Oil field in Deir ez-Zor, Syria
Oil field in Deir ez-Zor, Syria
Georges Malbrunot

DAMASCUS — It is across an immense desert, between oil fields and Mesopotamian archeological sites overlooking the Euphrates, where Syria's future may be decided. The question, as Damascus makes more and more ground against ISIS and jihadists fighters, is the following: After seven years of a devastating war will the nation remain united? Or will Syria, once the guns fall silent, be lopped off from the northeastern territories now held by the pro-U.S. Kurdish troops?

Along the river that flows into neighboring Iraq, the Syrian army, together with its Russian and Iranian allies, is in direct confrontation with the Kurdish and Arab fighters of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retake the areas formerly controlled by ISIS. The last big battle is taking place in Abu Kamal, a town on the border with Iraq which jihadist fighters hidden in tunnels retook from Damascus on Nov. 11, just days after losing it.

But there's something much bigger at stake in these final desert battles. Three things in fact: What will be the future of Syrian Kurds, who aspire to a certain form of autonomy? What will become of the American bases that protect them? And, perhaps most crucial of all: Who will control the oil, the precious weapon for financing all sorts of ambitions?

In the living room of his home in Damascus' rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar, Naji Homsi unfolds the map of oil installations in this highly-coveted region. "Look at the pipelines," says Homsi, an oil expert, who's been unemployed since he left the city of Deir ez-Zor in 2013. "One goes west to Homs, the other towards Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast, another comes from Iraq."

The U.S.-backed SDF has retaken most of these wells from ISIS over the past few months. "But now that the Syrian regime is gaining ground, the American policy is focused on stopping Assad from retaking these wells," says an Arab nation's ambassador in Damascus.

In early October, the Syrian army got closer to the ISIS-held town of Conoco, home to the country's biggest gas fields, near Deir ez-Zor. But U.S. air strikes had already destroyed the operation room to prevent the jihadists from being able to use them. "Some $800 million invested by the Syrian government went up in smoke," a Damascus-based businessman quips with a resentful tone.

I accuse the Americans of having approved a deal between the Kurds and ISIS.

The latest episode in this desert war took place in late October around the al-Omar oil field, which boasted a capacity of 200,000 barrels per day before 2011. It is located near Deir ez-Zor, which Damascus retook from ISIS before the SDF, in early November. The Syrian troops were just three kilometers away from the jihadist-held al-Omar when the U.S. air force brought in SDF fighters from 45 kilometers away.

"I accuse the Americans of having approved a deal between the Kurds and ISIS," declares Nawaf Bashir, a tribal leader in Deir ez-Zor. "The Kurds let 400 jihadists leave Raqqa and travel to Abu Kamal and, in return, ISIS let the SDF take control of al-Omar. In just one hour, the pro-U.S. forces retook the field from ISIS without a fight." This also explains Russia's harsh criticisms, accusing Washington of "disrupting" anti-terrorist operations in this region. Especially given the fact that the SDF also took al-Jafra and oil fields, farther to the north, immediately after.

To counter Washington, Moscow is deploying hundreds of troops to guard oil installations recaptured from ISIS. These troops are in fact private mercenaries from Evro Polis, a company owned by an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin and ChVK Wagner, which recruits among former "volunteers' in Crimea. These henchmen are already operating near Palmyra, south of Deir ez-Zor, where they've started repairing strategic infrastructure. Time, indeed, is running out. Russian oil companies are already at work. Moscow wrested a deal from Assad according to which it's expected to make a clean sweep and operate most future oil production in Syria, leaving the mines, agriculture and certain refinery activities to the Iranians.

In these regions of northeastern Syria, populated with Arabs and Kurds, more and more Arabs have joined ranks with the Kurds, under U.S. pressure, to fight against ISIS. "Some 6,000 members of my tribe, the Baggara, fought against ISIS with the Kurds in Raqqa," Nawaf Bashir claims. "But when they see that the Kurds can control neither Raqqa nor Deir ez-Zor — the Arabs hate them — the members of my tribe will return to the Syrian government's fold."

Damascus is indeed trying to court them. Nawaf Bashir is one of the best prizes of war. In 2011, he joined the Syrian opposition exiled in Istanbul. "But I quickly realized that our agenda was being dictated from abroad, in particular by Qatar and its Muslim Brotherhood allies." In 2013, Bashir came back and knocked on the government's door. "It took me three years to get back in," he says. "Some people, here in Damascus, weren't for it." As a token for bringing him back in the fold, he offered 600 of his tribesmen to fight in Deir ez-Zor alongside Syrian troops and their allies, Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Iranians who are believed to have equipped them.

Who will the Arab tribes of Eastern Syria side with? "It's all about the money for them, they'll join whoever is the strongest," says Tareq Ahmad, a leader of the Homs province.

Damascus begins to appear as a solution, a lesser evil. "Look at Raqqa, nothing's happening there," Nawaf Bashir notes. About 80% of the city has been left destroyed by four months of airstrikes from the U.S.-led international coalition.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the humanitarian situation is more critical than ever, with the number of refugees crammed in makeshift camps having risen from 90,000, to 300,000.

This is not reconstruction.

When he visited Raqqa after it was liberated from ISIS, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett H. McGurck, cautioned: "We are committed to stabilization, and that word is very important. This is not reconstruction." In other words, no money as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power.

Some loyalists believe that, when the time comes, Nawaf Bashir will be the man Damascus chooses to lead Raqqa. But the Americans and the Egyptians have another name in mind: Ahmad Jarba, a tribal leader from Eastern Syria and former leader of the opposition to Assad. "He's got money, he hoarded back then, when he was Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan's man," a Damascus-based journalist says.

"How long is the U.S. going to support the Kurds?" Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, recently asked. The Arab ambassador in Damascus says Washington must hold its position to counter the Iranians' progress in the region near the Iraqi border.

Meanwhile, in this multiethnic area, another threat is emerging: "If the Americans abandon the Kurds, in certain cities such as Hasakah, the Arabs could attack them," warns the aforementioned Syrian journalist, noting that Kurdish advances over the past few years were sometimes due to acts of violence against Arab civilians.

"The Kurds are taking land as a guarantee to reinforce their position at the negotiating table," Washington-based researcher Fabrice Balanche says.

The Kurds have astutely maintained friendships with both the Americans, who gave them weapons, as well as with the Russians, who are ready to grant them a certain autonomy in tomorrow's Syria. Under pressure from Moscow, the Syrian government has had to make some concessions. Some sources even mentioned an offer from Damascus to the Kurds, granting them limited autonomy in exchange for them liberating the Arab territories they now occupy in northeastern Syria. In short, the retreat of ISIS has left no one standing still.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never.

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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