Rights groups fear only small number will be freed
Families desperate for news of loved ones missing for years
BERLIN/DAMASCUS, May 7 (Reuters) – For ten years, Rojin Derki hoped her brother Mohammad was still alive and would one day be released from a Syrian government prison after his arrest in 2012.
Yet when a presidential decree last week gave a general amnesty for prisoners, she had mixed feelings.
“It’s an ugly feeling because you don’t know if he is alive, if he will be released, or if he will remember us,” Derki said, holding a photo of her brother at a sit-in on Saturday in Berlin by dozens of Syrians for political detainees.
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“When my mother learned about the decree she said ‘even if he doesn’t recognise me, at least I will do’,” said Derki, whose brother supported an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The April 30 amnesty appears to be the first for those detained under a sweeping 2012 counter-terrorism decree, which rights groups say allowed authorities to round up opposition activists and aid workers.
It has given hope for thousands of Syrian families to see loved ones free again after years of detention. But rights groups say the decree will only give freedom to a small fraction of the political prisoners the government detains.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which has been documenting the war from outside Syria, said around 200 people have been released so far since the decree, with the total unlikely to exceed 1,800.
“The government has 132,000 Syrian citizens (detained for political reasons), according to SNHR data, of which there are 87,000 forcibly disappeared, meaning they are not included in amnesty decrees,” SNHR head Fadel Abdul Ghany said.
Derki, with other Syrians, laid down framed photos of their detained family members in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
They were unhappy at the decree’s lack of clarity.
“Like me, all families here are angry. We don’t know what this amnesty means,” said Yasmin Shabaji, who has not heard news of her detained brother and father in almost a decade.
Ammar Bilal, a member of the legislation department at Syria’s ministry of justice, said it was not possible to determine the number of people the amnesty would cover, adding that the pardon was more comprehensive than previous ones because it included people tried in absentia.
Syria’s Justice Ministry said all detainees covered by the amnesty would be released successively in coming days, without providing further details.
For Derki, the decree was another way for the Syrian leader to show his power. “He did this to say to Syrians: ‘I am still here and your sons are still held by me.'”
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Writing by Riham Alkousaa;
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
WASHINGTON — As Russian troops retreat from northern Ukraine and focus operations on the country’s east and south, the Kremlin is struggling to scrape together enough combat-ready reinforcements to conduct a new phase of the war, according to American and other Western military and intelligence officials.
Moscow initially sent 75 percent of its main ground combat forces into the war in February, Pentagon officials said. But much of that army of more than 150,000 troops is now a spent force, after suffering logistics problems, flagging morale and devastating casualties inflicted by stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, military and intelligence officials say.
There are relatively few fresh Russian troops to fill the breach. Russia has withdrawn the forces — as many as 40,000 soldiers — it had arrayed around Kyiv and Chernihiv, two cities in the north, to rearm and resupply in Russia and neighboring Belarus before most likely repositioning them in eastern Ukraine in the next few weeks, U.S. officials say.
The Kremlin is also rushing to the east a mix of Russian mercenaries, Syrian fighters, new conscripts and regular Russian army troops from Georgia and easternmost Russia.
Whether this weakened but still very lethal Russian force can overcome its blunders of the first six weeks of combat and accomplish a narrower set of war aims in a smaller swath of the country remains an open question, senior U.S. officials and analysts said.
“Russia still has forces available to outnumber Ukraine’s, and Russia is now concentrating its military power on fewer lines of attack, but this does not mean that Russia will succeed in the east,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on Monday.
“The next stage of this conflict may very well be protracted,” Mr. Sullivan said. He added that Russia would probably send “tens of thousands of soldiers to the front line in Ukraine’s east,” and continue to rain rockets, missiles and mortars on Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv and other cities.
U.S. officials have based their assessments on satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, Ukrainian battlefield reports and other information, and those intelligence estimates have been backed up by independent analysts examining commercially available information.
Earlier U.S. intelligence assessments of the Russian government’s intent to attack Ukraine proved accurate, although some lawmakers said spy agencies overestimated the Russian military’s ability to advance quickly.
As the invasion faltered, U.S. and European officials have highlighted the Russian military’s errors and logistical problems, though they have cautioned that Moscow’s ability to regroup should not be underestimated.
The Ukrainian military has managed to reclaim territory around Kyiv and Chernihiv, attacking the Russians as they retreat; thwarted a ground attack against Odesa in the south and held on in Mariupol, the battered and besieged city on the Black Sea. Ukraine is now receiving T-72 battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons — in addition to Javelin antitank and Stinger antiaircraft missiles — from the West.
Anticipating this next major phase of the war in the east, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday that it was sending $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles — roughly several hundred missiles from Pentagon stocks — to Ukraine, where the weapon has been very effective in destroying Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.
American and European officials believe that the Russian military’s shift in focus is aimed at correcting some of the mistakes that have led to its failure to overcome a Ukrainian army that is far stronger and savvier than Moscow initially assessed.
But the officials said it remained to be seen how effective Russia would be in building up its forces to renew its attack. And there are early signs that pulling Russian troops and mercenaries from Georgia, Syria and Libya could complicate the Kremlin’s priorities in those countries.
Some officials say Russia will try to go in with more heavy artillery. By focusing its forces in smaller geographic area, and moving them closer to supply routes into Russia, Western intelligence officials said, Russia hopes to avoid the logistics problems its troops suffered in their failed attack on Kyiv.
Other European intelligence officials predicted it would take Russian forces one to two weeks to regroup and refocus before they could press an attack in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was desperate for some kind of win by May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates the end of World War II with a big Victory Day parade in Red Square.
“What we are seeing now is that the Kremlin is trying to achieve some kind of success on the ground to pretend there is a victory for its domestic audience by the 9th of May,” said Mikk Marran, the director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service.
Mr. Putin would like to consolidate control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, and establish a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula by early May, a senior Western intelligence official said.
Russia has already moved air assets to the east in preparation for the renewed attack on the heart of the Ukrainian military, and has increased aerial bombardment in that area in recent days, a European diplomat and other officials said.
“It’s a particularly dangerous scenario for the Ukrainians now, at least on paper,” said Alexander S. Vindman, an expert on Ukraine who became the chief witness in President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial. “In reality, the Russians haven’t performed superbly well.Whether they could actually bring to bear their armor, their infantry, their artillery and air power in a concerted way to destroy larger Ukrainian formations is yet to be seen.”
Russian troops have been fighting in groups of a few hundred soldiers, rather than in the bigger and more effective formations of thousands of soldiers used in the past.
“We haven’t seen any indication that they have the ability to adapt,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired C.I.A. officer.
The number of Russian losses in the war so far remains unknown, though Western intelligence agencies estimate 7,000 to 10,000 killed and 20,000 to 30,000 wounded. Thousands more have been captured or are missing in action.
The Russian military, the Western and European officials said, has learned at least one major lesson from its failures: the need to concentrate forces, rather than spread them out.
But Moscow is trying to find additional forces, according to intelligence officials.
Russia’s best forces, its two airborne divisions and the First Guards Tank army, have suffered significant casualties and an erosion of combat power, and the military has scoured its army looking for reinforcements.
The British Defense Ministry and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that analyzes the Ukraine war, both reported on Tuesday that the Russian troops withdrawing from Kyiv and Chernihiv would not be fit for redeployment soon.
“The Russians have no ability to rebuild their destroyed vehicles and weapon systems because of foreign components, which they can no longer get,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe who has been involved with Ukrainian defense matters since 2016.
Russian forces arriving from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two secessionist statelets that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008, have been conducting peacekeeping duties and are not combat ready, General Repass said.
Russia’s problems finding additional troops is in large measure why it has invited Syrian fighters, Chechens and Russian mercenaries to serve as reinforcements. But these additional forces number in the hundreds, not thousands, European intelligence officials said.
The Chechen force, one of the European intelligence officials said, is “clearly used to sow fear.” The Chechen units are not better fighters and have suffered high losses. But they have been used in urban combat situations and for “the dirtiest kind of work,” the official said.
Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are gearing up to assume an increasingly active role in a phase of the war that Moscow now says is its top priority: fighting in the country’s east.
The number of mercenaries deployed to Ukraine from the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Mr. Putin, is expected to more than triple to at least 1,000 from the early days of the invasion, a senior American official said.
Wagner is also relocating artillery, air defenses and radar that it had used in Libya to Ukraine, the official said.
Moving mercenaries will “backfire because these are units that can’t be incorporated into the regular army, and we know that they are brutal violators of human rights which will only turn Ukrainian and world opinion further against Russia,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.
Hundreds of Syrian fighters are also heading to Ukraine, effectively returning the favor to Moscow for its helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war.
A contingent of at least 300 Syrian soldiers has already arrived in Russia for training.
“They are bringing in fighters known for brutality in the hopes of breaking the Ukrainian will to fight,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But, she added, any military gains there for Russia will depend on the willingness of the foreign fighters to fight.
“One of the difficult things about putting together a coalition of disparate interests is that it can be hard to make them an effective fighting force,” she said.
Finally, Mr. Putin recently signed a decree calling up 134,000 conscripts. It will take months to train the recruits, though Moscow could opt to rush them straight to the front lines with little or no instruction, officials said.
“Russia is short on troops and is looking to get manpower where they can,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va. “They are not well placed for a prolonged war against Ukraine.”
WASHINGTON — Russia asked China to give it military equipment and support for the war in Ukraine after President Vladimir V. Putin began a full-scale invasion last month, according to U.S. officials.
Russia has also asked China for additional economic assistance, to help counteract the battering its economy has taken from broad sanctions imposed by the United States and European and Asian nations, according to an official.
American officials, determined to keep secret their means of collecting the intelligence on Russia’s requests, declined to describe further the kind of military weapons or aid that Moscow is seeking. The officials also declined to discuss any reaction by China to the requests.
President Xi Jinping of China has strengthened a partnership with Mr. Putin and has stood by him as Russia has stepped up its military campaign, destroying cities in Ukraine and killing hundreds or thousands of civilians. American officials are watching China closely to see whether it will act on any requests of aid from Russia. Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, is scheduled to meet on Monday in Rome with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s elite Politburo and director of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission.
Mr. Sullivan intends to warn Mr. Yang about any future Chinese efforts to bolster Russia in its war or undercut Ukraine, the United States and their partners.
“We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them,” Mr. Sullivan said on CNN on Sunday.
“We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world,” he said.
Mr. Sullivan did not make any explicit mention of potential military support from China, but other U.S. officials spoke about the request from Russia on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of diplomatic and intelligence matters.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said he had never heard of the request from Russia. “The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said, adding that Beijing wants to see a peaceful settlement. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”
The Biden administration is seeking to lay out for China the consequences of its alignment with Russia and penalties it will incur if it continues or increases its support. Some U.S. officials argue it might be possible to dissuade Beijing from ramping up its assistance to Moscow. Chinese leaders may be content to offer rhetorical support for Moscow and may not want to further enmesh themselves with Mr. Putin by providing military support for the war, those U.S. officials say.
Mr. Sullivan said China “was aware before the invasion took place that Vladimir Putin was planning something,” but added that the Chinese might not have known the full extent of the Russian leader’s plans. “It’s very possible that Putin lied to them, the same way he lied to Europeans and others,” he said.
Mr. Xi has met with Mr. Putin 38 times as national leaders, more than with any other head of state, and the two share a drive to weaken American power.
Traditionally, China has bought military equipment from Russia rather than the other way around. Russia has increased its sales of weaponry to China in recent years. But China has advanced missile and drone capabilities that Russia could use in its Ukraine campaign.
Although Russia on Sunday launched a missile barrage on a military training ground in western Ukraine that killed at least 35 people, there has been some evidence that Russian missile supplies have been running low, according to independent analysts.
Last week, the White House criticized China for helping spread Kremlin disinformation about the United States and Ukraine. In recent days, Chinese diplomats, state media organizations and government agencies have used a range of platforms and official social media accounts to amplify a conspiracy theory that says the Pentagon has been financing biological and chemical weapons labs in Ukraine. Right-wing political figures in the United States have also promoted the theory.
On Friday, Russia called a United Nations Security Council meeting to present its claims about the labs, and the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., Zhang Jun, supported his Russian counterpart.
“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter last Wednesday.
China is also involved in the Iran nuclear negotiations, which have stalled because of new demands from Russia on relief from the sanctions imposed by Western nations in response to the Ukraine war.
American officials are trying to determine to what degree China would support Russia’s position in those talks. Before Russia raised the requests, officials from the nations involved had been close to clinching a return to a version of the Obama-era nuclear limits agreement from which Donald J. Trump withdrew, Mr. Sullivan might bring up Iran with Mr. Yang on Monday.
Current and former U.S. officials say the Rome meeting is important given the lives at stake in the Ukraine war and the possibility of Russia and China presenting a geopolitical united front against the United States and its allies in the years ahead.
“This meeting is critical and possibly a defining moment in the relationship,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was a senior Asia director on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“I think what the U.S. is probably going to do is lay out the costs and consequences of China’s complicity and possible enabling of Russia’s invasion,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the administration has illusions that the U.S. can pull China away from Russia.”
Some U.S. officials are looking for ways to compel Mr. Xi to distance himself from Mr. Putin on the war. Others see Mr. Xi as a lost cause and prefer to treat China and Russia as committed partners, hoping that might galvanize policies and coordination among Asian and European allies to contain them both.
Chinese officials have consistently voiced sympathy for Russia during the Ukraine war by reiterating Mr. Putin’s criticism of NATO and blaming the United States for starting the conflict. They have refrained from any mention of a Russian “war” or “invasion,” even as they express general concern for the humanitarian crisis.
They mention support for “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a common catchphrase in Chinese diplomacy, but do not say explicitly which nation’s sovereignty they support — meaning the phrase could be interpreted as backing for Ukraine or an endorsement of Mr. Putin’s claims to restoring the territory of imperial Russia.
China and Russia issued a 5,000-word statement on Feb. 4 saying their partnership had “no limits” when Mr. Putin met with Mr. Xi before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Around that time, senior Chinese officials asked senior Russian officials not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Games, according to U.S. and European officials who cite a Western intelligence report.
Starting last November, American officials quietly held talks with Chinese officials, including the ambassador in Washington and the foreign minister, to discuss intelligence showing Mr. Putin’s troop buildup to persuade the Chinese to tell the Russians not to launch a war, U.S. officials said. The Chinese officials rebuffed the Americans at every meeting and expressed skepticism that Mr. Putin intended to invade Ukraine, the U.S. officials said.
William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said Thursday in a Senate hearing that he believed Mr. Xi was “unsettled” by the Ukraine war.
Last Tuesday, Mr. Xi repeated China’s standard talking points on the war in a video call with the leaders of France and Germany. He also said that all nations should show “maximum restraint” and that China was “deeply grieved by the outbreak of war again on the European continent,” according to a Chinese readout. He did not say Russia had started the fighting.
U.S. and European officials say large Chinese companies will most likely refrain from openly violating sanctions on Russia for fear of jeopardizing their global commerce. On Thursday, some Russian news articles and commentary questioned China’s commitment to Russia after news agencies reported that China was refusing to send aircraft parts to the country.
Russia, as U.S. officials often remind the public, has relatively few friends or allies. And officials have said Russia’s outreach to its partners is a sign of the difficulties it is encountering trying to subdue Ukraine.
As the United States and Europe have increased pressure and sanctions, Moscow has sought more aid.
In the buildup to war, Russia got assistance from Belarus, using its territory to launch part of the invasion. Minsk has also tried to help Moscow evade sanctions. Those actions prompted the European Union to impose sanctions on Belarus. The penalties would limit money flowing into Belarus from Europe and block some Belarusian banks from using the SWIFT financial messaging system.
Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, accused Belarus of being a “co-aggressor” and having “stabbed your neighbor in the back,” referring to Ukraine.
President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus has said his military will not join in the war. But Russia has launched missiles from Belarus and evacuated some injured Russian soldiers to hospitals in that country.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who owes his government’s survival to Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, also declared support for Moscow’s invasion. Russia has tried to recruit Syrian fighters to join the Ukraine war, according to the Pentagon.
While there are no details of how many recruits Moscow has enlisted or if they have arrived in Ukraine, American officials said it was an indicator of the strategic and tactical problems that have plagued Russian commanders.
Before the start of the war, European officials said, Russian military contractors with experience fighting in Syria and Libya secretly entered eastern Ukraine to help lay the groundwork for the invasion.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Built on the ashes of 10 years of war in Syria, an illegal drug industry run by powerful associates and relatives of President Bashar al-Assad has grown into a multi-billion-dollar operation, eclipsing Syria’s legal exports and turning the country into the world’s newest narcostate.
Its flagship product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Its operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export, and smuggling networks to spirit them to markets abroad.
An investigation by The New York Times found that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and one of Syria’s most powerful men.
Major players also include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and other members of the president’s extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities, according to The Times investigation, which is based on information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former United States officials.
found 84 million pills hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears last year. Malaysian officials discovered more than 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels in March.
hub of hashish production and a stronghold of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that is now part of Lebanon’s government.
While the pharmaceutical Captagon contained the amphetamine fenethylline, the illicit version sold today, often referred to as “captagon” with a lowercase c, usually contains a mix of amphetamines, caffeine and various fillers. Cheap versions retail for less than a dollar a pill in Syria, while higher quality pills can sell for $14 or more apiece in Saudi Arabia.
After the Syrian war broke out, smugglers took advantage of the chaos to sell the drug to fighters on all sides, who took it to bolster their courage in battle. Enterprising Syrians, working with local pharmacists and machinery from disused pharmaceutical factories, began making it.
Syria had the needed components: experts to mix drugs, factories to make products to conceal the pills, access to Mediterranean shipping lanes and established smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
As the war dragged on, the country’s economy fell apart and a growing number of Mr. al-Assad’s associates were targeted with international sanctions. Some of them invested in captagon, and a state-linked cartel developed, bringing together military officers, militia leaders, traders whose businesses had boomed during the war and relatives of Mr. al-Assad.
Mr. Khiti and Mr. Taha. It called Mr. Taha an intermediary for the Fourth Division whose businesses “generate revenue for the regime and its supporters.”
Captagon is still produced in and smuggled through Lebanon. Nouh Zaiter, a Lebanese drug lord who now lives mostly in Syria, links the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the business, according to regional security officials and Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade.
A tall, longhaired Bekaa Valley native, Mr. Zaiter was sentenced in absentia to life in prison with hard labor by a Lebanese military court this year for drug crimes.
Reached by phone, Mr. Zaiter said his business was hashish and denied that he had ever been involved with captagon.
“I have not and will never send such poisons to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else,” he said. “Even my worst enemy, I won’t provide him with captagon.”
sewn into the linings of clothes.
In May, after Saudi authorities discovered more than five million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon, a major blow to local farmers.
According to The Times’ database, the number of pills seized has increased every year since 2017.
The street value of the drugs seized has outstripped the value of Syria’s legal exports, mostly agricultural products, every year since 2019.
Last year, global captagon seizures had a street value of about$2.9 billion, more than triple Syria’s legal exports of $860 million.
Law enforcement agencies have struggled to catch the smugglers, not least because the Syrian authorities offer little if any information about shipments that originated in their country.
The name of shippers listed on manifests are usually fake and searches for the intended recipients often lead to mazes of shell companies.
The Italian seizure of 84 million pills in Salerno last year, the largest captagon bust ever at the time, had come from Latakia. Shipping documents listed the sender as Basil al-Shagri Bin Jamal, but the Italian authorities were unable to find him.
GPS Global Aviation Supplier, a company registered in Lugano, Switzerland, that appears to have no office.
Phone calls, text messages and emails to the company received no response, and the wealth management firm that the company listed as its mailing address, SMC Family Office SA, declined to comment.
Greek investigators have hit similar roadblocks.
In June 2019, workers in Piraeus found five tons of captagon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, inside sheets of fiberboard on their way to China.
Seehog, a Chinese logistics firm. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about the shipment and refused to answer questions.
“You are not the police,” she said, and hung up.
There was one more clue in the documents: The sender was Mohammed Amer al-Dakak, with a Syrian phone number. When entered into WhatsApp, the phone number showed a photo of Maher al-Assad, the commander of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, suggesting the number belonged to, at least, one of his fans.
A man who answered that number said that he was not Mr. al-Dakak. He said that he had acquired the phone number recently.
Loukas Danabasis, the head of the narcotics unit of Greece’s financial crime squad, said the smugglers’ tactics made solving such cases “difficult and sometimes impossible.”
Spilling Into Jordan
While officials in Europe struggle to identify smugglers, Jordan, one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, sits on the front lines of a regional drug war.
“Jordan is the gateway to the Gulf,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad al-Sarhan, the commander of an army unit along Jordan’s border with Syria, said during a visit to the area.
Overlooking a deep valley with views of Syria, General al-Sarhan and his men detailed Syrian smugglers’ tricks to bring drugs into Jordan: They launch crossing attempts at multiple spots. They attach drugs to drones and fly them across. They load drugs onto donkeys trained to cross by themselves.
Sometimes the smugglers stop by Syrian army posts before approaching the border.
“There is clear involvement,” General al-Sarhan said.
The drug trade worries Jordanian officials for many reasons.
The quantities are increasing. The number of Captagon pills seized in Jordan this year is nearly double the amount seized in 2020, according to Colonel Alqudah, the head of the narcotics department.
And while Jordan was originally just a pathway to Saudi Arabia, as much as one-fifth of the drugs smuggled in from Syria are now consumed in Jordan, he estimated. The increased supply has lowered the price, making it easy for students to become addicted.
Even more worrying, he said, is the growing quantity of crystal meth entering Jordan from Syria, which poses a greater threat. As of October, Jordan had seized 132 pounds of it this year, up from 44 pounds the year before.
“We are now in a dangerous stage because we can’t go back,” said Dr. Morad al-Ayasrah, a Jordanian psychiatrist who treats drug addicts. “We are going forward and the drugs are increasing.”
Reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis in Athens; Gaia Pianigiani in Rome; Kit Gillet in Bucharest, Romania; Hannah Beech in Bangkok; and employees of The New York Times in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon.
military threats to human rights concerns. Some were longstanding, others of newer vintage.
During the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation led to historic treaties and a framework that kept the world from blowing itself up. At this meeting, for the first time, cyberweapons — with their own huge potential to wreak havoc — were at the center of the agenda.
But Mr. Putin’s comments to the media suggested the two leaders did not find much common ground.
In addition to his denials that Russia had played a destabilizing role in cyberspace, he also took a hard line on human rights in Russia.
He said Mr. Biden had raised the issue, but struck the same defiant tone on the matter in his news conference as he has in the past. The United States, Mr. Putin said, supports opposition groups in Russia to weaken the country, since it sees Russia as an adversary.
“If Russia is the enemy, then what organizations will America support in Russia?” Mr. Putin asked. “I think that it’s not those who strengthen the Russian Federation, but those that contain it — which is the publicly announced goal of the United States.”
President Biden said on Wednesday that “I did what I came to do” in his first summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Speaking after the summit in Geneva, Mr. Biden said the two leaders had identified areas of mutual interest and cooperation. But he said he had also voiced American objections to Russia’s behavior on human rights, and warned that there would be consequences to cyberattacks on the United States.
Any American president representing the country’s democratic values, Mr. Biden said, would be obliged to raise issues of human rights and freedoms. And so he said had discussed with Mr. Putin his concerns over the imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny and warned there would be “devastating” consequences if Mr. Navalny were to die in prison.
Mr. Biden also brought up the detentions of two American citizens in Russia, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, he said.
On the issue of cybersecurity, Mr. Biden said he had argued that certain parts of the infrastructure need to be off limits to cyberattacks. He said he had provided Mr. Putin with a list of critical areas, like energy, that must be spared. Mr. Biden also said the two leaders had agreed to enlist experts in both countries to discuss what should remain off limits and to follow up on specific cases.
“We need to have some basic rules of the road,” Mr. Biden told reporters after the summit.
And if Russia continues to violate what he called the basic norms of responsible behavior, he said, “We will respond.”
Mr. Biden made clear that, during his discussions with Mr. Putin, there were no threats, no talk of military intervention and no mention of what specific retaliation the United States would take in such cases. But Mr. Biden said that the United States was fully capable of responding with its own cyberattacks —“and he knows it.”
Mr. Biden said “there’s much more work to do,” but declared over the course of his weeklong European trip, he had shown that “the United States is back.”
He also said Russia stood to lose internationally if it continued to meddle in elections. “It diminishes the standing of a nation,”Mr. Biden said.
President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday repeated well-worn denials of Russian mischief and tropes about American failings, as he spoke to the press after his first summit with President Biden.
But between those familiar lines, he left the door open to deeper engagement with Washington than the Kremlin had been willing to entertain in recent years. On issues like cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, diplomatic spats and even prisoner exchanges, Mr. Putin said he was ready for talks with the United States, and he voiced unusual optimism about the possibility of achieving results.
“We must agree on rules of behavior in all the spheres that we mentioned today: That’s strategic stability, that’s cybersecurity, that’s resolving questions connected to regional conflicts,” Mr. Putin said at a nearly hourlong news conference after the summit. “I think that we can find agreement on all this — at least I got that sense given the results of our meeting with President Biden.”
Mr. Putin’s focus on “rules of behavior” sounded a lot like the “guardrails” that American officials have said they hope to agree on with Russia in order to stabilize the relationship. “Strategic stability” is the term both sides use to refer to nuclear weapons and related issues.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that the United States and Russia will make progress on those fundamental issues, and American officials fear Russian offers of talks could be efforts to tie key questions up in committees rather than set clear red lines. But in recent years, substantive dialogue between the two countries has been rare, making Wednesday’s promises of new consultations significant.
But Mr. Putin fell back on familiar Kremlin talking points to bat away criticisms, pointing to supposed human rights violations in the United States and denying Russian complicity in cyberattacks. He also refused to budge in response to questions over his repression of dissent inside Russia and the imprisonment of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny. As he has said in the past, he repeated that the Kremlin does not see domestic politics as up for negotiation or discussion.
“If you ignore the tiresome whataboutism, there were some real outcomes,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, Va. “Russia is not in the habit of confessing its sins and seeking forgiveness. Particularly under Putin.”
The main outcomes to Mr. Charap were the agreement on U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and cybersecurity, as well as the agreement for American and Russian ambassadors to return to their posts in Moscow and Washington. Mr. Putin also said there was “potential for compromise” on the issue of several Americans imprisoned in Russia and Russians imprisoned in the United States.
To tout his renewed willingness to talk — while acknowledging the uncertainty ahead — Mr. Putin quoted from Russian literature.
“Leo Tolstoy once said: ‘There is no happiness in life — there are only glimmers of it,’” Mr. Putin said. “I think that in this situation, there can’t be any kind of family trust. But I think we’ve seen some glimmers.”
After President Biden met his Russian counterpart on Wednesday, the two men did not face the news media at a joint news conference.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke first, followed by Mr. Biden, in separate news conferences, a move intended by the White House to deny the Russian leader an international platform like the one he received during a 2018 summit in Helsinki with President Donald J. Trump.
“We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward, and a solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting,” a U.S. official said in a statement sent to reporters this weekend, “both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns.”
Top aides to Mr. Biden said that during negotiations over the meetings the Russian government was eager to have Mr. Putin join Mr. Biden in a news conference. But Biden administration officials said that they were mindful of how Mr. Putin seemed to get the better of Mr. Trump in Helsinki.
At that news conference, Mr. Trump publicly accepted Mr. Putin’s assurances that his government did not interfere with the 2016 election, taking the Russian president’s word rather than the assessments of his own intelligence officials.
The spectacle in 2018 drew sharp condemnations from across the political spectrum for providing an opportunity for Mr. Putin to spread falsehoods. Senator John McCain at the time called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Piggybacking on the attention to Russia with the Biden-Putin meeting on Wednesday, the European Union issued a long and pessimistic report on the state of relations between Brussels and Moscow.
“There is not much hope for better relations between the European Union and Russia anytime soon,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, introducing the report. It was prepared in advance of a summit meeting of European leaders next week at which the bloc’s future policy toward Russia will be on the agenda.
That discussion has been delayed several times by other pressing issues, including the pandemic.
“Under present circumstances, a renewed partnership between the E.U. and Russia, allowing for closer cooperation, seems a distant prospect,” Mr. Borrell said in a statement, introducing the 14-page report prepared by the European Commission.
The report urges the 27-member bloc to simultaneously “push back” against Russian misbehavior and violations of international law; “constrain” Russia’s efforts to destabilize Europe and undermine its interests, especially in the Western Balkans and neighboring post-Soviet states; and “engage” with Russia on common issues like health and climate, “based on a strong common understanding of Russia’s aims and an approach of principled pragmatism.”
The ambition, Mr. Borrell said, is to move gradually “into a more predictable and stable relationship,” a similar goal to that expressed by the Biden administration.
Mr. Borrell had an embarrassing visit to Moscow in February as he began to prepare the report. He stood by without reacting in a joint news conference as his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, called the European Union an “unreliable partner.”
As they were meeting, Moscow announced that diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden had been expelled for purportedly participating in “illegal protests” to support the jailed opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny, a fact Mr. Borrell discovered only later through social media.
He defended the trip, telling the European Parliament that he “wanted to test whether the Russian authorities are interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations and seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue. The answer has been clear: No, they are not.”
Relations have worsened since then with overt Russian support for a crackdown against democracy and protests in Belarus.
Even before the summit between the United States and Russia got underway on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials played down the prospect for a breakthrough on one of the thornier issues on the agenda: ending the war in eastern Ukraine, the only active conflict in Europe today.
Ukraine said it would not accept any arrangements made in Geneva between President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin on the war, which has been simmering for seven years between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army, officials said.
Before the summit’s start, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that Ukraine’s entry into NATO would represent a “red line” for Russia that Mr. Putin was prepared to make plain on Wednesday. Mr. Biden said this week that Ukraine could join NATO if “they meet the criteria.”
The Ukrainian government has in recent years dug in its heels on a policy of rejecting any negotiation without a seat at the table after worry that Washington and Moscow would cut a deal in back-room talks. The approach has remained in place with the Biden administration.
“It is not possible to decide for Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday. “So there will be no concrete result” in negotiations in Geneva, he said.
Ukraine’s foreign minister drove the point home again on Tuesday.
“We have made it very clear to our partners that no agreement on Ukraine reached without Ukraine will be recognized by us,” Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister, told journalists. Ukraine, he said, “will not accept any scenarios where they will try to force us to do something.”
Ukraine will have a chance for talks with the United States. Mr. Biden has invited Mr. Zelensky to a meeting in the White House in July, when a recent Russian troop buildup along the Ukrainian border is sure to be on the agenda.
Russia massed more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border this spring. Despite an announcement in Moscow of a drawdown, both Ukrainian and Western governments say that only a few thousand soldiers have departed, leaving a lingering risk of a military escalation over the summer.
With Donald J. Trump in Osaka, Japan, in 2019.
With Barack Obama in New York in 2015.
With George W. Bush in Washington in 2005.
With Bill Clinton in Moscow in 2000.
If President Biden wanted an example of a summit that did not go according to plan, he needed only to look back to 2018.
That year, President Donald J. Trump flew to Helsinki to meet President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the first face-to-face meeting between the two and a highly anticipated moment given the then-ongoing investigations of Russian interference and cooperation with Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
It might have been a chance for Mr. Trump to push back against those accusations by offering a forceful denunciation of Russia’s actions in private, and again during a joint news conference by the two men.
Instead, standing on the stage by Mr. Putin’s side, Mr. Trump dismissed the conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian meddling and said, in essence, that he believed Mr. Putin more than he did the C.I.A. and other key advisers
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.” He added that he didn’t see any reason Russia would have been responsible for hacks during the 2016 election. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
It was the kind of jaw-dropping assertion that U.S. administrations usually strive to avoid in the middle of highly scripted presidential summits. Critics lashed out at Mr. Trump for undermining his own government and for giving aid and comfort to an adversary. Even Republican allies of the president issued harsh denunciations.
“It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump.
There was nothing about the one day Helsinki summit that was normal. Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump were so chummy that the Russian president gave Mr. Trump a soccer ball to take home as a gift. Mr. Trump thanked him and bounced the ball to Melania Trump, the first lady, in the front row, saying he would take it home to give it to his son, Barron.
(Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary at the time, later issued a statement saying that the ball — like all gifts — had been examined to make sure it had not been bugged with listening devices.)
In a statement issued as Mr. Biden headed to Europe last week, Mr. Trump once again called his meeting with Mr. Putin “great and very productive” and he defended supporting the Russian president over his intelligence aides.
“As to who do I trust, they asked, Russia or our ‘Intelligence’ from the Obama era,” he said in a statement. “The answer, after all that has been found out and written, should be obvious. Our government has rarely had such lowlifes as these working for it.”
The former president also took a cheap shot at his successor in the statement, warning him not to “fall asleep during the meeting.”
One thing was certain — Mr. Biden did not follow through on Mr. Trump’s request that when Mr. Biden met with Mr. Putin “please give him my warmest regards!”
In the United States, fireworks lit up the night sky in New York City on Tuesday, a celebration meant to demonstrate the end of coronavirus restrictions. California, the most populous state, has fully opened its economy. And President Biden said there would be a gathering at the White House on July 4, marking what America hopes will be freedom from the pandemic.
Yet this week the country’s death toll passed 600,000 — a staggering loss of life.
In Russia, officials frequently say that the country has handled the coronavirus crisis better than the West and that there have been no large-scale lockdowns since last summer.
But in the week that President Vladimir V. Putin met with Mr. Biden for a one-day summit, Russia has been gripped by a vicious new wave of Covid-19. Hours before the start of the summit on Wednesday, the city of Moscow announced that it would be mandating coronavirus vaccinations for workers in service and other industries.
“We simply must do all we can to carry out mass vaccination in the shortest possible time period and stop this terrible disease,” Sergey S. Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said in a blog post. “We must stop the dying of thousands of people.”
It was a reversal from prior comments from Mr. Putin, who said on May 26 that “mandatory vaccination would be impractical and should not be done.”
Mr. Putin said on Saturday that 18 million people had been inoculated in the country — less than 13 percent of the population, even though Russia’s Sputnik V shots have been widely available for months.
The country’s official death toll is nearly 125,000, according to Our World in Data, and experts have said that such figures probably vastly underestimate the true tally.
While the robust United States vaccination campaign has sped the nation’s recovery, the virus has repeatedly confounded expectations. The inoculation campaign has also slowed in recent weeks.
Unlike many of the issues raised at Wednesday’s summit, and despite the scientific achievement that safe and effective vaccines represent, the virus follows its own logic — mutating and evolving — and continues to pose new and unexpected challenges for both leaders and the world at large.
The conflict in Syria — which has now raged for 10 years and counting — was on the meeting agenda for President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as they met on Wednesday.
Since the start of the war, Russia has supported President Bashar al-Assad and his forces, and in 2015 it launched a military intervention with ground forces in the country to prop up the then-flailing government. In the years since, government forces have regained control of much of the country, with the support of Russia and Iran, as Mr. al-Assad’s forced tamped down dissent and carried out brutal attacks against Syrian civilians.
The United States also became deeply involved in the conflict, backing Kurdish forces in the country’s north and conducting airstrikes in the fight against the Islamic State. It has maintained a limited military presence there. Both the United States and Russian forces have found themselves on opposite sides of the multifaceted conflict on numerous occasions.
After years of failed attempts at peace in Syria as the humanitarian toll has continued to mount, Lina Khatib, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a British think tank, said the moment could be ripe for the two major powers to chart a path forward.
She said that “despite taking opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, there is potential for a US-Russian compromise,” and that the summit could be the best place to begin that process.
“The Biden administration must not waste the opportunity that the U.S.-Russian summit presents on Syria,” Ms. Khatib wrote in a recent piece before the meeting in Geneva. “While the focus of various U.S. government departments working on Syria is on the delivery of cross-border aid, fighting the Islamic State and planning an eventual exit for U.S. troops, all these problems are products of the ongoing conflict, and solving them requires a comprehensive strategy to end it.”
American and Russian reporters engaged in a shoving match on Wednesday outside the villa where President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia were meeting, stranding much of the press outside when the two leaders began talking.
The chaotic scrum erupted moments after Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin shook hands and waved to reporters before closed-door meetings with a handful of aides.
President Guy Parmelin of Switzerland had just welcomed the leaders “in accordance with its tradition of good offices” to “promote dialogue and mutual understanding.”
But shortly after the two leaders entered the villa, reporters from both countries rushed the side door, where they were stopped by Russian and American security and government officials from both countries. There was screaming and pushing as both sides tried to surge in, with officials yelling for order.
White House officials succeeded in getting nine members of their 13-member press pool into the library where Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin were seated against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling books, along with each of their top diplomats and translators. The two leaders had already begun to make very brief remarks before reporters were able to get in the room.
Inside, more scuffling erupted — apparently amusing to the two leaders — as Russian officials told photographers that they could not take pictures and one American reporter was shoved to the ground. The two leaders waited, at moments smiling uncomfortably, for several minutes before reporters were pushed back out of the room as the summit meeting began.
“It’s always better to meet face to face,” Mr. Biden said to Mr. Putin as the commotion continued.
Chaotic scenes are not uncommon when reporters from multiple countries angle for the best spot to view a world leader, often in cramped spaces and with government security and handlers pushing them to leave quickly.
But even by those standards the scene outside the villa in this usually bucolic venue was particularly disruptive. Russian journalists quickly accused the Americans for trying to get more people into the room than had been agreed to, but it appeared that the Russians had many more people than the 15 for each side that had been negotiated in advance.
“The Americans didn’t go through their door, caused a stampede,” one Russian reporter posted on Telegram.
In fact, reporters from both countries had been told to try to go through a single door, and officials for both countries at times were stopping all of the reporters from entering, telling them to move back and blocking the door.
When American officials tried to get White House reporters inside, the Russian security blocked several of them.
Wednesday’s Geneva summit got off to an auspicious start: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia landed on time.
His plane landed at about 12:30 p.m., an hour before he was set to meet President Biden, who had arrived in Geneva the previous evening. Mr. Putin is known for making world leaders wait — sometimes hours — for his arrival, one way to telegraph confidence and leave an adversary on edge.
But this time Mr. Putin did not resort to scheduling brinkmanship.
The summit’s start was laced with delicate choreography: Mr. Putin arrived first, straight from the airport, and was greeted on the red carpet in front of a lakeside villa by President Guy Parmelin of Switzerland. About 15 minutes later, Mr. Biden arrived in his motorcade, shook hands with Mr. Parmelin and waved to reporters.
The Swiss president welcomed the two leaders, wishing them “fruitful dialogue in the interest of your two countries and the whole world.” He then stepped aside, allowing Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin to approach each other, smiling, and shake hands.
Russian officials on Wednesday sought to put a positive last-minute spin on the meeting.
“This is an extremely important day,” a deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, told the RIA Novosti state news agency hours before the summit’s start. “The Russian side in preparing for the summit has done the utmost for it to turn out positive and have results that will allow the further deterioration of the bilateral relationship to be halted, and to begin moving upwards.”
Even before Mr. Putin landed, members of his delegation had arrived at the lakeside villa where the meeting is being held. They included Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, who joined Mr. Putin in a small-group session with Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at the start of the summit; and Valery V. Gerasimov, Russia’s most senior military officer.
Police officers from across Switzerland — the words “police,” “Polizei” and “polizia” on their uniforms reflecting the country’s multilingual cantons — cordoned off much of the center of Geneva on Wednesday.
The city’s normally bustling lakefront was off limits, and the park where President Biden and Mr. Putin were meeting was protected by razor wire and at least one armored personnel carrier.
Inside the leafy Parc la Grange, overlooking Lake Geneva, the police directed journalists to two separate press centers — one for those covering Mr. Putin, one for those covering Mr. Biden. As the reporters waited for the leaders to arrive, a Russian radio reporter went on air and intoned that Lake Geneva had become “a lake of hope.”
A storied villa on the shores of Lake Geneva is sometimes described as having “a certain sense of mystery about it,” but there was little mystery this week about why the mansion and the park surrounding it were closed off.
Visitors were coming.
The Villa la Grange, an 18th-century manor house at the center of Parc la Grange, was the site of the meeting on Wednesday between President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin.
Set in one of Geneva’s largest and most popular parks, the site is known not just for its lush gardens, but also for its role as a setting for important moments in the struggle between war and peace.
In 1825, the villa’s library — home to over 15,000 works and the only room to retain the villa’s original decorative features — hosted dignitaries of a European gathering that aimed to help Greeks fighting for independence.
Designed by the architect Jean-Louis Bovet and completed in 1773, the villa was owned by the Lullin family and primarily used as a summer residence before it was bought by a merchant, François Favre, in 1800.
It cemented its place in history in 1864, when it was the site of a closing gala for officials who signed the original 1864 Geneva Convention, presided over by Henri Dunant, a founder of the International Red Cross. An attempt to ameliorate the ravages of war on both soldiers and civilians, it set minimum protections for people who are victims of armed conflict.
After World War II, a new draft of the conventions was signed in an attempt to address gaps in international humanitarian law that the conflict had exposed.
In 1969, Pope Paul VI, who traveled to the park to celebrate Mass for a congregation of tens of thousands, pointed to the villa’s history as he spoke about the risk of nuclear conflagration.
He spoke about the opposing forces of love and hate and called for “generous peacemakers.”
MOSCOW — He may be the Kremlin’s closest ally, but his loyalty remains in doubt.
When Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the eccentric and brutal leader of Belarus, forced down a European passenger jet on Sunday to arrest a dissident, he ushered in a new and even more brittle phase in one of the post-Soviet region’s most convoluted and consequential relationships: the one between Mr. Lukashenko and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The two are increasingly leaning on each other in the face of conflict with the West, but they have sharply diverging interests. Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, relies on his iron grip on his country to assure his survival. Mr. Putin wants to expand Russian influence in Belarus, undermining Mr. Lukashenko’s authority in the process.
Now, with a summit meeting with President Biden looming in June, Mr. Putin faces a choice over how much political capital to expend to continue supporting Mr. Lukashenko, whose commandeering of the Ryanair plane has complicated the Kremlin’s efforts to smooth relations with the West. Russian officials and pro-Kremlin news outlets have taken Mr. Lukashenko’s side in the furor, but Mr. Lukashenko’s leading Belarusian opponents believe that the Kremlin’s support is only skin deep.
“In the Russian Foreign Ministry, in the Kremlin, I think that people can’t stand Lukashenko,” Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said in a telephone interview. “But at the same time, since there’s not anyone more pro-Russian, they prefer to keep Lukashenko for now.”
Roman Protasevich — who had been on a Belarusian list of “terrorists” because he co-founded a social-media outlet that galvanized and organized last year’s protests.
On Monday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists in his regular daily briefing that he could not comment on the Ryanair incident. “It is up to the international authorities to assess the case,” he said.
It took another 24 hours for the Kremlin to formulate its final message; Belarus’s actions were “in line with international regulations,” Mr. Peskov said on Tuesday.
as directed by E.U. leaders who voiced outrage over what they called Mr. Lukashenko’s “hijacking.” But speaking in a marble-paneled hall of the Minsk House of Government, Mr. Lukashenko was defiant, claiming that a bomb threat against the plane had arrived from Switzerland.
“Don’t you cast blame on me!” Mr. Lukashenko thundered, jabbing his finger into the air. “I acted legally defending my people, and it will also be thus in the future.”
In Moscow, Mr. Lukashenko is widely seen as a frustrating and fickle partner. Despite his reliance on the Kremlin, for instance, he still has not recognized as valid the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which many Russians see as Mr. Putin’s crowning foreign policy achievement.
“It’s a pretty serious mistake to think that Moscow can snap its fingers to solve its problems in Minsk,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who resigned last year in protest against Mr. Lukashenko’s policies. “Lukashenko will try to avoid further dependence on Moscow in every possible way.”
Andrei Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow research institute co-founded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, likened Mr. Lukashenko to the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, another difficult Kremlin ally.
After Russia propped up Mr. Lukashenko in his hour of need last summer, long-sought benefits were expected to accrue to the Kremlin. Mr. Lukashenko could have signed an agreement for a Russian military base in Belarus or allowed Russian investment into major Belarusian enterprises on favorable terms. But despite three face-to-face meetings between Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin since last September — a fourth is expected in the coming days — none of that materialized.
“You’d think: The regime was saved, and he should have paid,” Mr. Kortunov said of Mr. Lukashenko. “But we’re not seeing that.”
Continuing to prop up Mr. Lukashenko could be costly for Mr. Putin, Mr. Kortunov warned. As Mr. Putin prepares for a summit meeting with President Biden scheduled to take place in Geneva on June 16, Russian officials have telegraphed that they want to lower tensions with the United States. One factor is domestic politics: Amid protests and discontent over economic stagnation, the Kremlin faces a public disapproving of foreign adventurism.
“The social contract of, ‘We won’t give you sausage, but we’ll make Russia a great power’ — this no longer works,” Mr. Kortunov said, describing Mr. Putin’s approach. “He understands that he needs to change the agenda. He won’t win any more with foreign policy.”
Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents are now pushing for the United States and Europe to enact more sanctions against Belarus that would further isolate him and perhaps provoke a split in the elite. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader, spent nearly 40 minutes on the phone earlier this week with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, her aide, Mr. Viacorka, said.
“When the Belarusian issue is discussed in the context of the Russian one, it becomes impossible to solve,” Mr. Viacorka said.
Other partners, like the Vatican, also failed to secure Mr. Tice’s release. The Trump administration had even talked to an unidentified Hollywood actor about reaching out to the Syrian government. While some Trump administration officials thought Moscow could intervene, Russia was also ultimately unhelpful.
Two other Americans who had been held by the Syrian government have been released. Kevin Patrick Dawes, a freelance photographer, was released in 2016 after nearly four years in captivity. Sam Goodwin was freed in 2019 after being held for two months. Both men were held for far shorter times than Mr. Tice. Mr. Dawes said he was brutally beaten, while Mr. Goodwin said he could hear “others being tortured around me every day.”
Discovering the fate of Mr. Tice remained elusive to administration officials, including Robert C. O’Brien, the former hostage negotiator who rose to be Mr. Trump’s national security adviser in the fall of 2019. Mr. O’Brien, who had lost his own son in an accident, pushed to get Mr. Tice home.
In March 2020, Mr. Trump wrote a letter to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria asking for Mr. Tice’s release and proposing a direct dialogue.
Following up, the Trump administration in August 2020 dispatched two senior officials to Syria: Mr. Carstens, the hostage czar, and Kashyap Patel, who held senior White House, Pentagon and intelligence posts. Besides securing Mr. Tice’s release, the Americans had also hoped to cut a deal to free Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American.
A retired Army lieutenant colonel who has held senior State Department posts, Mr. Carstens has been deeply involved in the Tice case, and he and Mr. Patel met with Mr. Mamlouk.
Mr. Mamlouk told them he wanted American troops out of Syria and relations between the two countries normalized before Syria would allow any progress on the Tice case. Still, the spy chief never acknowledged that the Syrians were holding Mr. Tice, continuing a pattern of almost nine years.
The Czech Republic on Saturday blamed a series of mysterious 2014 explosions at Czech ammunition depots on an elite unit of Russia’s military intelligence service — a group that Britain has linked to a 2018 attack with a nerve agent on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis said at a Prague news conference that his government would respond by expelling 18 Russian diplomats, whom it had identified as spies. He said there was “clear evidence,” assembled by the Czech intelligence and security services, showing “reasonable suspicion” that the Russian group, known as Unit 29155, had been involved in the blasts in late 2014, which killed two Czechs.
The announcement underscored the breadth of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence and pursue aggressive actions around the world, including military-style operations, assassinations and cyberattacks.
The elite Russian unit has operated for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. It first came to light after the March 2018 attack in Salisbury, England, on a turncoat Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using the nerve agent Novichok. Both fell gravely ill but later recovered.
The Czech police also released photographs of the two men, who looked like the men shown in photographs released in 2018 by Britain. The police said the men had used at least two different identities and asked anyone who had seen them or knew anything about their movements in the Czech Republic to call a hotline.
Mr. Babis, the prime minister, did not accuse the two Russians directly of involvement in the arms warehouse explosions, but he said there was “unequivocal evidence” that agents working for Russian military intelligence had been involved.
“Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations,” Mr. Babis added.
The Czech Republic, a member of NATO, has expelled Russian diplomats in the past but has never ordered as many out as it did on Saturday. The expulsions came just days after Washington expelled 10 Russian diplomats over interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election and the hacking of computer systems used by government agencies.
Poland, another NATO member, also expelled Russia diplomats in recent days, ordering three to leave on Thursday in what Warsaw said was a gesture of “solidarity” with the United States.
The Czech action, however, was more severe and unusually sweeping.
“I am sorry that Czech-Russian relations will suffer, however, the Czech Republic must react,” the acting foreign minister, Jan Hamacek, said in Prague.
What caused the ammunition depot blasts, which began in the village of Vlachovice and resumed at a nearby depot in December 2014, has never been fully explained.
They coincided with efforts by Ukraine to increase its supply of weapons from abroad as it struggled to recover eastern territory seized by Russian-backed rebels in the summer of 2014.
Czech media reports on Saturday also linked the blasts to what they said may have been a Russian drive to halt the delivery of Czech-made weapons to forces fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow.
Ghalia al-Asseh had just begun studying chemistry and biotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark when the country’s immigration services summoned her for an interview.
For five hours, immigration officers asked about her proficiency in Danish, which she speaks fluently. They inquired how well integrated she was in Denmark, where she has lived with her family since fleeing Syria in 2015.
During the interview, in February, officers also told Ms. al-Asseh that the security situation in her hometown, Damascus, had improved, and that it was safe for her to return to Syria, she recalled in a telephone interview last week.
Ms. al-Asseh, 27, was losing her right to live in Denmark — even as her four brothers and parents could stay, and she had nowhere else to go.
not stable enough to be considered safe for returnees.
Those being asked to leave include high school and university students, truck drivers, factory employees, store owners and volunteers in nongovernmental organizations. All risk being uprooted from a country where they have built new lives.
“It is as if the Danish immigration services has bombed my dream, just as Bashar al-Assad bombed our homes,” said Asmaa al-Natour, 50, referring to Syria’s president. “Only this time the bombing is psychological.”
“ghettos,” and doubled punishments for certain crimes in these areas.
They have also overhauled the country’s legal apparatus on immigration, shifting it from integration to the accelerated return of refugees to their native countries. Hundreds of Somali refugees have also lost their residence permits after Denmark deemed Somalia safe to return to.
Per Mouritsen, an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, said the government had toughened its stance on immigration in recent years to avoid losing votes to the right wing, a dilemma that several center-left parties across Europe have faced.
“The only way to beat the right-wing in Denmark is to sell your soul to the devil and be as tough on immigration in order to have support for social welfare policies in return,” Mr. Mouritsen said.
Last year, the number of refugees leaving Denmark exceeded the number of arrivals. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has vowed to go further, saying that Denmark will aim to have “zero asylum seekers.”
said in February.
For those willing to return to Syria, Mr. Tesfaye said that Denmark would offer “a huge bag of travel money.” The authorities say that hundreds decided to return voluntarily.
Michala Bendixen, Denmark’s country coordinator at Refugees Welcome, a nonprofit, said the policy threatened to tear Syrian families apart. “The only purpose is to make Denmark the last place to choose as an asylum seeker,” she said in an interview.
Because the Danish government does not maintain diplomatic relationships with Mr. al-Assad’s government, the authorities cannot forcibly deport refugees. Since most of them are unwilling to return voluntarily, those who lost their appeals after their residency was revoked are likely to be sent to departure centers.
The Danish authorities did not respond to questions about why the policy was implemented for Syrians and how many had been sent to departure centers.
collapsed economy and half of its prewar population displaced.Mr. al-Assad has reclaimed control of two-thirds of its territory, including the Damascus area. He has also called on Syrians to come back, but many say they won’t for one reason: Mr. al-Assad himself.
Syrian Network for Human Rights, and the European Union’s asylum body has warned that voluntary returnees are at risk of detention, torture and death.
“The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can go back safely,” said Ms. Slente of the Danish Refugee Council.
Ms. al-Asseh, the chemistry and biotechnology student, said she had tried to focus on her studies since learning that her residency permit would be revoked. Yet she said the thought of starting over again terrified her.
“I’m not a danger. I’m not a criminal,” she said. “I just want to live here.”
IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.
Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.
“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Okba al-Rahoum, the manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.
On a rare visit to Idlib Province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to Al Qaeda.
bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.
Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by its Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.
About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.
SHINE, an education organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages, which are permitted under Islamic law.
The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Ms. Kisar said.
a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.
While the area’s displaced struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.
In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and to forget their woes with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed animal claw machines.
The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.
The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.
He opened another restaurant, but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.
Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.
“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”