The nearly eight-year-old U.S. deployment to Syria to combat Islamic State is still worth the risk, the top U.S. military officer said on Saturday, after a rare, unannounced visit to a dusty base in the country’s northeast to meet U.S. troops, Reuters reported.
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Syria to assess efforts to prevent a resurgence of the militant group and review safeguards for American forces against attacks, including from drones flown by Iran-backed militia.
While Islamic State is a shadow of the group that ruled over a third of Syria and Iraq in a Caliphate declared in 2014, hundreds of fighters are still camped in desolate areas where neither the U.S.-led coalition nor the Syrian army, with support from Russia and Iranian-backed militias, exert full control.
Thousands of other Islamic State fighters are in detention facilities guarded by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s key ally in the country.
Asked by reporters travelling with him if he believed the Syria deployment of roughly 900 U.S. troops to Syria was worth the risk, Milley tied the mission to the security of the United States and its allies, saying: “If you think that that’s important, then the answer is ‘Yes.'”
“I happen to think that’s important,” Milley said.
“So I think that an enduring defeat of ISIS and continuing to support our friends and allies in the region … I think those are important tasks that can be done.”
The mission carries risk. Four U.S. troops were wounded during a helicopter raid last month when an Islamic State leader triggered an explosion.
Last month, the U.S. military shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria that was attempting to conduct reconnaissance on a patrol base in northeastern Syria.
But Damascus is far from being happy with the visit. An official source at the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said in a statement on Sunday, “The U.S. chairman of the chiefs of staff made an illegal visit to an illegal U.S. military base in northeast Syria and claimed that the reason for this visit was to assess the effectiveness of the war against ISIS. However, the international community knows very well that ISIS is an illegitimate offspring of U.S. intelligence.”
The source also pointed out the catastrophic situation of the unilateral coercive measures imposed by the U.S. administration on Syria.
“Syria strongly condemns this flagrant violation by the U.S. military official of the sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the source said, calling on the U.S. administration to immediately stop its systematic and continuous violations of international law and its support for armed separatist militias.
Qatar’s emir criticizes aid delay to Syria earthquake victims
Qatar’s emir said he was puzzled by the delay in delivering aid to victims in Syria of last month’s earthquake, adding that it was wrong to abuse humanitarian aid for political purposes.
Qatar was among several regional states that backed rebels in Syria’s civil war, which has been going on since 2011 and has previously spoken out against efforts by some countries to normalize ties with Damascus.
Speaking at the UN Least Developed Countries conference opening in Qatar’s capital Doha on Sunday, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani stressed the need to help Syrians “without hesitation” and support Turkey’s efforts to recover from the devastating earthquake.
“Our meeting is taking place while our brothers in Turkey and Syria are still suffering from the impacts of the massive earthquake that struck them and affected millions,” Sheikh Tamim said.
“I stress the necessity of giving a helping hand without hesitation to the brotherly Syrian people. Exploiting a human tragedy for political purposes is unacceptable. We cannot build a new, safer, more just and free world for today and tomorrow except through the path of international human solidarity.”
UN urges resettlement of quake-hit Syrian refugees from Turkey
Meanwhile, the UN on Saturday urged countries to speed up taking Syrian refugees from earthquake-hit zones in Turkey, saying they were facing the trauma of loss and displacement all over again.
The United Nations made this call as 89 Syrian refugees arrived in Madrid from Turkey.
“Many refugees who fled to Turkey in search of safety and protection have now faced the trauma of loss and displacement once again – losing their homes and livelihoods,” the UN’s International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in a joint statement.
“To help protect those refugees most at-risk and to help alleviate pressures on local communities who themselves are also impacted by this humanitarian disaster, UNHCR is appealing for states to expedite resettlement processes and departures,” said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.
“This is a tangible expression of solidarity and responsibility sharing and ultimately will ensure immediate, life-changing solutions for refugees who have been made even more vulnerable as a result of the earthquakes.”
U.S. Sanctions Relief for Syria Troubles Assad Regime Opponents
The New York Times published a report on Sunday showing how Bashar al-Assad’s regime, directly after the earthquake, called for lifting Western sanctions.
The United States initially pushed back, insisting that the sanctions did not inhibit humanitarian aid. But then Washington about-faced, easing banking restrictions for six months to allow earthquake relief to flow freely to Syria. And Europe followed suit.
Syrian dissidents like Mohammed Ghanem, a political adviser and government relations director for the Washington-based advocacy group Syrian American Council, have watched with dismay in recent years as international focus and U.S. policy have moved away from trying to oust Mr. al-Assad. As a result, he said, maintaining the sanctions has become even more critical.
Assad’s opponents say the government can now funnel money into the country under the guise of earthquake relief and instead use it to reconstruct buildings damaged in the civil war — destruction largely wrought by the government and its chief military backer, Russia.
Syria experts and former U.S. officials said that easing sanctions was not even necessary given that Western sanctions already included exemptions to allow humanitarian aid through.
But a State Department spokesperson said European and Arab states and aid groups had expressed concern that the sanctions might prevent them from providing earthquake-related assistance to Syria. Many banks have refused to process financial transactions with Syria for fear of running afoul of the sanctions, even though they are subject to the exemptions.
While the sanctions are meant to punish government and military officials, they affect entire sectors of the economy and many ordinary Syrians. According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line.
The Assad government regularly diverts humanitarian aid for its purposes, including funnelling some of it to the military, said Natasha Hall, a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has tracked aid diversion in Syria for years.
Iraqi Popular Mobilization pressures Syrian regime with quake-related relief initiatives
The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Committee announced that the technical and engineering teams of its Iraqi relief mission in the northern Aleppo governorate had prepared a model of prefabricated houses, the Syrian Enab Baladi Website reported.
The announcement came days after local pages and Syrian activists circulated news on social media that the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) was ready to build housing units for those affected by the earthquake in Aleppo.
The Mobilization Committee, or Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, said on its Facebook page that the apartments are a “gift” to those affected by the earthquake in Syria, noting that work on the plan took four hours to approve the technical specifications regarding safety conditions and emergency social housing.
According to pro-regime news feeds, the Iraqi Mobilization Committee is awaiting approval from the Aleppo Municipal Council to designate a plot of land to build 400 apartments to compensate 400 families affected by the earthquake.
Ayman al-Dassouky, a Omran Center for Strategic Studies researcher, told Enab Baladi that the information about the Popular Mobilization Committee shows intentional leaks.
The leaks aim to put pressure on the Syrian regime to grant the Popular Mobilization Committee a concession to build apartments in Aleppo, which shows the regime in a weak position due to its inability to provide a similar response to those affected by the earthquake, according to what the researcher specializing in political economy and local administration said.
Dassouky believes that the Mobilization Committee is seeking to put pressure on the regime with the aim of making concessions to it in exchange for its continued support.
World Bank: Quake caused damage worth $5.1 billion in Syria
The World Bank said Friday that Syria sustained an estimated $5.1 billion in damages in last month’s massive earthquake that struck southeast Turkey and northern parts of the war-torn country, AP reported on Sunday.
In a report released Friday, the World Bank says the level of damage in Syria is about 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Syria’s northern province of Aleppo was the most severely hit region, accounting for 45% of the total damages in Syria and amounting to about $2.3 billion in damages. Also badly hit was the rebel-held region in the northwest, home to some 4.6 million people, many of them previously displaced by Syria’s war.
Aleppo was followed by the northwestern province of Idlib, with estimated damages of $1.9 billion and Latakia, government-controlled territory on the coast, with $549 million.
The earthquake has also compounded myriad other troubles in Syria. The nearly 12-year civil war has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
The World Bank cautioned that there is still significant uncertainty around its preliminary assessment.
“The disaster will cause a decline in economic activity that will further weigh on Syria’s growth prospects,” said Jean-Christophe Carret, World Bank head for the Middle East.