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.
Washington Coordinating with its Allies Before Geneva and Sochi
12 January 2018
US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield and his counterparts in Britain, France, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia met on Friday in Washington to discuss the possibility of holding a five-nation ministerial conference.
According to Western diplomatic sources, Washington wants to coordinate with its allies on the Syrian issue before the Geneva negotiations between government and opposition delegations, which are scheduled to be held in Montreaux, Switzerland, on the twenty-first of this month. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may decide to postpone the meeting for a few days.
The five officials discussed their views regarding the Syrian Dialogue Conference, which is scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia on the twenty-ninth of this month. The American side wants to preserve the Geneva process after its allies, such as Jordan, leaned toward the Astana and Sochi process.
Guterres Commends the Opposition
8 January 2018
The opposition’s High Negotiating Committee delegation, headed by Nasr al-Hariri, met with National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster in Washington over the weekend. This comes after the committee’s meeting with Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres in New York on 8 January. The delegation is scheduled to head for London on Tuesday.
McMaster criticized Moscow’s attempts to convene the Sochi conference and alienate Geneva negotiations. He informed the opposition of Washington’s commitment to political transition in Syria and the need to “neutralize Iran”, according to diplomatic sources. He also confirmed that American presence in east and southwest of Syria will continue until a political solution is reached. He also linked Washington’s contribution in the reconstruction of Syria to achieving a political transition.
Guterres, on the other hand, commended the opposition’s stance on the eighth round of the Geneva negotiations, referring to accusations against the government delegation in presenting “preconditions” in Geneva. He also mentioned his letter to the Russians regarding the Sochi conference, which contained a set of criteria that must be met in order for him to approve to dispatch de Mistura to the Syrian Dialogue Conference. They included: the conference should be held in one session within the framework of the Geneva process, implementation of Resolution 2254, and the formation of the constitution committee should be carried out through the United Nations and Geneva negotiations and not in Sochi.
Battles Intensify in Idlib near Abu al-Duhur
10-11 January 2018
Armed opposition faction Tahrir al-Sham launched a counter-attack against government forces southeast of Idlib to prevent them from controlling Abu al-Duhur military airport.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the withdrawal of government forces on the Abu al-Duhur front and the control of opposition factions over a number of towns. Whereas government sources stated that the counter-attack was repelled. The latter also mentioned the “opening of a new front” toward the airport from the southern countryside of Aleppo. Government forces had begun an offensive on 25 December to control the southeastern countryside of Idlib and secure a strategic road between Aleppo and Damascus. They controlled numerous villages and towns in a short period of time and reached the outskirts of Abu al-Duhur airport. Turkey considered the attack a breach of the de-escalation zone which is carried out with Russian and Iranian support.
The fighting reflects lack of agreement between the sponsoring parties (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) regarding the de-escalation zone and the continuous attempts to achieve gains on the ground.
A dispute emerged between the Russian and Turkish sides on the attack in Idlib province. Ankara summoned a Russian diplomat to protest the attack and the continuous advancement toward Abu al-Duhur airport, considering this a breach of the de-escalation agreement. However, according to a Russian source, Moscow saw that Turkey’s delay in confronting Tahria al-Sham (which comprises several factions including Fat’h al-sham, previously Nusra) forced Moscow to give the green light to forces of Colonel Suhail al-Hasan (a.k.a. The Tiger) to advance toward Abu al-Duhur in order to put pressure on Ankara to do its part, i.e. address the issue of Nusra’s presence.
Tensions had emerged between Russia and Turkey in the aftermath of strange attacks on the Russian base in Hmeimim in which drones were used. Moscow accused Ankara initially, but then denied that afterwards. The attack constitutes a major challenge for Russia in Syria, as it exposed the difficulty of achieving “victory” mentioned by President Vladimir Putin ahead of the presidential elections on 18 March.
A Russian-Turkish-Iranian meeting will be held to discuss the fate of the Syrian Dialogue Conference in Sochi at the end of the month. President Putin has dispatched envoy Alexander Laverntiev to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad ahead of the Sochi conference scheduled to be held on the twenty-ninth of this month.
Syrian Man Sets Himself on Fire in front of the United Nation’s Office in Lebanon
10 January 2018
A Syrian man set himself on fire on Wednesday outside the United Nation’s office in Tripoli, Lebanon, after he was informed that the humanitarian aid provided for him and his family would be cut off, leading to severe burns on his body. The UNHCR and WFP noted that his tragic event highlights the increasing pressures and difficulties that Syrian refugees have been going through.
Most Syrians in Lebanon suffer from poverty and are mainly located in the most deprived areas of Lebanon. They face difficult challenges in finding work due to the lack of job opportunities in the Lebanese economy and the restrictions imposed on employment of Syrian workers. Syrian refugees have provoked deep political divisions between various Lebanese forces. This issue is expected to be exploited in parliamentary elections in the summer of 2018.
Collecting Income Tax by the Self-Administration
10 January 2018
The Self-Administration has started collecting income tax, imposed by a decree it issued, to collect revenues from citizens on behalf of the Financial Authority. These procedures indicate the formation of institutions and legislation in the northeastern part of Syria, widening the gap between the institutions that actually hold control in various areas and complicating the possibility of reaching a solution on a national level.
Privatization of Construction on the Local Level
Decree number nineteen of 2016 provided governorates and municipalities with the ability to establish private holding companies that can invest the governorate/municipality’s properties and rights in allocating lands, whether directly or through contracts with private or public companies. This can be carried out without resorting to the binding contract procedures that the public sector must adhere to. Damascus Cham Holding Company represents the first fruit of this decree, which constitutes a privatization process without sufficient guarantees or supervision from public bodies.
Marota City, expected to be built in the orchards of Mazzeh neighborhood in Damascus, is a project that has attracted many private-sector investors. The last of which was a contract signed with Talas Company for Trade and Industry to invest four plots in Marota City with a value of twenty-three billion Syrian pounds.
The plots dedicated for Talas Company are around one thousand square meters. The company will carry out the construction and the finishing. The investments are varied between tourism, commerce, technology, and services. Damascus Cham Holding’s share is seventy-five percent in exchange for its in-kind contribution, whereas Talas’s share is twenty-five percent for its cash contribution.
The aforementioned partnership contract comes after Damascus Cham Holding signed a contract with Syrian businessman Mazen Tarazy to invest a mall with a value of one hundred and eight billion Syrian pounds. Damascus Cham Holding had also announced that it signed a partnership contract with Damascus Aman Holding, a private joint stock company, on 27 August with a value of one hundred and fifty billion Syrian pounds to invest in three residential buildings and five plots in Marota City. (al-Iqtisade, Inab Baladi)