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Syria Today – U.S. Sanctions Turkey Based Groups; Damascus Launches Arrests Campaign

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
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Syria Today – U.S. Sanctions Turkey Based Groups; Damascus Launches Arrests Campaign

The US Treasury Department has introduced sanctions on two militias supported by Turkey: the Suleiman Shah Brigade and Hamza Division. These groups are being accused of using coercive methods to displace and suppress the indigenous Kurdish populace in the Afrin area of northern Syria. Concurrently, Syrian government forces have initiated a series of arrests within the city of Al-Tal, located in the outskirts of Damascus. The arrests target five men who are being sought for evading military reserve service.

US Imposes Sanctions on Turkey-Backed Syrian Militias Over Rights Abuses in Afrin

The US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on two Turkey-backed militias, the Suleiman Shah Brigade and Hamza Division, accusing them of forcibly displacing and oppressing the local Kurdish population in northern Syria’s Afrin region. These groups are part of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) coalition and have been accused of human rights abuses against vulnerable populations. 

The Suleiman Shah Brigade has been accused of targeting Afrin’s Kurdish population through harassment, abduction, and other abuses to force them to leave their homes or pay ransoms. The leader of the brigade, Mohammad Hussein al-Jasim, known as Abu Amsha, was also sanctioned for his involvement in these actions, including reportedly generating significant income through kidnapping schemes. 

The Hamza Division, the other sanctioned group, has been accused of abductions, property theft, torture, and running detention facilities where victims are held for ransom and abused. The sanctions are part of an effort to hold accountable those responsible for human rights abuses, and they were imposed under an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump.

Northwest Syria’s Uncertainty Grows as Regime Takes Control of Cross-Border Aid

Millions of people in northwest Syria are facing an uncertain future due to the closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing last month, resulting from Russia’s UN Security Council veto, New Arab reported

This closure has raised fears that essential aid will be unable to reach opposition-held areas, leaving millions in dire need. The UN failed to extend or establish a new mechanism for aid delivery through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and Russia’s veto exacerbated the situation. 

The Syrian regime has agreed to extend permission for aid delivery through other Turkish border crossings, but this move has been met with distrust by civilians and activists who fear the regime’s control over aid. Many view the UN’s reliance on the regime for aid delivery as a dangerous shift in the conflict dynamics, allowing the regime and Russia to manipulate humanitarian aid for political leverage. 

The closure of Bab al-Hawa and potential control by the regime could lead to dire consequences, including rising unemployment, stagnant markets, and increased poverty among displaced populations who heavily depend on aid for survival.

Syrian regime launches a campaign of arrests in Damascus Countryside 

Syrian regime forces have launched a campaign of arrests in the city of Al- Tal in the Damascus countryside, detaining five men wanted for not serving in the military reserves.

The Voice of the Capital news network said the Syrian regime forces have set up temporary barriers at the city’s entrances and at the Al-Majli and Al-Bayraktar parking lots in the city center, and checked the military service books of passers-by as well as the proofs of postponement or termination of service.

According to the network, the campaign has also targeted persons wanted for burning a picture of President Bashar Al-Assad about a week ago.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented no less than 197 cases of arbitrary arrest/ detention in Syria during the month of July, 94 of them were by regime forces.

The Rising Threat of Syrian Drug Trafficking to the Region

Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, wrote an op-ed for Arab News, in which he argues that the escalating issue of drug trafficking in Syria demands serious attention due to its potential to inflict enduring damage not only on the Syrian populace but also on neighboring nations. The Syrian government must adopt more robust measures to combat this menace.

The ramifications of the illicit drug trade extend beyond its direct victims, as families, friends, coworkers, and communities of drug users also experience negative consequences. These impacts can be irreversible. Furthermore, drug trafficking erodes the stability of societies, economies, and politics, leading to a surge in related crimes. This issue is particularly concerning in countries with sizable youth populations.

Arab leaders have voiced a clear message: The Syrian government must address the ongoing drug trade. Arab states demand action, with a halt to the production and smuggling of the amphetamine Captagon, which is allegedly being exported from Syria. This illicit trade poses a substantial concern for Arab leaders, alongside the return of refugees.

According to the article, millions of illicit Captagon pills have been trafficked from Syria into neighboring Arab countries, including Jordan and the Gulf nations. Despite efforts to intercept these shipments, the problem persists. Recent cases include Saudi Arabia seizing a significant amount of Captagon and the Jordanian military intercepting a drone carrying crystal meth from Syria.

Captagon, described as a “poor man’s cocaine,” is a synthetic amphetamine stimulant with high addictive potential. The clandestine manufacture of Captagon often combines multiple addictive stimulants, rendering it more destructive and addictive than before.

The complex factors contributing to Syria’s involvement in the drug trade, the author adds, include the civil war, insecurity, a political vacuum, economic crisis, and international isolation. This environment has facilitated the rise of criminal groups involved in illegal drug production and smuggling, creating a multibillion-dollar industry in Syria. This industry’s value is reportedly three times that of Mexico’s drug cartels.

Several measures can be taken to counter the flow of illicit drugs from Syria. Arab countries should use their influence to pressure the Syrian government into cooperating with international efforts to dismantle drug-related criminal networks. Economic incentives and increased trade can encourage Syria’s collaboration.

Intelligence sharing, law enforcement cooperation, and targeting the funding sources of drug traffickers are essential. Raising awareness about the dangers of illicit drugs through educational institutions and media outlets, particularly targeting vulnerable populations such as youth, is crucial. Enhancing security and economic conditions in Syria will also contribute to reducing drug trafficking.

The article concludes by saying Syria’s involvement in illicit drug production and trafficking poses a significant threat to both its own population and neighbouring nations. The Syrian government must take stronger action and collaborate closely with other Arab leaders to effectively combat this menace.

Analysis: Syria’s Economic Challenges Persist Despite Arab League Reentry

A Middle East Institute fellow, Dani Makki, published a long piece, arguing that despite Syria’s diplomatic reentry into the Arab League, its economic challenges remain profound. 

Syria’s reentry into the Arab League in May was seen as a potential turning point for its fortunes, marked by a swift normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia and a tense but significant meeting between the Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers. However, while these diplomatic strides have been made, the country’s economic situation remains dire. 

The article reminds that the Syrian pound has lost over 80% of its value since May, plummeting to an all-time low of 15,500 to the dollar. This economic crisis underscores that despite political reconciliations, Syria’s most pressing challenge is its struggling economy, which is struggling to recover from the devastation of war.

Although there were expectations that countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia would offer financial aid to stabilize the Syrian pound and boost the economy, this assistance has not materialized. Several factors might contribute to this lack of support, including the early stage of Syria’s reintegration into the international community, the potential challenges posed by U.S. sanctions, and the need for full diplomatic normalization before significant economic backing is provided.

Without substantial external economic aid, particularly from Gulf countries, Syria faces an extremely challenging period ahead.

Deteriorating Economic Conditions

Economic conditions continue to worsen as the Syrian pound depreciates and the prices of raw materials, often tied to the dollar, rise. This has led to urgent measures being taken. The Syrian government has increased drug prices by 50%, likely due to a shortage of hard currency and necessary raw materials for pharmaceutical production. Every day Syrians, already struggling, find it difficult to afford basic necessities.

Despite raising state salaries to 200,000 SYP per month (around $12.50), the cost of the minimum monthly food basket estimated by the UN is 1.35 million SYP ($90). The rise in salaries has been met with a corresponding increase in prices. The fuel sector, in particular, has experienced instability, with gasoline prices doubling overnight. The subsidized price of 20 litres of gasoline surged from 75,000 SYP to 160,000 SYP, while the black market price exceeded 300,000 SYP per 20 litres.

Complex Factors Contribute to Crisis

Several factors have contributed to Syria’s dire economic situation, including the destruction of industries due to the war, the economic collapse in neighbouring Lebanon, corruption, mismanagement, Western sanctions, the aftermath of an earthquake in 2023, the lack of government control over oil-rich areas in the northwest, and the departure of skilled workers. All of these factors have exacerbated the economic decline, leaving the Syrian economy in need of significant stimulus.

Moreover, the economic challenges are exacerbated by the reluctance of Syria’s primary allies, Iran and Russia, to provide substantial financial support. Both countries have their own financial concerns and commitments that limit their ability to assist Syria.

Seeking Assistance Abroad

While countries like the UAE have normalized relations with Syria, they have primarily focused on humanitarian efforts, such as supporting earthquake-affected areas. The focus on broader economic support appears to be a matter for future discussions. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia are involved in projects to aid areas affected by earthquakes, projects aimed at revitalizing Syria’s overall economy are less evident. Saudi Arabia, for example, has yet to fully reopen its embassy in Damascus, indicating that the restoration of diplomatic ties is still a gradual process.

For Syria to stabilize its economy, it will need additional assistance, and countries providing such aid might demand political concessions and long-term commitments to address various issues, including narcotics trafficking.

In the meantime, the Syrian pound’s instability will continue to undermine investor confidence, necessitating constant efforts to maintain faith in the currency.

The Gulf countries, cautious about their financial commitments, are pursuing a measured approach to build trust and consensus with Syria before fully ramping up support. This requires patience from both sides.

In summary, despite Syria’s diplomatic reentry into the Arab League, its economic challenges remain profound. While political strides have been made, the ailing economy, marked by a plummeting Syrian pound, showcases that Syria’s path to stability is still a long and complex journey.

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