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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Abandoned at sea, part 1: Syrian crew stranded for two years at Libyan port

Our team has obtained rare footage from sailors abandoned by their employers years ago, leaving them far from their homes in ports or open water. During this three-month investigation, we looked at official documents and contracts provided by crewmembers as well as open-source data to trace the navigation history of these dilapidated vessels before their abandonment. The first part of this special edition, produced in partnership with independent Syrian investigators SIRAJ, reveals a complex set-up of shell companies used by a group of Syrian-Romanian ship owners to evade legal disputes and Western sanctions.

When the East Express, a 97-metre general cargo ship flying the flag of Togo, docked in the Libyan port of Misrata on January 18, 2022, its crew thought they would offload their cargo of sugar and move on. But the port authorities declared the sugar unfit for consumption and impounded the ship. The crew have been there ever since -– two years and counting.

This legal impediment prevented the delivery of the sugar to its Libyan purchaser, eventually leading the ship’s registered owner, Mina Shipping Ltd., to  abandon the vessel with its 12-member crew still on board: ten Syrians, one Egyptian and one Indian. 

‘We don’t have any food, or water, or wages’

The East Express is capable of carrying more than 5,000 tons of goods, fuel, and ballast. Ammar Sheikha, one of the Syrian sailors stranded on the East Express, explains:

For me, ‘abandonment’ means asking for food, drinks and daily necessities, and not being able to get them from the ship’s owners and manager.

He declared in a video that he sent us in September 2023 that the crew had been “completely abandoned” by the company. “We have no food, no water, and no salaries,” he told us. 

The crew contacted ITF Seafarers, a transport workers’ union that provides assistance to the crews of abandoned ships, but say they did not hear back for months.

Ian Ralby, an expert in international maritime law, explains what abandonment is:

Abandonment is when a vessel owner literally abandons the claims to a vessel. It can mean that the crew is left without anyone who actually has legal responsibility for ensuring that they get the fuel, the food, the water and all the services that they need.

With no fuel or electricity, life on board quickly became unbearable. Sheikha told us:

We began to suffer from a lack of supplies and money … We spend most of our time sleeping or on our mobile phones. This is our only distraction. We talk to our families and friends until the day is over.

The crew have not been paid in 12 months. They believe that staying on board is the only way they’ll get their money. At one point, Sheikha says, the company owed him $17,000. When it arrived in Misrata, the East Express flew the flag of Togo, West Africa. Publicly available maritime registries like Marine Traffic and EQUASIS indicate that it was owned by Romania-based Mina Shipping Ltd.

When we contacted Mina Shipping at the Romanian number that appeared on the sailors’ contracts, a woman who said she was a former employee told us: “Mina Shipping is an offshore company whose owner died years ago.” 

The ship’s captain told us that the owner of Mina Shipping is a man named Samir Fahel, from Tartus, Syria.

Posts shared by his family show that Mr. Fahel died in February 2023. 

A former life under a different name

Fahel regularly posted pictures of ships. One in particular caught our attention: the Nadalina.

In this photo posted by Mina Shipping owner Samir Fahel, the Nadalina is seen after a refit at a ship repair yard in the port of Navodari, Romania, in 2019. © Photo shared on Samir Fahel’s Facebook page in 2016.

We looked up the Nadalina using its IMO number (every ship has a unique identification number issued by the International Maritime Organization). It turns out that the Nadalina is the same ship as the East Express, abandoned in Misrata. 

Ship owners and operators regularly change not only their names, but also the countries in which they are registered as well as the companies that manage and own them. Industry analysts say the complex ownership structure makes it easier for ship owners and operators to walk away when a ship encounters legal or financial problems. “It’s sometimes better to abandon an asset than to retain it and have the liability for it,” says Ralby.

The East Express (IMO number 8215754) has had three different names in the last seven years.
The East Express (IMO number 8215754) has had three different names in the last seven years. © Ammar Sheikha (left), Marine Traffic / Babur Haluluport (center/right ).

Tracking the ‘Nadalina’: history of sanctions violations

Ships must broadcast regular signals intended to ensure the safety of navigational traffic, and sites such as MarineTraffic pick up these signals to plot their locations. FRANCE 24 used the data – nearly 3,000 daily locations over eight years – to track the Nadalina’s movements from 2016 to 2023.

The data shows that the ship made regular trips in the Mediterranean, including to Tunisia, Libya and the Russian-managed port of Tartus in Syria and through Turkey to the Black Sea, coming and going from the Romanian port of Constanta.

The Nadalina’s route in the Mediterranean between 2016 and 2023 shows that it made regular visits to the Russian-managed Syrian port of Tartus.
The Nadalina’s route in the Mediterranean between 2016 and 2023 shows that it made regular visits to the Russian-managed Syrian port of Tartus. © FRANCE 24 Observers

It also reveals that the Nadalina made trips to the so-called “closed ports” of the Crimean Peninsula.

The Nadalina’s route in the Black Sea between 2016 and 2019 shows that it made regular visits to the so-called
The Nadalina’s route in the Black Sea between 2016 and 2019 shows that it made regular visits to the so-called “closed” ports of the Crimean peninsula placed under international sanctions following Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian territory in 2014. © FRANCE 24 Observers

Ukraine banned international cargo carriers from docking at Crimean ports after Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on ships visiting Crimea.

Ukrainian and international media outlets documented at least 10 visits by the Nadalina to sanctioned Crimean ports between 2015 and 2019. 

“We found a group of ships that regularly visited the closed ports in Crimea,” says Kateryna Yaresko, an online investigator with the Myrotvets Center’s Seakrime project who has extensively worked on the Nadalina question. “They were connected to a group of Romanian-Syrian businessmen based in Constanta, Romania. This group was the worst offender.”

With her team, she obtained photographs showing the Nadalina docked illegally in Crimean ports such as Sevastopol and Feodosia between 2015 and 2019, and being loaded with cargoes of scrap metal or grain.

The Nadalina docked at the port of Sevastopol in Crimea on December 27, 2018 and was loaded with a cargo of scrap metal.
The Nadalina docked at the port of Sevastopol in Crimea on December 27, 2018 and was loaded with a cargo of scrap metal. © Seakrime, Myrotvorets Center

The Ukrainian investigators reported that the Nadalina was part of a group of ships operated by a company called Bia Shipping Co.

A shipping registry in 2015 gave Bia Shipping’s contact info as addresses at “”.

While “” is no longer online, we recovered versions of the site via an internet archive. The archived site belonged to a company called Johar Shipping and listed at least five of the ships operated by Bia Shipping Company. 

© France 24 Observers

Both this site and another Johar Shipping Co. archived site called “” listed a man called “Adnan Hassan” as managing director, and “Johar Hassan” as in charge of general operations. 

© FRANCE 24 Observers

We found Adnan Hassan’s social media accounts. One clip he shared on Facebook shows him relaxing on board an 18-metre yacht with Johar Hassan, his brother. Photos also showed him with Samir Fahel.

This photo posted on the Facebook account of Samir Fahel in 2017 shows him in the company of Adnan Hassan.
This photo posted on the Facebook account of Samir Fahel in 2017 shows him in the company of Adnan Hassan. © Photo shareb on Samir Fahel’s Facebook page on 2017

The families respond

We repeatedly tried to contact the companies associated with the Hassan brothers and Fahel, using all the email addresses and phone numbers that we were able to find. 

A member of Fahel’s family told us that after his death, the family was still responsible for the East Express. She said a family member was assigned to manage the ship and assured us he would give an interview for our investigation. She gave us an email address that she said was for the family company Mina Shipping, but neither she nor the family responded to subsequent requests.

Adnan Hassan confirmed to us in a series of telephone interviews that he and his brother Johar had owned Johar Shipping Co. He said their company had acted as an agent for the ship on at least one occasion during the 2015 to 2019 period when it was known as the Nadalina and visited the closed ports of Crimea. He said they did not follow politics and were unaware that the Crimean ports were sanctioned, and that the visits to Crimea by the Nadalina and other ships they handled stopped after Romanian authorities investigated Johar Shipping. 

The Romanian Foreign Ministry confirmed having investigated the Nadalina’s visits to Crimea. “A check was performed on the financial transactions of companies connected to this ship,” they wrote. “The competent authorities concluded that there was not enough evidence that said payments constituted breaches of the prohibition.” They said they had notified “the economic operators involved of the risks of infringing the restrictive measures on the illegal annexation of Crimea”, and that Romania “strongly condemns” Russia’s “war of aggression against Ukraine”. 

Regarding the ship’s current status as the East Express and the plight of its crew in Libya, Adnan Hassan said the ship was owned by Samir Fahel and Mina Shipping. He said he was a friend of Fahel’s, but had no business relationship with him or Mina Shipping. He said the family contacted him seven months after Fahel’s death. “I wanted to be of help to his family to help them get the ship released,” he told us. “But I learned that the ship’s debts were greater than its value … I told the crew: ‘I will pay your wages only if the ship leaves the port, and I can examine it. That’s when you’ll get paid. Something to help you out.’”

Four crew members repatriated; seven remain on board 

The crew told us they had received small payments from Fahel before his death but had never received their full salaries. 

After FRANCE 24 contacted the ITF Seafarers union to inquire about the fate of the East Express crew, Sheikha told us the union agreed to send some money to cover his flight back to Syria. He sent us a message from the airport: “I can’t believe I’m on the way back home to my family after two years of suffering – without any savings. It’s tragic!” 

As of publication, Sheikha and three of his companions have returned to Syria, while seven of their companions remain on board the ship.

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Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.

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The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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Netanyahu says he will be held accountable for Hamas attack

All the latest developments from the Israel Hamas war.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed his country is preparing a ground invasion of Gaza, and that “we are working against the clock” in preparations to destroy Hamas. 

“We are in a war for our sovereignty, for our existence, and we have set ourselves two fundamental objectives: to eradicate Hamas’s military and governmental capabilities and to do everything possible to bring the hostages held by the Palestinian Islamist group back home,” Netanyahu said in a televised address.

He did not give any details on when this operation would begin. 

The prime minister also conceded that he will be held accountable for the bloody 7 October massacre by Hamas militants, but that will only come after Israel’s Gaza campaign. 

“October 7 is a black day in our history,” he said. “We will get to the bottom of what happened on the southern border around Gaza. This debacle will be investigated. Everyone will have to give answers, including me.”

Relief operations in jeopardy as Israel airstrikes increase

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees says its relief operations across the Gaza Strip will need to be sharply curtailed amid crippling Israeli airstrikes.

Hospitals in Gaza are doing their best to provide treatment to the wounded with diminishing resources.

The war, in its 19th day, is the deadliest of five Gaza wars for both sides. The Hamas-run Health Ministry said Wednesday that at least 6,546 Palestinians have been killed and 17,439 others wounded. 

In the occupied West Bank, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed and 1,650 wounded in violence and Israeli raids since 7 October.

Death tolls cannot be independently verified, as Hamas says it tallies its figures from hospital directors. 

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, according to Israeli officials, mostly civilians who died in the initial Hamas rampage. Israel’s military on Wednesday raised the number of remaining hostages in Gaza to 222 people, including foreigners believed captured by Hamas during the incursion. Four hostages have been released.

Meanwhile France is sending a Navy ship to bring aid to hospitals in the Gaza Strip. 

The ship will leave the French military port of Toulon, in the Mediterranean Sea, within 48 hours, President Emmanuel Macron said. 

In addition, a French plane will arrive in Egypt Thursday to deliver medical equipment via a convoy to Gaza. 

Macron made the announcements during in Cairo as part of a two-day tour to the Midele East that started with a visit to Israel meant to show France’s support and solidarity following the Hamas attack on 7 October. 

The trip included a stop in Ramallah, in the West Bank, to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and another stop Wednesday morning in Jordan to have talks with King Abdullah II.

Israel accuses UN chief of justifying terrorism

Israeli officials were outraged Wednesday over UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ comment that the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel “did not happen in a vacuum,” calling it justification for terrorism. 

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen cancelled a scheduled meeting with Guterres, posting on X” “There is no place for a balanced approach. Hamas must be erased off the face of the planet!”


Israel’s envoy to the UN Gilad Erdan called for his resignation, saying Israel must rethink its relations with the world body.

“We will refuse to grant visas to UN representatives. We have already refused to give one to Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths,” Erdan told Army Radio, accusing Guterres of justifying a slaughter. “It’s time to teach them a lesson.”

Israel has historically had tense relations with the UN, accusing it of bias.

On Tuesday, Guterres addressed a special Security Council meeting on the Israel-Hamas war that was sparked by the militant group’s 7 October attack, which left at least 1,400 Israelis dead, and more than 220 taken hostage.

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed large swaths of the Gaza enclave, leaving at least 6,500 Palestinians killed, including over 2,700 children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. 


The UN chief told the council that he “condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented” attack.

“Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians — or the launching of rockets against civilian targets,” he said.

But his contextualisation of the attack created an uproar in Israel. It was important, Guterres said, to acknowledge that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”

Israeli airstrikes hit targets in Syria

Israeli strikes hit several military sites in southern Syria on Wednesday, killing eight soldiers and wounding seven others, according to state media.

The airstrikes targeted the Daraa countryside overnight and came from the direction of Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the SANA state-run news agency said, citing military officials.


The Israeli military said in a post on X that its fighter jets struck “military infrastructure and mortar launchers” of the Syrian army “in response to rocket launches from Syria toward Israel yesterday.”

Since the war between Israel and Hamas started on 7 October, tensions have spiked in the region. 

Israel has carried out several reported strikes in Syria including two on the Damascus airport and three on Aleppo’s airport, putting them out of service.

Israel has targeted airports and sea ports in the government-held parts of Syria in an apparent attempt to prevent arms shipments from Iran to militant groups backed by Tehran, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

‘Collective duty to stop bloodshed’, says Palestinian FM

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki has called on world leaders at a high-level UN meeting “to stop … the ongoing massacres being deliberately and systematically and savagely perpetrated by Israel.”


“Over 2 million Palestinians are on a survival mission every day, every night,” he added.

Under international law, al-Maliki said, “it is our collective human duty to stop” the Israeli attacks and bloodshed.

Israel, for its part, vowed to destroy Hamas, rejecting calls for a cease-fire from the UN, Palestinians and many countries. 

It said the war in Gaza is not merely its own but “the war of the free world.”

Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also dismissed calls for “proportionality” in the country’s response to Hamas’ surprise attacks on 7 Oct that killed 1,400 people. 


More than 5,700 Palestinians have since been killed in Gaza, according to its Health Ministry.

Cohen told the UN Security Council the proportionate response to the militant group’s attack on southern Israel is “a total destruction to the last one of the Hamas,” calling the extremist group “the new Nazis.”

“It is not only Israel’s right to destroy Hamas. It’s our duty,” he said.

UNRWA says operations will halt on Wednesday night due to lack of fuel

The UN’s agency for the relief of Palestinian refugees last night warned it would be forced to halt its operations in Gaza due to a lack of fuel as of Wednesday night.

In response, Israel’s military posted a picture of what it said were fuel tanks inside Gaza.


“They contain more than 500,000 litres of fuel,” it wrote. “Ask Hamas if you can have some.”

UNRWA’s director general Philippe Lazzarini had already warned on Sunday that the organisation’s fuel would run out on Wednesday.

“Without fuel, there will be no water, no functioning hospitals and bakeries. Without fuel, aid will not reach those in desperate need. Without fuel, there will be no humanitarian assistance. No fuel will further strangle the children, women and people of Gaza,” he said.

US fighter jets arrive in Middle East

The New Jersey Air National Guard’s 119 Expeditionary Fighter Squadron arrived in the Middle East on Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. 

The squadron has F-16 fighter jets, and officials would not say where exactly it went.


Ryder also said the US is preparing for an increase in violence, noting there have already been at least 13 attacks against troops and installations in Iraq and Syria.

“What we are seeing is the prospect for more significant escalation against US forces and personnel across the region in the very near term coming from Iranian proxy forces and ultimately from Iran,” he said during a Pentagon briefing.

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Interview: Why the Islamic State group is ‘returning to its roots’ in the Syrian desert

Some of the remaining members of the Islamic State organisation – those who escaped death or imprisonment after losing their territory in 2019 – have made their way to Badia, a vast desert in the centre of Syria. The IS group carries out frequent attacks on the nomadic Bedouins who make up the local population in this remote region. Since the IS group moved into the area, there has been a spike in violent attacks between February and April of each year, when Bedouins venture into the desert to gather rare and valuable truffles.

Traditionally, during this season, the Bedouins travel in convoys into the desert to harvest the truffles, which are considered to be some of the best in the region. However, in recent years, armed Islamic State group terrorists have been attacking these convoys, murdering dozens of people, including women and children.

The worst of the attacks took place on February 17 in the Al-Sukhnah region, not far from the city of Palmyra. A total of 46 members of the Beni Khaled tribe were murdered while they were out gathering.

Our team spoke to terrorism expert Gregory Waters, who documents the Islamic State group’s activities for the Counter Extremism Project. Our interview with him has been transcribed below and lightly edited for clarity and length.

>> Read more : Investigation: The deadly attacks on Syrian truffle hunters by the Islamic State group

Who carried out the Al-Sukhnah attack on February 17, 2023?

To determine who was behind the Al Sukhnah attack, we have to look at contextual factors. This attack occurred in an area outside Al Sukhnah that has, according to security forces, been controlled by the IS group for many years. Essentially, the regime never fully took it back from the group. 

The Bedouins were out gathering in an area controlled by the IS group, which supports the idea that it was the IS group that was behind the attack. 

The other thing to consider is that this attack on the convoy of Bedouins came in the midst of a period of heavy IS group attacks against regime security forces, all around this area. These attacks included both sustained battles against hardened positions as well as ambushes.

The IS group is most effective when no one can see its movements, when no one can find its camps, its hideouts and its caches. They risk losing that advantage when civilians wander into these really remote areas. So, what’s it going to do? Well, it’s going to attack the civilians. 

Some of the Syrian security forces that went to the area in response to the attack reported that some of the victims were not just killed, they were left decapitated and with notes pinned to them, warning others of a similar fate if they collaborated with the regime. 

What type of attacks does the IS group carry out in the Badia? What goals do they hope to achieve?

In 2020, we saw a huge uptick in attacks carried out by the IS group. This includes both attacks being directly claimed by the group, which publishes videos and pictures from central Syria, and reports from pro-regime Facebook pages or news outlets, which report on regime soldiers being killed in the region.

In 2020, the frequency of attacks began to increase as did the severity of attacks. One of them even killed a Russian general.

Finally, in early 2021, there was a really big pushback on the IS group carried out by the regime as well as Russia and Iran. As a result of these new operations, the attacks carried out by the IS group decreased for about a year, until late last year. 

Right now, the IS group is returning to its roots, conducting an insurgency the same way it did in Iraq in the early 2000s. It’s using small groups of well-armed militants driving around on motorcycles or in pickup trucks with machine guns. In some cases, they may have some heavy weaponry, but mostly they are just doing hit and run attacks all the time. Sometimes, it’s just shooting from far away at military patrols to scare them away or keep them from patrolling in certain areas. 

Sometimes, however, their attacks involve ambushing small, isolated outposts. And, of course, they’re also heavily using mines and IEDs. The whole region has become heavily mined because the regime and its allies use mines as well. Regime soldiers often place them near highways, oil and gas fields and outposts. 

Since 2019, how many attacks have occurred in this region? How can you be sure about the identity of the assaillants? 

Since the beginning of 2019, there have been over 900 confirmed attacks. When we say “confirmed”, that means that the attack definitely happened and was likely carried out by the IS group.

You know, you can never say 100 percent who is behind every attack. The IS group explicitly claims some of these attacks, publishing posts that sometimes include videos or pictures. But a lot of the attacks go unclaimed. However, when you see [Syrian army] soldiers being killed, it’s fairly easy to say that this is the IS group. With civilians, it is harder to say who is behind it. 

A lot of times, you can get an idea based on the context of where it occurred. There are places in central Syria that are still territorially under the control of the IS group, but these areas are uninhabited. The group doesn’t control any towns and villages. 

But there are desert areas that are controlled by the IS group and when you see civilians killed in those areas, you can certainly establish that it was the IS group.  

Other times, these attacks on civilians come amidst a broader IS group offensive against regime forces in the same areas. 

Why doesn’t the IS group claim all of these attacks? 

We’re used to seeing the IS group as a consensus group with flashy media that claims everything single thing it does. This was a key part of its ability to expand around the world and get so many supporters when it was really coming on the scene in the early 2010s. But it no longer holds territory, it’s not trying to recruit people and move them into Syria. In fact, it’s explicitly said, “Don’t come to central Syria to join us”.

You can see it’s taken on a more sophisticated and careful strategy. When it doesn’t claim attacks, it draws less attention to itself and to its activities. And it creates this element of chaos and fear.

The tribes that live in this area [Editor’s note: who are Sunni], don’t believe the Syrian Army is there to protect them and they don’t like the foreign militias operating in the region [Editor’s note: Both Iranian and Afghan Shi’ite militias are deployed in the area].

So when there are attacks, the locals blame different people. Sometimes, they blame the Iranians or the Syrian regime, other times the IS group. What all of this does is that it creates this element of fear, of chaos and of distrust. It is the same strategy that the IS group employed in northeast Syria in order to drive a wedge between [Sunni] Arab communities and the current administration. And now we see that they are likely using the same strategies in central Syria and the regime areas.

What forces are present in the Syrian desert?

You have the regime and its army, you have the pro-regime Syrian militias, which are heavily deployed here and have been ever since the IS group started to control this area. The most important of these would be the National Defense Forces, also known as the NDF, which is the country-wide entity that was essentially made back in 2012.

These forces have a very tribal nature. They have been used to sort of mobilise the tribes and integrate them into the regime forces.

The other really key militia is Liwa Al-Quds, which is spread out all across central Syria. Again, it plays a similar role in the region to the NDF. Alongside the Syrian forces, you have Russian military forces and the Russian Air Force. Sometimes, the Russian Air Force conducts a lot of air bombings, sometimes targeted runs on suspected IS hideouts. Other times, they’ll offer close air support during battles.


The groups currently active in the Syrian desert region. © Observers

There is also the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, which has a large presence in central Syria, because, again, this is the area where you have the oil and gas fields. Some of these are partially leased out to the Russians.

And then you have militias backed by Iran. This includes Syrian militias as well as Afghan and Pakistani foreign fighters and the Lebanese Hezbollah. So all of these groups are here. They’re all spread across the region. They work together at times, they work separately at times, but they’re all spread throughout central Syria.

What are the main tribes targeted by these attacks? What relationship does the Syrian regime have to these tribes? And why is this important to the regime?

So the tribes that have been the most frequent victims of attacks in central Syria this year are the Bussaraya tribe from western Deir Ezzor and the Beni Khaled from central Homs. But any tribe that’s in central Syria has lost people, this year, to attacks. 

The tribal dynamics and political allegiances in this region are always very complex, because one tribe is not one coherent entity. It’s not like a very structured single group with a strong leader that sets their policies.

So when you talk to members of these tribes, they describe their allegiances, essentially, as “I want to live a life of dignity and safety and I want to know who’s going to protect me? Who’s going to allow me to live my life?”

And some of these tribes have a history of fighting the IS group, especially the Bussaraya in Deir Ezzor. Some of their men work in regime forces, as soldiers or militiamen. But again, the economic conditions in Syria mean that if anyone is going to join a militia or the army because it’s a job that pays the best of the jobs you find.

The Bussaraya can also be considered pro-regime because they do live in pro-regime areas. Some of their men work for the regime as soldiers or militia members. But, with the economic conditions in Syria, if someone joins a militia or the army, it is because it is the best-paid work that they can find. 

So the NDF really reflects the tribal fabric of the communities. Local commanders come from prominent and well-respected members of this community. So when you talk to people from the Bussaraya tribe about the regime security forces, they’ll talk about having a lot of trust in the NDF because it is made up of their neighbours, of men they respect and of family members.


Image shared by the NDF on its social networks.
Image shared by the NDF on its social networks. © Observers

What role do Iranian militias play in the region and why do the local tribes accuse them of carrying out attacks? 

Iranian militias, and foreign fighters in general, have been in Syria, basically, from the very beginning of the war. They served across the entire country. They were used by the regime to recapture key opposition areas like the city of Aleppo and Damascus. In central Syria, they have been really heavily used to fight the IS group.

Today, the Iranian militias in central Syria control smuggling routes and they’re involved in a variety of illegal financial activities.

But of course, for many Syrians, there’s just inherent distrust towards the Iranian militias because they are foreign militia and don’t speak the language. They’ve also committed a lot of abuses over the years, a lot of war crimes.

There’s also a sectarian aspect. When the [Shi’ite] Iranian militias came in, they tried to recruit Syrian Sunnis and convert them. They also tried to convert civilians in the areas where they were deployed. 

Some of the recent attacks have been on shepherds. Who carries out these attacks and why? 

The IS group targets shepherds year-round. They are attacked for the same reason as the Bedouins gathering truffles. These are people who are travelling into areas where the army doesn’t usually go, where regular people don’t usually go. 

They might end up wandering into areas that the IS group considers as its own. That exposes them to attacks. 

The IS group also steals sheep because they are an important economic resource. Sheep are the largest economic industry in the region and there are massive sheep markets everywhere. Both legal and illegal trading of sheep occurs between Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Everyone’s engaged in it. So sheep have been a really key financing opportunity for the IS group for years now. 

Sometimes, they kill the shepherds. Other times, they’ll just steal sheep. They take the sheep and then sell them in another part of the country where no one knows who those sheep belong to.

And lastly, kidnappings. Shepherds are sometimes kidnapped. This is probably the least common, but the most terrifying if you’re a local in central Syria. Kidnappings often end with the bodies being found and executed somewhere else. I use the word executed because the bodies are found, lined up with bullet wounds to the head.

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No, this isn’t a recent video of Bashar al-Assad walking freely through Damascus

A video said to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walking without escort through a joyous crowd in Damascus has been circulating online since April 25. However, this is an old video and one that actually shows the president during an orchestrated event in a secure location.

If you only have a minute

  • A video said to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad interacting with a seemingly joyous public in Damascus has been circulating online since April 25. 
  • Those who share this video claim that it is proof of Assad’s popularity in Syria. Some of them have even claimed he is more popular amongst his people than Western leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron.
  • Turns out, this video was filmed back in 2017. By looking at its coordinates, we discovered that it was filmed in a secure location in Damascus during an official event. 

The fact check, in detail 

The footage that has been circulating on Twitter of late shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, smiling, shaking the hands of passersby and posing for pictures. At the start of the video, he is outside, before entering a building filled with stands selling a variety of products. “Syrian president Bashar Alassad casually walking around without guards,” reads one caption on the video, which has the TikTok logo. 

Don’t believe anything they tell you about Syria, it’s all lies!” reads the caption on a post featuring the video shared on April 25 by an account that regularly posts pro-Russian propaganda. It has since garnered more than 120,000 views. The posts claimed that this video was proof of the Syrian leader’s popularity. Some of the posts compared this to the dismal ratings of some Western leaders. 

On May 2, this far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron.

This far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron on May 2, claiming that Assad is more popular in Syria than Macron is in France. © Twitter/@MyLordBebo

A number of French-language accounts that regularly share content critical of Macron also picked up this post. Here are two examples from May 2 and May 5.

The French-language accounts that shared this video also compared the Syrian dictator to the French president.
The French-language accounts that shared this video also compared the Syrian dictator to the French president. © Observers

A 2017 video made by Assad’s team 

To find out more about the video in question, we began by looking into the TikTok handle that appears on the video.

Turns out, this account is a propaganda account that often shares videos promoting the Syrian president and videos that support the Syrian government’s perspective.

This TikTok account, which has been inactive since February, previously shared a lot of propaganda videos created by Syrian government. The videos are in both English and Arabic.
This TikTok account, which has been inactive since February, previously shared a lot of propaganda videos created by Syrian government. The videos are in both English and Arabic. © TikTok/m.syria.alassad

However, the video that has been circulating online isn’t recent: it was posted on this TikTok account on July 5, 2022.

The video that has been circulating on Twitter does, indeed, appear on this account. However, the video is actually from 2022.
The video that has been circulating on Twitter does, indeed, appear on this account. However, the video is actually from 2022. © TikTok/m.syria.alassad

But even though the TikTok account posted this video in 2022, it turns out that the actual event took place much earlier. 

We used the tool InVid WeVerify (check out how by clicking here) to find previous instances of the video posted online, without the TikTok logo and caption.  

An official Twitter account of the Syrian Office of the President tweeted the video in June 2017, explaining that the video shows Assad shopping at a “‘Made in Syria’ festival”. The video also appeared in a local news article, shared on June 8, 2017.

There are also other images of this event, like the ones that appear in this article by the Iranian press agency Tasnim. The article explains that the event took place at al-Jalaa Hall in the Damascus neighbourhood of Mezzeh. 

A controlled visit to a secure event 

Using this information, we were able to find the coordinates of the site visible in the video. If you type “صالة الجلاء” (al-Jalaa Hall in Arabic) into Google Maps, then you’ll find a result that is really in the Mezzeh neighbourhood. 

There is an al-Jalaa Hall in the Mezzeh neighborhood. It’s near a stadium with the same name.
There is an al-Jalaa Hall in the Mezzeh neighborhood. It’s near a stadium with the same name. © Observers

Online, there are 360° images of the hall, which seems to often be used for events. These photos indeed show the location where the Assad video was filmed. 

Thanks to the photos available on Google Maps, we were able to determine that the video was, indeed, filmed in al-Jalaa Hall. In both these pictures and the video, the ceiling is painted with Syrian colors, the green paint on the walls is the same and there is a giant portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
Thanks to the photos available on Google Maps, we were able to determine that the video was, indeed, filmed in al-Jalaa Hall. In both these pictures and the video, the ceiling is painted with Syrian colors, the green paint on the walls is the same and there is a giant portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. © Observers

In the outside shots, the Syrian president walks under a sign for the computer engineering department at Arab International University. 

This sign features the logo for Arab International University, a private Syrian university. It also mentions the computer engineering department.
This sign features the logo for Arab International University, a private Syrian university. It also mentions the computer engineering department. © Observers

Turns out, this building is located right behind al-Jalaa Hall, which means that the outside shots were filmed right by the hall, likely during the same visit.

On Google Maps, you can see that the AIU computer engineering department (in white) adjoins al-Jalaa hall (in pink). The entire video was filmed in the same spot.
On Google Maps, you can see that the AIU computer engineering department (in white) adjoins al-Jalaa hall (in pink). The entire video was filmed in the same spot. © Observers

So this video doesn’t actually show Assad wandering in the streets of Damascus. It was filmed at an official event organised by the Damascus Chamber of Industry, according to this article published in the local media.

The Syrian president, thus, isn’t in a street but in a university and sports facility that is easy to secure. As you can see from these images on Google Earth, recorded a few weeks after the event, there are only a few entrances to the hall. 

These satellite images taken a few weeks after Assad’s visit to the site show that there are only six entrances to al-Jalaa hall. It would be easy to secure the premises.
These satellite images taken a few weeks after Assad’s visit to the site show that there are only six entrances to al-Jalaa hall. It would be easy to secure the premises. © Observers

Moreover, this area is located in an extremely secure area, home to a number of official buildings, embassies and the military airport. Even the headquarters of the Department of General Intelligence and the Air Force are located in this neighbourhood. The Department of General Intelligence is one of the main security services in the country, known for its brutal methods and systematic use of torture in its detention centres.

Bodyguards in civilian clothes

Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at CNRS and a Syrian specialist. He says that this would be far from the first time that Assad met with the “public”, who turned out to be carefully selected in a secure location. 

Videos of this type are always a part of his communication strategy, trying to create a narrative that he is close to his people. Before the war, for example, he regularly organised surprise visits to restaurants. During those events, the security was always reinforced with bodyguards at the entrance. And the people were screened ahead of time. On that note, you might notice that there are very few people in this video. 

The captions on the posts featuring this video, however, claim that the Syrian president went out in public without bodyguards. 

However, in the version of the video shared by the office of the president, you can see a man who appears twice and seems to be watching Assad intently.

There is a man acting strangely, who keeps just a few metres behind Assad when he enters al-Jalaa Hall. He seems on edge and keeps his eyes fixed on the president.
There is a man acting strangely, who keeps just a few metres behind Assad when he enters al-Jalaa Hall. He seems on edge and keeps his eyes fixed on the president. © Observers

The man is wearing a distinctive striped polo shirt, with a black collar, which makes it possible to spot him in the version of the video shared by this Syrian site, which includes sequences cut in the version shared by the Office of the President.  

In this longer sequence, you can see that the man continues to follow Assad. While it is impossible to know for sure if he is a bodyguard, his behaviour and his habit of keeping just a few metres from the president at all times makes it likely that he is one. 

In a longer version of the video shared by the Syrian media, you can see a man following Assad during the entire visit. It seems as if there were actually bodyguards at this event.
In a longer version of the video shared by the Syrian media, you can see a man following Assad during the entire visit. It seems as if there were actually bodyguards at this event. © Observers

In conclusion, this video doesn’t show the Syrian president interacting with the general public in the street, as claimed by a number of accounts that shared the video. It was actually filmed during an official event in a secure location where Assad was almost certainly under high protection. 

This video has been circulating amidst a tense political backdrop: Syria is in the process of officially reintegrating the Arab League, after being ousted in 2011 when the Syrian government’s crackdown on a popular movement led to a devastating war. During the conflict, Assad’s regime was condemned for numerous war crimes against both combatants and civilians.

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Ron DeSantis Wants Very Own Chinese Exclusion Act

Fresh on the heels/heel turn of his stupid fight with Disney, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to have found another strategy to be awful to Floridians and to damage Florida’s economy in the pursuit of the 2024 GOP nomination. The Florida state House yesterday passed a bill aimed at preventing the Chinese Communist Party from buying land in Florida, but goes well beyond that by forbidding anyone who’s “domiciled” in China from owning any real estate in Florida, unless they’re a US citizen or permanent resident. The bill also includes other restrictions on some foreign ownership of properties near military bases or “critical infrastructure,” but the blanket ban on owning any property in Florida applies only to Chinese nationals.

By golly, it’s a throwback to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when America decided it could admit loutish Irish, swarthy sex-crazed Italians, and anarchist Rooshians, but Chinese immigrants were some kinda threat.

Supporters of the measure, Senate Bill 264, claim it’s absolutely necessary for US national security, and for that matter some say that anyone opposing it is probably a Chinese agent too.

That’s exactly the kind or rhetoric that has led real estate interests and Asian Americans in Florida to say that the bill is rooted in xenophobia, and will lead to anti-Asian discrimination, particularly since, as the Miami Herald explains,

it would require home and land buyers to sign an affidavit that they’re not prohibited from buying land. Realtors would be subject to “civil or criminal liability” if they have “actual knowledge” that the transaction violates the law.

At hearings on the Senate version of the bill last month, the Herald notes, more than 100 people testified that they’ve been subjected to racist slurs already as paranoid rhetoric about China “gobbling up” huge tracts of US land has ramped up in rightwing media. On Saturday, Asian Americans across Florida rallied against the bill, arguing that it will lead to stereotyping and more acts of discrimination, and that it could imperil their own small businesses if they run afoul of the law, which requires Chinese “domiciled” owners to divest their Florida properties within two years.

We are not a real estate lawyer, but we can imagine how that could screw with a small business that’s operated by a Chinese American family but owned by a relative in China. If the American branch of the family can’t come up with the capital to buy out the relative, or the relative doesn’t want to sell — or give it as a gift and eat the tax losses — well, here come the fines, and the forfeiture of the property. The LA Times notes that such property grabs were a common feature of anti-Asian laws back in the 19th Century, too.

In an editorial yesterday, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel argued that DeSantis’s push for the property ban and other anti-immigrant legislation will “cast a spotlight on anyone who talks with an accent. Or wears clothes that reflect a different heritage. Or speaks a language other than English,” regardless of their actual citizenship or immigration status, which of course is the point for DeSantis.

The editorial argues that the impact of the bill will be pretty obvious:

Anyone who looks Asian will become much more likely to be questioned or turned away from financial transactions, and potentially have their homes or businesses seized. We can’t imagine anything in modern law that comes close to that.

Now, sure, realtors who simply refuse to sell to Asian Americas may then face discrimination lawsuits, but they may end up trying to balance which set of potential legal penalties they’d rather face. Discrimination suits have only civil penalties, while knowingly selling land in violation of the law would also have criminal penalties.

As we mention, the prospect of being in jeopardy for good faith business transactions has the Florida real estate bidniss worried too, and those folks have some serious economic interests in the state.

Bizarrely, some Florida pols are suggesting that the bill is actually super popular with Chinese Americans, but that you’re only seeing protests by opponents because that’s exactly what the CCP wants, and welcome back to McCarthyism. State Rep. David Borrero (R) insisted that “Chinese Americans and Chinese residents who are here in Florida have been silenced, likely by China, for merely speaking out in support of this bill,” and Democratic co-sponsor Katherine Waldron

told lawmakers that she heard the protesters were bused in from Texas. She and Borrero said they know of Chinese Americans who have been threatened from speaking in favor of the bill and silenced on WeChat, the dominant phone app in China.

“Do not be intimidated by the vocal and aggressive actors we’ve seen in the past few weeks, who do not have our country’s best interests in mind,” Waldron said. “The communist threat to our nation is real.”

Ergo, no “good” Asian Americans really oppose the bill; those people saying it’ll lead to discrimination are OUTSIDE AGITATORS AND COMMUNIST AGENTS TRYING TO WHIP UP FEAR BECAUSE THEY HATE AMERICA. Please remain calm and purge them, so we can institute government by conspiracy theory.

The Miami Heraldhelpfully fact checks that claim about non-Floridians testifying against the bill, noting that

Records from the meeting show that nearly all of the opponents of the bill listed Florida addresses, and several were quickly verified through home ownership records. Several of the speakers said they were professors at Florida universities.

DeSantis has not yet demanded an investigation into whether the Miami Herald is secretly run by the Chinese Communist Party, but for all we know he’s too busy drafting a ban on any cast members at Walt Disney World depicting characters from Mulan.

SB 264 doesn’t only direct its fear toward China, although Chinese nationals who “domicile” in China are the only people outright banned from owning property in Florida. The bill originally prohibited nationals of “countries of concern” — Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, and North Korea, just in case there are any property moguls from Pyongyang — from owning land within 20 miles of any “military installation or critical infrastructure,” like airports, refineries, or power plants, but the House amended that to just one mile, so the Senate will have to pass the revised version again before it goes to DeSantis for a signature. Current targeted owners of such properties would also have to divest them within two years of the bill becoming law.

Yr Wonkette would say more about what a terrible idea this law is, but we have to hurry up and meet with our CCP spymaster soon, comrades. Why don’t you play some solitaire to pass the time?

[National Archives / Miami Herald / Sun-Sentinel / LAT / Florida SB 264 / Photo: John Spade, Creative Commons License 2.0]

Yr Wonkette is funded entirely by reader donations, although we assume all our readers are Chinese agents just like us. If you can, please give $5 or $10 a month to help us keep fighting the weirdo Cold War throwbacks like Ron DeSantis and all his running dog lackeys of imperialism. Donations in Renminbi may require extra processing time.

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Israeli military retaliates after rockets fired from Syria

The Israeli military said its forces attacked targets in Syria early on April 9, 2023 after six rockets were launched from Syrian territory in two batches toward Israel in a rare attack from Israel’s northeastern neighbor.

After the second barrage of three rockets, Israel initially said it responded with artillery fire into the area in Syria from where the rockets were fired.

Later, the military said Israeli fighter jets attacked Syrian army sites, including a compound of Syria’s 4th Division and radar and artillery posts.

The rocket firings came after days of escalating violence on multiple fronts over tension in Jerusalem and an Israeli police raid on the city’s most sensitive holy site.

In the second barrage, which was launched early Sunday, two of the rockets crossed the border into Israel, with one being intercepted and the second landing in an open area, the Israeli military said.

In the first attack, on Saturday, one rocket landed in a field in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Fragments of another destroyed missile fell into Jordanian territory near the Syrian border, Jordan’s military reported.

There were no reports of casualties.

A Damascus-based Palestinian group loyal to the Syrian regime claimed responsibility for launching the three missiles Saturday, reported Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV.

The report quoted Al-Quds Brigade, a militia different than the larger Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s armed wing with a similar name, as saying it fired the rockets to retaliate for the police raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque.

In Syria, an adviser to President Bashar Assad described the rocket strikes as “part of the previous, present and continuing response to the brutal enemy.” In the occupied West Bank, Israeli security forces fatally shot a 20-year-old Palestinian in the town of Azzun, Palestinian health officials said, stirring protests in the area.

The Israeli military said troops fired at Palestinians hurling stones and explosive devices. The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the Palestinian killed as Ayed Salim.

His death came at a time of unusually heightened violence in the West Bank. Over 90 Palestinians and have been killed by Israeli fire so far this year, at least half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

Palestinian attacks on Israelis have killed 19 people in that time — including on Friday two British-Israelis shot to death near a settlement in the Jordan Valley and an Italian tourist killed by a suspected car-ramming in Tel Aviv.

All but one were civilians.

The rocket fire from Syria comes against the backdrop of soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions touched off by an Israeli police raid on Jerusalem’s most sensitive site, the sacred compound home to the Al-Aqsa mosque.

That outraged Palestinians marking the holy fasting month of Ramadan and prompted militants in Lebanon — as well as Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip — to fire a heavy barrage of rockets into Israel.

In retaliation, Israeli warplanes struck sites allegedly linked to the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza and southern Lebanon.

Late Saturday, tensions ran high in Jerusalem as a few hundred Palestinian worshippers barricaded themselves in the mosque, which sits on a hilltop in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Israeli police efforts to evict the worshippers locked in the mosque overnight with stockpiled firecrackers and stones spiraled into unrest in the holy site earlier this week.

The latest escalations prompted Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to extend a closure barring entrance to Israel for Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for the duration of the Jewish holiday of Passover, while police beefed up forces in Jerusalem on the eve of sensitive religious celebrations.

In a separate incident in the northern West Bank city of Nablus late Saturday, a leader of a local independent armed group known as the Lion’s Den claimed the group executed an alleged Israeli collaborator who had tipped off the Israeli military to the locations and movements of the group’s members.

Israeli security forces have targeted and killed several of the group’s key members in recent months.

The accused man’s killing could not be immediately confirmed, but videos in Palestinian media showed medics and residents gathered around his bloodied body in the Old City, where the Lion’s Den holds sway.

“Traitors have neither a country nor a people,” Lion’s Den commander Oday Azizi said in a statement.

The moves come at a time of heightened religious fervor – with Ramadan coinciding with Passover and Easter celebrations. Jerusalem’s Old City, home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, has been teeming with visitors and religious pilgrims from around the world.

Gallant said that a closure imposed last Wednesday, on the eve of Passover, would remain in effect until the holiday ends on Wednesday night.

The order prevents Palestinians from entering Israel for work or to pray in Jerusalem this week, though mass prayers were permitted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday.

Gallant also ordered the Israeli military to be prepared to assist Israeli police. The army later announced that it was deploying additional troops around Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Over 2,000 police were expected to be deployed in Jerusalem on Sunday – when tens of thousands of Jews are expected to gather at the Western Wall for the special Passover priestly blessing.

The Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews can pray and sits next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where large crowds gather each day for prayers during Ramadan.

Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman met with his commanders on Saturday for a security assessment. He accused the Hamas militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, of trying to incite violence ahead of Sunday’s priestly blessing with false claims that Jews planned to storm the mosque.

“We will allow the freedom of worship and we will allow the arrival of Muslims to pray,” he said, adding that police “will act with determination and sensitivity” to ensure that all faiths can celebrate safely.

The current round of violence erupted earlier in the week after Israeli police raided the mosque, firing tear gas and stun grenades to disperse hundreds of Palestinians who had barricaded themselves inside.

Violent scenes from the raid sparked unrest in the contested capital and outrage across the Arab world.

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How ‘apolitical’ Western Youtubers help push Syrian propaganda

Their videos get huge amounts of clicks and profits on YouTube. And their vlogs show a Syria that has turned the page on years of civil war. But these so-called “apolitical” travel influencers are shown around the country by regime-sponsored guides that shape the narrative. One guide who appears in a number of travel vlogs even has family ties with the Syrian deputy minister of tourism.

Come spend your next summer holiday in Syria! That’s the message from at least a dozen Western travel influencers who share videos showing the Middle Eastern country that has been devastated by years of civil war and still split into government and rebel-controlled zones.

They claim to show you “the Syria the media won’t show you”, like in this video by British vlogger Benjamin Rich, known to his 3.8 million subscribers by the name of his YouTube channel, Bald and Bankrupt.

In April 2022, Rich and his government-authorised translator/guide travelled to several Syrian cities under Damascus’ control. The video shows him attending a football match in the capital, visiting the historic citadel of Aleppo and checking out a bombed hotel in Maaloula.

Even though Rich doesn’t like all the ruins around, he doesn’t blame the Syrian government, which has used barrel bombs as a weapon of repression for a decade, nor their allies.  

Rich and his guide avoided going to Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the 2011 revolt against the regime. While passing near the city, the guide referred to it as an area held by “Islamist extremists”, but failed to mention the 4.5 million Syrian civilians living in the northwest of the country, an area that the government has besieged.

The video of this trip has been viewed over 3.8 million times. In the description, Rich says he used an “independent tour agency” called Marrota Travel and Tourism, and gives the email address of a certain “Ayoub” working there.

In an interview from August 2022, Rich says he received an invitation to travel to Syria on Instagram, sent by someone he did not know, but who was called Ayoub. “Would you like a tour of Syria? I think you would enjoy it,” the message said.

In April 2022, Benjamin Rich, a British YouTuber and influencer, visited Syrian government-controlled areas. In this image, he stands in front of a shawarma restaurant with a Syrian tour guide on his left and another British YouTuber, Simon Wilson. © Observers

More recently, on February 13, 2023, two British vloggers who run the travel YouTube channel Dabble and Travel (227,000 subscribers) joined the long list of content creators who were drawn to visit regime-controlled Syria. In an Instagram story taken in Damascus, they can be seen smiling with two Syrian guides in front of a sunset and a Baathist Syrian flag. One of the guides can also be seen in Benjamin Rich’s video.

A screenshot of a story posted on Instagram on February 13, 2023 by the British Youtubers known as Dabble and Travel. The screenshot shows them visiting areas controlled by the Syrian government, accompanied by two Syrian tour guides.
A screenshot of a story posted on Instagram on February 13, 2023 by the British Youtubers known as Dabble and Travel. The screenshot shows them visiting areas controlled by the Syrian government, accompanied by two Syrian tour guides. Observers

Clickable content that claims to be ‘apolitical’

These videos claim to showcase a tourist destination poised to reclaim the ten million annual visitors it welcomed prior to 2011. This is not a coincidence: this narrative mirrors the discourse of the regime, which aims to once again reap the economic benefits of tourism.

Bassam Al Ahmad, director of the human rights NGO Syrians For Truth and Justice, explains:

Some Western YouTubers visit Syria because they are attracted to adventure tourism. To them, it is a challenge to create controversial content and increase interaction. Others come with the objective of relaying official propaganda. They are invited by the regime, often through intermediaries close to the regime, and only visit authorised places and venues. The chic bars and restaurants shown in the videos are only frequented by a small, wealthy part of the population, while 90% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Benjamin Rich’s guide is briefly featured in a video by Danish YouTuber Gustav Rosted. Rosted, who has 291,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, has published at least 18 videos, including one titled “I was tortured in Syria”.

In the video’s thumbnail, Rosted appears shirtless with a man who seems to be strangling him. However, the scene actually shows Rosted receiving a massage in a traditional hammam in Damascus. He boasts about the service, which includes an entrance fee, massage, and towels for only €4.

The provocative title did not sit well with many Syrians, since at least 14,475 people have been tortured to death in government jails since 2011, according to the human rights NGO Syrian Network for Human Rights. The video generated hundreds of disgusted comments from Syrians on Facebook.

Gustav Rosted, a Danish travel influencer, made a video called
Gustav Rosted, a Danish travel influencer, made a video called “I was tortured in Syria” that got 28,000 likes and 1 million views on Facebook. The video used ambiguity in the image and title to get people’s attention. © Observers

It’s one of at least 18 videos Rosted posted on YouTube and Facebook after a December 2022 trip to Syria. Others bear titles like “Night out in Damascus, Syria”, “Crazy POOL Party in Syria”, and “Is Syria Safe in 2023? (war zone!)”.

One Syrian commenter on Facebook wrote: “The life in Syria that you are trying to portray represents 1% of the population as the other 99% of the population live in poverty at less than 15 euros a month.”

Rosted told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he understood Syrians’ reactions online:

There’s always a lot of criticism when you go to these countries. And I totally understand that there’s this criticism because some people have to leave the country, especially in Syria.

But I’m just a guy who likes to travel to talk with people on the ground. I’m not into politics. I like to talk with the locals. I’ve done interviews in so many countries. So my travels are just about connecting with people and not anything political.

A guide close to the deputy minister of tourism

On July 30, 2022, Giath Al Farrah, the Syrian deputy minister of tourism, said in an interview with a local radio station that his ministry had decided to make it easier for people with a large social media following, such as YouTubers, to get visas to visit Syria. He believed that these influencers could promote Syria by sharing their experiences on social media.

The number of tourists who visited Syria in the first half of 2022 was over 750,000, well over the 570,000 visitors recorded in all of 2021.

Even though vloggers have an easier time getting visas than journalists, they are not allowed to travel independently in the country. Instead, they must hire tour guides for “private tours”. Some of these guides are allegedly connected to the Syrian government.

A Syrian journalist tweeted on February 4, 2023, that the tour guide who accompanied Danish travel influencer Gustav Rosted was the same guide who had previously accompanied Simon Wilson, another influencer who had entered Syria on a government-issued visa.

It’s the same guide we saw in Benjamin Rich and Dabble and Travel’s videos.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to use open-source tools to identify the guide as Rami Nawaya and find his social media accounts. Nawaya claims to work as a translator and tour guide for several Syrian travel agencies, including Marrota Tourism and Travel, as stated on his Facebook page and other platforms.

On Facebook, Nawaya also claims to be a family member of Giath Al Farrah, the aforementioned Syrian deputy minister of tourism.

Screenshot of Rami Nawaya's Facebook page where he says he is the brother-in-law of the Syrian Deputy Minister of Tourism Giath Al Farrah.
Screenshot of Rami Nawaya’s Facebook page where he says he is the brother-in-law of the Syrian Deputy Minister of Tourism Giath Al Farrah. © Observers

Several guides, same content

Gustav Rosted said he did not reach out to Nawaya, instead claiming that he met him spontaneously in Aleppo, adding that Nawaya was not his guide. Rosted was accompanied by another guide named Khaldoun Alamy, who runs the Golden Target Tours agency. Alamy has also accompanied other vloggers in Syria, such as Eva zu Beck from Poland and Xavier Taychell Blancharde from the UK, since June 2019.

Eva zu Beck told the FRANCE 24 Observers team: “I was not invited by anyone from Syria and paid for the trip out of my own pocket […] What I published was 100% my own views with no direction or censorship from anyone else in any way. I found my guide through a friend’s recommendation.”

British youtuber Xavier Taychell Blancharde (left), with Khaldoun Alamy, a Syrian tour guide (right). In January 2023, he was the first to travel to the part of Idlib under Syrian army control, which he says is
British youtuber Xavier Taychell Blancharde (left), with Khaldoun Alamy, a Syrian tour guide (right). In January 2023, he was the first to travel to the part of Idlib under Syrian army control, which he says is “infamous in recent years for terror groups, war, and in general bad things”. Observers

FRANCE 24 has confirmed that Marrota Travel and Tourism has accompanied at least five vloggers whose content has caused controversy for aligning with regime narratives. One of the vloggers, Spaniard Joan Torres, organizes private tours of Syria through his agency Against The Compass (at a cost of €1,650 for an eight-day stay). Torres appeared in a photo posted on Rami Nawaya’s Facebook account holding cups bearing the image of Bashar Al-Assad. After his trip to the country, Torres was criticised for referring to the Syrian forces’ “liberation” of Aleppo.

In a photo posted on Facebook in 2022, Rami Nawaya, a guide and translator, is seen smiling while holding mugs with the image of Bashar Al-Assad. He is accompanied by Joan Torres, a Spanish vlogger who organises expeditions to Syria.
In a photo posted on Facebook in 2022, Rami Nawaya, a guide and translator, is seen smiling while holding mugs with the image of Bashar Al-Assad. He is accompanied by Joan Torres, a Spanish vlogger who organises expeditions to Syria. Observers

Golden Team Tourism is another agency that offers private tours to influencers. It is run by Fadi Assi and Gaidaa Ayoub, who are both close to Rami Nawaya, according to photos posted on his Facebook account. In 2019 and 2022, two American vloggers, Drew Binsky (with 3.6 million subscribers) and Thomas Brag (with 8 million subscribers), were accompanied by this agency.

Despite our multiple requests, Rami Nawaya of Marrota Travel and Tourism declined to respond. The Deputy Minister of Tourism Giath Al Farrah and the Syrian ministry of tourism did not respond to our messages either. We reached out to all the vloggers, guides, and agencies mentioned in this article, and only Gustav Rosted and Eva zu Beck agreed to talk to us.

In 2010, Syria attracted 10 million tourists a year, many of whom were Westerners. However, this changed in 2011 with the start of the war, which killed at least 350,000 people and displaced half the population, with millions fleeing abroad.

Bassam Al Ahmad warned:

In Syria, the absence of military operations does not mean that there is no longer arbitrary detention. Many Syrian refugees are deprived of their country and cannot return. These YouTubers are not trying to tell the reality, but to hide it, and that is why we have to be very careful when dealing with this kind of content.

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