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Syria Today – NGOs Call for Renewal of Cross-Border Aid; Top Officials Linked to Drug Trade; Lebanon, Turkey Step up Deportations

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – NGOs Call for Renewal of Cross-Border Aid; Top Officials Linked to Drug Trade; Lebanon, Turkey Step up Deportations

On June 26th, two well-known non-governmental organizations (NGOs) collaborated to hold a joint media briefing in Syria. Their purpose was to advocate for the extension of a crucial United Nations resolution, which enables the provision of essential cross-border aid to the northwest of the country. Simultaneously, an extensive investigation conducted by BBC News Arabic and the investigative journalism network OCCRP has revealed fresh connections between the highly profitable Captagon drug trade and influential individuals within the Syrian Armed Forces as well as President Bashar al-Assad’s family. In the midst of these developments, Turkey and Lebanon have intensified their efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees, which has understandably sparked increased fears and concerns among the refugee population.

NGOs call for UNSC to renew Syrian cross-border aid mechanism

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and CARE, two NGOs operating in Syria, organized a joint media briefing yesterday, June 26th, to call for the renewal of a UN resolution allowing for vital cross-border aid into northwest Syria. The resolution is set to expire on July 10. It is unclear whether the UN Security Council will choose to extend it.

According to the joint statement, 90 percent of the 4.5 million people in northwest Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian opposition, are in need of humanitarian assistance to survive. The region was devastated by the February 6 earthquake, which left 5,900 dead and over 10,000 people injured. Over 10,500 buildings were destroyed in northwest Syria and around 2.7 million Syrians were displaced, the NGOs say.

“The IRC is calling on the UNSC to reauthorize cross-border assistance for another 12 months at a minimum,” Andrea Sweeney, the NGO’s Head of UN Advocacy said yesterday. “Syrians need and deserve decisions based on humanitarian imperatives, not political considerations. These are people, not chess pieces.”

The UNSC has periodically extended a resolution allowing for aid to reach the northwest through Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. It is the only aid going directly to opposition-held areas without passing through Damascus. A similar mechanism allowing for aid to reach northeast Syria through al-Ya’rubiyah (Tel Kocher) crossing with Iraq was vetoed by Russia and China in 2020.

New Captagon drug trade link to top officials found

A joint investigation by BBC News Arabic and the investigative journalism network OCCRP has uncovered new connections between the lucrative Captagon drug trade and high-ranking officials within the Syrian Armed Forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s family. Captagon is a highly addictive amphetamine-like drug that has been a growing problem in the Middle East. The BBC had previously documented the efforts of the Jordanian and Lebanese armies to prevent the smuggling of Captagon from Syria into their countries. However, the drug is now being discovered in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

In March, the UK, the US, and the EU imposed sanctions on individuals, including two of President Assad’s cousins, who were suspected of involvement in the Captagon trade. The recent investigation conducted within Syria revealed evidence suggesting the participation of additional senior Syrian officials beyond those already on the sanctions list.

The Syrian government has not responded to the BBC’s request for comment but has previously denied any involvement in the drug trade. In one instance, during a raid on the headquarters of a regime-allied militia leader in the city of Suweida, bags of Captagon pills, a pill-pressing machine, a Syrian military ID card, and an unlocked mobile phone were found. Messages on the phone indicated communication between the militia leader and a Lebanese contact known as “Abu Hamza,” who was later identified as Hussein Riad al-Faytrouni, reportedly associated with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party and militant group closely aligned with the Syrian government, has been accused of involvement in drug trafficking in the past but has consistently denied such allegations. According to a Syrian journalist, Hezbollah is cautious about directly engaging its members in transportation and smuggling activities related to drugs. The BBC’s attempt to reach Hezbollah for comment on the matter was unsuccessful.

The investigation also involved gaining rare access to the Syrian Armed Forces in Aleppo, where additional details may have been discovered.

During the BBC investigation, a Syrian soldier, speaking anonymously, revealed that many of his fellow soldiers had turned to local drug dealing to supplement their meagre monthly incomes, which were less than 150,000 Syrian pounds (approximately £47 or $60). He explained that it had become routine for them to engage in such activities.

When asked about his unit’s involvement in the Captagon trade, he mentioned that they were not allowed to visit the factory. Instead, they would meet with Hezbollah and purchase the drugs. The goods would then be coordinated with the Fourth Division, an elite Syrian army unit responsible for protecting the government against internal and external threats, to facilitate their movement.

The Fourth Division, led by Maher al-Assad since 2018, the younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad, has been implicated in brutal crackdowns on demonstrators during the Syrian civil war and has also been linked to the alleged use of chemical weapons. Maher al-Assad is subject to Western sanctions. He is believed to have transformed the Fourth Division into a significant economic player.

A former officer who defected from the Syrian army explained that due to the difficult financial conditions faced by officers and soldiers during the war, many members of the Fourth Division resorted to smuggling. The officers’ cars were reportedly used to transport extremists, weapons, and drugs, taking advantage of the division’s ability to move across checkpoints in Syria.

Syria’s economy, already crippled by war and sanctions, is on the verge of collapse. Analysts have emphasized the country’s increasing reliance on the highly profitable Captagon trade. The revenues generated from Captagon reportedly far exceed the Syrian state budget. Former US special envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, stated that if the Captagon revenues were disrupted or halted, it could have severe consequences for the survival of the Assad regime.

UN member states must support institutions for conflict’s disappeared

Ahead of a vote at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 29 June on the establishment of an independent, international institution to clarify the fate and whereabouts of tens of thousands of missing and forcibly disappeared people in Syria since 2011, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, Agnès Callamard, said:

“UN member states can provide a way to fulfil the families’ right to the truth by establishing a victim-centred institution dedicated to providing them with long-awaited answers about what happened to their loved ones. They should heed the calls of the Syrian families and survivors who have been at the forefront of the effort to create such a body and vote in favour of the resolution.

“For more than a decade, families of the missing and forcibly disappeared have faced immense challenges in obtaining any information about the fate of their loved ones. All parties to the conflict have been unwilling to address the issue, leaving relatives in a state of perpetual agony and uncertainty. By establishing an institution focused on this very issue, the UN can help them find some of the answers they deserve.

“At least 100,000 people are believed to be missing or have forcibly disappeared in Syria since 2011, primarily at the hands of the Syrian government’s security apparatus. The real number of people missing or disappearing is likely greater as parties to the conflict have never disclosed who is in their custody. This institution would offer a single avenue to register cases, consolidate existing information, and coordinate with other existing mechanisms to tackle this issue.”

Canada accused of cruelty over ‘ultimatum’ to mothers to give up children

An article from Middle East Eye reports on the situation of Syrian women and their children who are currently residing in al-Hol and Roj camps in northeastern Syria. According to the report, the Canadian government has been accused of cruelty due to an alleged ultimatum given to these women, stating that they must either leave their children behind in the camps or risk being stripped of their Canadian citizenship. 

The camps mentioned in the article, al-Hol and Roj, are home to thousands of people, including both Syrian and foreign nationals, who were associated with or affected by the Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group. Many of the women in the camps are said to be Canadian citizens who had travelled to Syria and joined ISIS. 

The allegations against the Canadian government claim that it has been pressuring the women to make a difficult decision by forcing them to choose between abandoning their children, who are often unaccompanied and vulnerable, or losing their Canadian citizenship. The report highlights the concerns raised by human rights organizations and legal experts regarding the potential violation of international law and human rights principles in this situation. 

The Canadian government has not responded directly to the accusations mentioned in the article, but it has previously expressed concerns about the security risks posed by individuals who travel abroad to join extremist groups. The article also mentions that several other countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, have faced similar challenges in dealing with citizens who travelled to join ISIS and are now located in the camps in Syria.

It’s important to note that the information provided in the article represents one perspective, and it would be advisable to consult multiple sources and official statements to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Russia strike kills at least 6 militants in Syria, medical officials, war monitor say

Medical officials and an opposition war monitor say a Russian airstrike struck a military post of an al-Qaida-linked group in northwest Syria killing at least six militants.

A Russian airstrike Tuesday targeted a military post of a group linked to al-Qaida in northwest Syria killing at least six militants, medical officials and a war monitor said.

The Associated Press says that the airstrike on the Jabal al-Zawiya area in the northwestern province of Idlib came two days after another airstrike on a busy vegetable market in the same province killed at least nine people.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the Tuesday morning airstrike killed eight militants and wounded other members of the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS.

Medical officials in the area said the strike killed six militants and wounded others.

It is not uncommon to have conflicting figures of casualties in the aftermath of airstrikes on Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in war-torn Syria.

Russia joined the war in September 2015, helping tip the balance of power in favour of President Bashar Assad in the 12-year conflict that has killed half a million people.

Neither Syrian nor Russian authorities commented on Tuesday’s airstrike.

HTS is the most powerful group in the region which is also home to other factions including Turkey-backed groups. Turkey has been a main backer of the opposition since the conflict began and has troops deployed in northern Syria.

The Dialogue of the Deaf

The Times of Israel discusses recently revealed documents that shed light on the failed Israel-Syria peace talks in the 1990s. The documents, which were made public by the Israeli government, highlight the significant gaps and disagreements between the two sides during the negotiations.

According to the article, the documents reveal that Israel and Syria held numerous rounds of talks between 1992 and 1996, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. However, the discussions ultimately failed due to deep-rooted differences on key issues.

The article highlights several areas of contention between the two parties, including the borders between Israel and Syria, the status of the Golan Heights, security arrangements, and the issue of water resources. The documents reveal that despite efforts to find common ground, the gaps between Israel and Syria were too wide to bridge.

The negotiations ultimately broke down in 2000, following the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the collapse of the Camp David Summit between Israel and the Palestinians. Since then, formal peace talks between Israel and Syria have remained stalled.

The publication of these documents provides insights into the complexities and challenges faced by both sides during the negotiations. It underscores the long-standing obstacles to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Syria and highlights the unresolved issues that continue to contribute to the Israeli-Syrian conflict.

As with any historical analysis, it’s important to consider multiple sources and perspectives to gain a comprehensive understanding of the events and factors that led to the failure of the Israel-Syria peace talks in the 1990s.

‘We fear leaving the house’: Lebanon and Turkey step up deportations of Syrian refugees

The Guardian reports on the increased deportations of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and Turkey. According to the report, both countries have stepped up their efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees, leading to heightened fears and concerns among the refugee population.

In the case of Lebanon, the article states that the Lebanese government has been applying pressure on Syrian refugees to return to their home country. It mentions that Lebanese authorities have implemented various measures to encourage repatriation, including imposing restrictions on residency permits, conducting raids on refugee settlements, and making living conditions increasingly difficult for Syrians. As a result, many Syrian refugees in Lebanon express fear and anxiety about leaving their homes and face the risk of being forcibly returned to Syria.

The article also highlights the situation in Turkey, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees globally. It notes that Turkey has been deporting increasing numbers of Syrians in recent years. The report suggests that the deportations are driven by various factors, including political motivations, rising anti-refugee sentiment, and the Turkish government’s desire to address economic and social challenges.

The article underscores the concerns raised by human rights organizations, which argue that the forced return of Syrian refugees to their country of origin can put their lives at risk and violate international laws and conventions on refugee protection. It emphasizes the importance of ensuring the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of refugees, as well as addressing the root causes that forced them to flee in the first place.

It is important to note that the article reflects a specific period and context, and the situation may evolve over time. Monitoring updates from reliable sources and humanitarian organizations can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the ongoing developments regarding the deportation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and Turkey.

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