Cost of Syria War Destruction Hits US$388 Billion: UN

The figure does not include "human losses resulting from deaths or the loss of human competences and skilled labor due to displacement."

Seven years of relentless conflict in Syria have wreaked destruction that the United Nations said Wednesday has cost the country close to US$400 billion.

RELATED: Syrian Kurds: Damascus Agrees Roadmap For Decentralization

The figure was released after a two-day meeting of more than 50 Syrian and international experts in neighboring Lebanon, hosted by the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

ESCWA said the "volume of destruction in physical capital and its sectoral distribution" had been estimated at more than US$388 billion.

More than half of Syria's pre-war population has fled the country or been displaced internally over the past seven years.

ESCWA said a full report on the impact of the war was due out in September and that the updated estimates reached this week would help inform ongoing discussions on post-conflict Syria.

On the same day, Jordan warned that a severe financial shortfall facing a United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees could have a "catastrophic" impact on the lives of millions of refugees in the region.

Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said after meeting visiting U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl the budget crisis facing the agency could deprive refugees of core education, healthcare and food security service that would only "deepen their humanitarian plight."

UNRWA has faced a cash crisis since the United States, long its biggest donor, slashed funding to the agency, providing just $60 million of a promised $365 million this year.

U.S. President Donald Trump withheld the aid after questioning its value and saying Washington would only provide more assistance if the Palestinians agreed to renew peace talks with Israel.

Jordan, which hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East outside Palestinian territories, was engaged in intensive lobbying with donors.

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Terrorists Sack Syrian Archaeological Sites

New denunciations came to light today about the looting of Syrian archaeological sites by terrorist groups, this time near the city of Saraqeb, in the northern province of Idleb.

According to the information, elements of the former Front Al Nusra excavated and looted the area of Al Sheik Mansour, adjacent to the aforementioned town, even with the assistance of hired foreign specialists.

Several sources in the network and media such as Sputnik and SANA national agency confirmed that the armed extremists also assaulted the village of Qunya in western Idleb and stole archaeological pieces from the monastery and churches surrounding the village.

The data specify that the city of Sarmada, located in the province and next to the border with Turkey, has become a market for the sale of antiquities and weapons, with terrorists using social networks to display stolen artifacts and put them at sale.

According to an interactive map published last year by the National Museum Directorate, of 758 archaeological sites in Syria, 213 suffered from destruction and total looting to moderate damage as of 2012.

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ISIS Suicide Blasts Kill More Than 220 Dead In Southern Syria

Beirut, Lebanon: A string of suicide blasts and raids claimed by the ISIS killed more than 220 people in southern Syria on Wednesday, in one of the terrorist group's deadliest ever assaults in the country.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacks hit several areas of the largely government-held southern province of Sweida, where ISIS retains a presence in a northeastern desert region.

The bloodshed came almost a week into a Russia-backed regime campaign to oust ISIS fighters from a holdout in a neighbouring province of the country's south.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the violence, saying "soldiers of the caliphate" attacked Syrian government positions and security outposts in Sweida city, then detonated explosive belts.

The Britain-based Observatory said four suicide bombers targeted Sweida city while others hit small villages to the north and east and shot residents in their homes.  

At least 221 people were killed, including 127 civilians, the Observatory said.

The remaining 94 dead were pro-regime fighters, mostly residents who took up arms to defend their homes, it said.

The overwhelming majority of the dead "were in (Sweida's) northern countryside, where the bodies of civilians executed inside their homes were found," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Sweida, whose residents are mostly from the Druze minority, has been relatively insulated from the war that has ravaged the rest of the country since 2011.

"It's the bloodiest death toll in Sweida province since the start of the war" and one of the deadliest ever IS attacks in Syria, the Observatory chief said.

He said regime forces eventually ousted ISIS from several villages its fighters had seized and put an end to the attacks.

"Some residents who fled the attacks on their villages are returning and finding people dead in their homes," Abdel Rahman said.

At least 38 ISIS fighters were also killed, including the suicide attackers.

Abandoned Shoes

State media confirmed the attacks had killed and wounded people in Sweida city and villages to the north and east but did not give a specific toll.

"Today's crime shows that countries supporting terrorism are trying to breathe life back into the terrorist organisation to keep it as a card in their hand that they will use to achieve political gains," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he received Russia's envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev.

"These attempts will only succeed in... shedding more innocent blood," he added, in comments carried on his social media accounts.

Omar, a resident of Sweida city, told AFP explosions began rocking the city around 5:30 am local time.

"The blast was sudden and unexpected. Never in its history has Sweida seen such a tough day," he told AFP.

State news agency SANA published images from the city of the attack's aftermath, showing a victim's remains sprawled on a staircase near a damaged wall.

Abandoned shoes lay in the middle of the road among fruit that had spilt out of cartons.

An eyewitness said Sweida's national hospital was "packed".

He said he saw "people bringing in a lot of wounded in their own private cars.. Others were coming to the hospital to ask if loved ones they had lost track of were there".

The UN's humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Zaatari condemned the "terrorist bombing in Sweida city", saying all civilians should be protected.

Government ally Russia said the IS attacks "confirm the need for energetic and coordinated efforts by the international community to eradicate this universal evil from Syrian territory".

Pro-government forces ousted ISIS from urban centres in eastern Syria last year, but ISIS raids in recent months have killed dozens of regime and allied fighters.

The terrorists still hold some territory in Syria's south, including in Sweida and another isolated but larger patch in neighbouring Daraa province, to the west.

That pocket is held by Jaish Khaled bin al-Walid, a jihadist faction whose 1,000 fighters have pledged allegiance to ISIS.

After ousting mainstream rebels from most of the south, Assad's troops backed by his Russian allies are now closing in on the ISIS pocket in Daraa.


SANA said the attacks on Sweida were an attempt to relieve pressure "on ISIS remnants facing their inevitable end in the western Daraa countryside".

Desert Holdouts

On Wednesday, Russia-backed regime forces pressed their heavy bombardment of ISIS territory in Daraa.

At least 41 civilians have been killed in air strikes on the jihadist holdout since July 19, while clashes have killed 49 regime fighters and 67 terrorists, says the Observatory.

Last month, Assad's forces launched a lightning assault that battered rebel areas in the south and brought most of Daraa province under his control.

They then moved on to Quneitra, the neighbouring province which borders the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

On Tuesday, a Syrian military source accused Israel of firing at one of its warplanes as it carried out operations against jihadists in Quneitra.

Israel's army on Tuesday said it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had infiltrated Israeli airspace, risking another escalation around the sensitive buffer zone.

The Damascus regime has long accused Israel of backing ISIS, which overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014 but has since lost most of that territory.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria's war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

 

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ISIS-linked militants show up in Syrian refugee camp under US control – Lavrov

Militants linked with the terrorist group Islamic State are feeling increasingly comfortable in a refugee camp located near a US military base in southern Syria, the Russian foreign minister said.

“We have plenty of reports about strange things happening in the Al-Tanf area,” Sergey Lavrov said on Monday. “This area has no particular military value in terms of fighting terrorism. And in practical terms, we see a rise of presence in the region of militant groups, including those we believe to be connected with Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) in this or that way, including in the Rukban refugee camp.”

Located on Syria’s border with Jordan, Al-Tanf was captured last year by the US, which declared it under its protection and attacked pro-government forces showing up there. Russia has repeatedly expressed concern about the presence of US troops in the area and their refusal to allow access to it, including for humanitarian convoys to the Rukban camp.

READ MORE: Militants get R&R in US-guarded part of southern Syria – Lavrov

Asked by a journalist during a media conference if Russia was aware of US plans to withdraw from Al-Tanf, Lavrov said he has not seen any reports indicating such an intention, but would welcome such a move.

“This zone was created under manufactured justification with no military necessity,” he said. “If [the Americans] are arriving at the same conclusions, I expect this to translate into a practical implementation.”

The US put troops on the ground in Syria, stating that their goal was to defeat IS. The military intervention was carried out with no mandate from the UN Security Council, and against the objection of the Syrian government. The threat of IS has since been greatly diminished, but the US shows no intention of withdrawing from Syria. Instead, it is using its foothold in the north of the country to prop up the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia.

Russia says the continued presence of US troops is a sign that Washington may still be seeking to topple of the Syrian government or at least aiming to partition Syria.

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Lavrov: US Plan on Arab Troops Deployment in Syria 'Sovereignty Violation'

Russia and Egypt are united in their belief that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. Moscow and Cairo will coordinate actions on this issue, Lavrov said after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Moscow.

Acting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss topical issues on the international agenda, including the situation in Syria and the Iran nuclear deal, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"We are convinced, like our Egyptian friends, that there is no military solution to this conflict. The adjustment of disputes can be achieved exclusively through political means through a comprehensive cross-Syrian dialogue in full accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the outcome of the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue, which was held in Sochi on January 30," Lavrov said.

According to Lavrov, the parties reaffirmed their mutual commitment to the close coordination of Russian-Egyptian actions in the Syrian direction.

DETAILS TO FOLLOW

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Russia & Syria call for on-the-ground probe in Douma, pledge to provide security to OPCW experts

Moscow has proposed to create an independent investigative mechanism into the alleged chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, promising, along with the Syrian army, to guarantee prompt access for experts to the site.

Russia's envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, has reiterated that Russia will support a thorough investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held town of Douma over the weekend.

"Let us recall that our draft resolution to set up such a mechanism is in blue. And we stand ready to adopt it today if necessary," Nebenzia said, referring to the Russia-sponsored UNSC resolution to establish an independent investigative mechanism under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

 

A photo showing a child being washed after what the White Helmets and other anti-government groups in Syria claim was a chemical weapons attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on April 7. The Russian military says the photos were staged. © Reuters

Moscow is ready to serve as a guarantor of security for those OPCW experts who would inspect the site of the incident, Nebenzia added, stressing the need for the probe to be carried out without delay. The experts may "immediately, tomorrow, fly to Damascus," the diplomat said.

"There, the Syrian authorities and Russian troops will provide conditions to travel to the area of the alleged incident for them to familiarize themselves with the situation," Nebenzia said, reminding the UNSC member-states' representatives that "that is what President Trump and other western leaders called upon us to undertake."

The Syrian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari said his country is also ready to welcome the OPCW team as soon as possible and to provide them with everything necessary for a comprehensive investigation.

"My country, Syria, stresses its unlimited cooperation with the OPCW to fulfill the commitments stated in the convention of the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons," he said.

Highlighting the importance of a swift investigation, Nebenzia noted that it should be conducted on the ground, and not through third parties. Moscow has repeatedly criticized the OPCW investigation into last April's Khan Sheikhoun incident as "unprofessional." One of the major flaws of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), as pointed out by Moscow, was that the whole investigation was conducted remotely. As a result, the findings of the OPCW report, that blamed the attack on the Syrian government, were mostly based on speculation by analysts, accounts by unidentified witnesses and material evidence submitted by third parties with no chain of custody being implemented.

In November, the mechanism's mandate expired and Moscow vetoed a resolution to extend its authority, arguing that it was effectively "dead" and couldn't be revived, stressing a need for a new, "professional, objective and unbiased" mechanism to replace its discredited predecessor. Moscow at the time proposed a resolution to create one but it was not passed by the UNSC.

Speaking to the media on Monday, Nebenzia did not specify if Russia would put the resolution to a vote on Tuesday. Meanwhile, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said she is looking forward to the Security Council voting on the resolution proposed by the US.

 

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian man collects and bags the body of a dead bird, reportedly killed by a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province © Omar haj kadour

The US draft, leaked to the media, implies that Syria might be found in violation of UNSC Resolution 2118 as a result of the investigation by a proposed "Independent Mechanism of Investigation."  The resolution, adopted in 2013, provided for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Damascus has repeatedly stressed its compliance, denying allegations of the use of toxic agents in the offensives on rebel-held regions.

"The Syrian Arab Republic stresses once again it does not possess any chemical weapons of any type, including chlorine," Jaafari said at Monday’s UNSC meeting.

The US-sponsored draft "condemns in the strongest terms the continued use of chemical weapons" and also stipulates that measures might be taken against Syria under the UN Charter Chapter 7, which paves the way for the use of force.

Nebenzia denounced the draft, saying that it contains "some unacceptable elements." "There is nothing there that would meet the high standards of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention," he said.

The UNSC President, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, Permanent Representative of Peru to the United Nations, said that he expects the countries' delegations to continue to work on the draft for the rest of Monday and on Tuesday, describing the situation as "very difficult."

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Will Syria peace trio succeed given all three have different agendas?

Although Russia, Iran and Turkey have different objectives in Syria, the summit in Ankara showed that they all seek the territorial integrity of the country, experts told RT, warning however that the region is in serious turmoil.

Three of the power brokers of peace in Syria met in Ankara on April 4 in an effort to reduce the violence in the war-torn country: Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani met for a trilateral summit hosted by their Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

RT discussed the results of the summit with Middle East experts.

Asked about the three-way cooperation and how it is going to work, given that Russia, Iran and Turkey have their own plans and are supporting different sides in the conflict, Abdel Bari Atwan, an author and Middle East analyst, said “there is a common ground which makes three leaders work together, especially on Syria.” 

 
© Umit Bektas

“I have looked at the final communiqué of their meeting during the summit in Ankara. It was very clear that they have agreed on a lot of things,” he said.

In particular, the joint statement says that the three leaders “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries.”

According to Atwan, this means that there is no chance for a Kurdish entity to be established in Syria.

Another important point mentioned in the statement was that “they agreed that there should be stability and security in Syria in order to allow the Syrian refugees to go back to Syria.”

“The third one, which is also extremely important, [is] not to use the terrorist as a pretext to keep foreign forces in northern Syria, which is a clear reference to the American 2,000 troops based there,” he added. 

Emre Caliskan, co-author of ‘The 'New Turkey' and its Discontents,’ told RT that although three countries have different agendas, in terms of the future of Syria, they agreed on one thing: “They all want to respect the territory unification of Syria, they all want not to have American influence in the region.”

Joshua Landis, director at the Center of Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma, argues “it is going to be very difficult” for these trilateral efforts to rebuild Syria, considering US troops are still stationed there.

 
FILE PHOTO: Refugees is a camp near Gaziantep, Turkey, April 23, 2016. © Umit Bektas

“What we are seeing today is that Syria is increasingly being divided into three zones: a Russian and Assad zone, an American and Kurdish zone and a Turkish zone where the rebel militias hold sway,” he noted. Landis said that “this is a period of great turmoil.”

“As we’ve seen, President Trump wants to bring the troops out of Syria, he doesn’t believe that America has long-term interests in Syria. Of course, America’s allies have a lot of interests: Saudi Arabia, Israel, they do not want to see the US leave Syria. They want the US to turn up the pressure on Iran and to hurt Persia as much as they possibly can,” he explained.

“The US holds about 50 percent of Syria’s oil and much of its best agricultural lands. To give those back in a sense to the Syrian government or to allow Turkey and Syria to take over its northern section of Syria would be a blow to those two countries who don’t want to see Syria back on the stage, particularly, now that Assad and Iran still have influence there, and now that Russia has influence there,” Landis pointed out, adding that “they want to hurt Russia.”

“And we saw McMaster, the national security adviser, who was just fired, say the Russia has not paid a high enough price. There are many policy advisers who want the US to make Russia pay a higher price, to make Iran pay a higher price. This confusion goes right through the policy-making community in the US. And it does make the US look very disorganized indeed.”

According to political analyst Seyyed Mostafa Khoshcheshm, “the US has grown so weak in Syria and in the region that we heard just very recently that Donald Trump said that they want to pull out unless the Saudis pay for their stay in Syria.”

“The US has grown so weak that they cannot have any major say or any say in Syria, so what they are doing is that they are playing negativism, they are trying to sabotage peace and welfare of the Syrian nation. And they are trying to sabotage the restoration of stability in Syria and in the region in order to be given a part in there,” he told RT.

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‘Syrian ceasefire problematic because of sponsors fueling violence’

Terrorist groups have instructions to escalate violence in Syria, and are so desperate that they could resort to using chemical weapons, political science professor Maged Botros told RT.

Syria's ceasefire agreed upon by the UN Security Council on Saturday appears already to be unraveling with reports of violations in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

The Western media was quick to point the finger at the Assad government. Damascus has been bombing Eastern Ghouta for a week, targeting Al-Nusra Front terrorists – something which is allowed under the UN resolution.

However, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, it was militants in Eastern Ghouta who violated the truce. Moscow says Damascus was shelled several times after the ceasefire came into force.

Political science professor Maged Botros says the violence is unlikely to end soon.

 

FILE PHOTO © Bassam Khabieh

In his view, while the ceasefire could break the “vicious circle of seven years of human atrocities,” no government would “allow its capital to be shelled all the time.” Besides that, he told RT, the Syrian government is alleging that the terrorists are using human shields in Ghouta.

He is also skeptical that the truce will work “simply because there are sponsors of violence, they are fueling violence: you have Qatar, you have Turkey, you have other states, they have interests in Syria.”

Following the vote, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia said that “it would be naive to think that internal Syrian questions can be solved by a resolution.” He added that Moscow had “supported the intentions” behind the document, but that no ceasefire was possible “without agreement from warring parties.”

According to Botros, “all the parties involved have interest to continue on with this violence.”

In a joint telephone call with the Kremlin on Sunday, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure the ceasefire was fully implemented as soon as possible.

Botros argues though that it is not in Russia's hands as Moscow cannot put pressure on terrorist groups.

“Terrorist groups have instructions to escalate violence. Terrorist groups are in the state of desperation. They are so desperate that I can believe that they use chemical weapons as the last card on the table,” he told RT.     

‘It is imperative for the Syrian govt to take over Eastern Ghouta’

Dr. Jamal Wakeem, professor of history and international relations at Lebanese University in Beirut, told RT that “the US thinks that the ceasefire was meant not for the Syrian government to take control of Eastern Ghouta, which should remain a region to direct a threat to the capital, to Damascus.”

RT: Do you think this ceasefire will be possible to implement?

 

Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria. February 22, 2018. © Bassam Khabieh

Jamal Wakeem: I believe that the ceasefire is conditional and this is noted in the UN resolution because the Syrian government and its Russian ally will continue its operation against Al-Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State/IS) which are on the terrorist lists. This is on the one hand. And on the other hand, I believe that we need to see what would be the reaction of the US because the US was the one to call for the UN resolution, for the ceasefire at the beginning. However, the Russian intervention amended this ceasefire to fit the needs for fighting terrorism in Syria. While the US thinks that the ceasefire was meant not for the Syrian government to take control of Eastern Ghouta, which should remain a region to direct a threat to the capital, to Damascus. And there were plans to link Eastern Ghouta to Al-Tanf region controlled by the US, to open a corridor that would allow US troops and US-backed terrorists to reach the outskirts of Damascus. I don’t trust the American intentions.      

RT: Turkey claims the resolution doesn’t affect its operation against Kurdish groups in Afrin. Is this a fair interpretation of the ceasefire agreement?

JW: The Turks are manipulating the resolution the way they want because so far after one month of military operation they didn’t achieve tangible results in the outskirts of Afrin. They couldn’t take hold of the city. The Kurdish parties mended fences with the Syrian government. And the city went back to government control in Syria. Erdogan wanted that a certain situation would be imposed in northern Syria that could fit his own interests and that he could present it as a gain to the Turkish public. And that is why the Turkish government declared that… it will continue its military operation.  

RT: With parts of Eastern Ghouta occupied by terrorist groups that are not party to the ceasefire, how can any safe humanitarian access be guaranteed?

JW: I believe that the humanitarian aid that the US called for is a mere pretext for it to open the corridor to the terrorists and to supply them with ammunition and with other logistics. I believe that this was the true intention of the US. That is why I believe that Russians has to intervene and to amend the resolution as to fit the strategy of fighting terrorism, mainly ISIS and Al-Nusra. We need to admit the fact that the US is using terrorist groups as tools for its war by proxy on the Syrian government and on Syria and also on the Iraqi government to control these two countries that are highly strategic for American geopolitical strategy in the region.  

Eastern Ghouta is the last stronghold for the terrorists to direct attacks on the Syrian capital. The insurgents or the terrorists are launching continuous attacks on civilians in the eastern part of the city. And many civilians have died so far. That is why for the Syrian government it is imperative to take over Eastern Ghouta.

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