Damascus is Drowned, ‘Painful’ Offers Await Decision

A street in Homs on Oct. 3, 2021 (Reuters)
A street in Homs on Oct. 3, 2021 (Reuters)

Damascus is Drowned, ‘Painful’ Offers Await Decision

A street in Homs on Oct. 3, 2021 (Reuters)
A street in Homs on Oct. 3, 2021 (Reuters)

Damascus is mired in its suffocating economic crisis. Syria is expelling its people and is divided into three “states” separated by border-like lines, where militias, organizations, extremists and warring foreign armies coming from major and regional countries abound. Contradictory offers and different conditions are put forward to start a long and complicated march out of the abyss and the abandoned land.

But what are the most important conditions and temptations?

The Iranian offer: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will arrive in Damascus in the coming days. Tehran, which has maintained an exceptional relationship with the Syrian capital since 1979, further strengthened its ties with Syria after 2011, and provided economic and financial support that exceeded $20 billion. It also delivered militias, weapons, and military support to “save the regime.”

Tehran believes that had it not been for its intervention in Syria at the end of 2012 and its mediation with Russia to engage in the country at the end of 2015, “the ally would have changed.” The regime remained, and will remain, and it wants a price in return.

Iran is seeking a strategic military position that enhances its regional status, in addition to a foothold on the Mediterranean. It demands sovereign financial concessions in oil, gas and phosphate fields, projects and communications. Finally, it wants the Iranians to be treated like the Syrians.

There is no doubt that Raisi’s visit falls in this context, after offers poured in on Damascus to go the other way and benefit from Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukrainian war. But what if Israel bombed the outskirts of Damascus during Raisi’s presence in the Syrian capital?

Arab offers: The Director of the National Security Bureau, Major General Ali Mamlouk, and the Director of General Intelligence, Major General Hussam Louka, visited Arab and Gulf countries in the past weeks, and held meetings for the first time with the leaders of these countries. What are the Arabs offering?

The scope of the offers are wide. It features a direct duo and another major geopolitical proposal. The list includes direct matters, such as stopping the flow of Captagon across Jordan’s borders, and cooperation to prevent the infiltration of smugglers and terrorists. On the geopolitical level, proposals feature changing the nature of the relationship with Iran, so that Syria will not be a foothold and a passage to support terrorist organizations and militias that threaten Arab security.

The list includes Syrian matters, such as the political solution, the constitutional committee, and guarantees for the return of refugees. Some countries are betting that Damascus will almost reach the standards of the “Abraham Accords” with Israel.

On the other hand, the Arab countries offer economic support and exemptions from the sanctions of the US “Caesar Act”, a return to the Arab League and the Arab embrace, in addition to aid and reconstruction.

The Turkish offer: Following the intervention of President Vladimir Putin, Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to security meetings between the head of the Syrian Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk, and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, in Moscow.

The Turkish request included a joint operation against the PKK and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, cooperation to return Syrian refugees, and action against terrorism.

In exchange, Ankara offers economic support, financing for reconstruction projects, political contacts, and “legitimization” of the regime.

Assad has not yet agreed to these proposals and wants Ankara to stop supporting the factions, cooperate against terrorism, and announce its withdrawal from Syria.

He is also trying to obtain additional concessions from the Kurds... and punish them for cooperating with America.

Western offers: Western offers differ from one country to another. There is a European decision that includes 3 No’s: No to contributing to reconstruction, no to ending isolation, and no to lifting sanctions before progress in the political process.

On the other hand, there is the US Caesar Act and sanctions imposed by Washington.

On the ground, the US Army is cooperating with its European allies against terrorism and ISIS. There is also field control related to balance and negotiation with Russia, and support for Israel and its raids against Iran in Syria.

Beneath these geopolitical matters, we see small offers related to humanitarian issues: America is knocking on all doors to know the fate of journalist Justin Tice. It seeks to get information in exchange for ending sanctions on influential figures or making exceptions in humanitarian matters.

European countries are proposing to support “early recovery” projects in the electricity, health and education sectors within the international decision to provide cross-border aid (a decision on its extension will be taken before the 10th of next month), in return for providing political facilities and opening consulates in European cities, or a visit of a delegation to Damascus.

Israeli raids: Israel monitors and follows up on some proposals and is sometimes consulted on them, but continues its raids against “Iranian sites” in the country, starting from Damascus in southern Syria, to Albukamal in the northeast, and to the countryside of Tartous in the west.

Tel Aviv, through Western countries or Moscow, demands that Iran strategically withdraw from Syria and commit to the red lines, namely: ending strategic positioning, stopping arming Hezbollah with specific missiles, and halting the construction of factories for the building of accurate and long-range “ballistic” missiles.

It also “offers” facilitating Damascus’ demands in decision-making corridors and capitals, and acceptance of the Russian role, the Russian presence, and the Russian decision.

The Syrian suffering continues and the crisis deepens. The list of conditions or demands is not only long, but also contradictory and confusing, and reflects interests that require an impossible Syrian resolution.

A solution to the Syrian crisis awaits regional and international arrangements, and the birth of the regime from this painful labor, at the Syrian and international levels.

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

Most of the athletes representing the Palestinian territories at the Paris Olympics were born elsewhere — Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Chile and the United States — yet they care deeply about the politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.

They are eager to compete but say their presence at the Games isn’t only, or even primarily, about sports. With Israel and Hamas locked in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, these eight athletes — two of whom hail from the West Bank — carry heavier burdens.

Yazan Al Bawwab, a 24-year-old swimmer who was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai, said he doesn't expect recognition for his performance in the pool. He uses swimming, he said, as a "tool for Palestine.”

“Unfortunately, nobody has ever asked me about my races. Nobody cares,” said al Bawwab, whose parents come from Jerusalem and Lod, a city that today is in central Israel. “I’m going to be plain and honest: France does not recognize Palestine as a country. But I’m over there, raising my flag. That’s my role.”

Omar Ismail, who was born in Dubai to parents who come from the West Bank town of Jenin, has loftier athletic ambitions. Shortly after earning his spot on the team at a taekwondo qualification tournament in China, the 18-year-old said he aims to win a gold medal in Paris.

But even if he does not earn a medal, Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself, The AP reported.

“I represent the identity of the people in Palestine, their steadfastness,” Ismail said. “I’d like to inspire the children of Palestine, show them that each of them can achieve their goals, give them hope.”

Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain a vibrant Olympics training program in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nine months of war between Israel and Hamas has made that challenge next to impossible.

Much of the country’s sporting infrastructure, clubs and institutions have been demolished, said Nader Jayousi, the technical director at the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Do you know how many approved pools there are in Palestine? Zero,” said al Bawaab, who noted that the Palestinian economy is too small and fragile to consistently support the development of elite athletes. “There is no sports in Palestine. We are a country right now that does not have enough food or shelter, and we are trying to figure out how to stay alive. We are not a sports country yet.”

The Palestinian diaspora has always played an important role at the Olympics and other international competitions, Jayousi said.

Jayousi said it’s not the first time that most of the athletes representing the POC come from abroad. He said the Palestinian diaspora is always represented at any big international sporting competition and Olympics.

More than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to local health officials. Among those who died were about 300 athletes, referees, coaches and others working in Gaza's sports sector, according to Jayousi.

Perhaps the most prominent Palestinian athlete to die in the war was long-distance runner Majed Abu Maraheel, who in 1996 in Atlanta became the first Palestinian to compete in the Olympics. He died of kidney failure earlier this year after he was unable to be treated in Gaza and could not be evacuated to Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Only one Palestinian athlete, Ismail, qualified for the Paris Games in his own right. The seven others gained their spots under a wild-card system delivered as part of the universality quota places.. Backed by the International Olympic Committee, it allows athletes who represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs to compete, even though they did not meet the sporting criteria.

“We had very high hopes that we would go to Paris 2024 with qualified athletes,” Jayousi, the team's technical director, said. “We lost lots of these chances because of the complete stoppage of every single activity in the country.”

Palestinian athletes will compete in boxing, judo, swimming, shooting, track and field and taekwondo.

There is a chance Palestinian athletes could compete against Israelis in Paris. The Israel Olympic Committee said it is sending 88 athletes to Paris, and that they would compete against athletes from anywhere.

Jayousi declined to say whether clear guidelines have been issued to Palestinian athletes about whether they would be expected — as a form of protest against the war in Gaza — to drop out of competition rather than face Israelis.

“Let's see what the draws will put our athletes against," he said. “We know what we want to do, but we don't have to say everything that we want to do.”

One Olympic hopeful who did not make the cut was Gaza-born weightlifter Mohammed Hamada, a flag bearer at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. When the war began, Hamada moved to Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah and trained there for 25 days. But because of the shortage of food, Hamada — who competed in the 102 kilograms (225 pounds) weight class — gradually lost about 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Hamada eventually secured a visa to leave Gaza and moved to Qatar to continue his training. But, Jayousi said, he just couldn't get his body back to Olympic-level condition.

Jayousi said winning medals is not the top priority for the athletes who made it to Paris. (No Palestinian athlete has ever won an Olympic medal).

“We are going here to show our Palestinianism,” he said. “We are focused on fighting until the last second, which we have been doing as a nation for the last 80 years.”

Al Bawaab said he wants to empower the next generation of Palestinian athletes, in part by providing them with greater financial resources. He founded the Palestinian Olympians Association to help athletes prepare for sports and life beyond, including by providing them with mental-health support.

"We don’t have that sports culture yet,” al Bawaab said. “When I’m done swimming, we’ll hopefully get that rolling in the country. But you have to be safe first.”