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.
Afrin and Abu al-Duhur?
18-19 January 2018
Turkey launched a military operation in the predominately Kurdish region of Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Russian army has also set up a military base in this region.
The YPG said that the bombardment began with villages in the area. Turkey had escalated its statements regarding a military campaign in Afrin, which was accompanied by mobilization of Turkish troops on the Syrian border. Turkey also dispatched its Chief of Staff to Russia to obtain Russian approval for an air campaign on Afrin, as Russian observers are present there. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister threatened to destroy Turkish air jets that enter Syrian airspace. (Reuters)
Officials stated that Moscow did not give permission for Turkish air jets to support factions of the Free Syrian Army. However, Turkey provided artillery support, as it did in the Euphrates Shield operation it launched in northern Aleppo.
The complexity of the issue lies in the Kurdish alliance with the United States. The relationship between Ankara and Washington has witnessed tensions as a result of this alliance after the American administration’s assurances failed to convince Turkey that it had no intention of forming a ‘Kurdish army’ in the area. On Thursday, the State Department called on Turkey to refrain from any military action in Afrin and to continue to focus on fighting ISIS. (Reuters)
It is worth mentioning that the Afrin operation coincided with the regime’s control over Abu al-Duhur Airport in Idlib. Does this resemble the Euphrates Shield Operation with the coinciding of the regime’s forces’ control over east Aleppo and the advance of factions backed by Turkey?
American Troops Will Stay in Syria To Achieve Five Objectives
17 January 2018
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that US troops will remain in Syria long after ISIS has been defeated to achieve five objectives: prevent the return of ISIS, terminate Iranian influence, push for a political solution, allow for the return of Syrian refugees and displaced people, and prevent the use of chemical weapons.
Damascus replied to Tillerson’s declaration by stating that leaving US troops in Syria indefinitely is a crucial part of Washington’s strategy in the country. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that American military presence is “illegitimate and constitutes a breach of international law and an aggression on national sovereignty,” it also added that this presence “aims to protect ISIS, which was created by the (previous president) Barack Obama administration.” (Al-Hayat)
The Obama administration was caught in a controversy before its decision to withdraw from Iraq. The US strategy does not appear to be clear with the Trump administration, given conflicting statements regarding the relationship with Russia and the United States’ role in the region.
Vienna … and Sochi
19 January 2018
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) of the Syrian opposition announced its approval for participating in the next round of meetings in Vienna on the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth of this month. Damascus also announced its intent to dispatch the government delegation to the negotiations, which were moved from Geneva, Switzerland, to the United Nations headquarters in the Austrian capital of Vienna.
The HNC stated that its participation in the Vienna meetings comes within the framework of the Geneva political process sponsored by the United Nations. The Deputy of the UN Special Envoy Ramzi Ezzeldin Ramzi announced on Thursday, during his visit to Damascus, that the Syrian government will attend the talks sponsored by the United Nations in Vienna next week.
The two parties of the Syrian conflict are preparing to participate in the Vienna talks (instead of Geneva for logistical reasons) on the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth of this month despite military developments in Idlib, Harasta, and Afrin. The eighth round of Geneva talks has concluded without making any progress.
Concurrently, Russia continued mobilization for the Sochi conference by announcing its intent to invite the permanent members of the UN Security Council to attend the conference as observers. It is also waiting for the Turkish reply regarding the list of guests that Moscow has arranged, so it can start sending invitations to various Syrian parties.
The Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov denied reports that the conference will be postponed and confirmed that it is still scheduled to be held on the twenty-ninth and thirtieth of this month. He announced that a Russian-Iranian-Turkish meeting of deputy foreign ministers will be held in Sochi on Saturday to deliberate preparations for the conference. (Al-Jazeera)
Syria at the Bottom of Countries… Freedom
18 January 2018
The Freedom in the World report issued by Freedom House stated that democracy is in crisis around the world amid an accelerating decline of democratic principles in America; and the decline of the rule of law, freedom of the press, and the ability of holding free and fair elections in seventy-one countries; on the other hand, only thirty-five countries saw improvements.
The report depicts Syria as a state “torn with civil war,” and notes the catastrophic situation of political rights and civil liberties since the onset of the conflict. In addition to Syria, the report mentioned the deteriorating situation of freedoms in the Middle East, and classified countries such as South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates among the worst twenty countries in the world regarding freedom.
Administrative Reform and Surpassing the War!
13 January 2018
Since last year, the Syrian government has raised the issue of administrative reform as a strategy to develop government performance, use of information technology, investment in human resources, and combatting corruption. In this context, the British-Syrian Association held a conference in Damascus University called the National Project for Administrative Reform… Elements of Success for Post-war Syria. The conference discussed the goals of the National Project for Administrative Reform and the elements of its success, including resources, skills, the methods of acquiring and benefitting from them, the project’s role in improving the performance of financial and judicial institutions, the role of information technology in the project, the mechanisms for reforming administrative cadres, preserving and protecting the cultural identity of Syrian society, achieving social justice and equal opportunities, setting employment standards, and other issues that concern Syrian society and achieve integral development of all sectors. (SANA)
The Syrian government had proposed a similar approach, which focused on administrative reform, in the early 2000s with French support, to develop procedures in public institutions. However, the project was not meant to succeed at the time, when the country did not suffer from a fierce war with no solution in near sight or a political and military conflict, in addition to regional and international intervention with destructive economic and social implications, and the challenge of refugees and displaced people.
Decline in Number of Asylum Applications in Germany during 2017
16 January 2018
The number of refugees arriving in Germany declined to one hundred and eighty-six thousand in 2017 compared to two hundred and eighty thousand in 2016, according to official numbers made public on Tuesday; amid the controversy surrounding immigration policies that the next German government will adopt. Most of the newcomers seeking asylum last year were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel had adopted an open policy for receiving refugees since 2015, which stirred wide political controversy in Germany. (Al-Hayat)
It is worth mentioning that the number of refugees in Europe has declined dramatically after 2015, especially after the European-Turkish agreement to provide Turkey with assistance in exchange for stemming the flow of refugees.
A Group of Syrians Freeze to Death on Lebanese Borders
19 January 2018
The Lebanese National News Agency said that the civil defense, in collaboration with the army, have pulled the bodies of thirteen Syrians who died in the snow storm that affected Lebanon recently, while they were attempting to cross the borders between Lebanon and Syria illegally. The civil defense said that it completed this mission despite the “impossible circumstances” in which the operation was carried out. (BBC Arabic)
UN reports have pointed to the decline of Syrian refugees to less than one million, most of whom suffer from poverty and indebtedness. It is worth mentioning that the Lebanese government has stopped registering new Syrian refugees since 2015.
Privatization of Construction on the Local Level
15 January 2018
Decree number nineteen of 2016 provided governorates and municipalities with the ability to establish private holding companies that can invest the governorate/municipality’s properties and rights in allocating lands, whether directly or through contracts with private or public companies. This can be carried out without resorting to the binding contract procedures that the public sector must adhere to. Damascus Cham Holding Company represents the first fruit of this decree, which constitutes a privatization process without sufficient guarantees or supervision from public bodies.
Marota City, expected to be built in the orchards of Mazzeh neighborhood in Damascus, is a project that has attracted many private-sector investors. The last of which was a contract signed with Talas Company for Trade and Industry to invest four plots in Marota City with a value of twenty-three billion Syrian pounds.
The plots dedicated for Talas Company are around one thousand square meters. The company will carry out the construction and the finishing. The investments are varied between tourism, commerce, technology, and services. Damascus Cham Holding’s share is seventy-five percent in exchange for its in-kind contribution, whereas Talas’s share is twenty-five percent for its cash contribution.
The aforementioned partnership contract comes after Damascus Cham Holding signed a contract with Syrian businessman Mazen Tarazy to invest in a mall with a value of one hundred and eight billion Syrian pounds. Damascus Cham Holding also announced that it signed a partnership contract with Damascus Aman Holding, a private joint stock company, on 27 August with a value of one hundred and fifty billion Syrian pounds to invest in three residential buildings and five plots in Marota City. (al-Iqtisade, Inab Baladi)
Permanent Office for the General Union of Arab Writers Holds Its Periodic Meeting in Damascus
13–15 January 2018
Despite the tragic Syrian situation, raging war, devastation of cities, and rupture in society, Damascus hosted the periodic meeting for the permanent office of the General Union of Arab Writers in Umaya Hall at Cham Hotel.
The participating delegations included researchers and poets representing Arab literary unions, associations, and families who came to present their intellectual and creative works during the meeting which occurred from 13 to 15 January.
In his speech, the Secretary General of the Arab Writers Union Habib al-Sayegh deviated attention away from the current situation using rhetoric well-known inside Syria, calling on the attending writers to adopt the slogan “A word for Palestine, all of Palestine”.
Syrian newspaper Al-Thawra mentioned in its issue of 19 January 2018 that Arab writers and scholars affirmed that choosing Damascus to hold the meeting of the General Union of Arab Writers proves that the body of Arab writers has started to recover and restore the culture of resistance. The Mufti of Syria also said that this meeting is for all Arabs and a sign that the gloom has disappeared, adding that Syria will go back to its leading role to lead Arabs and restore their dignity.
The Association of Syrian Writers circulated an open petition on social media and its website to condemn the meeting of the General Union of Arab Writers in Damascus as an unprecedented disgrace. The petition was signed by a great number of Arab writers in various Arab countries and abroad.