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.
Idlib at Sochi After Tehran
14 September 2018
Turkey launched a wide diplomatic campaign regarding the potential battle in Idlib. Turkey said that it has held talks with all sides in the Syrian conflict to prevent government forces from carrying out a full-scale attack on Idlib, which is under the control of the armed opposition.
A summit was held between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, who support rival parties in the anticipated battle. The summit comes after the failure to reach a ceasefire during the trilateral meeting in Tehran between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. However, the Idlib front witnessed a decline in the number of airstrikes, and militants in the Syrian opposition said that some government forces withdrew from front lines in northwest of Syria in recent days.
Turkey also held talks with foreign ministers of a number of countries and is having talks “with all parties in Syria” to reach a ceasefire in Idlib, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. He reiterated Turkey’s call to carry out precise operations against fanatics, including Tahrir al-Sham, instead of launching a full-scale random attack. “We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone – civilians, women, and children – like this in the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane,” he added. (Reuters)
Turkey reinforced a dozen military positions inside Idlib, which lies across its southern border and is controlled by Turkish-backed groups and jihadist fighters, in an attempt to deter the government offensive. Troops, armored vehicles, and equipment have been sent to the Syrian border. “We have a military presence there and if that military presence is damaged or attacked in any way, it would be considered an attack on Turkey and would therefore receive the necessary retaliation,” a Turkish security source said. A senior official in the Syrian opposition said that Turkey sent dozens of armored vehicles and tanks, in addition to hundreds of special forces troops to Idlib. A source in the opposition told Reuters that Turkey also increased its reinforcement to opposition forces in Idlib in recent days, including ammunition and rockets.
On the other hand, Interfax news agency reported Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying that his country will continue to bomb military targets in the Syrian governorate of Idlib if there is a need, however, it will establish safe corridors for civilians to flee. During his visit to Berlin, Lavrov said that Russian air forces will destroy what he described as terrorist weapons manufacturing facilities in Idlib once they are observed, however, it will also encourage local reconciliation agreements. The official Russian news agency reported the Kremlin as saying that Putin discussed the situation in Idlib with members of Russia’s Security council on Friday and expressed his concern for the militant activities there. (Reuters)
The Kurds were not absent from the Russian-Turkish “negotiations” on Idlib. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a letter to The New York Times published on Thursday that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) might help the Syrian government in the offensive on Idlib. The YPG were a strong ally for the United States in its war on the Islamic State. However, Turkey considers them a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has been leading an armed rebellion against the Turkish state since the eighties. Ankara has repeatedly expressed its anger over US support for the YPG. (Reuters)
No Chemical Weapons or Refugees!
10 – 14 September 2018
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday appealed to Russia, Iran, and Turkey to “spare no effort to find solutions that protect civilians” in the Syrian governorate of Idlib and said it was “absolutely essential” a full-scale battle was avoided.
“This would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict,” he told reporters. “I understand that the present situation in Idlib is not sustainable and the presence of terrorist groups cannot be tolerated. But fighting terrorism does not absolve warring parties of their core obligations under international law,” said Guterres.
The UN cautioned that an offensive on Idlib would cause a humanitarian crisis in a region populated by three million people. Turkey, which already hosts three and a half million Syrian refugees, said that it cannot receive a new influx of refugees. The Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said that officials from Turkey, Russia, France, and Germany agreed during their talks in Istanbul on Friday that any attack on Idlib would have serious consequences and that a political solution must be reached. Kalin said that mass displacement of refugees from Syria would be a problem not only for his country but for the European Union as well. “We expect maintenance of Idlib’s current status, protection of civilians, and prevention of a humanitarian crisis there,” he told reporters.
The UN said it is preparing aid for around nine hundred thousand people who might flee in case the fighting intensifies. The opposition is accusing Russia and its allies of attacking hospitals and civil defense centers to force the opposition to surrender, in a replay of major military attacks on areas such as Aleppo and eastern Ghouta. The UN said that it has notified Russia, Turkey, and the United States of the GPS coordinates of two hundred and thirty-five schools, hospitals, and other civilian sites in Idlib, in hope the move will protect them from being attacked.
Four hospitals in Hama and Idlib have been hit by air strikes in the past week, constituting “serious attacks” that violate international law, Panos Moumtzis, UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis said. He called on all warring sides to ensure that civilians in Idlib were able to move freely in any direction to flee fighting or bombing, and for aid workers to have access to civilians. UN figures show that around thirty-eight thousand and three hundred people have fled Idlib this month. Thirty-three people were killed and sixty-seven others injured in aerial and ground bombardment from 4 to 9 September.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain warned that the indiscriminate bombing of Idlib could amount to war crimes. “The hypothesis of war crimes cannot be excluded … once one begins to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations and hospitals,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament members.
Germany will make an autonomous decision on whether to participate in any military response to a future Syrian chemical weapons attack in line with international law and the German constitution, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday. On Wednesday, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that Germany and other countries have to do all they can to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria, adding that a “credible deterrent” was needed.
The United States, Britain, and France agreed that another use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would result in a “much stronger response” compared to previous air strikes, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton said on Monday.
On Wednesday, UN investigators said that they had documented three uses of banned chlorine gas by Syrian government forces that constituted war crimes, and urged major powers to help avert a “massacre” in the final battle for Idlib. In their latest report they said the attacks caused injuries in the Damascus suburb of Douma and in Idlib in the northwest in January and early February. They also said that they were still investigating a suspected chemical attack in Douma on 7 April that killed at least forty-nine people and wounded up to six hundred and fifty others.
9 September 2018
The Russian army said on Sunday that two US F-15 fighter jets dropped phosphorus bombs on Deir Azzour governorate in Syria on Sunday, TASS news agency and the official Russian news agency reported, an allegation the United States has denied.
The airstrikes targeted the village of Hajin and resulted in fires, but there was no information about casualties, the Russian army said. A Pentagon spokesperson denied that US planes dropped phosphorus bombs. “At this time, we have not received any reports of any use of white phosphorous… None of the military units in the area are even equipped with white phosphorous munitions of any kind,” said Commander Sean Robertson. Human rights groups have said that the US-led coalition against the Islamic State has used white phosphorus munition over the course of the Syrian conflict. The bombs can create thick white smoke screens and are used as incendiary devices. Human rights group criticize use of the munitions in populated zones because they can kill and maim by burning people to bone. (Reuters)
Nassib Border Crossing Talks
13 September 2018
On Thursday, an official Jordanian source said that Syria and Jordan held the first technical talks to open a major border crossing in southern Syria, which was recaptured from the opposition last July. Syria hopes to reopen the vital border crossing to revive its shattered economy and rebuild territory under its control. The source told Reuters that the meeting took place on Wednesday on the Jordanian side of the border upon a request from Syria. He said that technical groups started talks concerning the required practical arrangements to reopen the border crossing from customs to security. “The meetings will continue to put a complete view of all the arrangements linked to reopening the crossings in the coming period,” the source added. (Reuters)
Elections During War!
16 September 2018
Elections for local administration councils were held on Sunday, 16 September, in Syria, in areas under government forces control. According to the official news agency SANA, voters can exercise their right to vote with their personal IDs.
More than forty thousand candidates are competing for eighteen thousand and four hundred and seventy-eight seats in all governorates, SANA said. According to the election decree, applications are submitted before a certain time ahead of the election day. Each governorate issues its own laws, and an election committee is formed on the national level for sub-councils (cities, towns, and municipalities). Governorates also specify the number of seats and electoral procedures. Nomination is open to all people. Two lists are issued, the first (previously known as the “Progressive Front List”) is for the Baathists and is currently called the “National Unity List”. The National Leadership of the Arab Baath Socialist Party is responsible for issuing this list. The other list contains independent figures, and gets only thirty percent of the total list of candidates.
These elections are the first of their kind since the decree of 2011. The last local elections after the onset of the Syrian revolution were the legislative elections in 2016 and the presidential elections in 2014.