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.
11 September 2019
United Nations investigators said on Wednesday that air strikes by US-led coalition forces in Syria have killed or wounded many civilians, indicating that required precautions were ignored and war crimes may have been committed.
Syrian government and allied Russian warplanes are also conducting a deadly campaign that appears to target medical facilities, schools, markets and farmland and which may also amount to war crimes, the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.
The investigators also accused Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance formerly known as Nusra Front that is the dominant armed group in Idlib, of firing rockets indiscriminately and killing civilians.
The coalition’s al-Jazeera Storm operation resulted in a high number of civilian casualties, including in a series of strikes on 3 January in Sha’fah, south of Hajin, that killed sixteen civilians including twelve children, the UN report said.
Syrian government forces carried out repeated air strikes in Saraqib, in northwest Idlib province on 9 March, damaging al-Hayat women’s and children’s hospital, despite pro-government forces being aware of its coordinates, the report said.
The Syrian government army denies that its strikes target civilians and says its forces only bomb militants associated with hardline fundamentalist groups linked to al Qaeda. The report covers the year to July and is based on nearly three hundred interviews and analysis of satellite imagery, photographs and videos.
16 September 2019
The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran will meet in an attempt to secure a lasting truce in northwest Syria following the recent escalation in which government forces controlled Khan Sheikoun. The summit will debate potential threats from the ongoing tensions in Idlib, including a new wave of migrants toward Turkey.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani have backed the Syrian government against the opposition. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, along with the United States, European and Arab allies, has supported different opposition factions in the conflict. Government forces, aided by Russian air power, have regained control of most lands lost in the war. In recent months, government forces have attacked Idlib government.
Under a deal with Moscow and Tehran two years ago, Turkey set up twelve military observation posts in northwest Syria aimed at reducing fighting between the Syrian army and opposition forces. The Turkish military posts have recently been caught in the crossfire due to the Syrian offensive in the region.
On Monday, Erdogan, Putin, and Rouhani are expected to hold bilateral talks with each other before holding trilateral talks on the developments in Idlib. The three leaders will then hold a joint news conference.
15 September 2019
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued an amnesty on Sunday that reduces sentences for crime and pardons draft dodgers if they report for duty within three to six months.
The decree applies to crimes committed before 14 September, the presidency said. It reduces the death penalty to a life sentence of hard labor, and life sentences to twenty years, among other punishments. Fugitives must turn themselves in within three months to benefit from the amnesty. The amnesty includes drug crimes and arms smuggling. The government has issued similar amnesties before to pardon those evading mandatory military service, who can face years in prison.
Aid agencies often cite the fear of conscription, and punishment for ducking it, as one of the main reasons refugees give for not wanting to return home.
Bombardment in Idlib
15 September 2019
Rescuers and residents said on Sunday that Syrian troops shelled the south of Idlib where a ceasefire had halted a fierce army offensive two weeks ago. Artillery fire battered Maarat al-Numan town and nearby villages in the south Idlib countryside over the past two days, after warplanes struck there on Thursday. An opposition official said fighters were on high alert and had reinforced the frontlines. “We are responding directly by targeting the positions from where the shells are fired,” said Naji Mustafa of the National Liberation Front.
The ceasefire Damascus declared on 31 August brought a lull in air strikes in Idlib, after a five-month offensive which the United Nations says killed hundreds of people.
The Civil Defense, rescue workers operating in opposition territory, said artillery shelling on Idlib villages has killed seven people since Friday.
Will Fighting Resume in Idlib
11 September 2019
Syrian opposition fighters on Wednesday said Russian-backed forces were amassing troops in preparation for resuming a five-month offensive in northwest Syria after a second day of raids by jets believed to be Russian threatened to end a fragile ceasefire.
The jets that flew overnight at high altitudes struck a village near Kafr Takhareem and an area near the town of Darkoush, both in rural areas in western Idlib governorate, two opposition sources and a resident in the area said. The overnight bombing raid came hours after air strikes hit a part of the northwest for the first time since the truce was declared eleven days ago, according to activists and a monitor. Moscow denied conducting the first strikes.
Russia said the Syrian government unilaterally agreed to a truce on 31 August in opposition-controlled Idlib. Since then, there has been an end to the intense air strikes by Russian and Syrian warplanes that since late April had accompanied the Russian-backed ground offensive to retake the last opposition bastion.
The Phantom of Refuge
16 September 2019
Fighting in northwest Syria stirred the risk of a new influx of refugees towards Turkey which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The United Nations said that more than half a million people have been displaced from their homes since late April and that most of them went deep in the opposition stronghold near the border.
Erdogan said that his country cannot deal with such an influx of displaced people. He threatened to “open the gates” for refugees to head to Europe unless Ankara receives more international support. Erdogan reiterated this threat on Friday and said that the Monday summits aims to stop the influx of displaced people from Idlib and solidify the ceasefire to prevent more civilian casualties.
Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party suffered some stunning local election losses this year in part due to impatience among Turks over the Syrian refugees. Erdogan has said one million refugees could return to a “safe zone” in northeast Syria, which Turkey is trying to establish with the United States.
No Increase in US Forces
13 September 2019
General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, said on Friday that the US military will not increase troop levels in Syria to carry out joint patrols with Turkish forces, adding that his goal was to eventually reduce the number of US forces in the country.
US troop levels in Syria, which number around one thousand, have been under intense scrutiny since President Donald Trump last year ordered their complete withdrawal – only to later be convinced to leave some forces behind to ensure that ISIS militants cannot stage a comeback.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that the Pentagon was preparing to send about one hundred and fifty troops to conduct ground patrols with Turkish forces. But McKenzie said the new mission would not require additional forces in the country.
But, at least so far, the joint patrols appear to have failed to satisfy demands from Ankara, which wants the operations to expand rapidly as far as thirty-two kilometers from its border to create a safe zone controlled by Turkish troops.
Explosion in al-Rai
15 September 2019
The local council and a medical worker said a rigged car exploded near a hospital in the Syrian town of al-Rai at the border with Turkey on Sunday, killing ten people and wounding fifteen. The blast also caused damage in the hospital, said a statement from the council of the town, which lies in a part of northwest Syria under the control of Turkey-backed opposition factions. The Turkish Anadolu news agency said twelve civilians were killed after a “terror bomb attack” near the frontier.
9 September 2019
The media unit run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah said Israeli planes hit a Syrian army camp under construction in eastern Syria early on Monday without casualties.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had earlier reported that strikes by unidentified planes had killed pro-Iran fighters and attacked positions and arms depots belonging to them in Albu Kamal, a town near the Iraqi border.
Censorship over Books
11 September 2019
The Syrian Culture Minister Mohammed al-Ahmad said that any book that “touches” on the state or community would be withdrawn from the Assad Library International Book Fair and the responsible publishing house would be held accountable.
“The Culture Ministry used to supervise the fair in full at previous cycles. This year, however, a higher committee for the fair was formed because educational work involves numerous branches. There are religious books that people of religion are more capable of evaluating. And so is the case for political books and other books that contain various contents. This committee bears the responsibility of choosing adequate content for the reader,” al-Ahmad said in a press conference in Damascus on Tuesday.
“No committee in the world can read all the books that will be showcased in a book fair, which can reach thousands of books. Therefore, if any breach that touches on our state or community is detected, then we will withdraw the book and hold the house that published it responsible by excluding it from participating in the fair in its upcoming cycle,” al-Ahmad went on to say.
Two hundred and thirty-seven publishing houses are presenting more than fifty thousand titles during the fair that is held between 12 – 22 September under the slogan: “Books Construct the Mind”. Some of the participating countries include Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran.