The following is a selection by our editors of significant weekly developments in Syria. Depending on events, each issue will include anywhere from four to eight briefs. This series is produced in both Arabic and English in partnership between Salon Syria and Jadaliyya. Suggestions and blurbs may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Third Anniversary of “Russian Syria”
30 September 2018
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that more than eighteen thousand people, half of which are civilians, were killed in Russian airstrikes in Syria since Moscow started its military intervention three years ago.
Russia, a strong ally for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, started launching airstrikes in Syria on 30 September 2015, four years after the onset of the destructive conflict in the country.
Since then, eighteen thousand and ninety-six people have been killed, including seven thousand nine hundred and eighty-eight civilians or about half of the death total, according to the SOHR.
Five thousand two hundred and thirty-three ISIS militants have also been killed in these airstrikes, while the remaining number belongs to other Islamist and Jihadist factions, according to the SOHR.
Human rights groups and western governments have criticized the Russian airstrikes, saying that the bombardment has been indiscriminate and targeted civilian infrastructure, including hospitals.
The White Helmets, the Syrian civil defense in opposition areas, said in a report on Sunday that they have carried out dozens of rescue operations in bombarded building since 2015. They mentioned Russian airstrikes on nineteen schools, twelve open markets, and twenty medical facilities in the last three years, in addition to twenty-one of their rescue centers.
A US Invitation for France to Syria
30 September 2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis heads to Paris on Tuesday to discuss the issue of fighting terrorism and French presence in Syria with President Emmanuel Macron and Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly.
During the one-day visit, the first after taking office in 2017, Mattis will thank “France and congratulate it on its fighting terrorism campaigns, which are going on pretty well in west Africa and the East,” said Pentagon Spokesman Erik Pahon on Sunday.
While the Syrian government is asking US, Turkish, and French forces to leave Syria “immediately”, Washington hopes that Paris will keep special forces in the north of the country controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces, allies with the anti-jihadist international coalition.
“We will stay in Syria as long as necessary” so that the jihadists cannot re-locate there, the spokesman said. “The coalition will stay in Syria and it is the coalition that will decide whether France, Germany or another country will stay there,” he said. “But France is one of the few member countries of the coalition to assist us in Syria. We hope that it will stay there.”
France is taking part in the battles against ISIS in Iraq and Syria along with the US-led international coalition, which includes fighter jets, artillery, and special forces advising Kurdish fighters.
No figures were given on these special forces, whose presence on the ground is rarely recognized by French authorities. But last April, Mattis revealed that “the French have reinforced us in Syria with special forces in the last two weeks.”
On Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem demanded the departure of the French, US, and Turkish troops from Syria, denouncing “the illegitimate international coalition led by the United States,” deployed in Syria “under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”
After Paris, Mattis will head for Brussels to participate in a ministerial meeting of NATO on Wednesday and Thursday.
James Jeffery, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, said that the United States would maintain a presence in Syria as long as Iran is present there, however, he said that the United States’ role would not necessarily involve boots on the ground.
Jeffery was clarifying a recent comment by a senior official who appeared to suggest that troops would stay indefinitely to counter Iran.
Such an objective would drastically alter the mission in Syria first authorized by President Barack Obama, who set a goal of defeating ISIS, which also considers Iran a foe.
“Boots on the ground have the current mission of the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Jeffery said.
“Changing Assad … Through the Constitution”
28 September 2018
The Small Group on Syria, which includes the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabi, Egypt, and Jordan, called on UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to urgently set up the first meeting of the committee commissioned with drafting the constitution in order to hold elections in the country.
In a joint statement, the ministers stressed that “there is no military solution for the war,” saying that there is “no option other than the political solution.”
They warned that “those who seek a military solution will only succeed in increasing the risk of a dangerous escalation and wider conflagration of the crisis to the region and beyond.”
In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, the new US envoy to Syria James Jeffery said that his country’s goal was not to remove Assad. “We will be happy if he leaves and declares his departure voluntarily. But this is not our goal. Our goal is a different Syria that does not threaten its people or neighbors, does not use chemical weapons, does not expel refugees and displace people from its territory, and does not provide Iran with a platform to launch rockets against Israel. Our goals include holding those who committed war crimes accountable. Assad’s fate is something that Syrians will decide. If Assad is able to lead Syria in this direction then this a matter that Syrians should consider,” he said.
“Nouri al-Maliki (former Iraqi Prime Minister) was removed from office through the constitution because he could not prevent ISIS from taking control of areas in Iraq. No country in the Middle East had removed a leader because he did not meet the expectations of his people… I was present when the Iraqi constitution was drafted, and I was skeptical; but the Iraqis believed in the constitution, and I do not know what prevents Syria from moving in this direction,” the US envoy added.
The Heavy Weaponry in Idlib
1 October 2018
There have been conflicting reports on Syrian opposition factions withdrawing their heavy arms from the “demilitarized zone” in northern Syria as per the agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on 17 September.
“There have been no withdrawals of heavy weapons from any area or any front. This report is denied, completely denied,” said Naji Mustafa the spokesman for the National Front for Liberation (NLF), after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the day before on the first withdrawal of heavy weaponry by al-Sham Corps.
The Russian-Turkish agreement, which was reached in the Russian city of Sochi, provides for the establishment of a fifteen to twenty kilometer demilitarized zone between the frontlines of government forces and opposition factions on the outskirts of Idlib and parts of the adjacent governorates, specifically in the northern countryside of Hama, the western countryside of Aleppo, and the northern countryside of Lattakia.
The agreement, which spared the last opposition stronghold an all-out offensive by Damascus, stipulates that all factions in the buffer zone must hand in their heavy weapons by 10 October and radical groups must withdraw by 15 October, while Turkish forces and Russian military police would be deployed in the area.
Al-Izza Army, a Syrian opposition faction active in the northern countryside of Hama, announced its rejection of the agreement in a statement, the first public rejection by a non-radical organization. This comes after the National Front for Liberation, a coalition of opposition factions that includes Ahrar al-Sham, welcomed the agreement last week, affirming its distrust of the Russian side.
There has been no official public position from Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra), which controls more than half of Idlib and had previously said that it refuses to negotiate its weapons. However, it held intensive internal talks on Sunday to take a final decision regarding the agreement, according to the SOHR.
The Guardians of Religion organization expressed its refusal of “these conspiracies and all these steps,” in a statement circulated on social media last week.
Disputes Surrounding the Interpretation of Idlib
29 September 2018
Four points of dispute have emerged regarding the interpretation of the Sochi agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Idlib.
The agreement provided for a demilitarized zone in opposition areas, north of Syria and not between front lines between government and opposition forces. It also included a timetable to withdraw heavy arms by 10 October and “getting rid of fanatics” by 15 October. Sources said that Moscow has informed Tehran, Damascus, and Ankara that “in case the dates were not fully implemented, military operations and airstrikes against Idlib would be launched immediately.”
According to the sources, the first dispute revolves around the depth of the demilitarized zone, between fifteen and twenty kilometers. Moscow is seeking to include Idlib and other major cities in this zone, but Ankara refuses. The second dispute is related to the Aleppo-Lattakia road and Aleppo-Hama road. Russia wants to see Damascus control these two roads before the end of the year, while Ankara insists that they be monitored by Russia and Turkey.
The third dispute is over the fate of the fanatics, as Ankara wants to see them transferred to Kurdish areas while Moscow insists on “terminating foreign fighters”. The two sides also disagree on the range of the Sochi agreement. Sources said that “Moscow wants a temporary agreement similar to the ones implemented in the de-escalation areas of Daraa, Ghouta, and Homs, while Ankara wants to have it permanent, similar to the one implemented in the areas of the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations.
Opening of Nassib Border Crossing is Postponed
29 September 2018
Official Syrian media said on Saturday that Nassib border crossing with Jordan will be reopened on 10 October, three years after the trade route was closed by opposition fighters. A previous statement from the Ministry of Transportation had announced that the movement of trucks and goods through the crossing had already been restored. However, the Jordanian government denied that, saying that “the two sides are still studying the reopening of the border.”
Following the denial by Amman, Syrian state media ran a new statement by the transportation ministry saying that “logistic preparations to reopen the crossing are now complete, so that the Nassib border crossing with Jordan will reopen on the tenth of October and start receiving truck and transit traffic.” The crossing is considered a vital economic artery for Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.
S-300 and the Iranian Presence!
27-29 September 2018
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that the delivery of the S-300 missile defense system to Syria had already begun, and warned Western powers of attempting to undermine UN-led efforts to end the seven-year conflict.
Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on Monday the system would be delivered to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli and US objections. A week prior, Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria.
Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Supreme National Security Council in Iran, said Israel will be sorry if it continues to attack the Syrian army and its allies. Shamkhani made the comments during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in Tehran.
On Tuesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue its military operations in Syria, after Russia announced it would supply an advanced anti-aircraft system to its Syrian ally. “We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian army,” said Netanyahu.
The White House said it hoped Russia would reconsider the move, which US National Security Adviser John Bolton called a “significant escalation” of Syria’s seven-year war. Bolton said a political process was needed to end Syria’s war but that Russia’s plans with the S-300 made that difficult. He said US troops would stay in Syria. “We are not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
Dispute Surrounding the Endowments
30 September 2018
Decree Number 16 of 20 September 2018 regarding the work of the ministry of endowments has stirred a lot of controversy because it was issued before its draft was distributed and discussed transparently. The most important thing is that it expands the powers of the ministry and the minister, including restricting the term of mufti to three years instead of for life, based on a proposal by the minister of endowments. There are other controversial issues as well such as the formation of a religious youth group.