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 email@example.com.
Gas and shelling on Sochi
25 November 2018
In a new chapter of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, more than one hundred people were wounded in a suspected toxic gas attack in the Syrian city of Aleppo late Saturday. The Syrian government and Russia blamed opposition militants for the attack. A health official in Aleppo said victims suffered breathing difficulties, eye inflammation, and other symptoms suggesting the use of chlorine gas. The injured people were taken to al-Razi and University hospitals. Medical sources told the official Syrian news agency SANA that there were “one hundred and seven cases of breathing difficulties.” The head of health directorate said that the substance used was most likely chlorine gas. Opposition officials denied these claims and said their forces did not possess chemical weapons. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack so far.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday its warplanes bombed militants in Idlib whom it accused of firing poison gas at Aleppo. Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow sent advance warning to Ankara through a telephone hot line. Russia’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement the chemical attack had been launched from an area in the Idlib de-escalation zone controlled by the Nusra Front militants and that it planned to talk to Turkey about the incident since Ankara was a guarantor of how the armed opposition there upheld a ceasefire. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart agreed on Sunday that “recent provocations” were aimed at harming the agreement on Idlib, the ministry said. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday that Moscow and Ankara needed to take swift decisions to support a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib governorate.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that planes bombed opposition-held areas northwest of Syria on Sunday for the first time since Russia and Turkey reached an agreement on a de-escalation zone in September. The SOHR added that the shelling spread a strong stench and caused breathing problems for dozens of people in government-held Aleppo on Saturday.
This attack marks the highest casualty toll in Aleppo since the government forces and their allies regained control of the city from the opposition nearly two years ago. “The explosive shells contain toxic gases that led to choking among civilians,” the city’s police chief Issam al-Shilli told state media.
Syria’s foreign ministry urged the United Nations to take action and said “the government of the Syrian Arab Republic calls on the Security Council to immediately and strongly condemn these terrorist.”
Opposition officials denied using chemical weapons and accused Damascus of trying to implicate them. Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razak, spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki opposition faction, said rebels did not own chemical weapons or have the capacity to produce them.
A past UN-OPCW inquiry found that the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in 2017 and also used chlorine several times. It also blamed ISIS for using mustard gas. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the war.
Assassination of Kafranbel’s Raed
23 November 2018
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that armed men in Syria’s opposition-held Idlib governorate assassinated on Friday an activist who ran a radio station that provided independent news and criticized both Syrian government and opposition militants. The SOHR said unidentified gunmen shot Raed al-Fares, along with his friend Hamoud al-Juneid, in the town of Kafranbel, home to the Radio Fresh station.
Fares gained prominence early in the uprising against the government with protest banners that drew international attention on social media. The banners targeted the Syrian army, its ally Iran, Western powers that Fares portrayed as selling out ordinary Syrians through their response to the crisis, and the Islamist extremist who had emerged in the chaos. Fares also distributed photographs and video clips showing the toll that war was taking in Kafranbel where it was dangerous for foreign media to visit. In 2011, ISIS gunmen shot him in the chest, but he survived. By his own account, his offices were targeted by government bombardment and Islamic extremists abducted and tortured him several times.
Syrian journalists and activists reacted to Fares and Juneid’s assassination as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces condemned this act, saying in a statement “this crime targeted a dear place in the heart of the Syrian revolution, especially with what Kafrnabel represents in the conscience of the Syrian people as one of the icons of the Syrian revolution with its civil and peaceful activities and its banners that expressed the aspirations of the Syrian people for years.” The National Coalition blamed responsibility for this act on what it called the “coalition of tyranny and terrorism,” adding that the two activists had previously confronted it in the past and Fares was abducted and subjected to an assassination attempt.
In addition to the coalition, the Higher Negotiation Committee condemned the assassination, saying in a statement “the dictatorial government has always targeted liberals by various means and methods. Then came along those who carried out its agenda with their extremism and conspiracy on the Syrian people’s revolution.” Active military factions in Idlib did not comment on the assassination, despite the wide chaos it caused recently, especially Tahril al-Sham, which considers Kafrnabel part of its area of influence.
The US State Department Representative in Syria Jim Jeffrey and the US Special Envoy to Syria Joel Rayburn issued a statement condemning the assassination of the two activists. The UK Special Representative for Syria Martin Longden said through the British Foreign Office’s Twitter account that Fares was the conscience of the revolution and his murder is a loss to Syria. French President Emmanuel Macron also condemned the assassination.
Escalation in the Countryside of Hama and Idlib
25 November 2018
Government forces escalated their rocket attack and bombardment of the countryside of Hama and Idlib on Sunday, one day after shelling Jarjnaz, south of Idlib, which left eight civilians dead, mostly women and children. Enab Baladi’s reporter in the northern countryside of Hama said that targeting of areas, in the northern countryside of Hama and the southern countryside of Idlib, with rockets and heavy artillery has continued since early morning. Several civilians were injured, in the towns of Latmin and Kafrzait in northern Hama, as a result of the heavy rockets that targeted the towns, he said. Residents of the town of Jarjnaz and surrounding areas fled the area today as a result of the continued escalation by government forces.
Opposition factions in northern Hama retaliated with artillery shelling of government forces in the Salhab area west of Hama, no casualties were reported. Sham FM and other local networks reported that shells fell on the thermal power plant in Mahrdeh west of Hama, which left material damage. This exchange of shelling is considered as a breach of the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia, which stipulated establishing a demilitarized zone between the Syrian government and the opposition.
Exchange of Detainees Through Turkey!
24 November 2018
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that the Syrian government and armed opposition groups exchanged detainees in northern Syria, describing it as first step to build confidence between the warring sides. The ministry said that move was part of a pilot project prepared by a working group formed under the Astana process by Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the United Nations to investigate the fate of missing people and release those who have been detained. The ministry did not specify how many people were involved in the exchange but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in the United Kingdom, said opposition factions had released ten hostages in return for the government releasing ten detainees.
SDF and ISIS Once Again
24 November 2018
ISIS launched its fiercest attack on positions for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the eastern countryside of Deir Azzor near the Syrian-Iraqi border. ISIS posted, on Friday 24 November, images of several prisoners from the SDF, which is waging a war against ISIS, under the leadership of the international coalition. ISIS also published videos from the attack that targeted the towns of al-Sha’feh and al-Bahra. Mustafa Bali, a media official in the SDF, said on Saturday that various frontlines have witnessed fierce battles between the international coalition-backed forces and ISIS.
ISIS controls the city of Hajjin and surrounding towns and villages east of the Euphrates, which are considered its last stronghold in the eastern countryside of Deir Azzor. This latest attack is considered the fiercest in the area, after the October attack when ISIS recaptured wide areas stretching to the Syrian-Iraqi border. The area it controls decreased after the SDF reached the outskirts of Hajjin, and ISIS’s presences has been limited to the Euphrates river four hundred kilometers east of Deir Azzor.
Local networks in Deir Azzor, including Furat Post, said that the attack was focused on the north part of Hajjin and the northeast the towns of al-Sha’feh, al-Kashmeh, and near the town of al-Bahra. ISIS took advantage of heavy fog that hindered visibility and paralyzed the international coalition’s airplanes. The network reported heavy raids by the international coalition on ISIS-controlled al-Kashmeh, which was confirmed by A’maq news agency through images showing coalition planes carrying out strikes in the area.
This ISIS attack comes days after the group lost its most important strongholds in the Syrian desert, as the Syrian government forces and allies took control, after long battles, of Tolool al-Safa, east of Sweidaa city in Southern Syria. Reports said that dozens of people, mostly women and children, were killed in recent days as a result of the coalition bombardment, which prompted the United Nations to issue a statement expressing displeasure and concern over the killing of civilians by both sides.
Iraq Strikes ISIS in Syria
20 November 2018
The Iraqi army said that it launched air strikes on ISIS targets inside Syria on Tuesday, destroying two buildings housing forty fighters and weapons. “Iraqi F-16 fighter jets carried out airstrikes inside Syrian territory based on precise intelligence information from the Directorate of Intelligence and Counterterrorism,” the Iraqi army said in a statement. Additionally, the statement mentioned that “the successful operation led to the destruction of a weapons warehouse that belongs to the so-called al-Farouq province that contained ten terrorists, rockets, and explosives belonging to ISIS gangs. The forces also carried out a painful strike in the al-Baghor area targeting a headquarter for al-Farouq Brigade that contained thirty terrorists, rocket launchers, and various rifles.” Since last year, the Iraqi air force has carried out several strikes against ISIS in Syria, with the approval of the Syrian government and the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.
US Observation over Turkey
23, 24 November 2018
Turkey is uneasy about US plans to set up “observation posts” in Syria along parts of its border with Turkey, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday the United States was setting up the posts to help keep the focus on clearing the final ISIS militant strongholds in Syria. The United States has long complained that tension between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)–which includes the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)–has at times slowed progress on the fight against ISIS. Akar said that, during a recent visit to Canada, he told US Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford and other US officials that setting up the posts would have a very negative impact on perceptions of the United States in Turkey. He added that “during our talks with both political and civilian interlocutors we repeatedly expressed our unease in various ways.. I think actions like this will make the complicated situation in the region even more complicated.” He also emphasized that “nobody should doubt that the Turkish Armed forces and the Republic of Turkey will take the necessary steps against all kinds of risks and threats from across its borders.”
In a related context, Turkey said on Friday that the agreement with the United States for the removal of the YPG from the northern Syrian town of Manbij, needs to be completed by the end of the year. Turkey also voiced its frustration with what the country described as a deal beset by delays. The relationship between Turkey and the United States was strained by differences over Syria-related policy. Washington has backed the YPG in the fight against ISIS. Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
In May they reached a deal over Manbij, after months of disagreement, under which Kurdish fighters are to completely withdraw from the town– something Turkey says has not happened yet. This month, Turkish and US troops began joint patrols in the region. That cooperation has been complicated as Turkey has shelled Kurdish fighters to the east of the Euphrates and threatened an offensive there. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told CNN Turk: “this delay should not exist anymore. This issue needs to be completed by the end of the year.”
US Sanctions on Economic Networks
21 November 2018
The United States has taken action against an Iranian-Russian network that sent millions of barrels of oil to Syria. The US Treasury said in a statement that this complicated arrangement involved a Syrian citizen who used his Russia-based company to ship Iranian oil to Syria with the aid of a Russian state-owned company. Syria then helped transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to Hezbollah, which functions as a political party that is part of the Lebanese government, as well as to Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
The US Treasury Department said that since 2014, vessels carrying Iranian oil have switched off transponders to conceal deliveries to Syria. The Treasury, the State Department, and the US Coast Guard have issued an advisory to the maritime community about the sanctions risks of shipping oil to the Syrian government. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi called the sanctions “fruitless, illogical, and inefficient.” State news agency IRNA on Wednesday quoted Qasemi as saying: “Those who designed and implemented these sanctions will understand sooner or later that they will not achieve their goals.”
Russia will continue supplying oil to Syria in line with its agreement with Damascus despite pressure from the United States, RIA news agency quoted Oleg Morozov, a member of the Russian Federation Council, as saying late on Tuesday. He added that “the political defeat in Syria apparently prompts the United States to return to the idea of regime change in Damascus. Therefore, economic pressure through oil supply shutdown becomes a tool of the new economic war with Bashar al-Assad and indirectly with Moscow and Iran.”