Teenagers from Islamic State families undergo rehabilitation in Syria, but future still uncertain
For at least four years, thousands of children have been growing up in a camp in northeast Syria housing families of Islamic State group militants, raised in an atmosphere where the group's radical ideology still circulates and where they have almost no chance for an education. Fearing that a new generation of militants will emerge from al-Hol Camp, the Kurdish officials who govern eastern and northern Syria are experimenting with a rehabilitation program aimed at pulling children out of extremist thought. It means, however, removing them from their mothers and families for an unknown period of time, a practice that has raised concerns among rights groups. And even if they are deemed rehabilitated, the childrens' future remains in limbo with their home countries reluctant to take them back. "If these children stay in the camp, this will lead to the rise of a new generation of extremists who could be more fanatic(al) than those who were before," said Khaled Remo, co-chair of the Kurdish-led administration's office of justice and reform affairs. Recently, an Associated Press team was allowed to visit the Orkesh Center, a rehabilitation facility that opened late last year. It's home to dozens of young boys taken from al-Hol. Ranging in age between 11 and 18, they represent about 15 different nationalities, including France and Germany. At Orkesh, boys are taught drawing and music, all with the theme of tolerance. They also learn skills for future jobs like a tailor or a barber. They wake up early and have breakfast at 7 a.m., then have classes until 3 p.m., after which they can play soccer and basketball. They live in dormitory-type rooms, where they are expected to keep order and their beds made. They are allowed contact with parents and siblings. Authorities did not permit the AP to speak to the boys at the center, citing privacy concerns. During a separate visit to al-Hol, residents were hostile, and none agreed to be interviewed. The AP also approached families that were released from al-Hol, but none responded to requests for comment. The newness of the program makes it difficult to assess its effectiveness. Still, the center underscores how U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities are wrestling with the legacy of Islamic State, years after the group was defeated in a brutal war in Syria and Iraq that ended in 2019. Al-Hol Camp is an open wound left by that conflict. The camp holds about 51,000 people, the vast majority women and children, including the wives, widows and other family members of IS militants. Most are Syrians and Iraqis. But there are also around 8,000 women and children from 60 other nationalities who live in a part of the camp known as the Annex. They are generally considered the most die-hard IS supporters among the camp residents. The camp population is down from its height of 73,000 people, mostly because of Syrians and Iraqis who were allowed to go home. But other countries have largely balked at taking back their nationals, who traveled to join IS after the radical group seized large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. Though Kurdish-led security forces run the camp, they have struggled to keep control. IS radicalism remains rife, with fervent followers intimidating others, particularly in the Annex, home to more than 5,000 children. Children in al-Hol have little to do and little chance for education. Fewer than half the 25,000 children in the camp attend reading and writing classes at its teaching centers. During a recent tour by the AP inside al-Hol, some young boys threw stones at the reporters. One drew a finger across his throat in a beheading motion as he looked at the journalists. "Those kids once they reach the age of 12, they could become dangerous and could kill and beat up others," the camp's director Jihan Hanan told the AP. "So we had a choice, which is to put them at rehabilitation centers and keep them away from the extreme ideology that their mothers carry," she said. Sheikhmous Ahmad, a Kurdish official overseeing camps for displaced people, said that once the boys turn 13, IS loyalists make them get married to young girls — another reason for removing them. So far, the number of children going through rehabilitation is small, around 300, all of them boys from the Annex. Ninety-seven are at the recently-launched Orkesh Center, near the border town of Qamishli about a two-hour drive from al-Hol. The rest are at al-Houri, another center that began taking in boys for rehabilitation in 2017, as U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces took back territory from IS in Syria. Al-Houri underscores the long-term problem: Some of the boys have been at the center for years since there is nowhere else to go. The only alternative would be to send them back to al-Hol. Only four children have been repatriated from al-Houri, administrators said. "While the transfer of these boys to separate detention centers may be well-intentioned, this is not rehabilitation. This is indefinite detention without charge of children, who are themselves victims of ISIS," said Letta Tayler, associate director of the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch. She said removal from the family may be appropriate if the mother or another relative is victimizing the child. Otherwise, separation could cause further trauma. "For many of these children, who have survived unimaginable horrors under ISIS and in the camps where they have been held since the fall of ISIS, the mother and other family members are their only source of stability," she said. Kathryn Achilles, media director of the Syria Response Office at Save the Children International, said separation from the mother "should only ever be as a last resort, addressed by individual countries after families return, in line with their laws." Hanan, the administrator of al-Hol, said they had few other options. One proposal is to set up rehabilitation centers in or near the camp, she said. "Maybe in the future we can agree on something with international organizations regarding such centers as they are the best solution for these children," Hanan said. But Kurdish officials and humanitarian agencies agree that the only real solution is for home countries to take back their citizens. "Once home, children and other victims of ISIS can be offered rehabilitation and reintegration. Adults can be monitored or prosecuted as appropriate," said Tayler of Human Rights Watch. The U.N.-backed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria called in March for repatriation to be sped up. It added that the suffering inflicted on the camp's residents "may amount to the war crime of committing outrages on personal dignity." Until a solution is found, the centers create "an environment that is suitable to pave the way for mental change for these children," said Remo, the Kurdish official.
Arab League poised to vote on restoring Syria membership
Foreign ministers from Arab League member states in Cairo were poised to vote Sunday on restoring Syria’s membership to the organization after it was suspended over a decade ago. The meeting in the Egyptian capital took place ahead of the Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19, where many have expected to see a partial or full return of Syria following a rapid rapprochement with regional governments since February. It also took place days after regional top diplomats met in Jordan to discuss a roadmap to return Syria to the Arab fold as the conflict continues to deescalate. Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended 12 years ago early in the uprising-turned-conflict, which has killed nearly a half million people since March 2011 and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. The body usually attempts to make decisions by consensus, but decisions otherwise could pass with a simple majority vote. There is still no clear consensus among Arab countries about Syria’s return to the Arab League. Notably, Qatar, a key backer of opposition groups, is not onboard with normalization, and did not attend the Cairo meeting. The Arab League has not issued a statement indicating the conditions for Syria’s return. However, experts have said that Saudi Arabia and the region have likely prioritized issues related to gridlocked United Nations-brokered political talks with opposition groups, illicit drug smuggling and refugees. As President Bashar Assad regained control of most of the country with the help of key allies Russia and Iran, some of the Syria's neighbors that hosted large refugee populations took steps towards reestablishing diplomatic ties with Damascus. Meanwhile, Gulf monarchies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reestablished ties. The Feb. 6 earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria was a catalyst for further normalization across the Arab world, as well as regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablishing ties in Beijing, which had backed opposing sides in the conflict. Though once backing opposition groups to overthrow Assad, Saudi Arabia and Syria took steps towards restoring embassies and flights between the two countries, in what experts say was a major prelude towards reinstating Syria into the Arab League. Jordan last week hosted regional talks that included envoys from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. They agreed on a framework, dubbed the “Jordanian initiative,” that would slowly bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. Amman’s top diplomat said the meeting was the “beginning of an Arab-led political path” for a solution to the crisis. The conflict in Sudan is also on the agenda, as Arab governments try to stabilize a shaky ceasefire in the ongoing fighting that has killed hundreds of people over the past few weeks.
As Assad returns to Arab fold, Syrians watch with hope, fear
Syrians living on opposite sides of the largely frozen battle lines dividing their country are watching the accelerating normalization of ties between the government of Bashar Assad and Syria's neighbors through starkly different lenses. In government-held Syria, residents struggling with ballooning inflation, fuel and electricity shortages hope the rapprochement will bring more trade and investment and ease a crippling economic crisis. Meanwhile, in the remaining opposition-held areas of the north, Syrians who once saw Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries as allies in their fight against Assad's rule feel increasingly isolated and abandoned. Also Read: Moscow hosts more Turkey-Syria rapprochement talks Turkey, which has been a main backer of the armed opposition to Assad, has been holding talks with Damascus for months — most recently on Tuesday, when the defense ministers of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria met in Moscow. And in recent weeks, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia — which once backed Syrian rebel groups — has done an about-face in its stance on the Assad government and is pushing its neighbors to follow suit. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan visited Damascus last week for the first time since the kingdom cut ties with Syria more than a decade ago. The kingdom, which will host a meeting of the Arab League next month, has been coaxing other member states to restore Syria’s membership, although some holdouts remain, chief among them Qatar. The League is a confederation of Arab administrations established to promote cooperation among its members. Also Read: Saudi foreign minister visits Syria as relations thaw A 49-year-old tailor in Damascus who gave only his nickname, Abu Shadi (“father of Shadi”) said he hopes the mending of ties between Syria and Saudi Arabia will improve the economy and kickstart reconstruction in the war-battered country. “We’ve had enough of wars — we have suffered for 12 years,” he said. “God willing, relations will improve with not just the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but with all the Gulf countries and the people will benefit on both sides. There will be more movement, more security and everything will be better, God willing.” Read More: Syria, Saudi Arabia move toward restoring embassies, flights In the country's opposition-held northwest, the rapprochement is a cause for fear. Opposition activists took to social media with an Arabic hashtag translating to “normalization with Assad is betrayal,” and hundreds turned out at protests over the past two weeks against the move by Arab states to restore relations with Assad. Khaled Khatib, 27, a worker at a non-governmental organization in northwest Syria, said he is increasingly afraid that the government will recapture control of the remaining opposition territory. “From the first day I participated in a peaceful demonstration until today, I am at risk of being killed or injured or kidnapped or hit by aerial bombardment,” he said. Seeing the regional warming of relations with Damascus is “very painful, shameful and frustrating to the aspirations of Syrians,” he said. Rashid Hamzawi Mahmoud, who joined a protest in Idlib earlier this month, said the Saudi move was the latest in a string of disappointments for the Syrian opposition. “The (U.N.) Security Council has failed us — so have the Arab countries, and human rights and Islamic groups,” he said. Syria was ostracized by Arab governments over Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters in a 2011 uprising that descended into civil war. However, in recent years, as Assad consolidated control over most of the country, Syria’s neighbors have begun to take steps toward rapprochement. The overtures picked up pace since a deadly Feb. 6 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and the Chinese-brokered reestablishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had backed opposing sides in the conflict. The Saudi-Syria rapprochement is a “game changer” for Assad, said Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian researcher and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Assad could potentially be invited to the next Arab League summit, but even if such an invitation isn't issued for May, “it’s only a question of time now,” Daher said. Government officials and pro-government figures in Syria say the restoration of bilateral ties is more significant in reality than a return to the Arab League. “The League of Arab States has a symbolic role in this matter,” Tarek al-Ahmad, a member of the political bureau of the minority Syrian National Party, told The Associated Press. “It is not really the decisive role.” George Jabbour, an academic and former diplomat in Damascus, said Syrians hope for “Saudi jobs … after the return to normal relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia.” Before 2011, Saudi Arabia was one of Syria's most significant trading partners, with trade between the countries reaching $1.3 billion in 2010. While economic traffic did not halt altogether with the shuttering of embassies, it dropped off precipitously. However, even before the warming of diplomatic relations, trade had been on the uptick, particularly after the 2018 reopening of the border between Syria and Jordan, which serves as a route for goods going to and from Saudi Arabia. The Syria Report, which tracks the country's economy, reported that Syria-Saudi trade had increased from $92.35 million in 2017 to $396.90 million in 2021. Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of the Syria Report, said the restoration of direct flights and consular services following the current Saudi-Syrian rapprochement could bring some further increase in trade. But Syrians who are looking to Saudi Arabia as a “provider of finance either through direct investment in the Syrian economy or through funding of various projects, especially concessionary loans for infrastructure projects," may be disappointed, he said. Such investments will be largely off limits for now because of U.S. and European sanctions on Syria. Even in the opposition-held areas, some greeted the normalization with a shrug. Abdul Wahab Alaiwi, a political activist in Idlib, said he was surprised by the Saudi change in stance, but “on the ground nothing will change ... because the Arab countries have no influence inside Syria,” unlike Turkey, Russia, Iran and the U.S., all of which have forces in different parts of the country. He added that he does not believe Damascus will be able to meet the conditions of a return to the Arab League or that Turkey and Syria would easily come to an agreement. Mohamad Shakib al-Khaled, head of the Syrian National Democratic Movement, an opposition party, said Arab countries had never been allies to the “liberal democratic civil movements” in the Syrian uprising but threw their support behind “factions that took a radical Islamic approach.” The Syrian government, on the other hand had “genuine allies who defended it,” he said, referring to the intervention by Russia and Iran that turned the tide of the war. But in the end, he said, “No one defends a land except its people.”
Moscow hosts more Turkey-Syria rapprochement talks
Russia's defense minister on Tuesday hosted his counterparts from Iran, Syria and Turkey for talks that were part of the Kremlin's efforts to help broker a rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian governments. The Russian Defense Ministry said the talks focused on “practical steps to strengthen security in the Syrian Arab Republic and to normalize Syrian-Turkish relations.” Moscow has waged a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, teaming up with Iran to allow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to reclaim control over most of the country while Turkey has backed armed opposition to Assad throughout the 12-year conflict. While the bulk of Russia's armed forces have been busy fighting in Ukraine, Moscow has maintained its military presence in Syria and has also made persistent efforts to help Assad rebuild fractured ties with Turkey and other countries in the region following the civil war that has killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half of the country’s prewar population. Also Read: Sweden expels 5 Russian Embassy staff on suspicion of spying In December, Moscow hosted a surprise meeting of the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers, the first such encounter since Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war began in 2011. And earlier this month, senior diplomats from Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran met in Moscow for two days of talks intended to set the stage for a meeting of the four countries' foreign ministers. The efforts toward a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under intense pressure at home to send Syrian refugees back amid a steep economic downturn and an increasing anti-refugee sentiment. He faces presidential and parliamentary elections in May. The Russian Defense Ministry said in its readout of Tuesday’s talks that the parties "reaffirmed their adherence to the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and the need to step up efforts to allow a speedy return of Syrian refugees.” Also Read: UN chief, representatives of the West berate Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov over Ukraine war The Turkish Defense Ministry issued a similarly worded statement, noting that the four ministers discussed the issue of strengthening security in Syria, the concrete steps that can be taken to normalize ties between Turkey and Syria, the fight against terrorist and extremist groups on the Syrian territory and efforts for the return of Syrian refugees. The statement said the sides also emphasized the importance of the continuation of the four-party meetings “to ensure and maintain stability in Syria and the region as a whole.” On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also hosted Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his counterparts from Syria and Iran for separate bilateral talks. Turkey has de facto control over large swathes of northwestern Syria, and Assad's government has described the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory is a prerequisite for a normalization of ties. But even as Turkey has supported Syrian opposition fighters in the north, Ankara and Damascus are equally dismayed over the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s northeast. Turkey-backed opposition fighters have clashed with the SDF in the past, accusing them of being an arm of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK has for decades waged an insurgency within Turkey. Assad’s government has cast the SDF as a secessionist force that has been pilfering the country’s wealth while controlling Syria’s major oil fields. The Russian Defense Ministry noted that during Tuesday's talks “special attention was given to countering terror threats and fighting all groups of extremists on Syrian territory.”
Germany detains Syrian suspected of planning Islamist attack
German authorities have detained a Syrian man on suspicion of planning to carry out an explosives attack motivated by Islamic extremism, officials said Tuesday. Federal police said officers detained the 28-year-old man early Tuesday in the northern city of Hamburg. Investigators say the man is suspected of trying to obtain substances online that would have allowed him to manufacturer an explosive belt “in order to carry out an attack against civilian targets.” Police say the man was encouraged and supported in his action by his 24-year-old brother, who lives in the southern town of Kempten. The men, whose names weren't immediately released, are described as being motivated by “radical Islamist and jihadist” views. Authorities said they had no information indicating a concrete target for the planned attack. Police searched properties in Hamburg and Kempten, seizing large amounts of evidence including chemical substances, officials said. Some 250 officers were involved in the operation. Germany's top security official thanked police, saying their actions “have prevented possible Islamist attack plans.” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the case showed that the danger of Islamic extremism remained high and pledged that German security agencies would continue to take all information about such threats seriously. “Germany remains a direct target of Islamist terrorist organizations," she said. "Islamist-motivated lone perpetrators are another significant threat.”
Syria, Saudi Arabia move toward restoring embassies, flights
Syria and Saudi Arabia are moving toward reopening embassies and resuming flights between the two countries for the first time in more than a decade, the countries said Thursday in a joint statement. The announcement followed a visit by Syria's top diplomat to the kingdom, the first since Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012. Syria was widely shunned by Arab governments over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on protester,s and later civilians, in an uprising turned civil war that began in 2011. The breakdown in relations culminated with Syria being ousted from the Arab League. However, in recent years, as Assad has consolidated control over most of the country, Syria's neighbors have begun to take steps toward rapprochement. The overtures have picked up pace since the massive Feb. 6 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and the Chinese-brokered reestablishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional rivals that had backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. A delegation headed by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, at the invitation of Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for talks about bilateral relations between the two countries, state media from the two countries reported. Saudi state media reported that Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad was received by the kingdom’s Deputy Foreign Minister Waleed Al-Khuraiji. The meeting focused on the steps needed to reach a “comprehensive political settlement of the Syrian crisis that would ... achieve national reconciliation, and contribute to the return of Syria to its Arab fold," the two countries said in a joint statement. Saudi Arabia is hosting the next Arab League summit in May, where a restoration of Syria's membership is widely expected to be on the table. The two sides also discussed “the importance of enhancing security and combating terrorism in all its forms, and enhancing cooperation in combating drug smuggling and trafficking,” the statement said. Syria is a primary producer of the amphetamine-based drug Captagon, which is largely smuggled into Gulf markets for sale. The talks also focused on “the need to support ... the Syrian state to extend its control over its territories to end the presence of armed militias and external interference in the Syrian internal affairs,” as well as on facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid and the return of Syrian refugees. The visit to Saudi Arabia came after Syria announced Wednesday that it will reopen its embassy in Tunisia, which cut off relations in 2012. Tunisian President Kais Saied announced earlier this month that he had directed the country’s foreign ministry to appoint a new ambassador to Syria. His move was reciprocated by the Syrian government, a joint statement from the two countries’ foreign ministries said Wednesday, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
IS land mine kills at least 6 civilians in Syria: Reports
A deadly land mine explosion in Syria killed at least six people on Sunday, according to state media. News agency SANA said the explosion hit civilians who were foraging for truffles in the countryside, and blamed the incident on a land mine planted by the Islamic State group in the southern Deir Ez-Zor province. The area is a former stronghold of the militants. A day earlier, SANA reported six people - also heading to search for truffles - were killed by an anti-tank mine left by IS in the desert of Homs' eastern countryside. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, put the number killed Sunday at nine. The monitor said the incident brings to 139 the number of civilians reported killed this year as a result of the explosion of mines and other explosive objects left over from the war, including 30 children. The truffles are a seasonal delicacy that can be sold for a high price. Since truffle hunters work in large groups in remote areas, IS militants have repeatedly preyed on them, emerging from the desert to abduct them, kill some and ransom others for money. In February, IS sleeper cells attacked workers collecting truffles near the central town of Sukhna, killing at least 53 people, mostly workers but also some Syrian government security forces.
Iran-backed fighters on alert in east Syria after US strikes
Iran-backed fighters were on alert in eastern Syria on Saturday, a day afte r U.S. forces launched retaliatory airstrikes on sites in the war-torn country, opposition activists said. The airstrikes came after a suspected Iran-made drone killed a U.S. contractor and wounded six other Americans on Thursday. The situation was calm following a day in which rockets were fired at bases housing U.S. troops in eastern Syria. The rockets came after U.S. airstrikes on three different areas in Syria’s eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq, opposition activists said. While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded strikes in Syria, the attack and the U.S. response threaten to upend recent efforts to deescalate tensions across the wider Middle East, whose rival powers have made steps toward détente in recent days after years of turmoil. “The calm continues as Iran-backed militiamen are on alert out of concern of possible new airstrikes,” said Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor. Also Read: Suspected Iran drone kills US worker in Syria; US retaliates President Joe Biden said Friday that the U.S. would respond “forcefully” to protect its personnel after U.S. forces retaliated with airstrikes on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The strikes followed an attack Thursday by a suspected Iran-made drone that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded five American servicemembers and a U.S. contractor. “The United States does not, does not seek conflict with Iran,” Biden said in Ottawa, Canada, where he was on a state visit. But he said Iran and its proxies should be prepared for the U.S. “to act forcefully to protect our people. That’s exactly what happened last night.” Activists said the U.S. bombing killed at least four people. A statement issued late Friday by the Iranian Consultative Center in Syria warned the U.S. not to carry out further strikes in Syria. Otherwise, “we will have to retaliate." It warned that "it will not be a simple revenge.” Also Read: Saudi Arabia, Syria may restore ties as Mideast reshuffles The center, which speaks on behalf of Tehran in Syria, said the U.S. airstrikes targeted places used to store food products and other service centers in Deir el-Zour. It said the strike killed seven people and wounded seven others without giving the nationalities of the dead. An official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq said the strikes killed seven Iranians. The Observatory raised the death toll from the U.S. strikes to 19, saying they were killed in three locations, including an arms depot in the Harabesh neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour, and two military posts near the towns of Mayadeen and Boukamal. Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area, which also has seen suspected airstrikes by Israel in recent months allegedly targeting Iranian supply routes. According to U.S. officials, two simultaneous attacks were launched at U.S. forces in Syria late Friday. Officials said that based on preliminary information, there was a rocket attack on the Conoco plant, where U.S. troops are stationed, and one U.S. service member was wounded but is in stable condition. At about the same time, several drones were launched at Green Village, in Deir el-Zour province where U.S. troops are also based. One official said all but one of the drones were shot down, and there were no U.S. injuries there. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been suspected of carrying out attacks with bomb-carrying drones across the wider Middle East. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the American intelligence community had determined the drone in Thursday’s attack was of Iranian origin, but offered no other immediate evidence to support the claim. The drone hit a coalition base in the northeast Syrian city of Hasakeh. Iran relies on a network of proxy forces throughout the Mideast to counter the U.S. and Israel, its arch regional enemy. The U.S. has had forces in northeast Syria since 2015, when they deployed as part of the fight against the Islamic State group, and maintains some 900 troops there, working with Kurdish-led forces that control around a third of Syria. The exchange of strikes came as Saudi Arabia and Iran have been working toward reopening embassies in each other’s countries. The kingdom also acknowledged efforts to reopen a Saudi embassy in Syria, whose embattled President Bashar Assad has been backed by Iran in his country’s long war. According to officials, Iran has launched 80 attacks against U.S. forces and locations in Iraq and Syria since January 2021. The vast majority of those have been in Syria. The U.S. under Biden has struck Syria previously over tensions with Iran — in February and June of 2021, as well as August 2022. Syria’s conflict that began in 2011 has left nearly half a million people dead.
Suspected Iran drone kills US worker in Syria; US retaliates
A strike Thursday by a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a U.S. contractor and wounded five American troops and another contractor in northeast Syria, the Pentagon said. American forces said they retaliated soon after with “precision airstrikes” in Syria targeting facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard, with activist groups saying they killed at least four people. The attack and the U.S. response threaten to upend recent efforts to deescalate tensions across the wider Middle East, whose rival powers have made steps toward détente in recent days after years of turmoil. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the American intelligence community had determined the drone was of Iranian origin, but offered no other immediate evidence to support the claim. “The airstrikes were conducted in response to today’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against coalition forces in Syria" by groups affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, Austin said. Iran relies on a network of proxy forces through the Mideast to counter the U.S. and Israel, its arch regional enemy. The Pentagon said two of the wounded service members were treated on-site, while three others and the injured contractor were transported to medical facilities in Iraq. Overnight, videos on social media purported to show explosions in Syria’s Deir el-Zour, a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oil fields. Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area, which also has seen suspected airstrikes by Israel in recent months allegedly targeting Iranian supply routes. Iran and Syria did not immediately acknowledge the strikes, nor did their officials at the United Nations in New York respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. The activist group Deir Ezzor 24 put the death toll from the American strikes at four people. Deir Ezzor 24, which covers news in Deir el-Zour province, said the strikes hit the city of Deir el-Zour as well as militiamen posts near Mayadeen and Boukamal. It said the strikes also wounded people, including Iraqis. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that the American strikes killed six Iranian-backed fighters at an arms depot in the Harabesh neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour. The Observatory, which relies on a network of local contacts in Syria, said U.S. bombing at a post near the town of Mayadeen killed two fighters. A separate American strike hit a military post near the town of Boukamal along the border with Iraq, killing another three fighters, the Observatory said. The AP could not immediately independently confirm the activist reports. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been suspected of carrying out attacks with bomb-carrying drones across the wider Middle East. In recent months, Russia has begun using Iranian drones in its attacks on sites across Ukraine as part of its war on Kyiv. Iran has issued a series of conflicting denials about its drones being used in the war, though Western nations and experts have tied components in the drones back to Tehran. The exchange of strikes came as Saudi Arabia and Iran have been working toward reopening embassies in each other’s countries. The kingdom also acknowledged efforts to reopen a Saudi embassy in Syria, whose embattled President Bashar Assad has been backed by Iran in his country’s long war. U.S. Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of the American military’s Central Command, warned that American forces could carry out additional strikes if needed. “We are postured for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” Kurilla said in a statement. Addressing the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Kurilla warned lawmakers that the “Iran of today is exponentially more militarily capable than it was even five years ago.” He pointed to Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and bomb-carrying drones. Kurilla also alleged that Iran had launched some 78 attacks on U.S. positions in Syria since January 2021. “What Iran does to hide its hand is they use Iranian proxies,” Kurilla said. Diplomacy to deescalate the crisis appeared to begin immediately around the strikes. Qatar’s state-run news agency reported a call between its foreign minister and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser. Doha has been an interlocutor between Iran and the U.S. recently amid tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program. Qatar’s foreign minister also spoke around the same time with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian. Austin said he authorized the retaliatory strikes at the direction of President Joe Biden. “As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing,” Austin said. “No group will strike our troops with impunity.” The U.S. under Biden has struck Syria previously over tensions with Iran. In February and June of 2021, as well as August 2022, Biden launched attacks there. U.S. forces entered Syria in 2015, backing allied forces in their fight against the Islamic State group. The U.S. still maintains the base near Hasakah in northeast Syria where Thursday's drone strike happened. There are roughly 900 U.S. troops, and even more contractors, in Syria, including in the north and farther south and east. Since the U.S. drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iran has sought “to make life difficult for U.S. forces stationed east of the Euphrates,” said Hamidreza Azizi, an expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Iran increased its support for local proxies in Deir el-Zour while trying to ally with the tribal forces in the area,” Azizi wrote in a recent analysis. “Due to the geographical proximity, Iraqi groups also intensified their activities in the border strip with Syria and in the Deir el-Zour province.” The strikes come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Syria’s war began with the 2011 Arab Spring protests that roiled the wider Middle East and toppled governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. It later morphed into a regional proxy conflict that has seen Russia and Iran back Assad. The United Nations estimates over 300,000 civilians have been killed in the war. Those figures do not include soldiers and insurgents killed in the conflict; their numbers are believed to be in the tens of thousands.
Saudi Arabia, Syria may restore ties as Mideast reshuffles
Saudi Arabia is in talks with Syria to reopen its embassy in the war-torn nation for the first time in a decade, state television in the kingdom reported late Thursday, the latest diplomatic reshuffling in the region. The announcement on state TV comes after Chinese-mediated talks in Beijing saw Saudi Arabia and Iran agree to reopen embassies in each others' nations after years of tensions. Syrian President Bashar Assad has maintained his grip on power in the Mediterranean nation rocked by the 2011 Arab Spring only with the help of Iran and Russia, which made a historic call earlier in the day to Oman. Saudi Arabian state television aired a report late Thursday, quoting an anonymous official in the country's Foreign Ministry, acknowledging the talks between the kingdom and Damascus. “A source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed to Al-Ekhbariyah that ongoing discussions have begun with the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commenting on what was circulated by some international media,” an anchor said on air. “Discussions are underway between officials in the kingdom and their counterparts in Syria about resuming the provision of consular services.” Reuters first reported on the talks Thursday, spurring the Saudi state TV announcement. The Wall Street Journal, quoting anonymous Saudi and Syrian officials, later attributed the talks to reopen the countries' embassies to Russian mediation. Syrian state media did not immediately acknowledge the talks. Officials in both Saudi Arabia and Syria did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press early Friday. Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Oman's Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, which the Kremlin called the “the first high-level bilateral contact since the establishment of diplomatic relations" between the nations. Muscat established ties with the Soviet Union in 1985. Oman long has been an interlocutor between the West and Iran. Recent months have seen talks in Oman over Yemen's long-running war, in which Saudi Arabia backs the country's exiled government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that hold its capital, Sanaa. Read more: Iran, Saudi Arabia agree to resume relations after tensions The kingdom backed the Syrian opposition against Assad during Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war that began in 2011. However, in recent years, a regional rapprochement has been brewing. Last month’s devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey sparked international sympathy and speeded up the process, with Saudi and other Arab countries shipping aid to Damascus. Assad visited Oman in late February. He traveled Sunday to the United Arab Emirates, another nation that earlier had backed fighters trying to topple his government. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has acknowledged publicly that there is a growing consensus among Arab countries that dialogue with Damascus is necessary. Saudi Arabia is hosting the next Arab League summit in May, where most states hope to restore Syria’s membership after it was suspended in 2011, the league’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, has said. China's and Russia's interest in the Middle East long has been a concern for U.S. officials, which view the the region as crucial to global energy prices even as America pumps more crude oil than ever before and doesn't rely on Saudi oil as much as it once did. Saudi Arabia has grown closer to Russia as Moscow has rallied allies to back production cuts by OPEC to boost global oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia also have been at a low since President Joe Biden took office calling the kingdom a “pariah” over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The State Department and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Read more: Bangladesh welcomes renewed ties between Iran, Saudi Arabia: Momen