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Syria Today – U.S. Votes Against Removing Troops; Aleppo Airport to Reopen Friday; Grandi Meets Assad, Mekdad

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – U.S. Votes Against Removing Troops; Aleppo Airport to Reopen Friday; Grandi Meets Assad, Mekdad

Legislation directing U.S. President Joe Biden to remove some 900 troops from Syria within 180 days was soundly defeated in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, The Morning Star reported.

Opponents of the measure claimed that the proposed law could allow the Islamic State (Isis) terrorist movement to reorganize, endangering the U.S. and its allies.

The resolution, introduced by Republican Matt Gaetz, was rejected by 321 votes to 103. He introduced the measure after four U.S. military personnel were wounded last month during a helicopter raid in north-eastern Syria that killed a senior ISIS leader.

Gaetz dismissed the notion that “what stands between a caliphate and not a caliphate are the 900 Americans who have been sent to this hellscape with no definition of victory.” Although the legislation was defeated, Congress’s support appears to grow for ending decades-old authorizations for using military force.

Syria slams U.S. sanctioning security official

In Syrian-U.S. relations, Syria’s foreign ministry said Washington falsified facts and manipulated events when it sanctioned an alleged member of a notorious Syrian intelligence branch this week, a statement posted on Syrian state media said on Wednesday.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a travel ban against a Syrian security official and his immediate family over his alleged perpetration of the 2013 massacre of at least 41 civilians in the Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon.

Aleppo Airport: Satellite photos: Likely Israel strike damages Syria airport

A suspected Israeli airstrike targeting Aleppo International Airport in Syria again left multiple craters on its runway, satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press showed Thursday.

Separately, a U.N. official criticized the attack for hindering earthquake relief for the hard-hit, war-torn Syria.

The attack on Aleppo airport comes as Israel previously struck the airfield as part of an Israeli campaign to disrupt Iranian weapons transfers to the country. Those attacks have continued despite ongoing political turmoil in Israel and as Iran’s nuclear program edges closer to enriching weapons-grade levels of uranium as negotiations over it have fallen apart.

The satellite photos, taken early Tuesday afternoon by Planet Labs PBC, show vehicles gathered on the airport’s single asphalt runway around the damage. One spot, directly south of its passenger terminal, appeared to be a new, significant crater.

Aleppo’s airport, like many others in Middle East nations, is a dual-use facility that includes civilian and military sides. Iran has been key in arming and supporting President Bashar Assad in his country’s long civil war.

The attack Tuesday shut the Aleppo airport, with Syria’s Foreign Ministry describing it as a “double crime” as it targeted a civilian airport and a main channel for the flow of aid to areas hit by last month’s earthquake.

Airport to reopen Friday

The Aleppo Airport will resume operations on Friday morning after being shut down because of an Israeli air strike, state media said on Thursday. Damascus called on all air carriers to reschedule all flights and said the airport is ready to receive relief aid planes for earthquake victims.

The attack caused “material damage” to the airport, SANA cited the source as saying, without mentioning any casualties.

What’s next?

Syria and Iran appeared outraged after the on Aleppo’s airport this week, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The newspaper said it is unusual that Syria has used strong language against the airstrike. Often the regime does not comment or claim it has shot down missiles, but it rarely uses words like it did this week, accusing Israel of a “crime.” It is unclear if Russia, a key backer of the regime, will also condemn the strike. A Turkish delegation is supposed to visit Russia soon, and Moscow wants Turkey to reconcile with the Syrian regime. Turkey has elections coming up.

Meanwhile, Gulf countries are also working on normalization with Syria. Bashar al-Assad flew to Oman recently and has also hosted UAE delegations. Saudi Arabia commented this week on the possibility of Syria returning to the Arab League. Riyadh confirmed there is dialogue about this issue. If Syria returns to the Arab League, it could make airstrikes more controversial or complex.

Now, questions are being asked about the effectiveness of this strategy. This is one of the few articles in the region to take account of Israel’s strategy and ask critical questions about it. In general, the strategy is ignored in foreign media. The U.S. has previously supported Israel’s attempts to stop Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

It’s unclear if this incident will have a wider effect.

Syria earthquake aid convoy stuck at rebel-regime crossing

An aid convoy is stalled for a second day at a crossing in northern Syria, waiting for a green light to deliver humanitarian supplies to quake-hit areas, aid agencies said Thursday.

The Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) confirmed they were still waiting at the Saraqib crossing in the Idleb province for a green light from “all parties” to enter opposition areas.

The parts of Idleb and Aleppo, where the aid is to be delivered, are controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or Turkish-backed rebels, while Saraqib is under the command of the Syrian regime.

“The Syrian Arab Red Crescent is at Saraqib crossing point, waiting for the approvals to be obtained by all parties to deliver a humanitarian aid convoy for the people affected by [the] earthquake in Idleb (Idlib) and its countryside, and Aleppo western countryside,” it wrote in a statement.

Those supporting the relief efforts are UN agencies, the European Union, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

It was unclear which parties it was awaiting approval from, but the convoy would have to cross through regime checkpoints before reaching rebel-held Idlib.

On the government side

Assad meets UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

President Bashar al-Assad received on Thursday UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

President Assad, according to SANA, considered it important to look at the impacts of the earthquake and the war on Syria with one comprehensive vision, as what the war left behind made it more difficult to face the repercussions of the earthquake.

President Assad stressed the importance of cooperation between the Syrian government and civil agencies, as well as international organizations operating on the ground.

The President affirmed that efforts and capacities must be coordinated to transition from the emergency response to the early recovery phase to ensure those affected can return to normal life.

President Assad and Grandi also discussed continuing the necessary measures to return Syrian refugees to their cities and regions.

Grandi affirmed that the UNHCR would intensify its work and efforts in Syria to support the humanitarian response undertaken by the Syrian State in the face of the earthquake catastrophe.

He indicated that over his visit to the governorates of Lattakia and Hama, he noticed the great efforts the Syrian government and civil society organizations exerted in providing relief aid to those affected by the earthquake.

Mekdad, Grandi

Foreign and Expatriates Minister Dr. Faisal al-Mekdad also met Grandi.

The pair discussed prospects of standing cooperation between the Syrian government and the UN High Commission for Refugees, particularly in facing the repercussions of the earthquake disaster that struck Syria last February.

Mekdad stressed the importance of standing cooperation with the UN commission, organizations and its bureaus operating in Syria to contribute to overcoming the repercussions of the earthquake.

He pointed out the impact of the unilateral coercive measures imposed by the West and the U.S. on Syria.

The Foreign Minister reiterated the impact of these sanctions lies primarily on the ordinary people, which is what Syria has faced during the earthquake crisis.

The UN High Commissioner, in turn, expressed appreciation for the cooperation the Syrian government is demonstrating with the Commission, indicating the importance of coordinating the work between the Commission and various relevant government bodies.

Grandi stressed the need to integrate the relief efforts the High Commission is conducting following the earthquake and those it conducts regarding the return of the refugees.

After the earthquake, a new chapter in Egypt-Syria ties?

The unprecedented visit of a top Egyptian diplomat to the Syrian capital Damascus last month, the first in over a decade, was seen as a new chapter in relations between Cairo and Damascus, The New Arab reported.

On 27th February, Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry arrived in Damascus. He met his counterpart Faisal al-Mekdad and president Bashar al-Assad to show solidarity with the Syrian people after an earthquake hit the conflict-torn country three weeks earlier.

Dubbed by analysts as ‘earthquake diplomacy,’ the deadly natural disaster has allowed Assad political space to manoeuvre an end to his isolation in the Arab world.

The Egyptian and Syrian regimes are believed to have been in contact on several levels after Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi took power in Egypt following a coup in 2013.

One day after the earthquake, Sisi called Assad to express Egypt’s support and pay his condolences, the first official communication exchange between the two leaders.

Iran Supports Rapprochement Between Türkiye, Syria

Iran has said it supports a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria and the return of relations to their normal status, Asharq al-Awsat reported.

This came as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran are meeting in Moscow next week as part of the normalization process between Ankara and Damascus.

During a joint press conference held with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Ankara, Cavusoglu revealed a Russian proposal to hold a meeting between the four countries at the technical level in preparation for a possible meeting between their foreign ministers.

“The Iranian side will also attend this meeting,” he added.

Abdollahian said Iran is ready to play a role in resolving the different points of view between Turkey and Syria under regional cooperation.

On International Women’s Day

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) today released its latest annual report marking International Women’s Day, March 8, entitled, ‘On International Women’s Day, the Devastating Earthquake that Hit Northwestern Syria Has Exacerbated the Dire Situation of Women, With No Fewer than 35,000 Women Losing Their Homes in the Earthquake’, noting that the parties to the conflict are still committing violations against women working in the public sphere.

The 21-page report outlines the patterns of violence and assaults documented as having been carried out against women and women activists due to their work and activism in the areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Syrian National Army (SNA), and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the context of these patterns, their types, and the similarities and differences among the different parties. To that end, the report summarizes the statistics gathered by SNHR in the year since March 2022 up until March 2023, focusing on seven specific forms of violence against women due to their activism and gender-based killings. The report also outlines the toll from the most notable violations by the parties to the conflict and controlling forces in Syria against women (adult females) between March 2011 and March 2023, as part of the armed conflict or as violations of international humanitarian law.

Between March 2011 and March 2023, the report documents the killing of 16,298 women (adult female) by the parties to the conflict and controlling forces in Syria, including 11,957 women killed by Syrian regime forces, who are responsible for nearly 74 percent of all cases of extrajudicial killing of women compared to all the other parties the conflict, which suggests that the Syrian regime’s killing of women is wholly deliberate. Moreover, Russian forces killed 977 women, while ISIS and HTS killed 587 and 79 women in the same period. According to the records documented on SNHR’s database, all armed opposition factions/SNA were responsible for killing 885 women during this period, while 169 women were killed by SDF, and 658 women were killed by the international coalition forces. Finally, 986 women were killed by other parties.

As the report further reveals, a total of 10,169 of the women arrested or detained since 2011 by Syrian regime forces and all other parties to the conflict and controlling forces are still detained and/or forcibly disappeared at the hands of these parties. Of this total, 8,473 women were detained by Syrian regime forces, while 255 were detained by ISIS, 44 by HTS, 873 by all armed opposition factions/SNA, and 524 by the SDF. Data analysis shows that the Syrian regime is responsible for nearly 83 percent of all arrests and enforced disappearances involving women compared to the other parties to the conflict. Such a high figure suggests that the Syrian regime has been persecuting, arresting, and detaining females under various pretexts in a wholly deliberate and calculated manner.

Drug trade overwhelms southern Syria amid government ignorance

“Why should not I use drugs and smoke hashish” since they are so cheap? with these words, Ayhem Suleiman justified smoking his first hashish cigarette.

Suleiman, 23, a pseudonym for a young man who graduated from the Industrial Institute, hails from Suwayda Governorate, south Syria.

Suleiman’s family lives off his father’s salary, which does not exceed $20.

Drug dealers in south Syria seek to sell them cheaply in an attempt to overwhelm the region with narcotics to make it easier to influence teenagers and youth.

The price of a kilogram of hashish or locally known as “a palm of hashish,” varies between 50.000-75.000 Syrian Pounds (SYP, which equals $7-10), and a captagon pill costs only 500 SYP ($0.068).

“I can roll one thousand joints from a kilogram of hashish, which is cheaper than regular cigarettes,” the troubled young man said.

The geopolitical location and the security reality in Suwayda and Daraa Governorates in southern Syria turned them into a free zone for the drug business.

After Syrian government forces took control of the southern areas of the country based on the settlement agreement of 2018, drug smuggling has become on the rise along the border with Jordan via Suwayda and Daraa.

Drought pushes Daraa farmers to plant olives

The prices of olive saplings have increased in the southern governorate of Daraa amid a demand by farmers to buy them, given that olives do not need large quantities of water compared to other crops, such as pomegranates, grapes, and citrus, due to the decrease in the quantities of irrigation water, Enab Baladi reports.

Some farmers resorted to replacing olive trees with pomegranate crops, as happened with Anas, 36, due to the decline in the water level of the wells and his inability to irrigate the pomegranate crop, which needs to be watered at least once every 20 days in the summer.

Olive is preferred over other crops, as it needs watering once every two months, is considered more resistant to thirst, and is in line with the drought that hit the wells and springs in Daraa, according to what Anas told Enab Baladi.

Enab Baladi monitored this case during the last period through a number of farmers in the area. Jaber, a farmer from rural Daraa, said that the lack of water had become a problem for all farmers in the governorate, especially since he was forced to replace grape vines with olive trees due to the same watering problem.

In light of the water crisis, the Daraa governorate witnessed a high demand for olive saplings during the winter, as Jaber bought more than a thousand saplings at a price of 4,500 Syrian pounds each (60 US cents).

Khaled Suleiman, an agricultural engineer who used to work as director of the Tal Shihab nursery for selling seedlings, told Enab Baladi that olive trees are more adaptable to the current conditions that the governorates of southern Syria suffer from after the decrease in irrigation water.

The engineer added that several varieties of olives were sought by farmers.

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