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.
27 December 2019
The United Nations said two hundred and thirty-five thousand civilians had fled their homes in rebel-held northwestern Syria during a Russian-backed campaign of air strikes and shelling this month. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the exodus had taken place between 12 and 25 December.
Most people had fled the city of Maarat al-Numan, towns and villages in southern Idlib province, Idlib city, and camps along the Syrian-Turkish border, OCHA said. “With the latest escalation of violence in northwest Syria, civilians in Idlib governorate are again suffering from the devastating consequences of hostilities,” it said.
OCHA said Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.” Thousands of families were also reported to be too frightened to move, fearing air strikes and shelling. Rescue teams and witnesses say hostilities have left many towns in ruins and knocked out dozens of medical centers.
US President Donald Trump on Thursday warned Russia, Syria, and Iran against killing civilians in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, saying that Turkey is working hard to stop the “carnage”.
The Syrian army said this week it had seized more than three hundred kilometers of territory in the offensive to end “terrorist” control of Idlib, killing hundreds of “terrorists”. Taking Maarat al-Numan would take the Syrian army into densely populated rebel-held parts of Idlib province, where millions of people who fled fighting elsewhere in Syria have taken refuge.
The Russian and Syrian advance toward Idlib is also piling pressure on Turkey, which has a presence in the area and is seen by many civilians as a protector against Russian strikes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country cannot handle a fresh wave of refugees from Syria, warning that Europe will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.
Failure to Protect Hospitals in Idlib
29 December 2019
A United Nations system to protect hospitals in Syria has failed to achieve its goals and was “marred with errors,” according to a New York Times investigation published on Sunday. Russia and the Syrian government ignored the UN system to prevent attacks on hospitals and humanitarian sites in areas not under government control, with more than sixty-nine attacks on these sites since the onset of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015.
The system is meant to provide precise coordinates of humanitarian sites that are under the protection of international law of warring parties to avoid their damage. These coordinates are shared with forces led by the United States, Russia, and Turkey in the area.
The system is voluntary, but relief groups said they felt intense pressure from donors and United Nations officials to participate. The groups gave locations of their own choosing to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Sharing Syria… And Libya
26, 29 December 2019
Talks in Moscow between a Turkish government delegation and Russian diplomats lasted for three days, much longer than expected, as the two sides tried to find compromises on Syria and Libya, the Russian Vedomosti newspaper reported on Thursday.
A Turkish delegation traveled to Russia on Monday for talks on Syria, following reports that Russian-backed attacks there were forcing tens of thousands more Syrians to flee toward Turkey.
Turkish Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Tuesday that Russia would work to stop attacks in the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib after talks with the Turkish delegation in Moscow and that Ankara expected this promise to be kept.
The two sides also discussed Libya after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week his country would not remain silent in the face of “mercenaries” such as the Russian-backed Wagner group of private military contractors, supporting Khalifa Haftar’s forces there. Moscow said it is very concerned about the prospect of Turkish troops being deployed to Libya.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that the Libyan conflict risks sliding into chaos and becoming the next Syria, as he sought to speed up legislation to allow it to send troops to the North African country.
US Strikes Against Hezbollah Brigades
30 December 2019
US officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed armed group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend US interests.
The US military carried out the strikes against the Hezbollah Brigades in response to the killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.
“We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. Defense Secretary Mark Esper termed the offensive “successful,” but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.
Iraqi security and militia sources said at least twenty-five fighters were killed and at least fifty-five wounded following three US air strikes in Iraq on Sunday. At least four local Hezbollah Brigades commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the armed group’s headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.
Russia Inherits United States in Raqqa
26 December 2019
Russian military police have taken control of a base near the Syrian city of Raqqa that was controlled by US forces until a few days ago, the TASS news agency reported on Thursday. Russian forces entered the nearby city of Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate, earlier this month as Moscow rushed to fill a vacuum created by US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops from northern Syria. The base, a former school in the village of Tal Samin, is in a strategic area at a crossroads that links the city of Raqqa with central Syria and its northern regions, the state news agency said.
Russian Cereal Aid
25 December 2019
The Russian Interfax news agency cited a representative of Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov as saying that Russia would send twenty-five thousand tons of grain as humanitarian aid to Syria from the port of Novorossiysk on the Black sea by next week. Russia plans to send a total of one hundred thousand tons of grain by the end of May, the representative added.