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.
Al-Assad to Visit Kim
3 June 2018
Official media in North Korea reported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying that he is planning to visit Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea making him the first head of state to meet Kim at the country’s capital.
“I will visit North Korea and meet … Kim Jong Un,” the official Syrian news agency SANA reported al-Assad as saying during a meeting with Pyongyang’s ambassador to Damascus Mon Jong Nam on Wednesday.
This surprise announcement comes as the world is anticipating the summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un on 12 June in Singapore.
“The world welcomes the remarkable events in the Korean peninsula brought about recently by the outstanding political caliber and wise leadership of HE Kim Jong Un,” Assad said, according to the North Korean agency.
The two countries have maintained close cooperation, especially in the military field for decades. This cooperation most likely continued during the Syrian civil war.
The UN and South Korea have raised doubts in the past regarding the exchange of chemical weapons between the two countries. Press reports have also said that North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007.
The two countries both face international sanctions, North Korea over its nuclear weapons program and Syria over its atrocities during the ongoing seven-year-old civil war.
Since taking power in 2011, Kim has not met any head of state in North Korea. He made his first trip abroad to China, which he visited twice to meet his main ally Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The “Units” Not Part of the Map
5 June 2018
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) declared on Tuesday the withdrawal of the last installment of its forces from the city of Manbij in northern Syria after Turkey repeatedly threatened to attack them, in a step that would ease the long-standing tensions between Ankara and its ally, Washington.
“The General Command of the People’s Protection Units decided to withdraw its military advisors from Manbij,” the YPG, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization seeking to establish Kurdish autonomy on its border, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which make up the backbone of the YPG, ousted ISIS from Manbij in 2016 after fierce battles and aerial cover from the US-led international coalition.
This statement comes after a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington in which they confirmed “their support for a roadmap” for cooperating over Manbij, which is located in the north-eastern countryside of Aleppo thirty kilometers off the Turkish border.
The details of the “roadmap” have not been publicly released, however, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that it provides for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Manbij on a date to be set by Washington. Then in a second phase, members from both states send observers to the city, which will be followed by the formation of a “civil administration” in the third phase.
The implementation of the “roadmap” will be “complicated” and lengthy, as there are a lot of details that need to be discussed, an official in the US Department of State said on Tuesday.
Damascus Allies Falling Apart
5 June 2018
The deployment of Russian soldiers in Syria near the Lebanese border this week stirred a row with Iranian-backed forces, including Lebanese Hezbollah, who opposed this uncoordinated step, two officials in the regional alliance supporting Damascus said.
One of the officials, who is a military commander, told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the situation was resolved on Tuesday when Syrian army soldiers took over three positions where the Russians had deployed near the town of Qusair in Homs on Monday.
It appeared to be a rare case of Russia acting out of sync with President Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed allies in the war. Iranian and Russian support has been critical to Assad’s war effort. “It was an uncoordinated step,” said the commander. “Now it is resolved. We rejected the step. The Syrian army – Division Eleven – is deploying at the border,” said the commander, adding that Hezbollah fighters were still located in the area. “Perhaps it was to assure the Israelis … after all what was said by the Israeli side about this area,” said the commander.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that no force in the world is capable of ousting his forces from Syria and that the decision is up to the Syrian leadership. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hasan Rouhani discussed reducing tensions at a summit in China on Saturday.
The Central Road Opens
6 June 2018
The Syrian government reopened the highway connecting the cities of Homs and Hama on Wednesday, months after its forces recaptured an enclave controlled by the opposition along the road which has been closed for seven years.
Drivers raised Syrian flags as they drove their cars along the road, the opening of which represents a victory for President Bashar al-Assad whose forces controlled all opposition enclaves surrounding Damascus in recent months, in addition to an enclave along the highway which was under siege for years.
Al-Assad, with Russian and Iranian help, restored control over vast areas of the country after he controlled just about one fifth of it in 2015.
Before reopening the road, people had to take a detour to cross the forty-five kilometer distance between Homs and Hama, the third and fourth largest Syrian cities before the war respectively.
7 June 2018
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday in London that the government of Bashar al-Assad is no longer immune from any Israeli retaliation.
“Al-Assad should be careful that with the war coming to an end and ISIS defeated, if he invites Iran or allows it to come with the intent of attacking or destroying Israel from Syrian territories, he is no longer immune and his regime is no longer immune,” Netanyahu said at the Policy Exchange think tank in London.
“If he fires at us, we will destroy his forces,” Netanyahu went on to say, adding that a “new approach has been adopted” in Israel.
On 10 May, Israel carried out tens of airstrikes against targets it claimed to be Iranian targets in Syria, confirming that they were in response to Iranian rockets launched at the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel.
“I think there is a new calculus that has to take place and Syria has to understand that Israel will not tolerate the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria against Israel. “The consequences are not merely to the Iranian forces there but to the Assad regime as well,” he said, adding: “I think it’s something that he should consider very seriously.”
Syrian Controversy in Lebanon
7 June 2018
The Lebanese Interior Ministry announced the names of four hundred and eleven foreigners, half of whom are Syrian and Palestinian, who will get Lebanese citizenship according to a presidential decree issued one month ago, but was kept secret until disclosed by media reports. This sparked wide controversy in a country where naturalization is considered a very sensitive issue.
The decree issued on 11 May was signed by President Michel Aoun and the Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Interior Minister Nehad Mashnouq, however, contrary to standard decrees, it was not published in the official newspaper nor was it known to the Lebanese people until it was leaked to the media. This prompted various political parties to demand that it be published so it can be studied and potentially appealed.
Naturalization is a thorny issue in Lebanon, which is a small country rich in sects and ethnicities and where politicians are often accused of nepotism and corruption. The secrecy which surrounded the decree and the authorities’ initial refusal to publish the names of the beneficiaries deepened doubts regarding the motives behind the naturalization of these foreigners, especially at a time when thousands of people who have been living in Lebanon for decades and are considered to be entitled to citizenship are still deprived from it.
The decree, which was published on Thursday, lists the names of the beneficiaries and their nationalities, which were distributed among one hundred and three Syrians (25.1 percent) and one hundred and eight Palestinians (26.3 percent) and two hundred others from various nationalities including French, Iraqi, British, Jordanian, and American, in addition to some stateless people (who do not possess any official documents).
Among those included in the naturalization decree is former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has a close relationship with Lebanon since his mother, wife, and three children are Lebanese, and well-known businessmen, including Syrians from the inner circle of the government, most notably Khaldoun al-Zoubi who is the vice-president of Aman Holdings and Mazen Mortadha the son of a former Education Minister.
The Lebanese presidency tried to calm the wave of criticism raised by the decree through referring it to the General Directorate of Public Security to verify the rights of people named to obtain Lebanese identity cards, but without publishing their names in the media.
In a statement, the Lebanese president called on “everyone who has definite information about any one included in the decree who is not worthy of Lebanese citizenship to forward this information to the Interior Ministry-General Directorate of Public Security for verification.”
Bassil Lashes out at UNHCR
8 June 2018
The Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil declared the suspension of residency application for the UNHCR, accusing it of intimidating refugees and dissuading them from going back home.
“Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil instructed the Directorate to suspend applications submitted to the ministry on behalf of the UNHCR until further notice,” a statement read.
According to the statement, the foreign ministry’s decision came after a delegation dispatched to Arasal in eastern Lebanon found out that the UNHCR “is not encouraging refugees to go back and is deliberately asking questions that stoke their fears in terms of military service, security, their housing condition, as well as the possibility of cutting off aid and their return without international sponsorship.”
Bassil called for considering other “escalatory measures” that could be taken against the UN agency if it continued “the same policy.”
The UNHCR spokesman in Geneva William Spindler denied the claim that the organization is not encouraging refugees to go back. “We do not discourage or oppose returns taking place based on an individual decision. This is their right … But in our view, conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for an assisted return, although the situation is changing and we are following closely,” Spindler told the press in Geneva.
In recent months, prominent officials, including the Lebanese president and prime minister, reiterated their demands for the international community to secure the return of Syrian refugees, however, Bassil is the only one who raised the stakes against the organization and summoned its representatives to numerous meetings.
The tension between the foreign ministry and the UNHCR came to surface last April when the UN agency declared that it would not participate in an operation that saw the return of five hundred refugees to Syria and warned against “the humanitarian and security situation.” The Lebanese foreign ministry responded by saying that this will lead to a “reassessment” of the agency’s operation.
According to the ministry’s statement, Bassil’s decision comes after correspondence between him, the UNHCR, and the UN and after “several warnings from the ministry that were directly sent to the UNHCR Representative in Beirut Meireille Girard … without any response, and the UN agency has even pursued the same policy of intimidation.”
International organizations have warned against forcing Syrian refugees to go back home, at a time when the Lebanese government puts this issue on its list of priorities.
Lebanon estimates that there are around one and a half million Syrian refugees who fled their homes during the years of war and are now suffering from difficult humanitarian conditions. The UNHCR talks about a little less than a million refugees registered with it.
8 June 2018
Germany’s federal prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Syria’s Air Force Intelligence chief Jamil Hassan for supervising torture and killing hundreds of detainees, according to media reports on Monday.
Der Spiegel newspaper reported that Colonel Jamil Hassan, one of the close aides to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is wanted for committing crimes against humanity.
The memorandum described Hassan’s warrant as “the most serious attempt by Western countries up to now” to hold al-Assad accountable for committing crimes against Syrians since the onset of the conflict in 2011.
The prosecutor’s office did not reply to questions from the AFP.
The magazine reported that the federal prosecutor is accusing Hassan (sixty-four years old) of giving orders to his officers to beat, rape, torture, and kill hundreds of detainees in government prisons between 2011 and 2013.
Reports say that the accusations against Hassan are partially based on witness statements and photographs taken by a photographer who worked for the Syrian military police and is simply known as Caesar. He fled the country in 2013 taking with him fifty-five thousand images showing bodies of people who were subject to torture.
Although the alleged atrocities did not take place in Germany, prosecution based on the principle of universal jurisdiction allows for prosecuting perpetrators regardless of where the crime was committed.
Germany is one of the few countries that implements the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), based in Berlin, Germany, said that the arrest warrant came after a criminal complaint was filed last year against ten senior Syrian officials that accused them of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The ECCHR, who filed the complaint jointly with Syrian activists and torture survivors, welcomed the German prosecutor’s move, describing the warrant as “great news.”
Amnesty International also welcomed the arrest warrant and said: “We demand his arrest [Jamil Hassan] in the name of each person whose torture is still engraved in our minds.”
“It is the first time an independent judiciary holds individual responsibility for wide-scale crimes committed by Damascus,” Coordinator for the Judiciary Workgroup in the International Federation for Human Rights Clemance Bektart said.
More than three hundred and fifty thousand people have been killed and millions displaced since the onset of the war in Syria in 2011.
ISIS Hit and Run
9 June 2018
ISIS retreated to the outskirts of Boukamal city in eastern Syria after controlling parts of it through a series of suicide attacks on government positions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Saturday.
ISIS was able to enter the city, which is located in the eastern countryside of Deir Azzour, and control parts of it, in an offensive that is considered to be the fiercest in the area in recent months. It coincided with an escalation of attacks against government forces on part of Jihadists hiding in the Syrian desert.
“ISIS fighters retreated from inside the city to the western and north-western part of it,” the SOHR said.
This retreat comes after “fierce clashes with government forces as they faced the attack and brought in military reinforcement to the city in recent hours.”
The death toll between the two sides since the onset of the attack rose to at least thirty soldiers from government forces and its allies after a preliminary toll of twenty-five deaths. The deaths are distributed among sixteen killed from government forces, including a colonel, and fourteen other non-Syrian militants loyal to Damascus, including Hezbollah and Iranian militants, according to the SOHR.
On the other hand, twenty-one ISIS jihadists were killed since Friday, including ten suicide bombers who carried out the initial attack on the city, according to the SOHR.
ISIS stepped up its attacks against government forces throughout the Syrian desert after being ousted from neighborhoods south of Damascus last month according to an evacuation agreement in which its fighters were transported to certain areas under its control in the desert.
9 June 2018
Turkey completed the construction of a seven hundred and sixty-four kilometer concrete wall along its border with Syria, according to a Turkish official on Saturday.
The official told the Turkish news agency Anadolu that TOKI, the state backed housing developer, built a five hundred and sixty-four kilometer (three hundred and fifty miles) section of the wall, while the governorates of the border provinces built two hundred kilometers (one hundred and twenty-four miles) of the wall.
Ankara had launched the construction project in 2015 to build an eight hundred and twenty-six kilometer (five hundred and thirteen mile) wall on the Syrian border, as part of Turkey’s measures to increase border security and combat smuggling and illegal border crossings.
Turkey shares a nine hundred and eleven kilometer (five hundred and sixty-six mile) border with Syria, which has been embroiled in civil war since 2011.
The wall was sealed along Turkey’s border provinces of Shanlıurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay, Mardin, and Shirnak.
The official added that the state housing developer’s construction of a one hundred and forty-four kilometer wall on its Iranian border was almost completed.
It is worth mentioning that Turkey, along with the Free Syrian Army launched the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations inside Syria to confront the People’s Protection Units, which Anakara considers to be a terrorist organization.