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.

 

Kurdish Rejection

15 January 2019

Syrian Kurds expressed their rejection for a Turkish-controlled “safe zone,” in the north on the border between the two countries, under an initiative set by Washington and approved by Ankara to curb the repercussions of the US withdrawal from northern Syria.

Turkey had threatened to launch a major attack on areas controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in north and north-east of Syria, putting Washington in a difficult situation between its two allies and pushing it to put forward this initiative in hopes of reaching an understanding by all parties.

Eldar Khalil, a prominent Kurdish leader in Syria and one of the architects of self-administration, stressed the rejection of any Turkish role in the planned safe zone. “Turkey is not independent and not neutral, which means it is a party in this conflict,” Khalil said.

This Kurdish rejection for any Turkish role comes after US President Donald Trump’s call for a thirty-two kilometer (twenty mile) wide safe zone along the Turkish border and after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement that his forces will establish this zone between the Turkish border and US-backed YPG’s positions.

Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria exacerbated Kurdish fears that this could pave the way for a large scale attack that Turkey has long threatened to launch to keep Kurdish fighters far from its border.

This safe zone was the main topic of discussion between the Turkish president and his US counterpart during a phone call on Monday. The Turkish chief of staff met with his US counterpart in Brussels to set the “mechanisms” for the safe zone, which will be “under Turkish control.”

Moscow, one of Damascus’s most prominent allies, quickly rejected this suggestion on Wednesday. The Turkish and Russian presidents will discuss the matter in Moscow. Damascus described Erdogan’s statements about his country’s readiness to establish the safe zone as “irresponsible.”

 

Consensus for Return

17 January 2019

The Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said that Syria’s return to its seat in the league relies on Arab countries’ consensus.

“The Syrian issue has various aspects and is sensitive. One must acknowledge that Syria is a founding member of the Arab League,” Aboul Gheit said after meeting the Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

“When we have Arab consensus and we make sure there are no objections from any party, then it is very easy to put the matter on the agenda of a ministerial meeting at any time, after good preparations,” Aboul Gheit added.

“If Arab countries agree to invite Syria to take back its seat, then the General Secretariat and the General Secretary will be at the service of the Arab countries. The General Secretary is the one who seeks to preserve Arab interests. We will instantly implement such a decision without any delay,” he went on to say.

Aboul Gheit said that there has been no Arab consensus on Syria’s return, yet.

The Arab League decided in November of 2011 to suspend Syria’s seat after the government resorted to the military option to quell popular protests.

In March of 2012, the Gulf Cooperation Council (includes Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain) decided to withdraw the countries’ six ambassadors from Syria.

 

“Slow is Safe”

19 January 2019

An influential US senator called on President Donald Trump for a slower withdrawal of US troops from Syria, until the “real defeat” of ISIS can be assured and “chaos” can be avoided.

“I hope President Trump would slow the withdrawal until we truly destroy ISIS,” said Lindsey Graham, senator for South Carolina, during a visit to Turkey where he met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several ministers.

“I can understand the desire to withdraw (from Syria), but withdrawal without a plan is chaos,” said Graham, calling for a “smart” way to achieve this.

These statements came after an attack on Wednesday in the Syrian city of Manbej, which left sixteen dead including four Americans.

Although he acknowledged that the jihadist group has been practically defeated in regards to control over “territories,” Graham said that “there are still thousands of jihadist fighters in Syria … the objective to destroy the Islamic State has not been achieved, yet.”

Trump announced last month the near withdrawal of some two thousand US troops deployed in Syria to fight the Islamic State.

 

Settlement “Paralysis”

19 January 2019

After meeting the UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen, the chief of the Syrian Opposition Negotiation Committee Nasr Hariri said that the lack of international will prevented the United Nations from succeeding in advancing the political process, which is in a state of “paralysis.” Hariri stressed the commitment of the negotiation committee, which represents a wide spectrum of opposition forces, to reach a UN-brokered political solution in Geneva.

Geir Pedersen, a seasoned diplomat who succeeded Staffan de Mistura as the forth UN envoy to Syria, faces the difficult task of reviving UN negotiations after all previous rounds, which were led by his predecessor, collided with conflicting demands from both sides.

Pedersen visited Damascus on Tuesday for the first time since he assumed this position and met with Foreign Minister Waleed Moualem, and then headed to Riyadh and met with the negotiation committee.

“Pedersen is the forth envoy and there were seasoned envoys before him. I think the lack of international will to advance a political solution is what rendered the United Nations and its envoys incapable of carrying out anything,” Hariri said after meeting Pedersen.

“The political process has entered a state of paralysis, which is evident to all the world,” he added.

Since 2016, de Mistura led nine rounds of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition without achieving any progress, as the opposition demanded political transition without the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Damascus insisted that his future not be discussed.

 

Trump Sticking to his Position

19 January 2019

US President Donald Trump defended his plan to withdraw US troops from Syria after a suicide attack in northern Syria on Wednesday, which left a number of US casualties. Before heading to Dover, Delaware airbase, Trump said that since he took office, the US has captured ninety-nice percent of territory once held by ISIS.

Trump received the remains of four US soldiers killed in the attack and met with their families. Before Christmas, Trump announced the defeat of ISIS, justifying the planned withdrawal of US troops from the area.

Trump tweeted that the extremist group had been defeated in Syria, adding that this group was the only reason he left US troops in the area during his presidency.

Before boarding his plane, Trump said that the United States killed ISIS “for Russia, for Iran, for Syria, for Iraq” and did a “big favor” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Pentagon identified three of the American victims as two soldiers and one civilian contractor. US reports said that the fourth victim was an American translator of Syrian origin.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least eighteen people were killed in the attack on the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbej in northern Syria on Wednesday. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

 

Daytime Airstrike

20 January 2019

The Israeli army said that a rocket fired from Syria was intercepted over the occupied part of the Golan Heights. This came a short time after the announcement of Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

“The air defense system – Iron Dome – intercepted a rocket launched towards the northern Golan Heights,” the army said in a statement. A military spokesperson said the rocket was launched from Syria.

The official Syrian media said on Sunday that air defenses thwarted an “Israeli aggression” that targeted the southern region.

The Syrian official news agency reported a military source as saying: “Our defense system is thwarting an Israeli aerial aggression with high competency over the southern region and preventing it from achieving its objectives.” The source did not give further details.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that the “targeted area is located south of Damascus near Kisweh, which was repeatedly targeted in the past.” The SOHR said this area contains “weapon depots for Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, however, it has not been confirmed yet if they were actually hit.”

Since the onset of the conflict in 2011, Israel repeatedly bombed military targets for the Syrian army and others for Hezbollah and Iranian fighters in Syria, the last of which occurred on 12 December at Damascus International Airport.