Zeinab Masri | Diana Rahima | Amal Rantisi | Hassan Ibrahim
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin three weeks ago and supported by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, affects Syrian affairs at various political, economic, and military levels.
Many of the international issues, which opened in Ukraine between the world’s major and regional powers, are linked to the Syrian file due to these powers’ relations and interests, which play a key role in the Syrian field, namely the United States (US), Russia, Turkey, and Israel.
The Russian invasion has a severe impact on the ailing economic situation in Syria due to the repercussions of the war globally, high inflation, and shipping costs, in addition to the Russian economic backup to the regime’s government and the economic sanctions it faces from Western countries and their impact on living conditions in Syria, and the fact that Ukraine is an exporter of a strategic wheat staple.
In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi, with political and economic experts, examines the repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the progress of the political process and its impacts on the economic situation in Syria, given that Russia is a key ally of the regime and an active party in the Syrian issue.
Political repercussions on Syria
The Step-for-Step approach of Geir Pedersen, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, was proposed to find a political solution for the conduct of the political process in Syria, based on a Russian-US consensus.
In January 2022, Pedersen, in an interview with the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, said he had obtained support from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to advance a Step-for-Step approach between the concerned parties, to identify gradual, reciprocal, realistic, precisely defined, and verifiable steps to be applied in parallel between the concerned parties, leading to international resolution 2254.
However, the escalation between the two superpowers that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine does not reflect the continuation of this consensus in a good way. Pedersen himself expressed his concern that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict would negatively affect the resolution of the Syrian crisis on 23 February.
During his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Pedersen said, “As a special envoy to Syria, I am concerned that this conflict over Ukraine will have a negative impact on resolving the Syrian conflict, but I hope that this will not happen,” according to the Russian Sputnik agency.
Escalation, no rapprochement
US President Joe Biden said in a statement after a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he condemned the “unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces,” stressing that the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive manner, and “the world will hold Russia accountable… responsible for the death and destruction this attack will cause.”
For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Moscow would provide a strong response to the new US sanctions against Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry stated there should be no doubts that there will be a strong response to the sanctions, not necessarily the same, but it will be palpable for the American side,” according to Sputnik.
Nasr al-Youssef, an expert in the Russian affairs, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian settlement has become a matter that is currently postponed due to the “breaking of the Muawiyah hair” (an Arabic idiomatic expression that refers to the unstable position) that used to link the Russians and the collective West.
If Russia previously wanted to make concessions in exchange for other things in certain controversial files, the matter has become completely postponed, given the hostility that erupted overnight between Russia and the West.
Consequently, the Syrian crisis will be prolonged, and the repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis will be very harsh on Syria, according to al-Youssef.
Russia has intensified its presence on Syrian soil, quantitatively and qualitatively, by bringing in strategic aircraft and missile-carrying bombers, in addition to naval maneuvers to open a front that includes Europe and the Middle East.
Al-Youssef thinks that Russia will not abandon all of Syria because it is a starting point for it, in addition to the fact that it has become a Russian base that can be used in confronting the West.
On the other hand, Putin will not dump al-Assad, who responds to Putin’s orders directly, and “it is not reasonable for Putin to replace him in this difficult and sensitive period, knowing his loyalty and obedience to Russia.”
According to al-Youssef, the “Syrian crisis” has entered a tunnel that, if not dark, at least has nothing to bode well.
Turkey’s strength cards no need to lose
Turkey, which has commons and odds with Russia over Syria, took the mediator role before the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February, showing sympathy for Ukraine while maintaining diplomatic ties with Russia.
On 22 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, Turkey’s position refusing to recognize both Donetsk and Lugansk, according to a statement by the Turkish Presidency.
Erdogan pointed out that Turkey announced its position through the statement of its Foreign Ministry, stressing that Putin’s recognition of the two so-called republics is “unacceptable.”
For his part, Putin expressed his “disappointment” with the response of the US and NATO during a phone call he had with Erdogan.
In the wake of the Russian attacks on Ukraine, the Ukrainian Ambassador in Ankara, Vasyl Bodnar, asked Turkey to close its sea straits to Russian ships for the benefit of Ukraine.
Following a Turkish hesitation to deny or confirm the decision to close the straits to the Russians, Turkey announced on 28 February that it had notified all countries not to send its warships through the Turkish straits.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said earlier that Russia would still be able to send its ships (to its bases in the Black Sea) through the straits even if Turkey closed them.
Russia’s power cards
Turkey relies heavily on Russia for its gas imports which reached a total of 33.6 billion cubic meters in 2020. Also, Turkey relies on Iran. The halt in the gas flow from Iran led to the disruption of the industrial sector in Turkey, paralyzing the industrial sector for several days.
Mehmet Doğan, CEO of the Turkish gas company GazDay, echoed fears of the worst-case scenario that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will escalate further during the summer, and Russia will stop exporting gas to Turkey. “Gas prices will jump dramatically, but if this happens during the winter, Turkey will have no chance. We will be doomed,” he said.
From the first moment of the crisis, Turkey saw severe damage to it, and accordingly, it sought from the beginning to try to avoid aggravating the situation, including by offering to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, according to what the researcher and Turkish affairs specialist Said al-Haj said to Enab Baladi.
There are expected repercussions of any military escalation on the global economy, especially on developing economies, some of which have appeared in the work of stock exchanges, exchange rates, and other indicators since the beginning of the invasion, which are worrying repercussions for Turkey in light of the current conditions of the Turkish economy and the government’s attempts to exit from it.
Also, the repercussions for the tourism season at the beginning of summer will be great, as it is a season that Turkey relies on a lot to employ labor, obtain hard currency, and revitalize the economy, especially since Russia usually ranks first or second in terms of the number of tourists coming to Turkey.
Ankara is afraid of the consequences of any position it has in relation to Moscow or in regional files such as Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus as Russian “retaliatory” steps, so it wants to avoid taking sharp and biased positions in such a crisis that may have harmful outcomes.
Realizing that the United States, and the West in general, would most likely return to sit down with Putin to negotiate at a later time after the crisis subsides, Turkey tried as much as possible to avoid turning the Ukrainian crisis into a military conflict, and when the latter occurred, it rejected it and denounced it, but without antagonizing Russia or standing against it.
Al-Haj does not see that Turkey essentially rejected the Russian war against Ukraine and considered its condemnation of Russia’s recognition of the independence of the two republics in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine as very close to the position of NATO and the position of most countries in the world.
Thus, Turkey is not completely neutral, but it is trying as much as possible to avoid direct involvement in this crisis, just as it has tried not to clash with Russia by abstaining from voting in the Council of Europe to freeze Russia’s membership.
Moreover, Russia will seek to spare Syria any repercussions of this crisis, but if the Ukraine crisis or the war goes to the content and stage of attrition for Russia in the long run, then both the West on the one hand and Russia on the other will work to escalate things in Syria, in an attempt to tighten the noose against each other and open a front in Syria, according to al-Haj.
Accordingly, al-Haj does not believe that Turkey will offer anything to Russia in Syria. Rather, it is afraid of certain moves, perhaps in the Syrian file, and wants the status quo to remain at least as it is at this moment.
Israel and Moscow had a friendly mutual relationship in the period prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as both sides had interests in Syria.
Israeli officials fear that the repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine may disrupt Israel’s efforts to ward off Iranian influence in Syria and the region.
According to the Haaretz daily, Israel is trying to avoid any statements or actions that might upset Russia, to the point that senior defense officials have been asked not to comment publicly on the situation in Ukraine, fearing that this would have serious repercussions on Israel’s efforts to keep Iran and its regional proxies under control.
Israeli officials have also expressed to Haaretz their concern that imposing US sanctions on Russia in response to a possible invasion of Ukraine could harm Israel’s security interests in Syria.
In a separate context, Israel condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, describing it as a “serious violation of the international order.”
The Times Of Israel newspaper reported that Russia summoned the Israeli Ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Ben-Zvi, to clarify Israel’s position on the invasion of Ukraine.
According to the newspaper’s report on 25 February, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov asked the Israeli ambassador: “Why does Israel support the Nazis in Ukraine?”
Khattar Abou Diab, a professor of political science at the International Center for Geopolitics in Paris, believes that there is no evidence of Israeli-Russian tension over the Ukraine issue because Israel cannot stand in front of the US, but it appears to be in a position closer to neutrality, and even closer to Russia in the Ukrainian issue.
Abou Diab believes that with regard to Syria, the agreements that have occurred are respected between the two parties until this moment and do not indicate the possibility of any clash between them.
On the contrary, if the nuclear agreement between Washington and Tehran is concluded, an Iranian-American rapprochement will occur, and it will turn into an Israeli-Russian rapprochement.
Abou Diab considered that Israel eats everything that is on the plate, meaning that it has a strategy with Washington, but it also established a strategic link with Putin, and therefore it is not embarrassed, but rather benefited from the Ukrainian war in receiving thousands of Jews who fled Ukraine.
Israel has also founded a deep strategic and technological relationship with China, and then with Putin, and all of this we see in many forums on the ground.
Where does Iran stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
The Russians are disturbed by Iran’s failure to fulfill its pledges not to approach southern Syria, and when Israel carries out an aerial bombardment, Russia pledges to protect the Syrian regime. All that matters to the Russians is that Israel does not approach the Syrian regime and its head Bashar al-Assad, according to Abou Diab.
The professor of political science does not believe that there is a departure from the tactical Russian agreement between these parties.
What appears from Iran’s ultimate support for Russia in Ukraine’s invasion is only the position of the media, but in fact, it is a country like Pakistan that has sided with Russia, and if the nuclear agreement with the American begins, Iran will be practically closer to the US than to Russia.
Iran was the ground force of the Russian Air Force in Syria, but for a while, the divergence of interests began to appear in the open because each party is working to strengthen its positions at the expense of the other party inside Syria as if it is part of its strategic security and a complement to its influence.
Battle of empty stomachs in Syria
Economic crises continue on Syrians in different Syrian geography, regardless of the party that controls them, starting with the previously deteriorating economic conditions, high prices, and low purchasing power, to the policy of lifting subsidies and the approaching of the holy month of Ramadan, then the Ukrainian crisis and its economic repercussions globally, which are expected to extend to the Middle East.
Most expectations revolve around the rise in the prices of most commodities and imports of wheat and the rise in import costs, especially oil derivatives that Syrians face difficulties in purchasing, while they are turning to “negative” ways to adapt to the deterioration of the living situation in the country, through child labor and marriage and the sale of productive assets, according to United Nations reports.
Syrian regime anticipates repercussions
Economy deterioration linked to global crisis
As soon as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of what he described as a “special military operation” in the Donbas region, on 24 February, the Syrian regime officials linked the deteriorating economic situation in Syria to the consequences of the crisis.
The regime’s government hastened to hold a meeting, which it said was in response to the developments in Ukraine, after which it announced “austerity” decisions to manage the available stocks of basic materials during the next two months.
Following the government, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, the Economy Minister, declared that Syria’s economy is not immune to the impact of global crises and confirmed that the government imports more than 180,000 tons of wheat per month in US dollars while importing oil annually costs more than 2.5 billion euros.
With Western countries imposing economic sanctions on Russia due to Ukraine’s invasion, the advisor to the Syrian president, Luna al-Shibl, pledged to support Russia in the face of these sanctions, as Moscow did with Damascus, while its government implements a policy of lifting support for citizens in its areas of control under the pretext of the inability to continue it.
Syrians began to envisage the repercussions of the Russian invasion, through the decisions taken by the government at the beginning of the war, to tighten the belt and the policy of austerity and reduce expenditures to face the coming days, according to what the doctor in financial and banking sciences and economics researcher Firas Shabo revealed in an interview with Enab Baladi.
The al-Assad government prevented the export of many foodstuffs in the coming period and instructed the ministries to control expenditures in a large way, and this is an indication that the coming days will be economically difficult for the regime and citizens who suffer in advance from high prices, Shabo added.
The increase in energy and the decrease in the support that the regime receives from Russia, directly or indirectly, will cast a shadow over the cost of living and will exacerbate economic problems, according to Shabo, as Russia was contributing to supplying the regime with some wheat, energy sources, and equipment.
Alexander Yefimov, Russia’s ambassador to Syria, declared, on 9 February, during an interview with the Russian Sputnik agency, that the volume of trade exchange between Russia and Syria had tripled in 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
Shabo explained that the rise in prices globally as a result of the war would cast a shadow over the Syrian economic wheel since the regime’s government considered itself a party of this war.
Al-Assad has stated that Syria and Russia are fighting the world, and “the war is global,” and he has placed himself in Russia’s trench, and therefore the sanctions that will be imposed on Russia will also be imposed on the Syrian regime, according to the expert.
The al-Assad regime was not a priority to Russia as much as the priority is given to the internal situation in Russia, which suffers from severe economic problems, and therefore the regime will suffer and is aware of this, and therefore it will try to maintain direct contact with the Iranians for fear of a radical change in the regime, the end of the war and Russia’s submission to European conditions, Shabo added.
Accordingly, the researcher expected that the Syrian pound would reach record levels again, as this period the 1 USD is trading for 3900 SYP on the black market and is strongly expected to reach 4000 and 5000 pounds for 1 USD in the coming days, because the regime does not have the ability to control it with financial resources, but just by a security grip.
Shabo indicated that the general economic situation, the deterioration of the value of the Syrian pound, and the rise in prices globally, in addition to the ongoing inflation and poor services provided inside Syria and the reduction of subsidies for a large part of the people, as well as economic sanctions and the regime’s tightening of the spending policy, will directly affect the life of Syrian citizens who will not have the ability to adapt negatively, confirming the UN reports that tackled these issues.
The economic hardships that Syrians will face could turn into social difficulties and a moral problem, noting that many economic reports said that Syria is destined for famine, and the reality predicts that with the absence of government intervention.
Northeast Syria, economic crisis entrenched by war
Hardly any crisis begins until its signs are clearly visible in the markets of northeastern Syria, as most goods are available in the region in normal times, but this situation is different when any crossing is closed or at the event of political or military crises, so that these goods disappear or their prices suddenly rise.
The repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis after the Russian invasion were clearly reflected on global fuel prices due to the imposition of US and European sanctions on Russia, while locals are afraid of the devaluation of the currencies traded and the interruption of basic foodstuffs, including wheat and barley, according to what Enab Baladi monitored from traders operating in the region.
Soar in prices
The markets of northeastern Syria have witnessed successive crises over the past years to secure basic needs, the most severe of which were the crises of sugar, bread, and securing fuel for the population in the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis and talk about its potential economic impact on Syria, food prices have risen in the region, although the source of most of the materials in the AANES areas are from Iraq, Turkey, or Iran.
Among these imported materials, vegetable oils, vegetable ghee, and some types of canned goods from a foreign source at rates ranging between 20 and 25 percent of the original price of the material before the start of the war in Ukraine.
While an official in the Autonomous Administration, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, acknowledged that the financial policy of the Autonomous Administration and the absence of an effective role for its affiliated institutions by direct intervention in the markets, leave those markets vulnerable to the actions of traders who take advantage of crises and monopolize materials and raise their prices.
The official stated that the AANES does not have any large strategic stocks of important materials, and most of the imported materials are for daily needs and are not sufficient to meet any sudden need in other than normal times.
The absence of a monetary institution or banks in the Autonomous Administration is the main reason for the economic crises, in addition to the large scale of corruption and bureaucracy rampant in the institutions, and that any crisis that may occur needs a lot of planning and meetings to exacerbate the crisis before the Administration can intervene or limit; according to the official.
“Self-Administration” towards self-sufficiency
Suleiman Baroudo, the co-chair of the Economic Commission in the Autonomous Administration, in an email to Enab Baladi, said the region, in general, is heading towards a real crisis because most Arab countries and governments, and not just northeastern Syria, import some major commodities from Russia or Ukraine or both, especially materials such as wheat, vegetable, and mineral oils, flour, etc.
He added that after the war between the two sides, the prices of many materials, especially agricultural crops, had risen significantly, threatening the region’s food security and even political stability.
And about the Autonomous Administration’s plan to reduce the economic repercussions and the rise in materials, Baroudo answered that it is to rely on self-sufficiency through our plans that we will adopt in the near future.
“The establishment of laboratories and factories through the primary resources available to us, especially linking the outputs of the agricultural process to the inputs of the industrial process, and supporting agricultural projects to reach self-sufficiency,” he says.
In turn, the Qamishli-based expert in Kurdish affairs, Shivan Ibrahim, believes that according to the cost of the war and inflation in global oil prices and its impact on shipping prices, importing wheat, for example, from Russia or Ukraine to the Autonomous Administration areas will mean more burdens in this region due to high costs.
Ibrahim pointed out that there are many agricultural lands and vast areas in northeastern Syria, but there is no interest in this agriculture, and there are no plans to ensure the development of agriculture to meet the popular need.
In the first place, there will be an impact on freight prices and the prices of incoming goods, in addition to the lack of wheat available as a result of drought in the current year and in previous years, according to Ibrahim.
No strategic planning
Ibrahim attributed the reasons for the rapid impact of crises in the areas of the Autonomous Administration to the absence of strategic planning, which prompted the region to import materials while it could achieve self-sufficiency.
The strategic planning institution is of great importance, as it will lay down plans for development, agriculture, trade, and industry, and this planning will require opening political relations with the neighborhood of all those who can act as a pressure or prevent the possibility of economic development in the region, says Ibrahim.
The researcher called on the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to support the agricultural sector immediately by giving financial loans and providing electricity and diesel. The continuation of the international situation for a few more weeks in this manner will threaten the wheat crop, and even importing wheat in quantities means an increase in the price of a bundle of bread.
The AANES did not pay attention to these issues from the beginning and did not pay any attention to them, as the prices of seeds and materials entering its areas are in dollars and at very high prices.
In addition, the absence of electricity caused farmers to be unable to grow cotton, which is an important economic resource and contributes to exports and industry. It also hindered the operation of a gin and textile factory located in al-Hasakah, denying the region many job opportunities and good local economic resources, Ibrahim added.
Political reflection on the region
The researcher Shivan Ibrahim pointed out that it is not possible to talk about an economic impact without talking about a political impact, and certainly the impact of the Russian war against Ukraine will be reflected on the region, not only economically, but even politically today with the increase in the frequency of European and American threats and sanctions against Russia.
There are American military bases in northeastern Syria, which provide logistic support to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the presence of Russian bases, and the escalation in Ukraine will mean that the Russians will widen their war in more than one region, including Syria.
The researcher sees the possibility of Russia blackmailing the local governance structures or the authority in northeastern Syria by not being dragged into any political position, or the areas that Russia protects in cooperation with the Autonomous Administration will be brandished which are areas under the Turkish threat of course.
Northwestern Syria is not immune from invasion’s harm
The areas of northwestern Syria, which are controlled by two de-facto governments, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), depend for the majority of their economy on some local resources, products, and goods from local crops and manufactures.
Goods and merchandise are imported from Turkey through the official crossings and mainly include foodstuffs, building materials, fuel, and others. Goods imported from other countries also pass to areas under the control of the opposition factions through the crossings with Turkey.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the economy of many countries and the global economy in general, and directly and indirectly affected these areas now and in the long run, especially since the population in the northern Syrian regions suffers from poor and deteriorating living conditions, poverty, and the inability of families to secure livelihood and supplies.
Yahya al-Sayyid Omar, a Ph.D. researcher in the political economy, explained to Enab Baladi that the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the entire global economy, and no country is immune from this influence, and with regard to the regions of northwestern Syria, they will be affected indirectly.
Among these effects are the high inflation rate and the rise in energy prices such as domestic gas and fuels, especially since most of them are imported from abroad, in addition to the possibility of difficulty in supplies in light of the high prices.
In the long run, the northwestern region is expected to be negatively affected by the high rate of poverty as a direct result of the high inflation rate, in addition to the decline in some economic indicators and the decline in indicators of early economic recovery in the region, according to the researcher.
Interim Government will be affected in long run
Abdulhakim al-Masri, Minister of Economy in the Interim Government, told Enab Baladi that the existence of a war or conflict between two countries that produce important and main materials such as wheat and gas would affect everyone, and most sectors will be affected in general, but especially the oil and fuel sectors, in addition to wheat.
Al-Masri suggested that the prices of these materials would rise due to their increase in all regions of the world, as a result of the rise in oil and gas prices, and the high prices of maritime transport, and indicated that these materials will be available and will not affect the areas of the Interim Government that extends between the countryside of Aleppo and the two towns of Ras al-Ain in the northwest al-Hasakah and Tal Abyad, north of Raqqa, but there will be an increase in their prices.
The impact of the Russian invasion will not be significant on the areas of influence of the Interim Government due to the presence of a stockpile of these materials, but if it continues, the effect will appear, according to al-Masri.
Direct impact on “Salvation Govt”
Hamdo al-Jassem, Director of Public Relations at the Ministry of Economy and Resources in the Salvation Government operating in Idlib, told Enab Baladi that the Russian invasion has a significant impact and serious repercussions on the global economy, which is still suffering from the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and it has an impact on the regions of northwestern Syria, which depend on imports, as the import rate is estimated at 80 percent.
Al-Jassem assured that any global rise in commodity prices directly leads to a rise in other regions, especially energy, as Russia and Ukraine are among the largest exporters of gas and oil around the world. Brent (the main trading classification for light, sweet crude oil that is used as the main benchmark for global oil purchase prices) reached the price of 110 USD per barrel.
After the Russian invasion, oil prices continued to rise, and Brent crude headed towards recording 120 USD a barrel, its highest level in nearly ten years, as a result of US sanctions against Russian refiners, shipping disruptions, and a drop in US crude stocks to the lowest level in years.
Ukrainian flour in northwest Syria
The Salvation Government imports flour from Turkey, which in turn imports it from Ukraine and 90 percent of the wheat or flour that enters the areas of influence of the “Salvation” is Ukrainian, according to al-Jassem.
The price of wheat in the areas controlled by the Salvation Government rose from 370 per ton to 400 USD during the first days of the invasion and is expected to reach levels of 460 USD per ton.
The residents of northwestern Syria suffer from the unprecedented rise in the prices of goods and materials in the markets in the region, which prevents them from securing their basic and secondary needs.
The issue is not limited to commodities and foodstuffs, as the price of bread has reached the basic material of bread, which Enab Baladi has noted the difficulty of securing people’s needs, as people resorted to tandoor bread, which is less expensive than bakery bread.
Efforts fit capabilities
Al-Jassem expected that the local production of wheat would reach about 80,000 tons for the current year and that more than 60 percent of food security would be achieved to alleviate the suffering of the people in the areas of influence of the Salvation Government.
With regard to oil derivatives, the Salvation government will pump from its strategic stockpile to cover the activities in the areas under its control, including bakeries, water stations, hospitals, and productive economic projects, al-Jassem added.
The north of Syria suffers from poor and deteriorating living conditions, poverty, and the inability of families to secure their daily food and their necessities, a questionnaire conducted by the Humanitarian Needs Assessment Program (HNAP), in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Early Recovery and Livelihoods Group in Northwest Syria, showed the “economic deprivation” that people are experiencing in Syria, according to a report issued on 14 September 2021.
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