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.
Entering the ISIS Pocket
4 March 2019
The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cautiously advanced on Monday inside al-Baghoz town, the last ISIS pocket in eastern Syria, accusing the group of using civilians as human shields.
With support from the US-led international coalition planes, the SDF have pressed on with their “last offensive” launched on Friday against jihadists who refused to surrender and are currently encircled inside al-Baghoz.
In recent weeks, thousands of people left al-Baghoz, most of them civilian family members of the jihadists. They were settled in camps run by the SDF in north east of Syria, while suspected fighters were detained.
By taking control of the whole town, the SDF will pave the way for the end of the “caliphate” declared by ISIS in 2014 over vast areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq – estimated to be around the size of Britain.
Winning this battle does not mean the end of the group’s threat, in light of its ability to mobilize sleeper cells in liberated areas and spread in the vast Syrian desert.
Return is Subject to Change
4 March 2019
The Foreign Minister of Qatar Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and his Russian counterpart affirmed their commitment to a political solution in Syria.
“We are committed to a political solution in Syria that is acceptable to the Syrian people,” said al-Thani in a joint press conference in the Qatari capital Doha.
He added that his country’s position in regards to reinstating Syria in the Arab League has not changed. “We explained the reasons in the past. There were grounds for suspending Syria’s membership and the grounds are still present. Nothing happened to make us change this decision. We are committed to a political solution that is acceptable to the Syrian people, in which Syria’s seat would be given to a political leadership representative of all the Syrian people,” al-Thani said.
Lavrov said that there is no need to form new workgroups on Syria in light of the active framework of the Astana process. He added that his country is in touch with all countries in the region regarding Syria “not just through the Astana process (talks)… We don’t see a need to form a new international communication group on the Syrian crisis.”
3 March 2019
Thirty-three soldiers from government forces and allied fighters were killed on Sunday in attacks carried out by jihadists against Syrian government forces in Idlib governorate in north-west Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
This is the bloodiest escalation in the area after Russia and Turkey signed an agreement in September to establish a demilitarized zone in the outskirts of Idlib.
According to the SOHR, elements in Anssar al-Tawhid, who are allied to Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din, launched the first attack early morning on Sunday in north Hama governorate in which six jihadists were killed. The attack targeted two government posts in al-Masasneh town and killed 27 government soldiers and allied militants.
In the adjacent Lattakia governorate, six government soldiers were killed on Sunday in attacks carried out by Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra), according to the SOHR.
Tahrir al-Sham and less influential jihadist groups control two thirds of the demilitarized zone, which includes parts of Idlib governorate, the western countryside of Aleppo, the northern countryside of Hama, and the north-eastern countryside of Lattakia. Tahrir al-Sham also controls the bulk of Idlib governorate.
President of the Parliament in Amman
3 March 2019
The twenty-ninth session of the Arab Parliamentary Union kicked off in Amman, Jordan on Sunday. Seventeen heads of Arab parliaments participated, including the head of the People’s Assembly in Syria, which is still outside the Arab League amid divisions on reinstating it in the organization.
The President of the Syrian People’s Assembly Hammoudeh Sabbagh said that his country would be victorious in its war on terrorism. “Do not be afraid or sad in regards to Syria. In this country you have brothers who will definitely eliminate terrorism, rendering it the last lesion in modern history. Their victory will be the victory for all Arabs and the region. They will help the whole world in getting rid of this monster that was created by the most powerful forces of aggression in the world,” Sabbagh said.
“Four wars are waged on the Arab people in Syria; the war of armed terrorism, the war of embargo, the war of contemporary media which uses the internet to invade us inside our homes through coordinated misinformation and intensive psychological attacks, and finally the war of war merchants and those affected by the near decisive victory,” he added.
Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended at the onset of the conflict in the country in 2011.
“There must be active movement to reach a political solution that guarantees the unity of the people and land of Syria and restores Syria’s well-being, so that it can take back its role as a fundamental pillar of stability in the region,” the Speaker of the Jordanian Parliament Atef Tarawneh said in his opening remarks.
Chemical Weapons in Douma
2 March 2019
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a report published on Friday that chlorine was used in an attack that targeted the Syrian city of Douma in April of 2018.
The OPCW said in its final report that there are “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon has taken place on 7 April 2018” during the attack on Douma in eastern Ghouta near Damascus, adding that “this toxic chemical contained chlorine gas.”
The report also said the two chlorine containers fell on a roof in Douma.
The report’s summary confirms information in a preliminary report published in July of 2018 – based on testimonies provided by doctors – that the attack left forty people killed.
The report does not point fingers at any party because this was not part of the mandate of the OPCW at that time. However, the organization was later granted the authority to identify who was responsible for any chemical weapon attacks after 2014.
The OPCW said that it did not find any evidence of using nerve gases previously used by parties of the Syrian conflict.
A team of OPCW inspectors collected more than one hundred samples from seven locations in Douma, when they entered the city a few weeks after the attack.
Witnesses told the inspectors that “forty-three people died as a result of the suspected chemical attacks, most of them appeared in a video lying on the ground in several floors of a residential building and in front of this building.”
The OPCW refuted the government account which said that the poisonous gas came from a chemical weapons facility affiliated with Syrian armed factions and a depot in the area, which the inspectors were allowed to visit.
French ISIS Militant Killed
28 February 2019
A French jihadist was killed in an airstrike by the US-led international coalition against ISIS on the Syrian village of al-Baghoz, the last ISIS stronghold, according to a statement from the coalition on Thursday.
The coalition did not reveal when Abu Anas was killed, a.k.a Fabian Clan, who was the media official for the radical group.
French media reported his death the previous Wednesday, but the news was not officially confirmed at the time.
According to French media reports, his voice was recognized in a voice recording in which ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks in 2015 that left one hundred and twenty-nine people dead in Bataclan Theater and pubs and cafés in the eastern French capital, in addition to one person near the Stade de France.
French media also said that Jean Michelle Clan was severely injured in the airstrike that killed his brother, but nothing was mentioned about this in the coalition’s tweet.
“The Distant End”
28 February 2019
The UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen said on Thursday that the “conflict is far from over,” in this country suggesting a joint international forum of international powers to help bring peace to Syria.
In his first intervention before the UN Security Council, he said that “an international forum through which the major countries will work on outstanding issues will help resolve these issues and lead a political process led by Syrians.”
Pedersen, who took office in January, said “whole parts of the land are still out of state control,” and the organization of the Islamic state could “be reborn from under the ashes.”
He said that “eleven million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance,” raising at the same time the concerns of the people regarding the missing and detainees.
He also expressed the hope that a meeting of the Constitutional Committee would be held “as soon as possible,” while the establishment of the committee remains in force. Pedersen said the constitutional commission “increases the likelihood of relaunching the political process.”
According to the UN plan, the Constitutional Commission, which is supposed to lead the constitutional review process and electoral process, should include one hundred and fifty members: fifty of whom are selected by the government, fifty are selected by the opposition, and fifty are selected by the United Nations Special Envoy to take into account the views of experts and representatives of civil society.
It has yet to be agreed on the content of the third list, which is causing friction between Damascus and the United Nations.
During a UN Security Council meeting, all members expressed their full support for the UN envoy, but expressed differing views on the situation in the country.
Safe Return is an Illusion
28 February 2019
UN legal experts said on Thursday in Geneva that the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria do not allow refugees to go back to their homes despite the decline in violence.
Members on a UN commission of inquiry on Syria said that Syrians are not protected by law in any place, whether they live in areas controlled by the government, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or Tahrir al-Sham, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Commission Chairman Paulo Pinheiro said in a press conference that more than seven years of hostilities have generated security vacuums, elevating violence and lack of law and creating “conditions that render the possibility of safe and sustainable return completely illusionary.”
More than five and a half million Syrians fled to neighboring countries since the onset of the war, according to the UN refugee agency.
Al-Assad Invites Zarif
27 February 2019
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Damascus, state news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday, without specifying a date for the trip.
Zarif tendered his resignation two days ago but Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani rejected it on Wednesday, calling it “against national interests”.
Rouhani told Zarif in a letter published on the electronic government website: “I consider accepting your resignation against national interest and reject it.”
The commander of the Quds Corps, which is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani said that Zarif was the main person in charge of foreign policy, and stressed that Zarif’s not attending the meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “was not intentional.”
27 February 2019
During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday that focused mainly on the Syrian conflict, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned against the “threat” posed by Iran, Syria’s main ally alongside Russia.
“Iran is the greatest threat to the stability and security in the region and we will do what we can to keep this danger away,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of the Kremlin meeting.
“It is very important to discuss issues related to the region’s security,” Putin said.
Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies. Netanyahu has repeatedly said the he would not allow Iran to use Syria as a military base to launch attacks against Israel.
Netanyahu was accompanied by his National Security Council Director Meir Ben-Shabat and head of military intelligence Tamir Heiman.
Prior to his Moscow visit, Netanyahu said the talks will focus on “preventing Iran from entrenching in Syria, the entrenchment of a country which explicitly says that its goal is to wipe us out.”
On Sunday, the Israeli prime minister said talks with Putin will be “very important” to ensure Israel’s freedom to act against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria while avoiding frictions with Russian forces.