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.

“Crisis” and “Chemical Weapons” in Idlib?

24 August 2018

There are indirect indications that the United States, along with its allies, is preparing for a new aggression against Syria, said Spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense Igor Konashenkov.

A US destroyer ship arrived at the Persian Gulf, while US B-1B bombers are getting ready to move from the US base in Qatar to hit targets in Syria, the spokesman said according to Sputnik news agency. He noted that the USS Sulivans destroyer is armed with fifty-six cruise missiles, and the strategic bomb carrier B-1B is ready to move from al-Udeid Base in Qatar armed with twenty-four air-to-surface missiles.

On Friday, Turkey warned Moscow, which militarily supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, of a potential “crisis” in Syria in case of resorting to a “military solution” in Idlib, the last stronghold of opposition factions and jihadist in the country.

The Syrian government’s offensive to take back the province of Idlib, which borders Turkey, seems imminent. However, Damascus is unlikely to launch an offensive without a greenlight from Ankara, which supports opposition factions.

In recent weeks, the Russian-Turkish relationship witnessed increased coordination, and a Turkish delegation visited Moscow on Friday.

“The military solution will lead to a crisis not just in Idlib, but for Syria’s future as well. The battle could last for a long time and may reach civilians,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart in Moscow.

The Syrian government is completing preparations to take back Idlib in north-west of Syria.

“However, it is very important that the radical and terrorist groups become incapable of posing a threat. It is a very important matter for Turkey as well because they are present at the other side of our border. They are primarily a threat to us,” said Cavusoglu.

Idlib governorate is strategically important because of its location on the border with Turkey, which provides support for opposition factions, and its proximity to Lattakia governorate, which is the stronghold of the Alawite sect to which the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

Idlib is within the “de-escalation zones” that were setup at the end of peace negotiations that took place in Astana, under Russian, Turkish, and Iranian sponsorship.

Idlib has been the destination for tens of thousands of militants who refused settlement agreements with the government.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged that the situation in Idlib is “very difficult,” and added, “when we setup the de-escalation zone in Idlib, nobody proposed using it for militants, especially those affiliated with Nusra Front, to hide behind the civilian population like a human shield.”

“Especially as they are not just lying low there. Raids come constantly from there and firing on positions of the Syrian army,” Lavrov said. He confirmed that Russian forces have downed around fifty drones that were launched from that area and targeted Hmeimeim airbase.

In an interview with Russian media in July, the Syrian president affirmed that the current priority for the government is to retake control of Idlib governorate, which is mostly out of his control. “Our objective now is Idlib, although it is not the only objective,” Assad said during the interview.

On 9 August, government forces dropped leaflets over Idlib calling for joining the “reconciliation” agreements.

Analysts say that the Syrian government is incapable of making any moves in Idlib without getting a greenlight from Turkey, which has established observation points in the governorate and deployed forces there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin received the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and the Defense Minister Hakan Fidan and noted “increasing close” cooperation with Turkey in solving “thorny” issues, such as the Syrian crisis.

“Thanks to the efforts of both of our countries and the participation of other concerned countries, especially Iran […], we have succeeded in accomplishing evident progress towards solving the Syrian crisis,” said Putin.

 

Al-Jolani Between Idlib and Lattakia

22 August 2018

On Tuesday, the general commander of Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) Abu Mohammed al-Jolani warned factions in Idlib against negotiating with the Syrian government and entering settlements agreement, as has happened in other areas.

Jolani’s statement came at a time when all eyes are fixed to Idlib with the military preparations taken by government forces to launch an attack against the last stronghold for both the opposition factions and Tahrir al-Sham.

Jolani said in a video posted on Telegram: “This phase requires us factions to pledge that the revolution’s arms […] are a red line on which concessions are unacceptable. They will never be put on the negotiating table.”

“The instant someone considers negotiating their arms, they will lose them indeed. Just thinking about surrendering to the enemy and handing over weapons is treason,” he said.

Tahir al-Sham controls the majority of Idlib, while Islamic factions affiliated with the National Front for Liberation, including Ahrar al-Sham, are present in the rest of the region. Government forces are deployed in the southeast countryside.

Jolani stressed that settlement agreements, which took place in various areas of Syria where opposition factions had control, the last of which was in Daraa and Qonaiterah in southern Syria, will not happen again in Idlib. “The honorable people of the north will not allow what happened in the south to pass in the north,” he said.

Tahrir al-Sham and other factions have carried out house raids in recent days, arresting dozens of people on charges of communicating with the government to reach a settlement agreement, which usually provide for the entry of government forces and factions handing over their weapons.

“Our people need to realize that the Turkish observation posts in the north cannot be relied upon to face the enemy. Do not be fooled by promises or media statements. Political stances can change in an instant,” said Jolani.

Russia asked Ankara to find a solution to put an end to the presence of Tahrir al-Sham, which is seen as a “terrorist” organization, in order to avoid a large-scale operation in Idlib. Analysts say that Turkey is working on unifying the ranks of the factions for any confrontation with Tahrir al-Sham.

 

Drones over Hmeimeim

24 August 2018

There has been an increase in the number of drone attacks launched by fighting factions against Hmeimeim base in western Syria. These attacks do not pose serious threats according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and Russian officials who said that Moscow fortified the base with a new missile system.

Since the onset of its military intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has used Hmeimeim base as the headquarters for its forces in the coastal governorate of Lattakia, which was spared from the fierce battle since the start of the conflict in 2011. Some fighting factions are present in limited parts of its northern countryside bordering Idlib.

“The number of drone attacks targeting Hmeimeim base has increased in the last two months,” said SOHR, noting that there were twenty-three attacks since the beginning of this year, including five in August and thirteen in July.

“Russian and Syrian air defenses downed most of the planes” launched by Islamic factions and jihadist groups in Idlib, according to SOHR.

“Russians are convinced that the drones targeting their airbase in Lattakia (Hmeimeim) are launched from around Jisr al-Shoghour,” said International Crisis Group researcher Sam Heller at an earlier time.

The Spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova accused “terrorists”, referring to factions in Idlib, of targeting Hmeimeim base.

In mid-August, the spokesman for the Russian army Igor Konshankov confirmed by stating that “last month, we witnessed an increase in drone attack attempts,” and stressed that one hundred per cent of them were downed.

 

The United States is there to Stay!

23 August 2018

The issue of formal and informal Iranian forces leaving Syria has become a main component of US policy in dealing with the Syrian issue. Washington is holding several cards to pressure Moscow in order to reach this objective.

Western diplomatic sources told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper yesterday that President Donald Trump’s administration has decided to keep its soldiers in north-eastern Syria and the no-fly zone, which the international coalition set up to fight ISIS. This will be used, along with the financing the reconstruction of Syria and the return of refugees “cards”, to exercise pressure on Russia to oust Iran.

This was one of the issues that US National Security Advisor John Bolton discussed with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva on Thursday. Bolton said that his counterpart proposed abolishing sanctions on Iranian oil in exchange for restraining Iran in Syria. “This is a proposal we have refused again today,” he said.

Bolton also said that he cautioned Patrushev against interfering in the November mid-term congressional elections. This prevented an agreement on a joint statement, which the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later tried to reach. However, they agreed on restoring communications between the defense departments in the two countries.

 

Back to Geneva

23 August 2018

On Friday, a UN spokeswoman said that the special envoy will meet representatives from Iran, Russia, and Turkey on 11 & 12 September in Geneva to discuss a new constitution in Syria.

UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura is charged with forming a committee whose task will be to draft a new constitution for the war-torn country. The main foreign sponsors for this project are Damascus, Russia, and Iran, in addition to Turkey, which provides support for a number of opposition factions.

Representatives from the three countries will meet De Mistura in Geneva for two days. The latter said that he hopes the constitutional committee will be ready before the UN General Assembly in New York late September.

This may require more talks, especially with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, however, Vellucci did not have any information about further meetings next month.

Previous efforts by De Mistura to stop the Syrian conflict have not yielded any significant results.

 

Britain is Leaving the Opposition

20 August 2018

The British government said that it was ending funding for some aid programs in areas controlled by opposition militants in Syria.

“As the situation on the ground in some regions has become increasingly difficult, we have reduced support for some of our non-humanitarian programming but continue to deliver vital support to help those most in need and to improve security and stability in the country,” a British government spokeswoman told Reuters.

The Times newspaper earlier said that an attempt to form an independent police force would be scrapped next month, while projects funding local councils were being reviewed and would likely be halted by the end of the financial year.

The report added that the Foreign Office and Department for International Development had determined the aid programs in the northwestern parts of Syria to be “unsustainable”.

The British government said it has spent one hundred and fifty-two million pounds (around one hundred and ninety-four million US dollars) on humanitarian programs in Syria for the 2017-2018 financial year.

Britain increased its aid, as well as its supply of armored vehicles and training to Syria’s opposition in 2018.

In 2011, the United States adopted a policy that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave power. However, Washington and its Western allies, including Britain, changed their positions after they watched Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia, take back territory it had previously lost.

 

A Tripartite “Red Line”

21 August 2018

The United States, France, and Britain threatened to respond if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons in any attacks to regain control of Idlib governorate.

In a joint statement, the three countries expressed their “grave concern” at a military offensive in Idlib and the humanitarian consequences that would result from it.

“We underlined our concern at the potential for further — and illegal — use of chemical weapons,” the three countries said in the statement. “We remain resolved to act if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons again,” the statement said.

The three major powers in the UN Security Council issued this statement on the eve of the fifth anniversary of a Sarine gas attack in Ghouta that left more than three hundred people dead.

This attack, which the West blamed Assad forces for, led to a US-Russian agreement to eliminate Damascus’s chemical stockpile and the means to produce these lethal substances.

The United States, France, and Britain launched airstrikes on targets in Syria as a response to a chemical attack in the town of Douma in Ghouta that left a big number of victims.

The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss the humanitarian issue in Syria next week.

 

Russia “Stuck”?

22 August 2018

US National Security Advisor John Bolton said that Russia is “stuck” in Syria and looking for others to fund post-war reconstruction there, describing this as an opportunity for Washington to press for the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.

After US President Donald Trump took office, the United States is seeking to disengage from Syria, where the previous administration deployed some forces and gave limited support to Kurdish opposition forces, despite the objections of its NATO partner, Turkey.

Bolton sidestepped a question on whether these measures would continue, saying that the United States’ presence is based on objectives. “Our interests in Syria are to finish the destruction of ISIS and deal with the continuing threat of ISIS terrorism and to worry about the presence of Iranian militias and regular forces,” he said in an interview.

Bolton said that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met Trump in Helsinki on 16 July, told the United States that Moscow cannot force the Iranians to leave Syria. “But he also told us that his interest and Iran’s were not exactly the same. So we are obviously going to talk to him about what role they can play … We are going see what we and others can agree in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria. But the one prerequisite there is the withdrawal of all Iranian forces back in Iran,” said Bolton.

Washington wields leverage in its talks with Moscow because “the Russians are stuck there at the moment,” he added.

“And I do not think they want to be stuck there. I think their frenetic diplomatic activity in Europe indicates that they would like to find somebody else, for example, to bear the cost of reconstructing Syria – which they may or may not succeed in doing.”

 

Sixty-three Thousand Russians Fought in Syria

22 August 2018

The Russian Defense Ministry said that Russia sent more than sixty-three thousand soldiers to Syria as part of its engagement in the conflict.

A total of 63,012 Russian soldiers “received combat experience” in Syria, the ministry said in a video about Russia’s campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

This number includes 25,738 officers, four hundred and thirty-four generals, and 4,329 specialists in artillery and rockets, according to the ministry.

In late 2017, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that more than forty-eight thousand Russian soldiers participated in the Syrian campaign.

Last December, President Vladimir Putin ordered his armed forces to pull the bulk of troops out of Syria. However, he later clarified that the army will stay in Syria “as long as it is beneficial” and he was not planning to withdraw yet.

On Wednesday, the ministry said that the Russian air force conducted more than thirty-nine thousand sorties which killed “more than eighty-six thousand militants” and destroyed 121,466 “terrorist targets”.

It said its forces tested two hundred and thirty-one types of modern weaponry in Syria, including aircraft, surface-to-air systems, cruise missiles, and others.

The video did not mention any Russian civilian or military casualties.