Syria Today – Iran Strikes in Syria and Iraq; WFP Budget Cuts Wreak Havoc

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched ballistic missiles targeting what they claimed were Israeli “spy headquarters” in Iraq’s Kurdish region and struck alleged ISIS-related targets in northern Syria. The stated motive behind these actions was framed as “self-defence and counterterrorism”. At the same time, reports highlight the substantial negative impact of US funding cuts on the World Food Program’s (WFP) aid efforts in Syria. Due to a significant budget shortfall, primarily linked to reduced US government funding, the WFP has suspended all in-kind food assistance in Syria. Anticipated cuts of up to 50% across all humanitarian sectors in 2024 by the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) contribute to this challenging situation.

Iran launches missile strikes in Iraq and Syria citing security threats

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched ballistic missiles at what it claimed were Israeli “spy headquarters” in Iraq’s Kurdish region and hit targets allegedly linked to ISIS in northern Syria, saying it was defending its security and countering terrorism, Al-Jazeera reported.

At least eight explosions were heard in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, early on Tuesday. Four people were killed and six were wounded, the regional security council said.

“Ballistic missiles were used to destroy espionage centres and gatherings of anti-Iranian terrorist groups in the region,” the IRGC said, adding that it fired 11 missiles, state media reported.

The Iraqi government condemned what it called Iran’s “aggression” on Erbil that led to civilian casualties in residential areas, calling it a violation of the country’s sovereignty and the security of its people, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The government said it would consider various actions, including filing a complaint at the United Nations Security Council.

The IRGC claimed that it had hit the headquarters of Israeli spy agency Mossad in Erbil, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.

“We assure our nation that the Guards’ offensive operations will continue until avenging the last drops of martyrs’ blood,” it said.

Iraq recalls ambassador

In response, Iraq recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad on Tuesday in protest over Iranian strikes on northern Iraq that killed several civilians overnight, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said.

The Iranian attack was “a blatant violation” of Iraq’s sovereignty and “strongly contradicts the principles of good neighbourliness and international law, and threatens the security of the region,” the ministry said in a statement.

Iran fired missiles late Monday at what it said was Israeli “spy headquarters” in an upscale neighbourhood near the sprawling U.S. Consulate compound in Irbil, the seat of Iraq’s northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and at targets linked to the extremist Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Turkey strikes Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria

Turkey said it had destroyed 23 targets in overnight air strikes on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq and Syria, a further escalation of conflict south of its border.

The attacks were the latest by Turkey since nine Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants in northern Iraq on Friday.

The new strikes were on targets in northern Syria and the Metina, Gara, Hakurk and Qandil regions of northern Iraq, the defence ministry said late on Monday.

“Twenty-three targets were destroyed, including caves, shelters, tunnels, ammunition warehouses, supply materials and facilities used by the terrorist organization,” it said in a statement accompanied by a photo of Turkish warplanes.

It said many militants had been “neutralized”, a term commonly used to mean killed.

Separately, Iranian state media reported late on Monday that Kurdistan was the scene of an unrelated attack by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on what it said was the “spy headquarters” of Israel there. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Tuesday they had carried out the attack, and one in Syria, in defence of its sovereignty and security and to counter-terrorism.

French court confirms Lafarge ‘complicity in crimes against humanity’ charges over Syria factory

France’s highest court on Tuesday rejected a request by French cement maker Lafarge to dismiss charges of complicity in crimes against humanity as part of an investigation over how it kept its factory running in Syria after war broke out in 2011.

The ruling, according to Reuters, which upheld an earlier decision by a lower court, is not a verdict on guilt.

It is procedural and means the years-long probe into the company’s criminal liability on the grounds of the highly symbolic crimes against humanity charges can continue.

It is still unclear when the investigation will be wrapped up and whether prosecutors will eventually decide to send the case to court for a ruling on the substance of the accusations.

The company did score a partial win as the court dropped charges of endangering the life of its staff.

Lafarge in a statement called the decision a ‘legacy issue’ which it was addressing ‘through the legal process in France’, and did not provide further comment.

The French firm, which became part of Swiss-listed Holcim in 2015, has been the subject of an investigation into its operations in Syria since 2016, in one of the most extensive corporate criminal proceedings in recent French legal history.

Islamist groups

The cement maker has previously admitted, after its own internal investigation, that its Syrian subsidiary paid armed groups to help protect staff at the plant amidst the civil war that had shaken the country for years.

U.S. prosecutors said Lafarge, through intermediaries, paid Islamic State and al Nusra Front the equivalent of approximately $5.92 million between 2013 and 2014 to allow employees, customers and suppliers to pass through checkpoints after civil conflict broke out in Syria.

Women and children who went to live with IS in Syria are being brought home

BBC World reports on the repatriation of women and children from Syria who were associated with the Islamic State (IS). These individuals, primarily wives and children of suspected IS recruits, have been brought back to Kyrgyzstan and are undergoing a rehabilitation program.

In northern Kyrgyzstan, they spend their first six weeks at a rehabilitation center, receiving citizenship, religious ethics, and anger management education, alongside medical and psychological support. The center is heavily guarded and monitored by the state intelligence agency.

The Kyrgyz government treats these returnees cautiously, with nine out of ten under police investigation. Their experiences in Syria, including the roles they played or their knowledge of IS activities, remain largely unknown. Women like Fatima and Elmira share their stories of being unwittingly taken to Syria and the hardships they faced, including the loss of family members and living under brutal IS rule.

Fatima, 57, followed her husband to Syria, losing him and two sons there, and spent four years in Syria’s largest detention camp, al-Hol. Elmira, tricked into going to Syria, also ended up in al-Hol and is now training as a seamstress after being repatriated.

Kyrgyzstan, which brought back 110 women and 229 children in 2023, plans to repatriate more, aiming to give them a second chance. However, they face ongoing surveillance and potential criminal charges.

The returnees’ integration poses challenges, with public fear and stigma evident. Hamida Yusupova, who campaigned for her daughter Elmira’s return, speaks of the societal judgment they face. Deputy Prime Minister Edil Baisalov emphasizes the policy as a testament to Kyrgyzstan’s tolerant democracy, despite its controversial nature and the country’s ongoing political and human rights issues.

Syrians lose WFP lifeline as US slashes funding

An article by Natacha Danon reports on the severe impact of US funding cuts on the World Food Program’s (WFP) aid in Syria. The WFP has suspended all in-kind food assistance in Syria due to a significant budget shortfall, largely attributed to reduced US government funding. The United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) is expected to cut funding by up to 50% across all humanitarian sectors in 2024. 

The US, as the largest donor to the WFP, contributed significantly less in 2023 compared to previous years, affecting the WFP’s ability to meet its operational requirements. The reduction in aid has exacerbated the situation in Syria, where 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. 

The suspension of WFP aid has dire consequences for millions of Syrians. For instance, Layla, a mother of six in a displacement camp, has faced increasing difficulties since the aid cuts. Over 3.2 million Syrians who were still receiving aid after previous cuts have now lost support. The WFP estimates that more than half of Syria’s population will face hunger, with an additional 2.6 million at risk of food insecurity.

The situation is further complicated by geopolitical factors, such as the Russian veto of the UN Security Council resolution for cross-border aid deliveries into Syria, leaving authorization under the Syrian regime’s discretion. This raises concerns about the politicization and potential diversion of aid by Damascus.

In the broader context, the Syrian crisis remains in an emergency phase with insufficient focus on early recovery and sustainable solutions. The humanitarian sector’s bureaucratic and politicized nature hinders the transition from emergency aid to sustainable recovery. The reduction in aid not only threatens immediate sustenance but also hampers efforts towards long-term recovery and resilience building in Syria.

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