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.
Portents of the Battle in the South
18-24 June 2018
After the Syrian army’s military reinforcement in recent weeks, military operations on the southern front started, especially in al-Lajat area, and then expanded to include Dara’a city.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promised to take back opposition controlled areas in southern Syria. On the other hand, Syrian opposition factions in the south pledged to confront any offensive carried out by government forces and their allies.
This is a rerun of the scenario in Aleppo and Ghouta, as Russia refrained from declaring its direct participation in the military operations and then declared its support for the operations carried out by the Syrian army and its allies, especially through airstrikes.
Last week, the United States warned that it would take “strict and proportional” measures in response to government violations in the “de-escalation” zone in south-west of Syria. The US Secretary of State reaffirmed the US commitment to the ceasefire in the south-west area of Syria during his meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister. However, a new development in the US position emerged as Washington informed Syrian opposition factions not to expect military support to help them confront the massive offensive by the Russian-supported government forces to retake areas in southern Syria. (Reuters)
The UN General Secretary called for an immediate end to military escalation in the south-west of Syria, his spokesman said on Friday, after government forces ramped up their attacks on areas controlled by opposition forces this week. The spokesman referred to the displacement of thousands of civilians and their movement towards the Jordanian border, and stressed that these attacks pose significant risks to regional security. (Reuters) In a statement on Thursday, the UN expressed its grave concern regarding escalations in fighting which led to the death of tens of people and the displacement of thousands. It is estimated that there are seven hundred and fifty thousand civilians in south-west of Syria. (Reuters)
A Jordanian source expressed mounting concern that the violence could spill into the country, and that the kingdom, an ally of the United States, is participating in increasing diplomatic efforts to preserve the de-escalation zone after it helped seal the agreement there.
In a related development, a commander in the pro-Assad regional coalition said that a drone was targeted by an Israeli missile when it was taking part in the Syrian army’s operations in Qunaitera Governorate near the Occupied Golan Heights. The Israeli army said that it fired an anti-aircraft Patriot missile against a drone approaching from Syria, but did not hit the target. It should be mentioned that Israel expressed its fear of Iranian or pro-Iranian forces reaching its border with Syria.
Manbij and Solidification of Turkey’s Role
18-24 June 2018
Fighters from a Syrian Kurdish faction are leaving Manbij north of Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday. (Reuters) Turkish armed forces earlier said that Turkish and US forces had started independent patrols north of Syria along the line separating Turkish-controlled areas and Manbij city, in which Ankara says that the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are deployed. Earlier this month, Ankara and Washington agreed on a road map for the withdrawal of YPG fighters from Manbij and the deployment of Turkish and US forces in the area to secure it. YPG fighters will begin to withdraw from Manbij, north of Syria, starting on 4 July and after months-long preparation, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday. (Reuters)
The decline in the US role signals a solidification of the Turkish role in northern Syria, complicating the situation between Turkey, the Syrian government, and Kurdish factions.
On Tuesday, the Syrian government condemned the Turkish and US incursion around Manbij, a day after the two countries started military patrols in the area. The Syrian government pledged to confront any foreign presence on Syrian territory. (Reuters)
The Syrian army will regain control of the northern part of the country by force if militants refuse to surrender, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a television interview on Sunday.
“We have chosen two paths: the first and most important one is reconciliation… The second path is to attack terrorists if they don’t surrender and refuse to make peace,” Assad said in the interview. “We will fight with them (opposition fighters) and return control by force. It is certainly not the best option for us, but it’s the only way to get control of the country,” said Assad, responding to a question about the northern part of Syria where armed groups backed by Turkey hold some territory. (Reuters)
The tensions in Manbij coincide with security tensions in Raqqa where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who hold control of the city, imposed a curfew for three days starting on Sunday and declared a state of emergency, saying that ISIS fanatics snuck into the city and were planning to carry out attacks. Reuters reported that internal security forces of the SDF set up checkpoints around the city. The SDF announced the curfew late Saturday night to take effect starting early Sunday until Tuesday. (Reuters)
Targeting Iraqi “Mobilization Forces”
19 & 22 June 2018
On Tuesday, Iraq denounced airstrikes that targeted forces fighting ISIS in Iraq or Syria, after official media said that US-led coalition planes bombed a position belonging to Syrian government forces near the Iraq border, resulting in deaths and injuries. The People’s Mobilization Committee said that US bombing on the Iraqi border with Syria left twenty-two of its members dead and twelve others injured. The United States denied involvement in this attack. A statement from the Iraqi army later said that none of the People’s Mobilization Forces or any Iraqi forces in charge of securing the Iraqi-Syrian border were subject to an airstrike and that the strike took place inside Syrian territories. Although Iraqi forces have launched air strikes against ISIS positions across the border with Syria, its security forces do not have any presence on the ground, however, several factions affiliated with the People’s Mobilization Forces have supported Syrian government forces for years. (Reuters)
Ghouta … Medieval War
20 June 2018
Syrian government forces and affiliated forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during their long siege of eastern Ghouta through heavy bombardment and “deliberate starvation” of two hundred and sixty-five thousand people, UN investigators said on Wednesday. About twenty thousand opposition fighters, some belonging to “terrorist groups”, entrenched in the besieged area and bombed nearby Damascus in attacks “that killed and maimed hundreds of Syrian civilians”, amounting to war crimes, UN invesitgators said. The latest report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, led by Paulo Pinheiro, is based on one hundred and forty interviews as well as photographs, videos, satellite imagery, and medical records. The report condemned what it described a “medieval form of warfare.” The report went on to say that tactics used from February to April 2018 to recapture the enclave were “largely unlawful in nature, aimed at punishing the inhabitants of eastern Ghouta, and forcing the population, collectively, to surrender or starve.” The report said that planes bombed hospitals depriving the injured of medical care, adding: “This pattern of attack strongly suggests that pro-Government forces systematically targeted medical facilities, repeatedly committing the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects, and intentionally attacking medical personnel.” UN experts cited evidence of chlorine gas use in Ghouta at least four times this year but said their investigation would continue. (Reuters)
The Tragedy of Politicized Asylum
22 June 2018
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday on a visit to Lebanon that the situation in Syria is not suitable yet for the return of refugees, an issue which has led to a dispute between Lebanon’s Foreign Minister and the UN refugee agency. “We want to help find solutions in Syria so that a return of refugees can take place…we need more secure conditions for a return to be possible,” Merkel said in a news conference in Beirut with Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri.
After meeting Merkel on Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he asked for Germany to support calls “for the gradual return of displaced Syrians” from Lebanon. Aoun said on Twitter that he “stressed the need to separate between this return and a political solution for the Syrian crisis.” (Reuters)
On the Turkish side, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main rival in Sunday’s presidential elections both pledged to send Syrian refugees to their country in response to growing unease among voters about the number of migrants in Turkey. “Right after the election we aim to make all Syrian lands safe, starting from areas near our border, and to facilitate the return home of all our guests,” Erdogan said in a speech in the southeastern city of Gaziantep. He also said that two hundred thousand Syrians have already gone back to areas north of Syria controlled by Turkey and allied Syrian fighters after military campaigns to oust Kurdish fighters and ISIS fighters. (Reuters)
Common Ground in Geneva
19 June 2018
Senior officials from Iran, Russia, and Turkey had “substantive” talks on Tuesday regarding the formation and function of the Syrian constitutional committee, and more talks are planned within weeks, said the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.
On Monday 25 June, de Mistura met with representatives from the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Germany. “During the meeting, constructive exchanges and substantive discussions took place on issues relevant to the establishment and functioning of a constitutional committee, and some common ground is beginning to emerge,” a statement after the talks in Geneva said.