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.
Deadline in Idlib Expires
10 – 15 October 2018
Despite the expiration of the deadline in the Russian-Turkish agreement for hardline factions to evacuate the buffer zone in Idlib, no withdrawal of militants has been observed according to the AFP. Hardline factions, the most prominent of which is Tahrir al-Sham, control two-thirds of the demilitarized zone, which includes parts of Idlib governorate, the western countryside of Aleppo, the northern countryside of Hama, and the north-eastern countryside of Lattakia. (AFP)
The deadline expired hours after Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) declared its adherence to the option of “fighting” in line with its appreciation of efforts “to protect the liberated area”, warning of Russian “evasion”. This constituted an ambiguous position as it hinted that it would abide by the terms of the agreement reached by Russia and Turkey to prevent an attack by the Syrian government on Idlib, which is under the control of armed opposition. Tahrir al-Sham said that it took this position after “consultations with the rest of revolutionary components,” and that it appreciates “efforts by all parties, whether inside or outside of the country, to protect the liberated area and prevent its invasion and massacres. But we warn at the same time against the trickery of the Russian occupier or having faith in its intentions.” (Reuters)
Another major group in Idlib, backed by Turkey and known as the National Front for Liberation, has already expressed its support for the agreement. Turkey has been working to persuade Tahrir al-Sham to comply with the agreement it arranged with Syria’s main ally Russia in order to avert an attack that Turkey feared would send a new wave of refugees towards its borders.
The Turkish defense ministry said on Wednesday that the demilitarized zone in Idlib has been formed and heavy weapons have been withdrawn. The agreement dictated the withdrawal of heavy weaponry, tanks, and missile systems of all opposition factions by 10 October, and the area will be monitored Turkish-Russian patrols.
Russia and Turkey reached a deal on 17 September in Sochi that provides for the establishment of a demilitarized zone in Idlib. Heavy weapons were withdrawn by Wednesday, however, the factions were required to evacuate them by Monday.
The Russian foreign ministry said on Wednesday that more than one thousand militants left the area without stating their destination. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that around 100 heavy weapon units had been withdrawn from the zone.
Three Border Crossings Open
14 October 2018
Syria and Jordan said that the border crossing will officially re-open on Monday after being closed for three years, though it will not be open to normal traffic immediately. The Syrian government retook control of the area surrounding Nassib border crossing in July after a weeks-long Russian-backed offensive against opposition militants in southwest Syria. The closure of the Jaber-Nassib crossing in 2015 cut a crucial transit route for hundreds of trucks a day transporting goods between Turkey and the Gulf, and Lebanon and the Gulf, in multi-billion-dollar annual trade.
At the same time, Syrian official media said that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem discussed with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Ja’fari efforts for speeding up the reopening of borders between the two countries. The US army closed the main Damascus-Baghdad highway, however, there is another smaller crossing at Boukamal in the east, which is presently open for government and military purposes only.
Syrian border with Turkey is still closed in areas controlled by the Syrian government, but it is open in areas controlled by the opposition.
In a related context, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Friday that Israel, Syria, and the United Nations have agreed to open the Quneitra crossing in the Golan Heights on Monday. The opening “will allow UN peacekeepers to step up their efforts to prevent hostilities in the Golan Heights region,” Haley said.
The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been monitoring operations in a demilitarized zone established in 1974 between the Israeli-occupied Golan and the Syrian sector, but the peacekeeping mission was disrupted by Syria’s civil war. Russian military police have been patrolling the border on the Syrian side of Quneitra.
Israel occupied the Goal Heights in the 1967 War and fought Syria again on the strategic plateau in the October war of 1973. (Reuters)
Remnants of Destruction
12 October 2018
Airstrikes launched by the US-led coalition have destroyed much of the Syrian city of Raqqa while crushing ISIS, but the coalition has done little to help it recover, Amnesty International said on Friday.
Nearly a year after the battle, eighty percent of the city is in ruins and thousands of bodies lie in the rubble, with funding to recover them poised to run out, said Anya Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director of global research. “It’s absolutely shocking in Raqqa how little over this last year has actually been done to bring life back to the city,” Neistat said. “The coalition, given that they have the money to carry out this very, very expensive military campaign, should have enough money to work with its consequences,” she added.
“To the extent that they are able to identify the bodies, they believe that the majority of them are civilians. And the majority of these civilians have died as a result of coalition air strikes,” Neistat said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen to the three thousand bodies that still lie in the ground come 31 October when the funding for this team runs out,” she added.
The coalition says it is working on stabilization in Raqqa, not reconstruction. Coalition Spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan pointed to coalition countries not being able to work with the Damascus government, which opposes their presence, as an obstacle to channeling help. (Reuters)
Manbij Under Turkish Radar
11 – 12 October 2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) did not leave the northern Syrian city of Manbij, contrary to a deal between Ankara and Washington, adding that Turkey will do what is necessary. “They are now digging trenches in Manbij. What does this mean? It means ‘we have prepared the graves, come and bury us’,” Erdogan said at a rally in southern Turkey. “They said they would abandon the area in ninety days, but they have not. We will do what is necessary,” he added. On Thursday, Hurrieyt newspaper reported the Turkish president as saying that the deal between Turkey and the United States regarding the northern Syrian city of Manbij is delayed “but not completely dead.”
Turkey and the United States reached a deal in May over Manbij after months of disagreement. The deal provides for the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and Turkish and US forces would maintain security and stability in the city.
Washington’s support for the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State group has infuriated Ankara, which sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). (Reuters)
Plight of Rukban Refugees Worsens
11 October 2018
Thousands of Syrians stranded on Jordan’s border with Syria are running out of food as routes leading to their camp are closed by the Syrian army and Jordan is blocking aid deliveries, relief workers and refugees said on Thursday.
The Syrian army has tightened its siege of the Rukban camp near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, preventing smugglers and traders from delivering food to its nearly forty-five thousand inhabitants, mostly women and children.
Rukban camp is located near a US forces base in southeastern Syria at Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The camp falls within a so-called “deconfliction” zone set up by the Pentagon with the aim of shielding the Tanf base from attacks by government forces. Since the start of the year, Jordan has blocked any aid deliveries over its border and says now that the Syrian government had recovered territory around the camp, it could not be made responsible for delivering aid.
“The situation for the estimated forty-five thousand people – among them many children – will further worsen with the cold winter months fast approaching, especially when temperatures dip below freezing point in the harsh desert conditions,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. Already two more infants died in the last forty-eight hours, Cappelaere added.
Jordan wants the United Nations and Russia to put pressure on Damascus to give the written authorizations needed to allow supplies into Rukban from Syrian government-held territory. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that his country, already burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, could not be made responsible for delivering aid to the camp.
Western diplomatic sources believe the siege of the camp is part of a Russian-backed Syrian government effort to put pressure on Washington to get out of Tanf. (Reuters)
Amnesty for Deserters
9 October 2018
The Syrian government has announced an amnesty for men who deserted the army or have avoided military service, giving them several months to surrender to authorities or else face punishment. The amnesty covers all punishments related to deserting the army inside and outside of Syria. The amnesty decree does not include “fugitives and wanted persons unless they surrender themselves within four months for internal desertion and six months for external desertion.” The amnesty covers army desertion, however, it does not cover fighting against the government or joining opposition groups, who are regarded by the Syrian government as terrorists. Many youths deserted the army, some to join the opposition and others to escape the fighting. (Reuters)
Endowments Controversy…From Decree to Law
13 October 2018
Controversy has erupted regarding Decree Number 16, dated 20 September 2018, concerning the role of the ministry of endowments. It was considered by some parliament members as a deviation of the “secular identity of the state” and a reinforcement of the minister of endowment’s authorities. After several sessions and discussions, parliament members proposed twenty-six amendments, some of which were passed and the decree became Law 31 of 13 October 2018.
Parliament member Nabil Saleh was the first to spark the attack of the endowment decree, opening the door for dozens of parliamentarians and journalists to seriously tackle the decree. Saleh said that the decree increases the authorities of the ministry of endowments, which means “cloning the religious system in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi” and making it a Syrian system. Criticism was focused on several articles in the decree, including Article 8 which expands the ministry’s supervision over religious affairs and grants it the right to monitor any intellectual or media production related to religions; Article 54 which gives the Higher Endowment Council vast financial authorities related to investments in endowments; and Article 2 which provides for the formation of the Religious Youth Team, which would play an enabling and awareness role, paving the way for constructive engagement with the older sheikhs. (Enab Baladi)
The amendments also touched on the form of the Religious Youth Team, rendering it an initiative to strengthen the role of young Imams but without organizing them. The committee also tried to restrict the ministry’s control over religious organizations in Syria, including the “female teachers of Koran” (previously known as al-Qubaisiat) by changing paragraph (n) in Article 2 which gave a role to the ministry in “supervising female religious affairs, guiding female teachers of Koran, and granting them permits for their work,” which became “setting up regulations to allow and supervise religious teaching.” The powers that were withdrawn from the minister in the law include the abolishment of the paragraph which gives him the power to appoint two of his counsellors as members in the Scientific Jurisprudence Council, and the amendment of Article 19 which gives the minister, or whoever he delegates, the power to interrogate workers in the religious field; this power was granted to an interrogation committee to be formed for this purpose.
With these new amendments, the provisions and articles that make the ministry of endowment a crucial tool in the government’s hand to define religious work in Syria are still present. Former Parliament member Mohammed Habash told Enab Baladi: “Even secular intellects who want to write about religious matters could face questions from the ministry of endowments. The ministry currently takes part in censoring books, but its powers will expand to include all that is published and printed. And that will not be limited to religious books or those related to Koran and its interpretation, as no article or book related to religious affairs will be allowed to be issued without a permit from the ministry. This will lead to an extremely strict Salafi discourse regarding all attempts for religious revival.” (Enab Baladi)