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.
US Strategy for Syria
22 October 2018
Informed sources say that President Trump’s administration asked US institutions to develop concrete proposals and a road map to implement the US strategy in Syria.
The current US strategy includes keeping special forces within the international coalition against ISIS east of the Euphrates in the Tanf base on the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border to achieve three goals: eliminating ISIS and preventing its reemergence, getting rid of Iranian forces and militias, and pushing toward a UN-sponsored political solution under UN resolution 2254.
The sources say that US officials and experts are studying how to “use pressure and influence means, including controlling a third of Syrian territory, ninety percent of Syrian oil, and half the Syrian gas, in order to exercise pressure to reach the three goals,” stating that the White House is waiting for these proposals by the end of the year.
White Helmets in Canada
19 November 2018
The Canadian government said on Friday that is getting ready to resettle civil defense volunteers in areas controlled by Syrian opposition factions, also known as the White Helmets, along with their families, however, it did not disclose when they will arrive or where they will be resettled.
In a joint statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said that “Canada is working with a group of international allies on resettling a number of White Helmets members and their families after they had to flee from Syria because they were being specifically targeted by the Syrian government and its Russian ally.”
White Helmets volunteers “witnessed firsthand, as paramedics, some of the most ferocious crimes committed by the criminal Assad government,” the statement said.
On 22 July, Jordan said that it received four hundred and twenty-two members from the White Helmets who fled areas in southern Syria before government forces regained control over them, with the aim of resettling them in Britain, Germany, or Canada.
On Wednesday, the Jordanian foreign ministry said that two hundred members of those had left to be resettled in Western countries.
The world first took notice of the White Helmets after photos appeared with them searching for survivors in the rubble and carrying children covered in blood to the hospital.
The White Helmets emerged in 2013, when the Syrian crisis was coming near to its third year. Since its establishment, more than two hundred of its volunteers have been killed and another five hundred injured.
Four-way Summit on Syria
18 October 2018
Ankara announced a four-way summit on Syria that includes the leaders of Turkey, Russia, Germany, and France to be held in Istanbul on 27 October.
The summit will join Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
The spokesman said that the four leaders will discuss the situation on the ground in Syria, the agreement on the demilitarized zone in Idlib that was reached by President Erdogan and President Putin during their summit in Sochi on 17 September, the political process, and various aspects of the Syria crisis.
The four-way summit is expected to “coordinate joint efforts to find a long-lasting solution to the Syrian conflict,” Kalin said.
Delegations from the four countries met in Istanbul on 14 September to prepare for the summit. The Turkish delegation was headed by Ibrahim Kalin, while the German delegation was headed by National Security Advisor Jan Hecker, Senior Diplomatic Advisor Philippe Etienne for the French delegation, and Senior Presidential Advisor Yuri Ushakov for the Russian delegation.
The three-hour preparatory meeting discussed the Syrian issue, especially developments regarding the de-escalation zone in Idlib, in addition to fighting terrorism and other regional issues.
The delegations included technical teams to arrange for the four-way summit called for by Erdogan in July. The summit was initially planned to be held in September but was then delayed.
An Extended Deadline for Idlib
15 October 2018
On Sunday night, the deadline passed for Tahrir al-Sham, which is mainly comprised of Nusra Front (previously), to evacuate the demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib that was set by the Russian-Turkish agreement in Sochi, without any withdrawal being monitored, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Turkey has sought to convince Tahrir al-Sham, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, to implement the agreement to avoid a Syrian government offensive which Turkey fears might cause a new influx of refugees towards its border.
Turkey has managed to implement the first phase of the agreement by convincing armed factions to hand over their heavy weaponry by 10 October.
Jan Egeland, UN Humanitarian Affairs Advisor said that Russia and Turkey plan to allow for more time to implement their agreement on the de-escalation zone in Idlib, a “great relief” for three million civilians in the area.
But there were still “a million unanswered questions” about how the deal would work, and what would happen if groups designated as terrorists refused to lay down their weapons, Egeland said.
Speaking after a regular Syria humanitarian meeting in Geneva, Egeland said that Russia had confirmed that Damascus had scrapped Law Number 10, a “very concerning” law allowing the expropriation of land and property from refugees.
Idlib and adjacent areas are the last strongholds of the opposition who rose up against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, and the UN has warned that a battle to restore Assad’s control over the zone could be the worst of the seven-year-old war.
Turkey and Russia set up a buffer zone running between fifteen and twenty kilometers deep into opposition territory that originally had to be free of heavy weapons and fanatics by Monday.
“There will be more time for diplomacy,” Egeland said. “I was heartened to hear both Russia and Turkey say they are optimistic, they can achieve much more through negotiations, and they are generally very positive on the implementation of this deal which is giving a relief, a pause in fighting, to Idlib,” he added.
Egeland said there were twelve thousand humanitarian workers in the area, and Idlib had now gone five weeks without an air raid, something he could not remember in the past three years.
Four Candidates to Succeed De Mistura
18 October 2018
Russian-Western negotiations are underway to choose one of four candidates to succeed UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura who will leave his position at the end of the next month.
De Mistura told the UN Security Council that he will resign from his position at the end of November after four years as the third UN envoy to Syria after the late Kofi Anan and Lakhdar Brahimi. UN Humanitarian Affairs Envoy and Head of the Norwegian Council for Refugees Jan Egeland will also resign.
After de Mistura’s resignation announcement, consultations between UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the five permanent UN Security Council countries reached a new level in order to find the fifth envoy to Syria. According to sources, there are four candidates: the first is Nikolai Mladenov, UN Representative for the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process since 2015, who was previously the foreign minister of Bulgaria. It seems that the Russian side objected to his name, considering him “close to the United States and not impartial.” Damascus also informed Moscow of its reservations because of Mladenov’s “political position from Syria which he expressed when he was the foreign minister of Bulgaria.”
The second is UN Envoy in Iraq Jan Kubis, who is the former foreign minister of Slovakia. It has been reported that Washington has reservations against him because of his “proximity to the Russian position,” and because it thinks that his presence is “currently essential in Iraq, which is undergoing the formation of a new government and a political process following the elections.”
The third is the Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra. Moscow and Arab countries have pushed for Lamamra to succeed de Mistura, however, Western countries expressed their objection based on previous positions that “deny him the status of mediator”, referring to his statement in December of 2016 on the sidelines of the Peace and Security Conference in Africa: “What happened in Aleppo? The (Syrian) government was able to restore its sovereignty and control over the city. These people were hoping that terrorism would prevail in Aleppo and other areas. After terrorism failed there, they think it will be able to succeed in Algeria, which is the first country to strategically win against terrorism.”
The fourth is Geir Pederson, the Norwegian ambassador in China since 2017, former Norwegian UN ambassador between 2012 and 2017, and UN representative in Lebanon between 2005 and 2008. Due to the mutual reservations between Russian and Western countries, sources close to Guterres proposed Perderson as a compromise, although some Russian sources indicated that he “represents one of the NATO member countries.”
Russian Delegation in Damascus
19 November 2018
The official news agency SANA reported the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying during his meeting with Russian envoy Alexander Laverntiev on Friday: “Some countries in the area and many Western countries continue to intervene in the political process and exercise pressure to impose their will on the Syrian people. This hinders reaching any progress… Syria is committed to its right, which is guaranteed by international conventions, to prevent any external party from interfering in its internal affairs.”
Laverntiev had visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which coincided with a tour to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey by US envoy to Syria James Jeffery.
Laverntiev briefed Assad on the result of his tour, which included a number of Arab countries before he arrived in Damascus, asserting that “his country is seeking to use this diplomatic activity to exchange views on issues in the region, especially the political process in Syria and completing the battle to eliminate terrorism, in order to restore peace and security and preserve the integrity and independence of Syria,” according to SANA.
Elimination of Eighty-eight Thousand Militants
20 October 2018
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed the death of nearly eighty-eight thousand militants from opposition factions in Syria in the last three years since Moscow intervened in favor of government forces, according to a statement from the Russian defense ministry.
“Throughout the process, more than eighty-seven thousand and five hundred militants were eliminated, in addition to the liberation of one thousand four hundred and eleven towns and more than ninety-five percent of Syrian territory,” the statement reported Shoigu as saying.
“Most of the militants have been liquidated,” added Shoigu.
The London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that around three hundred and sixty-five thousand people have been killed during the course of the seven-year-war.
Russia intervened in the conflict in September of 2015, providing aerial support for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Shoigu said that Russian aerial forces executed more than forty thousand missions, striking around one hundred and twenty thousand “terrorist” infrastructure targets.
“Syrian armed forces now control territories where more than ninety percent of the population live,” said the Russian defense minister.
However, fighting has raged in the east of the country near several villages inhabited by fifteen thousand people, including ISIS militants and their families. They were subject to attacks by Syrian government forces and Kurdish forces, forcing seven thousand civilians to flee.
Dispute on Damascus’s Share
18 October 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the Valdai Conference in Sochi that Moscow helped government forces in gaining control over ninety-five percent of Syrian territory, which was reiterated by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during his visit to Singapore.
On the other hand, US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffery said that forty percent of Syria “is not under the control of government forces,” pointing out that Washington allies and Ankara control these areas.
“The Turks agree with our main objectives in Syria, which were clearly laid out by the President (Donald Trump) at the UN National Assembly. That is completely ousting Iran from Syria because it is an accelerant to the whole process. Secondly, de-escalating the military situation in Idlib, where Turks have reached an agreement with the Russians. And revitalizing the political process,” a US statement reported Jeffrey as saying during his visit to Turkey.
“President Trump sent tweets that summarize what we have been telling the Russians and others, which is that any attack in Idlib would be a reckless escalation of the conflict. This is very important because we think that it is time to stop the fighting. There were about three million people – and there are still three million people in Idlib, about half of them are displaced people from other areas in Syria. There is also around fifty to seventy thousand militants. Most of them are part of the opposition we used to work with and the Turks still do. There is also between seven to eight thousand people, or perhaps more, who are named terrorist organizations, essentially Tahrir al-Sham, which is the offshoot of Nusra, which in turn is an offshoot of Qaeda. There are also some elements from ISIS, and others associated with Qaeda,” he added.
“So you have got a very mixed situation there, but it would have been a huge mess if anybody had gone in, and it would have been – meant essentially the end of the armed resistance to the Syrian government. The Turks pushed back,” he went on to say.
“This is a major step because what it has done is it has frozen the conflict not only there, but the conflict is also frozen essentially everywhere else. We have forces in the south and in the northeast continuing operations against ISIS, and the Turks also have positions north of Idlib in Afrin and in al-Bab area. So essentially forty percent of the country is not under the government’s control, and we are talking with the Turks on how we can now shift to, again, the President’s words, revitalizing the political process,” Jeffrey added.