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Syria Today – Biden Says Assad Must Go; Inflation Wreaks Havoc; Israeli Strike

Your daily-brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Biden Says Assad Must Go; Inflation Wreaks Havoc; Israeli Strike

During a private fundraiser where President Biden was present, Alaa Tello, a Syrian American from Massachusetts, expressed her opinion by stating, “Assad needs to be removed.” Responding to Tello, Biden reportedly agreed with her sentiment. Meanwhile, the Syrian Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection made an announcement regarding a rise in the prices of octane 95 gasoline. The ministry has set the new price at 8,600 SYP (equivalent to approximately $0.92) per liter. Concurrently, the Israeli Air Force conducted airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, the capital of Syria, on Wednesday night.

Biden tells Syrian activists he still thinks Assad must go

Three Syrian American activists took advantage of their audience with Biden at a private fundraiser on June 27th in Maryland to implore him to do more to oppose Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and protect innocent Syrian civilians. 

Encouragingly, these activists told Josh Rogin, a Washington Post columnist, Biden not only seemed to care deeply about the plight of Syrians but also seemed to want to do more about it. Yet they also noted that the president’s statements on Syria don’t match his own administration’s current policies. They are right on both counts.

Alaa Tello, a Syrian American from Massachusetts, said she told Biden, “Assad must go.” Biden then responded, according to Tello, “I agree.” That contrasts sharply with his administration’s own recent actions, which include telling Arab gulf countries that the United States won’t oppose their normalization of Assad and failing to implement U.S. sanctions against Assad’s enablers.

Tello, according to Rogin, pressed the president to help the Syrian people free themselves from the grip of Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners, whose campaign of mass atrocities is now in its 13th year.

“He said, ‘I can’t promise you, but I will do the best I can,’” Tello told me. “He cared. He engaged in the conversation with a high level of empathy and I felt a lot of hope that the United States and the president will help the Syrian people.”

Tello’s husband, Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis, a physician, said he implored Biden to pay more attention to Syria’s northwest Idleb province, where more than 3 million internally displaced civilians are living in squalor, cut off from the world, and enduring constant attacks from Syrian and Russian forces.

“We have to save Idleb,” Ghbeis told Biden. “Please save Idleb, Mr. President.” Biden responded: “I hear you, but I can’t send U.S. soldiers to Syria.” Ghbeis answered, “Mr. President, no need to, we can do it, we can protect ourselves, we just need more support from the U.S.”

The op-ed says Ghbeis spelled out the specific asks of the Syrian American activists in a Wednesday op-ed in the Hill that he co-wrote with former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Ghbeis and Engel want the Biden administration to actively oppose Assad’s further diplomatic rehabilitation, including his possible attendance at an international climate conference later this year in the United Arab Emirates. The Arab League welcomed Assad back as a member this year.

Prices go up

On July 6th, 2023, the Syrian Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection announced an increase in the prices of octane 95 gasoline. The new price set by the ministry is 8,600 SYP (approximately $0.92) per litre.

North Press says This follows a previous price increase in May when the ministry raised the price of octane 95 gasoline from 5,750 to 7,600 SYP per litre.

In addition to these domestic price adjustments, the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources recently established a pricing system for gasoline in USD specifically for Syrian expatriates and foreign visitors. The prices were determined based on global market rates, which currently stand at approximately $1.10 for octane 90 and $1.20 for octane 95.

Fuel shortages and escalating prices of essential commodities and food products have been prevalent in government-held areas. The situation is aggravated by the devaluation of the Syrian pound against the US Dollar, significantly impacting the lives of the population.

Israeli Air Force hit targets near Damascus overnight

The Israeli Air Force carried out airstrikes against targets near the Syrian capital of Damascus on Wednesday night, the Ynet news site reported.

The report, which did not cite any sources, said Syria did not use air defences against the strike as it normally does.

Syrian media has so far made no mention of the incident, which would mark the second alleged IAF strike in Syria this week.

Ynet assessed that the strike on Wednesday night targeted warehouses storing “advanced Iranian weapons.”

The strike came as Syria and Russia were holding joint air drills.

The exercises, which began Wednesday and were scheduled to last six days, were to “focus on joint air, air defence and electronic warfare operations to counter airstrikes,” the Russian military said.

Before dawn on Sunday, the Israeli military said fighter jets struck a Syrian air defence battery in response to an anti-aircraft missile launched from the system earlier in the night that exploded in Israeli airspace.

The nose of what appears to be an S-200 anti-aircraft missile, launched from Syria, after it exploded over Israel and landed in the southern city of Rahat, early July 1, 2023. (Courtesy: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Northwest Syria aid likely to survive Russian threats, for now

The UN Security Council is facing another battle over humanitarian aid to rebel-held regions of Syria as the mandate for aid agencies expires on July 10, The New Humanitarian reports

The mandate, which allows UN agencies to provide assistance to people in rebel-controlled border areas through neighboring states, must be regularly reapproved by the Security Council. Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has used its veto powers to seek concessions in previous negotiations. If a new resolution is not adopted by the expiration date, the Bab al-Hawa border gate from Turkey to northern Syria will be closed to UN agencies, potentially affecting over four million people in the region.

According to the report, Northwestern Syria, controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, a Turkish-backed faction, is one of the country’s most impoverished regions. The UN estimates that nearly half of the 4.5 million people in the region live in temporary camps, and nine out of ten rely on outside assistance. The UN cross-border operation, which reaches 2.7 million Syrians per month with assistance, is seen as a vital lifeline in the absence of a political solution. Private NGOs can still cross the border with Turkish approval, but they heavily rely on UN support.

The UN mandate renewal is crucial for aid organizations operating in the region, as it provides technical support, vaccines, medical supplies, and medications. The Syrian government opened two additional crossings for UN use after the earthquakes, but they are not as significant as Bab al-Hawa. The move was seen as a positive development, potentially aimed at gaining Arab support or presenting Damascus as a responsible aid manager.

A group of Syrian and international NGOs has urged the Security Council to reauthorize the UN’s use of Bab al-Hawa for another 12 months, highlighting the need for stable access, long-term funding, and operational planning. They argue that short-term agreements are not sufficient to address the deep vulnerabilities and comprehensive needs of the population in Syria. Sustained access through the cross-border mechanism is seen as imperative to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

U.S. releases video of Russian fighter jets harassing American drones over Syria

Russian fighter jets flew dangerously close to several U.S. drone aircraft over Syria, setting off flares and forcing the MQ-9 Reapers to take evasive maneuvers, the Air Force said, AP reported.

U.S. Air Forces Central released a video of Wednesday’s encounter showing a Russian SU-35 fighter closing in on a Reaper and later a number of the so-called parachute flares moving into the drone’s flight path. The flares are attached to parachutes.

Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, commander of 9th Air Force in the Middle East, said three of the U.S. drones were operating over northwest Syria after 10:30 a.m. local time, on a mission against the Islamic State group which was not detailed, when three of the Russian aircraft “began harassing the drones.” The drones were not armed with weapons and are commonly used for reconnaissance missions.

In a statement, Grynkewich said one of the Russian pilots moved their aircraft in front of a drone and engaged the SU-35’s afterburner, which greatly increases its speed and air pressure. The jet blast from the afterburner can potentially damage the Reaper’s electronics, and Grynkewich said it reduced the drone operator’s ability to safely operate the aircraft.

“Russian military aircraft engaged in unsafe and unprofessional behavior while interacting with U.S. aircraft in Syria,” he said, adding that the actions threaten the safety of the U.S. and Russian forces. “We urge Russian forces in Syria to cease this reckless behaviour and adhere to the standards of behavior expected of a professional air force so we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Wagner mutiny could push a weak Russia closer to Iran

Iran is not interested in a highly powerful Russia that could block Iranian ambitions in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. At the same time, a weak Russia would constitute a dangerous development paving the way for greater Western influence along Iran’s northern border and potentially even leading to the reversal of Moscow’s dependence on Tehran.

According to an article published by Stimson.org, When a mutiny led by one-time Vladimir Putin ally and Wagner Group chief Evgeny Prigozhin began on June 24, 2023, Iranian officials were uneasy. The sudden unrest came at a time of unprecedented alignment between Tehran and Moscow and caught the Iranian regime off-guard.

Iranian media reacted to the events in a variety of ways. Hard-line Fars News Agency published numerous articles on the unfolding events and explained the reasons for the mutiny, essentially parroting information provided by Russian news outlets. Fars also criticized Western media for double standards for its apparent approval of a revolt led by someone equally if not more brutal than Putin.

The Nour Agency was more explicit in accusing the West of purposefully fomenting Putin’s downfall. The same agency, however, also published more restrained versions such as one noting that threats to the West would multiply if Prigozhin was able to take control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The Tasnim Agency featured a series of articles as well as analyses that also blamed the West for exacerbating Russia’s difficult position. Hardline Kayhan newspaper predictably accused the West of direct involvement in internal Russian affairs.

Other analysts were more nuanced, and many blamed the mutiny on Moscow’s failure to meet its military goals in Ukraine. The former head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Relations Committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, argued that Putin emerged weaker from the mutiny.

On the official level, Iran openly supported its northern neighbour. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman spoke of the rule of law, while Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed hopes that Russia would prevail. President Ebrahim Raisi called Putin two days after the revolt ended to convey his “full support.”

Iran’s official support for the Russian government and its leader was not surprising. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, and many other countries expressed the same view. What matters is that despite seemingly careful management of the crisis, uncertainty about Russia’s geopolitical power and, most of all, Putin’s ability to control the situation lingers for Iran.

The stakes are high. The two have been lukewarm partners despite a spurt of activity since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Historical grievances as well as conflicting regional ambitions have often prevented the expansion of cooperation since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The war in Ukraine marked a notable break from the previous era. Pressured by the West, Russia openly shifted toward Asia and the Islamic Republic. Expanding trade through the North-South corridor as well as growing military cooperation have increased the stakes for Iran over how well Russia fares both in Ukraine and domestically.  In many ways, the present alignment is exceptional; such cooperation has not been seen since the late 16th century when both Russia and Persia feared the expanding Ottoman Empire.

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