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The Region – Syria – Libya – Iran – Sept 18, 2023

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SYRIA

By Ahmad Barbour & Rania Kisar 

Sweida Protests Surge, Shaking Assad’s Regime: Unprecedented Uprisings and International Involvement Signal Turning Point

The protest movement in Suwayda, primarily led by the Druze minority, has gained significant traction, evolving from economic grievances to calls for political reform under UN Resolution 2254. Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri, a Druze spiritual leader, endorsed the movement and engaged in talks with U.S. Representative French Hill, signifying growing international attention. Support extends beyond borders, with Lebanese Druze leader Walid Junblatt endorsing the uprising. 

Economic issues, including Assad’s lifting fuel subsidies and the depreciating Syrian lira, continue to galvanize protestors. These developments make the current demonstrations the most impactful in Suwayda since the 2011 Syrian crisis. The protests also spread to regions like Deir Ezzor and Daraa, symbolizing a unified stance against Assad. Solidarity movements have emerged in Afrin and Al-Bab, posing a national challenge to the regime. 

As the movement escalates, there are reports that Assad’s allies are considering temporary measures like military diversions and economic relief. The situation marks a significant juncture in Syria’s protracted conflict, drawing international and domestic focus.

Timeline of Events: Watch Video

(August 16, 2023- September 18, 2023)

Aug 16, 2023: Suwaida Crisis Deepened – Economic Collapse Spurred General Strike and Impacted Local Aid (Al Suwayda 24). The collapse of the Syrian lira led to partial market closures and skyrocketing prices in Suwaida City. Despite salary hikes, residents called for a general strike. The crisis exacerbated transportation issues, halted bus services between Shahba and Al-Suwayda, and affected the local Syrian Red Crescent’s volunteer attendance.

Aug 17, 2023: Druze Protest Economic Woes in Sweida (Swiss Info). Hundreds of Syrians, primarily from the Druze minority, had protested against worsening economic conditions and fuel price hikes in government-controlled Sweida. Demonstrators blocked roads and chanted anti-government slogans. Such protests were unusual in areas under regime control. According to authorities, the economic downturn, marked by currency depreciation and high inflation, had been exacerbated by Western sanctions.

Aug 19, 2023:Protesters in Al-Quraya Announced Sweeping General Strike Against the Regime (Syria TV). Protesters from Al-Quraya in southern Sweida had held a protest in front of the monument of Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, announcing a general strike to start the following day. Their demands included closing the main road, shutting down Syrian government offices in the town, and urging traders and craftsmen to join the strike. The protesters had raised banners condemning the living, service, and security conditions while calling for freedom and rescuing children from drugs.

Aug 20, 2023: Spiritual Leadership Endorsed Syrian Protests, Amplifying Call for Change (Aljazeera). The Spiritual Leadership of the Unified Druze in Syria, represented by Sheikh Hikmat Salman Al-Hajri, had issued a statement endorsing the “legitimate” popular movement in Al-Sweida. The statement criticized the Syrian government’s policies, condemned deteriorating living conditions, and called for the suppression of those responsible for the unrest. It highlighted the dire situation Syrians faced inside and outside the country and stressed the need for international support for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis.

Aug 22, 2023: Mass Uprising in Al-Sweida Demanded Regime Overhaul (Asharq News). Mass protests erupted in 25 towns in Al-Sweida, marking the largest local demonstrations since the Syrian crisis began in 2011. Protesters targeted government buildings, expelled officials, and called for political transition and free elections under UN Resolution 2254. The economic turmoil further fueled the unrest.

Aug 24, 2023: Lebanese Druze Split Over Al-Sweida Unrest (Alquds). The Druze community in Lebanon was divided over the unrest in Syria’s Al-Sweida. The Progressive Socialist Party had backed the uprising and criticized journalist Luna Al-Shibl, while the Lebanese Democratic Party had supported the Syrian regime and condemned external interference. Both parties had acknowledged the impact of the Caesar Act and international pressures on Syria.

Aug 25, 2023: Assad Kin Float Military Option to Quell Sweida Unrest (Orient News). Wisam al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, suggested a military strike against U.S. and SDF forces in eastern Syria to divert attention from Sweida protests. A regime-affiliated consultant, Luna al-Shibli, supported this, pitching economic relief via oil field recovery. Both aimed to sideline the Sweida movement’s calls for Bashar’s departure.

Aug 26, 2023: Defiant Activist Against Assad Captured (Enab Baladi). Syrian activist Ayman Fares was arrested en route to Sweida for his vocal criticisms against the Assad regime. Gaining fame for challenging Bashar al-Assad and decrying Syria’s economic woes, Fares was detained along with another individual. Calls for his release echoed in Sweida protests.

Aug 30, 2023: Sweida Tribes Amplified General Strike (Suwayda24). Residents from Al-Mansoura village in western Sweida had joined the general strike to protest dire economic conditions. They had planned to shut down the village’s Transport Directorate as part of the action. The town, tied to the Sweida Bedouin tribes, stressed national unity against economic struggles.

Sept 1, 2023: NW Syria Cities Rally Behind Sweida Uprising (Syriahr). Influenced by Turkey and “National Army” factions, Northwestern Syrian areas joined in solidarity with Sweida’s 13-day popular movement, demanding regime change and adherence to UN Resolution 2254. Cities like Afrin, Mare’, and Al-Bab participated, highlighting a unified call for political transition and challenging local despots.

Sept 4, 2023: Suwayda Protests Hit Day 16, Assad Symbols Toppled (Suwayda 24). Suwayda protests entered their 16th day, focusing on Assad’s removal and International Resolution 2245. Monuments to Assad were destroyed; the movement reached Shahba city.

Sept 5, 2023: Syria Faces Multi-Faceted Crisis as Assad Regime’s Governance and Economic Decisions Fuel Nationwide Protests; Russia Blames U.S. Influence (France 24, Kremlin Media, Suwayda 24). Economic struggles and discontent are sweeping across Syria, challenging the Assad regime on multiple fronts. Protests have spread beyond Suwayda and Daraa to northern and northeastern regions, involving Arab clans and demanding UN-supervised elections and constitutional changes. The crisis deepened after Assad lifted fuel subsidies, igniting unprecedented protests in Suwayda. As public trust erodes, Russia remains silent on the Suwayda uprising but implicates U.S. influence in Lebanon’s financial crisis as a possible instigator. Meanwhile, Arab clans have mobilized against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), accusing them of resource plundering in coordination with the regime. Observers highlight Assad’s inaction, describing the regime as “economically cornered.”

Sept 6, 2023: Suwayda Protests Evolve to Demand Political Transition; Global Support Grows (Step Agency, Baladi News). On its 18th day, Suwayda’s protest movement took a decisive political turn, calling for the implementing of UN Resolution 2254 and regime change. Plans for a governing body in Suwayda were discussed, involving parties like the Syrian Brigade Party. Concurrently, Rayan Al-Shibl, a former Suwayda resident now serving as the German mayor of Ostelsheim, expressed solidarity with the movement, advocating for political and economic reforms in Syria under UN Resolution 2254. The dual developments highlight the increasing international and political dimensions of the protests.

Sept 7, 2023: Clerical Involvement Marks Turning Point in Syrian Protests (Meo, Al-Watan, Suwayda 24). Clerics in the Syrian town of Al-Qurayya released statements urging protesters not to target state institutions, signaling a new phase in ongoing demonstrations. This clerical stance partially contradicts three leading sheiks of the Druze community in Suwayda, who previously voiced support for the protests. The Syrian government refrained from suppressing the demonstrations, extending across multiple governorates. Initially localized in Suwayda, the protests gained momentum against a backdrop of lifted fuel subsidies and deteriorating living conditions. Clerics emphasized protesters’ demands as “justified” but did not specifically address calls for regime change under UN Resolution 2254.

Sept 8, 2023: Largest Gathering with Remarkable Presence by Women, Daraa Residents, And Simultaneous Protests Across Syria (The New Arab). Syrian protests featured female participants citing historical roles in past resistances. Suwayda and Daraa’s representatives united against regime tactics. In Shahba, a portrait of Bashar al-Assad was replaced by one of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash. Security was ramped up in Homs to preempt potential protests, mirroring southern Syria.

Sept 9, 2023: 21-Day Suwayda Protests Continue Against the Assad’s Regime:  From Suwayda to Deir Ezzor, Down with the Dictator’s Rule (Syria TV). Undeterred, dozens of protestors gathered in the same Karama Square, declaring a national stance on the Assad regime and demanding the release of detainees.

Sept 11, 2023: Suwayda Protest Leaders Unite on Political Aims, Reject Syrian National Coalition (The New Arab). A pivotal meeting involving 70 individuals was held in Suwayda to define the protest movement’s goals. Attendees, led by Sheikh Hikmat Al Hijri, committed to continuing the protests, countering separatist calls, and facilitating access to Al-Karama Square.

Sept 12, 2023: Regime Forces Fire on Civilians, Sheikh Al-Hijri Criticizes Iran (Al Hurra). On the 26th day of the Suwayda protests, regime forces opened fire on protesters attempting to close the Baath Party headquarters, resulting in injuries. This event led Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri to issue his first-ever criticism of Iran and its militias. 

Sept 13, 2023: Suwayda Protesters Shut Down Baath Party Centers After Gunfire Shooting (Enab Baladi). Following a shooting incident by a security group, protesters closed Baath Party centers in several Suwayda villages and towns.

Sept 15, 2023: Largest Anti-Regime Demonstration Sees Thousands Despite Recent Shootings (Agence France-Presse). Today’s demonstration in Suwayda saw between 3,500 and 4,000 participants, marking it the largest since protests began a month ago. The crowd in Karama Square chanted anti-Assad slogans and called for a democratic national state, rejecting Baath Party policies.

Sept 15, 2023: “Political Body for National Action” Issues First Statement Amid Suwayda Protests (Suwayda 24). In coordination with Hikmat Al-Hijri, the spiritual head of the Unitarian Druze sect, the newly formed “Political Body for National Action” released its first statement. The body aims to represent Suwayda in its calls for a unified, free Syria and for overthrowing the Assad regime. The news comes as today’s protests in Suwayda saw record participation, with calls for implementing UN Resolution 2254.

Sept 16, 2023: Momentum Builds in Anti-Assad Protests; International and Domestic Solidarity Intensifies (Orient Net, Al Mudon, Al Hurra). Republican Representative French Hill engages in unprecedented talks with Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri in Suwayda, expressing concern over recent security incidents. Meanwhile, Suwayda activists emphasize the peaceful nature of their movement by serving traditional “mansaf” to local police. The action draws attention to the regime’s portrayal of protesters as separatists. Simultaneously, protesters in Hazano, north of Idlib, rally in solidarity with the Suwayda movement, advocating for a “National, Non-Sectarian Revolution” and Bashar al-Assad’s removal. The events collectively mark a turning point, showing growing domestic and international support for the anti-Assad protests.

Sept 17, 2023: Assad Regime Acknowledges Weapon Stores Amid Protests; Suwayda Demonstrations Evolve (Orient Net, Reuters). During a live broadcast, Rafiq Lutf, an Assad regime media figure, discloses the location of weapon storage sites in Suwayda. Lutf claims the demonstrators aimed to access these armories, raising questions about their peaceful intentions. The weapons were relocated following the onset of protests. This disclosure comes a month after hundreds in Suwayda initiated protests over deteriorating economic conditions and rising fuel prices, marking a shift from economic grievances to more complex concerns involving public safety and regime stability.

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Libya

Libya’s Dam Catastrophe: Years of Neglect Culminate in a Tragedy of Biblical Proportions

By ALMOUTASSIM Al KILANI & Rania Kisar

September 18, 2023

Derna has a history of flooding, marked by significant events in 1941, 1959, and 1968. The 1959 flood prompted studies that recommended dam construction. A Yugoslavian company built two dams in the 1970s in response. The upper ‘Country Dam’ could hold 1.5 million cubic meters, while the lower ‘Abu Mansour Dam’ had a 22.5 million cubic meter capacity. Both were built with clay cores and stone perimeters (BBC).

By 1998, cracks had appeared in these dams, signaling a pattern of neglect. These structural deficiencies ultimately caused the dam’s failure and devastating floods in eastern Libya. Repair efforts halted in 2007 due to funding shortages following the fall of the Gaddafi regime, despite the presence of allocated budgets (Al Jazeera).

It is worth noting that the Wadi Derna dams collapsed because they held more water than they were designed for, exacerbated by rainfall exceeding 200 mm. Remarkably, these dams had successfully managed water levels during floods in 1986, sparing the city from significant damage.

Timeline of Events: Watch Video

Sept 11, 2023: Destruction in Eastern Libya After Storm Daniel: A Plea for Rescuing the Affected (Al Araby, BBC). “Storm Daniel devastates eastern Libya; thousands dead. Derna is the most brutally hit; according to Red Crescent estimates, about 10,000 people have been reported missing, and the number of victims is expected to increase.

Sept 12, 2023: Post-Storm Scenes in Eastern Libya: Bodies and Destroyed Homes (Al Jazeera, BBC). Hurricane Daniel: Over 5,000 dead, widespread city destruction, power outages, and grief in Libya’s worst disaster in more than 40 years.

Sept 13, 2023: UN Mobilizes Aid for Libya (Al Jazeera). After Hurricane Daniel, the UN mobilized aid for Libya, partnering with Arab nations and allocating millions for relief efforts.

Sept 14, 2023: Crisis in Libya Deepens as Children Suffer and Governance Fails (Al Jazeera, BBC, UNICEF). According to UNICEF, around 300,000 children in eastern Libya urgently require humanitarian aid in the wake of Storm Daniel. Concurrently, the Assembly has called for an international inquiry, blaming neglect on Tripoli and Benghazi. Shortages in Sousse, Al-Arakoub, and Al-Wardia underscore the urgent need for specialized aid teams in east Derna. Activists are pressing for swift recovery efforts for flood victims. Meanwhile, a BBC report criticizes Tripoli and Haftar’s governments for prioritizing politics over the well-being of their citizens, spotlighting the longstanding issues of corruption, turmoil, and neglected infrastructure that have left eastern authorities unprepared for a disaster.

Sept 15, 2023: Sharp Rise in Libyan Casualties to 11,300 (Sky News). On Friday, Libyan authorities restricted civilian access to the flood-stricken city of Derna to facilitate search efforts for 10,100 people still unaccounted for, following a death toll increase to 11,300.

Sept 16, 2023: Shocking Visuals from Libya: Sea Washes Ashore Bodies of Flood Victims in Derna, Exposing Gravitas of Crisis (Sky News, Al Hadath). Additionally, the Government of National Unity in Tripoli has revealed suspicions of corruption in dam maintenance. Grim footage from Libya showed the sea washing ashore the bodies of flood victims in Derna. Local authorities struggle with the overwhelming number of bodies and insufficient burial spaces. The clips depicted the sea’s waves carrying bodies to the shoreline, where locals collected them for burial or identification.

Sept 17, 2023: UN Warns of Worsening Conditions at Wadi Jaza and Qatara Dams Near Benghazi (Alwasat). Despite conflicts over the status of the dams, authorities claim they are stable.

Sept 18, 2023: Epidemics, Mines, Water Shortages Hinder Derna Rescue Ops (Al Hadath). Libyan rescue teams face obstacles as operations extend into a second week in Derna. Disinfection starts amid disease outbreak fears and dispersed land mines. Libyan officials report 3,280 confirmed deaths, challenging the UN’s 11,000 figure. Displaced residents resort to makeshift shelters; contaminated water causes poisonings.

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IRAN

By Catherine Perez-Shakdam & Rania Kisar

September 18, 2023

Iran’s Tumultuous September: Mahsa Amini Anniversary, $6 Billion U.S. Prisoner Swap, and Strategic Moves by Leadership

In a critical month for Iran, protests erupt nationwide to mark the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, intensifying international scrutiny over human rights violations. Meanwhile, the Biden administration carried out a $6 billion asset release and prisoner swap with Iran, sparking domestic debates in both countries. As Iran bolsters its ties with the UAE and becomes OPEC’s third-largest oil producer, it faces increased sanctions from Australia and enhanced border security measures from Iraq. Significant internal divisions are emerging within Iran’s armed forces and political circles, coinciding with President Raisi’s visit to the UN General Assembly. Leaked conversations signal U.S. doubts about reviving the JCPOA, indicating the possibility of a ‘Plan B’ for its Iran strategy.

Timeline of Events:  Watch Video

September 10, 2023: Heightened Security Measures in Iran Ahead of Mahsa Amini Death Anniversary Protests (Iran International). Iran intensifies security in anticipation of protests marking Mahsa Amini’s death anniversary. Civic groups and activists defy increased police presence and public warning banners by calling for strikes and demonstrations. Exiled Queen Farah Pahlavi supports opposition calls as authorities target families of activists to suppress protest involvement.

September 11, 2023: Iran’s Multi-Faceted Diplomacy: U.S. Fund Transfer, Strengthened UAE Ties, and Regional Tensions (The National, Iran International, IRNA, Naveed Butt). The Biden administration’s recent $6 billion transfer of frozen Iranian assets has come alongside the release of detainees in both countries, even as U.S. sanctions on Iran continue. Simultaneously, Iran-UAE relations are improving, with increased trade and eased corporate and visa restrictions, despite Iran’s contested nuclear program. Iran has also taken a stern position against changing the geopolitical landscape amid Azerbaijan-Armenia tensions, with President Raisi expressing willingness to intervene. In a separate development, Pakistan faces significant losses and internal corruption due to Iranian oil smuggling, which also funds terrorism.

September 12, 2023: Australia and Iraq Take Targeted Actions Against Iran: Sanctions and Border Security Measures (ABC News, Reuters). Australia introduces its fourth round of sanctions against Iran, focusing on individuals and entities involved in the oppression of women and girls. The new sanctions have been criticized for their limited scope. Meanwhile, Iraq began relocating Iranian Kurdish groups from its border with Iran, in line with a March security agreement. The move aims to mitigate Iranian security concerns, with Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein slated for a Tehran visit to discuss de-escalation. Iran warns of resuming attacks if relocation is not completed by September 19.

September 13, 2023: Critical Week for Iran: Human Rights, Oil Production, and International Scrutiny” (Time Turk, The Guardian, bne IntelliNews, Radio Free Europe, The National News, Tasnim News, Reuters, ABC News). The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed the “Mahsa Amini for Human Rights and Security Accountability” bill, targeting Iranian officials for human rights abuses. At the same time, Iran drafted a severe hijab violation law equating the offense with serious crimes. The UN calls this “gender apartheid.” Iran ascends to OPEC’s third-largest oil producer, benefiting from Saudi Arabia’s production cut and eased U.S. sanctions. Over 60 countries demand that Iran clarify its nuclear program, including the location of materials from secret sites. The U.S. facilitates a $6 billion Iranian fund transfer for a prisoner swap. Iran’s foreign minister warns Iraqi Kurdistan over harboring terrorists while Iraq moves Iranian Kurdish groups further inland. Australia sanctions Iranian figures implicated in women’s rights abuses.

September 14, 2023: Iran’s High-Stakes Week: Military Actions, Human Rights, and Societal Divides (Jerusalem Post, Middle East News, Times of Israel, Sharq al Awsat, France 24, Orient XXI). IRGC seizes two Panama-flagged fuel tankers, capturing 37 crew members for alleged fuel smuggling. Qatar confirms completing a $6 billion Iranian fund transfer next week as part of the U.S.-Iran prisoner swap deal. Revolutionary Guards Chief warns Israel against any threats, while Iran is flagged for a 36% increase in executions year-over-year. A year after Mahsa Amini’s death, little progress is noted in women’s or youth rights in Iran. Meanwhile, Iran’s “silent majority” remains politically disengaged amid societal divisions.

September 15, 2023: Mahsa Amini’s Death Anniversary Amplifies Iran’s Human Rights Scrutiny” (France 24, The Guardian). Iranian security forces escalated their presence in Saqqez, Mahsa Amini’s hometown, to prevent protests on the anniversary of her death amid increased arrests and surveillance. Concurrently, the UK imposes sanctions targeting senior Iranian officials enforcing the mandatory hijab law, including key government and police figures.

September 16, 2023: Mahsa Amini Anniversary Ignites Protests and Security Onslaught Across Iran (Iran International, The Guardian, Axios, Bayan Media, Eurasia Review). On the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, Iran experienced nationwide protests and strikes despite preemptive security measures. Online footage showcases heavy police presence, especially in key cities. An alliance of underground youth groups expands its efforts to challenge the Iranian regime, bringing in a diverse coalition of societal sectors. Evin Prison inmates stage a protest, burning headscarves and declaring a sit-in. Amid this, Iran temporarily detains Mahsa Amini’s father, effectively placing her parents under house arrest and barricading access to her grave. Iran expels several senior UN nuclear inspectors in parallel developments and continues its legal battle with South Korea over releasing frozen assets. Internal divisions emerge within Iran’s armed forces over the ethics of aggressive crackdowns on protesters.

September 17, 2023: Leak: MENA White House Coordinator McGurk Discusses U.S. Iran Strategy with Ousted Envoy Malley (Tehran Times). Brett McGurk, who recently took over Iran negotiations from Rob Malley, is heard in a leaked audiotape expressing doubt about reviving the JCPOA. He also discussed a U.S. ‘Plan B,’ encompassing sanctions, diplomatic isolation, military action, and sabotage.

September 18, 2023: Iran-U.S. Controversial Prisoner Swap and Asset Release Align with President Raisi’s UN General Assembly Visit Amid Domestic Crackdowns (Iran International, Iranian Foreign Ministry, Tehran Times). Iran and the U.S. have executed a prisoner swap, releasing $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets from South Korea, monitored by Qatar for humanitarian use. This has ignited debates among Republicans and Iranian Americans. Meanwhile, President Ebrahim Raisi is in New York for the 78th UN General Assembly, planning talks with global leaders and interacting with the Iranian diaspora. Concurrently, Iran has revoked UN nuclear inspector accreditations, drawing EU concern. In Iran, the first anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death has led to numerous arrests, including family members of last year’s protest victims. The regime is escalating pressure on these families and their legal advisors, attempting to suppress calls for justice. Internet disruptions are obstructing verification efforts.

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