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Syria Today – Damascus Explosion; Leaks Reveal Syrian Debt to Iran

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Damascus Explosion; Leaks Reveal Syrian Debt to Iran

Sunday morning, the sounds of explosions reverberated near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Initially, the cause of these blasts was uncertain, as reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Simultaneously, leaked documents originating from Iran’s Foreign Ministry shed light on significant financial debt. Syria reportedly owes Iran a substantial sum of $50 billion, a sum accumulated over the last decade. These funds were utilized to provide comprehensive support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, encompassing both military and civilian assistance.

Explosions heard in Syrian capital Damascus – state media

Explosions were heard in the vicinity of the Syrian capital Damascus early on Sunday, state media said, adding that the cause was not known, Reuters reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the explosions hit and damaged warehouses storing rockets belonging to Iran-aligned groups. It said there were no confirmed deaths or injuries, adding the cause of the blasts was not known.

Iran has been a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the country’s 12-year conflict. Iran’s proxy militias, including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and pro-Tehran Iraqi groups, hold sway in swathes of eastern, southern and northern Syria and in suburbs around the capital.

Israel has for years carried out attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets but rarely comments on the specifics of a strike in its immediate aftermath.

Reporting By Moaz Abd-Alaziz Writing by Maya Gebeily Editing by William Mallard and Frances Kerry

Arms Proliferation Amid Insecurity: The Rise of Gun Ownership in Northwest Syria

In the aftermath of a decade of war, the opposition-held northwest region of Syria has seen a surge in civilian gun ownership, fueled by an informal and illicit arms trade. This phenomenon is rooted in a longstanding security vacuum, which has created an environment ripe for such a proliferation.

According to an analysis by New Arab, both the regions controlled by the Salvation Government affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the areas governed by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) aligned with Turkey-backed opposition factions have been affected. The deterioration of the rule of law and a lack of accountability have created conditions conducive to the illicit arms trade.

The proliferation of weapons is driven by the notion of self-defense, as cases of theft, kidnappings, and killings have surged. However, this has led to a vicious cycle: the availability of arms and arms dealers has contributed to an overall lack of safety and security in northwest Syria.

According to Fares Shawaf, a former officer from the regime army and now a member of an opposition faction, the majority of the circulating weapons in the region were originally looted from defeated Assad army forces, with many being of Russian and Iranian origin.

The articles add that the situation intensified after a period of relative calm, during which commanders began selling small arms like pistols and rifles to traders, who then sold them to civilians. Shawaf acknowledges that there are also weapons imported from various countries, but the seized weapons from regime forces are far more significant.

While the proliferation of weapons is linked to self-defense in an unstable security environment, unintended consequences have emerged. Arguments among civilians often escalate into gun displays, even in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Accidental deaths have also increased due to a lack of awareness about firearm safety, especially among children and teenagers.

The absence of effective governance and regulation has led to a surge in accidental shootings, kidnappings, and thefts carried out by armed gangs operating with impunity. Kidnapping victims are often subjected to torture, leading to ransom payments and a cycle of indebtedness for their families. Many civilians feel the need to arm themselves to protect against such threats.

According to the outlet, attempts to address this issue, such as HTS’ decision to close weapons stores, have been largely ineffective. The trade has moved online, with social media platforms becoming hubs for small-arms dealers. Numerous Facebook groups openly advertise a variety of weapons for sale, ranging from handguns to machine guns, grenades, and military clothing.

The proliferation of weapons has had serious consequences, leading to a rising death toll, human rights violations, and an exacerbation of the overall security vacuum. While civilian gun ownership is often justified as a means of personal safety, its widespread adoption has perpetuated a cycle of insecurity. In the absence of effective regulations and monitoring, the illicit arms trade continues to flourish, contributing to the overall instability of the region.

ISIS Claims Responsibility for an Attack That Killed 20 Syrian Soldiers, Vows to Keep Fighting

The ISIS group has claimed responsibility for an ambush in eastern Syria that killed at least 20 government soldiers and wounded others, warning that such attacks will continue, Asharq al-Awsat reported.

ISIS sleeper cells still carry deadly attacks despite their defeat in Syria in 2019. The group once controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq where they declared a so-called “caliphate” in 2014.

The Friday night statement said ISIS fighters ambushed two army trucks in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor using different kinds of weapons. ISIS claimed that 40 members of the Syrian military were killed and 10 were wounded.

Syrian opposition activists said the Thursday night attack on a bus carrying soldiers near the town of Mayadeen killed at least 20 soldiers and wounded others. State media said several soldiers were killed and wounded, without giving a breakdown.

“Let the whole world know that our allegiance to our leaders is practiced with deeds and not words,” ISIS said, vowing that their fight will continue “until Doomsday.”

Last week, ISIS announced the death in Syria of its little-known leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi — who had headed the extremist organization since November — and named his successor. He was the fourth leader to be killed since its founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in 2019 by US troops in northwest Syria.

Leaked documents reveals size of Syria’s debts to Iran

Documents leaked from Iran’s Foreign Ministry revealed that Syria owes Iran $50 billion in funds spent to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad over the past ten years in the forms of both military and civilian support, The Al-Monitor reported.

The documents were leaked by the hacktivist group ‘Uprising till Overthrow’, affiliated with the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) opposition group.

According to the documents, the agreements concluded with the Syrian regime to restore the “debts” only cover $18 billion of the $50 billion, which Tehran wants to recover in the form of “investments and the transfer of phosphates, oil and other resources from Syria.”

The documents include a scheduled report entitled “Determining Iran’s Investment Commitment in Syria and Payment of Debts”, prepared by the First Vice President for Economic Coordination and Infrastructure Affairs in February 2023.

The report states that Syria’s debts to Iran are divided into two categories; military and civilian.

Under the civil claims section, it was stated that “during the 10-year war in Syria, in addition to oil exports, Iran has paid lines of credit and other payments to Damascus as well as cash to the Syrian government.”

The agreement signed by the Syrian minister of economy and trade with the former Iranian minister of roads and urban development in September 2022, stipulates the recovery of $18 billion from Syria within the next 50 years, according to the same source.

Iran did not comment on the leaked documents, however, most of the projects and agreements included in the documents have been covered by the Iranian media over the years.

Iran has played a significant role in supporting the Syrian regime politically and militarily throughout the civil war, with the aim of preserving its regional interests and influence.

Syria accuses US of supporting terrorists

The United States is responsible for the military escalation in eastern Syria, where terror groups such as Daesh intensified their activities recently, the Syrian Foreign Ministry has announced.

“US forces are sponsoring terrorists, who are responsible for the August 10 ambush on Syrian servicemen in the Deir ez-Zor governorate,” the ministry said in a statement, published by the SANA news agency on Sunday.

“This criminal act was committed by those whom the United States uses as a tool for implementing its schemes in Syria and the entire region,” it added.

The Syrian ministry underscored that the illegal US military presence on the territory of the country is accompanied by the plundering of its oil reserves and growing economic pressure on the people of Syria.

“The Americans blatantly violate Syria’s sovereignty and destabilize the situation in order to continue their occupation,” the ministry underlined.

Damascus pledged to continue its operations against terrorists until the threat is fully eliminated.

“Syria also confirms its readiness to free its lands from US, Israeli and Turkish forces, in accordance with the international law,” the document noted.

At least 33 Syrian servicemen were killed on August 10 when a bus they were travelling in was ambushed near the city of Al Mayadin some 368 km away from the capital of Damascus. Medical sources said later that the death toll may grow, because 11 wounded servicemen were admitted to hospital in serious condition.

According to Al Hadath television, terrorists carried out over 40 armed assaults in eastern Syria since the start of 2023, killing 67 servicemen and militiamen.

Human trafficking gang who smuggled over 550 Syrian migrants into the EU dismantled

A people trafficking gang alleged to have charged up to $22,000 to smuggle migrants from Syria to Europe have been arrested.

Spanish police have detained 16 Syrians and three Moroccans who are believed to be part of a larger criminal network that charged for what has been described as a “VIP” service.

This network, according to The National,  smuggled Syrians from their country to Sudan, Libya and Algeria and then across the Mediterranean to Spain before they were taken to northern Europe, mainly Norway and Germany.

The arrests were made as part of an operation by the Spanish National Police and German Federal Police, said Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.

“The criminal network is suspected of organizing over 68 illegal transfers, and the consequent smuggling of more than 550 Syrian migrants into the EU,” said Europol.

Five vehicles, smartphones, computers and memory sticks along with about €10,000 ($11,000) in cash and various documents were seized.

According to Europol, the apprehended gang was closely connected to other traffickers smuggling people from Asia and Africa toward Europe.

The close-knit network would transfer migrants between traffickers from one country to another and also arrange the collection and distribution of criminal profits using the Hawala banking system.

The total price for the journey from Syria to the final European destination totalled more than €20,000 ($22,000), says Europol.

The agency said migrants paid €4,000 ($4,400) to travel by air from Beirut to Egypt and €3500 ($3850) to get from there to Algeria via Libya and Tunis overland.

They were then charged €10,000 ($11,000) to be taken from the Algerian to Almeria and Murcia in Spain by and then via land to the cities Madrid, Cuenca and Toledo.

This was described as a “VIP service” by Europol that included a transfer from the arrival point on the Spanish mainland, as well as accommodation there, and took an “unusually long and expensive route”.

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