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 info@salonsyria.com.

 

US Vote on Golan

16 November 2018

The United States has, for the first time, voted against an annual resolution at the United Nations that condemns Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, in a move that contradicts with previous US administrations’ abstentions. A UN General Assembly committee approved the resolution with one hundred and fifty-one countries voting in favor for the non-binding resolution and fourteen abstentions, while only Israel and the United States voted against it.

The US Ambassador to the United States Nikki Haley said that the resolution is “useless” and “plainly biased against Israel,” justifying the US objection to the resolution by citing Iran’s military role in Syria. “The atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone. The destructive influence of the Iranian regime inside Syria presents major threats to international security,” she said.

Israel captured most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war. It annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognized internationally. The resolution considers Israel’s decision to occupy and annex the Golan “null and void,” and calls on Israel to rescind that decision. Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Dannon welcomed the new US position, considering it as “another testament to the strong cooperation between the two countries.”

US President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a strong stand in favor of Israel, defying UN resolutions by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting financial aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Palestinians.

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said in September he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights “in perpetuity,” alluding to the possibility that his country might officially recognize the Golan as Israeli territory. However, national security advisor John Bolton said during his visit to Israel in August that this issue was not under discussion. Syria and Israel are still officially at war, although the truce line remained calm for decades until the Syrian conflict in 2011.

Ahead of the vote, US diplomat Samantha Sutton said the US position on the status of the Golan Heights had not changed, but added that the resolution was out of touch with the situation on the ground. “This resolution does nothing to address the increasing militarization of the Golan and the serious threats that confront Israel from Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in the area,” said Sutton. The resolution was adopted by the assembly’s fourth committee on decolonization. On the other hand, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations said the Golan is Syrian and will go back to Syria “through peace or war.”

 

Three Objectives

13 November 2018

The US Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey repeated the US administration’s objectives from its presence in Syria which are defeating ISIS, removing Iranian forces, and reaching a political solution. In a press brief in Washington, Jeffrey said that the first objective was explicitly stressed more than once by President Donald Trump, and most recently at the UN General Assembly in September. Additional objectives of the administration in Syria include a ceasefire and the formation of a constitutional committee for the future stage.

Jeffrey said that the political process, which the UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura has been working on to end the conflict in Syria, is an irreversible process that seeks self-determination of the Syrian people with the help of the UN, in order to ease the conflict, which includes the ousting of all Iranian-led forces from Syria. Jeffrey did not say how Iranian forces would be forced to leave Syria, but he said that the Syrian government would pressure Iran to withdraw its troops from the country. This is the understanding reached with Russia during Bolton’s trip to Moscow last month and the meeting between President Trump and President Putin in Helsinki last summer. US forces will not directly confront Iranian forces on Syrian territory. Jeffrey expected that the US economic sanctions on Iran will contribute to this decision.

 

Chemical Confrontation

17 November 2018

Global powers are set to clash next week as the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) meets for the first time since it was rocked by allegations of Russian spying. The OPCW faces difficult talks over a new investigative team that will apportion blame for attacks in Syria. Moscow has warned the OPCW risks becoming a “sinking Titanic” over new powers which would also allow it to probe incidents like the Salisbury nerve agent attack on a Russian double agent. But the darkest shadow over the meeting will be the expulsion of four Russians accused by Dutch authorities in October of trying to hack into the OPCW’s computer system.

New OPCW director-general Fernando Arias who took over as chief earlier this year, will give the opening address at the meeting on Monday. He admitted in an interview with AFP on Monday that the OPCW was “going through a difficult moment” given recent events. However, Arias, insisted that the organization was “more needed than ever.” Arias clarified that “The main goal is to consolidate the organization and think that more than twenty-one years of success has to be preserved.”

Key member states including Russia, the United States, Britain, and France will all be able to have their say during the OPCW meeting, as will all one hundred and ninety-three countries involved in the body.

In recent years, OPCW role expanded to cover the investigation of a wave of chemicals attacks in the Syrian civil war, as well as the March 2018 Salisbury attack and the 2017 killing in Malaysia of a half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The meeting will discuss how to implement the new powers that member states agreed on at a special meeting in June to let the OPCW attribute blame for attacks.  Arias said the that the OPCW was setting up a “very small but very strong team that will be in charge of identifying the perpetrators in Syria”, involving around nine or ten members. The head of the team had already been picked and it would start work early next year, with a mandate to go back and try to point the finger for all chemical attacks in Syria since 2013. The OPCW is due soon to release a full report on a chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma in April. An interim report said chlorine was detected but not nerve agents. Russia and Iran, which are closely allied to Syria, have strongly opposed the new powers, saying they risk making the OPCW too political.

 

Fifth Iranian University

16 November 2018

After the universities of al-Mustafa, al-Farabi, Azad Islami, and Faculty of Islamic Schools, Iran is getting ready to open the fifth Iranian university in Syria. The Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Mansour Gholami said that Iran intends to open a branch of the governmental university Tarbiat Modares in Syria.

According to the official Iranian news agency IRNA: “The university seeks to provide education for Syrian students in their country.” Gholami said that the reason for establishing this university is to prepare and graduate university professors. Additionally, the university will provide an opportunity for Syrian students to complete their graduate and post-graduate studies. According to Gholami: “Many Syrian students head to Iran for their post-graduate studies …We’re hoping to receive a larger number of students.” Unprecedentedly, the University of Hama has announced signing three agreements of scientific cooperation with three Iranian universities (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Amirkabir University of Technology, and Al-Zahra College for Women.)

 

Turkish Warning and Opposition Preparations

17 November 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conveyed to his US counterpart Donald Trump Ankara’s expectation that the United States would end its support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey considers the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified by the two countries as a terrorist organization.

Sources from the Turkish presidency said on Saturday that Erdogan also discussed in a telephone call with Trump on Friday the importance of close cooperation between Turkey and the US in the fight against all terrorist organizations. The sources added that the two presidents welcomed the new joint military patrols as part of the roadmap in the Syrian city of Manbij. They also discussed completing the process as soon as possible.Turkey and the US launched their third joint patrol in Manbij on Thursday as part of the roadmap signed between the two countries on 4th June, which provides the exit of YPG militants and joint supervision over security and stability until a local administration council is formed.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said it is unacceptable for the US to provide arms and ammunition to the YPG. On the other hand, al-Hamzeh brigade, one of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, is getting ready to participate in a potential Turkish military operation east of the Euphrates, where the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take control with support from the US army.

The Turkish news agency Anatolia and Russia Today’s website said that the brigade is comprised of some six thousand and five hundred Arab, Turkman, and Kurdish fighters. The brigade was formed in 2015 to fight ISIS and has provided support for the Turkish forces in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. “We are now taking preparations for a potential military operation against the YPG east of the Euphrates and we are training our soldiers for it,” said Saif Abo Bakr, a leader of one of the groups affiliated with the brigade which is undergoing military training in the Syrian city of I’zaz, according to Anatolia. “We do not have any problem with our brother Kurds there (east of the Euphrates). On the contrary, we will save them from the oppression of terrorism,” he added. Abo Bakr also said that the goal of the brigade, given that it is one of the FSA factions, is to save the people east of the Euphrates from the oppression of the terrorist PKK, stressing the importance of the preparations for the potential operation. “This terrorist organization is practicing oppression and pressure on the people in the area it occupies,” he added. “Before the Olive Branch operation, we provided support for our Kurdish brothers fleeing from the terrorists’ oppression, and we contributed to the formation of the Soqour al-Akrad brigade, which includes around one thousand and two hundred fighters.

On Friday, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said that his country “will transfer the success achieved in the Syrian region of al-Bab to east of the Euphrates as well.” On 24 March, Turkish Forces and the FSA took control of Afrin through the Olive Branch operation after sixty-four days of its onset. In the Euphrates Shield operation, Turkish Forces and the FSA also took control of vast areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo, including the cities of al-Bab and Jarablus, from ISIS between August 2016 and March 2017, which allowed thousands of Syrians to go back to their homes.

 

Last ISIS Pocket

17 November 2018

On Saturday, the Syrian government forces took control of the last ISIS pocket which is located in Tolool al-Safa area, between the governorates of Sweidaa and Damascus Countryside, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

After bloody attacks on Sweidaa and its eastern countryside in July, which left more than two hundred and sixty civilians dead and thirty kidnapped, ISIS retreated to this rugged terrain famous for its steep cliffs and numerous caves. “Government forces took control on Saturday of Tolool al-Safa after ISIS militants retreats towards the Syrian desert in the east,” the head of the SOHR Rami Abdul Rahman told the AFP.

This area was subject to airstrikes for four months, which were intensified in recent weeks after government forces mobilized military reinforcements in the area and fought fierce battles against ISIS militants. Abdul Rahman estimated the number of ISIS fighters in the area to be between seven hundred and one thousand, likely to have withdrawn “under an agreement with the government forces that besieged them for weeks and targeted their positions with intensive airstrikes.”

The Syrian official news agency SANA said that army units advanced in Tolool al-Safa after “controlling” the highest hills in it. The units continue “to clear the liberated areas from ISIS remnants after eliminating a large number of them.”

Controlling this pocket comes days after Damascus announced the liberation of seventeen abducted women and children kidnapped by ISIS during the bloody attack on 25 July on the Druze-majority Sweidaa. ISIS had abducted thirty people, killing two of them, while an elderly woman died in captivity. Six hostages were freed last month under an agreement with the Syrian government to exchange prisoners. Three other civilians were killed before liberating the remaining hostages on the 8th of November.

In the past two years, ISIS suffered successive defeats in Syria. It is currently restricted to small pockets in the outskirts of Deir Azzor governorate and the Syrian desert east of Homs.

 

Coalition Casualties

17 November 2018

Forty-three people, mostly civilian family member of ISIS militants, were killed on Saturday in airstrikes by the US-led international coalition on the last jihadist pocket in Deir Azzor east of Syria. The pocket, which is comprised of several town and villages, has been targeted by coalition airstrikes for several weeks in support for an attack by the Kurdish-Arab SDF against ISIS in the region.

Head of the SOHR Rami Abdul Rahman told the AFP that thirty-six civilians, including seventeen children and twelve women from ISIS family members, were killed in coalition airstrikes that targeted Abo al-Hasan village, near the town of Hajjin in Deir Azzor. Seven other people were killed in these strikes but the SOHR could not determine “whether they were civilians or jihadists.” “This is the highest toll of deaths resulting from coalition airstrikes since the SDF launched their offensive” in the area on the 10th of September, according to the SOHR.

The coalition intensified its targeting of this pocket, leading to the deaths of dozens of ISIS family members. Thirty-eight people, including thirty-two civilians, were killed on Tuesday in similar attacks that targeted the town of al-Sha’feh. Since the onset of the offensive, the SOHR has reported the deaths of two hundred and thirty-four civilians including eighty-two children as a result of airstrikes by the coalition, which often denies intentionally targeting civilians in its strikes against jihadists. “The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority when conducting strikes against legitimate military targets,” coalition spokesman Sean Ryan told AFP. He added that “the coalition takes allegations of civilian casualties seriously and investigates each one thoroughly.”

The SDF resumed its offensive against ISIS on Sunday after suspending it for ten days in response to the Turkish shelling of Kurdish positions in northern Syria. The SDF has not achieved any significant advances since the onset of its operations after ISIS recaptured all the positions that the SDF had advanced to in September.

The coalition estimates the number of ISIS militants in this pocket at around two thousand. The battle against ISIS “is still a difficult battle, and was made worse by ISIS’s use of civilians as human shields in areas such as Hajjin,” Ryan said. “They (ISIS fighters) take over places of worships and other areas like hospitals and use them as headquarters for planning,” he added.

ISIS often resorts to using civilians as human shields when it is besieged and battles come close, in an attempt to limit airstrikes against its positions and headquarters. The coalition has carried out one hundred and fifty airstrikes in the area between 4 and 10 November, according to Ryan. In addition to coalition airstrikes and shelling, the area has witnessed confrontations between ISIS militants and the SDF.

SDF commander Redur Khalil said Saturday that operations were ongoing. “There has been an advance on the ground in the past days but it is a careful advance due to fields of landmines, trenches, tunnels and barricades set up by ISIS,” he told AFP.

The SDF has brought in around one thousand and seven hundred fighters in the last two days from areas it controls to the last besieged ISIS pocket, in an attempt to eliminate the presence of fanatics east of the Euphrates.

 

Minor Amendments and Major Controversy

14 November 2018

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made amendments to the controversial Law No. 10, which pertains to property ownership, allowing more time for owners to prove their ownership after the law stirred fears of refugees and their hosting countries.

Law No. 10, adopted in the 10th of April, gave the Syrian government the right to develop rural areas which were destroyed in the war or the areas that were constructed without official approval or title deeds.

The law had initially given people only thirty days to prove ownership of property and to apply for compensation, starting the date of officially announcing the development of an area. Aid agencies said that this time frame would be impossible for all refugees to meet.

On Sunday, Assad issued Law No. 42 that extends this period to one year and adds other amendments, which include granting owners more time to submit objections to the ordinary judiciary, after judiciary committees end their work stipulated in the law. Property owners who are already registered in the property registry do not have to prove their ownership.

Local authorities in Syria have not announced which areas that would be developed under Law No. 10, thus the effect of these procedures has not been tested yet. In the ongoing seven-year war in Syria, half of the twenty-two million population have fled their homes and around five million sought asylum abroad. In the chaos of war, many government buildings were destroyed, in addition to the property registry. Many refugees and displaced people lost their ID cards or property ownership documents, which means that it could take them a long time to prove property ownership.

As for refugees abroad, granting legal power to relatives or friends takes at least three months under Syrian law, even if all the correct documents are present. It also needs a security pass, which could pose a problem for those who fled areas that were under armed opposition control and were later retaken by the government forces.

Refugee hosting countries have expressed their concern over Law No. 10, saying that it could prevent refugees from going back if they were to lose their property in Syria.