Syria Devalues Currency As New US Sanctions Hit

A boy pays a merchant with a Turkish lira banknote at a shop in the town of Jindayris, in the Afrin region of the northern Syrian rebel-held province of Aleppo, on June 10, 2020. Rami al SAYED / AFP.

 

Syria’s central bank devalued the Syrian pound on Wednesday giving in to weeks of depreciation on the black market as new US sanctions took effect.

The central bank raised the official exchange rate from 704 to 1,256 Syrian pounds to the dollar, in a statement published on its social media pages.

The previous rate had been in force since March.

Earlier this month, the war-torn country’s currency hit a record low on the black market of around 3,000 pounds to the dollar, sparking rare protests, before appreciating slightly after an apparent injection of dollars.

On Wednesday, the rate on the parallel market stood at around 2,600 to 2,800 pounds to the dollar, traders told AFP.

The devaluation comes as the United States prepares to implement new sanctions this week under the Caesar Act, targeting foreigners doing business with the Damascus government, as well as reconstruction of the country.

Zaki Mehchy, a senior consulting fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said the central bank was trying to minimise the gap between the official and black market rates.

“It is trying to encourage people to use the official channel instead of the black market,” he said.

But the pound would probably continue its slide, punctuated by short periods of appreciation, he said.

Syria’s economy has been battered by nine years of war, and is now reeling from the knock-on effects of a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon that has stemmed the flow of dollars into government-held areas.

Analysts have said the recent lows on the black market are likely due to worries ahead of the introduction of new US sanctions, and the sudden fall from grace of tycoon and cousin of the president, Rami Makhlouf, which has set other top businessmen on edge.

The Damascus government has long blamed the country’s economic crisis on international sanctions.

Last week, President Bashar al-Assad sacked his prime minister of four years after criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

Before the conflict, the exchange rate stood at 47 Syrian pounds to the dollar.

Syria Bans Public Prayers During Eid

File photo of a mosque in the Iranian capital Tehran’s Shemiran district. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

 

Syria will not hold public prayers during Eid al-Fitr holidays at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, authorities announced Monday, mirroring restrictions in Egypt and Algeria.

Inviting the faithful to pray at home with family, Damascus announced “the suspension of collective prayer in mosques for Eid,” state news agency SANA reported.

The decision by the legal committee of the ministry of religious endowments was aimed at restricting the spread of the new coronavirus.

Damascus has reported 58 cases and three deaths from the COVID-19 respiratory disease in areas of Syria under government control.

Eid al-Fitr is traditionally celebrated by morning prayers in mosques, family visits and large public gatherings.

On May 14, Syrian authorities banned public assemblies during the religious holiday, including at fairs popular with children, and imposed a nighttime curfew from 7.30 pm.

Egypt plans to tighten its curfew during Eid to combat the spread of the virus, as businesses and public transport remain closed.

Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s leading institution in Cairo, has authorised the suspension of mass prayers at mosques.

Algeria has also ordered specific virus control measures during Eid al-Fitr.

AFP

Syria War Records Lowest Monthly Death Toll In 9 Years

A Syrian walks on the rubble of a building following a regime airstrike on Ariha town in Syria’s last major opposition bastion of Idlib on January 15, 2020. Regime airstrikes on Syria’s last major opposition bastion killed at least nine civilians Wednesday, striking bustling areas of Idlib city despite a fresh Russian-sponsored truce, a war monitor said. Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP

 

The war in Syria killed 103 civilians in March, marking the lowest monthly non-combatant death toll since the start of the conflict in 2011, a war monitor said Wednesday.

Of the total deaths, some 51 people were killed in shelling and airstrikes by the Syrian regime, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The bulk of the remaining casualties were caused either by explosive remnants or mysterious “assassinations”, the Observatory added.

The civilian death toll was more than double that of March in February, when a regime offensive on Syria’s last major rebel bastion was still in full swing.

According to the Observatory, the number of deaths that month stood at 275.

The war in Syria has left more than 380,000 people dead since it started nine years ago.

The highest civilian death toll recorded in a month since the start of the conflict was 1,590 in July 2016, when battles between rebels and the regime raged in the northern province of Aleppo.

READ ALSO: China Lockdown May Have Blocked 700,000 Coronavirus Cases – Research

Damascus in early March paused a military offensive on rebels and jihadists in Syria’s northwest, after a ceasefire brokered by regime ally Russia came into effect.

The Moscow-backed campaign had displaced nearly a million people in the region since December, piling pressure on informal settlements already brimming with families forced to flee previous bouts of violence.

The fate of the displaced has been a key concern of aid groups amid an outbreak in the country of the novel coronavirus, which has killed two and infected eight others.

The United Nations has appealed for a nation-wide ceasefire to tackle the novel coronavirus threat, while aid groups have warned of a health catastrophe if the pandemic hits overcrowded displacement camps or crammed regime prisons.

AFP

Syria Reports First Case Of Coronavirus

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence known as the "White Helmets" disinfects a hospital room, as part of preventive measures taken against infections by the novel coronavirus, in the Syrian town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Idlib province, on March 22, 2020.  AAREF WATAD / AFP
A member of the Syrian Civil Defence known as the “White Helmets” disinfects a hospital room, as part of preventive measures taken against infections by the novel coronavirus, in the Syrian town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Idlib province, on March 22, 2020. AAREF WATAD / AFP

 

The Syrian government has announced the first case of the novel coronavirus in the war-torn country, days after starting measures to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Health minister Nizar Yaziji late Sunday said authorities had recorded “a first case of the coronavirus in Syria in a person coming from abroad,” without specifying the country.

“The appropriate measures have been taken to deal with” the female patient aged around 20, state news agency SANA reported him as telling journalists.

The Damascus authorities have over the past week increasingly taken measures to prevent a spread of the deadly virus.

They have ordered schools, universities, restaurants, cinemas and events halls to close, and suspended prayer gatherings.

They have also stopped work or downsized staff in government institutions, and transport between provinces is to come to a halt from Tuesday.

Last week, Damascus postponed parliamentary polls scheduled for next month until further notice.

After nine years of a war that has killed more than 380,000 people and ravaged the country’s infrastructure, fears are high that a COVID-19 outbreak in the country would have devastating consequences, especially in areas outside regime control.

These include the last major rebel bastion of Idlib in the northwest, and the Kurdish-held northeast.

A World Health Organization spokesman earlier this month warned that Syria’s “fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond” to what is now a pandemic.

 

AFP

Turkey Downs Syria Warplane, Kills Pilot

(FILES) A Syrian Aero L-39 Albatros war plane drops a payload above buildings across the border in Syria during air strikes backing a Syrian-government-led offensive in the southern province of Quneitra.  JALAA MAREY / AFP

 

A Turkish fighter jet Tuesday downed a Syrian regime warplane in the northwestern Idlib province and the pilot was killed, a monitoring group said.

It was the third such downing in three days amid escalating fighting between Turkish forces and Syria’s Russian- and Iranian-backed regime.

A missile fired by Syrian regime forces on the city of Idlib, meanwhile, killed nine civilians in the province of the same name that is Syria’s last opposition bastion.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have since December battled to retake the jihadist-dominated stronghold, where Ankara backs some rebel groups.

The deadly offensive has caused almost a million people to flee their homes and shelters, and triggered a direct Turkish military intervention last week.

A Turkish F-16 downed the regime plane over Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor and a source at the Turkish defence ministry said.

The Britain-based monitor said it was not clear if the pilot was killed during the downing or afterwards by opposition fighters, and that his body was mutilated.

Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a military source as confirming one of its planes was downed, after two others suffered the same fate on Sunday.

“One of our warplanes carrying out a mission in southern Idlib… was hit by a missile fired by Turkish regime forces, leading to its downing,” the source said.

The Turkish ministry said the regime plane was a L-39.

Also on Tuesday, a surface-to-surface missile fired by regime forces hit an Idlib residential neighbourhood, killing nine civilians including five children, the Observatory said.

That brings the civilian death toll since December to more than 470, according to the monitor.

Damascus meanwhile also claimed it had downed a Turkish drone near the town of Saraqeb, two days after it said it had hit three other unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Turkish operation comes after an air strike on Thursday blamed on Damascus killed 34 Turkish soldiers in the region.

The Observatory says Turkish bombardment — mostly drone strikes — has killed 119 regime soldiers and 20 allied fighters since.

On Sunday, Damascus closed its air space over northwest Syria and threatening to shoot down any “enemy” aircraft violating it.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

AFP

Turkey To Continue Military Operation Against Syrian Regime

Turkey on Sunday announced the launch of an offensive against the Moscow-backed Syrian regime, as Ankara put pressure on Europe by opening its border for migrants to seek passage to the continent via Greece.

Tensions have soared between Russia and Turkey — who back opposing forces in Syria’s civil war — after an airstrike blamed on Damascus killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week.

Turkish and Syrian military exchanged fire over the weekend with Syrian forces targetting a Turkish drone and artillery and Ankara claiming to have shot down two Syrian fighter jets.

The situation in rebel-held Idlib was already volatile as the regime supported by Russian air power pressed an assault on the region, killing hundreds of civilians, in a bid to retake the last opposition enclave in an eight-year civil war.

The confrontation between the Russia-backed Syrian military and NATO-member Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels, has prompted worries over a wider conflict and a migrant crisis in Europe similar to 2015.

Migrant numbers have already surged along the rugged frontier after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to pressure the EU over Syria, said the country had “opened the doors” to Europe.

Greece said Sunday it has blocked nearly 10,000 migrants at its border with Turkey.

As migrant boats continued to land on Greek islands, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced the first confirmation of a full and continuing operation against Damascus.

“Following the heinous attack on February 27 in Idlib, operation ‘Spring Shield’ successfully continues,” Akar said in a video shared by the defence ministry.

Turkish forces hit Syrian regime positions after Erdogan warned Damascus would “pay a price” for the air strike that killed 34 Turkish troops inside Idlib on Thursday.

Under a 2018 deal with Russia meant to bring calm to Idlib, Turkey has 12 observation posts in Syria — but several have come under fire from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Turkey on Friday said it retaliated by hitting more than 200 Syria regime targets in drone and artillery bombardments.

Turkey wants the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where Islamist fighters backed by Ankara pose the biggest obstacle to Damascus seizing back control over all of Syria.

Planes shot down 

Syrian state media reported that Turkey targeted two regime planes over Idlib.

SANA also reported the regime shot down a Turkish drone near the town of Saraqeb, publishing footage of an aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames. That could not be immediately confirmed.

The Turkish defence ministry confirmed one of its drones was shot down and two other anti-aircraft systems had been destroyed.

It added two SU-24 regime planes that were attacking Turkish aircraft were downed.

The latest violence has raised tensions between Moscow and Ankara, but Ankara insists Turkey did not wish to clash with Russia.

Turkish media reported on Sunday that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Moscow on March 5.

Earlier on Sunday, Istanbul police detained the editor-in-chief of the Turkish version of Russia’s Sputnik website as its offices were being searched in Istanbul.

Three of its journalists were also taken to a courthouse in Ankara for questioning, likely related to a Sputnik article in English claiming Turkey’s Hatay province was “stolen” from Syria. Colonial power France ceded the southern region to Turkey in 1938.

The news website later said they had been released.

The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke by telephone on Sunday, Moscow’s ministry said, to discuss preparations for the meeting between Putin and Erdogan, and the safety of the Sputnik journalists.

 Protecting borders 

Some 13,000 migrants have amassed at the Turkey-Greece border, including families with young children who spent the night in the cold, the International Organization for Migration said.

An estimated additional 2,000 migrants arrived at the Pazarkule border gate Sunday, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, according to an AFP reporter.

But as the crowds rushed to enter Europe, Greek police and soldiers blocked 9,972 “illegal entrances” from entering the northeastern Evros region in the past 24 hours, a Greek government source said.

The UN refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch called for “calm and easing of tensions on the border,” as he urged countries to “refrain from the use of excessive and disproportionate force”.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday said the EU was watching “with concern” and stood ready to deploy its Frontex border guard agency.

The developments recalled events in 2015 when over a million migrants fled to Europe, mainly via Greece in what became the continent’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The EU’s commissioner for migration, Margaritis Schinas, tweeted Sunday he had requested an extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers to discuss the situation.

Erdogan said Turkey, home to some 3.6 million refugees, did not plan to close the borders because “the (EU) should keep its promises”.

He was referring to the 2016 deal with Brussels to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for billions of euros.

AFP

French President Macron Calls For ‘Lasting’ Syria Ceasefire

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the opening day of the “Made in France“ event at the Elysee Palace in Paris on January 17, 2020. Michel Euler / POOL / AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the opening day of the “Made in France“ event at the Elysee Palace in Paris on January 17, 2020. Michel Euler / POOL / AFP

 

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for Turkey and Russia to implement a lasting ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province in conversations with the two countries’ leaders, the Elysee said.

Moscow-backed Syrian forces have since December led a military offensive against the final major rebel stronghold, where Ankara supports some rebel groups.

Macron expressed his “very strong concern about the unfolding humanitarian crisis” to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, according to a statement released on Saturday.

He also warned of the risk terrorist groups would spread “because of the military offensive of the Syrian regime and its allies,” adding it undermined the 2018 Idlib agreement between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarised zone in the northwestern province.

READ ALSO: Merkel, Macron, Johnson Agree To Work Towards ‘Reducing Tensions’ In Mideast

The accord has fallen apart as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces moved to recapture the last big region outside his control.

Macron said an “immediate halt to hostilities” is needed and called on Russia and Turkey to implement a “lasting and verifiable” ceasefire as outlined in that agreement.

Russia must “end its military offensive in northwest Syria and respect international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians, personnel and humanitarian access”, he added.

Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for a summit with Erdogan and Putin to seek an end to the crisis.

AFP

Turkey Says It Destroyed Syrian Chemical Facility As Retaliation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on January 13, 2020.
Adem ALTAN / AFP

 

A Turkish official said Saturday that Turkey destroyed a chemical warfare facility after dozens of its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in the last-rebel enclave of Idlib province. 

The Turkish army destroyed overnight “a chemical warfare facility, located some 13 kilometres south of Aleppo, along with a large number of other regime targets,” the senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.

Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib region on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years.

The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.

As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — backed by Russian air power — have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the region.

On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a bid to scale down the tensions.

Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, according to the Kremlin.

Depite being on opposite ends, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution to the Syria conflict.

 

AFP

More Than Football: Kurdish Women Win Big With Syria Title

Members of the Amuda women’s team take part in a training session in the northeastern Syrian town of Amuda in Hasakeh province on February 7, 2020.
Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

 

Samar Sheikh’s neighbours used to tell her football was not for girls but the criticism stopped when her team won the very first women’s championship in Syria.

The 20-year-old also finished top scorer at the end of a season that saw teams from all over Syria face-off over weeks before the final that was held in late January in Damascus.

“I’ve been hooked on football since I was little,” says Sheikh during a training session in Amuda, a town in northeastern Syria where part of the autonomous Kurdish administration is headquartered.

“I used to watch my brothers play and I’ve watched a lot of games,” she says, as her teammates, all wearing fluorescent bibs, jog behind the coach on the artificial grass of the covered pitch.

The young Kurdish woman, sweat pearling down her face and her ruffled hair in a ponytail, recounts how she started playing when she was 15 but had to stop “because of the criticism from her family and neighbours.”

She came back to it more determined than ever to overcome social and gender prejudice and it all paid off when it was with cheers that a crowd greeted her and her team off the bus after winning the national trophy.

– Victory parade –

With their medals around their necks, Sheikh and her teammates even went on a celebratory tour of Amuda, joined in dance by residents congratulating them and asking for selfies.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Seeing all these people in the street to celebrate our victory.”

After a week-long break the team has resumed training for two hours a day.

Dalaf Hussein faced the same challenges as a teenage girl trying to live her passion for football in northeastern Syria.

Plastered on the walls of her room are posters of her favourite players, including one of Portuguese legend and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Passersby used to bother us when they saw us play in the street because it was considered a boys’ sport, but we never paid attention,” she says.

Hussein says she also had to deal with her parents’ opposition to her playing football.

“But after our victory in the championship, there was no pushback,” she says, with a chuffed smile.

Syrian society is still largely patriarchal and conservative but women enjoy greater gender equality in areas under Kurdish control.

Hussein says she hopes football will continue to grow in her region.

“Many girls have come to sign up since our victory,” she says.

AFP

Syria Conflict: 900,000 People Displaced Since December – UN

 

A Russian-backed regime offensive in northwest Syria has displaced 900,000 people since the start of December, and babies are dying of cold because aid camps are full, the UN said Monday.

That figure is 100,000 more than the United Nations had previously recorded.

“The crisis in northwest Syria has reached a horrifying new level,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.

He said the displaced were overwhelmingly women and children who are “traumatized and forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full. Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold.”

The Idlib region, including parts of neighboring Aleppo province, is home to some three million people, half of them already displaced from other parts of the country.

The offensive that began late last year has caused the biggest single displacement of people since the conflict began in 2011. The war has killed more than 380,000 people since it erupted almost nine years ago, following the brutal repression of popular demonstrations demanding regime change.

Lowcock warned Monday that the violence in the northwest was “indiscriminate.”

“Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit. Schools are suspended, many health facilities have closed. There is a serious risk of disease outbreaks. Basic infrastructure is falling apart,” he said in a statement.

“We are now receiving reports that settlements for displaced people are being hit, resulting in deaths, injuries and further displacement.”

He said that a massive relief operation underway from the Turkish border is has been “overwhelmed. The equipment and facilities being used by aid workers are being damaged. Humanitarian workers themselves are being displaced and killed.”

US President Donald Trump on Sunday called for Russia to end its support for the Syrian regime’s “atrocities” in the Idlib region, the White House said.

jh/dw

20 Civilians Dead As Syrian Govt Set To Retake Key Highway

Syrian army units advance in the town of al-Eis in south Aleppo province on February 9, 2020, following battles with rebels and jihadists. Al-Eis, which overlooks the M5, was on a front that saw fierce fighting between the regime and its opponents in 2016. AFP

 

At least 20 civilians were killed on Sunday as Syrian regime forces were poised to retake a key motorway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo, after weeks of battles in the rebel-held Idlib region, a monitor said.

The regime and its Russian ally have been engaged in a fierce weeks-long offensive to take back the vital M5 artery which connects Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, to Damascus and the Jordanian border.

A section of the highway southwest of Aleppo city still lies under control of rebels and jihadists who dominate a shrinking, densely populated territory centred on neighbouring Idlib province.

Pro-regime forces have been chipping away at the area in an assault that has sent half a million people fleeing north towards the Turkish border.

Deadly raids on Sunday by regime ally Russia left 14 people dead, including nine in the village of Kar Nuran in southwestern Aleppo province, near the last stretch of the M5 still in rebel hands, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian air raids with crude barrel bombs also killed four civilians in the Atareb district east of Aleppo, while another died in artillery fire near the city of Jisr Al-Shughur, it said.

The last civilian was killed in regime airstrikes on Ketian village in southern Idlib.

Recapturing the M5 would allow traffic to resume between war-torn Syria’s main business hubs, helping the regime revive a moribund economy after nearly nine years of war.

After weeks of steady regime advances in Syria’s northwest, only a two-kilometer section of the M5 remains outside government control, according to the Observatory.

Pro-government forces were closing on Sunday on the last segment southwest of Aleppo, neighbouring Idlib, the Britain-based war monitor said.

“Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

Fighting was ongoing in the area early Sunday evening with bombing intensifying, he said.

Half a million displaced

Since December, Russian-backed government forces have pressed a blistering assault against Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition bastion, retaking town after town.

The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent some 586,000 fleeing towards relative safety nearer the Turkish border.

Some three million people are now trapped in the Idlib region, around half of whom have already fled other parts of the country.

The Syrian army said in a statement Sunday it had recaptured 600 square kilometres (232 square miles) in recent days, comprising “dozens of villages and locations” in south Idlib and west Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian government on Sunday approved a plan aimed at “progressively re-establishing services in liberated areas”, official news agency SANA reported.

That came a day after the army captured the Idlib town of Saraqeb, located on a junction of the M5, state media said.

Troops then pressed north along the motorway past Idlib’s provincial borders and linked up with a unit of Syrian soldiers in Aleppo province, according to the Observatory and state agency SANA.

It was the first time in weeks the two units joined up after waging separate offensives against rebels and jihadists in Idlib and Aleppo.

A little more than half of Idlib province remains in rebel hands, along with slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

Some 50,000 fighters are in the shrinking pocket, many of them jihadists but the majority allied rebels, according to the Observatory.

The United Nations and aid groups have appealed for an end to hostilities in the Idlib region, warning that the exodus risks creating one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the nearly nine-year war.

Just In: Israeli Strikes Kill 12 Pro-Iran Fighters In Syria

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli airstrike at Al-Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City February 6, 2020. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

 

Israeli airstrikes killed 12 pro-Iran fighters near Damascus and in southern Syria early Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Both Syrian and foreign fighters were killed in the strikes in the Kaswa area south of Damascus and the Ezra district of Daraa province, the Britain-based war monitor said.

AFP