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.
Russian – US Friction
26 January 2020
New Russian-US sparring after “frictions” between the two countries’ forces have caused more concern regarding the situation in areas in northern Syria where both parties are militarily active. This comes after reports of increased instances that almost led to confrontations recently.
A “show of force” occurred near Tal Tamr, east of the Euphrates, when a US patrol intercepted Russian forces in the area.
The Russian defense ministry has not been commenting of skirmishes with US forces, however, it issued a statement yesterday in response to US statements about the “interception” of a Russian general by coalition forces. “The interception incident occurred fourteen months ago, i.e. it is not new,” the statement said. The Russian comment came in response to revelations by US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey regarding the “interception” of a Russian general near Manbij more than one year ago.
United States is Erasing the Border
26 January 2020
US President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to reinforce its military presence on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border to maintain the potential to “face Iran” and cut off the road east of the Euphrates for Russia, after escalating demands for US withdrawal by Baghdad.
According to information from Western officials, there are proposals to reinforce the military presence, including the assertion that any talks with Baghdad have to address matters broader than the military aspects, encompass economic relationships and push NATO to play a bigger role in fighting ISIS.
The proposals include talks with the presidency of the Kurdistan region on establishing military posts/bases and increasing the number of troops from five hundred to two thousand on top of the five thousand troops already in Iraq. The diplomats pointed to “the integration between the military presence in western Iraq and eastern Syria, as most forces that withdrew from east of the Euphrates, early this year, went to Kurdistan, Iraq. This brought down the number of US forces from one thousand to five hundred troops present near the oil fields east of the Euphrates.” The proposals also included maintaining al-Tanf base to cut off the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut road and keep Russian forces away from the strip along the Fesh Khabour in Kurdistan.
Damascus near Maaret al-Noman
25 January 2020
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that Syrian government forces advanced on Friday toward the city of Maaret al-Noman. This comes after battles with militant and jihadist factions that killed twenty-three members.
Government forces controlled the towns of al-Deir al-Sharqi and al-Deir al-Gharbi in the southeastern countryside of Idlib and are now four kilometers off Maaret al-Noman, the SOHR said.
This city, which is controlled by jihadist, is the last major stronghold not under the control of Damascus. Retaking it is a major objective of the government, according to the SOHR.
The observatory said that the town of al-Deir al-Sharqi and al-Deir al-Gharbi are considered “the keys to controlling the city of Maaret al-Noman from the southern and eastern sides because of the elevated hills.”
The battles that took place in order to take control of the two towns killed seven members of government forces and sixteen militants from militant and jihadist factions, the SOHR said.
The chief of the observatory Rami Abdul Rahman said that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces can now launch mortar attacks against Maaret al-Noman from the hills in the two villages.
Syrian government forces, with Russian air support, have intensified their attacks on the southern parts of Idlib governorate since December.
Thirty-eight Thousand in Five Days
24 January 2020
More than thirty-eight thousand people fled their homes in northwest Syria in the last five days to escape from airstrikes by the Syrian government and its Russian ally, according to the United Nations.
In recent days, Russian and Syrian fighter jets carried out airstrikes west of Aleppo governorate, where jihadists and militants still have control over some areas, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Idlib governorate and some areas in the adjacent Aleppo and Lattakia governorates are still under the control of Tahrir al-Sham (previous branch of Qaida in Syria). Other militant factions are also present.
Three hundred and fifty-eight thousand people have been displaced in northwest Syria, mostly women and children, since December, according to the United Nations.
Al-Muallem is Alive
23 January 2020
Informed Syrian sources denied reports in social media regarding the death of the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem on Thursday.
“Minister al-Muallem left his office in the Syrian foreign ministry on Thursday and went to his home in al-Mohajreen neighborhood. He is in good health,” sources close to the Syrian foreign minister told a German news agency.
Toward the Solution
22 January 2020
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday called on Syria to “move toward a political solution,” warning that if this does not happen, donor countries may not support the reconstruction process.
“I would like to issue a very strong appeal: we have to move toward a political solution,” Guterres said in response to a statement by the Syrian representative in an unofficial meeting with UN members.
“The first stage is very important, which is breaking the stalemate of the constitutional committee” which the UN established along with Syria despite various difficulties, he added.
UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen gave a bleak picture of the committee which started its work in October and is commissioned with drafting the Syrian constitution.
In November, the second meeting of the meeting failed after differences were raised by Damascus on the agenda and work program, according to Western diplomats.
Bombardment and Death
23 January 2020
Russian airstrikes killed twenty-three civilians on Tuesday in northwest Syria, where renewed airstrikes have tightened the noose on the last major stronghold of jihadist and militant factions in the country, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said that retaliatory missile strikes, which it attributed to jihadists and militant factions, killed three other civilians near the city of Aleppo, north of Syria and under government control.
Relief groups cautioned against an unprecedented wave of displacement in Idlib – home three million people, many of whom need humanitarian aid.
The International Rescue Committee warned that six hundred and fifty thousand people, mostly women children, may be displaced if the violence continues.
Saudi Arabia and Syria
21 January 2020
The Syrian newspaper al-Watan on Tuesday reported diplomatic sources in New York as saying that Syria’s permanent representative to the United Nations Bashar al-Jaafari participated in a special ceremony held in honor of Saudi Minister of State Fahd bin Abdullah al-Mubarak, in preparation of Saudi presidency over the next meeting of the G20.
The sources said al-Jaafari attended the ceremony upon a special invitation he received from the Saudi representative in the United Nations Abdullah bin Yehia al-Muallemi, adding that al-Muallemi and al-Mubarak deliberately met al-Jaafari during the ceremony, arousing the interest of the attendees and constituting a friendly surprise.
The newspaper added that during this meeting, Saudi officials expressed their conviction that what happened should pass, stressing the brotherly relationships that have longed characterized Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The sources said that this news is “worthwhile,” whereas the newspaper said that “Riyadh is reaching out to Damascus.”
Riyadh did not issue a position.