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Syria Today – Astana Meeting Kicks Off; Aid Reaches Rukban Camp; Drone Strike Kills SDF Leader

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Astana Meeting Kicks Off; Aid Reaches Rukban Camp; Drone Strike Kills SDF Leader

During the ongoing 20th round of the Astana Peace Talks on Syria, the leader of the Syrian delegation emphasized the necessity for Turkey to withdraw its forces from Syria in order to achieve any form of normalization between the two countries. In a separate development, a non-profit organization based in the United States managed to deliver an aid convoy into Syria’s Rukban camp, effectively bypassing the prolonged blockade imposed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Concurrently, a drone strike conducted by Turkey resulted in the deaths of two Kurdish local officials and their driver in northeastern Syria.

The four-way meeting between defense ministers of Syria, Russia, Turkey, and Iran

As meetings between delegations participating in the 20th round of Astana Peace Talks on Syria are underway on Tuesday, the head of the Syrian delegation affirmed that any normalization between Syria and Turkey requires that the latter withdraw forces from Syria.

Works of the 20th round of Astana set off earlier Tuesday in the Kazakh capital, and a four-way meeting of Deputy Foreign Ministers of Syria, Russia, Turkey, and Iran is taking place over restoring ties between Syria and Turkey.

State-run SANA News Agency cited Ayman Sousan, Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister, who is heading the Syrian delegation, as saying that the Turkish withdrawal from the Syrian territories constitutes the only entry point for any normal relations between the two countries.

Sousan also stressed that “ensuring border security is a common responsibility of neighbouring countries.”

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran met in Moscow on May 10th marking the highest-level talks between Ankara and Damascus since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

Government officials of Syria and Turkey have held a number of meetings since last year. In December of 2022, Russia hosted the first talks between Syrian and Turkish defence ministers since 2011.

For his part, the Special Representative of the Russian President for the Middle East and African Countries, Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said that normalization between the two neighbouring countries “is a very important process that must be based on the principles of mutual respect, territorial integrity, unity of states, and territorial sovereignty of Syria and Turkey.”

Astana talks return with added Turkish-Syrian normalization agenda

Long and dragged out, the Astana talks over the state of war-torn Syria were back on Tuesday in Kazakhstan. This time, the quadrilateral meeting is accompanied by an appointment to “normalize ties between Turkey and the Assad regime”,the Turkish Daily Sabah reported.

In the morning, officials from Turkey, Russia and Iran, seeking to resolve the conflict in Syria, came together for the 20th round of Astana talks. Bilateral technical meetings are being held as part of the talks, expected to continue on Wednesday as well. 

On the Syrian side, the Assad regime is represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Susan, while Ahmed Touma heads the delegation of the Syrian opposition. Officials from Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon attended the Astana talks as observers, along with Geir Pedersen, the United Nations special envoy for Syria.

The sides discussed developments in Syria’s immediate region and developments “in the field,” according to the media reports. Among other topics are counterterrorism efforts in Syria, where terrorist groups, including Daesh, the PKK and its Syrian wing, the YPG, rose to prominence amid the conflict, the release of hostages, the missing persons, as well as the humanitarian situation, rebuilding of Syria, and establishing conditions for the return of Syrian refugees.

In the meantime, the quadrilateral meeting between Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran will focus on the road map for the normalization of ties between the Damascus-based regime and Ankara. Speaking to reporters before the meeting, Mikhail Bogdanov said it is “the most important meeting” of two-day talks. “This is a very crucial process. We have had a backlog of issues for 12 years. Foreign ministers met in Moscow on May 10, and now we are working on a road map,” he said.

The resumption of ties between Turkey and the Assad regime also means relieving Turkey’s burden of hosting Syrian refugees. “It is not easy to help Syrian refugees; it is not easy to shoulder this burden on Turkey, our Lebanese, Jordanian, Iraqi and Egyptian friends forever. We expect our partners to concentrate on creating the conditions for the return of refugees, too,” Faruk Kaymakcı, Turkey’s permanent delegate to the European Union, told at a European Union donors’ conference last week. Turkey clings to its title as the country with the most refugees, largely due to the influx of people fleeing Syria. A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released last week shows that the countries hosting the most refugees are Turkey (3.6 million), Iran (3.4 million), Colombia (2.5 million), Germany (2.1 million) and Pakistan (1.7 million).

U.S. Needs a Clear Policy on Syria, Experts Say

Quincy Institute (QI) hosted a virtual program on June 2nd to discuss U.S. policy toward Syria in light of the Arab League’s recent decision to re-admit the country into the organization. The U.S. opposes the normalization of ties, and the House of Representatives recently introduced a bill to double down on preventing American investment in Syria’s rebuilding.

QI senior research analyst Steven Simon moderated the panel, which included James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Turkey and Albania; Mara Revkin, associate professor at Duke University School of Law; William Roebuck, executive vice president at the Arab Gulf States Institute; and Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Jeffrey said there is hope for Syria if ISIS, the Iranian presence and the reportedly abundant drug production by the Assad regime are eliminated. Turkish security concerns and the 12 million Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons also need to be addressed. “Fix these problems and the country will be able to be fixed,” he opined. “Otherwise, this thing will stay a frozen conflict.”

The plan of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt to rebuild Syria and end the civil war, Jeffrey said, is the “only game in town right now,” and a way to get “hundreds of billions of dollars to flow into that country.”

According to Roebuck, U.S. policy on Syria “has a sort of cobbled together feel to it.” The basic pillar are countering ISIS in northeastern Syria, which is bolstered by the U.S. military presence in the region. There is also support for a political solution under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, and concern about the regime’s accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Maintaining the U.S. troops in northeastern Syria is important as they have a vital impact on countering ISIS, according to Roebuck. “I think that effort is continuing, and they are working successfully with our local partners, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces],” he stated.

Revkin said that despite the undeniable harm that U.S. military operations have caused in Syria, most Syrians feel that some continued U.S. military presence is essential to maintaining security and filling a vacuum that would otherwise be occupied by bad actors. “The continuing presence of around 900 U.S. troops in northeast Syria with limited support from our local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, I consider to be very critical for maintaining security in northeast Syria,” she said.

It is premature to write off sanctions as being totally ineffective, Revkin argued. “It would be a real mistake to give up on the idea of sanctions. What message would that send to Putin and any resurgence of authoritarianism around the world?”

Landis disagreed as he believes sanctions hurt the average Syrian. “If the Arabs are saying the sanctions are a real problem, we are going to get into deep difficulty with our allies in the Middle East if we continue this sanctions regime,” he said. “I don’t think we should be at loggerheads and fighting the Arab world over sanctions. Arab countries have asked that sanctions be lifted so that they can rebuild, and Syrians can rebuild their own lives.”

Landis added that Washington needs to imagine how Syria can move forward. “The Kurds can work with the government in Damascus,” Landis believes, given their prior cooperation. “It’s a minoritarian regime, it needs the Kurds in order to rule the northeast of Syria and only by repairing those relationships is Syria going to get back on its feet and rebuild,” he insisted. “That’s what the Arab governments have all come to a decision on in this effort to re-normalize and they are trying to turn a new page.”

U.S. group delivers aid to Syria’s Rukban camp

A U.S.-based non-profit organization – with some logistical help from U.S. forces – has successfully delivered an aid convoy into Syria’s Rukban camp, circumventing a years-long blockade by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that reduced its population by the thousands, Abu Dhabi’s The National reports.

The Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) announced the aid delivery on Tuesday, promising that more have been scheduled in the coming weeks.

SETF said U.S. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) vehicles that had available space assisted in the physical delivery of the aid package, but Washington did not provide any of the aid or divert its resources into the camp.

“Thank God after years we’ve been able to get the support of the Department of Defence in bringing in aid, utilizing available space,” SETF’s Executive Director Mouaz Moustafa told The National.

A State Department official told The National that “the Biden administration remains committed to increasing humanitarian access to all parts of Syria, including the Rukban settlement.”

“We are appalled that the Assad regime and Russia have repeatedly blocked aid shipments to Rukban, and we strongly support the UN’s efforts to negotiate access to the area,” the official added.

SETF emphasized that aircraft used are already flying to and from Rukban for continuing OIR operations.

“They’ve simply supported us as an American NGO that relies on donations by American communities across the United States from Arkansas to Massachusetts to Philadelphia,” Mr. Moustafa said.

The initial delivery includes seeds and irrigation tools, “which will enable the residents to cultivate their own sustenance,” SETF said.

The camp, made largely of mud-brick homes and makeshift tents, has for years lacked basic medical supplies and health infrastructure, and many residents have died of disease and exposure.

“Despite the failure of the [United Nations] and the international community, a small American NGO, thanks to the support and generosity of the American people, has now broken a Russian, Iranian, Assad regime seize on this camp,” Mr. Moustafa told The National.

SETF has worked for years to get small amounts of aid into the otherwise isolated camp, even opening its sole pharmacy “to provide free medicine, when we can bring in medicine,” said Mr Moustafa.

“We feel ecstatic, it gives me hope that if people like Americans who believe in human rights if they come together and work together, we can really make a difference. And in this case, this helped save 8,000 lives.”

Turkish drone strike kills two Kurdish local officials and their driver in north Syria, officials say

The Associated Press reported that a Turkish drone attack killed two Kurdish local officials and their driver in northeast Syria on Tuesday in the latest such strike in the war-torn country, officials said, as talks on Syria’s conflict began in Kazakhstan.

The Kurdish-led authority in northeast Syria said Tuesday’s strike hit a car near the town of Qamishli, killing the co-chairperson of the town’s council, Yusra Darwish, and her deputy, Liman Shweish, as well as their driver. An additional local official was wounded in the attack.

The attack is the latest in a series of such strikes by Turkey’s military that has been targeting Kurdish officials and fighters in northeast Syria for months. Turkey says the main Syrian Kurdish militia is allied to the outlawed Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 that has killed tens of thousands of people.

The authority said in a statement that the four were visiting institutions run by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria when they came under drone attack while on the road outside Qamishli.

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