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.

 

Two Children Burned

3 December 2018

Two Syrian refugees, including one child, died early Monday as a result of a fire in their camp in the Lebanese town of al-Yamooneh, east of Lebanon, Deputy Mayor Hussein Sharif told the AFP. Sharif said that the fire “burned twenty-three tents out of seventy present in the camp. A forty-six-year-old man died and a child who is seven or eight years old.” He added that what sparked the fire is unclear, but it is suspected to be that someone had left a heater on at night or it could be an electric shortcut. He also clarified that “the explosion of a fuel container in one of the tents caused the fire to spread.”

Security forces arrived at the scene and the UN sent a team to the camp, according to Sharif. One of the refugees told the AFP: “at three in the morning, we heard screaming. Then we saw flames (spreading) and we couldn’t put them out.”

Images showed the camp burned into ashes with nothing left other than poles. One of the images showed a girl looking in a pile of burned clothes, and another showed helpless young men looking at the destruction around them. Civil defense teams put the fire amid limited visibility due to fog and smoke, according to the official national media agency.

Fires have often erupted in Syrian refugee camps in recent years. Lebanon estimates the number of Syrian refugees within its territory around one and a half million, whereas the UN High Commission for Refugees puts the number at less than one million. Refugees live in harsh conditions and some live in unofficial camps. A big part of them relies on aid provided by humanitarian organizations. Camps, especially those in Bekaa east of Lebanon, are often subject to security raids.

After a raid on camps in the town of A’rsal, the Lebanese army arrested around four hundred Syrian refugees, including three hundred who had expired residency and thirty wanted under arrest warrants. Since the beginning of the year, the Lebanese General Security has been organizing group returns for refugees in coordination with Damascus. Eight thousand people have returned so far to Syrian areas where the battles stopped, according to a tally based on data from the General Security. The General Security said that tens of thousands of Syrians returned to Syria through trips coordinated with Damascus or on an individual level. Lebanese authorities waive late fines for those whose residency papers have expired if they decide to return to Syria.

 

Killing and Bombardment

3 December 2018

The US-led International coalition said that a prominent ISIS leader, responsible for the of execution of the US humanitarian worker Peter Kassig, was killed on Sunday in airstrikes carried out in the Syrian desert.  Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said in an email “Coalition forces conducted precision strikes against a senior ISIS member, Abu al-Umarayn … responsible for the killing” of Kassig, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2013, and the jihadist group posted a video of his execution in November of 2014. Ryan confirmed that the jihadist had been indeed killed.

The strikes also targeted other members of the group in addition to Abu al-Umarayn, who was “involved and directly participated in the execution of numerous prisoners” held by the group. This is the first time the coalition announces the killing of a jihadist associated with the execution of Kassig since its aerial intervention against jihadists in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Ryan did not mention the jihadist’s role in the execution of Kassig.

The radical group had posted a video, on 17 November 2014, in which a masked man wearing black clothes and pointing at the head of a man at his feet said: “This is Peter Kassig, the American citizen.” Peter Kassig was a former US soldier who fought in Iraq, but he left the army and decided to dedicate his life to volunteer work. He worked in hospitals and clinics in Lebanon and Turkey that received Syrians who fled their country. He also worked in areas of disaster inside Syria. Kassig’s friends say he converted to Islam and took the name of Abdul Rahman. He was kidnapped in October 2013 while on a mission to transport humanitarian aid to Syria.

Before the coalition announced the killing of the prominent jihadist, Damascus accused it of launching missiles against Syrian army positions in the countryside of Homs, in the Syrian desert. The official Syrian news agency SANA said that “the US coalition forces launched around 8:00 pm (18:00 GMT) this evening several missiles against some positions of our forces in the Ghorab mountains south of Sukhna.” The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdul Rahman said that coalition forces stationed in the Tanf base near the border with Iraq launched “more than fourteen missiles” at a government forces convoy when it was travelling in the dessert in the eastern countryside of Homs. He added that the “convoy was lost in the desert about thirty-five kilometers from the Tanf base,” where US and British forces are deployed.

In a response to a question from AFP, Ryan denied targeting military positions for the Syrian army and described these reports as “mistaken,” stressing that the strikes in the desert targeted the jihadists responsible for the execution of Kassig. The international coalition had previously launched several strikes against government forces in the Tanf area in the Syrian desert and in Deir Azzor governorate, east of Syria.

In the past years, the international coalition killed hundreds of ISIS members, including several leaders such as the former group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in 2016 and two other prominent members responsible for attacks abroad such as Salah Kormat and Sami Juddo.

A coalition airstrike in 2015 killed Mohammed Amwazi, the British Jihadist known as Jihadi John, who is believed to head the ISIS execution cell known as the Beatles, which is responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, including the two American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) arrested thousands of jihadists, including hundreds of foreign jihadists. In January, the SDF arrested Alexenda Koti and al-Shafee al-Sheikh, two British jihadists who were members of the Beatles.

Since 2014, the coalition has been launching airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. The area that the jihadist group controls has been decreased to limited enclaves in the Syrian desert, mostly in the eastern countryside of Homs and Deir Azzor governorate in the east. The international coalition targets the last enclave under ISIS control in the eastern countryside of Deir Azzor near the Iraqi border with daily airstrikes. The SDF has been fighting battles to oust jihadists for three months. Government forces have been launching battles against ISIS pockets in the desert in the eastern countryside of Homs. However, analysts say that winning the battle against jihadists in Syria will take a long time for several reasons, the most important of which is the fighting experience that jihadists have gained and their will to fight until death in defense of their last stronghold.

 

A Candle for Syria’s Children

2 December 2018

The Vatican, 2 December 2018 (AFP).

Pope Francis lit a candle at the Vatican on Sunday for victims of conflicts around the world, and Syria in particular. “Advent is a time of hope. Right now, my hope is for peace for the children of Syria, tormented by a war that has lasted eight years,” he said. The Pope added: “I am lighting a candle along with the many Syrian children and believers across the world… Let these flames of hope dispel the shadows of war!”

The Candles for Peace in Syria Christmas initiative was launched by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity. The tall candle was decorated by a local craftsman from the Bab Touma neighborhood of Damascus and bore the photos of forty children, most of them from Aleppo. Syria’s war has killed more than three hundred and sixty thousand people and displaced millions, with over thirteen million people in the country in need of humanitarian aid.

 

Israeli Bombardment Once Again

29 November 2018

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that, on Thursday, Israeli planes launched airstrikes against targets in the countryside of Damascus as well as in locations in southern Syria, adding that Syrian air defenses fired heavily at the raiding planes. SOHR stated: “Israeli forces bombarded for an hour positions in the southern and southwestern suburbs of Damascus as well as south of Syria at the border of Quneitra governorate. Air defense systems were seen launching missiles intensely.”

Israeli sources claimed that the strikes, the first since Syria received the S-300 missile system, targeted “Iranian positions.” Damascus said that it launched rockets against “enemy targets.” Syrian official media did not initially mention Israel, describing the one-hour attack as “hostile,” and confirmed its failure.

In a letter to the UN Security Council and UN General Secretary on Friday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the “Israeli aggression” on al-Kisweh area south of Damascus. This is the first Israeli strike in Syria since Syrian air defenses mistakenly downed a Russian military plane during their response to Israeli rockets on 17 September. The SOHR chief Rami Abdul Rahman told the AFP that Israeli forces targeted “weapon depots for Hezbollah and Iranian forces” in al-Kisweh that were used to “temporarily store rockets.” He added: “It seemed that Israeli had intelligence information that new weapons arrived at the depots.”

The bombardment also targeted the area of Harfa in the governorate of Quneitra, south of Syria, which hosts a military base for the Syrian army. According to the SOHR, the Syrian air defense systems were seen launching missiles intensely in response to the Israeli bombardment and were able to down several rockets that did not reach their target. The official Syrian news agency SANA reported a military source as saying that Syrian defense systems engaged “enemy targets above al-Kisweh” in the countryside of Damascus and “downed” them, without stating the identity of the targets. SANA said that the “aggression … was not able to achieve any of its objectives despite its intensity, and all targets were engaged and downed.”

The Israeli army announced in a statement that none of its planes or “aerial targets” were hit, without confirming or denying targeting positions in Syria. The statement said that “Reports regarding an aircraft or an airborne Israeli target having been hit are false.” It said a surface-to-air missile was fired in the direction of an open area of the Syrian Golan Heights but it was unclear if it had fell in the part occupied by Israel.

The airstrikes did not result in any human casualties, according to preliminary reports from the SOHR. The Syrian foreign ministry said that the “repeated Israeli aggressions” are “further evidence of Israeli support to the armed terrorist groups in Syria and an attempt to prolong the crisis in Syria.” Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria in 2011, Israel has repeatedly bombed military targets for the Syrian army and others for Hezbollah and Iranian fighters in Iran. Israel rarely comments on its targeting of Syria, however, in September it announced that it had launched two hundred airstrikes in Syria in eighteen months against mostly Iranian targets.

An Israeli strike in May targeted a weapons depot for the Iranian revolutionary guard in al-Kisweh, according to Israel. It also targeted military positions in this area in 2017, including a weapon depot. Thursday was the first time that Syrian defense system fired on aerial targets after the 17 September incidents when this system mistakenly downed a Russian military plane during an Israeli airstrike, which killed fifteen Russian soldiers. The Russian army accused Israeli pilots of using the Russian plane as a covert to evade Syrian defenses, but Israel denied that, confirming that the Russian plane was hit after its planes had gone back to Israeli airspace.

Russia announced that it would take security measures to protect its army in Syria, including the reinforcement of Syrian air defense systems through the deployment of the S-300 system and scrambling communications for planes that come near. In October, Moscow announced that it had delivered this system to Syria, but it is unknown if the system was used in response to the attack on Thursday. Damascus said that this system would force Israel to take “precise calculations” before carrying out new strikes. Israel has reiterated that it would continue to confront what its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as Iran’s attempt to cement its military presence in Syria and send advanced weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah. Since the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, which immensely contributed to government forces retaking control of vast areas in the country and achieving consecutive victories, Moscow has established a “non-friction” mechanism with Israel.

 

New Ministers

29 November 2018

New ministers in the government took the constitutional oath in front of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the new ministers are: Brigadier General Mohammed Khaled al-Rahmoun as minister of interior, Engineer Mohammed Rami Radwan Martini as minister of tourism, Imad Mowafq al-A’zeb as minister of education, Bassam Bashir Ibrahim as minister of higher education, Engineer Suhail Mohammed Abullatif as minister for public work and housing, Engineer Eyad Mohammed al-Khatib as minister of communication and technology, and Engineer Mohammed Ma’en Zein al-A’bideen Jathbah as minister of Industry.

President Assad then presided a full government cabinet meeting and talked about the priorities in the upcoming stage and the pivotal role of fighting corruption. The Syrian president made a cabinet reshuffle, on 26 November, that included nine ministers, the most prominent of which is the interior minister. According to SANA, Assad dissolved the ministry of reconciliation, which was established in 2012, and formed a public establishment of administrational nature called the National Reconciliation Establishment based in Damascus and affiliated with the prime minister. This is the third cabinet reshuffle of Prime Minister Imad Khamis’s government, who was appointed in 2016.

 

“Missed Opportunity”

29 November 2018

The UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura expressed his regret of the “missed opportunity” in the efforts to reach a political solution in Syria at the end of the Astana talk, which did not achieve progress in ending the conflict in the country. De Mistura, who announced his resignation last month, ended his term as a special envoy for peace efforts with the two day talks in Kazakhstan’s capital that saw the participation of Russia and Iran – allies of the Syrian government – and
Turkey, which supports opposition factions. A statement from his office noted he regretted that “no tangible progress in overcoming the ten-month stalemate on the composition of the constitutional committee.” It also mentioned that the meeting in Astana was “a missed opportunity to accelerate the establishment of a credible, balanced and inclusive, Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated constitutional committee.”

The two-day negotiations that concluded on Thursday, are the eleventh in Astana since Moscow began a diplomatic push in early 2017 that effectively side-lined other talks on Syria led by the United Nations. The Astana process has solidified Moscow’s role, and its military intervention in the fall of 2015 allowed for the changing of the field situation in favor of the Syrian government. De Mistura leaves his position at the end of November after four years of fruitless meditation. The constitutional committee seeks to draft a new constitution for Syria, however, Damascus objected to the formation presented by the UN.

After the talks, the Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev said that the committee is of “great importance,” and added: “I am pleased to say that we are getting near the desired objective,” but he did not specify any date. The talks began on Wednesday and specifically addressed the truce agreement in Idlib, the last stronghold for the opposition and jihadists in Syria, whose fate was threatened after a suspected chemical attack in Aleppo on Saturday, which prompted Russia to launch air strikes on the buffer zone near the governorate.

The air strikes on Sunday come after more than one hundred people suffered breathing difficulties in government-held Aleppo which came under bombardment with “poison gas,” according to the official Syrian media. Russia – ally of Damascus – accused “terrorist groups in the demilitarized zone of using chemical weapons that contain chlorine gas in bombarding the city of Aleppo.”

Around two months ago, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement on establishing a demilitarized zone in Idlib and its surrounding that runs 15 to 20 kilometers deep, after Damascus hinted for weeks that it would launch a wide military operation in the area, which is considered the last stronghold for opposition and jihadist factions in Syria. The demilitarized zone is located at the front lines between government forces and opposition and jihadist factions. It includes parts of Idlib governorate and areas in the western countryside of Aleppo, northern countryside of Hama, and the northeastern countryside of Lattakia.

The Russian-Turkish agreement came after the Syrian government forces regained control of over two-thirds of the country in the past three years, as a result of the Russian support. There are still two main areas that are outside government control: Idlib and its surrounding, where Turkey has influence and the areas controlled by the US-supported Kurds northeast of the country.

The Astana talks have distanced the United States and other Western country from efforts related to Syria. A joint statement by the three co-sponsors raised the issue of continued US military presence in Syria. The sponsoring countries “reject all attempts to create new facts on the ground under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the United States of using the presence of the Islamic State in southern Syria as a pretext to keep its forces deployed there. The United States had attended previous Astana meetings as an observer, but last week, the US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey ruled out Washington’s participation in this round.

A new round of talks on Syria in Astana is expected to be held early February, according to the statement. Syria has witnessed since 2011 a destructive conflict that killed over three hundred and sixty thousand people and displaced half the population inside and outside the country.

 

“New Reality”?

3 December 2018

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington once again of deliberately working to “establish a new reality east of the Euphrates,” and said that US actions clearly violated the principle of Syria’s integral territory. In a press conference, Lavrov criticized western policies in Syria and said that “they do not have a strategy unlike the approach Moscow has taken.” He added: “The truth is becoming more evident as time goes by. What is happening on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river is unacceptable and will have very grave consequences.”

Lavrov said that the United States is trying to create “alternative government institutions” in these areas and has allocated millions of dollars to reconstruct these areas, but at the same time, it refuses reconstruction in areas under government control. He described what is going on east of the Euphrates as a “clear violation of Syria’s territorial integrity as declared by all and confirmed in the UN Security Council’s resolution.”

Lavrov said that “one of the main component of US policy in Syria is using the Kurdish card,” warning that this is “a very dangerous game given the sensitivity of the Kurdish issue in the region, that is not only for Syria, but also for Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.” The minister said the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed this topic on the second day of the G20 summit and confirmed their commitment to the Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib. “Extremist militants have not met the demand to withdraw twenty kilometers behind the demilitarized zone despite Ankara’s efforts in this regard.”

The minister said that Putin and Erdogan agreed to take future steps to ensure the implementation of the agreement to establish this zone, and thwart attempts by extremists to undermine it. Lavrov stressed that most countries now acknowledge that the Syrian constitutional committee, which is being formed through an initiative by the Astana sponsors (Russia, Turkey, and Iran), represents “the only mechanism that would allow for the implementation of UN Security Resolution 2254 which stipulates that all Syrians sit at the negotiating table.” Lavrov said that in the past years, Moscow did not see that Western powers offer any alternative constructive strategy to the “Astana process” in regards to fighting terrorism in Syria, creating conditions for the return of refugees, providing humanitarian assistance, and constructing the political process in the country.