Divisions, Elections and Assad Lay Bare Europe's Syrian Quagmire

This handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to their country through the al-Zamrani crossing on May 14, 2024. (Photo by SANA / AFP)
This handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to their country through the al-Zamrani crossing on May 14, 2024. (Photo by SANA / AFP)
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Divisions, Elections and Assad Lay Bare Europe's Syrian Quagmire

This handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to their country through the al-Zamrani crossing on May 14, 2024. (Photo by SANA / AFP)
This handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to their country through the al-Zamrani crossing on May 14, 2024. (Photo by SANA / AFP)

The European Union will convene donors next week to keep Syria on the global agenda, but as the economic and social burden of refugees on neighboring countries mounts the bloc is divided and unable to find solutions to tackle the issue, diplomats say.
Syria has become a forgotten crisis that nobody wants to stir amid the war raging between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group and tensions growing between Iran and Western powers over its regional activities.
More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Türkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home with political stability no closer than since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule began in 2011, Reuters said.
Funding to support them is dropping with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing its aid. Difficulties to host refugees are surfacing, notably in Lebanon, where the economic situation is perilous and a call to send Syrians home is one of the rare issues that unites all communities.
"We have no levers because we never resumed relations with the Assad regime and there are no indications anybody really will," said a former European envoy to Syria.
"Even if we did, why would Syria offer carrots to countries that have been hostile to him and especially taking back people who opposed him anyway."
Major European and Arab ministers along with key international organizations meet for the 8th Syria conference next Monday, but beyond vague promises and financial pledges, there are few signs that Europe can take the lead.
The talks come just ahead of the European elections on June 6-9 in which migration is a divisive issue among the bloc's 27-member states. With far-right and populist parties already expected to do well, there is little appetite to step up refugee support.
The conference itself has changed from eight years ago. The level of participation has been downgraded. The likes of Russia, the key actor backing Assad, is no longer invited after its invasion of Ukraine. The global geopolitical situation and drop in the conflict's intensity keeps it off radars.
There are divisions within the EU on the subject. Some countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to having a form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up voluntary returns in conjunction with and under the auspices of the United Nations.
However, others, like France which acknowledges the pressure the refugees are weighing on Lebanon and fears broader conflict between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, remain steadfast that there can be no discussion with the Assad regime until key conditions are met.
DEPORTATION TO EU MIGRATION
But the reality on the ground is forcing a discussion on the issue.
Demonstrating the tensions between the EU and the countries hosting refugees, Lebanese MPs threatened to reject the bloc’s 1 billion euro package announced earlier this month, slamming it as a “bribe” to keep refugees in limbo in Lebanon instead of resettling them permanently in Europe or sending them back home to Syria.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who unlike in previous years is not due to attend the Brussels conference, has said that Beirut would start dealing with the issue itself without proper international assistance.
The result has been an upswing in migrant boats from Lebanon to Europe, with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, prompting some countries to ring alarm bells fearing a flood of new refugees into the bloc.
"Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it's not sustainable for Cyprus and it's not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn't been sustainable for years," Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said this month during a visit to Lebanon.
Highlighting the divisions in Europe, eight countries - Austria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland - last week issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus, breaking ranks with the bloc's previous positions.
They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability did not exist yet, things had evolved sufficiently to "re-evaluate the situation" to find "more effective ways of handling the issue."
"I don't think there will be a big movement in terms of EU attitude, but perhaps some baby steps to engage and see if more can be done in various areas," said a diplomat from one of the countries that attended the talks in Cyprus.
Another was more blunt.
"Come Tuesday Syria will be swept under the carpet and forgotten. The Lebanese will be left to deal with the crisis alone," said a French diplomat.



Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

At weddings, football matches and other special events, some Iraqi men like to fire salvos of celebratory gunfire into the sky, worrying little about where the bullets might fall.

For some Iraqis, the tradition has been devastating, as have random bullets from sporadic gun battles in a society still awash with weapons after decades of war and turmoil.

Baghdad mother Randa Ahmad was busy with chores when a loud bang startled her. Alarmed, she hurried to the living room to find her four-year-old son Mohamed bleeding on the floor.

"A stray bullet hit him in the head," the 30-year-old said weeks later, her child sitting timidly by her side in their suburban house.

The bullet "came out of nowhere", said Ahmad, who doesn't know who fired it or why.

Her child now suffers from severe headaches and tires easily, but doctors say surgery to remove the bullet is too risky.

"If the bullet moves," Ahmad said, "it could cause paralysis."

Celebratory gunfire and gun battles sometimes sparked by minor feuds are a daily occurrence in Iraq, where firearms possession remains widespread despite a period of relative calm.

Iraq, a country of 43 million, endured wars under ruler dictator Saddam Hussein, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the sectarian conflict and extremist insurgencies that followed.

During the years of bloody turmoil, all types of weapons flooded into the country and have often been used in tribal disputes and political score-settling.

Many households claim to own firearms for protection.

As of 2017, some 7.6 million arms -- handguns, rifles and shotguns -- were held by civilians in Iraq, says monitoring group the Small Arms Survey, which believes the number has since risen.

- 'Bullet fell from the sky' -

Saad Abbas was in his garden in Baghdad when he was jolted by a sharp, searing pain in his shoulder.

"At first, I thought someone had hit me with a stone," the 59-year-old said. Then he realized that a "bullet fell from the sky" and hit him.

Months later, he remains mostly bedridden, the projectile still lodged in his shoulder after doctors advised against surgery because of a pre-existing medical condition.

"I can't raise my hand," he said. "It hurts. I can't even remove my bed cover."

Abbas voiced fury at those who fire off celebratory rounds when "a football team wins, during a wedding or an engagement party".

"Where do the bullets go?" he asked. "They fall on people!"

He decried the rampant gun ownership and said that "weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the state".

Iraqi law punishes illegal firearms possession with up to one year in prison, but authorities announced plans last year to tighten controls.

Security forces have urged civilians to register their guns in 697 centers, allowing each family to possess just one light weapon for "protection", said interior ministry spokesman Miqdad Miri.

The government also recently started offering civilians up to $4,000 to buy their weapons.

But Miri acknowledged that in tribal and rural areas, many people "consider weapons a part of their identity".

In recent years, their collections have been swelled by the "huge quantities" of firearms left behind by the Iraqi army during the US-led invasion, he said.

During the tumultuous years since, weak border controls and the emergence of extremists allowed arms trafficking to thrive.

- 'Attached to their weapons' -

"Our main problem is not small arms but medium and large weapons," Miri said, referring to military-issue assault rifles and other powerful guns.

Security expert Ahmed el-Sharifi also said that "civilians are attached to their weapons" but that even harder to control are the arsenals of "armed political groups and tribes... This is the most dangerous."

Despite the state's efforts to control the gun scourge, the problem frequently makes headlines.

Earlier this year, a video went viral showing armed clashes between relatives in a busy market in eastern Baghdad that left one person dead.

In March, a senior intelligence officer was shot dead when he tried to resolve a tribal dispute.

And in April, celebratory gunfire at a wedding took the life of the groom in the northern city of Mosul.

Last year, another man, Ahmed Hussein, 30, said he was hit in the leg, presumably also by a bullet fired at a wedding.

He said he had just gone for a nap when he was startled by gunfire and then felt a sharp pain.

"I fell out of bed and looked at my leg to find it bleeding," Hussein said.

He too decried how even a simple argument "between children or at a football game" can quickly lead to someone squeezing a trigger, with those paying the price often "innocent bystanders".