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Syria Today – Regime Intensifies Attacks on Idleb; Cyprus’ Role in Helping Assad Bypass Sanctions Revealed

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.

Reports indicate that Russia and Syria have considerably intensified their attacks on Idleb and rural Aleppo, taking advantage of the fact that the war in Gaza is monopolizing global attention. At the same time,  a study has shed light on the role of Cyprus in helping the Syrian regime bypass global sanctions.

France issues arrest warrant for Syria’s President Assad – source

Reuters reports that French judges have issued arrest warrants for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad, and two other senior officials over the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, a judicial source said on Wednesday.

The arrest warrants — which refer to charges of complicity in crimes against humanity and complicity in war crimes — follow a criminal investigation into chemical attacks in the town of Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, attacks which killed more than 1,000 people.

It is the first international arrest warrant that has been issued for the Syrian head of state, whose forces responded to protests that began in 2011 with a brutal crackdown that U.N. experts have said amounts to war crimes.

These are also the first international arrest warrants that have been issued over the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, said Mazen Darwish, lawyer and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), which filed the case in France.

Syria denies using chemical weapons but a previous joint inquiry of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an April 2017 attack and has repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon.

The Syrian presidency and information ministry did not immediately reply for comment.

“The president is responsible for many crimes in Syria – but with this type of weapon in particular – sarin gas – it’s impossible to jump over the gap (of his involvement),” Darwish told Reuters, noting that approval from the president as commander of the armed forces would be mandatory.

Up to seven killed in US air strikes in Syria -US official

The U.S. believes its latest air strikes on Sunday against Iran-linked militia in Syria killed up to seven people, a U.S. official said on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity to disclose the assessment.

The deaths would be the first since the U.S. started carrying out retaliatory strikes in the past month against militia whom Washington blames for attacking American troops at bases in Iraq and Syria. The other strikes have hit unoccupied facilities, including for storage of weaponry.

U.S. and coalition troops have been attacked at least 55 times in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, injuring 59 personnel, though all have returned to duty.

Statements, purportedly from the militant groups responsible, have said the assaults are in response to U.S. support for Israel in the war in Gaza.

The U.S. official said the people were killed during one of the strikes on the training facility near the city of Al Bukamal.

A second strike that the Pentagon says was carried out at a safe house near the city of Mayadeen may have killed an additional person, the official said.

The U.S. military assesses that no women or children were killed in the strikes, the official said.

At the Pentagon, spokesperson Sabrina Singh said an assessment was ongoing.

“We are aware that there were IRGC-affiliated members in the proximity of the facilities that were struck by our aircraft. But I don’t have more on casualty numbers or anything else to read out,” Singh told reporters, using an acronym for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Russia, Assad step up Syria bombing amid world focus on Israel-Gaza war

Al Jazeera reports that Syrian government forces and Russia have stepped up the bombardment of northwest Syria, killing dozens of people, including children, and wounding hundreds of others, opposition leaders and emergency volunteers have said, at a time when Israel’s war on Gaza is holding the world’s attention.

Russian and Syrian attacks in October focused on cities and villages in the countryside of Idleb and Aleppo. This escalation resulted in the total deaths of 66 civilians, including 23 children and 13 women, and left more than 270 people injured, with 79 children and 47 women among the casualties, according to a Syrian volunteer emergency rescue group.

While the pace of aerial and artillery bombardment in northwest Syria has decreased since the beginning of November, Syrian regime forces have shifted their attention to targeting civilian vehicles using guided missiles.

Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said that from the beginning of the current year until November 8, their teams responded to 17 guided-missile attacks by regime forces. These attacks resulted in the deaths of four civilians, including a White Helmets volunteer, and injured 15 civilians, including two children.

“The military escalation by the Assad regime, the Russians, and the Iranians against civilians in northern Syria has not stopped for a single day, but it intensifies and weakens from time to time based on international, regional, and local circumstances,” said Mustafa al-Bakour, a leader in Syrian opposition factions in northwest Syria, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

What role does Syria play in the Hamas-Israel conflict?

Deutsche Welle published a report which discusses Syria’s role in the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict. Despite being in the midst of its own civil war and enduring over a decade of violence, Syria has found itself entangled in the regional dynamics of the conflict.

According to the report, Syrian activists who had previously participated in anti-government protests were appalled to see Syrian President Bashar Assad attending a special summit in Saudi Arabia focused on the Hamas-Israel conflict. Many hold Assad responsible for the brutalities committed during the Syrian civil war, including the displacement of millions, torture of thousands, and an estimated half a million deaths.

During the summit, Arab leaders accused Israel of violating international humanitarian laws and committing war crimes against the civilians of Gaza. Assad, in his speech, criticized the normalization agreements between other Middle Eastern countries and Israel. His participation drew condemnation from many, given his own history of alleged war crimes.

Syria’s relationship with the Palestinians and Hamas is long and complex. While Syria has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause and hosted a significant number of Palestinian refugees, it has also had a turbulent relationship with Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Hamas originated, opposed the Assad family’s decades-long rule. In the past, Syria has both cooperated with and clashed with Hamas, often using the group to advance its foreign policy goals.

However, the report adds, that during the Syrian civil war, relations between Hamas and the Syrian regime soured. Hamas refused to take sides in the conflict, and its leader-in-exile, Khaled Mashaal, left for Qatar. Nevertheless, some reconciliation between Hamas and the Syrian regime occurred after Assad was invited back to the Arab League.

In the current Hamas-Israel conflict, Syria has expressed solidarity with Gaza and signed resolutions calling for a ceasefire and the end of Israel’s siege on Gaza. However, Syria has not played a significant military role in the conflict and has limited its actions to occasional cross-border shelling and rocket attacks on the Golan Heights. Most of the military activities have been carried out by Hamas and Israel.

In summary, while Syria has historical ties to the Palestinian cause, its role in the current Hamas-Israel conflict is somewhat limited. It has not been a central actor in the military aspects of the conflict but has expressed political support for Gaza and called for international action against Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories.

A pariah regime used a Cyprus middleman in a bid to evade oil industry sanctions

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a report which delves into the role of Cyprus in helping authoritarian actors evade Western law. Specifically, it focuses on how Syria’s state-owned oil company, Syrian Petroleum Co. (SPC), sought assistance from a Cyprus-based import-export firm, H.A. Cable Export Co. Ltd., in purchasing drilling equipment from an American oil equipment giant, NOV Inc.

In June 2014, during the bloodiest phase of Syria’s civil war, the Syrian government sought to evade U.S. sanctions on its oil industry by using a Cyprus-based middleman. The Syrian Petroleum Co. (SPC), a state-owned oil company in Syria, reached out to H.A. Cable Export Co. Ltd., an import-export firm registered in Cyprus, to help purchase drilling equipment from the American oil equipment company NOV Inc.

The correspondence between the SPC and H.A. Cable Export, which has been revealed through leaked documents as part of the Cyprus Confidential investigation, sheds light on Cyprus’s role in aiding authoritarian actors to bypass Western sanctions. The SPC and the Cyprus middleman discussed the procurement of equipment from NOV over the course of five years, despite the fact that the United States had imposed sanctions on Syria’s oil industry since 2011.

These leaked documents raise questions about the involvement of NOV, as they show Syrian officials seeking to buy equipment through the Cypriot import-export firm to circumvent sanctions. While NOV publicly claimed to comply with U.S. law, the documents suggest a different reality.

The SPC’s efforts to acquire equipment through a middleman, if completed, would have violated both U.S. and EU sanctions and potentially contributed to the Syrian regime’s crackdown. NOV Inc.’s chief compliance officer, Brent Benoit, stated that the company had no record of sales to H.A. Cable Export during the relevant period and suggested that the equipment mentioned in the documents could have been secondhand or counterfeit goods.

Syria’s oil revenue was crucial for the regime’s survival, especially as its economy collapsed during the civil war. The Assad regime was accused of using front companies to evade sanctions, and Cyprus was implicated as a facilitator in these illicit transactions.

The leaked documents indicate ongoing discussions between the SPC and the Cypriot firm until at least 2019, showcasing the Syrian regime’s determination to access the equipment it needed to keep its oil revenue flowing. The outcome of these discussions remains unclear.

Overall, this investigation reveals how the Syrian government, with the assistance of a Cyprus-based middleman, sought to evade U.S. sanctions and acquire vital drilling equipment to maintain its grip on power during a tumultuous period in Syria’s history.

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