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.

Syrian Government Co-Opting Recovery Efforts

Human Rights Watch

28 June 2019

In a report issued today, Human Rights Watch said that the Syrian government is co-opting humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, and in places using it to entrench repressive policies. Donors and investors should make changes in their aid and investment practices to ensure that any funding they provide to Syria advances Syrians’ rights, the report said.

The 91-page report, “Rigging the System: Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria,” looks at the government’s policies for and restrictions on humanitarian assistance and reconstruction and development funding to Syria. Human Rights Watch found that the Syrian government has developed a policy and legal framework that allows it to divert aid and reconstruction resources to fund its atrocities, punish those perceived as opponents, and benefit those loyal to it.

Spurring the Political Process

Reuters

27 June 2019

UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen said, in an interview published on Thursday, that “a deeper understanding” between Russia and the United States is needed to move the Syrian peace process forward.

Successive UN envoys have failed to stop Syria’s eight-year war, which has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and led to an exodus of refugees. Pedersen, the fourth man in the job, is trying to arrange a committee to oversee the reform of Syria’s constitution — a modest effort, compared with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s attempt to reach a peace agreement at an international conference in 2012

“Obviously, a Constitutional Committee in itself will not change much,” Pedersen said in an interview published by the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. “But if handled correctly, and if there is political will, it could be a door-opener for a broader political process.” He told the key players that he needed “a different international set-up”; and he wanted to convene a group of influential states alongside the Constitutional Committee meeting.

It would include the five permanent UN Security Council members and two groups of countries that have been politically active on Syria: the “Astana Group” comprising Iran and Turkey as well as Russia, and the “Small Group”, which includes Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain and the United States.

“This is indicative of the fact that we are in a new phase … this has been going on for too long, and it should be possible to move forward. This would, of course, require a deeper understanding between Russia and the United States on how to move forward,” he said. “We are also working on that.” Pedersen said he had pressed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition Syrian National Commission on the importance of tackling the issue of people who had been detained or abducted or were missing, and he had appealed to them for “bigger unilateral steps on this”.

Israeli Attack Once Again!

Reuters

1 July 2019

Syria state media said that Israeli warplanes fired missiles targeting Syrian military positions in Homs and the Damascus outskirts in an attack that killed at least four civilians and wounded another twenty-one.

The Syrian military mentioned that Syrian air defenses had confronted the attack, which was launched from Lebanese airspace. An Israeli military spokeswoman, asked about the report, said: “We don’t comment on such reports.”

Syrian broadcaster Al Ekhbariya reported that four civilians including a baby had been killed in Sahnaya, south of Damascus, as “a result of the Zionist aggression”. State news agency SANA said that Syrian air defenses had brought down a number of the missiles.

In recent years, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria despite the continuous security coordination between Israel and Russia. However, Israeli attacks have not stopped without any explicit Russian objection to protect its Syrian ally.

Syria Present in the G20 Summit

Reuters 

28, 29 June 2019

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that he had informed US President Donald Trump about Russia’s actions in Syria, adding that the two countries had maintained contacts about this country. Putin said he believed that BRICS group – which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – should play a more active role on the Syrian issue.

The Syrian crisis topped the talks held between Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Egypt’s state TV reported on Saturday, citing the presidency.

Syrian-Turkish Skirmishes

Reuters

29 June 2019

Turkey’s defense ministry said on Saturday that a Turkish observation post in the Idlib region of northern Syria was attacked by mortar fire launched from territory controlled by Syrian government forces, adding that there were no casualties. The ministry declared that a Russian representative in the region had “immediately intervened” to stop the attacks but warned that it had completed preparations to “give the necessary response” if the attacks continued. There have been similar attacks on Turkish observation posts in the region recently. One Turkish soldier was killed and three others were wounded in an attack on Thursday which the ministry judged to have been deliberate.

Earlier on Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had discussed the attacks on Turkey’s observation posts in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan. 

“We hope these attacks won’t happen anymore. There is calmness right now. We never want such things, it shouldn’t happen again. We discussed this matter,” Erdogan told a news conference at the summit.

Refugee Return Discourse

Reuters

25 June 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that he believed the number of Syrians returning from Turkey to their homeland will reach one million once a safe zone is established in northeast Syria along their shared border.

Turkey is in talks with the United States over the establishment of a safe zone across its border in northeast Syria, where the United States supports the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara wants YPG fighters to withdraw from the area in order to secure its border, and Washington wants guarantees that its Kurdish-led allies in defeating ISIS in Syria will not be harmed.

Turkey and the United States have also been working to implement an agreement over the Syrian town of Manbij, a process which is proceeding more slowly than desired.

Speaking in Ankara to lawmakers from his Justice and Development Party, Erdogan announced: “We are trying to extend the safe zones along our borders as much as we can for the Syrian refugees in our country to be able to return home.”

“At the moment, three hundred and thirty thousand people have returned, but I believe that when the problems in Manbij and the east of Euphrates are resolved, this will reach one million very quickly.” 

European Chemicals

Reuters

26 June 2019

The Swiss drugmaker Novartis said on Wednesday that it did not export dual-use chemicals to a Syrian partner, amid scrutiny of shipments by German chemicals distributor Brenntag via a Swiss subsidiary in 2014.

Reports in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and other newspapers said Brenntag, the world’s largest chemicals distributor, sold raw chemical materials to a Syrian pharmaceutical company called Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries (MPI). Novartis has a contract manufacturing and distribution deal with MPI for some products.

“It was the responsibility of MPI to obtain the necessary adjuvants required for production itself directly from a third party supplier,” Novartis said in a statement. “Novartis exported neither isopropanol nor diethylamine to Syria at that time nor does it do so currently.”

German prosecutors mentioned on Wednesday that they had not yet decided whether to investigate Brenntag after Sueddeutsche newspaper reported the world’s largest chemicals distributor sold chemical raw materials to a Syrian pharmaceutical company.

A spokeswoman for prosecutors in the western German city of Essen said they had received a complaint concerning Brenntag from three non-governmental organizations – New York’s Open Society Justice Initiative, Berlin’s Syrian Archive, and Switzerland’s Trial International

“The complaint is being checked. We haven’t yet decided whether to launch an investigation,” the spokeswoman said. Shares in Brenntag dropped after the report and were down 7.45% at 08:53 GMT.

Although chemical isotopes, like diethylamine and isopropanol, can be used in manufacturing medicines, they can also be used to make Sarin gas. The newspaper reported the company as saying that the deliveries complied with the applicable law.