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.
21, 23, 26 January 2019
The leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday that the “axis of resistance” could respond to Israeli strikes on Iran and Hezbollah in Syria by striking Tel Aviv. In an interview with al-Mayadeen TV, Nasrallah said that they were deliberating a response to escalating Israeli airstrikes.
Russia said on Wednesday that Israel should stop carrying out “arbitrary air strikes” on Syria days after the Israeli air force targeted “Iranian forces.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that such strikes added to tensions in the region, something she said “was not in the long-term interests of any country there, including Israel.”
“We should never allow Syria, which has suffered years of armed conflict, to be turned into an arena where geopolitical scores are settled,” TASS news agency cited her as saying. Her comments follow Israeli strikes in Syria on Monday.
The Russian news agency said that Israeli airstrikes targeted an airport in southeastern Damascus, killing four Syrian soldiers and wounding six.
Syrian official news media reported a military source saying that the country faced “an intensive attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles.”
Damascus did not mention the scale of destruction or number of casualties resulting from the strikes. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that eleven people were killed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that air strike primarily targeted Iranian forces, and also targeted Syrians providing them with aid.
Safe Zone Maneuvers
24, 25 January 2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that his country expects allies to help set up a “safe zone” in Syria on the border with Turkey within a few months, otherwise Turkey will set it up unilaterally.
US President Donald Trump decided in December to withdraw all two thousand US troops from Syria, and Erdogan subsequently said they had discussed Turkey setting up a twenty-mile-deep safe zone in Syria along the border.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Turkey has the capacity to create a “safe zone” in Syria on its own but will not exclude the United States, Russia, or others if they want to cooperate. Speaking after Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on Wednesday, Cavusoglu said Ankara and Moscow were “on the same page” regarding a Syrian political solution aside from the issue of whether President Bashar al-Assad should stay in office. Cavusoglu said Turkey was in indirect contact with the Syrian government.
Damascus Recognizes Adana Deal
27 January 2019
In a foreign ministry statement, Syria said on Saturday that it is ready to revive a landmark security deal with Turkey, that normalized ties for two decades before the 2011 conflict, if Ankara pulls its troops out of the country and stops backing opposition fighters. Syria said it was committed to the 1998 Adana accord, which forced Damascus to stop harboring the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“Syria remains committed to this accord and all the agreements relating to fighting terror in all its forms by the two countries,” said the foreign ministry statement. Damascus, however, said reviving the Adana deal, which Russian President Vladimir Putin raised during his summit meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last week, depended on Ankara ending its backing of opposition fighters and pulling its troops out of northwestern Syria.
Car Bombs Inside Cities
22, 24 January 2019
Official Syrian media said a car bomb exploded in Damascus on Thursday causing damages but no casualties. This is the third of such a blast in a city under government control this week. The official news agency SANA said that the explosion hit al-Adawi neighborhood, north of the central Old City district. A witness said the blast occurred near a hospital.
Official media reported that a car bomb exploded in Lattakia killing one person and wounding fourteen on Tuesday.
On Sunday, a bomb exploded near a highway at the edge of Damascus. The authorities arrested the attacker.
On the other hand, witnesses said that at least three civilians were killed and scores injured from a string of bombs hidden in motorbikes in Syrian towns controlled by Turkey-backed opposition. They said a woman, a child, and a young man were killed and at least eight others injured when a motorbike exploded near a public park in the heart of the city of al-Bab, north of Aleppo. A police source in the town said they had staged a controlled detonation of another motorbike in the town of al-Rai, north of al-Bab, and arrested a suspect.
In a similar incident, three people were injured in the nearby towns of Qabasin and al-Ghandura by blasts also caused by explosives planted in motorcycles parked in public places.
On Wednesday, explosive devices detonated in Afrin, a mainly Kurdish area, which Turkey and its Syrian allies took control of after the Olive Branch operation.
Stability in Idlib!
23 January 2019
An agreement with Turkey on Syria’s Idlib governorate has not been fully implemented, raising concerns in Moscow and Damascus, Interfax news agency quoted a Kremlin spokesman as saying on Sunday.
After talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that they discussed measures that could be taken to maintain stability in the Syrian governorate of Idlib.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier on Wednesday that the situation in this governorate, where Moscow and Ankara have tried to create a de-escalation zone, was rapidly deteriorating and that it was almost under the full control of Nusra militants.
“Unfortunately there are many problems there and we see them,” said Putin, standing alongside Erdogan, adding that he had agreed to host a summit soon where Russia, Turkey and Iran would discuss the situation in Syria. He did not name a date for the summit, but said he and Erdogan had agreed on its provisional timing.
21, 24 January 2019
Residents and opposition fighters said on Wednesday that US-backed, Kurdish-led forces are on the verge of eliminating ISIS’s last remaining enclave in Syria near the border with Iraq after a four-month-long devastating bombing campaign that has left hundreds of civilian casualties.
The capture of the village of Baghous comes after a string of other villages fell in recent days to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has now only a seven-kilometer stretch that separates them from full control of the entire east of the Euphrates River region, former residents and insurgents from the area say.
In a related context, local residents said a suicide bomber drove his car into a checkpoint in northeastern Syria on Monday, injuring several soldiers of Kurdish-led forces during a joint convoy with US allies.
Damascus is Tightening the Noose on Europeans
24 January 2019
The European Commission said on Thursday that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had suspended special visas for European Union diplomats to Damascus.
“The Bashar al-Assad regime has suspended multiply entry visas,” a spokeswoman told a regular Commission briefing. “We are continuing as the EU.. to do whatever we can to avoid it having an impact on the important work we are doing on the ground.”
Arabs Agree on Refugees
20, 21 January 2019
Arab states at an economic summit on Sunday in Beirut called on world powers to step up efforts to enable Syrian refugees to return home. Lebanese officials have called for refugees to go home after the Syrian government reclaimed most of the country with Russian and Iranian help.
“Regarding the intense Syrian displacement and refuge crisis, in addition to the continuation and aggravation of the chronic Palestinian refugee crisis… we call on the international community to take its responsibility to curb the misery and place all efforts to find radical and effective solutions,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said, reading a statement which the summit agreed upon.
The statement asked for “a doubling of efforts to strengthen favorable conditions for the displaced and refugees to return in line with the relevant international law and respect for the sovereignty and laws of the host country.”
A key point of contention has been whether to bring Syria back into the Arab League, more than seven years after its membership was suspended.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for safe refugee returns and said in his speech, “Lebanon calls on the international community from this forum to exert all possible efforts and provide favorable conditions for the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country, especially to accessible stable areas or low-tension areas without tying this to a political solution. The refugees should be provided with incentives to return so that they can participate in the reconstruction and stability of their country.”
The United Nations says it is still too early to ensure safe returns for Syrian refugees. Human rights groups cautioned against forced return to Syria, where a peaceful settlement is still far from being reached.