigation, we present evidence showing that Wafa Telecom is majority-owned by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) using a front company based in Malaysia. The investigation has been covered by other international media outlets such as Le Monde and Der Spiegel.
23 Nov 2022
Foreign Policy (Op-ed), with Gissou Nia and Celeste Kmiotek
Justice is unattainable without evidence. This article highlights the lessons learned from Syria over the past 11 years in the fields of data harvesting, archiving, and open-source investigations of the evidence circulating online and how they can be helpful in bringing human rights abusers in Iran to justice.
25 Oct 2022
Syrian Legal Development Program and Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (Investigation Report)
The catastrophic situation in Syria since the 2011 uprising has made the country one of the largest recipients of humanitarian aid in the world. The bulk of spending of this multi-billion aid is facilitated by the United Nations (UN), which continues to operate in a highly restrictive environment. This report examines how private companies involved in human rights abuses benefit from the UN’s procurements from the country and the share of funding going to them. Numerous articles have exposed some problematic suppliers to the UN, such as the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. However, this report is the first systematic and quantitative effort to examine the dynamics of such suppliers. Using the official Syrian gazette and open-source intelligence, it does so by investigating the backgrounds of the top 100 private and public-private suppliers in 2019 and 2020. These suppliers constitute 94% of total procurement spending, enabling the report to make conclusions about the procurement process in general. To have a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the issue, the investigations are supplemented by interviews with UN staff, businesspeople, and experts on UN operations in Syria from diplomatic and civil society backgrounds.
To view the interactive tool, click here
28 Jun 2022
Operations and Policy Center (Research Paper), with Nicholas Lyall
Since the latter months of 2020, Syria has yet again fallen into a severe drought. This new drought is occurring in a country whose agricultural capacity has already been decimated by decades of agricultural and water misgovernance, and war, making it less capable of coping with a drought than at any point in its modern history. The paper analyzes agricultural stress-related satellite images and survey data to answer the following questions: How severe is the drought? What are the impacts on the country's agriculture, economy, and the humanitarian response? How might the drought affect the course of the conflict?
21 Jun 2022
Spiegel International (Investigation)
This investigation was authored by Jörg Diehl, Mohannad al-Najjar and Christoph Reuter, with reporting from Karam Shaar
By tracing a Captagon shipment that left the Port of Latakia and arrived in Romania on its way to Germany, and through a multi-year-effort of German investigators, prosecutors will for the first time show evidence of the central role of the Assad regime and his clan in the dirty trade.
22 Mar 2022
The Guardian (Investigation), with Tessa Fox
The Syrian regime is actively setting up shell companies within Syria, according to official documents I provided to The Guardian. The documents show that three nearly identical companies were recently established on the same day, with the explicit purpose of buying shares and managing other companies. In this article, Tessa Fox and I present the links between the owners of the new shells and influential members in the Syrian regime, such as Yasar Ibrahim and Khodr Ali Taher. Since the finalization of the article, a few more shell companies have been set up, highlighting a systemic attempt at circumventing sanctions and avoiding accountability. Last October, Syria’s economy minister, Muhammad Samer al-Khalil, said that “evading sanctions has become a Syrian craft,” and called on foreign investors reluctant to join the market because of sanctions “not to appear under their true names in the local market.” We also discuss the implications for Western sanctions on Syria, with comments from experts and officials.
24 Feb 2022
The plight of Syrians is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Western politicians as reflected in their demonstrable lack of interest in pushing for a political settlement to the conflict. I also show using data from Google Trends that the level of public interest in Western countries in Syria has never been lower throughout the conflict. In fact, it’s currently, lower than prior to the conflict in 2011. How did Syria fall into irrelevance?
22 Feb 2022
Operations and Policy Center (OPC) and Middle East Institute
(Policy Brief), with Ashley Jordan and Samy Akil
Despite the slowdown in military operations in Syria, other acts of violence and human rights violations remain the norm, making the whole-of-Syria unsafe for return. Published in collaboration with the Middle East Institute, this summary recaps on a recently published research project aimed at understanding the scale and types of violations experienced by Syrian returnees.
15 Feb 2022
Carnegie Middle East - Sada (Op-ed)
Respected Syria analysts have argued that “more-for-more” diplomacy should not be attempted with Bashar al-Assad. In this op-ed for Carnegie Middle East's Sada Journal, I argue that, under four principles, more-for-more is warranted to jumpstart the deadlocked political process. This diplomacy cannot on its own, however, end the conflict. The key risk in taking the more-for-more approach to dealing with Assad is using it as a stepping stone for a face-saving end to the conflict. A resolution that does not address the root causes of the conflict is a recipe for perpetual instability.
07 Feb 2022
Atlantic Council and Operations and Policy Center (OPC)
(Policy Brief), with Samy Akil
Multiple questions were raised after the US Treasury in November 2021 eased restrictions on the distribution of "early recovery" aid in Syria. The easing came as an apparent concession to Russia, in exchange for allowing cross-border aid to continue flowing to northwest Syria. The Operations and Policy Center (OPC) and the Atlantic Council jointly published this policy brief in an attempt to answer three questions. 1) What is “early recovery” aid and how is it different from reconstruction? 2) Who will benefit from the easing of restrictions? 3) What does this move say, if anything, about America's approach to sanctions or its whole-of-Syria strategy?
24 Jan 2022
Brookings Institution (op-ed), with Steven Heydemann
In this op-ed for The Brookings Institution, Prof. Steven Heydemann and I call for abandoning Syria's constitutional committee. Undermined by the obstructionism of the Assad regime, the Geneva process for ending the Syrian conflict has become little more than zombie diplomacy—kept alive only because of an absence of alternatives and the reluctance of the US and EU to let go of the only negotiating framework accepted by all members of the UN Security Council. Narrowing the Geneva process to the matter of constitutional reform has also reduced it to an empty shell, a shadow of UNSC Resolution 2254. We argue that gains are to be made from abandoning the committee.
10 Dec 2021
Operations and Policy Center (OPC)
(Policy Brief), with Nicholas Lyall
In this publication in the Operations & Policy Center (OPC) and the Middle East Institute, Nick Lyall and I argue that Syria is headed toward a famine. In support of this view, we present three factors: The severity of the ongoing drought which is compounded by the water management policies of neighbouring Turkey; the unprecedented level of food insecurity compounded by the rise in global food prices, and the decline in donor humanitarian funding. We propose three policy responses to pre-empt the looming crisis.
20 Oct 2021
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
(Research Paper), with Munqeth Othman Agha and Natasha Hall
It is common knowledge that the Syrian regime influences the distribution of aid in-country and benefits from various aid operations by nudging or coercing UN bodies into working with organizations and business cronies affiliated with it. In this publication, we show how the diversion of aid happens far more systemically and on a more serious scale before aid even enters the country. As the UN transfers money to Syria, large sums are lost due to the unfavorable exchange rate applied on the transfers; an exchange rate set by the Central Bank in Damascus. This study has been covered by hundreds of media outlets, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Associate Press, and BBC.
24 Aug 2021
(Academic publication), with Sinan Hatahet
Before the 2011 conflict, Syria’s electricity infrastructure was barely functional. There were high production and transmission losses resulting in frequent load shedding during the summer. However, after ten years of war the situation is markedly worse: per capita consumption of state electricity is now 15% of what it was in 2010. This paper provides a comprehensive assessment of Syria’s electricity sector after a decade of war. It first reviews: the sector’s pre-war organisational structure; production and consumption levels; its transmission grid; energy sources; and regional connectivity. The paper then assesses the impact of the conflict by tracking the 14 power plants through the war years: energy sources; production levels; and efficiency. It finally assesses damage to the sector and future prospects, with a focus on the role of the two countries with the greatest interest in rehabilitating the sector, Russia and Iran.
05 Aug 2021
(Policy Paper), with Wael al-Alwani
The subject of Western sanctions on Syria is a divisive one among analysts and policymakers interested in ending the misery of the country’s citizens. The division comes at a time when, more than ever, the country needs a comprehensive policy that ends the agony of most Syrians. This study, published in the Middle East Institute, assesses the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed on the regime of Bashar al-Assad by conducting a comprehensive review of their history, the background of individuals targeted so far, evaluating the strengths and shortcomings in the current setup, and recommending ways to move forward.
22 Jun 2021
Operations and Policy Center (Research Paper), with Orwa Khalifa
Syria’s regime-controlled areas witnessed several economic crises in late 2019 and 2020, leading to an exceptional deterioration in living standards. Operations and Policy Center (OPC) surveyed 600 respondents in three Damascus neighborhoods to assess Damascenes' main economic activities: work, consumption, and spending.
18 Jun 2021
Operations and Policy Center (Research Paper), with Nisreen Alzaraee
This study outlines how Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is taking over Idlib’s economy since its transformation from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda to the de facto authority in the area. While the takeover is incomplete, the extent to which it will continue is primarily determined by Turkey’s tolerance of the group. The study is co-published between the Operations & Policy Center (OPC) and the Middle East Institute.
10 Jun 2021
Middle East Institute (Op-ed)
Most countries opposing the Syrian regime want Assad to accept U.N. Resolution 2254, passed in 2015, which among other things calls for fair elections, a new constitution, and credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance. However, Assad has refused to budge an inch. His rigidity should come to no one's surprise; consider the choices he’s facing.
24 Mar 2021
Operations and Policy Center (Policy Paper), with Samy Akil
As China’s engagement in the Middle East continues to rise, its role in the Syrian conflict remains largely unaddressed. This study provides an overview of China’s interests and objectives in the conflict while simultaneously assessing its potential involvement in any reconstruction process.
24 Mar 2021
Middle East Institute and Operations and Policy Center (joint publication)
(Research Tool), with Haian Dukhan and Ammar al-Hamad
Previous analyses have often misunderstood the intricate tribal structures in Syria, drawing false links between tribalism and terrorism. This interactive research tool, co-published by the Middles East Institute and the Operations and Policy Center, aims to shed light on the tribal structure in ar-Raqqah governorate, making it accessible to anyone interested in understanding the current state of affairs there.
14 Jan 2021
Middle East Institute (Research Tool), with Samy Akil
The composition of Syria's parliament matters not because it influences the policies of the autocratic country, but because it provides an excellent lens through which we can understand the patronage and clientele networks of the al-Assad regime. Samy Akil and I wrote this study on Syria's 2020 parliamentary elections, published in the Middle East Institute. Using various sources, the study provides a very comprehensive summary of the backgrounds of all 250 MPs on 14 different variables (3,500 pieces of information). You can use the bespoke interactive visualization to interrogate the data and read the subsequent write up for a thorough discussion of the findings.
06 Jan 2021
Middle East Institute (Research Tool), with Ayman Dasouki
This study investigates the composition of Syria's Constitutional Committee by examining the background information of each of its 150 members. For each member, we examine the political affiliation, perceived closeness to the Syrian regime, gender, education, ethnicity, and religion, among other relevant variables. The findings are presented using an intuitive interactive visualization. We use our views on the composition of the Committee to predict the dynamics of its activities and to provide policy recommendations to boost its chances for success. The study is published in the Middle East Institute.
01 Dec 2020
Atlantic Council (Op-ed), with William Christou
On September 28, the Syrian government proposed the 2021 budget, planned at 8.5 trillion Syrian pounds ($2.7 billion). The breakdown of the budget is still being debated in parliament. Due to the sharp depreciation of the Syrian pound and the accelerated slowdown in economic activity over the course of the current year, the 2021 budget is not only a 27 percent decrease compared to last year in inflation-adjusted (real) US dollar terms, but is also the smallest budget since the uprising in 2011. In this study with Will Christou, we provide a breakdown of Syria's 2021 budget, revealing the depth of the country's economic depletion.
04 Nov 2020
Middle East Institute (Research Tool), with Samy Akil
This study presents an interactive timeline to aid those interested in the background of Syria’s heads of state and how power has changed hands since 1922. We also use the timeline to draw insights into the ongoing 2011 conflict. We open by highlighting the longstanding asymmetries in the distribution of power, and later zoom in on the past half century of al-Assad family rule. We conclude with a look into the future. The study is published in Middle East Institute as well.
15 Oct 2020
Middle East Institute (Op-ed), with William Christou
On June 17, 2020, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, announced the beginning of the “summer of Caesar,” promising a wave of sanctions designations under the newly activated Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Summer has come and gone, but there’s little to show for it.
27 Jul 2020
Thousands of pictures, leaked by a Syrian defector nicknamed “Caesar,” revealed the extent of torture and extrajudicial killings in the prisons of the Bashar al-Assad regime. In response to those abuses, on June 17, 2020, the United States targeted that regime with sanctions under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act. The US set out a list of political and humanitarian demands to be met for the sanctions to be lifted.
09 Jul 2020
Middle East Institute (Op-ed)
To deal with the intensifying economic crisis, the Syrian regime has pursued various survival-mode mechanisms, like relying on financial support from Iran, spurring inflation-induced growth by printing money, and offering tempting corporate concessions to attract investment. Much to the country’s detriment, Syria’s economic situation has prompted the creation of a unique type of investment — one where the announcement is the only part of the venture ever intended to take place. Such “photo-op investments” happen when both parties know, before signing the contract, that the project will never break ground.
24 Apr 2020
Every couple of months, you hear a new story about someone from the al-Assad clan – good luck telling who’s who. Many of the influential Assads do not have even a photo online. The Assads’ secrecy and the public interest in them provide the perfect recipe for rumours and half-truths. This article presents numerous examples of incorrect information about the Assads in local and Western media, including from the EU, Le Monde, and Pro Justice.
The lack of knowledge about the family members and their roles in the regime is reflected in the names sanctioned by the US and the EU. Some influential players are not sanctioned, while marginal players are. In an attempt to shed more light on the better-known Assad kinships and their roles in the regime, I built an interactive family tree.
10 Mar 2020
The share of seats held by women in national parliaments is one of my preferred proxies for gender equality. It's easy to quantify and speaks directly to the relative impact of women in our societies. Our world is still a very patriarchal place, but in the Middle East women are particularly under-represented. New Zealand—the first self-governing country to grant the vote to all adult women—is doing reasonably well, but still has a long way to go.
10 Feb 2020
Atlantic Council (Op-ed), with Ali Fathollah-Nejad
The credit line does not help to assess Iran’s involvement in Syria—it is instead a cover for the total cost of Iran’s engagement there. Putting the value of Tehran’s intervention in Syria in perspective reveals the high cost of its adventure in the country and highlights the increasing difficulty of continuing it as Iran continues to hemorrhage due to punitive US sanctions, specifically on oil. As what Tehran has spent in Syria far exceeds what is announced, another question is how much Syria owes Iran. Should Syrians pay back what is in the books or what is actually spent? Only time will tell.
11 Dec 2019
Carnegie Middle East Center (Op-ed), with Armenak Tokmajyan
On October 6, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as he declared victory over the Islamic State. Yet under bipartisan pressure in the United States, Trump soon backpedalled on the U.S. pullout. This was the second time in less than a year that he had done so. This time, Trump’s justification was that U.S. forces would stay to "take Syria’s oil". This article argues that taking Syria's oil is simply an excuse for the president’s decision to backtrack on the withdrawal as it is hardly economically feasible.
27 Aug 2019
Middle East Institute (Policy paper)
Unlike most other goods, the inflation-adjusted prices of oil and oil derivatives actually became cheaper in the years after the Syrian uprising and the loss of most of the country’s oil fields. Iran stepped in to fill the gap by shipping oil by sea through the Suez Canal. In recent months, however, these shipments seem to have ground to a halt, crippling regime-controlled areas. This paper examines several competing explanations for the slowdown in Iranian oil shipments, explores a range of possible responses for the Assad regime, and takes a closer look at the implications for the regime, its allies, and regular Syrians.
International trade data are filled with discrepancies–where two countries report different values of trade with each other. I develop a novel trade data quality index for reconciling the discrepancies in bilateral trade data. I calculate the quality for each country’s imports and exports separately for every year from 1962 to 2016 and reconcile international trade data by picking the value reported by the country with higher data quality in every bilateral flow. The reconciled data reshape our views on international trade: (a) countries with low data quality under-report their imports and exports: low-quality reporters are 14% more open to trade using reconciled data; (b) corruption, the level of development, and erroneous reporting can explain data quality; (c) importers’ data are more accurate; (d) China tends to under-report its exports and over-report its imports, while there is only a small difference between US self-reported and reconciled data.
16 Jul 2018
Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Policy paper)
Mortgagors constitute a third of households in New Zealand, and the vulnerability of mortgagors to different risks impacts the financial system as a whole. This study uses Household Economic Survey (HES) microdata provided by Statistics New Zealand to assess changes in the vulnerability of new non-investor mortgagors from 2006 to 2016. The data also enables me to estimate ‘deposit affordability’ – the affordability of the equity required from households to purchase houses. My measure of affordability computes the number of years required to save a deposit given the Loan-to-Value rules that apply in the country as a whole or in a given locality.
Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Academic paper), with Fang Yao
This paper investigates how household debt affects the marginal propensity to consume out of housing wealth. We use New Zealand household-level data on spending, income, and debt over the period 2006-2016. The main empirical challenge is to identify exogenous variation in house prices to determine how consumption evolves with movements in household wealth. This identification problem is complicated by the presence of unobserved household characteristics that are correlated with housing wealth. We use a detailed house sale dataset to derive local average house prices and use it as an instrument. Our empirical results show that the estimated elasticity of consumption spending to housing wealth is about 0.22%. In dollar terms, the average marginal propensity to consume out of a one-dollar increase in housing wealth is around 2.2 cents. Furthermore, our empirical results also confirm that household indebtedness, especially via mortgage debt, acts as a drag on consumption spending, not only through the debt overhang channel, but also through influencing the collateral channel of the housing wealth effect.
20 Dec 2017
Applied Economics Letters (Peer-reviewed academic paper), with Mohammed Khaled
This study suggests that testing the impact of exchange rate on trade should be done using high-frequency data. Using different data frequencies for identical periods and specifications between the US and Canada, we show that low-frequency data might suppress and distort the evidence of the impact of exchange rate on trade in the short run and the long run.
23 Jun 2016
Aleppo Project, School of Public Policy, Central European University (Policy Paper)
Understanding changes in the composition of the job market will greatly enhance reconstruction efforts in post-war Aleppo as it allows a better understanding of the availability and quality of the labour force.
In late 2014 and early 2015, The Aleppo Project surveyed 1001 Aleppians about many issues.
This paper focuses on the two questionnaire items related to current professions of the respondents and their previous professions. I show that the composition of the job market has pointedly changed due to the conflict and that the differences in the rate of unemployment among Aleppians are largely explained by gender, age, education, and the neighbourhood from which the respondents come. The study provides policy recommendations.
29 Jan 2016
Journal of International Trade & Economic Development (Peer-reviewed academic paper), with Mohamed Ariff
Findings reported in this paper provide an improved explanation as to what factors are correlated with price levels across a large sample of 152 countries. The results are obtained from using a new set of variables called economic freedom indices, covering 19 years. Prior studies used income, trade openness, and productivity, which led to results with much less explanatory power compared to findings reported in this paper. We apply advanced panel data econometrics to obtain robust estimates of parameters, which, in our view, led to results with a substantially high coefficient of variations close to 90%. The findings show that all the nine dimensions of economic freedom used in this study significantly account for the variations in national price levels.