With aid in balance, Syrians who fled Assad fear deeper hardship

By Mahmoud Hassano

IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having fled their homes to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, many of Syrians sheltering in the rebel-held northwest fear their fate may once again be placed in his hands.

Russia, Assad’s key ally, wants U.N. aid to the region to come through the capital Damascus and not via Turkey, raising fears that food on which they rely will fall under their oppressor’s control.

A U.N. mandate to supply aid from Turkey, currently via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, expires on Saturday, and while Western members of the U.N. Security Council want to extend and expand it, veto powers Russia and China are wary of renewing it.

Russia skipped negotiations on the issue on Tuesday.

Hossam Kaheil, who fled to Idlib in 2018 when the rebellion in Ghouta, just outside Damascus, was defeated, does not trust Syrian authorities to let aid through if supply lines are changed.

“In Idlib the situation is good, but if they close the crossings, there will be a humanitarian catastrophe,” said the 36-year-old, who recalls being so hungry in 2014, as the Syrian army laid siege to Ghouta, that he had to eat animal feed.

He added that two of his siblings died due to medical shortages during the siege, described by U.N. investigators as the longest in modern history.

U.N. aid across the Turkish border has helped to keep millions of Syrians supplied with food, medicine and water in the last part of Syria still held by anti-Assad insurgents.

Syria says it is committed to facilitating the delivery of U.N. aid from within the country. The Syrian information ministry did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters for this article.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that the Red Cross and Red Crescent should be allowed to observe if there were suspicions of any stealing, although he did not think that would happen.

RUSSIAN LEVERAGE

The tussle marks a diplomatic front in a war that has been in military stalemate for several years, with Moscow and Damascus seeking to reassert state sovereignty over a corner of Syria outside their control.

Since winning back the bulk of Syria with Russian and Iranian help, Assad has struggled to advance further: Turkish forces block his path in the northwest, and U.S. forces are on the ground in the Kurdish-controlled east, where oilfields, farmland and land routes to Iraq are located.

Government-held Syria, along with the rest of the country, is in economic crisis. Assad’s plans for reconstruction and economic revival, which came to little, faced new headwinds with the imposition of new U.S. sanctions last year.

“This is a moment of leverage for Russia – a wrangle over strategic advantage in which humanitarian issues are being used as the fulcrum,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Unfortunately the Syrian people are the real losers in this battle between Russia and the United States.”

The United States wants the aid mandate renewed. So does Turkey, which exercises sway in the northwest through support to rebels, aid, and Turkish boots on the ground.

The United Nations has warned that failure to renew the aid operation would be devastating for millions of people.

“We don’t want to see these people becoming pawns in a political game,” said Mark Cutts, U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis.

“It is really shameful that we are talking about reducing access at a time when we should be scaling up the operation.”

The number of people dependent on aid in the northwest has grown by 20% to 3.4 million in a year, the U.N. says.

MISTRUST

Russia cites U.S. sanctions as a reason for the humanitarian problems. Washington, whose sanctions aim to cut off funds for Assad’s government, rejects this.

Agreed in 2014 when Assad was in retreat, the U.N. mandate initially allowed deliveries from four locations. Russian and Chinese opposition whittled this down to one last year. Russia says the operation is outdated.

Delivering aid across frontlines has proven difficult if not impossible throughout the war.

“We’ve requested access for cross-line convoys multiple times … because we would like as much access as possible from all sides, but the war is not over,” Cutts said.

“In this kind of environment, it is very difficult to get agreement from the parties on both sides for convoys to move across that frontline.”

Insurgents in the northwest include groups proscribed as terrorists by the Security Council. U.N. oversight has prevented aid being diverted to armed groups, Cutts said, expressing concern that the loss of such oversight may deter donors.

Durmus Aydin, secretary-general of Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), part of the aid operation, told Reuters that aid deliveries across frontlines did not seem possible at the moment.

“One of the reasons this isn’t a realistic solution is the mistrust in people towards the Syrian government and Russia.”

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Syria opposition leader says Assad election to worsen country’s plight

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – A “sham” election designed to prolong President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on Syria shows that only international pressure for a U.N.-backed peace plan can pave the way for democratic rule, a Damascus-based secular opposition leader said.

Lawyer Hassan Abdul Azim of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change added that Wednesday’s vote would only worsen the plight of a country afflicted by hunger, poverty and an “authoritarian regime”.

“This insistence on clinging to power does not bring stability,” Abdul Azim told Reuters in a phone interview, referring to acute fuel and food shortages and sky-rocketing inflation that has pushed most Syrians deeper into poverty.

“These sham elections show the regime does not want a political solution and the situation will worsen,” said Abdul Azim, the committee’s general coordinator.

“People are now dying of hunger.”

Unrepentant, Assad says Syrians made their feelings clear by coming out in large rallies to support the election. Addressing his critics as he voted, he said: “The value of your opinions is zero. “Abdul Azim’s committee, whose leaders are based mainly in Syria, was set up in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in March 2011 that spiraled into a devastating war that killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

It is a coalition of mainly outlawed opposition parties inside Syria bringing together liberals, leftists and nationalists who demand real democratic change.

Syria’s political future, he argues, rests on major powers pushing forward stalled U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 that paves the way for a transitional government and free and fair elections under U.N. supervision.

“It would be real elections with competing candidates and not ones whose results are known beforehand,” Abdul Azim said of peace plan, negotiated in 2015 in a rare show of unity among major powers.

The prominent opposition figure spent several years in prison during the long decades of Assad family rule.

Abdul Azim blamed the president for wrecking several rounds of Syria Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva since October 2019 that brought together the opposition and the government to draft a new constitution.

UNIFYING OPPOSITION RANKS

Abdul Azim said the mainly domestic opposition parties made major strides in unifying their ranks this month by forming the broad based National Democratic Front (JOOD) coalition. The grouping represents about 15 political parties from a wide spectrum of groups both inside Syria and outside.

After security forces prevented them from holding a founding meeting in Damascus on March 26, a virtual meeting was held on May 18 that will hold a wider conference sometime between mid-June and the first half of July where it will approve its leadership structure, he added.

Abdul Azim and his allies had earlier parted ways with other opposition figures over the nature of opposition to Assad, with Abdul Aziz and his partners advocating peaceful protests and rejecting foreign intervention and an armed insurgency.

They later joined the Riyadh-based High Negotiation Committee that included the Istanbul-based based opposition backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Western enemies of Assad who for years financed mainstream rebel groups.

Abdul Azim said their meeting last week endorsed a political program in line with the U.N. peace plan that would allow the return of millions of Syrians who fled or were displaced and have so far resisted returning for fear of reprisals.

“We seek fundamental democratic change that ends the existing authoritarian regime with all its symbols,” he said.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Editing by William Maclean)

Syrians in exile lose hope for disappeared loved ones as Assad re-election looms

By Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – Holding a laminated photo of her father, Wafa Mustafa and dozens of Syrians stood next to the Syrian embassy in Berlin on Wednesday to protest against the almost certain re-election of President Bashar al-Assad for a fourth term in a national vote.

Mustafa’s father has been missing for almost eight years. She believes he is being held as a political prisoner at a Syrian government prison. A re-election of Assad on Wednesday would dampen her hopes of seeing her father anytime soon.

“As long as Assad is in power … my Dad and another 130,000 people will still be detained forcibly,” she said.

Wednesday’s election, set to extend Assad rule over the country, “is a clear message to the international community that al-Assad regime has impunity and that it has got away with all war crimes,” Mustafa said, adding that Germany’s decision to prevent voting at the Syrian embassy in Berlin was right.

Germany, which hosts around 700,000 Syrians, mostly war refugees, views the election as fraudulent. It denied a formal request from the Syrian embassy to allow Syrians living in Germany to vote, saying the election will not be free or fair.

“Most of the diaspora Syrians would not be allowed to vote under the current stipulations or would not vote out of fear of repercussions against them and their families following from a registration,” said Christopher Burger, a spokesman for the foreign ministry.

But not all Syrians in Germany agree.

Carrying photos of Assad, dozens of Syrians demonstrated against Germany’s decision on Thursday, saying banning the election was unacceptable.

“No matter how you feel about these elections … elections cannot be forbidden,” said Aktham Suliman, a Syrian journalist living in Berlin.

Suliman, who expects Assad to win, said the election was an internal matter for Syrians to decide.

“This picture that they have been trying to draw for years, of one person ruling and the whole nation being against him does not apply,” he added.

(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Editing by William Maclean)

Syria releases hundreds of social media critics ahead of election

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria has freed more than 400 civil servants, judges, lawyers and journalists detained this year in a crackdown on social media dissent, a move seen by rights activists and former detainees as intended to win over public opinion ahead of presidential elections.

Those released after being held under Syria’s cyber crimes law were among thousands freed this month under a general amnesty for currency speculators, drug dealers, smugglers and kidnappers ahead of the May 26 election that is expected to hand President Bashar al Assad a fourth term.

Most of the freed social media critics were supporters of Syrian authorities’ handling of the uprising in 2011 that spiraled into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands.

The amnesty excluded tens of thousands of Assad opponents and political detainees held for years without trial, many of whom are believed dead, rights groups say.

“The auspicious timing of the release right before elections of a moderate loyalist camp … is to generate a fa├žade of entertaining some form of dissent to further make elections look credible,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

The group had seen an uptick in arrests for online activities in recent months to silence public disaffection over Syria’s economic crisis.

Its economy is collapsing under the weight of war, sanctions and COVID-19, but public criticism of deteriorating living conditions is not tolerated.

The crackdown under cyber crime law on mostly Assad supporters was intended to instill fear ahead of elections, according to two released detainees, who requested anonymity.

None of those arrested had criticized Assad, a capital offence, and most were rounded up by security forces for online posts ranging from a “like” on a Facebook comment lamenting growing hardship and critical of the government to remarks decrying state corruption.

Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment on the releases but the head of the journalists’ union, Musa Abdul Noor, had earlier confirmed that journalists had been held for social media comments on their personal accounts but not under another law that technically bans the arrest of journalists.

WELL-KNOWN FIGURES

At least 60 of those released are well-known in their local communities, including senior police officers, judges and a senior customs inspector, state employed journalists, lawyers, university students, businessmen and women’s rights advocates, four detainees said.

The releases were among steps taken in recent weeks ahead of the elections to influence public opinion, such as efforts to fight sky-rocketing inflation, and extending government grants to state employees in areas suffering from economic hardship.

The interior ministry had in January warned that violators of the cyber-crimes law, which criminalizes social media comments deemed to undermine the authority of the state, would face a minimum of six months in prison.

The ministry said it would pursue people who leaked fake news to portals that “distort and sow confusion in public opinion”.

Family members said Hala Jerf, a leading presenter on state television, Firyal Jahjah, a senior civil servant who serves as the head of a government inspection agency, and a prominent local journalist in Latakia province, Kenan Wakkaf, were among those released.

“I will stay with you, the voice that believes truth is the highest value. To corruption, I say you think you have shaken my resolve or maybe frightened me? You have not even scared my boots,” Wakkaf said in a post after he arrived home.

The majority of those released were not formally charged or put on trial, according to two released detainees who requested anonymity because they were warned not to speak publicly.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Maha El Dahan and Giles Elgood)

Syria extends time for post-war property claims under disputed law

FILE PHOTO: Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike through rubble in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has amended a disputed land law that alarmed refugees and the countries hosting them, giving owners more time to register land claims.

Law 10, passed in April, gave the Damascus government the right to redevelop urban areas that were damaged by war or that were built without formal approval or property deeds, part of its efforts to move toward reconstruction.

The law initially gave people only 30 days after an area was officially slated for redevelopment to prove they owned property there and apply for compensation – a time frame that aid groups said would be impossible for almost all refugees to cope with.

Late on Sunday, Assad issued Law 42, extending this period to a year and adding other amendments including giving claimants more time to appeal verdicts and letting them do so through the normal courts instead of through a dedicated judicial committee.

Those whose property is already registered in the government’s land registry do not have to prove ownership.

Local authorities in Syria have not yet announced which areas they want to redevelop under Law 10, so the impact of the measure or how it may affect property owners have not yet been tested.

During Syria’s seven years of armed conflict half, the pre-war 22 million population have fled their homes, with about five million seeking refuge abroad.

In the chaos of war, many government buildings have been destroyed along with property records, while refugees and other displaced people have lost identity cards or land deeds, meaning it could take a long time to prove property rights.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria to apply on their behalf takes a minimum of three months, even if they both have all the right documents.

It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were rebel-controlled before being retaken by government forces.

Countries hosting refugees voiced concern over Law 10, saying its effect might be to prevent refugees from returning if they were to lose their property in Syria.

Damascus