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.
A New Chapter in the Idlib War
22 December 2019
Russian-backed Syrian forces have gained ground after a week-long renewed assault against Idlib, the biggest such push in more than three months that has prompted a large civilian exodus, witnesses and residents said on Sunday. The wide-scale offensive led by intense aerial strikes on civilian areas in rural southeastern Idlib governorate broke months of stalemate on the frontlines, where rebels had been holding back the army from major advances, they said.
Russian and Syrian jets have stepped up strikes on villages and towns around Maarat al-Numan, from which thousands of people have fled to the relative safety of the Turkish border. The Syrian army said it had gained more than twenty villages and hilltops and was coming close to one of twelve Turkish observation posts in the northwest, part of a deal with Moscow and Tehran in 2017 to avert large-scale fighting in Idlib
Residents in the area said many villages were now deserted in a campaign that, since it first started in April, has displaced more than five hundred thousand people, according to the United Nations and international relief groups.
In the past week alone, at least eighty thousand civilians fled and face harsh conditions during the start of winter, said the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a US-based medical NGO. Medical facilities, already crippled by a year of attacks, are struggling to deal with the influx of wounded, it said. At least sixty-eight medical facilities have been attacked since April, the NGO and other UN agencies have documented.
Western military sources said the latest bombardment was a prelude to a wide scale ground offensive to take over rebel-held Idlib governorate.
Enforcement of Caesar
21 December 2019
US President Donald Trump signed the defense bill which contains the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2019 after it gained the approval of the Congress.
The act is named after a former Syrian military photographer who risked his life to smuggle tens of thousands of pictures that document torture and killing of prisoners inside prisons. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the act was “an important step in promoting accountability for the large-scale atrocities” carried out by the Syrian government and “provides a tool for the United States to put an end to the ongoing horrible conflict in Syria.” The law authorizes sanctions on all individuals and institutions that finance the war machine; this includes the Syrian Central Bank, oil companies, construction companies, and militias. It also imposes sanctions on people in the army, government, and the Scientific Research and Studies Center who are accused of committing “war crimes.” It also allows for presenting military and non-military solutions to Congress to protect civilians.
It restricts financial support to Damascus from neighboring countries. According to the provisions in the act, the sanctions can be lifted by the US president if Damascus takes tangible steps and serious actions to respect human rights while prioritizing the safety and security of civilians, freeing prisoners, and voluntary and safe return for refugees.
Veto on Cross-border Aid
21 December 2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday said Russia and China had blood on their hands after the two countries used their veto power against a UN Security Council resolution, blocking cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey and Iraq to millions of Syrian civilians.
Russia, backed by China, on Friday cast its fourteenth UN Security Council veto since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
The resolution, drafted by Belgium, Kuwait and Germany, would have allowed cross-border humanitarian deliveries for a further twelve months from two points in Turkey and one in Iraq. But Russia only wanted to approve the two Turkish crossings for six months.
Russia and China vetoed the text while the remaining thirteen members of the Security Council voted in favor. A resolution needs a minimum nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, Britain or France to pass.
Since 2014 the United Nations and aid groups have crossed into Syria from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan at four places annually authorized by the Security Council. In a bid to compromise with Russia, the Jordan crossing was dropped by Belgium, Kuwait, and Germany from their draft.
The current authorization for the four border crossings in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan ends on 10 January, so the Security Council could still attempt to reach an agreement, though some diplomats acknowledged this could now be difficult.
Deputy UN aid chief Ursula Mueller had warned the council on Thursday that without the cross border operations “we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians.”
“That would cause a rapid increase in hunger and disease, resulting in death, suffering and further displacement – including across borders – for a vulnerable population who have already suffered unspeakable tragedy as a result of almost nine years of conflict,” Mueller said.
Erdogan and the Refuge Card
17, 23 December 2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged world powers on Tuesday to help his country to resettle one million Syrian refugees, accusing governments of moving more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children. Erdogan, whose country hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population worldwide, said more than six hundred thousand refugees should voluntarily join around three hundred and seventy-one thousand people already in a “peace zone” in northern Syria from which Turkey drove Kurdish militia. “I think the resettlement can easily reach one million in a very short period of time,” Erdogan told the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva.
The plan met with skepticism from Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who said that while Turkey was far ahead in terms of hosting refugees, resettling Arab refugees in areas previously populated by Kurds was wrong. “I hope this will not happen, really. It shouldn’t happen,” Egeland told Reuters.
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said returns must be voluntary, refugees should be given support and property and other legal issues must be addressed. “We are also urging the Syrian authorities to allow us a presence in the areas where people return because this could be a confidence-building measure,” Grandi told a news conference.
Once Again… An Israeli Aggression
22 December 2019
The Syrian army’s air defense system intercepted missiles coming from the direction of Israel that were aimed at targets on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, state media said on Sunday. Four cruise missiles were believed to have been launched across the coast through Lebanese airspace toward Syria, according to a source in the regional alliance supporting the Syrian government. Later the Syrian army said it had brought down one of the missiles in an area near the capital. It gave no further details.
Strike Against Homs Refinery
21 December 2019
Rockets were fired overnight at Syria’s main Homs refinery and two gas units causing minor damage and disrupting production, oil officials said on Saturday. Fires were extinguished after several hours and maintenance engineers had begun repair work, the refinery head was quoted as saying on state media.
The refinery, located west of Homs, is one of two main refineries covering most domestic demand for diesel, heating fuel, gasoline and other products, industry experts say.