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.
First “Chemical” Sample
21 April 2018
Experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were finally able to enter Douma city and take samples from the site of the alleged attack with poison gas, which triggered enormous diplomatic tension in the international arena, especially between Washington and Moscow.
This is the first field visit of a site allegedly attacked with chemical weapons in Syria.
The Syrian government, which denies western accusation of involvement in the attack that left forty people dead according to the civil defense, had invited the OPCW to visit Douma, however, the experts who arrived in Syria a week ago were not able to enter the city until Saturday.
Moscow, the Syrian government’s ally, mentioned security reasons for this delay, however, western countries, spearheaded by the United States and France, accused the Syrian government and Russia of obstructing the arrival of the inspectors and tampering with evidence. The United States said that the Russians could have “tampered” the attack site, while France said that it is “very likely” that “evidence and other essential factors could have disappeared.”
The OPCW said on Saturday that its experts, who reached Damascus on 14 April, took samples from the site and Moscow said they entered the site on Saturday.
A “Swedish Nook” on Syria
21 April 2018
Members of the UN Security Council met in a secluded farmhouse south of Sweden in an effort to overcome deep divisions regarding Syria.
In an unprecedented move by this council, which usually holds its annual brainstorming session in New York, Sweden, a non-permanent member, invited the fifteen members along with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to hold their informal meeting this year in Backakra. They were joined by the Special Envoy to Syria Staffa di Mistura on Sunday.
“We still face a very serious divide on that [Syria] matter,” Guterres said as he arrived along with the ambassadors.
The farmhouse was the summer residence of Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations’ second secretary-general who died in a plane crash in Africa in 1961.
The Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom welcomed the decision to hold the meeting in Sweden, “which believes in peaceful conflict solutions and prevention.” The US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said “We are not having that much success, we are still deadlocked.”
Russia has used its veto power twelve times since the onset of the conflict in Syria in 2011.
From al-Kalamoun to Jarablus
20 April 2018
Opposition fighter started to leave towns in north-east Damascus according to an agreement between the government and local opposition factions.
The agreement in the eastern al-Kalamoun area comes within the framework of evacuation agreements, where civilians and fighters are forced to leave from previous opposition factions’ strongholds near Damascus.
This confirms what the Syria Arab News Agency (SANA) had said regarding the beginning of buses carrying opposition fighters and their families leaving the town of al-Rhaibeh, which is located in eastern al-Kalamoun, around sixty kilometers north-east of Damascus.
The official state TV said that thirty-two thousand fighters and their families are expected to leave from al-Rhaibeh and the two adjacent towns al-Nasrieh and Jairood on Saturday. It showed buses passing through al-Rhaibeh, most of which had their curtains closed.
The agreement stipulates that fighters hand over their heavy and medium weapons and ammunition depots before they exit towards Jarablus in Aleppo governorate and towards nearby Idlib governorate.
Evacuation agreements, overseen by Russia, continue as the government seeks to ensure the security of Damascus by ousting opposition fighters from “reconciliation zones”, which is the name used by the government for areas where it reached agreements with the factions over the past years. These agreements often provide for the survival of opposition fighters with a cessation of hostilities and in return government forces allow aid and goods to enter.
The Syrian army said on Saturday that it had regained all of eastern Ghouta near Damascus following a military operation that lasted for two months. This operation left one thousand and seven hundred civilians dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The Syrian army also declared a number of agreements that were followed by the displacement of tens of thousands of people.
This week, one thousand and five hundred fighters along with three thousand and five hundred civilians were evacuated from al-Dhmair city, fifty kilometers north-east of Damascus, and transported to Jarablus after an agreement with Jaish al-Islam.
Last Enclaves in Damascus
20 April 2018
Syrian government forces and allied fighters control a neighborhood south of Damascus after an agreement between the fighters and government forces failed.
A Syrian military source told the German news agency that “the Syrian army and allied forces took full control of al-Zain neighborhood, which separates the neighborhoods of Yalda and al-Hajar al-Aswad, south of Damascus after fierce battles with ISIS fighters this afternoon,” adding that government forces are fighting fierce battles on many fronts in neighborhoods south of Damascus.
On the other hand, sources in the Syrian opposition said that the agreement declared by government forces was abolished after government forces refused opposition forces’ conditions, especially those of al-Nusra front and other factions, which requested that the departure be towards northern Syria.
Government forces had declared that they have “reached an agreement with opposition fighters who control the neighborhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Tadhamon, and Yarmouk Camp, south of Damascus, which provides for those who refuse the settlement with government forces to leave the area, where ISIS groups leave for the desert of Deir al-Zour governorate, Nusra fighters leave for Idlib governorate, and fighters of the other factions leave for the eastern countryside of Aleppo governorate.”
The southern neighborhoods of Damascus are the last remaining enclaves that are still out of government forces control after their recent control over the Ghouta of Damascus.
ISIS Mass Grave
21 April 2018
Tens of bodies belonging to jihadists and civilians were found in a mass grave in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, according to a statement by a local official on Saturday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, which is comprised of Arab and Kurdish factions backed by a US-led international coalition, expelled the jihadists from Raqqa in October 2017 after months of fighting.
Head of the Reconstruction Committee in the Civil Council of Raqqa, Abdulla al-A’ryan, told the French News Agency that around fifty bodies were taken out of the mass grave which had between one hundred and fifty to two hundred bodies in it belonging to civilians and jihadists.
The mass grave is located under a soccer field near a hospital where jihadists were entrenched before losing the Raqqa battle. “ISIS fighters were entrenched inside the National Hospital and that there were some civilians there as well. This was the only place that seemed available to bury the bodies. They were buried in a hurry,” Al-A’ryan said.
“Syrian Bear” in Kurdish Hands
18 April 2018
The US-led international coalition against ISIS said that the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the United States, have arrested Mohammed Haidar Zammar, one of the members of the Hamburg Cell responsible for recruiting three of the attackers of the 11 September attacks in 2001, and that he is being interrogated by the Kurdish Internal Security Forces (Asayish) and the security apparatus of countries in the international coalition.
Zammar (45 years old at the time and who carries a German passport) received a death sentence from the Exceptional Security State Court in February of 2007, which was later reduced to twelve years in prison according to Law 49 of 1980 which provides for the death penalty for members of Muslim Brotherhood.
After that, Zammar was transported from Saidnaya prison to the Central Prison in Aleppo. In March 2014, it was reported that he was set free under a “deal” between Damascus and Islamist opposition factions that provided for the exchange of Zammar and five other Islamists with imprisoned government officers.
The whereabouts of Zammar, who was a member of Ansar al-Sham, were unknown until the Kurds and the coalition reported his arrest along with others. Zammar, who is also known as the Syrian Bear because of his heavy weight (one hundred and fifty kilograms) and huge body, was one of the main figures responsible for the September 11 attacks, especially in regard to his relationship to Mohammed Attah, one of the eleven attackers. The latter visited Aleppo several times in 1994.