Next priority is retaking Idlib, Assad tells Russian media

Syrian fighters have suffered military setbacks in Quneitra province. (Reuters)
Updated 28 July 2018

Next priority is retaking Idlib, Assad tells Russian media

MOSCOW: Syrian President Bashar Assad told Russian media on Thursday his regime’s next priority would be retaking Idlib province, currently dominated by the opposition.

“Now Idlib is our goal, but not just Idlib,” Assad said of the northwestern province, in comments carried on Russian newswires.

“There are of course territories in the eastern part of Syria that are controlled by various groups... So we will be moving into all these regions,” Assad added.

“The military — and it is at their discretion — will decide priorities and Idlib is one of these priorities,” he said.

“Now we have liberated Ghouta, we will finish the liberation of the south-western part of Syria,” Assad said.

Syrian regime forces launched an offensive last month backed by Russian planes to retake the south of Syria, including Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

Russia, Turkey and Iran have held talks under the Astana peace process launched last year and agreed to create four “de-escalation” zones to pave the way for a nationwide cease-fire.

Idlib is part of one such zone. It borders Turkey to the northwest but is otherwise almost totally surrounded by regime territory, prompting fears the regime would eventually attack it.

Idlib has received many fighters and their families evacuated from other regions under Russian-brokered “reconciliation deals” that then saw regime forces move in to take rebel-held areas.

According to the UN, Idlib’s population today stands at 2.5 million — half of them displaced people.

In the same interview, Assad said rescue workers from the White Helmets group would be killed if they did not turn themselves in.

He said the White Helmets volunteers were a cover for militant groups.

“Either they can lay down their arms as part of an amnesty ongoing for four or five years, or they will be liquidated like any other terrorist,” Assad said.

Israel on Sunday helped more than 400 people — opposition-linked White Helmets rescuers and their families — flee a pocket of southwest Syria as regime forces bore down on them. But hundreds more remain trapped in the south, fearing reprisals from approaching regime troops. Damascus accuses the White Helmets of being a front for terrorists.

Assad also appealed for Syrian refugees, especially those who had their own businesses in the country, to return.

The rapid return of refugees to Syria is the main issue being discussed between Damascus and Moscow, he said.

Assad said Russian forces were needed in the country long-term and for more than just fighting terrorism.

“Russian armed forces are needed for balance in our region, at least in the Middle East, until the global political balance changes. And this might not even happen, we do not know. So it is important and necessary,” Interfax news agency cited Assad as saying.

He said Syria’s agreement with Russia over the Hmeimim military base was signed to last over 40 years, indicating that the relationship between the two countries was of a long-term nature, Interfax reported.


Syrian pound plummets as new US sanctions loom

Updated 06 June 2020

Syrian pound plummets as new US sanctions loom

  • Syria is in the thick of an economic crisis compounded by a coronavirus lockdown and a dollar liquidity crunch in neighboring Lebanon
  • The UN food agency said any further depreciation risked increasing the cost of imported basic food items

BEIRUT: Syria’s pound hit record lows on the black market Saturday trading at over 2,300 to the dollar, less than a third of its official value, traders said, ahead of new US sanctions.
Three traders in Damascus told AFP by phone that the dollar bought more than 2,300 Syrian pounds for the first time, though the official exchange rate remained fixed at around 700 pounds to the greenback.
After nine years of war, Syria is in the thick of an economic crisis compounded by a coronavirus lockdown and a dollar liquidity crunch in neighboring Lebanon.
Last month, the central bank warned it would clamp down on currency “manipulators.”
Analysts said concerns over the June 17 implementation of the US Caesar Act, which aims to sanction foreign persons who assist the Syrian government or help in post-war reconstruction, also contributed to the de fact devaluation.
Zaki Mehchy, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, said foreign companies — including from regime ally Russia — were already opting not to take any risks.
With money transactions requiring two to three weeks to implement, “today’s transactions will be paid after June 17,” he said.
Heiko Wimmen, Syria project director at the conflict tracker Crisis Group, said that with the act coming into force, “doing business with Syria will become even more difficult and risky.”
Both analysts said the fall from grace of top business tycoon Rami Makhlouf despite being a cousin of the president was also affecting confidence.
“The Makhlouf saga is spooking the rich,” Wimmen said.
After the Damascus government froze assets of the head of the country’s largest mobile phone operator and slapped a travel ban on him, the wealthy feel “nobody is safe,” he said.
They are thinking “you better get your assets and perhaps yourself out preparing for further shakedowns,” he said.
Mehchy said the impact of the pound’s decline and ensuing price hikes on Syrians would be “catastrophic.”
Most of Syria’s population lives in poverty, according to the United Nations, and food prices have doubled over the past year.
The UN food agency’s Jessica Lawson said any further depreciation risked increasing the cost of imported basic food items such as rice, pasta and lentils.
“These price increases risk pushing even more people into hunger, poverty and food insecurity as Syrians’ purchasing power continues to erode,” the World Food Programme spokeswoman said.
“Families may be forced to cut the quality and quantity of food they buy.”