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Syria Today – Protests Gain Momentum; Abdollahian in Syria; KSA Steps Up Aid for Refugees in Jordan

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
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Syria Today – Protests Gain Momentum; Abdollahian in Syria; KSA Steps Up Aid for Refugees in Jordan

For the second week in a row, the southern region of Syria has been engulfed in anti-government protests. What initially started as demands for economic improvements has now evolved into calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. At the same time, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who recently arrived in Damascus, noted positive feedback regarding Syria from his visit to Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian agency has also entered a $6.8 million deal with the World Food Program. This agreement aims to support the provision of food assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Anti-Assad protests gain momentum as economic crisis bites

Anti-government protests gripped the south of Syria on Wednesday for the second consecutive week, as public demands for economic reform have escalated into calls for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, The Middle East Eye reported.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in Sweida, and in government-controlled parts of Aleppo, Daraa, Deir Ezzor and Jableh, protesting against their deteriorating living and economic conditions and calling for the release of political prisoners.

They also condemned what they described as ongoing corruption and poor governance.

“This is about holding Bashar al-Assad and the perpetrators of all violations accountable, and calling for the release of detainees and missing people,” Shadi al-Dubaisi, a 25-year-old protester from Sweida, told Middle East Eye.

The protests were triggered by the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies earlier this month, and have been galvanized by the continuing decline in the value of the Syrian lira.

Protesters have gathered in the city’s Karama Square on a daily basis. They block roads, chant, and remove photos and billboards of Assad. One video shared online showed demonstrators setting a billboard image of Assad on fire. 

There are around 35 or 40 demonstration points where people gather. 

Government forces have reacted to the protests with force, and security forces have used live fire to intimidate protesters on some occasions.

A local TV channel, Syria Television, reported that the shootings took place in Shahba, in the north of the province, but no deaths were recorded. 

“So far, all options are on the table,” Dubaisi added. “No one knows how far we will get with this regime, but one thing for certain is that we as people will continue demonstrations and demanding the departure of the regime.” 

Dignity and freedom 

Asaad al-Omar*, a 32-year-old protester in Sweida, said the demonstrations have been peaceful so far, despite the response from security forces. 

“We want to live in dignity and freedom… currently the regime is trying to provoke people to take up arms and sabotage the region, but we are peaceful,” he told MEE. 

“Our most important demand is to overthrow the regime and take back our land. The regime sold the port, the airport, and Syria,” he added. 

‘We want to see an improvement to public services such as electricity and water, and for fuel prices to correspond to the income of an ordinary Syrian person’

‘I received constructive remarks from Saudi Arabia on Syria,’ Says Amir-Abdollahian 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian says that he received constructive remarks on Syria when he visited Saudi Arabia, according to Iranan news agency, Mehrnews.

Upon his arrival in the capital city of Syria for a state visit on Wednesday, Amir-Abdollahian told reporters “I received constructive remarks from Saudi Arabia on Syria” while referring to his recent visit to the Arab country.

“Today we are in Damascus to review the matters as well as issues of mutual, regional, and international interest,” he added.

Touching on the importance of visiting Syria, he said that the event is taking place while fresh developments and a new chapter are taking pace.

Following up on the agreements obtained between the presidents of the two countries during Raisi’s recent visit to Damascus and the recent visit of the political and economic delegation from Syria to Tehran is also on the agenda of this trip, he further noted.

Kyrgyzstan brings back 95 ISIL wives, children from Syrian internment camps

The government of Kyrgyzstan has said 95 wives and children of ISIL (ISIS) fighters have been repatriated from internment camps in Syria, Al-Jazeera reported.

“The humanitarian mission on August 30, was carried out to repatriate citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic staying in a camp in northeast Syria,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Thirty-one women and 64 children who are Kyrgyz citizens were transferred from Syria to Kyrgyzstan,” the ministry added, highlighting that as a part of this mission, the Kyrgyz Republic provided humanitarian assistance and necessary medicines to cater to the needs of the population of northeast Syria.

It is not clear how many more Kyrgyz nationals remain in the camps in Syria. The latest repatriation is the third such operation for the Central Asian country. It brought back 59 nationals in February this year and 79 from camps in Iraq in March 2021.

“The Kyrgyz side expresses special gratitude to the Government of the United States of America for providing all possible assistance and logistical support for the successful implementation of this repatriation event, as well as to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross,” the ministry said, commenting on its recent operation.

Thousands of ISIL fighters and their family members continue to be held in detention centres and informal camps where US commanders have warned they could lead to an ISIL revival.

Despite repeated calls for their repatriation to hold their court trials, foreign governments have allowed only a trickle to return home, fearing security threats and domestic political backlashes.

Disappearances Continue in Syria

Protesters have hit the streets across government-held areas of Syria for over a week, calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down from office, decrying fuel price hikes as well as economic mismanagement and corruption. But protesters are also calling for the release of the thousands of people who were forcibly disappeared since 2011.

According to a report newly released by The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 155,604 people arrested in Syria between March 2011 and August 2023 are still under arrest and/or have been forcibly disappeared. This includes at least 5,213 children and 10,176 women.

The Syrian regime forces are identified as responsible for more than 80 percent of these disappearances (135,638 cases), while the self-proclaimed Islamic State are thought to have carried out 8,684 disappearances, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) 4,704, Hay’at Tahri al-Sham (which is an alliance of Fateh al-Sham Front and a number of armed opposition factions) 2,514, and all armed opposition factions/Syrian National Army (SNA) a further 4,064.

While these incidents peaked in the years 2012 (when 21,633 people disappeared) and 2013 (19,963 people disappeared) and have trailed off in recent years, they are far from over, with 741 people recorded as having disappeared in 2022 and 445 so far in 2023.

The areas with the highest number of disappearances in the past 12 years are the Rural Damascus governorate, followed by Aleppo, Damascus, and Deir Ez-Zour.

Enforced disappearances are defined as when “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.”

The SNHR counts a person as forcibly disappeared when they have been arrested and their families have been unable to obtain information from official authorities about their arrest or whereabouts for at least 20 days, with the authorities refusing to acknowledge the arrest.

India builds Syria ties to boost Middle East presence

India recently began a push to renew bilateral ties with Syria after the civil war-battered country returned to the Arab League in May during a summit in Saudi Arabia, DW reports.

In July, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, V. Muraleedharan, embarked on the first ministerial-level visit from New Delhi to Damascus in 2016.

The Indian diplomat met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and announced 300 new scholarships for Syrian students to study in India.

Manjari Singh, an assistant professor at the Amity Institute of International Studies in India, told DW that New Delhi’s re-engagement with the Syrian government is a matter of timing.

India seeks to highlight its Syria support

“India did not take this move until major regional players such as the UAE, Bahrain, and most recently, Saudi Arabia in the Middle East took the initiative to reengage with Bashar Assad’s regime,” Singh said.

“This has been India’s longtime policy in the region; it does not engage with countries, especially ones ostracized by the majority, unless the regional players warm up to that country,” she added.

Singh said that Muraleedharan’s visit to Syria in mid-July was significant as it marked the convergence of interests aiming for better political and economic engagement, along with humanitarian support.

Earlier this year, India sent humanitarian aid to Syria as part of “Operation Dost” (friend) following a deadly earthquake in February, even as Western countries were reluctant to do the same.

At the height of the civil war, India opposed foreign intervention to oust the Assad regime.

“The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has acknowledged publicly Syria’s appreciation of India’s support during the conflict,” Kadira Pethiyagoda, a geopolitics expert and author, told DW.

“While this support has been more implicit than explicit, it was important given that India is probably Washington’s most valued strategic partner that has defied the US on Syria,” he added.

Several killed in fighting between SDF and tribesmen in eastern Syria

Clashes in eastern Syria between Arab tribal fighters and US-backed Kurdish-led fighters have left several people, including civilians, dead and others wounded, opposition activists and pro-government media have said.

The clashes, according to Al-Jazeera, are among the worst in years in the region along the border with Iraq, where hundreds of United States troops have been based since 2015 to help in the fight against the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.

The clashes first broke out on Monday, a day after the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) detained the commander and several members of the Deir Az Zor Military Council, a group that had been allied with the SDF, at a meeting they invited them to in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that 10 Arab tribesmen and three SDF fighters were killed in clashes in the villages of Hrejieh and Breeha.

Another activist collective that covers news in the region, Deir EzZor 24, said eight civilians, including a nine-year-old boy, were killed in the village of Hrejieh, where the fighting was the most intense. Thirteen fighters belonging to Arab tribes were also killed, it said.

The pro-government Sham FM radio station said 10 people were killed in Hrejieh and Breeha and that dozens of civilians were wounded as well.

Resentment between Arab and Kurdish fighters

Arab tribesmen in the eastern province of Deir Az Zor were angered by the detention of Ahmad al-Khbeil, better known as Abu Khawla, who heads the Military Council, which was allied with the SDF in its years-long battle against ISIL in Syria.

On Wednesday, a joint statement issued on behalf of the SDF and the Military Council said that Abu Khawla had been removed from his position as commander, adding that he had been dismissed, along with four other leaders, for alleged involvement in “multiple crimes and violations”, including drug trafficking.

The confrontation has appeared to bring earlier resentments to the surface, as Arabs in the area voiced concern that Kurdish groups in the region may “erase its Arab identity”.

KSrelief, WFP to provide food for Syrian refugees in Jordan 

Saudi Arabia’s aid agency has signed a $6.8 million agreement with the World Food Program to help provide food aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Arab News reported.

The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) will provide a grant to the WFP to distribute food aid to 54,000 Syrian refugees at Zaatari camp through monthly electronic vouchers to be used in shops and bakeries at the camp.

In a statement, the WFP said the funding would provide much-needed support to Syrian refugees living in camps and “arrives just in the nick of time to avert imminent further cuts in food assistance.”

Assistant Supervisor General of KSrelief Ahmed Al-Bayez and WFP GCC representative Mageed Yahia signed the deal via video conference.

“With great optimism, we hope that this third phase of support for Syrian refugees will successfully achieve its goals and make a substantial impact in alleviating the food insecurity and malnutrition faced by Syrian refugees,” Al Bayez said.

WFP Representative and Country Director in Jordan, Alberto Correia Mendes, said “The Kingdom’s timely contribution will enable us to continue providing essential food assistance to Syrian refugees in camps amidst pressing funding shortfalls.”

He added, “This contribution is a testament to the strong partnership between the Kingdom and WFP, which has consistently focused on helping refugees meet their food needs and alleviating hunger for those in need.”

Despite the new funding, WFP said it still urgently needs $23 million to continue providing food assistance until the end of the year.

“Without timely additional funding, WFP will be compelled to suspend assistance for in and out-of-camp refugees in October,” the UN agency said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia had previously provided aid to Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s camps in 2021 and 2022 amounting to $12.8 million and $6 million, respectively.

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