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Syria Today – Mekdad to Meet Cavusoglu in Moscow; Arabs Request Curb on Captagon Trade; Aleppo Airport to Resume Operations

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Mekdad to Meet Cavusoglu in Moscow; Arabs Request Curb on Captagon Trade; Aleppo Airport to Resume Operations

Panarab news websites have reported that the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad will meet his Turkish counterpart in Moscow, in a first since 2011. In the meantime, Arab countries are calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to curb the captagon trade in exchange for even closer ties, as dozens of Syrian intellectuals have sig a joint statement warning that normalization with Assad will spell political disaster for the region,

Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers to meet in Moscow

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad will meet his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday, officials were quoted as saying by The National.

It will be the first official meeting of the countries’ foreign ministers since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

The meeting in Moscow will also involve Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iran’s Hossein Amirabdollahian, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said.

“Now I’m going to Moscow from here. We will hold the meeting of the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria in Moscow,” Mr Cavusoglu said at an event in southern Antalya province.

‘Constructive’ talks held with Russia, Iran and Syria, Turkey says

He said the aim of the meeting was “to achieve permanent stability and peace in Syria, to co-operate in the fight against the YPG/PKK that wants to divide Syria and threatens us from there, and to ensure that Syrians in Turkey return to their homes in a voluntary and safe manner”.

The PKK group is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., EU and Turkey.

“I hope our meeting tomorrow will be beneficial,” Mr Cavusoglu added.

What drove Syria’s return to the Arab League, and what impact will it have?

The Resolution to readmit Syria to the Arab League is still debated in the regional and international media. The Times of Israel published a long report in which it highlighted that Syria’s ee-entry into Arab League symbolizes regional realignment, reiterating that peace remains elusive.

 The Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria after 12 years of suspension is seen as a symbolic victory for Damascus, a reflection of the United States’ diminishing role in the region, and part of a larger realignment among Arab countries. However, the return to the league is not expected to bring immediate reconstruction funds, nor is it likely to lead to the changes that Syria’s neighbours want, such as a refugee return agreement and measures to curb drug trafficking. 

Although Syria’s reintegration indicates a shift in attitudes among Arab governments, it has also been criticized for rewarding President Bashar Assad without obtaining any political concessions in the long-standing conflict. The Arab League’s statement following Sunday’s meeting suggested that Syria’s further reintegration would depend on moving towards a political solution, reducing drug trafficking, and facilitating the return of refugees.

Despite Syria’s readmission to the Arab League after 12 years, a resolution to the country’s 13-year-long civil war is still not in sight, with Syrian President Bashar Assad having made no concessions towards a political deal. 

The move is seen as a significant symbolic victory for Damascus, confirming its move out of pariah status and signalling a larger regional realignment as the U.S.’s influence wanes. However, analysts say it may not immediately bring the reconstruction dollars Assad is hoping for, and it is also unlikely to bring the changes Syria’s neighbors want, such as an agreement on refugee returns and moves to reduce drug trafficking. 

While some Syrians in government-held areas hope to see greater trade with the Arab world to offset a crippling economic crisis, U.S. and European sanctions are likely to prevent significant investments in reconstruction in the near future. A statement issued by the Arab League suggested that further reintegration will depend on Syria moving towards a political solution to the conflict, combating drug trafficking, and facilitating the return of refugees, but analysts doubt that Syria will meet these demands.

Arabs want action on drugs trade

At any rate, the Arab countries are calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to curb the captagon trade in exchange for even closer ties following the Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria after years of suspension. 

According to Reuters, while the West continues to shun Assad following years of civil war, Syria’s Arab neighbours want him to tackle drug trafficking, which has grown in tandem with the refugee crisis, prompting Saudi Arabia to offer $4 billion in compensation should it stop. However, Mekdad, Syria’s foreign minister, has linked the crackdown on captagon with the return of refugees and a lifting of U.S. sanctions.

Arab states have recently restored ties with Syria and welcomed President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab League after a 12-year absence, Reuters added.

However, they want Assad to take steps to rein in Syria’s flourishing drugs trade, particularly the production and smuggling of the amphetamine captagon, which has become a big worry for Arab leaders alongside their concern about Iran’s foothold in the country. 

While denying any role in the trade, Damascus has sought leverage from the issue, stating that progress on curbing captagon production depends on Arab pressure on the United States to ease sanctions. Meanwhile, capturing the trade has become a key demand by Arab states seeking to restore ties with Assad. Pinning down the Captagon trade’s value is difficult, but it is believed to be worth several billion dollars a year. 

Diplomatic sources say it is a key source of funding for the Syrian government, with the United States, the European Union, and Britain accusing the Fourth Division and other Syrian officials of benefiting from the trade. One of captagon’s most lucrative markets is the Gulf region, where party scenes are flourishing, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Intercepted shipments of the drug are typically headed there.

New foreign policy

The New Arab looked at the new foreign policy of the Saudi Arabia Kingdom. It stated in its report, that the recent decision by the Arab League to readmit Syria is part of a regional effort to consolidate authoritarianism, according to Joseph Daher. For Saudi Arabia, the move is part of a new foreign policy aimed at stability and economic prosperity. A decrease in hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Syria had been evident for several years, culminating in a visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan to Syria last month. 

The move also reflects Saudi Arabia’s evolving foreign policy, as the aggressive approach of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had become too costly and threatened the country’s plans to reform the economy, attract foreign investors, and open the country to tourists.

The return of Syria to the Arab League is part of a wider trend towards authoritarian stability in the Middle East, according to political scientist Joseph Daher. For Saudi Arabia, the restoration of ties with Damascus is part of a new foreign policy that aims to establish stability and economic prosperity, in contrast to its previously aggressive foreign policy. This new approach involves establishing cordial relations with its neighbours, including Iran, Qatar and Turkey, and rehabilitating Damascus. However, this normalization process is primarily in the interests of authoritarian leaders in the region who want to erode progress made by the 2011 uprisings, Daher argued.

Normalization with Assad ‘a political disaster’, warn Syrian Intellectuals

Dozens of Syrian and Arab politicians, artists, and intellectuals have signed a joint statement published on Monday, warning that normalization between Arab states and the Syrian regime will spell political disaster for the region and saying that the Syrian regime has nothing to offer “except barrel bombs and drugs”.

Around 80 prominent figures signed the statement, among them former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, Syrian political author Moudar Debis, former Syrian opposition chief negotiator Mohammed Sabra, former head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), George Sabra, Syrian politician and academic Abdulbaset Sieda and Syrian artist Abdul Hakim Qatifan.

The statement’s signatories addressed their concerns to the “Arab general public”, and warned that the intention by many Arab states to restore relations with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad signalled a looming political catastrophe that could have repercussions for all Arabs.

The statement said that the Assad regime’s political rehabilitation by Arab countries would “not only give the regime a new opportunity to kill Syrians but would usher in a culture of leniency around the killing of Arab civilians in other places too”.   

The statement continued: “This disastrous trend calls into question the credibility of all the Arab development projects, especially those in the Arab Gulf, and undermines faith in the intentions behind them because the projects are focused on liberalization and growth”.

It said that normalizing with the Assad regime violated the spirit of regional development Arab countries claimed to uphold, saying that the regime “fostered a criminal environment in the region” and normalization with it “would strengthen [the regime’s] ability to continue exporting drugs, terrorism and killing”.

The signatories stated that rehabilitating and reintegrating what they called Assad’s “criminal gang” back into international politics would be a new “stab in the back for ordinary, oppressed Syrians” and would send a message to the world that the “Arab regimes will always be against the ordinary Arab peoples whenever they think of grasping their dignity and liberating themselves”.

The statement added that the Syrian regime possessed nothing “but barrel bombs and drugs”, so building bridges with it would not mean anything but the export of these to the other Arab countries which would “pave the way for the destruction of our cities and the early death of our youth”.

Turkey’s election, Syrian refugees, and a race to the bottom of xenophobia

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey have been characterized by a worrying increase in xenophobic and discriminatory rhetoric against the country’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees. 

According to New Arab, recent opinion polls suggest that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is neck-and-neck with his secularist opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Both candidates have promised mass deportations, with Kilicdaroglu, in particular, focusing on the issue, vowing to deport all Syrian refugees in the country within two years. Syrian refugees have become a scapegoat for Turkey’s economic problems, blamed for a host of social ills ranging from sexual harassment to looting following the deadly earthquake which hit Turkey in February. An opinion poll conducted by the Syrians Barometer showed that 88.5% of Turks wanted Syrians to return to their country.

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are stirring fear and concern among the country’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees, who have become a scapegoat for Turkey’s economic problems. Both presidential candidates, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, have promised mass deportations of Syrian refugees, with the latter vowing to send them all back to Syria within two years at the latest. The attitudes towards Syrian refugees have hardened over time, with casual racism, denial of employment, housing, and other essentials, and regular violent attacks being reported. The refugees have not been integrated into Turkish society and are seen as a burden and threat.

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey have been marked by a xenophobic discourse against the country’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees, with both the ruling AKP party and opposition parties promising to return them to Syria. 

Recent opinion polls show that the secularist challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has a slight lead over the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, both candidates have vowed to deport all Syrian refugees from Turkey. Syrians have increasingly become scapegoats for Turkey’s economic problems, with the refugees being seen as a drain on the country’s resources and blamed for social ills. The Syrians Barometer survey found that 88.5% of Turks wanted Syrians to return to their country. Meanwhile, the Turkish government has been accused of forcibly deporting Syrians in violation of international law while claiming that thousands have “voluntarily” returned to Syria. 

However, the forced nature of the Turkish authorities’ deportations and the results of opinion polls among Syrian refugees in Turkey make these figures questionable. According to the 2021 Syrians Barometer survey, only 1.7% of Syrians expressed willingness to return to a “safe zone” in Syria. Regardless of who wins the election, it is almost certain to lead to more xenophobia and deportations of Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as very likely more violence.

SDF, KRI’s CTG arrest ISIS cell in Syria’s Deir-ez-Zor

On Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria announced the dismantling of an ISIS sleeper cell in the northern countryside of Deir-ez-Zor, eastern Syria, North Press reported

The SDF Media Center reported that, with the support of the US-led Global Coalition forces and the Sulaymaniyah-based Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), the Counter-Terrorism Units (YAT) of the SDF arrested two members of the ISIS sleeper cell during a security operation in the town of al-Suwar in the north of Deir-ez-Zor. The joint forces also confiscated weapons, ammunition, and communication devices in their possession. 

According to the center, the suspects had actively participated in killings, assassinations, and smuggling of “terrorist” militants against military forces and notables of the region. The Coalition had announced on May 4 that their forces advised and assisted the SDF in capturing a cell operator of ISIS in Deir-ez-Zor. 

In March 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the support of the US-led Global Coalition, defeated ISIS after fierce battles in the town of Baghouz in the eastern countryside of Deir-ez-Zor, putting an end to the so-called caliphate declared by the terrorist ISIS. 

After Baghouz, thousands of ISIS fighters were transferred to prisons, while their families were transferred to Hawl and Roj camps in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)-held areas.

Syria’s Aleppo airport to resume operations on Wednesday

Syria’s International Aleppo airport will resume operations on Wednesday morning, the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority said on Tuesday, according to the state news agency SANA.

The airport was shut on May 2nd after being damaged by Israeli airstrikes, SANA said. 

Israel has for years been carrying out attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets in Syria, where Tehran’s influence has grown since it began supporting President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that started in 2011.

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