Yara Abdel-Dayem, CNN • Updated 6th December 2018
( CNN ) — Lebanese-Canadian company Wahaha Group, formerly owned by the Assad family, has a network of dozens of companies throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
These companies are also at the center of a row over allegations that the shell company they run facilitated a ship filled with Iraqi-made mortar shells bound for ISIS-held territory in Syria, according to an investigative report from Reuters.
Between January and November 2017, about 9,000 rounds of mortar shells were reportedly transported from Iraq to Syria via the Somali port of Galle via a ship owned by the Wahaha Group and operated by Cyprus-based Standard Shipping Agency.
The former Russian President Vladimir Putin granted limited business interests to the Assad family in 2016.
Wahaha Group owner and chairman Mahmud Al-Rahi denied the allegations during a February interview with the AFP news agency.
“The shipment is complete and lawful and under the charter of the state,” Rahi said, adding that it was “ridiculous and immoral” for Western governments to question the shipment without evidence.
He also told the Arabic-language Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the shells have been used in “some major battles” in Iraq. “We are a source of information in the area and we have supplied information on the casualties caused by Daesh (ISIS),” he added.
The findings were uncovered after an investigation by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which found that both the ship and the shipping agency have been scrutinized since 2013 by regulators based in Norway and the countries the shipments landed in.
All such shipments were supported by a ship change agent, according to the NRC. In the years since the Syrians’ United Nations Security Council membership was granted, that agent has been rebranded as Standard Group.
The NRC listed the shipping agent as the “shadow agent” that facilitated the shipment in question.
The shipping agent told CNN through a spokesman that the agency maintains that it made no “wrong-doing or missteps” in the wake of the allegations. The spokesman told CNN that his company was the “safe intermediary company” for the shipment.
Several Canadian lawmakers have expressed their skepticism toward the findings.
“The report that Wahaha Group helped transport tens of thousands of munitions into ISIS-held territory is alarming, and we will continue to follow this story closely,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.