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.
Release of Syrian Detainees
28 April 2019
Israel released two prisoners on Sunday, sending them back to Syria in what Damascus described as Russian-mediated reciprocation for the repatriation of the body of a long-missing Israeli soldier.
Russia, a key ally to Damascus, handed this month Israel the remains and personal effects of Zachary Baumel, who was declared missing in action along with two other Israeli soldiers following a 1982 tank battle with Syrian forces in Lebanon.
A Syrian government source said Damascus then pressured Moscow to secure a prisoner release by Israel. There was no immediate comment on Sunday from Russia.
The Israeli military said in a statement that two prisoners were transferred to the International Committee of the Red Cross at Quneitra crossing on the armistice line with the Syrian Golan Heights.
The Israeli military statement described the two men as Syrians. Israel’s Prisons Service identified them as Ahmed Khamis, from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, and Zidan Taweel, from the Syrian Druze village of Hader.
Khamis was a member of the Fatah faction who was jailed in 2005 after trying to attack an Israeli army base, and Taweel was jailed in 2008 for drug smuggling, the Prisons Service said.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said on the 4th of April that the Syrian government had no knowledge of handing the remains of the Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel over to Israeil. “Syria has no knowledge of the remains of the Israeli soldier. What happened is yet another example of cooperation between terrorist groups and the Mossad,” SANA cited a media source as saying.
The Occupier Honors Trump
23 April 2019
Israel said on Tuesday it would name a new community on the Golan Heights after US President Donald Trump as an expression of gratitude for his recognition of its claim of sovereignty over the strategic plateau.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, in a move not recognized internationally. The United States broke with other world powers last month when Trump signed a decree recognizing Israeli sovereignty there.
Israel has said separately that, in appreciation of the US president, it intends to name a proposed train station near Jerusalem’s Western Wall after him.
Deal of the Century to Be Made Public Soon
23 April 2019
President Donald Trump’s long-delayed proposal to break a deadlock in finding a resolution to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is to be unveiled after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends in June, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said on Tuesday.
The proposal, which has been delayed for a variety of reasons over the last eighteen months, has two major components. It has a political piece that addresses core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, and an economic part that aims to help the Palestinians strengthen their economy.
“We are going to wait until after Ramadan now,” Kushner said. He also cited the need to wait until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed a governing coalition following his April reelection victory.
Kushner, who has been developing the plan with Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, said it was not an effort to impose US will on the region. He would not say whether it called for a two-state solution, a goal of past peace efforts.
“Our focus is really on the bottom up which is how do you make the lives of the Palestinian people better, what can you resolve to allow these areas to become more investable,” he said. “There’ll be tough compromises for both sides,” he added.
Constitution Drafting Committee … Possible!
26 April 2019
Russian Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentyev said on Friday that the Syrian government and armed opposition groups, together with both sides’ backers, could agree on the makeup of a constitutional committee in the coming months.
The sides have so far failed to agree on the constitutional committee’s makeup, and a fresh round of talks in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, produced no apparent breakthrough on Friday. But Lavrentyev said it was close.
Diplomats from Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet with United Nations negotiators in Geneva to discuss the issue again, he said, adding that the issue was “at the finish line”.
“The timing has not been agreed yet, taking into account the upcoming month of Ramadan, it is most likely to happen after that,” Lavrentyev told reporters. “But I think by that time (UN mediator) Mr. Pedersen will be able to announce” the establishment of the committee.
Russia Decides Idlib’s Fate
27 April 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday he did not rule out Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, launching a full-scale assault on militants in Syria’s Idlib province, but that such an operation was unpractical for now.
Russia brokered a deal in September to create a demilitarized zone in the northwest Idlib region that would be free of all heavy weapons and jihadist fighters. But Moscow has since complained about escalating violence in the area and said that militants who used to belong to the Nusra Front group are in control of large swaths of territory.
Speaking in Beijing, Putin said that Moscow and Damascus would continue what he called the fight against terrorism and that any militants who tried to break out of Idlib, something he said happened from time to time, were bombed.
But he said that the presence of civilians in parts of Idlib meant the time was not yet ripe for full-scale military operations.
“I don’t rule it (a full-scale assault) out, but right now we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable given this humanitarian element,” Putin added.
Seventeen Killed in Jisr al-Shughour
24 April 2019
Rescue workers said that at least seventeen people were killed on Wednesday in an explosion in the center of Jisr al Shughour, an opposition-held city in northwestern Syria, a day after heavy Russian air strikes in the vicinity. Several residential buildings collapsed as a result of the blast in Idlib province, near a road between the coastal city of Lattakia and city of Aleppo.
The governorate and areas around it in northern Syria, the last remaining opposition bastion, have seen an escalation in attacks by Russian warplanes and the Syrian army even though they are protected by a “de-escalation zone” agreement brokered last year between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The bombardment has sent people fleeing from opposition-held towns in the buffer zone that straddles parts of Idlib to northern Hama and parts of Lattakia governorate.
Turkey, which has supported the opposition fighters and has troops to monitor the truce, has been negotiating with Moscow to halt the Russian strikes with little success. Jisr al Shughour has been a target of heavy bombardment by the Russian air force and the Syrian army in recent weeks. Most of its inhabitants have fled to the safety of areas close to the Turkish border, residents and local officials say.
1,600 Civilian Casualties of the Coalition in Raqqa
25 April 2019
Amnesty International and the monitoring group Airwars said on Thursday that the US-backed assault to drive ISIS from its Syrian capital Raqqa in 2017 killed more than one thousand six hundred civilians, ten times the toll the coalition itself has acknowledged.
Amnesty and Airwars, a London-based group set up in 2014 to monitor the impact of the US-led campaign against ISIS, spent eighteen months researching civilian deaths including two months on the ground in Raqqa, they said.
“Our conclusive finding after all this is that the US-led coalition’s military offensive directly caused more than one thousand six hundred civilian deaths in Raqqa,” they said.
They said the cases they had documented probably amounted to violations of international humanitarian law and called for coalition members to create a fund to compensate victims and their families.
The coalition said in response to the report that it takes “all reasonable measures to minimize civilian casualties” and that there are still open allegations it is investigating.
“Any unintentional loss of life during the defeat of ISIS is tragic,” said Scott Rawlinson, a coalition spokesman in an emailed statement later on Thursday.
“However it must be balanced against the risk of enabling ISIS to continue terrorist activities, causing pain and suffering to anyone they choose,” he added.
Amnesty said last year that there was evidence coalition air and artillery strikes in Raqqa had broken international law by endangering the lives of civilians, but until now had not given an estimate of the death toll during the battle.
Tensions in Deir al-Zor
29 April 2019
Residents, protesters, and tribal chiefs said on Sunday that Arabs in Syria’s Deir al-Zor have stepped up protests against the US-allied Kurdish militia that controls the oil-rich governorate after seizing it from ISIS.
Starting five days ago, they said demonstrations against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had taken place in a string of towns, from Busayrah to Shuhail, in a strategic oil belt in the heart of Arab tribal territory, east of the Euphrates River.
Protesters burned tires along a major highway from Deir al-Zor to Hasaka that is used by tankers carrying oil, a lucrative trade the SDF took over from ISIS after defeating the militant group there from late 2017. Residents, protesters, and tribal chiefs said convoys of tankers from the nearby oil field of al Omar, the largest under the Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ control in Syria, had been turned back by local mobs angered by what they see as theft of oil from their region.
The SDF has continued to sell oil to the Syrian government in Damascus despite US misgivings. It has increased shipments in recent weeks to ease acute fuel shortages caused partly by US sanctions on Iran, a main financial supporter of the Syrian government, which are hurting the Syrian economy.
By ousting ISIS from Deir al-Zor, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) laid its hands on some of Syria’s biggest oil fields, beating the Syrian army and its Russian backers to the prize.
But resentment against SDF rule in eastern Syria has grown among the predominantly Arab population, residents and tribal elders say, with many objecting to compulsory conscription of young men and discrimination in top leadership layers.
With living conditions poor and many towns without electricity, Arab residents complain the YPG-led administration favors majority Kurdish areas in northeast Syria.
Detentions of Arabs have also angered locals but SDF officials have denied any discrimination, saying they themselves had long been victims of Arab nationalist policies that denied them their culture before Syria’s conflict began in 2011.
Eastern Aleppo… Human Rubble
25 April 2019
Bodies are still scattered in the rubble in Eastern Aleppo. The opposition has accused the government of withholding services from districts where the rebellion against it flared to punish residents, and in Kalasa there was little evidence of a big government effort to improve conditions.
The government blames the slow recovery, shortages, and hardship on the war and Western sanctions. It has denied treating recaptured areas differently to ones that remained under its control throughout the war and has said it is working to restore normal services to all areas.
Kalasa has no state electricity supply, charities dole out boxes of food aid to crowds waiting behind chains. Some damaged buildings in Kalasa have recently collapsed.