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Syria Today – Turkey Builds Housing Units in NE Syria Ahead of Key Elections; More and More Children Abandoned in Syria

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – Turkey Builds Housing Units in NE Syria Ahead of Key Elections; More and More Children Abandoned in Syria

According to Turkish media reports, Turkey has commenced the building of approximately 250,000 housing units in rebel-controlled northern Syria, aiming to relocate refugees. This initiative is taking place amidst Turkey’s upcoming presidential runoff, where the focus on repatriation is prominent. Syrian refugees residing in Turkey are experiencing increasing unease as they anticipate the results of the forthcoming elections. Meanwhile, in Syria, authorities indicate that due to over a decade of persistent conflict causing poverty and despair, infants are being abandoned near mosques, hospitals, and even beneath olive trees in war-ravaged Syria.

Turkey kicks off Syria housing project for refugee returns

Turkey has launched the construction of nearly a quarter million housing units to resettle refugees in rebel-held northern Syria, Turkish media said, as repatriation efforts loom large in Turkey’s presidential runoff.

An AFP correspondent on Wednesday saw builders working and heavy machinery being used at the side on the outskirts of the town of al-Ghandura, in the Jarabulus area near the Turkish border.

“Syrian refugees living in Turkey will settle in the houses… as part of a dignified, voluntary safe return,” Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Wednesday at the launch of the project, according to private Turkish news agency IHA.

Turkey quake victims rally around Erdogan ahead of runoff

He said that “240,000 houses will be built” in the region, expressing hope that the project would be completed in three years, IHA added.

Since Syria’s war broke out in 2011, neighbouring Turkey has taken in more than three million people who fled the fighting.

Most have “temporary protection” status, leaving them vulnerable to a forced return.

Anti-refugee sentiments have been running high in Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hardened his once-accepting stance towards people displaced by war as he fights for re-election in a presidential runoff this weekend.

Anxious Syrian refugees await the outcome of Turkey’s election amid promises of repatriation

Anxiety is growing among Syrian refugees in Turkey as they await the outcome of the upcoming elections. The main cause of concern is the promises made by the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to repatriate the refugees back to Syria, The New Arab reports. 

One of the refugees, Um Ahmed, who lost her home in an earthquake, hopes that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will win the elections to avoid deportation. Kılıçdaroğlu’s high vote percentage in the previous round of elections has raised anxieties within the refugee community. The final round of elections will take place on May 28, and the outcome may be influenced by the supporters of the third candidate, Sinan Oğan. Kılıçdaroğlu has reiterated his intention to send back 10 million refugees to their countries, emphasizing the potential consequences if Erdoğan remains in power.

According to Syrian political activist Taha AlGazi, hate speech against Syrian refugees has increased following the first round of elections in Turkey. AlGazi believes that statements made by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, particularly his promise to send back refugees allowed in by Erdogan, have fueled racism and made Syrians uncomfortable in public spaces. Videos of racist incidents have circulated online, including one where a Turkish man insulted Arabs and another where an Al-Jazeera correspondent was attacked for speaking Arabic.

The recent decision by the Arab League to welcome back Bashar Al-Assad, after an 11-year suspension, has also heightened anxiety among Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan. They fear that this could lead to more deportations back to Syria.

A Syrian refugee in Istanbul, identified as O.H., expressed frustration with the treatment of Syrians in Turkey. Despite having refugee status, O.H. feels a lack of protection and describes the process of renewing residency as bureaucratic and humiliating. O.H. and their family are seeking visas to move to the UK for a better life.

While Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its implementation follows the geographical limitation specified in the convention. The country prioritizes the resettlement of refugees from events outside of Europe to third countries as a long-term solution. However, many Syrian refugees, like Um Ahmed, wish to remain in Turkey and not face the constant threat of deportation before each election.

Syrians abandon babies at mosques, under trees as war grinds on

One cold winter night, Syrian Ibrahim Othman went out to pray and came home cradling a baby girl, abandoned at the doorstep of the village mosque just hours after she was born, AFP reported.

“I took her home and told my wife, ‘I brought you a gift’,” said the 59-year-old resident of Hazano, in rebel-held northwest Syria.

He named the baby Hibatullah, meaning “gift of God”, and decided to raise her as one of the family.

Officials say babies are being left outside mosques, hospitals and even under olive trees in war-torn Syria as more than 12 years of grinding conflict fuel poverty and desperation.

“Only a few cases of child abandonment” were officially documented before the war broke out in 2011, according to the Washington-based group Syrians for Truth and Justice, which records human rights abuses in the country.

But between early 2021 and late 2022, more than 100 children — 62 of them girls — were found abandoned across the country, it said in a March report, estimating the real figure to be much higher.

“The numbers have increased dramatically” since the start of the conflict along with “the social and economic repercussions of the war” affecting both government-controlled and rebel-held areas, the group said.

It pointed to factors including poverty, instability, insecurity and child marriage, along with sexual abuse and pregnancy out of wedlock.

While adoption is forbidden across Syria, Othman has asked the local authorities for permission to raise Hibatullah.

“I told my children that if I die, she should have part of my inheritance,” even though she can never officially be part of the family, he said, breaking into tears.

The three-year-old, her hair pulled back loosely into pigtails and tottering around in shiny pink sandals, now calls him “grandpa”.

“She is just an innocent child,” Othman said.

Opinion  Biden shouldn’t allow Arab leaders to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad

American Columnist Josh Rogin called on President Joe Biden to make efforts to prevent Arab governments from normalizing ties with the Syrian president’s war crimes.

Rogi wrote that during the recent Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Arab leaders to resist Russian influence and stand up for sovereignty and national independence. He highlighted the persecution of Tatar Muslims in Crimea and called for condemnation of war crimes. However, the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League and the warm reception he received from Arab leaders, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, showed a disregard for Ukraine’s pleas and signalled Arab states’ alignment with Assad and his Russian ally, President Vladimir Putin.

Assad promised to cooperate with Arab nations on drug trafficking, using his control over the captagon drug trade as leverage. In exchange, Arab states pledged billions in aid to Syria, which would largely benefit Assad’s corrupt regime. Zelensky’s invitation to the summit was seen by some as an attempt to divert attention from Assad’s return, but it inadvertently exposed the false neutrality of Arab states in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The Biden administration has publicly stated that it won’t normalize relations with Assad but no longer objects to Arab countries doing so. This represents a departure from previous commitments to hold Assad accountable for mass atrocities. In response, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has unanimously approved the Assad Anti-Normalization Act, which aims to strengthen the Caesar Act—a law passed in 2019 to pressure Assad to halt his campaign of torture and murder. The bill would extend the act until 2032, close loopholes, and require investigations into financial transactions benefiting Assad.

The Biden administration’s acceptance of Arab acceptance of Assad has faced criticism from former U.S. national security officials and lawmakers. They argue that isolating Assad and pressuring those funding his regime are crucial steps to deter further war crimes and promote accountability. Proper implementation of the Caesar Act, including targeting those enabling Assad, maybe the last remaining avenue to hold him accountable and prevent further atrocities.

The Arab League Has Accepted Syria Back Into its Fold. Now What?

Overall, the situation in Syria remains complex and challenging, with many competing interests and priorities at play. Knowing this, Arab countries are demonstrating a clear focus on prioritizing the limitation of further destabilization in the region. But what does this mean?

According to experts, who spoke to Fanack.com, this event is significant not only for boosting Syrian-Arab ties but also for restoring Syria’s position in the region. The agreement, however, is not without conditions.

Syria is expected to address the issue of drug trafficking and work towards a political amnesty to help resolve the conflict politically. The symbolic importance of the agreement is clear, but its success will depend on Syria’s ability to follow through on its commitments.

The conditions also encompass the pressing issue of refugees in neighbouring Arab countries.

The US and its European allies continue to maintain a policy of isolation and pressure against the Assad regime in Syria. However, there is a divergence in attitudes towards Syria between the US and key Arab partners like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Arab leaders accuse the US of neglecting the region in favour of competing with China and Russia. 

While some Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, have chosen to normalize relations with Syria, not all countries, like Qatar, are ready to welcome Syria back into the fold. The reactions among Syrians themselves are mixed, with some seeing the reinstatement as a beacon of hope and an opportunity for assistance and improvement in living conditions, while others view it as disappointing and unlikely to bring about significant changes. 

The economic and social challenges in Syria remain significant, and investments and financial support are not expected to return immediately. The overall impact of Syria’s readmission to the Arab League on the country’s future remains uncertain.

While reactions remain mixed, and many questions remain unanswered, what is clear is that the region is undergoing changes that start with Syria but do not end there. Is Syria part of a greater package that entails greater normalizations on several other fronts and files? Only the coming weeks will provide insight, Fanack concluded.

Syria’s regime condemns French ‘hysteria’ over call to try Assad

Syria condemned Wednesday what it called France’s “hysteria,” a day after Paris’ top diplomat said President Bashar al-Assad should be tried over his role in the country’s war.

Asked during a television interview on Tuesday if she wanted the Syrian leader to be tried, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said: “the answer is yes.”

Her comments came after Assad attended on Friday his first Arab League summit in more than a decade of civil war, crowning his return to the fold after years of regional isolation.

“We have recently followed the hysteria and isolated and detached positions of French diplomacy, which has lost its senses after the historic decisions of the Arab summit in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when it comes to Syria,” the Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement.

“The backwards French diplomacy must review its positions,” the statement said, also accusing France of seeking to “restore the legacy of the colonial era.”

Several Arab capitals cut ties with al-Assad at the start of Syria’s war in 2011, with some supporting the opposition instead.

Bashar al-Assad’s hollow victory in Syria

Lara Nelson, Policy Director of ETANA Syria, wrote an extensive analysis for The New Arab on the so-called Assad’s victory of last week. 

The appearance of Bashar al-Assad at the Arab League, twelve years after his suspension, sparked anger among many Syrians who protested against the decision, Nelson wrote.

However, she adds, some Syrian thinkers offered a different perspective, viewing it as a conclusion of Arab states’ reduced support for the pro-democracy movement since 2017. The economic crisis in Syria remains a major challenge, with the country ranked third in the fragile states index and facing a deteriorating economy. 

The Arab League decision did not restore confidence in the economy, as the Syrian pound continued to depreciate, and sanctions imposed on the regime further restricted investment from Arab states. Assad’s backers, Iran and Russia, are also unable to save the Syrian economy. While rumours circulate about Saudi Arabia offering financial assistance, experts believe it would only be a temporary fix and would mainly benefit the elite and security services. 

The estimated cost of reconstruction in Syria is around $400 billion, and the country’s economic condition has worsened following the earthquake in February 2023. Western states have reiterated that they will not support reconstruction or lift sanctions without meaningful political reforms and progress on the implementation of UN Resolution 2254. 

The writer says Syrians fear that the Arab League decision could change Western positioning, as they have witnessed the erosion of Western red lines in the past. The concern is that the political track may become token rather than substantial, with a focus on peripheral issues instead of the core aim of finding a durable political solution. It is crucial for the West to stick to its red lines and use this policy momentum to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.

Within this context, it remains essential for the West to stick to its red lines and harness this policy momentum to address the core aims of 2254. Now is a key opportunity to begin to explore new tactics and strategies with Arab partners to progress towards such aims, Nelson concludes.

First Lady Asma al-Assad joins locals of al-Marah village in the harvesting of their Damascene Rose

 Society has a memory which carries its customs and traditions, which remains with the human being throughout their lives… the memory is represented in rituals that parents pass on to their children, a generation after generation, this memory embedded deeply in their identity, spirit of its society and its culture, SANA reported.

In al-Marah village, located in Qalamoun Mountains, in Damascus Countryside, there is a village named the “Village of Damascene Rose”, where with the first moments of the sunrise, at this time of each year, farmers begin the season of harvesting the Damascene rose. This rose has been associated with their lands hundreds of years ago in a way that its name has linked to them, and its fragrance spreads to the whole world, carrying its Syrian identity and heritage.

Reviving heritage in all its forms constitutes a continuation of life and preserving it is a clinging to identity, the First Lady Mrs. Asma al-Assad continues to sponsor and support those who hold strongly to their heritage and pass it on to their children. On Thursday, the First Lady joined the local people of al-Marah village in the harvesting of their Damascene rose, the jewel of their life and icon of their continued livelihood.. the rituals of harvesting the rose each year demonstrate the rose’s social and cultural importance in protecting and preserving this heritage.

Ladies of the Diplomatic Club in Syria and other dignitaries,  artists’ figures and personalities who are concerned with preserving and protecting the Syrian heritage joined them.

The cultivation of the Damascene rose, which were inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019,  is expanded to include other areas and town. A year after a year, from al-Marah to Hama, Aleppo and other provinces,  this rose remains an image from Syria and a source of its productivity and cultivation.

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