Geopolitics

Top Syrian General Defects, Clinton: Russia, China Must 'Pay Price' For Assad Support

SYRIA STEPS (Syria), AL ARABIYA (Saudi Arabia), BBC (UK), AP (US), LE MONDE (France)

Worldcrunch

PARIS - Over 100 countries gathered for the Friends of Syria conference in Paris on Friday, hoping to broker a diplomatic solution to the on-going violent conflict and to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime. The conference opened after reports that a senior Syrian general who fled to Turkey on Thursday has defected and is headed to France.

"Bashar al-Assad must go," French President François Hollande said, according to Al Arabiya. "It's in the interest of Syria, of its neighbors and everybody who wants peace in the region."

French Foreign minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that Brig General Manaf Tlas, a senior Syrian regime member, has defected and is headed to France. The BBC reports that similar rumors spread earlier in March proved to be false. The defection would be the most significant since the Syrian uprising started last year, as Tlas was in Bashar al-Assad's inner circle and is from a powerful Sunni Muslim family, but it remains to be seen if this will weaken the regime.

The website Syria Steps, considered close to the government, reported that Tlas "was pursued by Syrian intelligence." What the site quoted as a "high-ranking intelligence source" added that: "Syrian intelligence has a complete file about his contacts with foreigners, and his supervision of terrorist operations inside Syria."

The Friends of Syria are a group of Western and Arab countries that support the uprising against the current regime. Senior representatives and diplomats are meeting with the Syrian National Council (SNC) in order to facilitate a political transition in Syria, but previous conferences in Tunis and Istanbul yielded little results.

SNC head Abdulbaset Seyda is asking for increased humanitarian aid under chapter 7 of the United Nations charters, which was used in Libya last year and allows the use of military force. But Le Monde reports that Russia and China, the two main supporters of Damascus who also hold Security Council vetoes, are absent from the conference. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had strong words for the two absentees.

Earlier this week Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari also told the Associated Press that he had "solid information" about al-Qaeda fighters flowing from Iraq to Syria, but he did not elaborate further.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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