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.
Evacuation from “Hell”
25 February 2019
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are expecting the evacuation of more civilians from the last ISIS pocket in east Syria, as the exit of thousands of people in recent days is adding another burden on the Kurds and aid organizations.
The completion of the evacuation should set the countdown for the SDF to resolve the battle, either through the surrender of the jihadists or by launching the final offensive, in a prelude to declaring the end of a “caliphate” that has caused terror for years.
The head of the SDF’s media office Mustafa Bali expects that there are “around five thousand people inside,” according to the latest update based on information gathered from evacuees recently.
During its battles with ISIS, the SDF arrested hundreds of foreign fighters (non-Syrian and non-Iraqi) from various nationalities, including British, French, and German. The SDF has repeatedly demanded the concerned countries to take back their citizens and assume responsibility for them.
Ending the battle in Deir Azzor does not mean the end of the group’s danger, due to its ability to mobilize sleeper cells in liberated areas and disperse in the vast Syrian desert.
Iraqi ISIS Fighters Back in their Home Country
24 February 2019
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have handed to Iraq two hundred and eighty Iraqi and foreign detainees in recent days, Iraq’s military said in a statement on Sunday.
An Iraqi military colonel confirmed to Reuters that one hundred and thirty people were transferred on Sunday, adding to the one hundred and fifty transferred on Thursday. They included the first known transfers of non-Iraqi detainees to Iraq, but it was unclear if they will remain in Iraqi custody.
There are meant to be more such handovers under an agreement to transfer a group of some five hundred detainees held by the SDF in Syria, Iraqi military sources said.
The Iraqi military has said only Iraqi nationals were handed over by the SDF.
Around eight hundred foreign fighters who joined ISIS, including many Iraqis, are being held in Syria by the SDF, the group has said. More than two thousand family members are also in camps, with dozens more arriving each day.
Sixteen Workers, One Cylinder
24 February 2019
A gas cylinder explosion inside a warehouse in al-Hol camp in north-east Syria injured sixteen workers, most of them suffered from second degree burns, the International Rescue Committee told the AFP on Sunday.
The camp, which is overseen by the SDF and located in Hasaka governorate, holds more than forty-five thousand people, including five thousand people evacuated since Wednesday from the last pocket under ISIS control in eastern Syria.
The fire destroyed more than two hundred family tents stored inside the warehouse before it was extinguished.
Funeral for Refugees in Canada
23 February 2019
Hundreds of people attended the funeral on Saturday of seven Syrian refugee children killed in a house fire earlier this week in the eastern Canadian city of Halifax.
The Bahro family had moved to Canada in 2017, after being sponsored by a Halifax refugee society, and a widely watched YouTube video showed them being welcomed at an airport with flowers and balloons. The children ranged in age from fifteen years old to four months.
The fire also left their father in critical condition in hospital and their mother was released from hospital.
The cause of the fire remains unknown to authorities, who say the investigation could take months to complete.
Russian Train, Syrian Weapons
23 February 2019
A Russian train carrying various weapons captured by the Russian army from Syrian militants left Moscow on Saturday on a tour to parade Russia’s military gains in Syria.
The train headed from Moscow to Crimea before making its way to the Russian far east and then back to Moscow, visiting 60 cities along the 28,500-kilometer-long journey.
On Saturday, Muscovites were invited to see the nine-trailer train, which carries tanks and other military vehicles captured from Syrian rebels and jihadists, in addition to drones and various other weapons.
“The aim is to show a maximum amount of people in our country the success of the Russian army in the fight with international terrorism,” said Russian Colonel Dmitry Serobaba.
Aleksey, a 31-year-old railway worker, brought his toddler son to see the train. He brought his son “so that he can see that we have a strong army” and said “I am really proud that they are winning in this far away region.”
On Friday, President Vladimir Putin congratulated Russian war veterans and serving soldiers on their role in Syria. “By freeing Syrian lands from bandits and saving peaceful civilians, our soldiers are acting boldly, decisively and effectively,” he said at a Kremlin ceremony.
Russia deployed in Syria in September of 2015 upon a request from Syrian authorities. The Russian intervention changed the course of the eight-year conflict and left more than three hundred and sixty thousand dead.
Staying in Light of Withdrawal
22 February 2019
US administration officials said that the United States will not withdraw all its troops from Syria, contrary to what was previously declared, and will leave about four hundred troops instead of the two hundred previously announced.
The White House spokeswoman Sara Sanders said on Sunday that only two hundred troops would remain in Syria as a “peacekeeping group.”
US President Donald Trump, in December, ordered a withdrawal of the two thousand American troops in Syria, saying they had defeated Islamic State militants there.
Syria’s Kurds praised the decision to leave US troops in the area, describing it as a “positive decision.”
The acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan met his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar at the Pentagon on Friday.
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staffs Joseph Dunford said that the war against ISIS, in which numerous international parties take part, would continue. The resources for this war will be proportional with the magnitude of the threats.
Trump had declared in December victory over ISIS in Syria, although there are still thousands of the groups fighters defending their last stronghold.
Return After Absence
21 February 2019
Ayman Alloush, the Chargé d’affaires of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, handed over his country’s approval to participate in the conference of the Union of the Arab Parliaments, scheduled to be held next month.
Alloush said he met with the Nassar al-Qaisi, Deputy Speaker of the Jordanian House of Representatives, and handed him a letter from the Chairman of the Syrian People’s Assembly Hammoudeh Sabbagh.
The letter mentioned “participation with pleasure and gratitude in the conference, as Syria is the first country to receive an invitation to participate in the conference,” Alloush added.
Syria’s problem is with some Arab government and not with the people, Allsoush said, adding that the invitation from Jordan is not only from the people, as it carries a political message that Damascus appreciates.
Regarding his country’s participation in the Arab summit if it receives an invitation, Alloush said: “We hope that we do not go there just to take photographs. We hope Arab governments can take decisions that serve the region and its peoples.”
“Syria does not look backward, but forward as President Bashar al-Assad wants,” he added.
The Speaker of the Jordanian House of Representatives Atif al-Tarawneh said recently that he invited the Chairman of the Syrian People’s Assembly Hammoudeh Sabbagh to attend the conference for the Union of Arab Parliaments, which will be held in Amman in March under the slogan “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine.”
Syria’s membership in the Arab league was suspended with the onset of the conflict in the country in 2011. It is still outside the league, and Arab countries are divided on its return to the organization.
Withdrawal of the Passport
21 February 2019
Britain stripped a teenager who travelled to Syria to join ISIS of her citizenship on security grounds, triggering a row over the ramifications of leaving a 19-year-old mother with a jihadist fighter’s child to fend for herself in a war zone.
The fate of Shamima Begum, who was found in a detention camp in Syria last week, has illustrated the ethical, legal and security conundrum that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who swore to destroy the West.
With ISIS depleted and Kurdish-led militia poised to seize the group’s last holdout in eastern Syria, Western capitals are trying to work out what to do with battle-hardened foreign jihadist fighters, and their wives and children.
Begum, who gave birth to a son at the weekend, prompted a public backlash in Britain by appearing unrepentant about seeing severed heads and even claiming the 2017 Manchester suicide attack, which killed twenty-two people, was justified.
She had pleaded to be repatriated back to her family in London and said that she was not a threat.
But ITV News published a February 19 letter from the interior ministry to her mother that said Home Secretary Sajid Javid had taken the decision to deprive Begum of her British citizenship. “In light of the circumstances of your daughter… the order removing her British citizenship has subsequently been made,” the letter said.
19 February 2019
Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Tuesday flatly rejected the idea of giving Syrian Kurds a measure of autonomy, saying such a move would open the door to the partition of the country.
The Kurdish-led authority that runs much of north and east Syria has presented a road map for a deal with Assad in recent meetings with his key ally Russia.
The Kurds want to safeguard their autonomous region inside a decentralized state when US troops currently backing them pull out. They also hope a deal with Damascus would dissuade neighboring Turkey from attacking them.
But when asked on Tuesday if Damascus was willing to do a deal that would hand the Kurds some measure of autonomy, Bouthaina Shaaban flatly rejected the suggestion.
“Autonomy means the partition of Syria. We have no way to partition Syria,” she told Reuters on the sidelines of a Middle East conference in Moscow organized by the Valdai Discussion Club.
“Syria is a country that is a melting pot for all people and all people are equal in front of the Syrian law and in front of the Syrian constitution,” she added, calling the Kurds “a precious and very important part of the Syrian people”.
Her comments come after Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad expressed optimism last month over dialogue with Kurdish groups, and suggest the Kurds will face an uphill struggle to wring concessions from Damascus, which has said it wants to retake every inch of territory lost during eight years of war.
Shaaban sat next to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister at the conference and lavishly praised Moscow for its Syria intervention.
She was scathing about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his idea of carving out “a safe zone” in northeast Syria however.