Saudi Arabia is in talks with Syria to reopen its embassy in the war-torn nation for the first time in a decade. State television in Saudi Arabia reported on Thursday that discussions had started with their Syrian counterparts to resume consular services. The report followed Chinese-mediated talks in Beijing that saw Saudi Arabia and Iran agree to reopen embassies in each other’s nations.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has remained in power thanks to the help of Iran and Russia. Russian mediation is believed to have led to the talks to reopen embassies between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Syrian state media is yet to acknowledge the talks, and neither country has responded to requests for comment.

Why are talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria taking place now?

The talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria to reopen their embassies mark a significant shift in the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East. The two countries have been at odds since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, with Saudi Arabia backing the opposition forces and Syria aligning itself with Iran and Russia. However, in recent years, the Saudi government has sought to normalize its relations with Syria and other regional powers in an effort to counter the growing influence of China and Russia in the Middle East.

The announcement of the talks comes just days after Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to reopen their embassies in each other’s countries, ending a long period of hostility between the two regional powers. The agreement was brokered by China, which has been seeking to expand its influence in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government has been investing heavily in infrastructure projects in the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia and Iran, in an effort to secure access to the region’s vast oil reserves.

The talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria were reportedly facilitated by Russia, which has been seeking to strengthen its ties with both countries. Russia has been a key ally of Syria since the start of the civil war, providing military and diplomatic support to the Assad regime. However, Moscow has also sought to build closer ties with Saudi Arabia in recent years, as part of its broader strategy to expand its influence in the Middle East.

The reopening of embassies between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria is a significant development in the region, as it could pave the way for greater cooperation and dialogue between these countries. However, analysts caution that the road ahead is fraught with challenges, as these countries have long-standing differences that cannot be resolved overnight. Moreover, the United States, which has been the dominant power in the Middle East for decades, is likely to view these developments with concern, as they could further undermine its influence in the region.

The talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria also come at a time of heightened tensions between Israel and Iran, which has been blamed for a recent attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman. The incident has raised fears of a wider conflict in the region, as Israel and Iran continue to engage in a proxy war in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. The reopening of embassies between Saudi Arabia and Syria could have implications for this conflict as well, as both countries are likely to play a key role in any future peace negotiations.

Overall, the talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria are a sign of the changing dynamics in the Middle East, as regional powers seek to balance their relationships with traditional allies and new partners. While the road ahead is uncertain, these developments could pave the way for a more stable and peaceful Middle East in the years to come.

The IMF warns Lebanon that they are at risk of spiralling into hyperinflation if the government fails to enact economic reforms, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The warning came as progress towards a sorely needed IMF bailout package has largely stalled.

The country has fallen into the worst economic crisis in its modern history, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement. Three-quarters of Lebanon’s population of over six million, including a million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty and inflation is soaring. The preliminary deal reached last year for a $3bn bailout would have to be revisited, as the country’s economic situation has changed, according to the IMF.

Underlying reasons behind IMF warns Lebanon

Lebanon’s economic situation has continued to deteriorate since the onset of its financial crisis in late 2019, caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement by the country’s political class. Inflation is soaring, and three-quarters of the population, including a million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been working with Lebanese officials to develop a bailout package to help the country stabilize its economy, but progress has been slow. The IMF’s latest visit to Lebanon, part of its regular assessments of member countries, resulted in a grim assessment of the country’s prospects.

Ernesto Ramirez Rigo, the head of the IMF mission visiting Lebanon, warned that without reforms, Lebanon is headed for hyperinflation, which would have a lasting impact on the quality of life of many Lebanese. Rigo expressed frustration at the slow rate of progress on reforms required to reach a deal, noting that even the legislation that has been passed to enact reforms has fallen short of the IMF’s requirements.

Lebanon’s currency, officially valued at 15,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, is trading at more than 100,000 for $1 on the black market, which is used for nearly all transactions. The pound hit a new low on Tuesday, hitting 140,000 pounds to the dollar, before rebounding slightly.

In response to the crisis, hundreds of protesters, mainly retired soldiers, attempted to break through a fence leading to the government headquarters and parliament building in downtown Beirut before being driven back by security forces using tear gas. The IMF has called for much-needed reforms to be enacted, saying the process has been “very slow” considering the country’s devastating financial situation.

The IMF’s visit comes as negotiations for the bailout package have stalled. A preliminary agreement reached nearly a year ago would have provided a bailout of about $3 billion, but Rigo said that figure would have to be revisited as the country’s economic situation has changed. The IMF called on Lebanon’s leaders to enact reforms, saying the delays can only increase the cost on the Lebanese people.

Lebanese and IMF negotiators reached a staff-level agreement in April last year that depended on an economic recovery plan and a series of crucial reforms. But Lebanese leaders have failed to reach agreement on how to resolve the crisis despite an economic recovery plan adopted by the government in May. One of the main bones of contention is the allocation of financial losses between the main stakeholders: the government, the banks, and depositors.

Mr. Rigo said the state’s participation should be minimal to maintain public debt sustainability. “Any solution needs to ensure that there is debt sustainability. Lebanon is in default … it doesn’t have the capacity to recapitalize the system; that would have been the easy solution, but it can’t do that,” he said. The IMF called for a fair allocation of losses while protecting the value of small depositors as much as possible.

The stakes are high: billions of dollars in relief funding from the IMF could pave the way for releasing other international funding and foreign investment to ease Lebanon out of more than four years of economic crisis. The negotiations with the IMF notably stalled on the state’s contribution to cover the financial losses.

Lebanon is a unique case because of the complexity of the balance sheets between the central bank, commercial banks, and the public sector, and the size of the losses. “The numbers are on such a scale for a country as small as Lebanon that everybody will have to take losses,” Rigo said.

The IMF’s visit comes at a time when Lebanon is facing many other challenges, including political instability and a surge in COVID-19 cases. The country’s caretaker government has been unable to form a new administration for months.

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Lebanese security forces clashed with protesters in Beirut on Wednesday, as hundreds of retired army and police veterans, along with angry depositors and other demonstrators, took to the streets to protest against low pensions and deteriorating economic conditions. The rallies occurred near a joint meeting of parliamentary committees, where politicians were discussing measures to alleviate the public’s increasing financial hardship and declining livelihoods.

Reasons behind protesters in Beirut

The retired soldiers, frustrated at a lack of action to address the currency crisis and devaluing pensions, repeatedly attempted to storm the government palace in the city centre. Security forces responded with tear gas, heightening tensions. The veterans demanded that all public sector salaries be adjusted to a discounted rate of 28,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar through the government’s Sayrafa exchange platform, bringing their pensions closer to a liveable wage. Before the economic crisis, a veteran’s monthly pension was worth $1,600. Should the veterans’ demands be met, the same amount would be worth $245.

Lebanon’s economic collapse

Since the 2019 economic collapse, over 80% of the population has been pushed into poverty, and the local currency has lost over 98% of its value on the parallel market. Lebanese commercial banks imposed informal capital control laws that locked depositors out of much of their savings, further driving down their quality of life. Inflation has skyrocketed since 2019, making essential daily items increasingly unaffordable.

The central bank’s intermittent interventions through the Sayrafa platform, which sells public sector employees a limited amount of dollars at the discounted rate of 70,000 pounds to the dollar, have been little more than temporary stopgaps and have not kept pace with the rapid devaluation of the nation’s currency. The Lebanese pound fell as low as 140,000 to the US dollar on Tuesday before another intervention by the central bank saw it recover some of its value. On Wednesday afternoon, it was trading at about 110,000 to the dollar.

Protests also erupted in other parts of the country, including the main north-south highway and the eastern Bekaa Valley, with angry protesters briefly closing roads. Many gas stations, which have been changing their fuel prices several times a day, closed on Tuesday amid calls to price oil products in US dollars. Some pharmacies also closed because of the constantly changing exchange rate.

The latest crash of the pound comes days before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk. The ongoing economic crisis has also stalled the implementation of broad reforms agreed with the International Monetary Fund to enable access to a $3 billion bailout package and unlock funds in development aid to make the economy viable again. The country is currently being run by a caretaker government, and there is an ongoing deadlock over the election of a new president, a post that has been vacant since the end of October.

Five African migrants drowned and 28 others are missing after their boat capsized off the coast of Tunisia while they were attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. The boat was carrying 38 people, mostly from the Ivory Coast, and had set off from the southern city of Sfax. The Tunisian coastguard rescued five people from the boat.

The incident is the latest in a series of tragedies on the central Mediterranean, which is known as the world’s deadliest migration route. There has been a significant increase in the number of boats departing from the Tunisian coast towards Italy, and the Tunisian authorities have been conducting a campaign of arrests targeting undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration.

President Kais Saied’s remarks about undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration sparked a wave of violence against Black migrants, and landlords fearing fines evicted hundreds of people who are now camping in the streets of Tunis. About 21,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are believed to be in Tunisia, and they have called on the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR to evacuate them.

Why people are fleeing Tunisia

The incident off the coast of Tunisia highlights the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Many of these individuals are fleeing poverty, conflict, and persecution in their home countries and are seeking safety and a better life in Europe.

However, the journey is often dangerous and deadly. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 1,200 migrants and refugees have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2023. The central Mediterranean route, which includes the coast of Tunisia, is particularly deadly, accounting for over 80% of all deaths.

Despite the risks, the number of people attempting to make the journey continues to rise. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the economic situation in many countries, leading more people to seek opportunities abroad. Additionally, political instability, conflict, and human rights abuses in several countries have forced people to flee for their lives.

The situation in Tunisia has also become more complex due to the recent comments made by President Kais Saied about undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration. His remarks have sparked violence against Black migrants and have led to the eviction of hundreds of people who are now homeless and living on the streets.

The UNHCR has called on the Tunisian government to protect the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers and to refrain from any actions that may lead to their stigmatization or discrimination. The agency has also urged European countries to provide more support to Tunisia to help it deal with the influx of migrants and refugees.

Syrian state media has reported that Israeli rockets hit Aleppo International Airport early Wednesday, causing damage. The Syrian Defence Ministry stated that the Israeli enemy carried out the airstrike at approximately 3:55 am with several rockets from the direction of the Mediterranean, west of Latakia, that targeted the airport.

Explosions were also heard in the area earlier in the day. Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes on government-controlled targets in Syria in recent years, including attacks on the Damascus and Aleppo airports, but rarely acknowledges or discusses its operations.

Previous attacks on Aleppo airport

In other recent Israeli attacks in Syria, an airstrike on March 7 killed three people, putting Aleppo airport out of service and disrupting the flow of aid. Syria’s transport ministry has announced that all earthquake aid flights will be re-routed following the Israeli air strike. The Israeli air strike was said to have been carried out from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, west of Latakia, targeting Aleppo International Airport. Last month, a Damascus district housing state security agencies was hit, killing 15 people.

In January, a missile strike on Damascus International Airport killed two soldiers and led to services being suspended overnight. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group that relies on a wide network of sources on the ground in Syria, stated that “four fighters, including two Syrian soldiers, were killed.”

In December, Israel made a rare acknowledgement of operations “not just in Syria” against what it claimed were Iranian targets. Israel has acknowledged that its targets are the bases of Iran-allied militant groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to support President Bashar Al Assad’s forces. Aleppo, which suffered extensive damage during Syria’s civil war, was also heavily damaged in a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in February. Since then, many countries have sent aid shipments to the airport in the city.

Image Credit: AFP