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Protest in southwest Syria against faltering economy, corruption

Amid currency crisis, dozens in Suweida called for President Assad’s removal as they protested deteriorating conditions.

Dozens of Syrians took to the streets in southwest Syria to protest deteriorating economic conditions and corruption in the country, according to reports by local media run by activists in the area.

The demonstrations in Suweida province on Sunday come as the Syrian pound continues to plummet.

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The currency hit a record low last week followed by another on Sunday. One Syrian pound currently stands at $0.002, according to currency conversion websites.

The protests also mark the first major gathering which called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the Druze-majority province remained loyal to Damascus throughout the Syrian uprising.

Widely shared videos showed mostly young men marching through a market in Suweida towards the municipality building. They chanted anti-government slogans, similar to those used when peaceful protests first erupted in 2011 before quickly turning bloody.

عاجل| انتقل المحتجون من أمام مبنى محافظة #السويداء، باتجاه دوار المشنقة مروراً بسوق المدينة، وسط هتافات غاضبة من تردي الأوضاع المعيشية والاقتصادية، حيث هتف المحتجون “سوريا لينا وما هي لبيت الأسد”، وهتافات أخرى حملوا فيها السلطات السورية مسؤولية الأوضاع المتدهورة. pic.twitter.com/Bm9HeGo74c

“Leave now Bashar” and “the people want the fall of the regime” were among the chants that could be heard.

#Suwayda pic.twitter.com/dtdcBOaQ3G

Others videos showed people holding signs and chanting “Syria is free, out with Russia … out with Iran”.

عاجل| المحتجون يعودون إلى ساحة محافظة #السويداء، ويهتفون ” #سوريا حرة #إيران و #روسيا برا”، و”يرحم روحك يا سلطان البلد صارت لإيران”، بالإضافة إلى هتافات تندد بالسلطة السورية، وتحملها مسؤولية تدهور الأوضاع المعيشية والاقتصادية، وفق مراسل السويداء 24.

تفاصيل أكثر حال ورودها .. pic.twitter.com/rx49glGkKJ

In neighbouring Deraa, where the Syrian uprising began some nine years ago, reports of similar protests emerged later on Sunday, though they were limited to Tafas, a town in the province’s north. 

‘Nothing to lose’ 

The country remains sanctioned by the European Union, which imposes trade and transport sanctions that have impeded the flow of much-needed humanitarian aid. 

Medicine is scarce and has become increasingly unattainable during the past couple of months amid reports of pharmacies shutting down. 

Most pharmacists “aren’t selling essential drugs due to accelerated loss of the buying power of the Syrian pound/lira,” Zaher Sahloul, President of MedGlobal, said in a Twitter post on Sunday. 

“The situation is desperate and adding to the public anger from their government. People expect the worse,” he added. 

According to Syrian journalist Asser Khattab, two smaller demonstrations took place in Suweida during the last month.

“Many Syrians have nothing to lose now that the value of their currency is in a freefall and inflation is ravaging the market,” the Paris-based journalist told Al Jazeera.

“Suweida is a special case where people have been more or less under less influence of the Syrian regime’s direct military and security reach which may have allowed people to feel less worried about the repercussions of going on a demonstration,” Khattab added. 

Khattab believes that living conditions are bound to get worse, and it is likely that more demonstrations will occur as Syrians “struggle to attain their daily bread”.

The 10-year war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population. 

Apart from the rebel-held northwestern region, President al-Assad has regained much of the country’s territory since 2015, when Russia intervened militarily to assist the government in pushing back opposition fighters.

In recent years, Russia and Turkey, which backs opposition factions, have become the main power-brokers in Syria.

Additional reporting by Farah Najjar

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Russia hiring of Syrians to fight in Libya surges in May: Reuters

Private military contractor Wagner Group is conducting the hiring with Russian army supervision, opposition sources say.

A Russian drive to recruit Syrians to fight in Libya for renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar accelerated in May when hundreds of mercenaries were signed up, five Syrian opposition sources and a regional source familiar with the matter said.

Private military contractor the Wagner Group is conducting the hiring with Russian army supervision, according to two senior Syrian opposition sources and the regional source. A former Wagner Group member said it first sent Syrians to Libya in 2019.

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The Russian Defence Ministry and the Wagner group did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Turkey, meanwhile, says it is providing military support to the other side of the conflict, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in February that fighters from the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army were in Libya, as well as Turkey’s own military.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helping him crush the rebellion at home. Moscow’s involvement in Libya is an extension of its ambition to project influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, some experts say.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have also lent support to Haftar because they suspect the GNA of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group they strongly oppose.

Turkey, on the other hand, has made deals with the GNA over maritime borders and wants to protect its interests in the region.

Echoes of Syria

The involvement of Russia and Turkey on opposite sides of the Libyan conflict has echoes of the war in Syria, where they have also backed warring parties. It also risks exacerbating the conflict, experts have warned.

“Russia and Turkey are both escalating their firepower and force numbers in Libya, where Europe has been caught on its heels,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Russia has tried to match Turkey’s effort to send Syrian mercenaries, but with mixed results.”

Wagner has up to 1,200 people deployed in Libya, according to a confidential UN report seen by Reuters in May. The Russian state has denied having forces in Libya.

When asked in January if the Wagner Group was fighting in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if there were Russians in Libya, they were not representing the Russian state, nor were they paid by the state.

A spokesman for Haftar’s Libyan National Army denied it had recruited Syrian fighters. It has repeatedly highlighted the presence of Syrians fighting alongside its enemy.

US officials said on May 7 they believed Russia was working with al-Assad to transfer fighters and equipment to Libya.

The Syrian government’s information ministry did not respond to questions sent via email.

Haftar’s adversary, the GNA, has been supplied with drones, air defences and advisers from Turkey.

GNA deputy defence minister Saleh Namroush said its request for military support was in response to what he called “international meddling in Libya”.

“Turkey is the only country that was willing to help us end the widescale civilian killing and destruction by the UAE, Russia and others,” he said.

Pace of hiring increases

New recruits to the Russian effort in support of Haftar included 300 from the Homs area, among them former Free Syrian Army fighters, according to one of the two senior opposition sources, and some 320 from the southwest, a third source said.

The pace of hiring increased as Libya’s fighting intensified and the war in Syria died down, the regional source said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the Syrian conflict using a network of sources on the ground, more than 900 Syrians were recruited by Russia to fight in Libya in May.

The fighters are trained at a base in Homs before going to Libya, according to the sources, who cited salaries ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 a month.

The movement of fighters into Libya violates a UN arms embargo and the UN’s acting Libya envoy on May 19 urged the Security Council to stop “a massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries”.

Many former Syrian rebels stayed behind in areas recovered by Damascus and its Russian allies, signing agreements that required them to pledge loyalty to the state. But their lives remain tightly restricted and monitored by the authorities.

Since 2014, Libya has been split between areas controlled by the Tripoli government and territory held by Haftar’s eastern-based forces in Benghazi.

Haftar is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, according to UN experts and some security sources. The countries deny direct involvement in the conflict.

Despite this backing, forces loyal to the GNA captured Haftar’s last major stronghold near Tripoli on Friday, capping the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive on the capital.

On Thursday, Erdogan vowed to ramp up Turkey’s support for its ally in Libya to lock in the gains. On Saturday, Haftar was in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a new peace plan.

The retreat, reversing many of Haftar’s gains from last year, extends the GNA’s control of most of northwest Libya.

Haftar and allied groups still control the east and much of the south, as well as most of Libya’s oil fields, however.

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Syrian defences intercept Israeli missiles in Hama

Syrian air defences thwart an unidentified missile attack in northwestern Hama province, state media says.

Syrian air defences have intercepted an Israeli attack near a central town that caused explosions and a large fire in the area.

Syrian news agency SANA said the Israeli air attack occurred near the town of Masyaf in the Hama countryside. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage.

Residents in neighbouring Lebanon reported hearing the Israeli warplanes flying at low altitude over parts of the Mediterranean country on their way to bomb Syria, according to The Associated Press.

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The air strikes are the latest in a series of Israeli attacks in Syria in the past few weeks, and come amid rising tensions between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah armed group in Syria, as well as along the Lebanon-Israel border.

Syria has accused Israel of carrying out at least seven air raids in the past two months alone, believed to have targeted Iranian and proxy interests.

‘Violation of sovereignty’

On Wednesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Israel violated Lebanon’s sovereignty by land, sea and air more than 1,000 times in the last five months.

There was no immediate comment from Israel on Thursday’s reported attacks in Syria. In the past, Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of air strikes over the years, most of them aimed at alleged Iranian weapons shipments believed to be bound for Hezbollah.

In recent months, Israeli officials have expressed concern that Hezbollah is trying to establish production facilities to make precision-guided missiles.

Last month, an Israeli air attack on a military position near Masyaf wounded six soldiers and destroyed several buildings, SANA reported.


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