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.
Campaign Against Refugees in Lebanon
15 June 2019
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil stepped up his rhetoric against Syrian refugees and his repeated calls for them to go back to Syria. On the third day of a conference for municipalities, Bassil said the issue of “Syrian refugees” constitutes a major challenge that Lebanon cannot handle, and their return is in the best interest of both Lebanon and Syria.
Bassil said that Syrian refugees do not bear any tax obligations, amid rising unemployment and losses in billions of dollars, adding that Lebanon is no longer able to deal with these consequences.
“How come thousands of Syrians go to Syria and then come back to Lebanon while they still possess a refugee ID? Why does the international community help people who possess a refugee card while they work in Lebanon and their homes in Syria are still intact and in a safe area?” Bassil asked.
Bassil stirred controversy last week among journalists and intellects when he talked about “genetic” supremacy of the Lebanese people in comparison to other peoples, and considered this a reason to reject refugees and foreign labor in the country.
The Lebanese minister said that there is a plan to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and stressed that the “experience of Palestinian refugees will not be repeated with the displaced Syrians, who are prohibited from going back by various parties for various reasons.”
A hashtag was then created on social media in Lebanon against hate speech, amid calls for protests against hate speech stated by Lebanese politicians against the presence of Syrians in Lebanon.
At least one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon according to the UN Refugee Agency. The Lebanese government complains about economic burdens because of them amid accusations by human rights groups that Syrians are being pressured to go back to their country.
Russian Strikes in Turkey’s Interest!
13 June 2019
The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Thursday that its planes had carried out four air strikes against militants in Syria’s Idlib region, the RIA news agency reported. The Russian military said that the Turkish army had asked for its help to protect Turkish troops by striking “terrorists in Idlib.”
Bombardment of Turkish Positions in Idlib
16 June 2019
A Turkish observation post in Syria’s Idlib region was attacked with mortar fire and shelling from an area controlled by Syrian government forces, causing damage but no casualties, the Turkish Defense Ministry said on Sunday. The ministry said its forces immediately retaliated with heavy weapons and it made representations to Moscow over the incident, the second attack of its kind within a week.
“It is impossible for us to tolerate the regime’s harassment targeting our soldiers. We will put them in their place,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised speech. The ministry did not specify when the shelling occurred, but said the attack was launched from what it named the Tal Bazan area and it was assessed to be deliberate.
Cavusoglu said the latest “aggression” was contrary to the Idlib agreement which Turkey signed with Russia. “It is the responsibility of Iran and Russia… to halt the regime,” he added. On Thursday, Russia and Turkey gave sharply conflicting accounts of a previous attack on a different Turkish outpost.
Turkey blamed Syrian government forces for that earlier attack but Moscow said it was carried out by the armed opposition. Russia said on Wednesday that a full ceasefire had been put in place in the area, but Turkey denied this. The latest incidents highlighted the erosion of the de-escalation deal, agreed last year to shield Idlib from a government assault.
Since April, government forces have increased their shelling and bombing of the area, killing scores of people. The opposition says the government action is part of a campaign for an assault that would breach the de-escalation agreement. The government and its Russian allies say the action is in response to opposition violations, including the presence of fighters in a demilitarized zone.
Explosion in Dummar
15 June 2019
An explosion on Saturday in a Syrian ammunition depot in a military zone west of the capital was caused by wildfires, state television reported. It said the depot was in the Dummar residential area. But residents said the explosion, which could be heard across Damascus, appeared to have come from a mountainous area between Dummar and Qudsaya, where large army units are stationed.
12 June 2019
Israel carried out a missile attack on a strategic hill in Syria overlooking a frontier zone between the countries early on Wednesday, the Syrian state news agency SANA said.
It said damage was caused to Tal al-Hara, in the Daraa governorate near the occupied Golan Heights, and that Syrian air defenses shot down several missiles. Israel used “electronic warfare” to disrupt radars during the attack, SANA added.
Chemical Inspectors Prohibited from Entering
12 June 2019
Syrian officials have refused access to a newly-created chemical weapons investigation team formed to identify culprits behind attacks with banned munitions, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fernando Arias said in remarks published on Wednesday.
Member countries of the OPCW voted last year to create the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), a decision that was opposed by Damascus and its ally Russia. “Syria refuses to recognize the decision and to deal with any of its subsequent implications and effects,” Arias told member states.
He said Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, had informed the OPCW in writing of the decision not to issue travel visas to members of the investigation team. “Additionally, I received two letters dated 9 May and 14 May from the vice-minister, informing of Syria’s objection to grant the newly appointed members of the IIT access to any confidential information concerning the Syrian chemical dossier” Arias said.
Syria joined the OPCW in 2013, agreeing to give weapons inspectors access, in a move that averted air strikes threatened by then-US President Barack Obama. A joint United Nations-OPCW investigation team concluded that Syrian forces used banned nerve agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs, while militants with Islamic State had used mustard gas.
The new investigation team was formed after Russia vetoed a resolution to extend the mandate of the joint team in November 2017.
17 June 2019
Israel approved in principle on Sunday a new community named after US President Donald Trump in the occupied Golan – but construction looked likely to lag given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political stumbles. The “Trump Heights” project is intended to cement ties after Trump broke with other world powers to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the plateau in May.
At a special cabinet session in Beruchim, a sparse clutch of homes just twelve kilometers from the Golan Heights armistice line with Syria, Netanyahu unveiled a sign labeled “Trump Heights” in English and Hebrew.
“Whoever reads the ‘historic’ resolution understands that it is a dummy-resolution,” said Zvi Hauser, an ex-Netanyahu cabinet secretary now with an opposition party.
Slow Return for ISIS Families
11, 14 June 2019
Six Belgian children of ISIS members were brought back to Belgium on Friday from camps in Syria where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are holding thousands of militants and their family members. The children, ranging in age from six to eighteen, were all left parentless in Syria, making their repatriation less complicated than that of dozens of other Belgian children of ISIS members held in Syria’s northern Kurdish region
“The six children from Syria have just arrived in our country,” Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders tweeted late on Friday. “The children are now being monitored and supervised by the competent local state attorneys and youth support services.”
The SDF says it is unable to indefinitely hold the thousands of ISIS fighters and members and their families who surrendered during its offensive. “This must be extended to men and women in our camps and prison, not only children,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, said on Twitter regarding Belgium’s move.
In a related context, a judicial source said that the family of a French man who had been fighting in Syria arrived back in France on Tuesday after having been expelled from Turkey. The source said the family – comprised of the man, two wives, and nine children – had been initially arrested in Turkey after traveling to that country from Syria. Earlier this week, twelve French and two Dutch orphans of ISIS fighters were repatriated to France from Syria.
So far, Western countries have refused to repatriate citizens who traveled to Syria to join ISIS and considers their return a security threat. These countries realize they may not be able to put these fighters to trial.