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.
Damascus is Getting Its Suburbs Back
After battles with ISIS that started back in April, the Syrian army has regained control of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk Camp neighborhoods, declaring its control of Damascus and surrounding areas for the first time since the onset of the conflict in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Sunday that a surrender agreement was reached by which ISIS fighters were transported to eastern Syria. However, official media denied such reports. It should be mentioned that the first quarter of this year witnessed fierce battles in eastern Ghouta that left thousands of civilians dead and led to the Syrian army taking full control of eastern Ghouta.
The regime’s geographical control has increased dramatically, whereas areas controlled by the opposition shrank to two wide areas in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib in the northwest and Daraa and Qunaitera in the southwest. The Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by US and French forces, control the northeastern part of Syria. (Reuters)
The South … The New Front
24 May 2018
The Syrian army may head toward the north or south of the country after defeating armed groups around Damascus said the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad to the Lebanese television channel al-Mayadeen on Wednesday. Syrian army units advanced toward Daraa in the south, while Syrian jetfighters dropped leaflets calling for armed factions to settle their situations or surrender. On Friday, the United States threatened to take firm actions against any abuses by government forces in the de-escalation zone in the south as it is one of the guarantors along with Russia and Jordan.
The southern front has always been tied to Israel’s role in the conflict and its repeated attacks on military positions belonging to the Syrian army or its allies, especially Iran and Hezbollah. The most recent attack came on Thursday and targeted the Dhaba’a airport near al-Qsair in Homs. The Syrian news agency said that anti-aircraft systems responded to the attack, however, the SOHR confirmed the presence of injuries. Israel boasted that it was the first to use the F-35 US jetfighters in combat missions, with one of these missions being shown off in the sky over Beirut.
The southern area of Syria entered into a tug-of-war over the Iranian presence, especially after the US Secretary of State’s statement that Iran had to withdraw its forces from Syria and stop supporting Hezbollah in order to enter negotiations for a new nuclear deal following the US withdrawal from the deal.
Golan Heights in the Forefront
24 May 2018
Israeli pressure on President Trump’s administration emerged last week to recognize its sovereignty on the occupied Golan Heights. The pressure came in a statement by the Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz. This recognition is tied to the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of the US embassy to it, and has sparked waves of diplomatic and popular anger in many countries around the world. The day the embassy was transferred witnessed the death of tens of Palestinians protesters and the injury of thousands of others by Israeli occupation bullets during protests against this US measure. (Reuters)
Although Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights does not carry any legal merit on the international level, it escalates the tensions in the area and raises the potential of a wider conflict in the region.
Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 war and declared its annexation in 1981 and moved Israeli settlers into it. Syria attempted to take back the occupied Golan in the 1973 war but the offensive was foiled. The two sides signed a truce in 1974 and the border has been relatively calm ever since. The Golan is considered a strategic area as it overlooks northern Palestine and Damascus, in addition to the fertility of its soil and abundance of water resources.
24 May 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that his country and Russia want to establish a coordination mechanism between world powers to reach a political solution in Syria. He added that the idea was to coordinate efforts carried out by the Astana process that comprises Russia, Turkey, and Iran and the “small group”, which was initiated by France, and comprises Britain, Germany, Jordan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.
Macron said that he and Putin agreed that focus should be on a new constitution and setting up inclusive elections that would include all Syrians, including refugees.
Clashes in the East
27 May 2018
The SOHR said that ISIS attacked a military base near Palmyra city in the Syrian desert, leaving twenty-six dead from the Syrian army and factions backed by Iran. ISIS used suicide bombers and armored vehicles in the attack.
The attack came one day after government forces expelled ISIS fighters from al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk Camp near Damascus. ISIS currently controls two besieged desert areas east of Syria. ISIS fighters were expelled from most areas in the Euphrates valley last year. (Reuters)
In Deir Azzour, Interfax news agency reported on Sunday that the Russian Defense Ministry said that four Russian officers were killed in a battle in Deir Azzour east of Syria. The ministry said that fighting broke out after several groups, made up of opposition fighters, attacked an artillery unit that belonged to the Syrian Army. Two military councilors operating the unit were killed instantly, while five soldiers were injured and transferred to a Russian military hospital. Two of them died because of their injuries. The news agency also quoted the ministry as saying that forty-three militants died in that battle. (Reuters)
Syrian official media said that the US-led coalition targeted army bases in Boukamal and Hmaimieh in the early hours of Thursday morning without leaving any human casualties. The US army denied knowledge of such an attack.
In this context, the SOHR said that ISIS fighters were fighting forces loyal to the Syrian government west of the Euphrates river on Thursday, and fighting Syrian Democratic forces on the eastern bank of the river on Wednesday evening. The SOHR added that the coalition strikes that took place on Thursday led to the death of a number of non-Syrian militants loyal to the Syrian government.
A Russian Insult Embarrasses Damascus
27 May 2018
Loyalists to Damascus accused Moscow of “manufacturing terrorism” in Syria and “insulting the Syrian military uniform” after the central channel of the Russian military base in Hmeimim said that Russian military policy deployed south of Damascus arrested members of Syrian government forces after they committed violation in their areas of deployment around Damascus.
The Russian Hmeimim base said on its Facebook page that Russian police deployed south of Damascus arrested a number of government forces members after they attempted to loot and steal civilian properties. It went on to say in response to questions from loyalists to Damascus that force will be used against any mutiny by individuals involved in law violation or those who support them within areas liberated through the participation of Russian forces.
This came in a response by the channel to an inquiry by a member of the government forces that showed a picture of Russian police arresting members of government forces, which was widely circulated in social media. The inquiry was to confirm if the news and pictures were authentic and whether their arrest was a coincidence or based on orders from higher tiers.
On the other hand, a military source from the Syrian government said that those who appeared in the pictures are not soldiers in the military institution and they do not belong to it whatsoever, adding that they are wanted by security forces.