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 info@salonsyria.com.

 

The Constitutional Committee and a Large-Scale Prisoner Swap

Reuters

27 September 2019

The United Nations special envoy for Syria said on Friday that the Syrian government and opposition should move forward on large-scale prisoner exchanges to build confidence ahead of their first talks next month in more than a year. The UN announced on Monday the formation of a constitutional committee for Syria, a long-awaited step in a stalled peace process. UN officials say such a committee is key to political reforms and new elections meant to unify Syria and end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of the population.

The committee is scheduled to meet under UN auspices in Geneva on 30 October. The body will compromise one hundred people, split three ways between the government, opposition, and civil society with each side selecting fifteen people to prepare and draft constitutional proposals.

Kurdish Participation in the Constitutional Committee

Enab Baladi

29 September 2019

The United Nation’s envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, confirmed the participation of Syria’s “Kurds” in the newly formed constitutional committee, in conjunction with word about the exclusion of the Self-Administration east of the Euphrates from the committee. “I did not count the committee members based on the ethnicity they belong to. However, I can say that there are Kurdish members in the Constitutional Committee,” Pedersen said on Sunday.

Safe Zone from One Side

Reuters

27 September 2019

The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday that his country is not satisfied with talks with the United States on establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria and will act alone if there is no progress.

Ankara has repeatedly threatened to act against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it deems a “terrorist” group, unless the United States removes the fighters from a four hundred and eighty kilometer long area on the Syrian side of its border. The two countries have started joint land and air patrols along part of Syria’s border with Turkey, but Ankara remains angry with Washington’s support for the YPG, which has been a key ally in its fight against ISIS in Syria.

Earlier on Friday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was reported as saying that Turkey’s work on the safe zone for refugees in northeast Syria was on schedule. “Work is going ahead according to the timetable. Our preparations along the border are complete,” he said.

On the sidelines of the General Assembly, US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey told reporters that Washington was moving as fast as possible, and he cautioned against any unilateral operation in the area.

The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces alliance has said it would pull back up to fourteen kilometers in some areas, but Turkey says the United States agreed that the safe zone should extend thirty kilometers into Syria. Turkey plans to build homes to settle one million Syrian refugees in the “safe zone”. The state broadcaster TRT Haber said on Friday it would cost around twenty-seven billion dollars.

Demands for the Withdrawal of Illegitimate Forces!

Reuters

28 September 2019

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem demanded on Saturday an immediate withdrawal of all US and Turkish troops from his country and warned that Syrian government forces had the right to take countermeasures if they refused. “Any foreign forces operating in our territories without our authorization are occupying forces and must withdraw immediately. If they refuse, we have the right to take any and all countermeasures authorized under international law,” al-Moualem said during an address to the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York.

The United States has around one thousand troops in Syria. Turkey has also launched military incursions into northern Syria. US President Donald Trump last year ordered the complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria – only to later be convinced to leave some forces behind to ensure that ISIS militants cannot stage a comeback. The United States and Turkey have started joint land and air patrols along part of Syria’s border with Turkey.

France and Chemical Weapons

Reuters

27 September 2019

The French foreign ministry said that any use of chemical weapons in Syria should be highlighted, and that it had been “worried to learn” of information from the United States about the use of such weapons in Syria in May. “All light must be shed on the subject of the possible use of chemical weapons. We have full confidence in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW),” said the French foreign ministry on Friday.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States had concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine as a chemical weapon during a battle in May with opposition militants in Idlib.

Expanding Hmeimim

Reuters

26 September 2019

Russian news agencies cited an unnamed Defense Ministry official as saying on Thursday that Russia is expanding its Hmeimim air base in Syria and rebuilding a second landing strip to allow the facility to serve more aircraft.

The ministry has also set up new buildings to house aircraft at the site that will defend against drone attacks, the official was cited as saying. Thirty fighter planes and helicopters are currently deployed at the base, he added.

Downing of a Drone

Reuters

29 September 2019

The Turkish defense ministry said on Sunday that Turkish fighter jets have downed a drone that violated Turkey’s airspace from Syria six times, adding that the drone’s identity could not be immediately determined. A ministry statement said that two F-16 fighter jets had tracked down the drone after repeated violations of Turkish airspace, which occurred on Saturday.

Canada Revokes Syrian Consul

Reuters

25 September 2019

Canada has revoked its approval of a diplomat in Montreal who is a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Wednesday. Freeland previously came out strongly against Waseem Ramli’s appointment to the position of Syrian honorary consul and promised timely action, but she had first wanted to hear Global Affairs Canada’s explanation for approving the position. “Upon review of the department’s decision, I have instructed officials to immediately revoke his status,” she said.

Canada joined several other countries in ejecting all Syrian diplomats after the 2012 Houla massacre, but Syria has maintained honorary consul positions in Montreal and Vancouver to “provide basic consular services to Syrians in Canada,” Freeland said. However, Ramli’s appointment to the position caused fear in the Syrian refugee community living in Canada, according to activists, and shocked Freeland, who said she and her staff were not informed of Ramli’s approval by Global Affairs Canada. Ramli posts frequently on Facebook in support of Assad, and told Canada’s Maclean’s magazine that the White Helmets, a group of volunteer first-responders in Syria, are a “terrorist organization” linked to al-Qaeda.

Departing Unstable Daraa

Enab Baladi

29 September 2019

The governorate of Daraa has witnessed during recent months the departure of a number of former Syrian opposition leaders to Turkey, Lebanon, and the Emirates. Enab Baladi’s reporter in Daraa said on Sunday, 29 September that three leaders in the opposition left Daraa for different reasons that varied between seeking therapy and fleeing the security situation in the governorate.

Committee to Reform Public Sector

Day Press

29 September 2019

The Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis issued an order to form the Higher Committee For Reforming the Public Economic Sector. The committee will be presided by the Prime Minister, and its members include the Ministers of Finance, Economy and Foreign Trade, and Administrational Development; the Secretary-General of the Prime Ministry; the presidents of the Planning and International Cooperation Authority; the Central Apparatus for Financial Supervision; the State Council; and the General Union of Labor Syndicates, in addition to three experts who are specialized in the committee’s fields of work, who are to be named by the Prime Minister.

The committee is tasked with developing and implementing reform and development operations, in addition to restructuring the public economic sector. The committee’s objective is to define necessary investments to develop the public economic sector; improve the productivity and competitiveness of public institutions and companies and governmental companies; update management methods in public institutions and companies and governmental companies, so that they can develop their products, services, and marketing capabilities; and work on providing the necessary technical and administrational training to develop the public economic sector.

Al-Qaim Border Crossing

Reuters

28 September 2019

Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has approved the reopening on Monday of al-Qaim border-crossing with Syria, state news agency INA said, the latest sign of normalization between Baghdad and the Syrian government. The agency said the head of the border outlets Kazem al-Oqabi stressed the “readiness of the border crossing for travelers and for commercial trading, as well.”

The western Anbar governorate town of Qaim, three hundred kilometers west of Baghdad, was recaptured from ISIS in November 2017 and was the group’s last bastion in Iraq to fall. It borders the Syrian town of Albukamal, which was also an ISIS stronghold. The two towns lie on a strategic supply route and the crossing between them had only been open for government or military traffic. Iraq recently called for the reinstatement of Syria’s membership of the Arab League, which was suspended in 2011 over its crackdown on protesters.

Supporting the Syrian Pound

Enab Baladi

29 September 2019

The most prominent Syrian businessmen, such as Samer Fawz, agreed to support the Syrian pound (the lira) during a meeting with the governor of the Syrian Central Bank and the unions of commercial and industrial chambers. This came during a meeting with Hazem Qarafol, the Governor of the Syrian Central Bank, on Saturday with businessmen in the Sheraton hotel in Damascus, as part of an initiative to support the Syrian pound which lost significantly against the US dollar in a recession considered the first of its kind since 2016. The exchange rate for Sunday varied between 628 to 631 Syrian pounds to 1 US dollar.