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.
5-11 February 2018
It is no secret that Syria has turned into an arena for international and regional conflicts. During this week, four non-Syrian planes were shot down and five external conflicts took place. Opposition fighters shot down a Russian jet fighter in Idlib countryside, while US jet fighters bombarded forces loyal to the Syrian government east of the Euphrates river. Kurdish fighters also shot down a Turkish helicopter near Afrin, north of Aleppo. Israel stated that an Iranian drone was shot down over the Golan, while Syrian anti-aircraft missiles destroyed an Israeli F-16 jet fighter.
Crossing “Red Lines” in Syria
10 February 2018
Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft defense systems brought down an Israeli F-16 jet fighter on its way back from a raid on the T4 air base in central Syria. The two pilots were able to eject from the plane sustaining injuries, with one of them in critical condition. Israel stated that it conducted “large scale” hits that targeted “Iranian” positions deep in Syrian territories after the downing of the F-16.
The escalation included the crossing of red lines in Syria, which were thought to be governed by strict rules of engagement imposed by the direct military presence of Russia since the end of 2015.
Officials confirmed that Syrian anti-aircraft missiles shot down the F-16 in the first incident of its kind in thirty years. The Israeli army, for the first time, explicitly pointed to hitting Iranian targets in Syria, adding that the escalation began when an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace from Syrian territories.
Reports indicated that the Israeli raids targeted positions east of Homs, Syria, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces are deployed. Israeli jet fighters launched a second wave of raids on “twelve Iranian and Syrian targets, including three anti-aircraft batteries, and four unidentified Iranian targets,” including the T4 base in central Syria where Russian and Iranian experts are deployed.
Hezbollah announced that this latest escalation has led to a “transformation” in the conflict, while Syrians celebrated the downing of the Israeli jet fighter in Damascus.
Washington declared its support for “Israel’s right to defend itself,” saying that it seeks a greater international resolve in “countering Iran’s malign activities,” whereas Moscow called on “all parties to exercise restraint.”
Diplomatic circles mentioned that there are international initiatives to gradually and calmly reach new “rules of engagement” in southern Syrian. They revolve around the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian-supported factions, the call for the withdrawal of foreign fighters, the implementation of the “cease-fire of the south,” in addition to discussing the fate of the “disengagement” agreement in Golan and the depth of deployment for United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), along with its mandate and weaponry between the Golan and Damascus.
Eastern Ghouta Bleeding…Continues
8-10 February 2018
Eastern Ghouta, which is controlled by the opposition, has seen the largest number of deaths in one week since 2015 after bombardment by government forces, resulting in the deaths of two hundred and fifty people in the past five days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Saturday that Syrian and Russian airstrikes on opposition-held areas last week have left two hundred and thirty civilians dead in some of the Syrian conflict’s worst violence, which may constitute war crimes, adding “After seven years of paralysis in the (UN) Security Council, the situation in Syria is crying out to be referred to the International Criminal Court, as well as for a much more concerted effort.”
Opposition factions have fired mortar shells on the Syrian capital that left five dead and a number of injuries among civilians, according to the official news agency SANA.
Eastern Ghouta has been under a tight siege since 2013. It has suffered from great numbers of casualties, while doctors and paramedics have been unable to carry out their duties due to the lack of medicine and medical supplies.
The Security Council failed to reach concrete results regarding a humanitarian truce in Syria after a session held on Thursday, called for by Sweden and Kuwait. The situation is deteriorating in several areas, especially in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
The Security Council is considering demanding a thirty-day ceasefire to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the sick and wounded. The draft resolution calls upon “all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas, including in Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua, and Kefraya.”
The US and France backed the draft resolution and highlighted the possibility of the Syrian regime using chlorine in attacks against the opposition, in addition to the escalation of bombardment and the increase in the number of civilian casualties.
UN war crime experts said on Tuesday that they are investigating several reports regarding the use of bombs containing banned chlorine against civilians in the Syrians towns of Saraqeb, Idlib, and Douma in Eastern Ghouta.
Depletion of Turkey
7-10 February 2018
Eleven Turkish soldiers have been killed in various events, which is the highest toll of deaths in the ranks of the Turkish army since the launch of the attack on Afrin in northern Syria on 20 January 2018. The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim announced the death of two Turkish soldiers after the downing of a Turkish military helicopter.
The Turkish army later announced that nine soldiers were killed in several incidents, without providing any further details. It also said that eleven Turkish soldiers were injured. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that 1141 “terrorists” have been neutralized during the operation in northern Syria; this number includes deaths, injuries, and detainees.
The escalation on the Afrin front continues amid Turkish allegations of US support to Kurdish factions. The Turkish president said on Tuesday that the US is working against Turkish, Iranian, and perhaps Russian interests in Syria by providing military supplies to areas under Kurdish control, adding: “It means that you have calculations against Turkey and Iran and maybe Russia,” reiterating his call for the withdrawal of US forces from the Syrian town of Manbij. (Reuters)
The European Union denounced the Turkish assault on Afrin, considering it “an ineffective method” to strengthen Turkish security. (Enab Baladi)
As for the Russian perspective, the Russian news agency reported the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying on Saturday that the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Afrin will be discussed in Astana peace talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani in Tehran on Wednesday amid rising tensions regarding Syria, with Iranian demands for Turkey to halt the Olive Branch Operation.
In a parallel development, a commander in the military alliance supporting the Syrian regime said on Monday that the Syrian army is deploying new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles on fronts in Aleppo and Idlib. The military commander said, “The Syrian army is bringing new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to the front lines with the militants in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib to cover the air space of northern Syria.” This threatens further escalation on fronts in Aleppo and Idlib countryside.
US Fixation of the “Red Line”
8 February 2018
Official Syrian television said on Thursday that the US-led coalition to fight ISIS bombed pro-government forces east of the Euphrates river in Deir al-Zour governorate in eastern Syria, killing and injuring a number of them. Statements aired on TV stations described the bombardment as “a new aggression” and “an attempt to support terrorism.”
Diplomats said that this targeting is a fixation of the “red line” to prevent forces loyal to Damascus from crossing the Euphrates to areas under the control of US-supported forces.
A US official had announced that more than one hundred fighters loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were killed after the US-led coalition and US-backed local forces repelled a large and coordinated attack.
Russian news agency Interfax reported the Defense Ministry saying on Thursday that the ultimate goal of the United States in Syria is not to fight ISIS, but to seize economic assets. It added that the Syrian fighters who were targeted by the US-led coalition had not previously agreed to their reconnaissance activities with Russia.
The Pentagon said that the US was not seeking to fight Syrian government forces, but the US has a right to defend itself. The US Defense Minister Jim Mattis called the attempt to attack US forces and US-backed forces in Syria as “perplexing”, saying that he had no idea what motivated pro-Syrian government forces to attempt the coordinated strike.
ISIS Heading for Idlib
10 February 2018
The Syrian army took control of the pocket in which it had been besieging ISIS fighters after moving the focus of battles from the Saraqeb front towards the besieged area in the countryside of Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib. The army declared its complete control of the besieged pocket. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights mentioned that the army left a corridor for ISIS fighters to head for Idlib, where ISIS fighters clashed with opposition fighters in Idlib governorate.
In the previous week, Turkey established a military base north of Idlib facing regime forces as part of a de-escalation deal. A Turkish soldier was killed in a rocket and mortar attack northwest of Syria during the establishment of this military base. This is the second attack in one week where Turkish soldiers have come under fire while attempting to establish a base close to the front line.
The previous week also witnessed a dangerous development with the downing of a Russian jet fighter by opposition factions using shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, and as a result, Russia launched revenge air raids in Idlib. Sources in the civil defense said that the air raids bombed the towns of Kafr Nabl and Maasaran, in addition to the cities of Saraqeb, Maa’ret al-No’man, and Idlib, adding that there were many deaths and tens of injuries reported as rescuers lifted the rubble.