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.

 

Easter and Refugees

21 April 2019

Pope Francis on Sunday urged world leaders to exert efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis and help millions of refugees go back to their home. He also called on the parties involved in Libya to choose dialogue over war.

In his traditional Easter Sunday at the Vatican, where some seventy thousand people were gathered in Saint Peter’s square, the pope also expressed his “sadness” at news of the deadly bomb attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.

In Syria, where President Bashar Al-Assad has steadily recovered territory lost to armed opposition groups, the pope lamented the fate of “the beloved Syrian people, victims of an ongoing conflict to which we risk becoming ever more resigned and even indifferent.”

“Now is the time for a renewed commitment for a political solution able to respond to people’s legitimate hopes for freedom, peace and justice, confront the humanitarian crisis and favor the secure re-entry of the homeless, along with all those who have taken refuge in neighboring countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan,” the pope said.

 

Port for Lease

20 April 2019

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said on Saturday that his country would lease Syria’s Tartus port for forty-nine years.

The port would be used for economic and logistic purposes, the Russian Sputnik news agency cited Borisov as saying after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and Syria signed an agreement in 2017 to establish a logistic center for the Russian navy’s technical equipment in Tartus.

After al-Assad’s visit to Tehran, Damascus agreed to hand over Lattakia port to Iran so that it can be used to transport oil products to Syria, which is suffering from a fuel shortage crisis.

 

Parliamentary Summit

20 April 2019

Iraq hosted on Saturday a summit for heads of parliaments, in which representatives from six neighboring countries participated, seeking to strengthen its comeback to the regional diplomatic arena.

The summit was held under the slogan of “Iraq … Stability and Development” and attended by the heads of parliament in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, while Iran sent Alaa al-Deen Brojirdi, a parliamentarian, as a representative for the head of the Iranian parliament who apologized for not attending.

The importance of this summit stems from joining political rivals on the same table despite the rupture of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran, and the latter’s support for the government in Damascus against the opposition that is supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in addition to Jordan which is an ally to the United States, which in turn is Iran’s arch-foe.

In the final statement, the heads of parliaments agreed on the fact that “the stability of Iraq is essential to the stability in the region.”

As for the western border with Syria, Iraq is the only Arab country that is publicly communicating with all parties inside Syria, including Russia, the international coalition, the Kurds, in addition to the opposition and the government, which officially asked Iraq to launch airstrikes on Syrian territory targeting ISIS.

 

Government Casualties

20 April 2019

Attacks by jihadist factions in various areas in Syria have left around fifty government troops and allied forces dead, most of whom were killed in the last two days as a result of attacks carried out by ISIS that are considered to be the most violent since the collapse of the “caliphate”.

After eight years of a devastating crisis, government forces currently control around sixty percent of the country, while various areas are still out of its reach including areas controlled by the Kurds in the north and east of the country and Idlib governorate – controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra), while ISIS still maintains its presence in the desert between the eastern countryside of Homs (middle Syria) all the way to the Iraqi border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the deaths of at least thirteen government soldiers and allied forces after a “fierce attack by Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Army, which is affiliated to Tahrir al-Sham, early Saturday on government checkpoints and posts west of Aleppo” in northern Syria.

On another front in Syria, The SOHR reported the deaths of at least thirty-five government soldiers and allied forces as a result of attacks carried out by ISIS in the Syrian desert, which are considered to be the most violent since the collapse of the “caliphate” a month earlier.

 

Sudden Passing

19 April 2019

The United Nations announced on Friday the sudden passing of Major General Francis Vib-Sanziri of Ghana, Head of Mission and Force Commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF), at age sixty-two without stating the cause of his death.

“The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres extends his deep sorrow for the sudden death of Major General Francis Vib-Sanziri,” the UN said in a statement. He “will be remembered for his exemplary career and leadership in the service of United Nations peacekeeping,” the statement added.

The late general was born in 1957 and is a father of two children. He had headed the UNDOF since October 2017 and worked in UN peacekeeping missions in Syria, Lebanon, Rwanda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

UNDOF has been deployed in the Golan Heights since 1974 to observe the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces. It is made up of a thousand blue hat troops.

The current jurisdiction ends this June and costs around sixty million dollars annually.

After the 1967 war, Israel occupied a major part of the Syrian Golan Heights (1200 km2). These heights possess a strategic position and are rich with water resources.

In 1981, the Jewish country annexed the Golan in a decision not recognized by the international community. However, the United States recently defied this consensus with US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied part of the plateau.

Trump’s decision sparked a wave of condemnations around the world, which brings to mind the reactions that followed the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017.

 

Kurds in the Elyse

19 April 2019

Turkey sharply criticized French President Emanuel Macron for receiving a Syrian Kurdish delegation, which Ankara perceives as “terrorists”.

“We condemn the reception by French President Emmanuel Macron of a delegation of so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in the statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday hosted a delegation of the SDF, an Arab-Kurdish alliance fighting ISIS in Syria. Macron assured the delegation of “active French support in their fight against ISIS.”

Macron also vowed to keep French forces alongside the SDF and to provide financial support for reconstruction and public services of the Kurdish administration in northern Syria.

 

Idlib’s Notre-Dame

19 April 2019

In a small village in north-west Syria lies a centuries-old church with two towers at its entrance that are meticulously engraved. Researchers say it is the architectural forerunner of France’s famed Notre-Dame cathedral.

Hemmed by the village of Qalb Lozeh (Arabic for Heart of the Almond), the cathedral which goes by the same name is widely hailed as Syria’s finest example of Byzantine-era architecture. And it is believed to have been the source of inspiration for Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in Europe.

“It is the earliest known example of the twin tower facade flanking a highly elaborate arched entrance, the precursor to what became known as the Romanesque style,” says Middle East cultural expert Diana Darke.

Qalb Lozeh was built by Syrian Christians whose wealth was based on wine and olive oil production, says Darke. The church was frequented by pilgrims and is thought to have been a key stop on the way to the nearby basilica of Saint Simeon the Stylite.

The abandoned church is within a cluster of forty so-called “Ancient Villages of Northern Syria” which UNESCO has included on its World Heritage List since 2011 and placed on its list of endangered sites.

Hundreds of ruins sites have been damaged in Syria in recent years as a result of fighting and bombardment, in addition to theft and looting. However, Qalb Lozeh church was spared of damage despite its proximity to hot spots.

 

Fuel Crisis

17 April 2019

A pro-government newspaper in Syria said that the country was suffering from fuel shortage after an Iranian credit line stopped six months ago, and that no Iranian oil tanker had arrived in the country since then.

Syrians say the fuel shortage became worse last week. A witness said that hundreds of cars formed a long line at one of the gasoline stations in Damascus on Wednesday. The official Syrian news agency SANA posted a photo of a traffic jam with a caption stating that Syrians are facing an “economic war.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in February that the crisis is part of an embargo imposed by governments opposed to his, including the United States which has imposed sanctions banning any commercial trading with Damascus.

The Watan newspaper, which is closely linked to the Syrian government, published a report on its first page saying that the government want to “portray the situation as it really is.”

The report stated that oil production from areas recaptured by government forces is currently twenty-four thousand barrels a day, which is well below the country’s need of one hundred and thirty-six thousand barrels per day.

Therefore, we need more imports, and this is precisely when the Iranian credit line started, the report said, adding that the line was the main source in this context.

The report did not present an explanation on why the Iranian credit line stopped. Tehran is also a target of US sanctions that were re-imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

 

Iran Mediation

17 April 2019

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Turkey and met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

“I met extensively with Bashar al-Assad. I will inform Erdogan of the outcomes of the meeting,” Zarif said in a press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu before meeting with Erdogan.

Ankara cut off its ties with Bashar al-Assad’s government after the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and provided support for militant factions seeking to oust him. However, Erdogan said in February that Turkey maintains “low-level” communication with the Syrian government.

Iran, along with Russia, is one of the Syrian government most prominent allies in the war ravaging the country.

Iran, Russia, and Turkey co-sponsor the Astana track to find a political settlement for the Syrian conflict.