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Syria Today – Mekdad in Saudi Arabia; Microsoft to Pay $3M Fine for Working with Syria; Iran Exploiting Earthquake Relief

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Mekdad in Saudi Arabia; Microsoft to Pay $3M Fine for Working with Syria; Iran Exploiting Earthquake Relief

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad has arrived for a visit to Saudi Arabia, as ties between Damascus and Riyadh grow, and a restoration of relations between the two Arab countries becomes increasingly likely.

Mekdad arrived in Jeddah on Wednesday having been invited by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, both Saudi and Syrian state media reported.

Syria’s SANA reported that the visit came at the invitation of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. 

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Waleed Al-Khuraiji and a number of diplomats received Minister Mikdad and the accompanying delegation upon their arrival at Jeddah Airport, SANA added.

The two will “hold a session of talks on efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves the unity, security and stability of Syria”, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

They will also discuss “facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, and securing humanitarian access to the affected areas in Syria”, the statement added.

The visit is the first by a Syrian foreign minister to Saudi Arabia since 2011 when the war in Syria began. Saudi Arabia supported the Syrian opposition, but ties have thawed in recent months.

Al-Jazeera described the visit as the latest sign of a move towards a restoration of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, as Assad comes in from the cold.

The two will “hold a session of talks on efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves the unity, security and stability of Syria”, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

They will also discuss “facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, and securing humanitarian access to the affected areas in Syria”, the statement added.

The visit is the first by a Syrian foreign minister to Saudi Arabia since 2011 when the war in Syria began. Saudi Arabia supported the Syrian opposition, but ties have thawed in recent months.

Saudi-owned Al-Arabia TV Network reported that Mekdad “will discuss Syria’s crisis including means to reach a political solution that preserves the country’s unity, security and stability.”

Talks will also discuss facilitating the return of Syrian refugees and securing the delivery of humanitarian aid to affected people across Syria.

Over the past few months there has been increasing engagement with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who has been isolated since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, the network added.

Iraq supports Syria’s return

Iraqi Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Ahmed Al-Sahhaf has affirmed Wednesday that his country still supports restoring Syria’s role on the Arab level, SANA reported.

 “Iraq has always supported Syria’s return to its seat at the Arab League,” Al-Sahhaf said in a statement to Sputnik, stressing that “the integration of the Arab countries reflects positively on them.”

Syria’s rapprochement advances with Tunisia, Saudi Arabia

Syria will reopen its embassy in Tunisia, state media reported Wednesday, as Syria’s top diplomat visited Saudi Arabia seeking to restore ties that have been severed for more than a decade, AP reported.

Tunisia has become the latest Arab state to reestablish diplomatic ties with Syria, after cutting off relations in 2012. Tunisian President Kais Saied announced earlier this month that he had directed the country’s foreign ministry to appoint a new ambassador to Syria.

His move to appoint a new ambassador to Syria was reciprocated by the Syrian government, a joint statement from the two countries’ foreign ministries said Wednesday, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

The announcement was the latest in a regional trend of rapprochement with the war-torn country, which has picked up pace since the massive Feb. 6 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and the Chinese-brokered reestablishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

SDF responds to attack targeting U.S. forces in Syria’s Deir-ez-Zor

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Wednesday responding to a 107mm rocket attack that targeted the US-led Global Coalition to defeat Islamic State (ISIS) east of Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, eastern Syria, on April 10.

The SDF said, in a statement, “The attacks resulted in no injuries to Coalition personnel, equipment, or facilities.”

On the same day of the attack, the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) announced that no casualties or damages to the coalition infrastructure were reported in the “indirect fire attack”.

The statement stressed that such attacks place civilians, the SDF fighters, and the coalition forces at risk and “undermine the safety of the region.”

In addition, the SDF emphasized that they will keep conducting operations with the coalition to maintain stability and security in the region.

Microsoft to pay penalty for selling software to Syria

Microsoft will pay $3 million penalty in the U.S. for selling software to sanctioned companies in Russia, Cuba, Iran and Syria from 2012 to 2019, reported IANS.

The multinational tech giant has been asked by the US authorities to pay a penalty of $ 3 million for selling software to sanctioned companies in Russia, Cuba, Iran and Syria over a period of eight years from 2012 to 2019.

The majority of the apparent violations involved blocked Russian entities or persons located in the Crimea region of Ukraine, the IANS report mentioned.

The sale occurred as a result of Microsoft Entities’ failure to identify and prevent the use of its products by prohibited parties, according to the US Department of the Treasury.

“The settlement amount reflects Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) determination that the conduct of the Microsoft Entities was non-egregious and voluntarily self-disclosed, and further reflects the significant remedial measures Microsoft undertook upon discovery of the apparent violations,” it said in a statement.

According to an enforcement notice from OFAC, Microsoft, Microsoft Ireland, and Microsoft Russia failed to oversee who was buying the company’s software and services through third-party partners.

Nearly 1,339 such violations of multiple OFAC sanctions programs were recorded where they sold software licenses, activated software licenses, and/or provide related services from servers and systems located in the US and Ireland to SDNs, blocked persons, and other end users located in Cuba, Iran, Syria, Russia, and the Crimea region of Ukraine.

“The causes of these apparent violations included the lack of complete or accurate information on the identities of the end customers for Microsoft’s products,” said the Treasury.

Brussels attack suspects say West’s bombing of ISIS fuelled hate

AFP reports that defendants on trial over the 2016 Brussels attacks recounted Wednesday the anger they felt at the aerial bombardments of the Islamic State group by an international coalition.

Nine defendants are currently on trial over the March 22, 2016 suicide bomb attacks claimed by the jihadist group that killed 32 people at Brussels airport and the city’s metro.

Investigators believe the IS cell behind the attacks was linked to the group that carried out the November 2015 Paris attacks, which left 130 dead.

Sofien Ayari, already sentenced to 30 years in jail over the Paris attacks, went to fight with IS in 2014 before being wounded and hospitalized in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

“What I experienced in Raqqa was not a war, it was something else, it was bomb falling on men, women, children,” the 29-year-old Tunisian said.

“It was a tipping point for me. I had never felt such hatred, such incomprehension. I was mad with rage.”

He claimed Western leaders showed “no consideration for human lives” in IS territory.

“I have the impression that only one side is being condemned,” he said.

Ayari fled after the Paris attacks but was detained in the Belgian capital just before the Brussels bombings.

Co-defendant Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving member of the unit that carried out the Paris attacks, linked his actions to “disastrous decisions” taken by the heads of the anti-IS coalition.

Like Ayari, Abdeslam was in custody on the day of the Brussels attacks and denies being involved.

“The pilots of the planes on Raqqa and Mosul will never find themselves in the dock to answer for their abominable acts, they have been rewarded,” said the 33-year-old Frenchman, who did not go to Syria.

Another suspect Bilal El Makhoukhi, a 34-year-old Belgian-Moroccan former IS fighter, said that in Syria he had spent “the best moments of his life, even if it was hard”.

Can Europe bring Syrian regime officials to justice?

The New Arab published an in-depth report trying to answer that question. 

French judicial officials have decided to try members of the Assad regime’s security forces in absentia for the disappearance and death of two French-Syrian nationals. The officials hope to bring individuals such as Bashar al-Assad to justice for their role in war crimes committed in Syria. However, they face the challenge of enforcing convictions since it is unlikely that those accused of war crimes will ever be brought to justice. 

The Syrian regime has a history of using the mukhabarat, the secret police, to enforce the Baath Party’s power over the country and eliminate all political opposition. Despite the difficulties, members of the Mukhabarat have been convicted in recent years. However, the EU now faces the prospect of the Middle East normalizing ties with Damascus. This is particularly troubling given that Bashar al-Assad has visited the UAE twice, and Saudi Arabia is preparing to invite him to an Arab League summit in May.

These diplomatic overtures will take place against the backdrop of continued trials and investigations into the crimes committed by various current and former Syrian officials. European countries such as Germany have been particularly interested in bringing individuals accused of war crimes to justice due to their history of war and the trauma of the Gestapo during the Nazi period and the East German Stasi of the Cold War. Nonetheless, justice, rule of law, human rights, and transparency remain paramount to them. Despite the challenges of enforcing justice, arrest warrants are essential in proving what happened in Syria and the crimes committed by the Assad regime.

Exclusive: Iran exploits earthquake relief mission to fly weapons to Syria

Reuters exclusively reported that Iran used earthquake relief flights to send weapons and military equipment to its ally Syria in order to strengthen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and defend against Israel, according to nine sources, including Syrian, Iranian, Israeli, and Western sources. 

After an earthquake in northern Syria and Turkey on February 6th, hundreds of flights from Iran brought supplies to Syria’s Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia airports for seven weeks. The supplies included advanced communications equipment and radar batteries and spare parts for Syria’s Iran-provided air defence system, said the sources. Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York denied the claims, but Syria’s government did not respond to a request for comment. 

Regional sources said that Israel became aware of the shipments and carried out targeted air strikes against them. Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of research in the Israeli army and former director of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said that the strikes relied on intelligence so specific that Israel’s military knew which truck in a long convoy to target. 

An Israeli defence official said that the aid was mainly delivered to Syria’s northern Aleppo airport and was organized by the Quds Force, the foreign espionage and paramilitary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Ground transportation was handled by the Quds Force’s Transport Unit 190. Israel has carried out attacks against what it describes as Iran-linked targets in Syria for years. A Syrian army officer said that Israel has recently stepped up efforts to defeat Iran in Syria.

 

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