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.
Prelude to Fierce Battles on the Seventh Anniversary
This week coincided with the seventh anniversary of the start of the Syrian movement for freedom, dignity, and justice, which turned into a fierce war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others, ripped society, and destroyed the economy, rendering the country a space to settle scores among regional and international powers, with no prospect for any political solutions.
The fiercest battles are taking place on two main fronts: eastern Ghouta, where government forces are attacking the besieged enclave, and Afrin, where Turkish forces backed by armed opposition factions are carrying out the attack.
Syria could face “fierce battles” in Idlib and Daraa after the offensive on eastern Ghouta, according to UN adviser Jan Egeland. The Turkish government also threatened to expand the attack on Afrin to include the city Manbej, east of the Euphrates, and northern Iraq.
This week also witnessed a new international escalation relevant to this issue, as the United States declared on Monday in the Security Council its readiness to intervene militarily in response to a presumed chemical attack in Ghouta. “There has been no cessation of hostilities,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in the meeting. “Violence continues in Ghouta and beyond – including in Afrin, parts of Idlib, and into Damascus and its suburbs.” (Reuters)
In an unprecedented escalation, Russia threatened that in the event of a threat to the lives of its servicemen, it will take retaliatory measures against missiles and launchers used. (Reuters)
This escalation comes as political tension between Russia and the West worsens, most recently with the diplomatic crisis over the attempted assassination of the Russian spy Sergey Scrippal in the UK, which led to the expulsion of twenty-three Russian diplomats from the UK on Wednesday, to which Russia retaliated in a tit-for-tat response on Saturday. (Reuters)
On the level of regional powers that are directly involved in Syria, the Saudi-Iranian escalation is heading towards new levels after the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman threatened to develop a nuclear bomb in case Iran takes that step. (Reuters)
Ghouta: Time for Displacement
13-18 March 2018
Government forces were able to take control of two-thirds of the besieged Ghouta this week and managed to split the remaining area into three isolated sectors: Duma which is controlled by Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army), Harasta which is controlled by Ahrar al-Sham, and Arbin and Ain Tarma which are controlled by Failaq al-Rahman (al-Rahman Corps).
After government forces reached Hamorieh, thousands of civilians moved from inside the besieged Ghouta to areas controlled by the government. The intensity of battles and artillery and aerial bombardment have not subsided. Government forces continue to advance taking control of the towns of al-Rihan, Jisreen, Saqba, Kafr Batna on Friday and Saturday (AFP), with battles entering a decisive stage.
The offensive led to the deaths of more than one thousand and four hundred civilians and thousands of casualties inside Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Shells launched by opposition factions continued to fall on Damascus killing two hundred and forty-two civilians and injuring hundreds of others.
Afrin: Siege and Diaspora
13-18 March 2018
Turkish forces and opposition factions allied to them continued their military operation in Afrin, surrounding the city and cutting off water supplies amid fierce aerial and artillery bombardment, effectively controlling eighty-seven percent of the area of Afrin.
More than one hundred and fifty thousand residents in Afrin moved towards areas controlled by government forces in Aleppo, amid tragic humanitarian conditions. (Reuters) The Turkish army called on Kurdish fighters to surrender.
The Olive Branch operation has left two hundred and eighty-nine civilians dead, including forty-three children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Four hundred and eighty-one soldiers from the Turkish forces and allied opposition factions were killed, while four hundred and sixty-nine soldiers from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were killed, in addition to ninety-one soldiers from the government popular forces that entered the city. (SOHR)
The Turkish president said on Friday that the United States has to withdraw militants from east of the Euphrates if it wants to cooperate with Ankara (Reuters), which indicates that the Turkish operation may expand beyond Afrin to other areas in northern Syria.
Rape: A Weapon of War
15 March 2018
A report by UN investigators revealed on Thursday that Syrian government forces and forces allied to them used rape and sexual violence against women, girls, and men in a campaign to punish opposition areas. These actions constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report also revealed opposition groups committed sexual violence and torture crimes as well, although they were “considerably less prevalent”.
“It is utterly repugnant that brutal acts of sexual and gender-based violence continued to be perpetrated throughout Syria for seven years by most warring parties,” said Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The report is based on four hundred and fifty-four interviews with survivors, relatives of survivors, eyewitnesses, defectors, lawyers, and medical personnel. (Reuters)