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.
Afrin in Turkey’s Hand
18 March 2018
Turkish Forces and Syrian armed opposition factions allied to them were able to enter Afrin after launching the Olive Branch Operation, which lasted for eight weeks and led to the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the displacement of nearly two-thirds of the city’s population.
“The estimate now is one hundred and sixty-seven thousand people have been displaced by hostilities in Afrin district,” spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance Jens Laerke said in a Geneva briefing. According to Laerke, there are around fifty to seventy thousand civilians inside the city, where health conditions are extremely difficult. The World Health Organization said that there is just one operational hospital out of four located in the city.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated the number of displaced people from Afrin to be around two hundred and fifty thousand people. It also reported the deaths of two hundred and eighty-nine civilians including forty-three children, in addition to one thousand and five hundred Kurdish fighters. At least four hundred and ninety-six fighters from Turkish forces and opposition factions were killed, including seventy-eight Turkish soldiers.
Reports and photos from the Kurdish city and other villages show a great number of public and private property being subject to systematic looting carried out by factions of the Free Syrian Army, which participated in the operation. The looting included vehicles, houses, agricultural machines, and commercial shops. Leaked videos revealed human rights violations, field executions of Kurdish civilians and prisoners of wars, and humiliation of citizens and insult to their beliefs, as in the destruction of the statue of Kawa the Blacksmith which symbolizes the oppression and injustice Kurds faced at the hands of a Persian king, according to a local legend, and is linked to the Nowruz festival, the Kurdish New Years’ Eve which is celebrated on the twenty-first of March.
Several opposition members condemned these acts by the factions. The Turkish army has deployed military police in Afrin.
The issue of civilians in Afrin has created a crisis between Ankara, on one hand, and Paris and Berlin, on the other, after sharp criticism by the French President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Salih Muslim, the former co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party, which is considered the main Syrian Kurdish political movement, said that Turkey would not have succeeded in its operation without Russian support. “We are disappointed by the Russians because they had some obligations when they came to Syria… they promised that they were going to protect the Syrian territory,” Muslim said in a press conference in Stockholm. “Russia did not do anything (about the Turkish incursion), they gave the green light to Turkey and everybody is sure that if Turkey did not have the green light from Russia then they would not have done it,” he added.
20 March 2018
A rocket launched Tuesday by opposition factions on a crowded popular market in Kashkool neighborhood, between Dwailaa and Jarmana neighborhoods in the outskirts of Damascus, has led to the deaths of at least thirty-five people, most of whom were civilians. The toll is likely to increase with tens of casualties in critical conditions. Local residents in the neighborhood said that the rocket hit a street known for its cheap prices, which gave people a chance to go shopping ahead of Mother’s Day in Syria, which is celebrated on 21March.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the number of civilian casualties from mortar shells has risen to one hundred and seventy-nine, including twenty-five children and twenty-four women. The SOHR also documented the injury of more than eight hundred and fifteen people as a result of daily targeting in more than four consecutive months.
The intense shelling carried out by Syrian government forces with Russian aerial support on eastern Ghouta has left at least twenty-nine civilians dead in Douma, raising the toll of casualties since the start of military operations in Ghouta to one thousand and five hundred and seventeen civilians including three hundred and eleven children. Military air jets, most likely to be Syrian, targeted a bunker beneath a school in the city of Arbin in eastern Ghouta, resulting in a massacre that killed fifteen children and two women, in addition to fifty-two wounded civilians. Evacuation of medical cases along with members of their families continued in the city of Douma under an agreement between Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) and Russia. “One thousand and eight hundred people, including three hundred and seventy-five sick people were evacuated in one week,” according to a medical source of the AFP. On 21 March, sixteen children were killed in an air raid carried out by planes, which could not be identified as Syrian or Russian, near a village school in Idlib governorate, according to the SOHR. “The aerial bombardment of the village of Kafr Battiekh in the eastern countryside of Idlib happened near a school while students were leaving for homes,” the SOHR added, noting that the children who died were less than eleven years old.
The bombardment left four other civilians dead according to the SOHR, adding that among those killed, there were fifteen people from the same family.
The “Victory” in Ghouta?
20 March 2018
With the start of the attack by Syrian government forces on eastern Ghouta on 18 February, a rivalry between Damascus and Moscow emerged over claiming the expected “victory” in Ghouta.
Pro-Syrian sources leaked a list of five hundred and forty-five military personnel of government forces, including thirty-five Russian servicemen, who were killed in the fighting. The Facebook page of the Russian base in Hmeimim said that “Russian forces provided aerial and ground support during the battles that led to achieving victory in a short period of time, and servicemen have sacrificed their lives.”
According to this same page, President Bashar al-Assad spoke during his visit to Ghouta to members of the Republican Guard and did not meet with forces of Brigadier Suhail al-Hasan, a.k.a. the Tiger, who enjoys special Russian support. Hmeimim base said “In this war, there are names that will be written down in history. Russian President Vladimir Putin has emphasized this during his meeting with al-Hasan.” It also added that Putin demanded that Russian units provide “special protection” for the “Tiger”. Reports say that Putin is preparing a “pleasant surprise” for the “Tiger”.
Al-Assad has been on a tour in Ghouta of Damascus. Opposition members pointed to the photos of destruction and the absence of civilians in the towns and cities of Ghouta.
Tal Rafaat Before Manbij
21 March 2018
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Turkey and the United States have come to an understanding and not a full agreement on achieving stabilization in the city of Manbij and other areas in northern Syria under Kurdish control. Turkey repeatedly threatened to extend its operations further east to Manbij, where US forces are stationed. The expansion of the Turkish army’s operations to wider areas in the east under Kurdish control threatens a confrontation between the two NATO members. Cavusoglu denied that Ankara and Washington reached an agreement on the fate of Manbij, which is located one hundred kilometers east of Afin. “We said we have reached an understanding, which is mainly that Syria’s Manbij and the east of the Euphrates are stabilized. We said we have reached an understanding, not an agreement,” he added.
He went on to say that Ankara has been seeking an agreement with Washington on who will provide security in Manbij after the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Turkey considers a “terrorist organization,” stressing that the withdrawal from Manbij will not be enough. “First, the People’s Protection Units will leave, and the people of Manbij will govern the city. The security of the area will be ensured. We will apply the Manbij model to other areas controlled by the People’s Protection Units as well,” he said. This has resulted in a crisis between the two countries. Outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a leading role in recent weeks to resolve the dispute, promising to find a solution for Manbij during a visit to Turkey last month. Cavusoglu’s talk came after a meeting between senior officials from the two countries on 21 March to follow up on the issue of Manbij. Turkey said that US President Donald Trump’s decision to sack Tillerson may delay the potential agreement between the two countries.
The next day, a US military and political delegation, which included Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard and US Ambassador William Roebuck, visited Manbij to reassure both Kurdish and Arab allies, in a step that challenges the position of Turkey, which signaled a military operation in Manbij if Kurdish fighters did not withdraw.
Turkey later announced that it would not enter Manbij until the United States fulfills its commitments, however, Ankara has focused its efforts on controlling Tal Rafaat according to an understanding with Russia.
Settling, Displacement, and Cheering for Al-Assad
24 March 2018
Ahrar al-Sham fighters and their families have left Harasta in Ghouta and headed for Idlib, after that, al-Rahman Corps fighters left Jobar, Ain Tarma, Arbin, and Zamalka, in conjunction with negotiations between Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) and the Russian army to establish a “special status” for the city of Douma.
An agreement between the Representative of Russian Defense Minister Alexander Zwein and al-Rahman Corps provided for the deployment of the Russian army in areas the opposition leaves, and treatment of the injured in Russian hospitals in Syria, emphasizing Russia’s role in the agreement at the expense of Iran and the Syrian government.
A mass exodus from the city of Douma continued in the last few days through al-Wafideen crossing in northern Ghouta, which is one of three crossings set by government forces for those wishing to exit areas controlled by the opposition.
The bombardment and fighting have forced more than eighty-seven thousand civilians to flee the city since 15 March and head towards government controlled areas. More than thirty thousand stayed in their homes in towns south of Ghouta, which were taken over by the government army, according to the SOHR. During more than one month of fighting, around one thousand and six hundred and thirty civilians were killed, including around three hundred and thirty children. On Thursday, the first installment of one thousand and five hundred and eighty people, including four hundred and thirteen fighters, left Harasta and reached Idlib governorate after a very long trip. Opposition fighters agreed to hand the city to the government in exchange for providing safe passage and pardons for civilians who decided to remain there.
In a related context, social network activists circulated a video published by Enab Baladi website in which Mohammed Qabannadh, a member of the Syrian Parliament and a television producer, demanded that displaced people from eastern Ghouta cheer for President Bashar al-Assad in order to get water. The parliamentarian repeated his demands for the displaced to “glorify al-Assad and his wise leadership and to cheer for his life,” in addition to insulting Saudi Arabia and the United States, who are presumed to be supporters of the opposition. This was condemned by many Syrians.
During years of conflict, several Syrian areas, including cities and towns near Damascus, witnessed the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians under agreements with government forces, following sieges and violent attacks, the most prominent of which were in Aleppo at the end of 2016.