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Syria Today – Protests Ongoing; Congressmen in NW Syria; 11 Soldiers Killed

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Protests Ongoing; Congressmen in NW Syria; 11 Soldiers Killed

On Thursday, protests in the southern region of Syria continued for the fifth consecutive day, specifically within the Druze city of Sweida. Concurrently, over the weekend, three members of the U.S. Congress paid a short visit to the opposition-controlled northwest part of Syria. Alongside these events, the Ansar al-Tawhid group and the Turkestan Islamic Party carried out an attack in which they caused the demise of at least 11 Syrian soldiers in the conflict-ridden northwestern area of the country.

Syria anti-government protesters demonstrate for fifth day

Protests in southern Syria entered their fifth day on Thursday, in the Druze city of Sweida. The origin of these protests is attributed to the rise in fuel prices, which has subsequently worsened the already challenging economic conditions prevalent in the area. At the core of the demonstrators’ demands is the call for the removal of President Bashar-al-Assad.

The demonstrations intensified after Syrian President Assad’s decision last week to double public sector wages and pensions. The economic crisis has taken a more distressing turn due to the collapse of Syria’s currency, resulting in hyperinflation. This dire situation has led to nearly 90% of the population living below the poverty line. To compound matters, an abrupt surge in fuel prices has further exacerbated the economic crisis.

State media has not addressed the protests, but proponents of the government have assigned blame to foreign powers and western sanctions for actively contributing to the unrest. Alongside this, they have raised alarms about the potential escalation into a more extensive state of chaos if demonstrations continue.

The government’s security forces have so far refrained from suppressing the ongoing protests, a stance that observers have questioned as the forces’ rationale is not clear. Nonetheless, a contingent of analysts suggest that the government’s motives are grounded in concerns over repeating the widespread violence that acted as a catalyst for the significantly larger protest movement, the Arab Spring, back in 2011.

U.S. Congress members make a rare visit to opposition-held northwest Syria

Three U.S. Congress members made a brief visit to opposition-held northwest Syria on Sunday, the first known trip to the war-torn country by American lawmakers in six years, AP reported.

Reps. Ben Cline of Virginia, French Hill of Arkansas and Scott Fitzgerald of Wisconsin, all Republicans, entered Syria from Turkey via the Bab al-Salama crossing in northern Aleppo province, two people familiar with the trip said. They spoke on condition of anonymity after the U.S. delegation had left Syria, because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Near the crossing, they met with students from Wisdom House, a school for orphans in Idleb that is a project of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S.-based Syrian opposition organization that facilitated the lawmakers’ trip. Hill has been one of the most vocal supporters in Congress of the Syrian opposition, and his Arkansas constituents have been major donors to the school.

The Americans also met with Syrian opposition leaders, humanitarian workers and people displaced by Syria’s war, organizers of the trip said.

The last known trip by a U.S. lawmaker to Syria was in 2017, when Republican Sen. John McCain visited U.S. forces stationed in northeast Syria’s Kurdish region. McCain had previously visited Syria and met with armed opposition fighters.

Also in 2017, Hawaii Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard visited Damascus and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, a decision that was widely criticized at the time. Since the beginning of the 2011 uprising turned civil war in Syria, the U.S. government has backed the opposition and has slapped sanctions on Assad’s government and associates over human rights concerns. Washington has conditioned restoring relations with Damascus on progress toward a political solution to the 12-year conflict.

Control of northwest Syria is largely split between the Turkish-backed opposition groups and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group that was originally founded as an offshoot of al-Qaida and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. In recent years, the group’s leadership have attempted to publicly distance themselves from their al-Qaida origins.

Syria’s Unending Tragedy: Geopolitics, Normalization, and the Forgotten War

Columnist Amir Tahiri published an op-ed in Asharq al-Awsat that reflects on the ongoing Syrian conflict, its geopolitical complexities, and the challenges surrounding reconstruction efforts in the country. The author emphasizes that despite fading from the headlines, the war in Syria continues to have devastating consequences and underscores the need to recognize the underlying geopolitical factors driving the conflict. 

The op-ed begins with a personal anecdote of a Syrian Twitter acquaintance reaching out to the author, highlighting the ongoing conflict in Syria. This serves as an engaging way to draw readers into the discussion.

The author notes that over time, international attention on Syria has shifted towards a narrative of “normalization,” suggesting that the situation has improved or stabilized. This narrative overlooks the persistent challenges and ongoing violence in the region.

The op-ed examines the involvement of various foreign powers, including Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the US, in the conflict and subsequent reconstruction efforts. Each of these countries has its own agenda and vision for the future of Syria, which often clash and contribute to the complex geopolitical landscape.

The author argues that the Syrian tragedy originated from peaceful efforts to secure individual freedoms and address corruption and economic opportunities. However, foreign interventions by Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the US have amplified and prolonged the conflict, transforming it into a geopolitical crisis.

He highlights the contrasting visions held by major players in the region, such as Russia’s desire for a Cold War-era model, Iran’s aspiration for an ideological empire, Turkey’s concern for Kurdish separatism, and Israel’s security interests. The author suggests that these divergent visions contribute to the impasse in Syria.

The op-ed discusses the complex alliances and rivalries among regional and international actors. Arab nations are portrayed as resigned to the status quo, while the United Nations’ efforts are seen as struggling to make meaningful progress in resolving the conflict.

It highlights that despite the narrative of normalization, violence and suffering continue in Syria. Clashes between groups, bombings, and human rights abuses remain prevalent, as exemplified by recent incidents such as kidnapping and exploitation of resources.

The op-ed concludes by emphasizing that despite waning media coverage, the war in Syria persists. The final plea “Are you there?” serves as a call to the international community to not forget the ongoing suffering in the country.

Overall, the op-ed aims to shed light on the complex geopolitical dynamics driving the Syrian conflict and highlights the need for a deeper understanding of these factors when discussing the prospects of normalization and reconstruction. It also serves as a reminder that despite reduced media attention, the humanitarian crisis in Syria continues unabated.

Extremists kill 11 Syrian soldiers in tunnel attack in Idleb: Monitor

Extremists killed at least 11 Syrian soldiers in the war-torn country’s northwest Saturday when they detonated explosives placed in tunnels dug underneath army positions before attacking them, a monitor said.

The attack involving extremists from the Ansar al-Tawhid group and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) took place in the south of Idleb province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The extremists “detonated tunnels they had dug beneath army positions and simultaneously launched an assault from other tunnels,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Observatory.

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The attack, which also wounded 20 soldiers, comes a day after Russia carried out airstrikes on the Jisr al-Shughur region near Idleb, where TIP extremists are present, the Observatory said.

Both groups involved in the attack are affiliated with the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, which controls swathes of Idleb province as well as parts of the adjacent provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.

Seven HTS fighters were killed Friday in bombardments by government forces and at least 13 others in Russian airstrikes Monday in northern Syria, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria for its reports.

Two civilians were also reported to have been killed by Russian strikes near Idleb.

The war monitor said “two [extremists] took their own lives” in Saturday’s attack and that the death toll was expected to rise as the “intense clashes are still ongoing.”

Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011 when the government’s repression of peaceful protests escalated into a conflict that drew in foreign powers and extremists from abroad.

Russia intervened in the conflict in 2015 on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, launching airstrikes to support his government’s struggling forces.

The TIP is largely made up of extremists from China’s Uighur Muslim minority who came to Syria after 2011 to assist groups like HTS, which is led by al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria.

The opposition-held region of Idleb is home to about three million people, around half of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria.

A ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and opposition-backer Turkey has largely held in Syria’s northwest since 2020, despite periodic clashes.

The Syrian war has killed more than 500,000 people and forced around half of the country’s pre-war population to flee their homes.

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