November 18, 2011 - Syria News Blog: A Roundup of International Reportage

In the News | 18-11-2011

Syria's International Isolation Deepens, Armed Opposition Grows Increasingly Brazen

A move by the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership and related League efforts to unify the Syrian opposition, extended clashes between armed members of the opposition and military forces in Daraa, and an opposition-led assault on Syrian air force intelligence facilities in the capital Damascus, place the last seven days in Syria among the country's most significant and foreboding since the revolution began in March. 

 
The Syrian Revolution
 
Protests, clashes, and security crackdowns
Only seventeen days in, November is already among the most violent months in Syria since the start of the revolution in March, with over 250 civilians killed in security crackdowns and clashes in the month's first eleven days, not including the deaths of an estimated 100 soldiers during the same period. 
 
Violence continues to intensify in Homs, where armed members of the opposition have allegedly set up heavily defended safe zones aimed at protecting civilians populations, and Syrian security and armed forces have waged intensive incursions aimed at limiting the scope of the opposition's hold. At the same time, protestors throughout the city and the broader governorate, continue to take to the streets in protest, and defections from the army, according to unconfirmed foreign reportage, continue to rise. The same reports charge that Syrian security forces respond to militant members of the opposition and their unarmed counterparts in much the same manner, using tanks and heavy artillery to regain control. 
 
On Friday November 11, reports estimated that 16 people were killed in violence following demonstrations after prayers across the country. Most of the fatalities occurred in Homs. Reports also emerged that day suggesting that the Syrian army was planting further mines in the countryside along Syria's border with Lebanon, including in the area of Wadi Khaled.
 
Seven people were killed in Hama two days later, when security forces reportedly opened fired on members of the opposition who had worked their way into a pro-government demonstration. Another seven died amid violence elsewhere in the country.
 
On Monday, between 70 and 90 people were killed in clashes in a number of places around the country. The worst of the violence occurred in the southern province of Daraa, where a sustained and brutal battle erupted between the Syrian military and armed members of the opposition. At least 34 soldiers were among those killed during the fighting, along with 12 army defectors and 27 civilians, making the day the bloodiest in Syria since April 22, when some 72 people were killed in massive security crackdowns. The day's violence and the huge number of fatalities among Syrian armed forces serve as clear evidence that an armed insurgency is well underway - irregardless of the relatively peaceful nature of most of the anti-government protests that also continue daily across the country. 
 
On Wednesday, army defectors reportedly attacked an air force intelligence complex in Harasta, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. The attack was allegedly well-planned, with members of the Free Syrian Army using machine guns to fire on the facilities. Though armed elements of the opposition have waged other attacks on security and military force facilities around the country, Wednesday's attack is deeply troubling for its location in the country's capital, thus suggesting that the opposition's militant members are becoming increasingly skilled and aggressive. 
 
Political prisoners released 
 
Kamal al-Labwani, a well-known dissident and prisoner of conscience, was also released from prison that day following six years in detention. A substantial portion of his time was served in solitary confinement. Labwani founded the Liberal Democratic Union opposition party and was first imprisoned in 2001 for his pro-reform stance in connection with the Damascus Spring.
 
Members of Syrian opposition meet in Cairo, seek broader international support
On Tuesday, November 14, members of the Syrian opposition arrived in Cairo at the invitation of the Arab League. The Cairo meeting was intended to help forge unity among opposition members whilst developing a strategic plan for Syria should the government fall. The opposition, comprised of a large number of disparate groups, remains largely incongruous. The Syrian National Council (SNC), one of the largest of the opposition's organizations (with the National Coordination Committee being its main competitor), has gained support in recent months but still suffers from credibility issues and the reality that it was formed undemocratically. 
 
Some maintain that the best approach to unifying the opposition, is to expand the ranks of the SNC - a formidable task at best. Others maintain that the only way forward is through the founding of a completely new opposition group.  
 
In the meantime, however, the SNC is moving forward with its bid to gain international legitimacy, holding meetings with Turkish and Russian officials. The group's meetings with officials from the former country, were held in Ankara on Sunday. The SNC is pressuring Ankara to allow it to open up an office in Turkey
 
The SNC also held meetings in Moscow, Russia on November 15 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in hopes of persuading the Russian government to adopt a stronger position in response to the violence in Syria.  Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC's leader, commented to the press at the end of the meeting that, "We told our Russian colleagues that to make the start of the talks possible we believe it is necessary for Russia and the international community to send an important signal and demand Bashar al-Assad's resignation." The meeting did not succeed in changing Russia's position. 
 
International Rights Groups
 
New Human Rights Watch report accuses Syrian government of committing 'crimes against humanity'
On November 11, the international rights group Human Rights Watch released a report, “‘We Live as in War’: Crackdown on Protesters in the Governorate of Homs,” on allegations that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity in the governorate Homs. The 63-page report contains interviews with 110 witnesses and victims and focuses on events between mid-April and August of this year, during which time it is believed that some 587 people were killed in Homs governorate. An excerpt from the report's Executive Summary:
 
 
To read the report in full, click here
 
International Politics & Diplomacy
 
Obama & Medvedev meet in Honolulu to discuss Syria issue
On Saturday November 12, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held a meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii to discuss security issues in Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. No details regarding the topic of Syria where released to the public. Russia continues to stand in opposition to a UN Security Council resolution on Syria. 
 
Arab League votes to suspend Syria's membership, threatens political and economic sanctions
On Saturday, November 12, following the Syrian government's failure to implement the peace plan advanced by the Arab League on November 2, the League held an emergency meeting in Cairo during which it voted to suspend Syria's membership in the organization. Eighteen of the League's 22 members voted in favor of the suspension, with three voting against it (Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen) and one, Iraq, abstaining. 
 
The League held another emergency meeting on Wednesday, this time in Rabat, Morocco. The League gave Damascus three more days to bring an end to the violence across the country and threatened to impose political and economic sanctions against the country. As a result, the status of Syria's membership in the League remains unclear. Some charge that the League moved forward with Syria's official suspension. Others state that in giving Syria three more days, the suspension was temporarily put on hold
 
The League's move to suspend Syria's membership constitutes a serious diplomatic blow to Damascus. Using the League's response to the crisis in Libya - which indeed enabled the establishment of a UN-mandated no-fly zone and NATO-led military assaults on Libyan targets, its move against Syria arguably creates a similar opportunity for international intervention in Syria. That written, few believe that the international community has the will or resources to engage in what would likely become one of the most complex, far-reaching, and costly confrontations in the region's modern history.  
 
To that end, Qatar's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim, maintains that international intervention is not on the League's agenda. "No one is talking about a no-fly zone, people are trying to mix up the cases. None of us is talking about this kind of decision," Jassim said. 
 
The League's chief Nabil Elaraby expressed similar views this week, stating that "This decision reflects a lack of foreign intervention. The Arab League has been calling on Syria to stop the violence for four months and it hasn't happened."
 
How the League's suddenly strong-armed response to the crisis in Syria will play out, is nevertheless impossible to predict. Many members of the opposition view the League's decision as lending weight and legitimacy to their cause. It is doubtful, however, that the League, for decades beleaguered by its own irrelevance and borderline ineptitude, has Syria's best interest at heart - regardless of how weighty the rhetoric of its leadership may presently be. Further, the Syrian government has remained utterly unflinching in the face of its growing international isolation. That the League's decision might prompt official behavioral change in Damascus, and in Syrian security forces, borders on implausible. That leaves Syria largely at the mercy of international sanctions, which if anything, will only bring about the total economic devastation of ordinary Syrians. 
 
Qatar's role in the Arab League's move to suspend Syria's membership
Unsurprisingly, articles covering Qatar's role in the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria's membership were numerous this week. Some examples: "Qatar Wields an Outsize Influence in Arab Politics" - The New York Times; "Syria's Neighbors Helping Shape its Fate" - Los Angeles Times, and; "Arab League's 'Roar' at Syria Shows How Tiny Qatar is Starting to Flex its Muscle" - The Independent
 
Embassy attacks - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, UAE, Turkey and France
On Saturday, November 12, following the Arab League's vote to suspend Syria's membership, tens of thousands of pro-government demonstrators took to the streets of Damascus in protest, many holding signs that read, "You Arab leaders are the tails of Obama." Angry crowds numbering in the thousands attacked foreign embassies and consulates in Damascus and Lattakia, including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and France. While no embassy officials were injured, the damage from the attacks was significant, prompting foreign officials to express outrage. 
 
On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem had issued an apology on Sunday for the attacks. Turkey also evacuated the families of embassy officials, as well as all nonessential staff, from the country on Sunday. At the same time, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Syria's charge d'affaires, giving him a formal letter in protest of the embassy attack. The Turkish Ambassador to Syria, Omer Onhon, will remain in his post. France also summoned Syria's ambassador to the country on Sunday, on similar grounds. 
 
On Tuesday, November 15, the United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks on embassies in Syria. Nevertheless, the United Arab Emirates and Moroccan embassies in Damascus came under attack the following day. Pro-government protestors attacked both facilities with stones and eggs.
 
Foreign Minister Moallem - "Arab League decision on suspending Syria's membership…a very dangerous step"
At a press conference in Damascus on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem formally responded to the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria's membership, stating that, "the Arab League decision on suspending Syria's membership and the other provisions it included constitute a very dangerous step regarding the present and future of joint Arab action and the goals and role of the organization."
 
Russian Foreign Minister - Syria's suspension from Arab League "wrong"
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to the League's move to suspend Syria's membership on Monday, telling Russian media that "We believe it is wrong to suspend Syria's membership of the Arab League. Those who made this decision have lost a very important opportunity to shift the situation into a more transparent channel," Lavrov said.
 
Lavrov went on to state that the current crisis in Syria is more complex than implied by the Arab League's decision. "There has been and continues to be incitement of radical opponents [of the Syrian government] to take a firm course for regime change and reject any invitations to dialogue," he stated.
 
The Russian Foreign Minister also stated that there were "undeniable instances" of weapons being channeled across borders into Syria and into the hands of members of the opposition. "Weapons are being delivered to Syria through contraband channels via Turkey, Iraq and other countries," Lavrov said.
 
Turkish PM Erdogan and Jordanian King Abdullah intensify pressure on Damascus
On November 14 during a political conference, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan told AK Part MPs that, Syrian President "Bashar Assad should see the tragic ends of the ones who declared war against their own people." Erdogan continued, "I want to remind him that future cannot be built on the blood of the oppressed." 
 
The following day during further party meetings, Erdogan said of the situation in Syria, "Nobody now expects the [Syrian] people's demands to be met. We all want the Syrian administration, which is now on a knife-edge, to turn back from the edge of the cliff." 
 
Also Monday, during an interview with the BBC, Jordan's King Abdullah told reporters that President Assad should step down. “I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down,” King Abdullah said. “If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life,” he continued. Abdullah is the first Arab leader to call on President Assad to leave office.
 
France recalls ambassador
On Wednesday, November 16, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that France was recalling its Ambassador to Syria in response to the attacks against the French mission carried out by government supporters over the weekend. "New violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to the recall of our ambassador to Paris," Juppe said. "The noose is tightening around this completely autistic regime that continues to carry out bloody repression. The Syrian people will win the battle and France will do all it can to help them," Juppe continued. 
 
Economic Development 
 
Impact of Syria's economic crisis under renewed scrutiny
Syria's deepening economic woes came under heightened scrutiny this week, with a number of reports published on its likely impact on the survival of the country's government. Unfortunately, all of them recap oft-repeated analyses. Some examples:
 
"Syria’s Economy is Key to Assad’s Future" - The Washington Post - Liz Sly argues that Syria's loss of regional support from the Arab League will expedite the unraveling of the country's economy, dealing "an important psychological blow to a regime that has long prided itself as a champion of Arab nationalist causes". Sly argues that further economic decline will drive members of Syria's business community to turn their backs on the government. 
 
"Syria: It's the Economy Stupid" - Transnational Crisis Project - By Armand Hurault. Excerpt: "In an attempt at strengthening the regime and at ‘rationalising’ the social basis of the regime, the economic policy which has been implemented for the past two decades has aimed at co-opting the Syrian bourgeoisie.  The failure of this attempt will be even more obvious when businessmen realise that they have more to lose by remaining undecided about what side they have taken, rather than actively supporting and funding the voices demanding a regime change. The longer this situation lasts, the worse the economic situation of Syrian entrepreneurs is likely to become. This moment may happen very soon."
 
"Inside Syria's Economic Implosion" - Foreign Policy - By Stephen Starr. Excerpt: "Syrian business leaders, with much to lose and deeply fearful of the regime's security apparatus, are unlikely to join the country's ongoing revolt anytime soon…The government's rose-tinted pronouncements about the condition of Syrian finances aside, there is no doubt that the country's economy is in dire straits. The official line is that Syria's economy is fine…But the facts on the ground are irrefutable. The International Monetary Fund projected in September that Syria's economy will shrink by about 2 percent this year…"
 
US Treasury and senior Jordanian officials meet to discuss enforcement of sanctions against Syria
On Sunday, Daniel Glaser, the US Treasury Department's assistant secretary responsible for investigating terrorism financing, held a meeting in Amman, Jordan with senior Jordanian government and banking officials to discuss current efforts to enforce sanctions against Syria. Specifically, the meeting addressed concerns that Syria was seeking to evade EU and US sanctions by channeling money through Jordanian banks. Glaser had previously been in Beirut, Lebanon where he met with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh to discuss similar concerns. 
 
European Union imposes more sanctions, cuts European Investment Bank support for Syria
 
In its official statement, the EU stated that it "will continue to impose additional and more comprehensive measures against" the Syrian government if the violence does not come to an end. At the same time, EU officials warned that the organization remained unwilling to intervene in Syria more directly. Both the EU and the US called upon Syrian President Assad to step down from power last summer. 
 
The 18 individuals newly placed under sanctions are as follows (text extracted directly from The Official Journal of the European Union):
 
  • Major General Jumah al-Ahmad, Commander Special Forces. Responsible for the use of violence against protestors across Syria.
  • Colonel Lu’ai al-Ali, Head of Syrian Military Intelligence, Dera’a Branch. Responsible for the violence against protesters in Dera’a.
  • Lt. General Ali Abdullah Ayyub, Deputy Chief of General Staff (Personnel and Manpower). Responsible for the use of violence against protestors across Syria.
  • Lt. General Jasim al-Furayj, Chief of General staff. Responsible for the use of violence against protestors across Syria.
  • General Aous Aslan, Head of Batallion in the Republican Guard. Close to Maher al-Assad and President al-Assad. Involved in the crackdown on the civilian population across Syria.
  • General Ghassan Belal, General in command of the 4th Division reserve bureau. Adviser to Maher al-Assad and coordinator of security operations. Responsible for the crackdown on the civilian popu­ lation across Syria.
  • Abdullah Berri, Head of Berri family militia. In charge of pro-government militia involved in the crackdown on the cilivian popu­lation in Aleppo.
  • George Chaoui, Member of Syrian electronic army. Involved in the violent crackdown and call for violence against the civilian population across Syria.
  • Major General Zuhair Hamad, Deputy Head of General Intelligence Directorate. Responsible for the use of violence across Syria and intimidation and torture of protestors.
  • Amar Ismael, Civilian - Head of Syrian electronic army (territorial army intelligence service). Involved in the violent crackdown and call for violence against the civilian population across Syria.
  • Mujahed Ismail, Member of Syrian electronic army. Involved in the violent crackdown and call for violence against the civilian population across Syria.
  • Saqr Khayr Bek, Deputy Minister for the Interior. Responsible for the use of violence against the civilian population in Syria.
  • Major General Nazih, Deputy Director of General Intelligence Directorate. Responsible for the use of violence across Syria and intimidation and torture of protestors.
  • Kifah Moulhem, Batallion Commander in the 4th Division. Responsible for the crackdown on the civilian population in Deir el-Zor.
  • Major General Wajih Mahmud, Commander 18th Armoured Division. Responsible for the violence against protestors in Homs.
  • Bassam Sabbagh, Head of Sabbagh & Associates law firm (Damascus). Member of the Paris Bar. Legal and financial adviser and manages affairs of Rami Makhlouf and Khaldoun Makhlouf. Involved with Bashar al-Assad in funding a real estate project in Latakia. Provides financial support for the regime.
  • Lt. General Tala Mustafa Tlass, Deputy Chief of General Staff (Logistics and supplies). Responsible for the use of violence against protestors across Syria.
  • Major General Fu’ad Tawil, Deputy head Syrian Air Force Intel­ ligence. Responsible for the use of violence across Syria and intimidation and torture of protestors.
 
The following are links to the EU's official sanctions regulations as published in The Official Journal of the European Union:
 
 
 
 
 
For more details on previous EU sanctions against Syria, click here.
 
Energy
 
Syrian government halts payments toTotal and Shell 
On November 10, the Syrian government stopped its payments for oil produced in-country by Royal Dutch Shell and Total, spiking concerns about the country's economic viability. Earnings from oil exports have traditionally played a central role in the Syrian economy, last year totaling some USD 3.5bn.  The EU imposed an oil embargo against Syria in September, however, dealing a devastating blow to the industry. Up until just a few weeks ago, international companies continued to receive payments from the government. Production has fallen considerably since the embargo was imposed, with the government ordering a companies to make drastic cuts in output as it fails to find new buyers. Prior to September, the EU market absorbed some 95 percent of Syrian crude exports. Aside from Total and Shell, CNPC of China, Gulfsands Petroleum, ONGC of India, and INA of Croatia, are the other foreign crude companies working in Syria. 
 
On Tuesday, November 17 Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz threatened to cut his country's electricity supplies to Syria. As Syria currently produces more energy than it consumes and is well linked to both Jordan and Lebanon, such a move would be more symbolic than painful. The electricity supply route that connects Turkey to Syria began in 2006
 
Technology
 
US Senators call for investigation into role of US-based companies in Syrian internet surveillance project
Senators Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, and Robert Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania sent a letter to the US State and Commerce departments this week, requesting an investigation into the role of US companies NetApp and Blue Coat Systems, Inc. in the internet surveillance system under development in Syria for the purposes of monitoring the activities of Syrian citizens
 
The letter from Kirk and Casey requests that until the State and Commerce departments complete an investigation into both of the US-based companies, US officials should suspend their government contracts. The Milan-based company, Area SpA, is reportedly heading up the project. 
 
Security 
 
Russia will continue to honor Syria arms contracts
On Monday whilst speaking to reporters in Dubai, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, indicated that Russia intends to continue honoring its Syria arms contracts. “Since there are no restrictions on the supply of arms to Syria, Russia will fulfill its obligations under the contracts signed with this country,” Dzirkaln said. 
 
Sale of SuperCobra helicopters to Turkey clears US Congress
Relations between the US and Turkey have strengthened in recent months with the US depending in part on Turkey to confront the Syrian government on worsening violence across the country. This week, the US Congress approved the sale of three AH-1 SuperCobra twin-engine attack helicopter to Turkey. The helicopters are set to be delivered in the next few months following technical screening. Turkey's request for the helicopters, which it uses to fight members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has been longstanding.
 
Further Reading 
 
"Arab Leaders Shouldn't Kill Their People?" - Foreign Policy - Marc Lynch dissects the hypocrisy of the Arab League's stance on violence and oppression in Syria - and the building of new regional norms in response to such realities.
 
"The Arab Intellectuals Who Didn’t Roar" - The New York Times - Robert F. Worth compares the current Arab uprisings to their historical counterparts across the world, interrogating the value of intellectuals in shaping dissent and revolt. From October 29, 2011. 
 
"The Half-men Respond to the Boy King" - Walls - The outcome of the Arab League's Saturday, November 12 meeting dissected in its entirety by blogger 'Off the Wall'. The post also contains the statement of the Arab League Ministerial Committee (Arabic & English). If you read it, be sure to check out this comment on the post by one of Off the Wall's readers. 
 
"Turmoil in Syria: Reshaping the Middle East" - United States Institute for Peace - A series of briefings put out by the USIP on the dynamics of the Syrian revolution and the manner in which regional players are impacted by and influencing the country's unrest.
 
"Arab League Sets Syria for Suspension" - Informed Comment - Juan Cole's take on the factors at play behind the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria's membership. 
 
"The Arab League Takes on Syria: Part 2" - Middle East Policy Council - A well done collection of reportage from around the region on the Arab League's move to suspend Syria's membership.
 
Democracy Now! Interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad on Uprising and Intervention in Syria" - Jadaliyya - Amy Goodman interviews Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, Bassam Haddad, on the possibility and implications of international intervention in Syria. Haddad warns that foreign military engagement in Syria would come at the detriment of the Syrian people. 
 
"Unrest in Syria Divides a Region as a Border Never Did" - The New York Times - Liam Stack covers the impact of Syria's security crisis on Syrian and Turkish families living along the countries' shared border. 
 
Two counterbalancing articles: 
"Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis" - STRATFOR Global Intelligence - A backgrounder by Reva Bhalla on Alawi rule in Syria. Bhalla discusses the composition of the army at present, shedding light on both its loyalties and weaknesses. Though posted in May of this year, its content remains relevant. 
 
"Revolts in Syria: Tracking the Convergence Between Authoritarianism and Neoliberalism" - Sanhati - Omar S. Dahi and Yasser Munif illuminate the economic dimensions of the revolution in Syria in a notably well-written article. Excerpt:
 
"The Syrian revolt itself not only contains a rejection of the ruling elite, but has already advanced beyond how traditional dissidents conceptualized the end of the regime. The people on the streets are creating a new reality so far ahead the rest of the population, which has had one way or another to come to terms with an unbearable reality. The internalization of the sectarian discourse and the repression has been deeply ingrained into the minds of many Syrians. Coupled with the systematic dismantling and destruction of civil society, which not only meant the inability to have meaningful discussions on the country’s future, the economy, human development, and democracy but also helped create the impression of a lack of alternative. No matter how imaginary this actual lack may be, many Syrians felt alienated and fearful of each other, seemingly caught off guard by the extent of the suffering of so many fellow citizens. Unable to comprehend how people would march to certain death- and anyone leaving their house in Syria to demonstrate is quite possibly marching to a certain death, unable to comprehend how people would face live ammunition with bare arms, many have gladly taken refuge in lies, conspiracy theories, and plain hatred and anger at the protesters."
 
Two views on the international response to the situation in Syria:
"How the World Can Peacefully Intervene in Syria" - The Atlantic - Anne-Marie Slaughter covers the possible creation of a safe zone inside Syria to protect civilians from ongoing military incursions; the role of the Arab League in pushing for a UN resolution against Syria; the likelihood of Syria becoming the site of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side, and Iraq and Iran on the other, and; and Syria's immediate need for broad-scale humanitarian aid.
 
"Accelerate Assad’s Departure" - The Council on Foreign Relations - Robert M. Danin recommends that US policymakers do what they can to expedite President Assad's departure from government. Among his recommendations are, the formation of a 'friends of Syria' contact group to bring the Arab League members together with other countries opposed to the current government in Damascus; bringing Syrian officials to the International Criminal Court; targeting more officials with sanctions, and; bringing an end to official declarations that NATO, for example, will never wage military operations in Syria - which he believes serve only to embolden Damascus. 
 

 

References made to articles, individuals, organizations or government bodies in this blog do not necessarily reflect or imply an endorsement by The Syria Report. The Syria News Blog is a news service offered by The Syria Report only for the purpose of recapping foreign reportage on matters pertaining to Syria. 
Written by: Evelyn Aissa
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