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.
14 February 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin saidon Thursday that Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed on “extra steps” to clear the governorate of Idlib of “a hotbed of terrorist,” but the Kremlin said there would be no military operations there.
Putin was speaking after hosting a summit in Sochi to weigh the future of Syria with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. All three countries have forces on the ground in Syria, where they have coordinated their efforts despite sometimes differing priorities and interests.
“The presence of the United States in Syria and other countries in the region is not useful… America should reconsider its Middle East policy,” Hassan Rouhani said after the summit. He also criticized the United Nations for not taking “tangible” measure in Syria to restore peace and security.
Erdogansaidthat hopes for a political solution in Syria are stronger than ever. He also said there was talk of the US withdrawal from Syria taking place in April or May, but added that the timing remained unclear.
No Constitutional “Bargaining”
15 February 2019
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saidon Sunday that his government would not bargain over the country’s constitution with the Turkey-backed opposition, criticizing a UN peace process that aims to rewrite its terms. A congress convened by Russia last year tasked the UN envoy for Syria with forming a committee to draft a new constitution, after many rounds of talks to end the war had failed. The stalled process is meant to lead eventually to new elections.
“The constitution is the fate of the country and as a result, it does not succumb to any bargains that could have a bigger price than the war itself,” Assad said in a televised speech. Assad added that the UN role was welcome as long as it respected state sovereignty. He described opposition officials chosen for the constitutional committee as “agents” of Turkey, which backs anti-Assad opposition factions in northwest Syria.
The new UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen saidon Friday that he hoped to invite the constitutional committee to convene in Geneva “as soon as possible,” without mentioning a fixed timeframe.
Is the “Caliphate” Over?
12, 16, 17 February 2019
US-backed fighters in Syria are poised to capture ISIS’s last, tiny enclave on the Euphrates, bringing its self-declared caliphate to the brink of total defeat as US President Donald Trump spoke of “one hundred percent victory”.
Trump said on Saturday that the caliphate was “ready to fall” and that the United States was asking European allies to take back more than eight hundred ISIS fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial.
“The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. It’s time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing.”
Trump has sworn to pull US forces from Syria after ISIS’s territorial defeat, raising questions over the fate of Washington’s Kurdish allies and Turkish involvement in northeast Syria.
Jiya Furat, commander of the battle, said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had cornered the remaining militants in a neighborhood of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border, under fire from all sides. “In the coming few days, in a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of ISIS,” said Furat.
Civilians fled the remaining territory under ISIS control with the SDF advancing under intensive US airstrikes.
In a related context, a senior French officer involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria faces punishment after launching a scathing attack on the US-led coalition’s methods to defeat the group in its remaining stronghold of Hajin, the French army saidon Saturday.
Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier, who has been in charge of directing French artillery supporting Kurdish-led groups in Syria since October, said the coalition’s focus had been on limiting its own risks and this had greatly increased the death toll among civilians and the levels of destruction.
“Yes, the Battle of Hajin was won, at least on the ground but by refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population,” Legrier wrote in an article in the National Defense Review.
15 – 17 February 2019
Commander of the US-led coalition battling ISIS, Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, said the United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling ISIS if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia. “We will continue to train and arm them as long as they remain our partners,” LaCamera said, praising their hard-won victories against ISIS militants.
Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees US forces in the Middle East as head of Central Command, saidon Friday that the United States should keep arming and aiding the SDF following the planned US withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on ISIS. The recommendation by the general is one of the strongest signs yet of US military hopes for an enduring partnership with the SDF despite the concerns of NATO ally Turkey, which says Kurdish SDF fighters are terrorists.
Votel said he expected future US assistance to the SDF to change after it seizes the final bits of ISIS territory. The SDF will then have to contend with a more dispersed, harder-to-detect network of ISIS fighters, who are expected to wage guerrilla-style attacks.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saidon Sunday that Washington will not protect the groups it is relying on, referring to US-backed Kurdish fighters.
State-owned Anadolu news agency quotedTurkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar as saying on Friday that only Turkish forces should deploy in the planned safe zone in northeast Syria.
17 February 2019
The US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey saidon Sunday the United States will not make an abrupt and rapid withdrawal of its troops from Syria and will consult closely with its allies on the issue. “We’ve been telling them (allies) continuously this is not going to be an abrupt, rapid withdrawal but a step-by-step withdrawal,” he told the Munich Security Conference.
Acting US Defense Minister Patrick Shanahan saidon Friday the United States was committed to defeating ISIS in the Middle East and beyond.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December that he was withdrawing all two thousand US troops from Syria surprised and rattled allies. US officials have crisscrossed the Middle East in recent weeks to reassure them that Washington remains committed to the region.
However, European officials said they were given few details during the closed-door meeting in Munich and many questions remain.
Chasing Government Officials
Germany’s arrest of a high-ranking Syrian official suspected of crimes against humanity marks the first big success for a team of investigators who smuggled out a vast trove of incriminating evidence early in the war, one of its members saidon Wednesday.
The investigation was supported by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a team funded by the United States and several European governments, which has been quietly building cases for years. Its deputy director, Nerma Jelacic, said CIJA had provided documentary evidence and witness testimony.
Germany has “universal jurisdiction” laws that allow it to prosecute people for crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world. Such crimes can be prosecuted in France if the suspect is resident there or a victim is French.
11-12 February 2019
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saidon Tuesday that Israeli forces had carried out another strike in Iran-aligned Syria, a day after the Syrian army said an Israeli drone fired missiles near a demolished hospital and an army observation post. “We are operating every day, including yesterday, against Iran. All the time. Against Iran and against its attempt to entrench itself in the area,” Netanyahu told reporters before flying to Poland for a Mideast conference.
Monday’s air strike, which occurred in the southern Quneitra governorate, caused only material damage, the Syrian army said. Syrian official media had previously reported that Israel targeted positions in Quneitra with tank shells.
Lebanon Demands Guarantees
11 February 2019
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil urgedSyria on Monday to offer guarantees on property rights and military service to encourage Syrian refugees to return home.
Bassil, speaking alongside visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “The Syrian government can make a big contribution to encourage refugees to return by giving guarantees on individual property rights and military service.”