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Syria Today – US Army Chief Visits al-Hol; Russian Strike; Pakistani Influence on the Rise

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – US Army Chief Visits al-Hol; Russian Strike; Pakistani Influence on the Rise

General Michael Kurilla, the commander of US Central Command, recently conducted a visit to Syria during which he toured the Al-Hol and Al-Roj Displaced Persons Camps situated in the northeastern region of the country. Around the same timeframe, unfortunate incidents occurred as a result of Russian air raids targeting an abandoned water pumping station in the rebel-held northwest Syria, leading to the loss of at least two civilian lives. Meanwhile, there are news reports suggesting a noticeable rise in Pakistani influence within Syria since the onset of the Syrian conflict.

US army chief visits Syrian camps for displaced persons

General Michael Kurilla, commander of US Central Command, travelled to Syria where he visited the Al-Hol and Al-Roj Displaced Persons Camps in northeast Syria, The Arab News reported

Al-Hol is the largest camp for displaced people, overpopulated with more than 50,000 residents, including relatives of suspected extremists, displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees.

During the visits, Kurilla met camp administrators and residents to observe living standards, improvements in camp security, repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration efforts to return residents to their home countries. 

“Our continuing multinational effort to repatriate the residents of the camps to their countries of origin not only enhances security and stability in the region but, more importantly, eases this humanitarian challenge,” Kurilla said. 

“The United States, SDF, and the Global Coalition remain focused and committed to the enduring defeat of Daesh while addressing the humanitarian and security challenges at camps in northeast Syria,” he said.

The general also met with Syrian Democratic Forces to review the campaign to eliminate Daesh as well as assess humanitarian aid efforts in the region.

Nocturnal Anti-Government Demonstration Unfolds in Daraa, Syria

Under the cover of night, a group of young men within Daraa Governorate, located in the southern region of Syria, engaged in a protest on Tuesday evening, vociferously demanding “the ousting of the Syrian regime.”

According to a local informant cited by North Press, a multitude of young individuals from the town of Sayda, situated to the east of Daraa, took to the streets to partake in an anti-government demonstration.

Over the recent days, a wave of anti-government demonstrations emerged in Daraa Governorate, originating from calls for enhanced economic conditions. However, these protests underwent an evolution as participants now advocate for “the overthrow of the regime,” the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, the establishment of a decentralized system, and the reversal of unjust policies, including the escalation of fuel prices.

Remarkably, these protests saw the unfurling of the flag associated with the “Syrian revolution,” a representation harkening back to the period preceding Hafez al-Assad’s reign, as noted by the aforementioned source.

Amid the fervour of the gathering, slogans reverberated against the Syrian government, echoing fervent appeals for “the downfall of the [Syrian] regime” while underscoring the yearning for freedom and dignity, the informant further conveyed.

Russian air raids kill two civilians in northwest Syria

At least two civilians have been killed when Russian air raids struck an abandoned water pumping station in rebel-held northwest Syria, the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, says as attacks by Damascus ally Moscow rise, Al-Jazeera reported.

Two attacks took place late on Tuesday in Arri, west of the provincial capital Idlib, and hit the facility, where displaced Syrians had been living. An elderly man, Ahmad al-Khaled, and his 16-year-old grandson Taher were killed.

According to Munir al-Mustafa, deputy director of the White Helmets emergency response volunteers, five other civilians were wounded in the Russian raid, including two children and a woman.

“We were sleeping and woke up to the sound of explosions,” Mohammed al-Khaled, the elderly man’s son, told Al Jazeera. “We quickly got the women and children out, but after five minutes, the second Russian attack killed my father and nephew.”

“There are no armed fighters or weapons in the area,” he said. “This is a water pumping station that is out of service. We’re all civilians here.”

“The regime forces and Russia have escalated their attacks during the past hours, threatening the lives of civilians in northwestern Syria,” al-Mustafa said in a statement.

“These attacks are a continuation of their policy of killing civilians, without any deterrence or accountability for these crimes for 12 years.”

Al-Mustafa said the White Helmets have responded to more than 454 attacks by Russia and the Syrian regime since the beginning of the year.

“Fifty-one people, including eight children and five women, were killed in these attacks, and 208 people were injured,” he said.

Yousef Ramadan, who lives in the al-Tih camp for displaced people near Maarrat Misrin, also in Idlib province, said he thought the raids were directed at the camp.

“The attack was about 500 metres [550 yards] away from us,” the 57-year-old said. “My family and I were in our tent when we heard the missiles hit.”

They ran outside and took shelter under an olive tree.

“It was like the sound of death,” Ramadan said.

Cyprus dismantles human smuggling ring bringing Syrian migrants from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey

Cyprus said Wednesday it dismantled a criminal human smuggling ring responsible for bringing boatloads of Syrian migrants from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The eastern Mediterranean island nation has seen almost daily migrant boat arrivals in recent days, AP reported.

Cypriot police said three months of investigative work resulted in the arrest of five suspects following a raid by a combined force of 40 officers on several homes in the island’s southeast.

A Cyprus court ordered the detention of the suspects, all Syrian nationals, for eight days until police wrap up their investigation. The suspects face charges of belonging to a criminal migrant smuggling organization.

Police spokesman Christos Andreou told The Associated Press that seven more Syrians were being sought in connection with the ring, including the ringleader who is believed to have fled abroad along with another ring member.

Andreou said the police raid also found 44 Syrian migrants living in those homes, all of whom are asylum seekers or have been accorded international protection status. The migrants will be questioned and released, if they’re not found to belong to the same ring, according to Andreou.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the detained suspects had legal representation. Andreou said they could apply for legal aid and have a public defender appointed at any time, but he was unaware if that had happened Wednesday.

The arrests come as Cypriot authorities rescued 142 Syrian migrants aboard four separate boats over four consecutive days this week.

War crime complaint filed against fighter who ‘confessed to killing children in Syria

A human rights group has filed a legal complaint in Norway against an alleged Iraqi fighter who appeared to confess to killing civilians in Syria’s war while fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Middle East Eye has learned

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) said they had made a complaint to the War Crimes Unit in Norway over the Iraqi man, who has been living in the country for six years. 

The organization referenced a number of videos circulating online in which the man says he killed civilians while fighting the opposition as a member of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation paramilitary (known as Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic). 

“The suspect also revealed that he killed several Syrian children without specifying the exact tally, and that the youngest of these children was around a month old,” said SCM, in a statement. 

“According to the video, he killed the one-month-old baby who was in the arms of his crying mother. The videos also include death threats against Syrians residing in Norway.”

The SCM demanded “the opening of a structural investigation” and said the police confirmed receipt of the complaint on Monday.

The Hashd al-Shaabi, a paramilitary unit formed in 2014 by Iraqis to fight the Islamic State group, has been among the foreign forces who travelled to Syria to aid the Assad government against opposition rebels.

The group, as well as other foreign fighters, has been accused of carrying out arbitrary detentions, torture and other abuses across the country.

The quiet rise of Pakistani influence in Syria

The Middle East Eye published a report in which it discusses the gradual increase in Pakistani influence within Syria since the outbreak of the Syrian war. This influence has grown quietly, often under the radar, and is characterized by various diplomatic, economic, and educational initiatives.

Pakistan has cultivated stronger ties with Syria’s government, even during the conflict. This strategy involved supporting sectors like education and commerce, as well as forging diplomatic relations through various agreements and mutual cooperation. The long-standing military relationship between Pakistan and Syria, dating back to the 1967 and 1973 wars, has laid the groundwork for broader engagement.

Soft Power and Education

According to the report, Pakistan has strategically utilized neglected sectors in Syria’s infrastructure, such as education, to enhance its influence without causing friction. The Pakistan International School of Damascus, for instance, has played a pivotal role in this approach by offering quality education to Syria’s political and military elite. The school’s curriculum and affiliations, including with the University of Cambridge, have elevated its status and increased Pakistan’s influence in Syria’s education sector.

Humanitarian and Economic Cooperation

The report says Pakistan’s involvement in Syria also extends to humanitarian and economic cooperation. The article cites instances where Pakistan sent medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic and provided aid after forest fires in the Lattakia governorate. Additionally, there are efforts to strengthen economic ties, exemplified by agreements on investment projects, commercial deals, and trade.

Unlike countries like Russia, Iran, and China, Pakistan did not take a direct military role in the Syrian conflict. However, the article mentions groups like Liwa Zainebiyoun, a predominantly Pakistani Shia brigade fighting alongside the Syrian government. Pakistan has reportedly sought to restrain these fighters and curtail their presence in Syria, aligning with its discreet approach.

Pakistan’s increasing influence in Syria raises questions about its alignment with the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, especially given the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Syrian conflict. The US response to Pakistan’s growing ties with Syria has been relatively muted, indicating a potential shift in Washington’s approach.

The article highlights Pakistan’s quiet yet strategic efforts to expand its influence in Syria. Through a combination of soft power, education initiatives, humanitarian aid, and economic cooperation, Pakistan has carved out a distinct role in a conflict-ridden region.

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