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Syria Today – Erdogan Hints at Meeting with Assad; Israel Strikes Near Shiite Shrine; Turkey Resumes Deportation of Syrians

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria
Syria Today – Erdogan Hints at Meeting with Assad; Israel Strikes Near Shiite Shrine; Turkey Resumes Deportation of Syrians

This weekend’s international media coverage on Syria leads with Turkish President Erdogan’s hint at a possible meeting with Syrian President Assad to restore ties, a significant development in their tumultuous relationship. Meanwhile, reports emerge of an Israeli airstrike near a significant Shi’ite shrine in Damascus, sparking analysis on the potential implications. Additionally, Turkey’s deportation of Syrian refugees back to Syria raises human rights concerns, and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration closes crossings with Syrian government-controlled areas. Finally, commemorations mark the 44th anniversary of the Tadmur prison massacre, emphasizing the enduring quest for justice and human rights in Syria. These stories offer a glimpse into the complex and ongoing issues surrounding Syria.

Turkey’s Erdogan does not rule out meeting Syria’s Assad to restore ties

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday he did not rule out a possible meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help restore bilateral relations between the neighbors, Reuters reported.

Turkey severed ties with Syria after the 2011 Syrian civil war and supported rebels looking to oust Assad.

It has carried out several cross-border military operations against militants it says threaten its national security and formed a “safe zone” in northern Syria where Turkish troops are now stationed.

However, amid a regional charm offensive aimed predominantly at normalising ties with Gulf countries, Turkey has also said it may restore ties with Damascus if there is progress on the fight against terrorism, on the safe and voluntary return of millions of refugees hosted by Turkey, and on the political process.

Asked by reporters about Assad’s reported comments that his government was open to normalisation initiatives as long as they respected Syria’s sovereignty and contributed to counter-terrorism, Erdogan said Ankara and Damascus could act to restore ties.

Coincidence? Israeli strike in Damascus took place near important Shi’ite shrine – analysis

The Jerusalem Post shed some light on the latest Israeli airstrike near the important Shi’ite shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, which has been a center of pro-Iranian activity since the Syrian civil war. The newspaper says this strike may not be a coincidence. The shrine and its surrounding area have been targeted before due to its significance for Iranian-backed militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The incident is part of a broader Israeli campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, known as the “war between the wars” campaign, which aims to prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah and reduce Iranian influence in the region.

Reports emerged of explosions near an important shrine south of Damascus on Wednesday evening. Set Zaynab is around 10 kilometers southwest of the Damascus city center, about a 30-minute drive away. Syrian state media said that air defense systems were activated in an attempt to confront airstrikes, as photos posted online showed smoke rising from buildings near the Shi’ite shrine that has the same Set Zaynab name as the town around it.

The important mosque is also called Sayyida Zaynab and is a pilgrimage site for Shi’ites. It is named for the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali and Fatima and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. The area has been renovated due to support from Iran and Shi’ites; the mosque complex is now quite large and has a golden dome.

By press time on Thursday, it was still not clear what happened. A Syrian source told local sources that “at around 11.40 p.m., the Israeli enemy carried out an air aggression from the Golan Heights towards several sites in the southern region, and our air defenses intercepted the enemy’s missiles.” The subsequent reports provided minimal details about the casualties or the intended target of the purported airstrike in Set Zaynab.

Syrians in Turkey face deportation into an unknown future

Turkey is deporting Syrian refugees back to Syria, despite mounting international concerns. Human rights groups have condemned the plans and warned of serious ramifications for the returnees, DW said in a long report.

Much like every morning, Hafis A. was making his way to the restaurant where he used to work. The young Syrian man had no idea his life as a refugee in Istanbul was about to change.

When Turkish security authorities pulled him over and demanded his papers which had expired two days earlier, he was taken straight to a deportation center.

A few days later he found himself together with other Syrians at the Bab al Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria. “They dropped me off at the border, and suddenly I was back on Syrian soil,” he told DW in the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

Hafis A. was born in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In 2020, the then 22-year-old decided to leave Syria to avoid being conscripted into the Syrian army. “I didn’t want to fight, I wanted to live,” he said.

Hafis A. found a new home in Turkey’s capital, obtained the necessary papers to stay, managed to get a job and was even able to buy a small car after a while.

But despite his life going smoothly, Hafis A. said the atmosphere was getting increasingly tense. “You could tell that Turkey wanted to get rid of us Syrians,” he told DW.

“Syrian refugees only ever had temporary protection in Turkey,” said Anita Starosta from the organisation Medico International. “Syrians were and are always treated like guests. They are not supposed to settle and become Turkish citizens.”

Kurdish Autonomous Administration closes crossings with Syria

Pro-Iran Al Mayadeen Network reported that the Kurdish Autonomous Administration closes all crossings linking it to areas under Syrian government control in the governorates of Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and the Syrian interior.

The Asayish checkpoints affiliated with the Kurdish Autonomous Administration closed all crossings linking it with regions under Syrian government control in the provinces of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor, as well as those linking them to the provinces in the Syrian interior. 

The autonomous administration usually takes similar measures upon tensions between it and the Syrian government. In some cases, it has reached the point of besieging areas controlled by the Syrian government in the cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli. 

Sources confirmed that, as of Saturday afternoon, the Asayish checkpoints affiliated with the Kurdish Autonomous Administration prevented public transport buses, cars, and trucks from entering and exiting their areas towards those controlled by the Syrian government. This blockade includes convoys of Hajj pilgrims that remain stuck at the crossing.


Remembering Syria’s Tadmur Prison Massacre, 44 Years On

Razan Saffour wrote a long op-ed in AlJazeera.com commemorating the 44th anniversary of the Tadmur prison massacre, highlight the enduring trauma and lack of accountability for the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, and underscore the ongoing struggle for justice and human rights in Syria. The piece blends personal narrative with historical context to emphasize the profound and lasting impact of the massacre and the systemic brutality of the regime, calling for continued efforts to bring those responsible to justice.

On June 27, 1980, the Assad regime executed approximately 1,000 political prisoners at Tadmur prison in less than an hour, marking one of the most horrific massacres in Syrian history. The incident, spurred by an assassination attempt on then-President Hafez al-Assad, was carried out by 100 troops from the Defense Brigades under Rifaat al-Assad’s command. The massacre targeted members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other perceived sympathizers, resulting in a devastating loss of life and leaving a lasting scar on Syrian history.

In 2015, ISIL destroyed Tadmur prison, erasing crucial evidence of this massacre and other atrocities committed over decades. This destruction was seen as a significant win for the Assad regime, as it obliterated a key site of evidence against it.

The massacre’s legacy is personal for many, including Razan Saffour, whose uncle Burhan was imprisoned at Tadmur shortly after the massacre. Burhan endured 17 years of horrific conditions and torture before his release in 1997. The trauma of his imprisonment left indelible marks on him and his family, illustrating the profound personal impacts of the regime’s brutality.

Today, the anniversary of the Tadmur massacre serves as a somber reminder of the Assad regime’s ongoing impunity. Despite the passage of 44 years, no one has been held accountable for the June 27 massacre or the extensive torture and killings that occurred in Tadmur and other Syrian prisons. Human rights groups estimate that between 17,000 and 25,000 prisoners were killed in Tadmur from 1980 to 2001. Since the 2011 uprising, at least 15,383 people have been tortured to death in Syrian prisons, with many more forcibly disappeared.

Efforts to seek justice have faced numerous obstacles. Razan’s father, Walid, who was also tortured in Assad’s prisons, dedicated his life to exposing these crimes. He attempted to bring Rifaat al-Assad to justice in European courts, but jurisdictional issues hindered these efforts. In March 2024, the Swiss Attorney General charged Rifaat with ordering homicides and acts of torture, providing some hope for accountability. However, Rifaat’s current whereabouts in Syria make it unlikely he will face trial.

The destruction of Tadmur prison by ISIL in 2015 eliminated a crucial site of evidence, complicating efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable. Despite these challenges, the memory of those who suffered and died at Tadmur continues to fuel the pursuit of justice. The anniversary of the massacre is a poignant reminder of the regime’s brutal history and the ongoing struggle for accountability and human rights in Syria.

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