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Syria Today – Syria Returns to Arab League; Washington Disapproves; Raisi Concludes Visit

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Syria Returns to Arab League; Washington Disapproves; Raisi Concludes Visit

The Arab League has decided to reinstate Syria’s membership, lifting the 12-year suspension that started during the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule. Despite this, the United States has voiced its disapproval of attempts to normalize relations with Assad, and a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Obada Mzaik, a Syrian-American who survived torture while in custody and managed to leave the country. Meanwhile, Iran and Syria have agreed to strengthen their relationship and focus on reconstruction by developing economic ties, following a significant visit to Damascus by Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi.

Pariah no more? Arab League reinstates Bashar Assad’s Syria

The Arab League has voted to restore Syria’s membership, ending a 12-year suspension that began during the country’s 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule, AP reported

Thirteen out of the league’s 22 member states sent their foreign ministers to the meeting in Cairo, with only Qatar opposed to reinstating Syria. While the return to the Arab League is symbolic, as Western sanctions against Assad’s government remain in place, it marks a victory for Damascus and takes another step towards bringing Assad, a long-time regional pariah, back into the fold. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the decision does not mean all Arab countries have normalized with Damascus, and it is part of a gradual process of resolving the conflict. 

The move was met with criticism from opponents of Assad, who see it as a betrayal, with Laila Kiki, executive director of The Syria Campaign, an international advocacy group, stating it has “cruelly betrayed tens of thousands of victims of the regime’s war crimes and granted Assad a green light to continue committing horrific crimes with impunity.” 

The decision follows a meeting in Jordan last week, where regional top diplomats discussed a roadmap to return Syria to the Arab fold as the conflict continues to de-escalate.

Some influential league members remain opposed to reinstating Syria, chief among them Qatar, which did not send its foreign minister to Sunday’s gathering. Thirteen out of the league’s 22 member states sent their foreign ministers to the meeting in Cairo, AP added.

Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous claimed Sunday that Syria had been the victim of “misinformation and distortion campaigns launched by our enemies” for 12 years. He said Sunday’s consultations reflected the “prestigious position” Syria holds regionally and internationally.

Opponents of Assad saw the move toward normalization as a betrayal.

“Arab states have put their own cynical realpolitik and diplomatic agendas above basic humanity,” said Laila Kiki, executive director of The Syria Campaign, an international advocacy group. The move, she said, has “cruelly betrayed tens of thousands of victims of the regime’s war crimes and granted Assad a green light to continue committing horrific crimes with impunity.”

The Arab League generally tries to reach agreements by consensus but sometimes opts for simple majorities. Sunday’s session was held behind closed doors, and it was not immediately clear which countries had registered objections.

Raisi concludes visit to Syria, vows to strengthen ties 

Iran and Syria agreed to boost ties and develop economic relations, with a focus on reconstruction, as the Islamic Republic’s President Ebrahim Raisi on Friday concluded a landmark visit to Damascus.

During late-night talks Thursday, Raisi and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad discussed “ways to develop and strengthen bilateral relations” and “emphasized existing cooperation in the field of reconstruction”, according to a joint statement released Friday.

Raisi concluded his two-day trip early Friday and had described the visit, the first by an Iranian president to Syria since 2010, as a “turning point” in bilateral relations.

The visit positions Tehran in a leading role in Syria’s reconstruction, with Assad seeking to focus on reviving his country’s devastated economy and infrastructure, despite Western sanctions on both countries.

The pair also expressed a “willingness to take any action to develop commercial-economic relations”.

On Thursday, Raisi said Iran and Syria had signed 15 “cooperation documents” that would allow “both countries to open a new chapter in economic relations”.

He also praised Syria for “achieving victory” in the country’s war and invited Assad to officially visit Tehran.

The Syrian conflict was sparked by the repression of peaceful protesters in 2011 and has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

Large parts of northern Syria remain outside government control.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia are two great nations,” Raisi said during an interview broadcast on Syrian television on Friday evening, according to an official Arabic translation provided by state news agency SANA.

The restoration of ties between the countries would change and “bring order” to the region, Raisi said.

“We refuse to consider Saudi Arabia as an enemy or be hostile to it.”

Raisi also said during his interview that Iran was playing a mediating role in Russian-facilitated talks aiming to normalize ties between Syria and Turkey.

Moscow has encouraged renewed diplomatic relations between its Syrian ally and Ankara, which has supported rebels and the opposition in a bid to remove Assad from power.

A meeting of Syrian, Iranian, Russian, and Turkish foreign ministers is scheduled in the next few days in Moscow.

Raisi speech

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has positioned himself as a leader of the “resistance axis” alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, in a speech at a shrine in Syria. While he didn’t mention Saudi Arabia, he indicated that Iran’s influence in Damascus is untouchable, and said that Iran would support Syria in its period of reconstruction, Al-Monitor reported

The war in Syria has had a significant impact on Iran, both politically and economically, and Iran continues to honor those killed in the conflict as martyrs. Iran’s foreign minister, Hussein Amir-Abdollahian, wrote a book in 2020 detailing Iran’s role in Syria and accusing the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their allies of trying to destabilize Syria to interrupt the connection between members of the resistance coalition. 

The book also defended the political system in Syria and said that Iran had tried to transfer some essential security issues to Syria while preserving the prestige of the Syrian state. Despite the end of the war, Iran’s focus in Syria is shifting towards economic influence, with Iranian companies reportedly taking over state-owned enterprises, particularly in the northeast of the country, Al-Monitor added. 

Iran is also building up local militias in Syria, which have been accused of human rights abuses and involvement in criminal activities. These activities have raised concerns among Iran’s regional rivals, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, who see Iran as a destabilizing force in the region.

U.S. will not normalize with Assad

Washington ‘does not support’ push to normalize ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s gov’t, State Department says, Al-Jazeera reported.

The United States will not normalize relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the State Department has said, as many of Washington’s Arab allies re-establish ties with Damascus.

The State Department said late on Thursday that top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken discussed a recent meeting in Amman between Syria and its Arab neighbours during a phone call with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi.

“Secretary Blinken made clear that the United States will not normalize relations with the Assad regime and does not support others normalizing until there is authentic, UN-facilitated political progress in line with UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254,” the department said.

The 2015 resolution calls for free and fair elections in Syria under UN supervision.

The foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan met for talks in the Jordanian capital on Monday amid a push to bring al-Assad’s government back into the Arab fold.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League and ostracised by regional powerbrokers in 2011 after its crackdown on Arab Spring protests, which turned into a protracted war. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

As the Syrian government regained control over large parts of the country – with support from Iran and Russia – some Arab countries began to soften their stance towards Damascus.

The U.S., however, has maintained that it would not change its opposition to al-Assad without an inclusive political settlement to the conflict.

The State Department said on Thursday that Blinken expressed gratitude to Jordan for the “hosting of refugees and reinforced the U.S. position that Syria must create conditions including greatly improved respect for human rights that would motivate refugees to return in a safe, voluntary, and dignified manner”.

French jihadists who joined ISIS in Syria asks to be repatriated

Bryan Dancona, one of the first Frenchmen to join the ranks of the Islamic State group in Syria, wants to return to his native country, according to information relayed by the Center for Analysis of Terrorism (CAT), AFP reported

Having left for Syria on December 27, 2013, the young man, now 26, presented himself with his daughter in early May at the French consulate in Istanbul, asking to be repatriated to France.

Dancona, according to AFP, an Islamic convert from Nice, was 16 years old when he went to Syria, via Turkey, with only an identity document in hand. 

Dancona was very active once he arrived in Syria, where he attempted to recruit other young Frenchmen. Married for a time to the mother of his daughter, a compatriot, he settled with her in a camp near Idlib until 2021 or 2022. 

The young man is the target of an arrest warrant and could soon be deported by Turkey. He risks being indicted for “criminal association in relation to a terrorist enterprise” on his return to France, AFP added.

Assad regime uses Syria embassies to spy on citizens abroad, report confirms

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has been using its staff and intelligence operatives through its embassies abroad to compile reports on the Syrian diaspora, a new report has revealed.

According to the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), citing 14,108 pages out of 483,000 classified documents it collected between 2013 and 2015 from abandoned Syrian state facilities, the Syrian regime has required embassy staff and intelligence in countries ranging from Egypt to Japan to compile reports on citizens living abroad.

The information gathered on them includes details about families back home, activists’ participation in political meetings, and even attendance at mosques. It confirms suspicions long held by Syrians abroad that their government was continuing to spy on them and their families through embassies in their host countries.

The documents, quoted by The Middle East Monitor, analyzed reportedly show communication between embassies and intelligence departments requesting information on individuals believed to be linked to political activism, along with their families.

One document, for example, reveals a letter from the Syrian chief of the Political Security Directorate to heads of local intelligence branches, asking for information on “inciters” who are living in France, Belgium, Turkiye, Russia, and Lebanon.

“We have received a list from the National Security Bureau that includes the names of the instigators from outside the country including the following…,” it read. “Kindly provide us with the information you have on any of the names above so that we can take the necessary steps against them.”

The report by SJAC stated that the revelation should serve as a warning to foreign governments and Syrian refugees’ host countries against restoring ties with the Assad regime and reopening Syrian embassies on their soil, as it would likely lead to the intimidation of activists abroad and threaten the safety of themselves and their families.

Russian missile nearly hit U.S. MQ-9 drone in Syria last year: CENTCOM

A Russian surface-to-air missile nearly hit an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over Syria in a previously undisclosed incident last November, U.S. Central Command confirmed Thursday.

The near-shootdown is the second known skirmish between Russian forces and U.S. drones in recent months, amid growing tensions between the two countries in conflict zones where both maintain a military presence. Air and Space Forces Magazine first reported the incident on Wednesday.

“We can confirm that a Russian-controlled SA-22 fired a missile at a U.S. MQ-9 on November 27, 2022,” CENTCOM spokesperson Maj. John Moore said in an emailed statement. 

In a previously undisclosed incident last November, a Russian-controlled SA-22 missile nearly hit an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over Syria, according to a statement by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). 

Although the Air and Space Forces Magazine initially reported that the drone was damaged, CENTCOM clarified that it was not aware of the missile exploding or the drone being hit. The interaction between the two forces prompted U.S. officials to contact Russian troops on a deconfliction hotline. 

This comes as Russian forces grow increasingly confrontational in Syria, where Moscow backs the Assad regime and Washington supports the patchwork of rebel groups in the country’s 12-year civil war. Russian pilots have flown in a “loose formation” within 500 feet of American jets multiple times this spring, according to Air Forces Central Commander Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who also suggested that the Russians may be growing brasher as a favour to their ally Iran, which opposes the U.S. military presence in the region.

A U.S. civil case gives us, Syrians, a glimmer of hope

A civil case filed against the Syrian regime in the United States by the Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) for its widespread torture of Syrian citizens over the past 12 years has given hope to Syrians, especially those whose loved ones have forcibly disappeared by the regime, Al-Jazeera reported

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Obada Mzaik, a Syrian-American who survived torture while in detention and was able to leave the country. 

The news of the court case was received positively by Syrians whose family members were detained without charge and subjected to torture, and who have been living in displacement and uncertainty for many years. 

The case is important because there is no international tribunal in place to investigate the crimes committed during the Syrian war, leaving Syrians with no way to seek justice. 

The case in the U.S., along with others filed in foreign countries such as France, Germany, and Sweden, gives hope to Syrians that justice might one day be served, and keeps them going in their fight to release their loved ones from Assad’s prisons.

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