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.
The South on Edge
12-16 June 2018
Reuters and Enab Baladi
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that he has not taken a decision on whether the situation in southern Syria will be resolved through reconciliation or military means. “We will give way for the political process. If it does not work out, then we do not have an option other than liberating by force.”
Since last year, a “de-escalation” deal brokered by Russia, the United States, and Jordan has contained fighting to the southwest. Washington expressed its concern regarding an impending military offensive, warning of “firm and appropriate measures” in response to any violations of the ceasefire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that the Syrian army and its allies bombed opposition fighters in Daraa, southwest of the country, on Wednesday killing at least six people. The SOHR also said that the Syrian army bombed the towns of Kafr Shams and al-Hara, near the border with the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. (Reuters)
The Syrian government continued sending military reinforcement to Daraa. Last week, the defense minister visited southern Syria and Suhail al-Hasn arrived in Daraa, signaling the completion of preparations for military action. (Enab Baladi) In a related context, a commander in the pro-Syrian regional coalition said that the Syrian army reinforced its anti-aircraft defenses near the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. More defenses are scheduled for the upcoming days to “restore the air defense system against Israel.”
In recent weeks, the multi-party war in Syria shifted towards the southwest, increasing the risk for escalation in an extremely important area for Israel. The conflict was contained last year through an agreement to de-escalate brokered by the United States and Russia. (Reuters)
Ongoing Suffering in Idlib
11 & 17 June 2018
Reuters and Enab Baladi
The UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria Panos Moumtzis called for ending the war and avoiding bloodshed in Idlib, which has become a refuge for tens of thousands of civilians and fighters from opposition factions after being evacuated from other areas inside Syria.
The governorate’s population is estimated around two and a half million. It has witnessed enormous security, military, humanitarian, and economic challenges with escalation in air raids. Eleven people were killed, and a hospital was targeted in an air raid on Sunday, 10 June. The military option in Idlib could be “much more complicated and brutal” than Aleppo and Ghouta, according to Moumtzis. The civilians also have no place else to go to. (Reuters)
Idlib governorate has also been experiencing chaos in the security situation for two months. It started with assassinations of military, cultural, administrative, and medical personalities, the last of which was in the city of al-Dana on Sunday, 17 June, when an unidentified armed group stormed a hospital attempting to kidnap the medical staff but eventually failed to do so. Another group stole electronic equipment from al-Dana University. Factions are exchanging accusations of responsibility for the assassinations, especially between Tahrir al-Sham and Tahrir Souria factions. (Enab Baladi)
Corrosion of the Self-administration … and the Negotiation Option
12 & 14 June 2018
An agreement was reached between Turkey and the United States on a plan for the Syrian city of Manbij during a meeting in Stuttgart this week, the Turkish armed forces said. On 4 June, Ankara and Washington said that they reached a road map that provides for the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) fighters from Manbij. (Reuters)
The negotiations show the decline in the US role in supporting the self-administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), especially after Turkey captured Afrin with the support of opposition factions. The political discourse of some Kurdish forces witnessed a change recently, with Aldar Khalil, a prominent Syrian Kurdish politician, expressing his hope that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be serious about negotiations with Kurdish forces, alluding to his willingness to hold talks without preconditions. (Reuters) The northeastern part of Syria seems to be at a crossroad with the potential for deterioration into military confrontations or heading for negotiations between the self-administration and the Syrian government, especially after the decline in the US role and the increase in Turkish pressure.
14 June 2018
Human Rights Watch documented how Turkey-backed rebels seized, looted, and destroyed civilians’ properties after taking control of the area in March. The UN estimates some one hundred and thirty-seven thousand people were displaced by the Afrin offensive, in another large population movement in the seven-year long Syrian conflict which has forced more than half of the country’s population from their homes. (Reuters)
Forced displacement and seizure and looting of property have been systematically used in the Syrian conflict to subjugate the local population and use the available resources to serve the economies of war. The situation of rights and property is exacerbated when confiscation and seizure of property during war are legitimized through laws such as the Anti-terrorism Law or “reconstruction laws” such as Law no. 10.
Staffan de Mistura … Once Again
14 June 2018
Senior officials from Iran, Russia, and Turkey will meet in Geneva on 18 and 19 June to hold negotiations with the UN regarding the formation of a constitutional committee for Syria, the UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said in a statement on Wednesday. The statement went on to say the de Mistura will send an invitation to other countries to hold talks related to this matter. De Mistura is commissioned with choosing the members of the committee, which is expected to reformulate the Syrian constitution, paving the way for new elections and political reform after the end of the war. De Mistura intends to meet with Russian, Turkish, and Iranian officials next week. He said that he expects a similar meeting with US, Saudi, British, French, German, and Jordanian officials on 25 June. (Reuters)
The political process in Syria has not progressed for years, and the “Geneva process” has corroded, however, UN teams and meeting have expanded as they get themselves busy “wasting time” and avoiding core issues of conflict resolution.
Mysterious Coalition Strikes … In the East
11 & 18 June 2018
Fighting east of the Euphrates has intensified in recent weeks after Syrian Democratic Forces resumed their campaign against ISIS. On the other hand, the Syrian government expanded its operations in the countryside of Deir Azzor against remaining ISIS fighters. In this context, official Syrian media accused the coalition forces of carrying out an air strike on 11 June that left eighteen Iraqi refugees dead at a school in the southern countryside of al-Hasakeh governorate, however, the coalition denied the report. In a related context, Amnesty International issued a report last week in which it said that there is evidence that the US-led coalition violated international law in some of its airstrikes in Raqqa last year by putting the lives of civilians in danger. (Reuters)
US-led coalition planes bombed a military position for the Syrian army southeast of Boukamal city, which left a number of deaths and injuries, official Syrian media said once again on Monday, 18 June, but the US army denied the report. (Reuters)
Sarin in Latamna
14 June 2018
Tests confirmed the use of the banned nerve agent sarin in an attack south of Latamna city, in Hama governorate on 24 March 2017, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Wednesday. “Chlorine gas and nerve gas were probably used as a chemical weapon at Latamna Hospital and the surrounding area on 25 March 2017,” the OPCW added. (Reuters)
The use of chemical weapons has been documented in the Syrian war in numerous cases and led to various international reactions, the strongest of which was the US threat of a strike after accusations of using chemical weapons in Ghouta that led the Syrian government to surrender its chemical weapons to the OPCW, and the US strike against al-Shoairat airport after accusations of using chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhon, and the US, French, and British tripartite strike on the “infrastructure” for producing chemical weapons during the recent Ghouta battle this year.
Refugees in Lebanon
11-15 June 2018
The escalation led by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Basil towards the UN refugee agency UNHCR continued as he accused it of working to stop refugees from returning to Syria. The UNHCR previously denied similar accusations, saying that it supports the return of refugees when it is safe for them to go back to Syria and helps those who choose to return with their documentation. Last week, Bassil ordered a freeze on applications by the UNHCR for residency permits for its staff, saying it was intimidating refugees into staying in Lebanon. (Reuters) It is worth mentioning that Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that the foreign minister’s position does not reflect that of the government. It seems that some political powers want to step up calls for the rapid return of refugees to their country, but the UN says the situation is not safe yet for their return.
The international community is “dismayed by repeated false accusations” that it is working to settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Germany’s ambassador in Beirut Martin Huth said on Thursday. He said that the situation in Syria is not safe yet and no agreement has been reached to end the war, adding that the international community and the UN are “fully committed to an eventual return of refugees to Syria.” (Reuters)