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 info@salonsyria.com.


“Useful Syria” with United States and its Allies

14 February 2018

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the end of the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS in Kuwait that the United States and its allies control thirty percent of Syrian territories and oil fields. The total area of Syria is one hundred and eighty-five thousand square kilometers.

“We are very active in the discussions that are moving, all the talk toward Geneva. There are efforts to unify the opposition,” Tillerson said and added: “We are working very closely with Russia, who has the greatest influence on the Assad regime and can bring Assad and the regime to the negotiating table in Geneva in order to reach a unified Syria.”

This coincided with the meeting of fifteen defense ministers, representing countries in the Global Coalition, in which they discussed continuing their joint action. The US Defense Minister James Mattis talked about the need to reinstate public services in areas in eastern Syria, where ISIS has been driven out by Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States.

On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned against “dangerous unilateral measures” taken by the United States in eastern Syria, saying that these measures “threaten the unity of the country.”

Fuss over Russian “Mercenaries”

14 February 2018

A fuss has risen in Moscow after leaks about units of ‘Russian mercenaries’ fighting alongside Syrian government forces in Syria coming under fierce attack on the night of 8 February, near the city of Deir al-Zour and US forces, which resulted in a great number of deaths.

Phone conversations made by survivors of the “massacre” were leaked, in which they described the details of the surprise attack and its consequences. They strongly criticized Russian authorities who “avoided even mentioning this disaster, as if we are not humans.”

According to media reports, the leaks came from Ukraine where “colleagues” of the “Russian mercenaries” are active in the ongoing battles, within the so-called Wagner Army, which is comprised of informal armed formations that pay good salaries in exchange for carrying out special military operations.

Details of the participation of this army alongside government forces in battles that sought to control oil positions in Syria were widely circulated. This army was strongly active in the Ukrainian war alongside Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow. The Russian government does not formally recognize the presence of a ‘special army’ in Syria, and does not usually incorporate its losses in official Russian military losses.

In three of the phone conversations made by survivors of the US bombardment with their friends, the callers talked about the details the occurred that night.

It is worth mentioning, that a short time before the conversations were leaked, Russian volunteers in Ukraine created some chaos on the ‘tragedy’ their colleagues suffered in Syria.

The Kremlin said it had no information about reports of the killing of Russian mercenaries in Syria, and that it only knows of the presence of individuals from Russian armed forces.

 

Turkish Post in Idlib

16 February 2018

Turkish forces have established a new ‘observation post’ in the governorate of Idlib, according to government media reports.

The official Anatolia news agency said the post, a center with a small number of soldiers deployed to monitor clashes, is seventy kilometers away from the Turkish border in the Syrian governorate situated northwest of the country.

The news agency added that a Turkish military convoy crossed the Turkish-Syrian border. The post was established in the town of Ma’ret al-No’man, southeast of Idlib.

This is the sixth such post in the governorate, after the Turkish army established two other posts this month, in addition to three other posts previously established in October and November.

Turkish military convoys have come under attacks, including one in February resulting in the death of one soldier.

 

Afrin and Manbij

17 February 2018

Features of international/regional understandings to divide northern Syrian have started to emerge, in which US-Turkish forces are deployed in the town of Manbij, in exchange for a Russian-supported ‘symbolic presence’ of Syrian government forces in the town of Afrin.

Talks were held between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Damascus to reach a deal stipulating “the symbolic entrance of Syrian government forces and security institutions to central Afrin.” This coincided with the regime allowing Kurds to demonstrate in Damascus against the Turkish operation, holding pictures of the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocallan, who was arrested nineteen years ago after being expelled from Damascus according to an understanding with Ankara. The PKK has been considered a terrorist organization ever since.

This coincided with an understanding between Ankara and the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the deployment of Turkish-US forces in Manbij to kick out the YPG to east of the Euphrates.

 

The Ghouta of Damascus: The End of the De-escalation

18 February 2018

Eastern Ghouta has witnessed a race between negotiations to reach an agreement and a military resolution that government forces have prepared for by mobilizing forces of Brigadier Suhail al-Hasan, a.k.a The Tiger.

According to media sources close to government forces, massive military reinforcements led by the renowned Brigadier Suhail al-Hasan have arrived at the outskirts of eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Sources told the German news agency that the reinforcements came from Idlib countryside to an area called Tal Kurdi in the northern part of Ghouta to launch a wide-scale attack on armed opposition positions in eastern Ghouta.

Government forces, backed by Syrian and Russian jetfighters, have stepped up their bombardment of eastern Ghouta last week, leading to more than one thousand and five hundred deaths and injuries.

In a reference to the upcoming ground operation, the Russian Reconciliation Center in Hmeimim Airbase announced that Moscow “will support the ground movement of government forces in the de-escalation zone in eastern Ghouta to eliminate al-Nusra Front in case peaceful means fail to achieve that.”