Normalising al-Assad’s regime is dangerous and must be abandoned

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

To all serious policymakers, it is crystal clear that normalising the al-Assad regime is a misguided policy that neglects the fundamental principles of justice, accountability, and the rights of displaced Syrians, Refik Hodžić and Osama Seyhali write.


A year ago, in February 2023, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit North West Syria and Southern Turkey, the world witnessed a geopolitical tremor that shook the ground beneath Syrian diplomacy: a sudden rush by regional powers and some Western states to normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

This move, while seemingly pragmatic, did not resolve nor address any pressing issues or threats affecting the Syrian people or Western stakeholders in Syria. 

At the same time, it threatened to betray the hopes of millions of displaced Syrians who yearn for justice and a dignified return to their homeland.

For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided $100 million (€92.5m) in earthquake-related humanitarian assistance directly to the Syrian regime, and countries like Saudi Arabia and some European states provided earthquake relief via Damascus. 

Yet, the main affected areas were outside the control of the Syrian regime, and the international community had direct and faster access to those areas. 

This self-imposed and artificially created bureaucracy driven by political agendas contributed to the unnecessary death of thousands of Syrians trapped under the rubble and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands more.

Friends will be friends

A series of diplomatic engagements between Syria and Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE indicated that a new approach to the Syrian regime may be materialising. 

Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Syria in May, while in the same month, the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia invited Bashar al-Assad as a full member, after 12 years of isolation.

Although the regional normalisation attempts had a mixed reaction in the West, ranging from official silence to mild reservations, there has been expectation to see if such normalisation will yield any tangible effects that could serve the interests of some of the Western governments — serious prospects for the return of Syrian refugees and the prevention of new displacement waves towards Europe.

Amidst the lack of any clear political horizon or seriousness on behalf of the international community in the implementation of UNSC resolution 2245, and the lack of effective monitoring mechanisms to enforce sanctions on the Syrian regime, normalisation of the Syrian regime offered the illusion of peace and stability while ignoring the underlying issues of accountability, human rights abuses, and political disenfranchisement that have plagued Syria for decades.

Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence, the continued production and smuggling of huge quantities of synthetic drugs which are significantly affecting countries like Jordan, and have already reached Turkey and Europe, and the recent adoption of “Assad Anti-Normalisation Act” by the US House of Representatives, have put a spanner in the works of international champions of his regime’s normalisation. 

However, it is not entirely clear that they have completely abandoned this flawed stance.

Legitimising a regime of brutality and repression

This makes it even more important to remind everyone that any policy which seeks to normalise the murderous regime in Damascus disregards the fundamental rights and aspirations of the largest and most directly affected constituency: the displaced Syrians.

Displacement is more than just a physical journey across borders; it leaves deep emotional and psychological scars on individuals and communities. 

A recent survey conducted among displaced Syrians revealed the profound mistrust they continue to harbour towards the al-Assad regime. 

Their distrust is well-founded, given the regime’s history of brutality and repression. 

For displaced Syrians, returning home is not merely a matter of crossing a border; it entails rebuilding trust, ensuring safety, and guaranteeing basic human rights, all impossible under al-Assad’s rule.

Normalisation with the al-Assad regime would effectively legitimise a government that has committed widespread human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons, arbitrary detentions, and torture.


It would send a disheartening message to the victims of these atrocities that their suffering is overlooked for political expediency. 

The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity’s findings reveal a clear rejection of normalisation by displaced Syrians, with a significant majority ceasing efforts to return due to safety concerns and unresolved issues such as the fate of detainees. 

By sidelining these concerns, normalisation risks further entrenching a regime that has consistently shown disregard for basic human rights and international norms.

Moreover, normalisation without a credible pathway to political transition ignores the root causes of the Syrian conflict. It clearly diverts from the UN Security Council resolutions, like Resolution 2254, which outlines a roadmap for peace, including a ceasefire, humanitarian aid access, and a political settlement reflecting the Syrian people’s will. 

Such political adventurism on the part of the international community further erodes the faith among displaced Syrians in the current political process, driven by the belief that normalisation strengthens al-Assad’s position, further diminishing the prospects for a genuine political solution.


What happened to accountability?

The policy of normalisation also undermines the principle of accountability. 

For any durable peace in Syria, accountability for war crimes and human rights abuses is indispensable. 

Displaced Syrians, as highlighted in the survey’s findings, prioritise the issue of tens of thousands of detainees still held in al-Assad’s prisons and the establishment of a safe environment for all Syrians.

By engaging with the al-Assad regime without addressing these issues, the international community fails to uphold justice, potentially fostering a climate of impunity that could have far-reaching consequences beyond Syria’s borders, as it fails to address the humanitarian and security dimensions of the Syrian crisis. 

The conflict has created one of the largest displacement crises globally, with millions of Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond. The international community’s engagement with al-Assad without a clear commitment to resolving the displacement crisis risks exacerbating the vulnerabilities of refugees, subjecting them to further discrimination and instability.


Consequently, the normalisation policy overlooks the strategic error of alienating the most numerous constituency of Syrians — more than 13 million displaced Syrians represent the majority of the country’s population, with deep ties to their homeland and a vested interest in its future. 

Their exclusion from the political process not only negates a wealth of potential contributions to Syria’s recovery and reconciliation but also disregards their right to self-determination. 

The work of organisations and movements representing displaced Syrians continuously emphasises the necessity of including them in any discussions on the country’s future, ensuring their experiences and aspirations shape the path forward. 

It is a grave illusion that this can be ignored without severe consequences for the region and European states.

There are no shortcuts to peace

Seeking shortcuts to peace that bypass the difficult but essential steps of ensuring justice, accountability, and reconciliation is a perilous path. 


History has shown us that such shortcuts often lead to fragile and unsustainable peace that collapses under the weight of unaddressed grievances.

To all serious policymakers, it is crystal clear that normalising the al-Assad regime is a misguided policy that neglects the fundamental principles of justice, accountability, and the rights of displaced Syrians. 

It needs to be abandoned in all its shapes and guises. Instead, for a sustainable resolution to the Syrian conflict, the international community must prioritise a political process that includes the voices and concerns of displaced Syrians, aligns with international resolutions for peace, ensures a safe environment for all Syrians, and holds perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable. 

The insights we have witnessed so far serve as a crucial reminder of the stakes involved and the imperative to reevaluate current approaches for the sake of Syria’s future and the dignity of its people.

Refik Hodžić is a transitional justice expert and senior advisor at the European Institute for Peace, and Osama Seyhali is advocacy officer and member of the Board of Trustees of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity.


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View from Aleppo: ‘Syrians are angry with the West’ over lack of earthquake aid

With international aid still struggling to reach Syria two weeks after the devastating February 6 earthquakes, calls are mounting for Western countries to lift diplomatic sanctions on the Syrian regime and facilitate the flow of aid. A local doctor helping the humanitarian efforts in Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, tells FRANCE 24 that people feel abandoned by the West. 

Two weeks after the successive earthquakes that killed more than 46,000 people in southern Turkey and neighbouring Syria, international humanitarian aid is struggling to reach stricken areas in Syria. After 12 years of war, the February 6 quakes have brought a country already in the grip of a humanitarian, economic and security crisis to its knees.  

Under international sanctions since 2011, Syria is still divided into areas under President Bashar al-Assad’s control and those held by rebel groups. Despite calls for an urgent increase in humanitarian aid, trucks are struggling to cross the Turkish border, including through UN-mandated border crossings.  

In Damascus, only planes bearing humanitarian aid from Arab countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon land regularly. Western aid remains mostly absent as the US, France and a number of European countries refuse to provide direct assistance to the Syrian government after years of broken diplomatic relations.  

Speaking to FRANCE 24 from Aleppo, Doctor Nabil Antaki, a gastroenterologist who helps lead the volunteer efforts of Catholic humanitarian group Les Maristes Bleus (the Blue Marists), describes the lack of aid from Western countries as “scandalous”, and calls for international sanctions to be lifted on a country that has been bled dry.  

FRANCE 24: What is the situation in Aleppo?

Dr Nabil Antaki: The Turkish cities of Maras [officially Kahramanmaras], Antakya and Gaziantep were much more severely affected than Aleppo. In Aleppo, a total of 60 buildings have been destroyed, 200 have to be demolished because they are no longer inhabitable, and thousands of damaged buildings need to be restored. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless.  

On the night of the earthquake, at 4:17am, everyone rushed to the streets in their pyjamas, in spite of the rain and freezing cold. Everyone was very scared. People took refuge in churches, mosques, convents and schools. At the Blue Marists, we opened our doors half an hour after the earthquake hit. Within a few hours, 1,000 people had sought refuge inside our walls. Then, little by little, people started returning to their homes when they saw that their houses had not been too badly damaged.  

But on Monday evening, the new earthquake was felt very strongly and everyone went out into the street. A thousand people are staying with the Blue Marists once again. We don’t have enough space. Everyone is very afraid.

Two weeks after the earthquakes, what do the people of Aleppo need?  

There are only 80 seriously injured people left in Aleppo. From a medical point of view, we have enough basic supplies. The Syrian pharmaceutical industry is quite efficient despite the war, as 90 percent of products are still in circulation. However, we are lacking modern equipment, which we cannot import because of the sanctions. That being said, medical equipment is officially exempt [from the sanctions].  

We need fuel. Our fuel resources are being rationed. We are only allowed 20 litres every 25 days. In December, the government had to close schools, universities and administrative offices for a week because there were no means of transport. We have no heating oil. Electricity is being rationed, we only have two hours of it per day. We are terribly cold this winter.

Many are calling for international aid to be released. What is actually happening on the ground?

The issue of international aid is truly scandalous. We have received aid from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, but Western countries have not sent anything, claiming that they cannot help a country governed by Assad. It is as if the Syrians here are not suffering just as much as the people on the rebel side or in Turkey. Politics must be separated from humanitarian issues, which Western governments have refused to do. It is scandalous.  

The French foreign ministry has supposedly released 12 million euros, half of which was meant to be channelled through international organisations and the other half through NGOs working on the ground. We have seen nothing for the moment. The United States has said that it has eased sanctions to allow humanitarian aid for six months. But in principle, humanitarian aid and medical equipment are exempt from sanctions. It’s hypocritical. Why ease them if they are exempt?

How do Syrians feel?

Syrians are angry with the West. On the other hand, Syrians have been extremely generous with one another, especially throughout the diaspora. At the Blue Marists shelter, we have received mattresses, food and blankets sent by Syrian NGOs from Damascus and Homs. We received many calls from Syrians abroad who wanted to send funds and equipment. This unmatched solidarity strongly contrasts with the lack of humanity and generosity demonstrated by the West.  

What are living conditions like for Syrians after 12 years of war?  

The whole country has to be rebuilt. It had already been destroyed by the war, but the economy, which was already stagnating, has been at a standstill ever since the earthquakes hit. Inflation is terrible: the euro, which was at 60 Syrian pounds, rose to 7,000 Syrian pounds at the height of the conflict [it stood at over 2,600 on February 20]. According to UN figures, 90 percent of people live below the poverty line and 60 percent are food insecure; people cannot make ends meet. 

Since the war, 80 percent of people are only able to survive thanks to the generosity of NGOs which, like us, provide monthly food baskets, medical aid and schooling. Barely 5 percent of the population can pay for their own food and housing. The country has become impoverished. We need the sanctions to be lifted so that foreign investments can be made to enable reconstruction. All financial transactions are forbidden.

What state of mind are Syrians in today?  

Syrians are suffering, they are at the end of their tether. Twelve years of war, then the Covid and cholera pandemics, and now the earthquakes… People can’t take it anymore. People want to leave the country, which has already been abandoned by its elite. They tell us that they lived better during the war than they do now. It is time to stop this suffering by lifting the sanctions to allow investment.  

Sanctions serve absolutely no purpose. Even though they were imposed on Cuba for 60 years, the regime didn’t change. They were put in place in North Korea, but the regime there didn’t change either. They are ineffective and result in the people suffering. These countries’ leaders are not affected, as it is the people who pay the price for these sanctions. They don’t encourage peace negotiations, respect for human rights, nor help in the fight against corruption. It is time for more humane and realistic policies. 

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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Live: Death toll in quake hit Turkey and Syria nears 40,000, as UN launches appeal for Syrians

As the death toll from the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria approached 40,000 on Wednesday, the UN launched an appeal for $397 million to provide “life-saving relief” for nearly five million Syrians affected by the latest disaster. Follow FRANCE 24’s live coverage of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. All times are Paris time (GMT + 1)

8:50pm: UK makes it easier for aid agencies in Syria to avoid breaching sanctions

Britain is issuing two new licences to make it easier for aid agencies helping earthquake relief efforts to operate in Syria without breaching sanctions aimed at the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Relief efforts in Syria have been hampered by the legacy of a civil war that has splintered the country and divided regional and global powers.

The British government said the temporary new licences would “strengthen the timely and effective delivery of relief efforts by removing the need for individual licence applications”.

“UK sanctions do not target humanitarian aid, food, or medical supplies, but we recognise that the current requirements for individual licencing are not always practical during a crisis response,” Minister of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell said in a statement.

The licences provide broad protection to organisations to allow them to operate by authorising activities which would have otherwise been prohibited.

6:55pm: Northwest Syria now area of ‘greatest concern’, says WHO

The World Health Organization says it is particularly concerned about the welfare of people in northwestern Syria, a rebel-held region with little access to aid.

“It’s clear that the zone of greatest concern at the moment is the area of northwestern Syria,” WHO’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan, told a briefing in Geneva.

“The impact of the earthquake in areas of Syria controlled by the government is significant, but the services are there and there is access to those people. We have to remember here that in Syria, we’ve had ten years of war. The health system is amazingly fragile. People have been through hell.”

Efforts to distribute aid have been hampered by a civil war that has splintered the country for more than a decade. Civil war enmities have obstructed at least two attempts to send aid across frontlines into Syria’s northwest, but an aid convoy reached the area overnight.

5:50pm: Destruction ‘is everywhere’ in Turkey’s quake-stricken Nurdagi

In Nurdagi, a southeastern Turkish town near the epicentre of the January 6 earthquakes, practically all buildings have been flattened or severly damaged, with plans now in place to completely demolish those still standing and rebuild the town anew.

Meanwhile, those left homeless by the disaster are still waiting for aid and a place to live.

FRANCE 24’s special correspondent Thameen Al Kheetan has more.


4:15pm: Two women pulled from the rubble in Turkey’s Kahramanmaras

Two more women have been pulled from the rubble in Turkey’s southern city of Kahramanmaras, even as hopes of finding survivors dwindle.

Rescuers could be seen applauding and embracing each other in a video posted to social media as an ambulance carried away a 74-year-old woman rescued after more than nine days trapped in rubble.

Earlier in the day, a 46-year-old woman was rescued in the same city, close to the epicentre of the quake.


2:35pm: Turkey says earthquake diplomacy could help mend Armenia ties

Humanitarian aid sent by Armenia for victims of last week’s devastating earthquake in Turkey could boost the neighbouring countries’ efforts to normalise their relations, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said.

A border gate between the long-feuding neighbours was opened for the first time in 35 years to allow aid for quake victims in southern Turkey. Armenia also sent a rescue team to Turkey to help in the search for survivors.

“Armenia has extended its hand of friendship, showed solidarity and cooperation with us in this difficult time … We need to continue this solidarity,” Cavusoglu said at a joint news conference in Ankara with his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan.

“The normalisation process in the southern Caucasus region is going on. We believe that our cooperation in the humanitarian field will support this process,” Cavusoglu added.

Mirzoyan said through a translator that Armenia remained committed to “the full normalisation of relations and complete opening of the border with Turkey”.

11:56am: Turkey arrests 78 for ‘sharing provocative posts’ on social media over earthquake

Turkish police said they have arrested 78 people accused of creating fear and panic by “sharing provocative posts” about last week’s earthquake on social media, adding 20 of them were being held in pre-trial detention.

Turkey‘s General Directorate of Security said it had identified 613 people accused of making provocative posts, and legal proceedings had been initiated against 293. Of this group, the chief prosecutor had ordered the arrest of 78.

The directorate added that 46 websites were shut down for running “phishing scams” trying to steal donations for quake victims and 15 social media accounts posing as official institutions were closed.

Last October, Turkey’s parliament adopted a law under which journalists and social media users could be jailed for up to three years for spreading “disinformation”, raising concerns among rights groups and European countries about free speech, particularly ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due this summer.

11:57am: Armenian foreign minister visits Turkey, Ankara hails quake diplomacy

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan arrived in Ankara Wednesday for rare talks with his Turkish counterpart as the two countries seek to normalise relations after decades of animosity.

At loggerheads since Armenia gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the neighbouring nations have never established formal diplomatic relations.

At a press conference in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said humanitarian aid sent by Armenia for earthquake victims could help boost ties between the two countries.

A border gate was opened for the first time in 35 years to allow aid for quake victims in southern Turkey. Armenia also sent a rescue team to Turkey to help in the search for survivors.

“Armenia has extended its hand of friendship, showed solidarity and cooperation with us in this difficult time…We need to continue this solidarity,” said Cavusoglu.

10:40am: Woman rescued from ruins in Turkey 222 hours after quakes

A 42-year-old woman was rescued from the rubble of a building in the southern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras on Wednesday, almost 222 hours after devastating earthquakes struck the region, Turkish media reported.

TV footage sowed rescue workers carrying the woman, named Melike Imamoglu, strapped onto a stretcher, to an ambulance.

4:45am: Combined death toll nears 40,000

The confirmed death toll from the quake stands at 39,106 as officials and medics said 35,418 people had died in Turkey and at least 3,688 in Syria. Following the disaster, residents faced the harsh realities of surviving in cities turned to ruin in the middle of the winter freeze.

1:30am: New aid convoy route to rebel-held Syria opens with UN

An aid convoy  passed through a newly re-opened border crossing into rebel-held northwestern Syria, where help has been slow to arrive since last week’s earthquake.

A convoy of 11 UN trucks entered Syria through the newly-opened Bab al-Salam border point, after Damascus agreed to let the world body use the crossing for aid.

The UN has so far sent more than 50 trucks of aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Following international pressure, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allowed the use of two more crossings, Bab Al-Salam and al-Raee, for an initial period of three months.

Activists and local emergency teams have decried the UN’s slow response to the quake in rebel-held areas, contrasting it with the planeloads of humanitarian aid delivered to government-controlled airports.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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Live: Syria could open more border crossings for quake aid, WHO says

Issued on: Modified:

The death toll from the catastrophic earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria has now reached approximately 33,000 reports stated Sunday, with the UN warning that the final number could rise by “double or more”. Also on Sunday, a new UN convoy arrived in Syria to deliver deperately needed international aid. Follow FRANCE 24 for live updates. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

6:28pm: Syria may consider to open more border crossings for quake aid, WHO says

The World Health Organization chief said Sunday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had voiced openness to more border crossings for aid to be brought to quake victims in rebel-held northwestern Syria. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters he had met with the Syrian president in Damascus on Sunday afternoon to discuss the response to the devastating earthquake.

“This afternoon I met with His Excellency President Assad, who indicated he was open to considering additional cross-border access points for this emergency,” Tedros told a virtual press conference from the Syrian capital.

Rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria, which has been ravaged by more than a decade of civil war, are in a particularly dire situation. They cannot receive aid from government-held parts of Syria without Damascus’s authorisation, and the single border crossing open to shuttle aid from Turkey saw operations damaged in the quake.

Aid began trickling through the border crossing again on Thursday, but there have been mounting calls to open more crossings to speed up the aid delivery.

While Damascus had given the all-clear for cross-line aid convoys to go ahead from government-held areas, Tedros said the WHO was still waiting for the green light from the rebel-held areas before going in.

3:11pm: Death toll rises above 30,000 in Turkey, Syria earthquake

The death toll from the catastrophic earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria reached 33,000 on Sunday, with the United Nations warning that the final number may double.

Officials and medics said 29,605 people had died in Turkey and 3,574 in Syria from Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake, bringing the current total to 33,179

2:28pm: UN warns of aid failure for Syria

The UN denounced Sunday a failure to get desperately needed aid to war-torn regions of Syria. A UN convoy with supplies for northwest Syria arrived via Turkey, but the agency’s relief chief Martin Griffiths said much more was needed for the millions whose homes were destroyed.

“We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” Griffiths said on Twitter. “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”

Aid has been slow to arrive in Syria, where years of conflict have ravaged the healthcare system, and parts of the country remain under the control of rebels battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which is under Western sanctions.

The UN convoy of ten trucks crossed into northwest Syria via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, according to an AFP correspondent, carrying shelter kits including plastic sheeting, ropes and screws and nails, as well as blankets and mattresses.

1:22pm: A new UN convoy arrives in Syria

A UN convoy of ten trucks crossed the border with Turkey at the Bab-al Hawa crossing point in northwestern Syria. The trucks carried materials for emergency shelters like plastic sheeting, blankets, mattresses, ropes and even nails and screws.

12:15pm: Syria quake aid held up by Islamist group ‘approval issues’, says UN

Earthquake aid from government-held parts of Syria into territory controlled by hardline opposition groups has been held up by approval issues with the hardline Islamists group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a United Nations spokesperson told Reuters on Sunday.

The Syrian government last week said it was willing to send aid into the northern zone, which is largely held by the HTS and was devastated by Monday’s earthquake.

8:49am: Greek foreign minister visits Turkey’s quake-hit region

Greece‘s foreign minister arrived in Turkey on Sunday in a show of support after the country was hit by a devastating earthquake seven days ago, the ministry said, despite a longstanding rivalry between the two NATO countries.

Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was met with a warm embrace by his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, according to footage on state-run ERT TV, before they boarded helicopters to visit quake-hit regions.

His arrival marks the first visit by a European minister to Turkey since the earthquake.

The two ministers are in Antakya, where Greek rescuers are helping with search and rescue operations.


7:18am: EU says ‘absolutely unfair’ to be accused of not providing aid to Syria

The European Union’s envoy to Syria said early on Sunday that it was not fair to accuse the bloc of failing to provide enough help to Syrians following the devastating earthquake that hit swathes of Syria and Turkey last week.

“It is absolutely unfair to be accused of not providing aid, when actually we have constantly been doing exactly that for over a decade and we are doing so much more even during the earthquake crisis,” the head of the EU delegation Dan Stoenescu told Reuters in written comments.


7:07am: Turkey-Syria quake death toll surpasses 28,000, UN expects toll to double

UN relief chief Martin Griffiths said he expected the death toll to at least double after he arrived in southern Turkey on Saturday to assess the quake’s damage.

Tens of thousands of rescue workers are scouring flattened neighbourhoods despite freezing weather that has deepened the misery of millions now in desperate need of aid.

Security concerns led some aid operations to be suspended, and dozens of people have been arrested for looting or trying to defraud victims in the aftermath of the quake in Turkey, according to state media.


(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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West must move faster to prevent a catastrophe in northern Syria

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

On the “treacherous night” of the deadly earthquake that shook northern Syria, Idris Nassan, a Kurdish official living in Raqqa, was startled awake as his apartment swayed.

“My body was trembling, noise filled the place; the building turned into a swing, leaning left and right,” he said.

With his wife and mother in tow, Nassan scrambled down three flights of stairs, joining neighbors who, “like birds fleeing snakes of prey,” made their chaotic exit. The stairwell echoed with the cries and screams of terrified children.

The scenes outside were “beyond endurance,” Nassan said — telling, coming from a man who witnessed the siege of Kobani and the vicious battles between Kurds and the Islamic State militants there. But, he added, the “pain of the earthquake has been “deepened by the failure of others to help.”

Of all the places to be tested by the grinding of tectonic plates, this is one that just didn’t need to suffer more pain and grief.

The Syrians of Idlib and northern Aleppo, many displaced from elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, have endured barbaric conflict, a gruesome descent into hell, for over a decade. They’ve suffered barrel bombs; their hospitals and markets have been targeted; they’ve been starved; and they’ve been preyed upon by the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Idlib was turned into a large “kill zone” by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, as rebels and their families were funneled into the area, corralled like cattle awaiting slaughter.

Adding insult to injury, since 2018, Turkish authorities have been deterring Syrian asylum seekers from crossing the border and declining to register them. Turkey has also mounted unlawful deportations and coerced some to return to northern Syria, while the European Union — fearful of another migration surge — has raised few objections to this breach of the Geneva Convention.

Along the arc of northern Syria, the widespread complaint by Arabs and Kurds alike is that since the defeat of the Islamic State, they’ve been abandoned by the international community. That sense of desertion is now being compounded as they dig mass graves and grapple with the effects of a devastating earthquake.

Since the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened towns, destroyed homes and crushed thousands of lives on February 6, the world’s focus has mainly been on Turkey — that’s where Western media and international rescue crews, aid and equipment have been heading.

But across the border, there’s been scant assistance.

Sent into rebel-held Idlib, a member of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, said, “What sticks in my mind is that some people were standing above the rubble and hearing the voices of their families and relatives a few meters away, but they could not do anything to rescue them due to the lack of equipment and the absence of an international response to help.”

Predictably, Moscow and Beijing haven’t been lagging in their efforts to try to spin the events in Syria. “The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies are hampering relief and rescue work . . . such a humanitarian disaster is not enough to melt the cold-blooded heart of the US,” goaded the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the “collective West” of ignoring what’s taking place in northern Syria, blaming the economic sanctions against the Assad government for prolonging suffering.

Of course, these are crocodile tears coming from a Chinese Communist government that’s incarcerated over a million Uyghurs since 2015. It’s also strikingly indecent of Russia to claim sympathy for the north of Syria, where it shunned the laws of war and rehearsed the bombing campaigns and egregious tactics it’s now using in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be a Russian or Chinese propagandist to question the West’s sluggishness in anticipating the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Syria, or in developing an action plan to ease the suffering in Idlib and northern Aleppo.

Last week, EU officials slammed the complaints of neglect coming from northern Syria. “I categorically reject the accusations that EU sanctions may have any impact on humanitarian aid. These sanctions were imposed since 2011 in response to the violent repression of the Syrian regime against its own civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič told reporters. “There is nothing there that would hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation in which Syrian people find themselves after this terrible earthquake,” he added.

The EU says it’ll provide additional emergency support to both Turkey and Syria, and emergency humanitarian assistance worth €6.5 million. But officials say the bloc will also require safeguards to ensure aid effectively reaches those in need and isn’t misused by the Assad government — something that’s plagued humanitarian assistance in the past.

Indeed, funneling aid into northern Syria is fraught with logistical and political nightmares. Idlib is controlled by a variety of feuding rebel groups, with a large part held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group that’s been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and, much like the Assad government, has been accused of manipulating international aid.

Additionally, of the five border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria, only one has been authorized by Turkish authorities to handle humanitarian aid — although Ankara has now said it’s considering reopening more crossings to allow aid into both opposition-held and Assad-controlled areas.

But time is of the essence, and the scale of the crisis unfolding requires a momentous step change.

Mercy Corps reports that there aren’t enough structural engineers in northern Syria to inspect buildings, and even small aftershocks risk further collapse. There’s also very little coordination on the ground, with extremely limited information available on shelter options for survivors.

Fuel for heating and cooking is becoming a major challenge as well. “There is limited availability, and what is available is of poor quality and very expensive. People are burning trash to stay warm, and aid deliveries will be dependent on consistent access to fuel for trucks,” said Mercy Corps. Meanwhile, food is hard to procure, prices are skyrocketing, and access to clean drinking water is becoming a critical problem, with assessment teams worried about pollutants leaking into water sources.

On Friday, the United Nations warned that over 5 million Syrians may be left homeless after the earthquake. “That is a huge number and comes to a population already suffering mass displacement,” said Sivanka Dhanapala, the Syria representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thankfully, in the past few days, 20 U.N. aid trucks have crossed into rebel-held areas, but most were carrying pre-planned provisions that had been delayed due to the earthquake. And on Friday, the U.N. announced it was releasing an additional $25 million in emergency funding for Syria, bringing the total to $50 million so far.

However, NGO assessment workers say this is far short of what’s needed — and they argue that Western powers will have to rethink the sanctions regime.

While humanitarian aid isn’t barred by Western sanctions, there are plenty of other things desperately needed in northern Syria that are, including fuel and construction equipment critical to rescue efforts, to prop up battered buildings and to rebuild, so the displaced aren’t left to shelter in tents.

The United States has moved faster than the EU in recognizing that sanctions risk impeding quake assistance, issuing a six-month waiver for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

 Navigating the political dilemmas all this will bring — getting in front of Assad exploiting the earthquake to force a normalization of relations, getting Turkey to coordinate with the Kurds of northern Syria, and dealing with HTS and the other feuding rebel groups — is undoubtedly going to be a tall order.

Aside from the imperatives of compassion, a slow and inadequate Western response will also feed into African and Middle Eastern countries’ perception — kindled by Moscow and Beijing — that Western powers only pay attention to them when they want or need something.

And if these challenges aren’t confronted, the immediate humanitarian crisis risks turning into a catastrophe.

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Survivors still being rescued five days after Turkey-Syria quake as toll tops 28,000

Rescue crews on Saturday pulled more survivors, including entire families, from toppled buildings despite diminishing hopes as the death toll of the enormous quake that struck a border region of Turkey and Syria five days ago surpassed 28,000. Rescuers also pulled a two-month-old baby and an elderly woman from the rubble on Saturday. Read our live blog to see how all the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+1). 

This live page is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, click here.

10:27pm: Death toll tops 28,000 as some aid operations are suspended due to security reasons

Officials and medics said 24,617 people had died in Turkey and 3,574 in Syria. The confirmed total now stands at 28,191.

Although many rescues happened on Saturday, security concerns led some aid operations to be suspended, and 48 people have been arrested for looting or trying to defraud victims in the aftermath of the quake in Turkey, state media reported.

Tens of thousands of rescue workers are still scouring through flattened neighbourhoods despite freezing weather that has deepened the misery of millions now in desperate need of aid.

8:38pm: Turkey arrests 48 for looting, defrauding quake victims, state media says

Turkish authorities have arrested 48 people for looting or trying to defraud victims after a powerful earthquake hit Turkey, state media reported on Saturday.

The suspects were held in eight different provinces as part of investigations into looting after Monday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the region, news agency Anadolu said.

It later reported that 42 suspects were held for looting in southern Hatay province, while six were arrested over defrauding a victim in Gaziantep by telephone.

7:03pm: Survivors still being rescued five days after quake, including entire families and children

Rescue crews on Saturday pulled more survivors, including entire families, from toppled buildings despite diminishing hopes as the death toll of the enormous quake that struck a border region of Turkey and Syria five days ago surpassed 25,000. Rescuers also pulled a two-month-old baby and an elderly woman from the rubble on Saturday.

Dramatic rescues were being broadcast on Turkish television, including the rescue of the Narli family in central Kahramanmaras 133 hours after the quake struck early Monday. First, 12-year-old Nehir Naz Narli was saved, then both of her parents.

That followed the rescue earlier in the day of a family of five from a mound of debris in the hard-hit town of Nurdagi, in Gaziantep province, TV network HaberTurk reported. Rescuers cheered and chanted, “God is Great!” as the last family member, the father, was lifted to safety.

In the city of Antakya, a two-month-old baby was found alive 128 hours after the quake, state news agency Anadolu reported.

Tens of thousands of local and international rescue workers are still scouring through flattened neighbourhoods despite freezing weather that has compounded the misery of millions now in desperate need of aid.

3:52pm: Death toll rises above 25,000 in both countries

The death toll from a catastrophic earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria climbed to more than 25,000 on Saturday, as rescuers worked in freezing weather to find people alive.

Officials and medics said 21,848 people had died in Turkey and 3,553 in Syria from Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor, bringing the confirmed total to 25,401.

3pm: Turkey detains 12 over collapsed buildings after quake, media reports

Turkish police have detained 12 people over collapsed buildings in the southeastern provinces of Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, local media reported on Saturday, following the huge quake that hit Turkey.

Those taken into custody included contractors, DHA news agency said. At least 6,000 buildings collapsed after a 7.8-magnitude tremor hit the region, killing more than 25,000 people, sparking anger over the poor quality of housing.

There are expected to be more detentions after the public prosecutor in Diyarbakir, one of 10 southeastern provinces affected by the quake, issued arrest warrants for 29 people on Saturday, state news agency reported.

One of those detained Saturday was a contractor for a building in Gaziantep, the agency said, adding he was found by police in Istanbul.

1:27pm: Armenia-Turkey crossing opened for first time in 35 years after quake

A border crossing between Armenia and Turkey opened for the first time in 35 years on Saturday, to allow humanitarian aid through after a massive earthquake hit the region, an official said.

Five trucks with aid including food and water arrived in Turkey from the Alican border crossing, Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s special envoy for dialogue with Armenia, said on Twitter. State news agency Anadolu said this was the first time it had opened since 1988.

12:23am: Turkey to act against those involved in looting, says Erdogan

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday the government would take action against those involved in looting and other crimes in the region affected by this week’s devastating earthquakes.

Speaking during a visit to the quake zone, Erdogan said hundreds of thousands of buildings were uninhabitable across southern Turkey and that authorities would take steps to start rebuilding damaged cities within weeks.

The death toll in Turkey has risen to 21,043, he said.

12:10am: UN aid chief says earthquake is region’s ‘worst event in 100 years’

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths described on Saturday the devastating earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northwestern Syria as the “worst event in 100 years in this region”.

Speaking during a news briefing in the Turkish province of Kahramanmaras, Griffiths also lauded Turkey’s response to the disaster as “extraordinary”.

He also told Reuters he hoped in Syria aid would go to both government and opposition-held areas, but that things with this regard were “not clear yet”.

11:44am: Turkish company to send ships to house 3,000 in earthquake zone

Turkey’s Karadeniz Holding said on Saturday it would send two humanitarian aid ships that can each house 1,500 people to help the relief effort in the southern province of Hatay, hit by a major earthquake that has claimed more than 20,000 lives.

“The company is working with the authorities to send lifeships Suheyla Sultan and Rauf Bey to Iskenderun-Hatay,” the company said, adding this would be its first humanitarian mission.

The so-called lifeships, built for humanitarian aid missions, have accommodation, fridges, TVs and heating, as well as facilities for education, healthcare and food, the company said.

11:44am: Austrian army suspends Turkey quake rescue

The Austrian army on Saturday suspended rescue operations in quake-ravaged Turkey due to a worsening “security situation”, a spokesman said.

“There have been clashes between groups,” he told AFP without giving details. 

The spokesman said the 82 soldiers from the Austrian Forces Disaster Relief Unit were sheltering in the southern Hatay province “in a base camp with other international organisations, awaiting instructions”.

They had arrived in Hatay on Tuesday with 45 tonnes of equipment and were able to rescue nine people from rubble.

9:30am: ‘Anger is brewing amid the grief’

“Authorities aren’t letting people return home even if their damaged residences are still standing,” reports Shona Bhattacharya from Osmaniye, Turkey. She adds that last Friday, the minister of urban planning announced 4,000 experts would be examining buildings to determine if they were safe to return to or not. 


Turkish rescue workers carry Ergin Guzeloglan, 36, to an ambulance after pulled him out from a collapsed building five days after an earthquake in Hatay, southern Turkey, early Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. © Can Ozer, AP


9:09am: Earthquake compounds Turkish leader’s woes as election nears

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power 20 years ago riding a wave of public outrage toward the previous government’s handling of a deadly earthquake. 

Now, three months away from an election, Erdogan’s political future could hinge on how the public perceives his government’s response to a similarly devastating natural disaster. 

“It is going to be a big challenge for Erdogan, who has established a brand for himself as an autocratic figure but an efficient one that gets the job done,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute and the author of several books on Erdogan. 

The aftermath of a massive earthquake isn’t the only parallel to the election of 2002. Back then, Turkey was in the midst of a financial crisis that was punishing its economy.

7:22am: Aid trickles in as Turkey-Syria quake toll passes 24,000

A winter freeze in the affected areas has hurt rescue efforts and compounded the suffering of millions of people, many in desperate need of aid.

At least 870,000 people urgently needed food in the two countries after the quake, which has left up to 5.3 million people homeless in Syria alone, the UN warned.

Aftershocks following Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor have added to the death toll and further upended the lives of survivors.

A convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid to earthquake victims, sent by a Kurdish charity organisation, enters Syria through the opposition-held Bab al-Salama crossing with Turkey in the northern Aleppo province on February 10, 2023.
A convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid to earthquake victims, sent by a Kurdish charity organisation, enters Syria through the opposition-held Bab al-Salama crossing with Turkey in the northern Aleppo province on February 10, 2023. © AFP

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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US Waives Sanctions To Speed Earthquake Aid To Syria

The death toll from the huge earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria Monday continues to go higher and higher, with nearly 23,000 people estimated to have died as of today — expect that to keep going higher — and a rapidly closing window for the chances of digging more survivors from the rubble.

The situation is especially dire in northern Syria, where the response to the natural disaster has been complicated by the fact that the earthquake hit right in the heart of territory still held by rebels in the civil war against the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad. Most aid bound for the affected region has to go through Syrian government channels, although starting Thursday, the first UN aid trucks have begun reaching the area through the single open border crossing with Turkey.

Here’s a sobering Al Jazeera video explainer on why it’s so hard to get aid to the earthquake victims in Northern Syria:

The video explains that, for the most part, the international sanctions against Syria have been aimed at Syrian military and government leaders, as well as government agencies that have played a role in violating human rights.

But just to make sure that as much aid as possible gets where it’s needed, the US Treasury Department yesterday issued a six-month waiver on “all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited” under the sanctions. In a press release, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said,

As international allies and humanitarian partners mobilize to help those affected, I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people. While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today Treasury is issuing a blanket General License to authorize earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.

The announcement added that US sanctions, by design, already don’t apply to humanitarian assistance, but that the new waiver “expands upon these broad humanitarian authorizations already in effect,” for nongovernmental organizations, the UN, and US government aid programs. The US has made clear it will not give aid directly to the Syrian government, only to international aid groups working in the region.

Also too, Al Jazeera reports that

The US Agency for International Development on Thursday announced Washington had pledged $85m in urgent humanitarian aid on top of the 160 people and 12 dogs it had sent to Turkey to help with rescue efforts.

Since humanitarian aid is already exempt from sanctions, Karam Shaar, a Syrian economist with the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera that the new waiver will have “a limited positive impact.”

“This makes it easier still to send humanitarian funding to Syria,” Shaar told Al Jazeera. “Now you don’t have to prove to OFAC that your transaction is exempt from sanctions. You do the transaction, and then if you’re asked to, you need to prove it.”

Simply put, this means that donors and organisations don’t need to spend resources and time proving an exemption from sanctions before sending aid.

Shaar said it’s not yet clear whether private banks will be sufficiently reassured by the waiver that they’ll feel comfortable making money transfers; many avoid Syria altogether out of fear of getting into sanctions trouble. The waiver therefore may or may not result in some institutions allowing transfers, including remittances from Syrians living abroad.

As Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Politics at the University of Oklahoma, explained to Al Jazeera, Assad has made his own use of the sanctions regime to punish the rebels in the north, using the sanctions as an excuse to keep resources from getting to areas the rebels control.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to change even following the earthquake, because why would a guy who’s used poison gas and indiscriminate bombing on civilians (with Russian help) start caring about them now?

Despite demands by Assad’s government, the UN has started getting some aid to northern Syria, using the only humanitarian corridor between Syria and Turkey at the Bab al-Hawa crossing. CNN reports that the first convoy of six trucks carried only “shelter items” and other non-food supplies.

“The UN cross-border aid operation has been reinstated today. We are relieved that we are able to reach the people in northwest Syria in this pressing time. We hope that this operation continues as this is a humanitarian lifeline and the only scalable channel,” Sanjana Quazi, head of OCHA Türkiye [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said.

The delivery on Thursday ends a three-day period during which no aid arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to rebel-held areas of northern Syria – just 300 bodies, according to the administration that controls the only access point between the two countries.

“How are roads okay for cars carrying bodies, but not for aid?” Mazen Alloush, Bab al-Hawa’s frustrated spokesperson had asked CNN.

The bodies were of Syrian refugees who died in Turkey and were being repatriated for burial. (No, probably aid groups don’t want to risk sending food aid through in body bags, because life isn’t usually a movie.)

Even before the earthquake, northern Syria was in terrible shape, with as many as 15.3 million people needing assistance there, according to UN Resident Coordinator for Syria El-Mostafa Benlamlih.

In Aleppo alone 100,000 people are believed to be homeless, with 30,000 of that number currently sheltered in schools and mosques.

“Those are the lucky ones,” he said.

The remaining 70,000 “have snow, they have cold and they are living in a terrible situation,” he added.

The weather is also making survival even more difficult in both countries, with much colder temperatures than normal in the region, as CNN notes. Aleppo normally has chilly 36 degree Fahrenheit lows in February, but this weekend’s low temperatures are forecast to be between 27 and 28 degrees F.

Now that UN aid has started arriving, there’s hope that NGOs will be able to get aid to northern Syria; most of the big groups are already helping in Turkey. If you can spare the money, you might consider giving to the International Rescue Committee, to Doctors Without Borders, or to Mercy Corps, all of which have special appeals for the Turkey/Syria crisis.

[CNN / Al Jazeera]

Yr Wonkette is funded entirely by reader donations. For this post, we’re going to direct you to the humanitarian aid NGOs listed above. But sure, if you also want to keep us funded too, we’d appreciate that.

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Why Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia means so much for the Gulf monarchy’s sporting ambitions | CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Abu Dhabi, UAE

It’s a partnership that’s been hailed as “history in the making.”

One of the world’s most famous soccer stars landed in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday, where Cristiano Ronaldo was received in an extravagant ceremony, with excited children sporting his new club’s yellow and blue jerseys.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s success in luring the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on a two-year contract with the kingdom’s Al Nassr FC is the Gulf monarchy’s latest step in realizing its sporting ambitions – seemingly at any cost.

According to Saudi state-owned media, Ronaldo will earn an estimated $200 million a year with Al Nassr, making him the world’s highest-paid soccer player.

Shortly after the 37-year-old’s signing with Al Nassr, the club’s Instagram page gained over 5.3 million new followers. Its official website was inaccessible after exceeding its bandwidth limit due to the sudden surge in traffic, and the hashtag #HalaRonaldo – Hello, Ronaldo in Arabic – was trending for days across the Middle East on Twitter.

Analysts say that his recruitment in Saudi Arabia is part of a wider effort by the kingdom to diversify its sources of revenue and become a serious player in the international sporting scene.

It is also seen as a move by the kingdom to shore up its image after it was tarnished by the 2018 dismemberment and killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents, and a devastating war it started in Yemen in 2015.

Critics have decried the kingdom for “sportswashing,” an attempt to burnish one’s reputation through sport.

“I think Saudi Arabia has recognized a couple of years ago that to be a powerful nation internationally, you cannot just rely on hard power,” Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, told CNN.

“You also need to invest in soft power, and the case of Qatar shows that this can work pretty well,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is following in the Qatari approach with sport, but with a delay of around 25 years.

Neighboring Qatar has also faced immense criticism since it won the bid to hosting last year’s FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Despite the smaller Gulf state facing similar accusations of “sportswashing,” the tournament has largely been viewed as a success, not least in exposing the world to a different view of the Middle East, thanks in part to Morocco’s success in reaching the semifinals and Saudi Arabia beating eventual World Cup champion Argentina in their opening group game.

Gulf nations engage in fierce competition to become the region’s premier entertainment and sporting hubs. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, in close proximity to each other, each have their own Formula One racing event. But their competition hasn’t been confined to the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also bought trophy European soccer teams.

Riyadh is playing catchup with neighbors who have long realized the importance of investing in sports, said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, especially as its main source of income – oil – is being gradually shunned.

“This is part of an ongoing attempt to create more resilient economies that are more broadly based upon industries other than those that are derived from oil and gas,” Chadwick told CNN.

Ronaldo’s new club Al Nassr is backed by Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a subsidiary of the kingdom’s wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has played a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s diversification plans.

“It is also a sign of interconnectedness, of globalization and of opening up to the rest of the world,” said Georgetown University’s Reiche.

The move is part of “several recent high profile moves in the sports world, including hosting the Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua world heavywight boxing championship bout in 2019, and launching the LIV Golf championship,” said Omar Al-Ubaydli, director of research at the Bahrain-based Derasat think tank. “It is a significant piece of a large puzzle that represents their economic restructuring.”

The kingdom has been on a path to not only diversify its economy, but also shift its image amid a barrage of criticism over its human rights record and treatment of women. Saudi Arabia is today hosting everything from desert raves to teaming up with renowned soccer players. Argentina’s Lionel Messi last year signed a lucrative promotional deal with the kingdom.

Hailed as the world’s greatest player, 35-year-old Messi ended this year’s World Cup tournament in Qatar with his team’s win over France, making his ambassadorship of even greater value to the kingdom.

The acquisition of such key global figures will also help combat the monarchy’s decades-long reputation of being “secretive” and “ultra-conservative,” James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on soccer in the Middle East, told CNN’s Eleni Giokos on Wednesday.

Al-Ubaydli said that the kingdom wants to use high profile international sports “as a vehicle for advertising to the world its openness.”

Saudi Arabia bought the English Premier league club Newcastle United in 2021 through a three-party consortium, with PIF being the largest stakeholder. The move proved controversial, as Amnesty International and other human rights defenders worried it would overshadow the kingdom’s human rights violations.

Ronaldo’s work with Saudi Arabia is already being criticized by rights groups who are urging the soccer player to “draw attention to human rights issues” in Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has an image problem,” especially since Khashoggi’s killing, says Reiche. But the kingdom’s recent investments in sports and entertainment are “not about sportswashing but about developing the country, social change and opening up to the world.”

Saudi Arabia is reportedly weighing a 2030 World Cup bid with Egypt and Greece, but the kingdom’s tourism ministry noted in November that it has not yet submitted an official bid. Chadwick believes that Ronaldo’s deal with Al Nassr, however, may help boost the kingdom’s bid should it choose it pursue it.

Another way Saudi Arabia may benefit from Ronaldo’s acquisition is that it will be able to improve commercial performance, says Chadwick, especially if this collaboration attracts further international talent.

“It is important to see Ronaldo not just as a geopolitical instrument,” said Chadwick, “There is still a commercial component to him and to the purpose he is expected to serve in Saudi Arabia.”

What Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia shows is that the kingdom aspires “to be seen as being the best” and that it wants to be perceived as a “contender and a legitimate member of the international football community,” said Chadwick.

UAE FM meets Syria’s Assad in Damascus in further sign of thawing ties

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus on Wednesday in the latest sign of thawing relations between Assad and the Gulf state. The meeting addressed developments in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to UAE state news agency WAM.

  • Background: It was Abdullah bin Zayed’s first visit since a November 2021 meeting with Assad that led to the resumption of relations. Months later, in March 2022, Assad visited the UAE, his first visit to an Arab state since the start of Syria’s civil war.
  • Why it matters: A number of Assad’s former foes have been trying to mend fences with his regime. Last week, talks between the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers were held in Moscow in the highest-level encounter reported between the estranged sides since the war in Syria began. The regional rapprochement is yet to improve the lives of average Syrians. Syria is still under Western sanctions.

Turkish President Erdogan says he could meet with Assad

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday that he could meet the Syrian leader “to establish peace.”

  • Background: Erdogan’s comments came after the Moscow talks between the two nations’ defense ministers and intelligence chiefs. “Following this meeting… we will bring our foreign ministers together. And after that, as leaders, we will come together,” Erdogan said on Thursday.
  • Why it matters: The meeting would mark a dramatic shift in Turkey’s decade-long stance on Syria, where Ankara was the prime supporter of political and armed factions fighting to topple Assad. The Turkish military maintains a presence across the Syrian border and within northern Syria, where it backs Syrian opposition forces. Erdogan has also pledged to launch yet another incursion into northern Syria, aiming at creating a 30-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” that would be emptied of Kurdish fighters.

Iran shuts down French cultural center over Charlie Hebdo’s Khamenei cartoons

Iran announced on Thursday it had ended the activities of a Tehran-based French research institute, in reaction to cartoons mocking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fellow Shia Muslim clerics published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week.

  • Background: Iran summoned the French ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday to protest cartoons published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. More than 30 cartoons poking fun at Iran’s supreme leader were published by the magazine on Wednesday, in a show of support for the Iranian people who have been protesting the Islamic Republic’s government and its policies.
  • Why it matters: French-Iranian relations have deteriorated significantly since protests broke out in Iran late last year. Paris has publicly supported the protests and spoken out against Iran’s response to them. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna criticized Iran’s freedom of press and judicial independence on Thursday, saying “press freedom exists, contrary to what is going on in Iran and… it is exercised under the supervision of a judge in an independent judiciary – and there too it’s something that Iran knows little of.”

The prized legacy of iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum re-emerged this year when Rolling Stone magazine featured her in its “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Ranking 61st, Umm Kulthum was the only Arab artist to make it to the list, with the magazine saying that she “has no real equivalent among singers in the West.”

Born in a small village northeast of the Egyptian capital Cairo, Umm Kulthum rose to unmatched fame as she came to represent “the soul of the pan-Arab world,” the music magazine said.

“Her potent contralto, which could blur gender in its lower register, conveyed breathtaking emotional range in complex songs that, across theme and wildly-ornamented variations, could easily last an hour, as she worked crowds like a fiery preacher,” it wrote.

Nicknamed “the lady of Arab singing,” her music featured both classical Arabic poetry as well as colloquial songs still adored by younger generations. Her most famous pieces include “Inta Uumri” (you are my life), “Alf Leila Weileila” (a thousand and one nights), “Amal Hayati” (hope of my life) and “Daret al-Ayyam” (the days have come around). Some of her songs have been remixed to modern beats that have made their way to Middle Eastern nightclubs.

The singer remains an unmatched voice across the Arab World and her music can still be heard in many traditional coffee shops in Old Cairo’s neighborhoods and other parts of the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 brought millions of mourners to the streets of Cairo.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Women athletes aim their air rifles while competing in a local shooting championship in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on January 3.

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