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.
End of the “Caliphate”
25 March 2019
Dozens of ISIS fighters surrendered on Sunday to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after they came out of tunnels they were hiding in inside the town of al-Baghouz, as the SDF declared the complete elimination of the “caliphate”.
The Kurdish self-administration warned on Sunday that ISIS’s danger persists, with thousands of foreign fighters and their families being held inside SDF detention centers and camps and its ability to mobilize sleeper cells.
Several countries around the world hailed the declaration of the elimination of the caliphate, after the group was stripped off of all territories it once controlled. The SDF leadership along with its US-led international coalition ally announced the start of a new phase of the war to eliminate the group’s sleeper cells.
In the remote town of al-Baghouz east of Syria, where the final confrontation against ISIS took place, dozens of men were seen standing in line to board several pickup trucks. Some of them had long beards and some were wearing the traditional woolen robes and kuffiyas on their heads, while others had their faces covered.
“They are ISIS fighters who came out of tunnels and surrendered today,” Kurdish spokesman Jiaker Amed said without specifying numbers. “Some others could still be hiding inside,” Amed added.
An AFP team saw plumes of black smoke rising from the camp on Sunday; Amed said they came from burning ammunition depots that belonged to ISIS.
The camp, which is filled with tunnels and fallen tents, looked like a scrap yard littered with burnt cars, kitchen utensils, water bottles, and gas cylinders.
The international coalition spokesman said that SDF forces will continue to comb the area in search of jihadists and potential weapons caches.
“This back-clearance operation will be deliberate and thorough and help ensure the long-term security for the area,” the spokesman said on Twitter.
Head of the foreign relations in the Kurdish self-administration in Syria Abdel Karim Omar said, “We eliminated the state of ISIS, which is a major accomplishment, however, this does not mean that we have eliminated ISIS as an organization.”
“There are thousands of fighters, children, and women from fifty-four countries, not including Iraqis and Syrians, who are a serious burden and danger for us and for the international community,” Omar said.
The SDF estimates that during their military advances and operations, which were repeatedly paused to allow for the exit of those besieged, more than sixty-six thousand people left the ISIS pocket, including five thousand jihadists who were arrested, while others managed to escape.
Among those leaving is a large number of the jihadists’ family members, many of whom are foreigners. They were transferred to three camps in northeastern Syria, the most prominent of which is al-Hol camp, designed to accommodate twenty thousand people but now hosts more than seventy-two thousand people, including twenty-five thousand school-aged children.
“There are thousands of children who have been raised according to ISIS ideology,” Omar said. “If these children are not re-educated and re-integrated in their societies of origin, they are potential future terrorists,” he added.
According to Save the Children, there are more than three thousand and five hundred foreign children from thirty countries in the three camps.
The issue of foreign jihadists and their families has burdened the Kurdish self-administration, which called on their countries of origin to repatriate them and have them face justice on their territories. However, Western countries seem to be reluctant because of security concerns and fear of public backlash after deadly attacks adopted by the radical group. A small number of countries, including France, showed interest in taking back some of the children.
After eliminating the ISIS “caliphate,” Kurds fear that Washington will move on with its plan to withdraw troops from northern Syria, thus they would become a target for an offensive threatened by Turkey.
Ankara sees the SDF as a terrorist organization and fears they might cooperate with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. Omar warned that any cross-border offensive risked leading to mass breakouts from the jails where jihadists are currently held. “There should be coordination between us and the international community to confront this danger,” he added.
The US presence has dampened Ankara’s thrust and prevented Damascus from launching an attack to take back control of their territories. US President Donald Trump announced at the end of last year that he was going to withdraw all two thousand troops from Syria, however, Washington later said that it would keep around four hundred soldiers for an indefinite time.
“Fighting ISIS and its extremist violence will not end soon,” commander of the international coalition Paul LaCamera said on Saturday. Before its defeat, the group put out voice recordings on Telegram in recent days, calling on its members to take their “revenge” from the Kurds and launch attacks in the West against enemies of the “caliphate.”
Al-Baghouz front was a clear example of the complexity of the Syrian conflict which recently started its ninth year, leaving more than three hundred and seventy thousand dead, while all international efforts failed to reach a political settlement.
25 March 2019
Syrian Kurds urged the government to open up a dialogue to “block all attempts that challenge Syria’s sovereignty by parties that have intervened in Syria, especially the Turkish occupation regime.”
Sihanok Deibo, member of the presidential council of the Democratic Syria Council (DSC) said, “Damascus and other Arab countries should regard the (Kurdish) self-administration as a safety valve and a counter front to Turkish aggressive ambitions.”
“The number of ISIS prisoners and family members exceeds fifty thousand from forty-eight Arab and foreign nationalities,” Deibo said, considering this huge number a “big dilemma which the self-administration in northern Syria cannot bear the sole responsibility for.”
“The best way would be to establish an international tribunal in north and east of Syria, with details agreed upon with the self-administration,” Deibo added.
24 March 2019
The Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Sunday that the US President Donald Trump would sign a proclamation recognizing Israel sovereignty of the Syrian Occupied Golan Heights when he meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Monday.
“President Trump will sign tomorrow in the presence of PM Netanyahu an order recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” Katz wrote on Twitter.
The announcement was faced with wide criticism from Arab and Western countries and the United Nations. Damascus affirmed its commitment to retake control the Golan by all means. The Arab League stressed that “Arab summits always affirm in their decisions the Arab status of the occupied Syrian Golan.”
Trump’s announcement is a break from decades-old US policy in the Middle East and longstanding international consensus.
The Arab League said, “In light of the recent development, some Arab countries could ask for new additions to the draft resolution regarding the Golan.”
The Arab League and Arab countries denounced Trump’s announcement, stressing that the “Golan is a Syrian occupied territory.”
“Statements by the US administration, which pave the way for an official US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan, are completely outside international law,” Ahmed Abu Gheit, the General Secretary of the Arab League said on Thursday: “The Golan is a Syrian occupied territory according to international law, UN and Security Council resolutions, and recognition of the international community,” he added.
The Return is “Not Listed”
23 March 2019
“The issue of Syria’s return to the Arab League has yet to be listed on the agenda and has not been formally proposed,” said the League’s spokesman Mahmoud Afifi, referring to the Arab summit scheduled to be held in Tunisia at the end of March.
The Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmed Abu Gheit said on 6 March at the end of the 151stSession of the Arab League Ministerial Meeting in Cairo, Egypt that the issue of Syria’s potential participation in the upcoming summit in Tunisia was not discussed at all during the meetings.
On 12 November 2011, after eight months of the onset of protests in Syria, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s membership and impose political and economic sanctions on Damascus, calling on the Syrian army “not to use violence against anti-government protestors.”
A debate has risen concerning Syria’s return, especially after Damascus strengthened its authorities and military victories by the Syrian army, which took back control of vast areas from militant jihadists and opposition with help from its Russian and Iranian allies.
There is division among Arab countries in this regard. Iraq and Lebanon called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, while the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, after cutting diplomatic ties in 2012.
Assistant Secretary General of the Arab League Hossam Zaki said in a press conference in January, “There is no Arab consensus in regards to reconsidering Syria’s suspension from the Arab League.”