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Syria Today – Damascus Tehran Ties Under Test; Rare Moments of Joy in al-Hol

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Damascus Tehran Ties Under Test; Rare Moments of Joy in al-Hol

Asharq al-Awsat has published a long report on the possibility of deterioration in the Syrian-Iranian relationship. 

It appears, according to the report, that the war on Gaza has impacted Iran’s military deployment in Syria. Local sources said Tehran has started to put in place plans for the relocation of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) headquarters from the Damascus countryside to regions close to the border with Lebanon after the killing of several of its prominent members in Israeli strikes in recent months.

Syria has notably taken “neutral” and even “cold” stances towards Iran in wake of these developments, amid Iranian suspicions that Syrian security agencies could have leaked information about its officers who were later targeted by Israel.

Iran also appears to be alarmed by Damascus’ openness to overtures to return to the Arab fold, which could be interpreted as distancing itself from Tehran.

Asharq Al-Awsat was in Syria where it witnessed how the deployment of gunmen at the Sayyeda Zainab region has become limited to Lebanese Hezbollah members when Iran’s presence used to be felt in the past. The area is a destination for Shiite visitors from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Local sources in the town of Hujeirah north of Sayyeda Zainab told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This is the headquarters of Iranian religious and military leaders. Ever since Israel intensified its strikes on the region, we have started to see very little of them. We have hardly seen them as of late. They have disappeared.”

Israel struck in April the Iranian consulate in Damascus, leaving seven people dead, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force in Syria and Lebanon. The development was a blow to Iran who after a decade of conflict in Syria, had sent tens of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militia members to back the Damascus regime.

The war on Gaza has significantly strained the relationship between Iran and Syria. Following recent Israeli strikes, including one that destroyed the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Iran is relocating its Revolutionary Guards from the Damascus countryside to areas closer to the Lebanese border. This shift comes after the deaths of several Iranian officials in these strikes.

Syria has adopted a noticeably neutral, even cold, stance toward Iran amid these developments, raising Iranian concerns about possible Syrian security leaks that facilitated the targeting of its officers by Israel. Additionally, Iran is wary of Syria’s renewed engagement with Arab states, seeing it as a move away from its alliance with Tehran.

On the ground, the presence of Iranian forces and affiliated militias in regions like Sayyeda Zainab has noticeably decreased, with Lebanese Hezbollah members now predominantly seen in these areas. Despite these tensions and the physical withdrawal of Iranian forces from key positions, Iran insists it will maintain its military presence in Syria.

This cooling of relations is further complicated by Syria’s cautious approach to the Gaza conflict, opting to stay out of the fray and not open the Golan front, contrasting sharply with the expectations of its Iranian ally. This standoffishness is seen by Iran as a betrayal, given its substantial support for the Assad regime throughout the Syrian civil war.

Overall, the war on Gaza has exposed and exacerbated underlying tensions between Tehran and Damascus, with Syria increasingly looking to restore relations with Arab states and the West, potentially at the expense of its alliance with Iran.

A Rare Distraction for Youngsters at a Syrian Camp Spotlights a Precarious Existence

Newsline has published a long feature story on the challenging life in the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, where children of Islamic State group members live under harsh conditions with limited access to basic amenities and education. Occasional visits from a clown troupe offer brief moments of joy, highlighting the stark contrast between their temporary relief and the ongoing severe challenges they face. 

In the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, home to around 31,000 children of Islamic State group members, the stark reality of life is occasionally punctured by rare moments of joy, such as a visit from a clown troupe. This temporary distraction, witnessed by photojournalist Victor J. Blue, underscores the severe and ongoing challenges faced by these children, who live in a high-security environment that closely resembles an open-air prison.

According to the report, most of these children, including twelve-year-old Homam from Iraq, have spent significant portions of their lives in the camp, with little access to education or normal childhood activities. The camp, housing nearly 50,000 people, mostly women and children, is managed by the Kurdish-controlled, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), although much of the internal security is left to the residents themselves, including makeshift teenage security guards and active Islamic State sleeper cells.

The conditions at al-Hol are dire. Basic amenities are scarce, and the camp lacks a functioning school system, leaving many children without formal education. The environment is not only physically harsh but also dangerous. Reports from organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch highlight frequent accidents, sexual assaults, and even murders, including the horrifying beheadings of two young girls in 2022.

Moments of joy amidst despair

A clown troupe, consisting of Ali Batran and Abu Reem, visited the camp to provide some light-hearted entertainment for the children of Islamic State group members. This initiative, supported by the U.S.-based Zomia foundation, aimed to bring a momentary escape from the grim realities of camp life. The clowns, who travelled from Manbij, faced the challenging conditions of the camp but found the experience rewarding, particularly Batran, who discovered personal joy in performing despite the backdrop of war and economic hardship.

The performances were met with mixed reactions—while some children laughed, others were frightened by the unfamiliar sight of clowns. 

This visit by the clowns, though fleeting, highlighted the complex layers of trauma, politics, and the simple human need for relief and happiness within such a fraught environment, raising poignant questions about the future of these displaced children and the broader implications of their continued detention in al-Hol.

Returned ISIS wife Mariam Raad pleads guilty to entering terrorist-controlled region

So-called ISIS bride Mariam Raad, 32, was arrested in January 2023 following a joint investigation between NSW Police and the Australian Federal Police.

According to ABC news, Mariam was charged with entering or remaining in an area controlled by the Islamic State group.

Raad, from Young in southern NSW, appeared via video link in Goulburn Local Court on Wednesday wearing a maroon headscarf and black-rimmed glasses.

She did not speak during the brief proceedings.

Lawyers representing the Commonwealth and Raad told Magistrate Robert Rabbidge that a statement of facts had been agreed upon by both sides and a guilty plea had been entered.

The offence carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison. 

Raad was charged following an investigation which began when she entered Syria in 2014 and continued after she and four other wives of ISIS fighters returned to Australia from Syria.

Police alleged Raad willingly travelled to the region to join her husband Muhammad Zahab and was aware of his activities with the terrorist group.

Speaking to the ABC from a refugee camp in 2021, Raad said she did not have a choice in going to Syria.

“I didn’t know my husband was a senior in the Islamic State, and I didn’t even know anything about my husband’s work,” she said.

American woman repatriated from Syria accused of training with ISIS

An American woman repatriated to the United States from Syria is facing criminal charges for training with ISIS abroad, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday, according to CNN.

Halima Salman, who is in her 20s, is accused of learning how to use an AK-47 assault rifle from the terrorist organization while living in Syria.

Salman, according to a US official, was one of 11 US citizens, all part of one family, from northeast Syria who were repatriated in what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the “largest single repatriation” of Americans from that region.

A State Department official previously told CNN that none of the family are former ISIS fighters. CNN has reached out to the State Department for comment on the charges against Salman.

According to court documents, Salman, who was 17 years old at the time, left the United States and entered an ISIS-controlled area of Syria around late 2016 or early 2017. Once she turned 18, prosecutors say, Salman received her training from ISIS. She was captured by or surrendered to “forces opposed by ISIS” about two years later in Baghouz, Syria.

Could the EU-Lebanon aid deal backfire on Syrian refugees?

The European Union (EU) has recently committed to providing €1 billion in aid to Lebanon, a significant financial injection aimed primarily at supporting the large number of Syrian refugees residing in the country, DW has reported. 

Despite the substantial sum, the announcement of this aid package has ignited a storm of controversy and dissatisfaction within Lebanese political and social spheres.

The core of the contention arises from concerns that the EU’s financial assistance is a strategic move to contain Syrian refugees within Lebanon’s borders, thus preventing their migration to Europe. Prominent Lebanese opposition figures and critics have vocally condemned the agreement, suggesting that it compromises Lebanon’s sovereignty and the future of its people. Gebran Bassil, an opposition politician, starkly criticized the deal, declaring that “the Lebanese … people are not for sale, nor for rent.” Similarly, a statement from an opposition coalition likened the agreement to a betrayal, equating it to exchanging “the security, stability, and future of the Lebanese for 30 pieces of silver.”

Critics within Lebanon have also highlighted a lack of transparency and adequate governance measures in the deal, pointing out that the agreement does little to address ongoing issues of corruption within the country. Halime El Kaakour, a Lebanese politician known for her anti-corruption stance, expressed skepticism about the deal on social media, describing it as “propaganda from Brussels to Beirut,” without any real guarantees to address governance or corruption.

Observers and critics of the EU-Lebanon deal argue that rather than providing relief or improving conditions for refugees, the aid is likely to exacerbate the situation. Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch’s EU director, pointed out the problematic nature of the EU’s approach, which he described as transactional. According to Dam, the EU is essentially paying Lebanon to manage migration issues, which includes deterring migration through potentially coercive measures. This approach is reminiscent of other deals the EU has struck with countries like Turkey and Tunisia, aimed at controlling migration flows to Europe.

The deal’s focus on improving border and migration control, as announced by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to Beirut, has been particularly controversial. Critics argue that supporting Lebanese security forces without strict oversight could lead to more human rights violations, particularly against Syrian refugees.


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