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.
Ripping the “Last Enclave”
14 December 2018
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control on Friday of Hajjin, the most important and prominent town in the “last enclave” controlled by ISIS east of Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The SDF, which includes Kurdish and Arab factions and receives support from the US-led international coalition, has been trying to end ISIS’s presence in eastern Syria. Since the 10th of September, the SDF has led an offensive to oust the extremist group from the last enclave in the eastern countryside of Deir Azzor, near the Iraqi border, which ISIS has been fiercely defending. “After one week of fierce battles and bombardment, the SDF, with support from the international coalition, were able to oust ISIS from Hajjin, the largest town in the enclave on Friday,” chief of the SOHR Rami Abdul Rahman told the AFP.
After heavy fighting, the SDF reached Hajjin on the 6th of December and fought battles against the extremists who had to withdraw to the east using a network of tunnels they had previously built. ISIS still holds control of most of the enclave, which includes several villages including al-Sooseh and al-Sha’feh.
According to the international coalition, around two thousand ISIS militants are entrenched inside the enclave, most of whom are presumed to be foreigners or Arabs. The SDF faced numerous obstacles in advancing in this enclave. ISIS militants are fiercely fighting in this enclave, which has been besieged by the SDF for months and targeted by coalition airstrikes. According to analysts, ISIS militants realize they will be killed sooner or later and they no longer have anywhere to withdraw to, which explains their fierce fighting.
Damascus Is Watching and Moscow Is Happy
15 December 2018
The leader of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Siban Hamo told al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that Russian officials are “happy” about Turkish army threats to the YPG and the Americans in north-eastern Syria, and that Damascus is “watching these threats.” Hamo called on the Syrian government to work towards “protecting Syria’s border and territory, and we are ready for joint work to confront Turkey,” adding that “the US army accelerated the deployment of six observation posts on the Syrian-Turkish border and patrols” along the border. Hamo emphasized that Turkey is “doing all it can and giving priority to eliminate what Kurds have gained. It mobilized its forces on the border and carried out bombardment inside Syria. Turkish intelligence officials met with Syrian factions and told them to be ready for a military operation, in a repeat of what happened in Afrin,” in the countryside of Aleppo early this year when the Turkish army launched the Olive Branch operation in cooperation with Syrian factions.
Against “Unilateral Action”
15 December 2018
The EU Foreign Affairs Chief, Federica Mogherini, asked Turkey on Saturday to “refrain from unilateral action” in Syria after Ankara threatened to launch a new offensive against the Kurdish fighters supported by Washington. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has launched since 2016 two attacks north of Syria, said on Wednesday that a new operation will be launched “in the upcoming days,” which will target the YPG east of the Euphrates.
“The statements of a possible Turkish military operation in north-eastern Syria are a source of concern,” said Mogherini on Saturday. She added: “we expect the Turkish authorities to refrain from any unilateral action likely to undermine the efforts of the counter-ISIS coalition or to risk further instability in Syria.” She went on to say that confronting ISIS has entered “the final stage,” calling on “all parties” to work towards “achieving the goal of ensuring its upcoming defeat, which remains an indispensable objective for any durable solution to the Syrian crisis.”
Any Turkish military operation threatens deteriorating the situation because of the US military alliance with the Kurdish fighters. Turkey and the United States are two NATO allies, however, the relationship between the two countries witnessed tensions in recent years especially after the cooperation between Washington and the YPG which stirred Ankara’s anger.
“Stay Away from the Clash of Elephants”
15 December 2018
US officials told political and military leaders in the Syrian opposition allies of Ankara that the US army considers the area east of the Euphrates and the city of Manbej a “red line”. Military and political communications between the US and Turkey intensified in the last couple of days after Ankara threatened to launch a military operation in northern Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is Washington’s ally in the war against ISIS. Sources say that Syrian opposition factions will participate in the military operation.
US officials told the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army that their “participation in the operation in any form would be considered an attack on the United States and the international coalition and would lead to direct confrontation with them. US forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces are intertwined, which means the SDF cannot be attacked without targeting the US or the coalition forces and engaging them.” US officials said that “when elephants dance, you must stay away from the dance floor.”
The US Presidential Envoy to the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, said that any Turkish military operation “would not be wise.”
The Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said: “we are part of the international coalition against ISIS and we support the fight against terrorists, so we want to coordinate our efforts. Our military are in close contact with the Americans and the rest of the coalition, as well as the Russians, in order to avoid any confrontation.”
Head of the opposition coalition, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, said that “any military operation to eliminate these organizations (the Kurdish units) will be welcomed and supported.”
13 December 2018
The UN Security Council extended the cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid despite Moscow’s opposition and its demand that this mechanism to be extended for six months only. This mechanism was established by the Security Council in the summer of 2014 and was extended to 10 January 2018. It was extended on Thursday for twelve months with thirteen countries voting in favor while Russia and China abstaining.
The head of the Humanitarian Affairs at the UN, Reena Ghelani, called on the Security Council in November to extend this mechanism for one year. Ghelani said: “around 4.3 million people need aid in areas not controlled by the government,” adding that “this includes around three million who cannot be reached except by cross-border operations.” She added: “renewing this Security Council resolution will allow for the continuation of saving lives. Millions of people will be affected by your decision,” stressing that “every truck is inspected to make sure that it only carries humanitarian supplies.”
This UN authorization will pave the way to provide food and medical aid to civilians in 2019 and avoid potential objection from the Syrian government or the opposition. The Security Council established this mechanism in the 14th of July 2014 under resolution 2165, which was unanimously adopted. It was extended in 2017.
Until the Last Breath
16 December 2018
The outgoing UN Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that he would meet with high-level representatives of regional powers Russia, Turkey, and Iran on Monday the 17th of December in Geneva in an attempt to achieve progress in political talks between Syrian factions by the end of the year. De Mistura added that the Geneva talks next week would provide a gateway, and that he is preparing a final evaluation of whether there is an opportunity to form a Syrian committee that is “credible, balanced, and inclusive” in order to reform the country’s constitution.
Moscow intensified its talks with Ankara and Tehran, its two allies in the Astana process, as well as Damascus in order to solve the issue of forming the Syrian constitutional committee through the “Astana-Sochi” process, and face US intention to escalate the situation and hold the Syrian government responsible for the failure of forming the committee. If Moscow’s move succeeds, a meeting of Russian, Turkish, and Iranian foreign ministers – or high officials – will be held in Geneva to present a draft list of the constitutional committee to de Mistura early next week, i.e. on the eve of de Mistura’s last presentation to the Security Council on the 20th of December before he hands over his mission to the Norwegian diplomat Geir Perdersen.