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Syria Today – Israeli Strike on Homs; French Delegation in NE; Syrian Diplomats in Moscow

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Israeli Strike on Homs; French Delegation in NE; Syrian Diplomats in Moscow

Five Syrian soldiers were wounded in an Israeli air strike near the western city of Homs early Sunday, Syrian regime news agency SANA has reported.

The strike was Israel’s third in Syria in recent days after Damascus was targeted on the nights of March 30 and 31, according to the agency.

“Today at around 00:35 (2135 GMT), the Israeli enemy carried out an air assault from northeast of Beirut targeting positions in the city of Homs and its province,” SANA reported on Sunday, citing a military source.

Syria’s air defence intercepted several missiles, but five soldiers were wounded and some material damage was reported, the source added.

Second Iranian dies in the strike 

A military adviser to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps  (IRGC) died of his injuries after an Israeli air strike near Syria’s capital Damascus, Iranian semi-official Mehr News Agency reported on Sunday.

The news agency added that the officer was identified as Meqdad Meqdani.

The air strike that injured and subsequently killed the Revolutionary Guard was carried out early on Friday, and formed the second round of aerial attacks in less than 24 hours.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani vehemently condemned on Friday the attacks that the “aggressive Zionist regime” has conducted against a number of sites in Damascus, Tasnim News Agency reported.

Meqdani is now the second officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be killed following the Israeli attack, as the IRGC announced the death of one of its members earlier.

The Guards’ official website IRNA, named the member as Milad Heidari, who was a military advisor and guard officer.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed Heidari’s death.

Additionally, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards vowed that Tehran “will undoubtedly respond to this crime,” according to the statement.

During more than a decade of war, Israel has carried out hundreds of attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets in Syria, as well as affiliates of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, where Tehran’s influence has grown since it began supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the civil war that began in 2011.

Satellite images show damage 

Satellite images published by an Israeli intelligence and imagery firm show damage purportedly caused to the Syrian military airport at al-Dabaa near Homs in an alleged Israeli airstrike overnight.

According to The Times of Israel, the airstrike late last night likely targeted Iranian-backed Hezbollah drone activity, destroying an aircraft shed, a UAV communication station and a communication vehicle.

Western intelligence sources told Reuters the strikes hit a series of air bases in central Syria where Iranian personnel are based.

Syrian foreign minister visits Egypt for first time in over a decade

Syria’s foreign minister met his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo on Saturday in the first such visit in more than a decade. 

Faisal Mekdad held a meeting with Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry at the foreign ministry in the capital, in the first official visit since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

The visit will help put in place steps to return Syria to the Arab League through Egyptian and Saudi Arabian mediation, an Egyptian security source told Reuters.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League 12 years ago following the government’s violent crackdown on mass protests against Bashar al-Assad’s rule, with many Arab states demanding the president’s removal.

But in recent years, as Assad – with significant Russian assistance – has defeated his enemies across much of Syria, regional states have taken steps to end the isolation of Damascus, with the United Arab Emirates at the forefront of Arab rapprochement.

Arab engagement with Assad may fall short

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is getting some heat from critics for not doing enough to stop the normalization of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government by Arab countries, Al-Monitor reports.

A bipartisan Syria policy letter, addressed to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, signed by approximately 40 former senior officials and experts, calls for a second look at Syria policy, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reports.

The catalyst for the letter has been the accelerated trend toward normalization of the Assad government by Arab states since the earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February.

The letter calls on the Biden Administration to oppose normalization in both deed and word; make more expansive use of sanctions; employ a strategic approach to aid; and expand entry points and paths for humanitarian assistance, including outside of both Syrian government control and the UN system. 

The letter is an understandable expression of frustration and a worthy attempt to kick up a discussion; less so a workable blueprint. Syria is a tragedy, and its people definitely deserve a reprieve and a chance at a better future. But it’s hard to envision, at this stage, the US rallying to jump-start a political process coopted in recent years by the so-called ‘Astana group’ of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

AANES receives French Senate, Parliament delegation

A delegation from the French Parliament and Senate discussed economic and development projects and enhancing cooperation with the General Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), North Press reported

The Foreign Relations Department affiliated with the AANES announced on Sunday that a French delegation consisting of Laurence Cohen and Pierre Laurent, members of the Senate representing the Communist Party, Marie Pochon, a member in the French Parliament from the Green and Environment Party, and Khaled Issa, AANES’ representative in France, visited the General Council’s office on Saturday.

The two sides discussed the “necessity of elevating the level of cooperation and exchange of expertise between the AANES’ General Council and the French Parliament in the service of administrative and institutional work and to consolidate the political and partisan freedom in north and east Syria.”

The French delegation praised the role of the AANES and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the mission to fight ISIS and stressed its support in all areas, according to the AANES’ website. 

Russia protests ‘provocative actions’ by U.S. forces in Syria

Russia has protested to the American-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group about “provocative actions” by U.S. armed forces in Syria, Tass news agency was quoted by Reuters as saying on Friday.

Tass cited a senior Russian official as saying the incidents had occurred in the northeastern province of Hasakeh. The United States has been deploying troops in Syria for almost eight years to combat ISIS.

Hundreds of ISIS fighters are camped in desolate areas where neither the coalition nor the Syrian army exerts full control. Russia – which together with Turkey is carrying out joint patrols in northern Syria – has agreed to special zones where the coalition can operate.

But Russian Rear Admiral Oleg Gurinov, head of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria, told Tass that U.S. forces had twice been spotted in areas which lay outside the agreed zones.

“Provocative actions on the part of U.S. armed forces units have been noted in Hassakeh province … the Russian side protested with the coalition,” he said, without giving details of timing.

Last week the U.S. military carried out multiple air strikes in Syria against Iran-aligned groups that it blamed for a drone attack that killed an American contractor at a coalition base in the northeast of the country.

Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, tipping the balance in President Bashar Al-Assad’s favour. Moscow has since expanded its military facilities in the country with a permanent air base and also has a naval base. 

Syrian delegation heads to Moscow to participate in Assistant Foreign Ministers Quadripartite Meeting

SANA reports that a delegation of the Syrian Arab Republic, headed by Dr. Ayman Sousan, Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister, departed Damascus on Sunday morning, heading to Moscow to participate in the quadripartite meeting of the assistant foreign ministers of Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Answering a question by the delegate of the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Dr. Sousan noted that the delegation of the Syrian Arab Republic will hold bilateral consultations with the Russian and Iranian sides on April 3rd, and on the next day, April 4th , it will participate in the quadripartite meeting.

Sousan added that the delegation will focus specifically on ending the Turkish military presence on Syrian territory, combating terrorism, and non-interference in Syrian internal affairs.

The Biden administration barely pretends to care about Syria anymore

Columnist Josh Rogin wrote for The Washington Post that the Biden administration seems to have forgotten about Syria these days. The only moves it has made recently were responses to February’s devastating earthquake or a recent attack on U.S. troops by an apparent Iranian drone. The administration has abdicated diplomatic leadership to Moscow and is turning a blind eye as Gulf states welcome the Assad regime back into the diplomatic fold. Privately, many Biden officials tell me they just don’t see any good U.S. policy options.

Rogin adds, “None of the issues that caused the Syria conflict have been resolved, most notably Assad regime atrocities and inability, or refusal to reform,” the letter states. “Many of the conflict’s symptoms are worsening, from human suffering, industrial-scale drug trafficking, refugee flows, terrorism, geopolitical conflict and ethnic and sectarian hostilities.”

In other words, Washington is sorely mistaken if it thinks that allowing regional players to re-establish diplomatic and economic ties with Bashar al-Assad will lead to greater stability. As the authors write: “Syria’s crisis is complex, but unconditional regime normalization is not inevitable.”

The administration claims that its policy of opposing Assad’s normalization “remains unchanged.” But Syrians are not buying it. They say that recent statements by Biden officials amount to tacit approval to supposed U.S. partners who are warming to the Syrian dictator. For example, the State Department’s top Middle East official, Barbara Leaf, said on March 9, “Our basic message has been [that] if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that.”

Syria’s state capture: the rising influence of Mrs. Assad

The Financial Times has published an exclusive story explaining how Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, has a leading role in a regime that is plundering the wealth of its people. 

When Bashar al-Assad visited Abu Dhabi on March 19th, the trip was especially noteworthy as he was accompanied by his wife, Asma al-Assad. Dressed head to toe in white, Syria’s enigmatic first lady stood out on her first known trip abroad since the outbreak of war over a decade ago.

Asma’s presence underscored something little understood outside Syria: how a woman initially sidelined as an obstinate young newly-wed with lofty western ideals has since risen to become one of the most powerful people in the country, at the apex of the country’s ruthless ruling family.

In public, she styles herself as the Mother of the Nation, but privately, Asma has manoeuvred herself into a position of remarkable power, according to interviews with 18 people familiar with the regime’s operations, including heads of business, aid workers and former government officials. She now controls some of the key levers in Syria’s battered economy, both as policymaker and profiteer, helping consolidate the family’s grip over a country in bloodied ruin.

As early as 2020, “it had become clear that Asma was becoming a central funnel of economic power in Syria,” says Joel Rayburn, who served as special envoy for Syria at the state department under President Trump. 

Her fingerprints can be detected across multiple sectors of Syria’s economy, including real estate, banking and telecommunications — albeit obscured by shell companies, free zones and offshore accounts owned by close associates.

Asma’s circle

These systematic asset seizures are said to have been thought up during meetings of the presidential palace’s secretive economic council that Asma chairs, Syrian experts and sources with insights into the regime’s thinking say.

Unlike the government’s formal economic committee, this one is little-known outside the palace gates and implements the regime’s more clandestine asset seizures.

It is unclear how involved Bashar is with the council, despite being known as a micromanager. Some people think the first couple act in tandem on the economy, his carefully calibrated distance giving him cover. But others say it is Asma’s pet project, given her background in finance. “She’s very influential [on him]” says a veteran Syrian businessman who knows the Akhras family.

The highest-profile victim of the shakedowns so far is Bashar’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf. Once known as the pariah regime’s banker, he was thought to control more than half of Syria’s economy before the war, worth billions. In 2019, authorities ransacked his sprawling empire and forced him to hand over his major assets inside the country.

This included Syria’s largest company, Cham Holding, and Makhlouf’s crown jewel, SyriaTel, the country’s largest mobile network. In doing so, the Assads brought one of their main economic rivals under their control. Asma now controls Makhlouf’s charity and its vast Alawite patronage network, expanding her control over the aid sector.

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