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Syria Today – France Calls for Assad to be Trialed; Jordan FM Meets Pedersen; Regime Crackdown on Captagone Trade “Not Serious”

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – France Calls for Assad to be Trialed; Jordan FM Meets Pedersen; Regime Crackdown on Captagone Trade “Not Serious”

The French foreign minister has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be prosecuted due to the large number of deaths and the use of chemical weapons during the country’s civil war. In a separate development, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs engaged in extensive discussions to address the Syrian crisis, focusing on collaboration between Jordan and international organizations to tackle the issue of Syrian refugees. Additionally, there have been reports that the Syrian regime has conducted a series of arrests targeting drug dealers in the southern province of Deraa. This action is seen by some as an attempt to meet the conditions set by Arab League members for Syria’s re-entry, while also protecting its own drug-trafficking networks.

Syria’s Assad should be put on trial, says French foreign minister

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be put on trial following “hundreds of thousands of deaths” and “chemical arms use” during the country’s civil war, the French foreign minister said on Tuesday.

AFP reported that Catherine Colonna said, answering a question during a television interview if she wanted Assad to be tried, “the answer is yes”, adding that “the battle against crime, against impunity is part of French diplomacy.”

Assad last week returned to the regional scene with an appearance at a summit of the Arab League, an international organization he had been banned from for a decade.

Colonna nevertheless said Paris would not be changing its policy towards the Syrian ruler.

“We have to remember who Bashar al-Assad is. He’s a leader who has been the enemy of his own people for more than 10 years,” she said.

A lifting of European Union sanctions on the Syrian regime was “certainly not” planned, she added.

“So long as he doesn’t change, so long as he doesn’t commit to reconciliation, to the fight against terrorism, the fight against drugs… so long as he doesn’t fulfil his commitments, there’s no reason to change our attitude towards him,” Colonna said.

“I think it’s up to him to change, it’s not up to France to change our attitude,” she added.

Jordan, UN officials hold talks to solve Syria’s crisis

Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi held on Monday extensive talks to solve the Syrian crisis and focused on mechanisms of cooperation between Jordan and international organizations to face the Syrian refugee crisis.

Jordan’s News Agency (Petra) said the talks were held with the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi and the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen.

Safadi stressed the importance of cooperation between the Arab Committee for Liaison with Syria, which was formed by the Arab League and the UN in efforts to solve the Syrian crisis.

Safadi and the UN officials discussed cooperation to provide the necessary security and living conditions for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees.

Jordan has hosted more than 1.3 million Syrians since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, of them 669.483 are registered by the UNHCR.

The foreign minister also called for taking effective steps to help refugees who choose to return, in terms of ensuring their security and safety and providing them with the requirements for a decent life.

The participants agreed to continue coordination in order to create the necessary conditions for the voluntary return of refugees, to help those who choose to return and to provide them and host countries with adequate support.

Syrian regime raids on ‘small-time drug dealers’ a ‘cynical move’ to appease Arab League

Last week, the Syrian regime carried out a spate of arrests targeting drug dealers across the southern province of Deraa in a move some say aimed at appeasing Arab League members’ conditions for Syria’s re-entry while safeguarding its own drug-trafficking networks, The New Arab reported.

According to the Horan Free League (HFL), an independent media platform based in Daraa province, on May 14th, Syrian security raided the al-Salem compound in Kharab Al-Shahm belonging to alleged drug dealer Hamad Mahawish al-Khalidi and two arrests were made. In the same week, a farm near Maaraba village belonging to alleged drugs trafficker Rafi Ruwais was raided, with two more detained.  

These events follow the Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria to the fold, with one condition being that the Assad regime act to curb the captagon trade, which since 2018 has blighted the region and has reportedly become Syria’s largest source of income.

However, critics downplay the arrests in light of the regime’s own security services’ reported role in the trade, which has been Syria’s lifeline during a period of crippling sanctions and isolation.

The regime “is not serious in the slightest” about ending the production and export of captagon, a spokesperson for the HFL, Abu Mahmoud Al-Hourani, told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic language sister edition.

“[The regime is] combatting drug traffickers in Daraa using other traffickers,” he added:

“The raids against drug dealers carried out by the military-security services were led by Imad Abu Zreik, himself accused of drug trafficking and who appears on the US sanctions list.”

Hourani said powerful figures in the drugs trade, “like Rafi Ruwais”, were instructed to leave Syria for Lebanon, and believes the regime will only target minor dealers for “media-related aims”.

Ibrahim al-Jabawi, a member of the opposition’s Syrian Negotiation Commission, downplayed the importance of the raids, saying those targeted represent the tail-end of the captagon trade and that the major dealers are inside Iranian and Hezbollah militias, as well as the Fourth Division.

The Fourth Division is led by President Bashar Al-Assad’s brother, Maher, and is one of the most prominent bodies accused of drug production and trafficking.

Mohammed Salem from the Syrian Dialogue Center believes the regime would carry out raids on small-scale traders to show it was cooperating with Jordan and Saudi Arabia after being allowed back in the League.

“The big merchants and manufacturers are part of the system and are protected by it,” he added.

Israeli Defense Chief Says Military Has More Than Doubled Strikes on Iranian Targets in Syria 

Israel’s defence minister Monday said that Israel’s new government has greatly increased the number of strikes on Iranian targets since taking office late last year, according to Asharq al-Awsat.

Yoav Gallant did not provide an exact number of airstrikes. But the address, delivered at a security conference, marked rare public comments on Israeli military activity in Syria.

“Since I took office, the number of Israeli strikes against the Iranians in Syria has doubled,” Gallant said.

“As part of this campaign, we are working methodically to strike the Iranian intelligence capabilities in Syria,” he said. “These strikes inflict significant damage to the attempts by the Revolutionary Guard to establish a foothold a few kilometres from the Israeli border.”

Gallant also accused Iran of converting civilian ships into military vessels armed with weapons such as drones, missiles and intelligence-gathering capabilities. He said Iran hopes to station these ships at long distances from Iran.

“Iran aims to expand its reach to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and even the shores of the Mediterranean,” he said. “This is a structured plan designed to threaten trade and flight routes — both military and civilian — and to create a permanent threat in the maritime arena.”

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, citing its calls for Israel’s destruction and its support for anti-Israel militant groups across the region. It also accuses Iran of trying to develop a nuclear bomb — a charge Iran denies.

Israeli officials have acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes on Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria — where Iran has sent advisers and forces to assist President Bashar Assad in a 12-year civil war. But officials have given few details over the years and almost never comment on specific operations.

For Assad, Syria-Arab Normalization May Come With a Poisoned Chalice 

Ryan Bohl, Senior Middle East and North Africa published a long analysis on readmitting Bashar al-Asssad to the Arab League. 

For Bohl, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia marked a significant diplomatic breakthrough in Syria’s relations with the Arab world. Arab nations are offering to restore diplomatic ties with Syria in exchange for cooperation on issues such as drug exports, refugees, and terrorism. The hope is that this normalization process will lead to reconstruction aid and potentially even sanctions relief, as Arab states seek to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria and restore its economic and diplomatic independence. However, there are significant challenges that Assad’s government must address, particularly the country’s transformation into a warlord state.

Bohl explained that during the civil war, Syria’s political model shifted from an authoritarian system based on ideology and nationalism to a feudal system characterized by power based on kinship, ethnicity, and control over the economy. This shift resulted in a booming drug market, mass political violence, a large refugee population, and a reliance on external states like Iran for support. 

Arab nations hope that by normalizing relations with Syria, they can address these issues and reduce the country’s international isolation. However, this would require the Syrian government to undermine the very model that has allowed it to survive the civil war, which will be challenging without the easing of Western sanctions.

The writer detailed how Syria’s warlord political model emerged as a result of the civil war, with sectarian militias taking over from professional soldiers and military units. These militias, some of which are supported by foreign powers like Iran and Russia, demand control over the economy, especially the black market, as they engage in drug exports to bypass international sanctions. Loyalty to the state has shifted from ideological and nationalist terms to sectarian and ethnoreligious ones, with certain groups receiving preferential treatment while others are marginalized.

The Arab world hopes that by engaging diplomatically with Syria, the country can move away from its warlord model. They seek to address challenges such as drug exports, the refugee crisis, and Iranian influence. Diplomatic re-engagement is the first step, but it alone cannot replace the warlord model that has helped the Syrian government maintain control. The government relies on militias for security, with these militias providing crucial support in facing off against rebels and maintaining internal order. Additionally, the captagon drug trade provides the government with much-needed cash to retain the loyalty of its supporters and militias.

Softening the economic blow of ending the captagon trade would require convincing the West to lift its sanctions on Syria, but this is unlikely without significant political changes and reconciliation with rebel groups. The Syrian government would need to offer concessions that appease the West while maintaining its hold on power, which could lead to internal divisions and violence. The support of Russia and Iran, who oppose changes that weaken their influence, further complicates the prospect of lifting sanctions.

Similarly, the return of refugees hinges on political moderation and reining in the power of militias. However, doing so could invite violent pushback from loyalists and risk backlash from the ethnoreligious supporters who form the backbone of support for the state. As a result, while diplomatic ties may be restored, little progress is expected in unlocking significant economic or reconstruction aid for Syria.

In conclusion, while Assad’s government may be welcomed back diplomatically by the Arab world, the challenges posed by Syria’s warlord political model and Western sanctions will hinder any meaningful economic or reconstruction support. The normalization process is unlikely to address the underlying issues that have plagued Syria since the civil war, and the country will continue to rely on the black market and face significant obstacles on its path to recovery.

HTS arrests 4 women on charge of “incitement” in Syria’s Idlib

North Press reported that the Security Apparatus of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front) arrested four women, ten days after arresting their husbands, on alleged charges of launching an inciting campaign against the HTS on social media in a village north of Idlib, northwest Syria.

A source from the police in the village of Deir Hassan told North Press that a storming took place at about 12 on Monday midnight, arresting four women and accompanying them to the security apparatus’ headquarters 106, where they were stripped of their devices.

The source added that the four security vehicles of the security apparatus, headed by Abu Hamza al-Ansari, participated in the operation.

Ten days ago, the HTS arrested the women’s husbands under the same charge, according to the same source.

Lately, the HTS has launched a number of arrest campaigns against individuals it described as “inciters” in several villages, including the villages of Haranabush, Deir Hassan, Killi, the city of Jisr al-Shughur, and the town of Ariha in the countryside of Idlib, as well as, the town of Termanin in the western countryside of Aleppo.

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