DISABLE_WP_CRON Syria Today - Protests Continue; 10 Years Since Ghouta Chemical Attack; U.S. Military Moves
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Syria Today – Protests Continue; 10 Years Since Ghouta Chemical Attack; U.S. Military Moves

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Protests Continue; 10 Years Since Ghouta Chemical Attack; U.S. Military Moves

On Sunday, a demonstration took place in the southwestern Syrian city of As-Suweida, with dozens of protestors expressing their concerns about the worsening economic conditions. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights provided information about this event. Simultaneously, images of U.S. military convoys moving through different Iraqi cities have surfaced in local media. There are reports suggesting that Shiite factions are cognizant of a potential upcoming operation and have been advised to avoid escalating the situation.

Coincidentally, Monday, August 21st, will mark a decade since the tragic Ghouta chemical massacre. During this event, the Bashar al-Assad regime released the nerve agent sarin on civilians in the Ghouta district of Damascus, which was under rebel control at the time. This horrific incident resulted in the loss of over 1,400 lives, including many innocent children.

As Syria burns, and its economy collapses, firefighters appeal for support

The Washington Post has published a report highlighting the dire situation in Syria as fires rage across the country, compounding the ongoing humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. 

The report discusses how fires are affecting Syria’s Mediterranean coast, aggravating an already dire humanitarian situation caused by factors like earthquakes and an economic crisis. The fires are spreading due to heat waves, low humidity, and strong winds, leading to extensive damage across the region.

President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to firefighters showcases the gravity of the situation. He acknowledges the challenges posed by the fires, likening them to battles that have taken place during the country’s long civil war. This underlines the scale of the crisis the country is grappling with.

The report highlights that the fires have led to firefighters on both sides of the conflict (government and rebel-held areas) working together to combat a shared threat. However, they face hurdles due to a lack of support from both the government and the international community.

The report emphasizes the difficulties faced by firefighters. They lack adequate resources, including specialized vehicles that can navigate steep terrain and roads. This limitation hampers their ability to respond quickly to fires, putting both lives and property at risk.

It underscores the human toll of the fires, with numerous casualties and injuries reported, including children. The fires also lead to extensive destruction of forests, agricultural lands, and homes, forcing people to leave their residences. The impact on the environment, such as the loss of biodiversity, is also noted.

The report highlights how even in government-held areas like Latakia, the economic impact of the war and Western sanctions has depleted resources, including firetrucks. The government’s control over information makes it challenging to assess the full extent of the damage.

The article connects the fires to the broader context of Syria’s economic collapse. The currency’s devaluation and soaring poverty rates indicate the dire economic conditions the country is facing. Despite recent diplomatic developments, the economy continues to deteriorate.

The report suggests that climate change is contributing to the recurring fires in the region, making them more challenging to control. The diminishing vegetation cover and green areas are worsening the situation, raising concerns about future fire occurrences and their environmental impact.

Overall, the report sheds light on the multifaceted crisis in Syria, where fires add to the already complex challenges posed by conflict, economic collapse, and environmental factors. The collaboration of firefighters from opposing sides, the struggle for resources, and the broader economic context emphasize the urgency of addressing these issues to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

Dozens protest deteriorating economic conditions in Syria’s As-Suweida

Dozens protested in the southwestern Syrian city of As-Suweida on Sunday “the deteriorating economic conditions”, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, Arab News reports

Government offices, main roads and shops were closed in the city as citizens from villages and towns gathered, calling for change. 

Exams that were scheduled for Sunday at the Damascus University branch in As-Suweida have been postponed for a later date due to the civil unrest. 

Protests have swept As-Suweida and Daraa with demonstrations calling for the departure of the head of the Syrian regime, and for the improvement of economic conditions, the report said. [MORE DETAILS IN OUR REPORTING]

Mysterious U.S. Military Movements in Iraq… Syria a Possible Target

Photos of U.S. military convoys moving in separate cities are circulating on the local media in Iraq amid reports that the Shiite factions are “aware of an imminent operation, and have been asked to avoid escalation.”

However, Major General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, denied in a televised statement any U.S. military movements.

In turn, a government official told Asharq Al-Awsat that the alleged movements “are limited to locations outside the Iraqi border.”

But three Iraqi figures, including a leader in an armed faction stationed in northwestern Iraq, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the US was repositioning its troops in the region, in preparation for a military operation outside Iraq.

The leader noted that the armed factions believe that the strategic objective of the operation was to “change the rules of engagement with the Russians in Syria.”

“What we have now is just speculation, based on limited information, as the Americans do not share much with Baghdad about their operations,” he underlined.

According to the Iraqi figures, “the Americans will also try to cut off the Iranian supply route towards Syria and Lebanon, through Iraqi territory (…). This is all we know so far.”

Unusually, factions known for their positions against the US presence are maintaining calm over the recent US movements.

A leader in the Coordination Framework said: “The faction leaders recently discussed information about the American moves, and received an Iranian message that what the Americans are doing – whatever it is – is not a cause for concern.”

Hundreds of Syrian trucks trapped at the Jordanian border

A flood of videos – some posted online, others sent directly to our team – show hundreds of trucks at a standstill at the Nassib post on the Syrian border with Jordan, France 24 reported.

In this video, a truck driver says, “Today, Wednesday, August 9, 2023, makes it ten days that we’ve been waiting at customs at the Nassib border post. More than 1,250 vehicles are currently stopped at the border. Some trucks are carrying non-food products while others have refrigerated compartments full of vegetables and fruits.”

Our team spoke to someone working on the Syrian side of the Nassib border post, who told us that at least 300 trucks were currently at a standstill in the border post’s parking lot as of August 15.

“We don’t know the reason, but Jordan won’t let them enter. All of the trucks transporting products, including food, are still trapped here,” he added.

Jordan is an important transit zone for trucks going from Syria to the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, which most cargo trucks enter from the Al-Haditha border post.

Screengrabs of the video sent to us by an Observer on August 15, 2023 showing trucks carrying refrigerated compartments filled with agricultural products trapped on the border between Syria and Jordan.

Screengrabs of the video sent to us by an Observer on August 15, 2023 showing trucks carrying refrigerated compartments filled with agricultural products trapped on the border between Syria and Jordan. © Observers

Our team contacted customs officials in both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who said that there was no blockade on the trucks – it was a customs issue that had led to the delays. They didn’t explain the nature of the customs issue. 

A measure meant to curb Captagon trafficking?

On August 15th, our team spoke to a man who owned a number of trucks transporting goods from Syria to the Gulf states. Mazen (not his real name) posted a video showing all the trucks blocked at the Nassib border post. 

It’s an unprecedented situation. The checks carried out by the Jordanian authorities are causing serious delays for trucks from both Syria and abroad that want to go to the Gulf. 

Many of these trucks end up stuck under the sun for hours, despite the fact that some of them are carrying perishable cargo. 

The measure is aimed at facilitating the export of Jordanian products to the Gulf states. None of the truck drivers dare to talk about it because they are afraid that the Jordanian authorities might ban them from even entering the territory.  

However, personally, I think that they’ve applied this measure to try and restrict the trafficking of Captagon, because Syrian traffickers hide it in anything you can imagine in order to get it across the border, in tomatoes or other vegetables and in lots of other products. You can see proof in the photos published by customs officials in neighbouring countries.

This situation seems to have resulted in the Saudi Ministry of Transport deciding to adopt new restrictions on cargo vehicles entering the kingdom. These restrictions went into effect on August 1st, 2023.

Under the new law, the ministry has banned the circulation of vehicles older than 20 years old. 

War, illegal logging and climate change turn Syria’s forests into ‘barren land’

On a riverbank in war-ravaged Syria’s north, felling has reduced what was once a lush forest to dispersed trees and decimated trunks poking out from dry, crumbly soil, AFP reports.

Twelve years of conflict that led to a spike in illegal logging, along with the effects of climate change and other factors, have eroded Syria’s greenery.

The dwindling forest on the shores of the Euphrates River “is shrinking every year,” said Ahmed al-Sheikh, 40, a supermarket owner in the village of Jaabar, in the Kurdish-held part of Syria’s Raqa province.

Before, “the forest would attract tourists, birds, purify the air and protect the area from dust storms,” he said.

But fuel shortages and rampant poverty during the war have pushed many Syrians to chop the trees to sell or use for heating, dealing a blow to the nature surrounding Jaabar.

Its ancient citadel had made the village a popular pre-war tourist attraction, with a reforestation project launched in the mid-1990s offering rare respite from the searing heat.

“Some people cut down the trees to sell them and earn money, others to keep warm during the winter,” Sheikh said.

“If this goes on, desertification will follow.”

Residents told AFP they hear loggers riding motorbikes into the forest at night to cut down trees.

Even in broad daylight, young men sneak into the woods to chop trees, evading the handful of forest guards patrolling the vast, green spaces.

‘No shade left’

Syria’s war has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

It has also devastated the environment, triggering an “alarming” loss of forest cover across the country, Dutch peacebuilding group PAX warned in a report earlier this year.

The country has witnessed a “26-percent decrease in tree cover since 2000,” according to data from Global Forest Watch.

Ten kilometres (six miles) from Jaabar, the same fate has befallen the trees of Tuwayhina.

“In my childhood, we used to come here with friends to sit under the shade of eucalyptus and pine trees,” said Mohammed Ali, surrounded by tree trunks scattered across the sun-scorched earth.

“But now it is a barren land,” said the 30-year-old nurse. “Now, there is no shade left, only the heat of the sun everywhere.”

“The dust storms never stop, the lake is drying up and there are no trees left,” Ali said, referring to Lake Assad, Syria’s largest freshwater dam reservoir.

Water levels have dropped and pollution has worsened in the Euphrates and the reservoir it feeds, with the river’s flow further impacted by upstream dams in Turkey.

Deforestation in Syria is largely attributed to logging and thinning for firewood, according to the PAX report.

“Soaring fuel prices combined with massive displacement form the main driver for large-scale deforestation throughout Syria,” it said.

“Civilians are cutting down trees for cooking and heating, while there are clear indications that armed groups also use illegal logging and wood sales as a source of income.”

‘Blanket of greenery’

The once-dense forests of Syria’s west “have suffered the most degradation caused by the war,” mostly from tree felling and wildfires, PAX said.

Remembering Syria’s Ghouta chemical weapons massacre 10 years on

Monday, 21st of August will mark ten years since the Ghouta chemical massacre, when the regime of Bashar al-Assad released the nerve agent sarin on Syrian civilians in the then rebel-held Ghouta district of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people – many of them children. 

The New Arab looks back at this crime on the eve of a decade since its tragic occurrence.

Syrian Revolution in Ghouta

From the very earliest days of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the population of East Ghouta had been overwhelmingly supportive of the Syrian revolutionary cause and the consequent armed rebellion against the Assad regime and its allies.

By 2013, Ghouta was held by rebel forces and the Assad regime had imposed a brutal siege on the district, collectively punishing the civilians living there. The regime also routinely bombarded the area with airstrikes and artillery fire, often killing many civilians.

In the early hours of 21 August, the residents of Ghouta were alerted to what was by then a very typical air raid. However, witnesses say that while air raids are usually accompanied by the sounds of missiles and the resultant explosions, no noise accompanied this particular one.

A few hours later, Ghouta’s medical facilities were overwhelmed by hundreds of patients being brought in with no visible signs of injury, which were the types of conflict and trauma injuries the health workers had been used to. Rather, these patients were experiencing convulsions, suffocation, coughing up blood, foaming at the mouth, and, ultimately, death.

As one report put it, patients, particularly children, were “dropping like flies” in front of perplexed medical staff.

It would later be confirmed by experts that these people has been suffering from the cruel effects of sarin gas, which had been deliberately fired into civilian areas in Ghouta by Assad regime forces.

The world awoke to countless pictures and videos of piles of dead bodies being held in makeshift morgues set up to deal with the unprecedented influx of corpses over a period of less than 24 hours.

In the hours that followed, not only did Ghouta struggle to cope with the dead and affected victims, but also the fear of another attack.

As Nour Aden, an activist who survived Ghouta recounted: “You hear the planes come and you fear the bombing. But the chemicals are silent. You don’t know you’re dying until you can smell it and then it is too late.”

In the aftermath of the attack, there was widespread global outrage and horror at the scenes emerging from Ghouta. The US had claimed that chemical weapons use was a ‘red line’ that if crossed would prompt its intervention in the Syrian war to protect civilians.

But the Obama administration quickly abandoned the idea.

What emerged instead was a US-Russian deal, called the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, that allegedly facilitated the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under UN supervision.

Russia had instantly claimed against the overwhelming contrary evidence that Assad was innocent of the Ghouta attack, instead using its vast disinformation network to blame the victims or claims it was a ‘false flag’.

Critics said it allowed Assad to get rid of one particularly cruel aspect of his arsenal, while allowing his conventional slaughter to continue. However, it didn’t even negate the use of chemical weapons by Damascus. Along with many minor attacks, the Assad regime would go on to commit two more major chemical weapons attacks at Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and Douma in 2018, which prompted minor US-led airstrikes on Assad’s chemical facilities.

Every year since the attack, Syrian activist groups have gathered around the world in remembrance of the massacre and to highlight the continued plight of Syrians who oppose Assad, Iran and Russia.

This year, The Syria Campaign organised events over the weekend in cities around the world to remember Ghouta and its victims and give voice to its survivors as its tenth anniversary approaches.

The fundamental grievance for Syrians is that there has been no justice for the estimated 1,400 dead and Assad continues to get away with other crimes.

As the Syria Civil Defence, popularly known as the White Helmets, put it: “A decade has passed since the chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta – a wound that remains unhealed, as souls still await justice.”

Analysis: Turkiye-Syria Normalization Challenges

Turkish columnist Sinem Cengiz, a Turkish political analyst specializing in Turkey’s Middle East relations, wrote an op-ed for Arab News, entitled “Analysis: Turkiye-Syria Normalization Challenges” by Sinem Cengiz discusses the ongoing efforts to normalize relations between Turkey and Syria, with a focus on the diplomatic, economic, and security challenges facing both countries.

The article begins by highlighting the significance of the Turkey-Syria normalization process, drawing a parallel with the Saudi Arabia-Iran normalization attempt brokered by China. This sets the stage for understanding the broader diplomatic landscape in the Middle East.

The op-ed explains that the normalization efforts between Turkey and Syria were initiated with Russian mediation. Diplomatic and intelligence contacts have been established, and a summit in Moscow aimed to create a roadmap for the normalization process.

The article points out that there are significant obstacles to the normalization process due to the diverging interests of the two countries. President Bashar Assad of Syria has expressed concerns about Turkey’s presence in Syria, suggesting that the talks aim to legitimize it. Turkey, on the other hand, emphasizes that its troop withdrawal is contingent on its security being ensured.

The op-ed notes that Syria sought Arab support against Turkey, but Turkey’s improved relations with Arab nations could hinder such efforts. Additionally, the Kurdish terrorism threat originating in northern Syria is a significant concern for Turkey. Withdrawal without proper security measures could lead to the resurgence of Kurdish militias and pose a security threat.

The article highlights that the primary drivers behind the normalization process are economic and security-oriented. Turkey seeks relief from its refugee burden, which is linked to the normalization process and regional support. The need to address the Kurdish threat also contributes to Turkey’s engagement with Syria.

The op-ed emphasizes that Turkey places importance on maintaining its relationship with Russia, which plays a role in the normalization process. However, the presence of multiple actors and variables complicates the dynamics of the Turkey-Syria detente, leading to conflicting interests.

The article concludes by acknowledging that the path to Turkey-Syria normalization is challenging. Despite Russian involvement, the process is expected to be slow due to the intricate dynamics at play. Nevertheless, engagement at the security level is predicted to continue.

In summary, the op-ed provides a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and complexities surrounding the Turkey-Syria normalization process. It underscores the importance of various factors, including diplomatic, economic, and security considerations, while acknowledging the potential for slow progress due to intricate dynamics. The op-ed’s balanced approach offers insights into the ongoing diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

Pentagon denies U.S. military to cut Iran’s land route into Syria

The Pentagon on Thursday reiterated its denial that U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State group have moved to cut off Iran-backed militias’ access to a key border crossing between Iraq and Syria, Al-Monitor reported

Pentagon Press Secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told journalists that recent news reports in Arabic-language media alleging such were “false” and that U.S. forces are not involved in security on the Iraqi border.

“I’m not tracking any significant shift in forces as it pertains to the defeat ISIS mission in in Syria,” Ryder said in response to a question by Al-Monitor on Thursday.

“We don’t provide border security. That’s the role of the Iraqi government,” he continued.

The Pentagon’s denial came after the top commander of U.S.-led coalition forces also pushed back on the reports.

“The coalition is not preparing for military operations to cut off anybody except Daesh [IS]. We remain focused on Daesh,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane told reporters during a phone briefing from Baghdad on Wednesday.

The Qaim-Albukamal road is a key access route for militias backed by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) flowing weapons and personnel into Syria.

IRGC-linked militias and other pro-Assad groups have a heavy presence around Albukamal on the Syrian side of the crossing. The area is straddled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters across the Euphrates River to the northeast and other U.S.-backed Syrian forces more than a hundred miles to the southwest at the coveted Al-Tanf border crossing along the Baghdad-Damascus highway.

Israel has continued a quiet campaign to strike such groups to prevent the approach of projectile missile systems toward its borders.

The context: The local reports come as the Biden administration renews its calls for Iran to de-escalate hostilities with U.S. forces and U.S.-aligned states across the Middle East amid new progress towards a detainee exchange.

Coalition commander Maj. Gen. McFarlane told reporters at the Pentagon earlier this month that he does not see a connection between Russia’s actions and Iran’s goal of expelling U.S. forces from Syria.

“I think that harassment is, if you will, based on multiple interests for Russia but also for Syria as they’re trying to frustrate us,” McFarlane said.

“You’ll hear explanations of why those… unsafe, unprofessional incidents are happening. I’ve been deliberate about maintaining the focus on IS, ensuring we are not putting anybody else at risk as we do those operations,” he added.

Roughly 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which does not permit them to deploy lethal force against groups other than ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria unless acting in self-defence. Overt US movement into Albukamal — which is controlled by Syrian pro-regime forces — would almost certainly trigger a significant escalation.

Know more: The Pentagon appears to be holding off for now on approving a plan to place U.S. Marines on commercial tanker ships to deter Iran’s attempt to seize such vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.

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