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.

Syria Between Trump and Putin

16 July 2018

On Monday, US President Donald Trump expressed his hope for improved cooperation between his country and Russia in Syria.

After a summit held with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Trump said in a joint press conference in Helsinki that the two sides have the potential to save thousands of lives in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Trump added that Iran must not be allowed to benefit from the successful campaign against ISIS.

Trump and Putin did not mention the Geneva Declaration or UN Security Council Resolution 2254, but rather focused on “Israel’s security”, humanitarian aid, and reducing the level of violence.

 

Airstrike on Iran

15 July 2018

Israel carried out an airstrike against a government military position in the eastern countryside of Aleppo in northern Syria on Sunday, the official Syrian news agency SANA said.

“The Zionist enemy … targeted one of our military positions north of al-Nairab airport. Damage was limited to materials,” SANA said citing an anonymous military source.

For its part, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that it monitored a series of explosions in “the vicinity of al-Nairab military airport, which is under the control of government forces and militants loyal to the government in the outskirts of Aleppo.”

The explosions “turned out to be a result of a rocket attack, which is most likely Israeli, that targeted positions for government forces and militants allied to them in al-Nairab military airport and surrounding area.”

Since the onset of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Israel has repeatedly carried out airstrikes against military targets for the Syrian army or Hezbollah in Syria. Israeli airstrikes recently targeted Iranian positions.

 

Daraa on the Road to Displacement

15 July 2018

Fighters from opposition factions, along with their families, began to leave Daraa in southern Syria on Sunday in accordance with an agreement that will return the cradle of the protests that erupted seven years ago to the power of the government.

On Sunday, hundreds of fighters and their families boarded fifteen buses carrying their personal belonging and left the assembly point.

“The majority of the departees are fighters and some families,” said a reporter for the AFP, adding that “according to the records, seven hundred and fifty people would leave” Daraa, and that “there were two or three vacant buses” at the time of departure.

At the bus assembly point, a number of women and children stood carrying their luggage. “Men were searched by the Russians [soldiers], while women were searched” by young women loyal to the government.

The buses arrived in the morning and were stationed on Sajneh road, which connects areas of the opposition and the government. This contact line was opened a few days ago after the removal of barricades, according to the reporter.

 

Russia in the “Triangle of Death”

16 July 2018

Syrian opposition sources said yesterday that Russian planes launched airstrikes on areas between Daraa and Qonaitera after using the airspace over Israel and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

Syrian government forces have been seeking to take back all of Daraa governorate and the adjacent Qonaitera in southern Syrian for weeks, as there still remains some opposition factions, in addition to a faction affiliated with ISIS.

Government forces took control of “several towns in the western countryside of Daraa after battles with militants who refused the settlement and yet other battles after opposition factions agreed to join the agreement,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and also reported fierce battles to control the strategic al-Hara hill in Darra countryside, which overlooks the Golan.

While the Syrian official news agency SANA said that government forces took control of the hill, which is “the most important position in the southern front in Daraa countryside,” the SOHR reported the continuation of “intensive clashes in the area of the strategic al-Hara hill in the triangle of death northwest of Daraa,” and said that the area was targeted with one thousand three hundred and fifty airstrikes and barrel bombs with the participation of Russian planes.

 

Syrian Criticism of Iran

15 July 2018

There was no official comment in Tehran until yesterday evening regarding criticism made the day before yesterday in al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the Syrian government, towards Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to the leader of the Islamic Revolution.

The newspaper published an article entitled ‘Sorry Ali Akbar Velayati, The World Might Have Collapsed, But Syria Would Not’ in response to statements made by Velayati in which he said that the government would have collapsed within a few weeks had it not been for Iran’s intervention.

The article said that such statements are an “exaggeration that we are used to hearing from some Iranian media outlets or political analysts or those who are affiliated in detail with Iran.”

 

A New Government in the East

16 July 2018

On Monday, the political wing of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that it is working on forming a unified administration for the areas it controls, in a step that would strengthen its influence in northern and eastern Syria.

The SDF controls almost a quarter of Syrian territories, most of which was taken from ISIS with the help of a US-led coalition. This constitutes the largest area of land outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The plan announced on Monday at a congress of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in Tabaqa city aims to bring together a number of local civil councils that have emerged across SDF territory in northern and eastern Syria.

“This is an administration to coordinate among the areas … to secure needs in all areas,” Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the SDC and a top Syrian Kurdish politician, told Reuters.

She added that the initiative is still in the early stages of deliberations and its goal is to include all areas controlled by the SDF. “It will have a benefit when it comes to ensuring security and stability,” she said.

The SDF is led by the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), but it expanded beyond areas populated by Kurdish majorities in the north. Its territory now includes Raqqa, which was ISIS’s base in Syria, and Deir Azzor at the Iraqi border.

The group wants to put an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria with a decentralized system that secures rights for minorities, including Kurds.

 

Control Map

9-16 July 2018

After a quick advance in Daraa governorate, Syrian government forces now control more than sixty percent of Syrian territory, while opposition factions are taking consecutive blows, according to a report by the AFP in Beirut.

Since the onset of the Russian military intervention in its favor in September of 2015, the Syrian government army has made consecutive victories at the expense of both opposition factions and ISIS, the most prominent of which have been Aleppo city (December of 2016), Palmyra (March of 2016, but was lost again in 2017), and eastern Ghouta near Damascus (April of 2018).

After recapturing eastern Ghouta, all of the capital, and then the majority of Daraa governorate recently, Syrian government forces now control sixty-one per cent of the country’s territory in comparison to seventeen percent before this expansion, according to the SOHR. Syria’s area is one hundred and eighty-five thousand square kilometers.

Government forces gradually regained the most important cities like Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, and all of Damascus. They have maintained their presence in coastal areas in the west of the country.

Seventy-two percent of the population lives in government-held territory, according to Fabrice Balanche, a geographer specializing in Syria. Six million Syrians are refugees outside the country and around seven million are displaced from their homes out of twenty-three million Syrians, according to expert estimates.

Opposition factions are also present in limited areas in the northern countryside of Hama (middle Syria), whereas Syrian factions loyal to Ankara hold control of vast areas of the northern countryside of Aleppo (northern Syria).

Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) holds vast parts of Idlib (northwest of Syria), where the presence of opposition factions is limited to certain areas.

Opposition factions and Tahrir al-Sham currently hold nine percent of the country’s territory.

ISIS, which controlled vast areas of Syria and Iraq in 2014, started to gradually lose its positions in 2015, especially with the Kurd’s advance that ousted it from areas in the countryside of Aleppo and then from Raqqa governorate, where battles between ISIS and the Syria army also took place.

The extremist organization currently holds around three percent of the country. It is present in a small enclave in Deir Azzor governorate (east of Syria) near the Iraqi border, and another one in the Syrian desert in the middle of the country. Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army, loyal to ISIS, also controls a small enclave in southwest Daraa governorate. Dormant cells affiliated with ISIS are also present in Idlib governorate.

After decades of suffering from marginalization, Kurdish influence has increased with the expansion of the conflict in Syria in 2012 and the decrease of government authority in Kurdish majority areas. The YPG, the backbone of the SDF, received support from the international coalition which considered it the most effective party in fighting ISIS.

The Kurds now control more than twenty-seven percent of the country.