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.

Victims in the North

11 August 2018

Al-Hayat

Fifty-three civilians, including twenty-six children, were killed in an air strike on Friday night that targeted areas controlled by opposition factions in northern Syria, according to a new toll from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The SOHR said that “forty-one civilians, including twenty-five children, were killed in a night airstrike on the town of Orm al-Kobra in the western countryside of Aleppo,” while twelve others, including one child, were killed in air raids on the governorate of Idlib. “Air raids conducted by Russian airplanes and explosive drums launched by Syrian helicopters targeted areas in southern Idlib governorate,” the SOHR said. The current escalation is the most dangerous since the announcement of the de-escalation zone in Idlib last year. (al-Hayat)  For the fourth consecutive day, Russian air defense systems brought down drones targeting Hmeimeim airbase. This escalation coincides with the beginning of government military operations in northern Hama and southern Idlib.

Another sixty-nine people were killed, including fifty-two civilians, as a result of an unexplained explosion in a weapons depot early Sunday morning in the town of Sarmada in Idlib governorate, according to a new toll from the SOHR on Monday.

“The number of people killed as a result of the explosion rose to sixty-nine, including fifty-two civilians and seventeen militants from Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra),” said the SOHR.

The civilian death toll includes seventeen children, according to the SOHR, which said that the majority of those killed are family members of militants from Tahrir al-Sham who were displaced from Homs.

The rescue operation has been ongoing since dawn on Sunday, according to Abdul Rahman, who said that the death toll is likely to rise because of “dozens of wounded, some in serious condition.”

The depot was located in a residential building in the town of Sarmada in the northern countryside of Idlib. The reasons behind the explosion are “still unclear.”

 

Displacement from Idlib … to Where?

8 August 2018

Reuters

The anticipated battle in Idlib could lead to the displacement of seven hundred thousand Syrians, according to reports by UN-supervised aid agencies. Many previous battles ended in agreements that provided for the departure of opposition militants and their families to Idlib, which doubled the population of the governorate to two and a half million. This potential battle could exacerbate the humanitarian situation and increase relief needs in an exceptional manner. UN regional humanitarian coordinator Panos Moumtzis said in June that the governorate’s entire population of two and a half million could be displaced and move towards the Turkish border if there was a major battle. Such a battle would be more complicated and brutal than anything seen so far in the seven-year war, he said. (Reuters) The UN has repeatedly cautioned about the dangers of an attack on Idlib. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Russian media last month that Idlib governorate would be a priority for his forces.

 

The New Opposition Army

13 August 2018

Middle East Newspaper

The armed opposition in northern Syria has been working on establishing a “national army” with Turkish support, after the start of the countdown to the battle for Idlib. This means that there are two main armed groups in northern Syria: the National Army and the National Front for Liberation, in addition to Tahrir al-Sham. The main challenge is uniting the armed opposition without Tahrir al-Sham. The National Army receives financial and military support from Turkey, which also provides support for the National Front for Liberation, which in turn was formed by the merger of five groups, notably the Syrian Liberation Front, factions from the Free Syrian Army, and al-Ahrar Army faction.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hinted at the possibility of conducting more military operations in northern Syria to establish safe zones that could accommodate Syrian refugees and prevent a new influx of displacement into his country. He added that his country has completed the necessary arrangements to establish more safe zones inside Syrian territory, as it did before during the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. (Middle East)

 

Hama’s Border Crossings are Closed

12 August 2018

Enab Baladi

The border crossings of al-Madhiq Citadel and Mork are two of the most important border crossings between areas controlled by the government and those controlled by the opposition. They represent symbols of the economies of war and exchange of interests among the warring parties from a military perspective. In the wake of repeated escalations in Idlib, the Syrian government and Russian police have closed the border crossings of al-Madhiq Citadel and Mork in Hama countryside, effectively cutting off commercial and civilian activities. The closure of the border crossings coincided with the arrival of government military reinforcements to the northern countryside of Hama on Friday. (Enab Baladi)

 

Ousting ISIS from Sweidaa’s Dessert

12 August 2018

SANA & Enab Baladi

Government forces declared their full control over Sweidaa’s administrational border in its eastern countryside as part of their campaign against ISIS. The official Syrian news agency SANA said that government forces made wide progress and were able to encircle ISIS on Sunday in Tolool al-Safa, which is located within the administrational border of Damascus Countryside governorate. On Saturday, government forces controlled the following areas: Rosoom al-Tathmooni, Khirbet al-Ambashi, Tilal al-Hibarieh, Rosoom Marroush, Souh al-Na’meh, Dharet Rashed, Zraibieh, Khirbet al-Shahrieh, Wadi al-Rmailan, Wadi Shajara, Zmlet Nasser, al-Nahyan, Tal Dhabe’, Tal al-Dhbai’ieh, and Qabr al-Sheikh Houssain. ISIS did not comment on the battles and its propaganda has been completely absent since the last attacks in Sweidaa, which left more than two hundred people dead. ISIS still holds women and children from Sweidaa as captives. (Enab Baladi)

 

Russian Pressure for the Return of Refugees

8 August 2018

Enab Baladi

Russia announced its plan for the return of Syrian refugees on 18 July, making it the first serious international initiative in this regard. It sent out applications for hosting countries to provide estimates of the number of refugees. It also opened up five border crossings and seventy-six centers to welcome returning refugees, which can accommodate three hundred and thirty-six thousand refugees. The main function of these centers is to monitor the return of refugees from foreign countries to Syria, provide necessary aid to them, and then send them to their areas of permanent residence or keep those who have no place to go in the shelter centers.

The Russia plan involves the return of 1.7 million Syrian refugees to Syrian in the “near future” which are distributed as the following according to data from the Russian Ministry of Defense: eight hundred and ninety thousand refugees from Lebanon, three hundred thousand refugees from Turkey, two hundred thousand refugees from European countries, one hundred and fifty thousand refugees from Jordan, one hundred thousand refugees from Iraq, and one hundred thousand refugees from Egypt. The Russian government presented its plan for the return of refugees to Syria during the Helsinki summit on 16 July, which joined President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin. Moscow then dispatched senior officials from the ministries of foreign affairs and defense on a shuttle tour to Jordan, Lebanon, Germany, and France. Then talked about solidarity with these countries to ensure the success of the plan and the return of the refugees.

There were many doubts regarding the number of refugees who accepted the Russian plan. Under the initial text of the plan, Russia could not dispel the fears of the refugees wanted by the Syrian security authorities or those who left the county for fear of the mandatory military service. (Enab Baladi)

There is concern among human rights organizations and refugees regarding how host countries, which are already under pressure because of the refugees, would respond to the Russian initiative, as pressure could be implicitly or explicitly exercised on refugees to return involuntarily.

 

Cost of Reconstruction

8 August 2018

ESCWA, AFP

The United Nations estimated the cost of the war in Syria at around four hundred billion US dollars in a meeting for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) on Wednesday, 8 August. This estimate does not include human losses that Syrians have suffered during the bloody war, such as death, injuries, and displacement. The financial and human losses reflect the high burden of the war and the great challenges facing reconstruction, which requires, in addition to financial and human resources, credible, competent, and inclusive institutions to overcome the consequences of the war and ensure stability thereafter.

 

Jordanian Commercial Delegation in Damascus in Preparation for the Resumption of Commercial Trade.

8 August 2018

Enab Baladi

Damascus received a Jordanian commercial delegation at the invitation of Syrian economic officials, in preparation for the resumption of commercial and economic relationships between the two sides. On Wednesday, 8 August, the Ministry of Internal Commerce and Consumer Protection said that a meeting was held at the ministry in Damascus to discuss ways to restore commercial relationships between Jordan and Syria. It also said that the Jordanian delegation expressed its desire to open up border crossings between the two countries, especially Nassib border crossing, in order to start the commercial exchange, including all agricultural and industrial sectors. The Syrian side viewed the meeting as a new chapter in the Syrian-Jordanian commercial cooperation. It said that this was a preparatory meeting to open Nassib border crossing between the two countries.

Nassib border crossing is of significant political and economic importance to the Syrian government and Jordan. Government forces took control over the border crossing on 6 July during a military campaign against opposition areas in Daraa governorate, south of Syria. (Enab Baladi)