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.
Afrin… A New Rift in Syria
28 January 2018
The Turkish army’s “Operation Olive Branch”, which was launched along with factions from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has unveiled the complex facets of the tragedy in Syria and opened up a new front with consequences that are difficult to predict.
The battles spanned many fronts, as Turkey used its air force, artillery, and tanks. It relied on its allies in the FSA for the ground assault. Turkish reinforcements continue, including mobilization of ground troops, which indicates a long battle with no clear-set objectives. Statements by Turkish officials ranged from taking control of Afrin and expanding the battles toward other areas such as Manbij and northern Iraq to settling for the siege of Afrin and removing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan previously announced that his country’s objective is the “return of three and a half million Syrian refugees to their country.”
On the other hand, a Kurdish official announced that the YPG will continue to confront the Turkish assault and that it has received reinforcements from YPG forces in eastern Syria.
Interestingly, Turkey began to signal its intent to expand the operation to include Manbij, where the US army deploys a military force. Erdogan said that the operation will include Manbij and areas controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria. The SDF said that Turkey will face a “proper response” if it carried out its threat in expanding the assault against armed Kurdish factions in northern Syria all the way to Iraqi borders.
The authorities in Afrin published a statement calling on “the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders from the attacks of the Turkish occupier, as it has not fulfilled its responsibility up to now although it has declared so officially … and deploy its Syrian armed forces to secure the borders of the Afrin area.” (Reuters)
With the fighting entering its second week and multiple battle fronts, Turkish forces and their allied FSA factions have yet to achieve a major breakthrough on the ground in a complex terrain and amidst resistance from the YPG.
Positions of the Various Parties
Western governments, including Germany and France, have called on Turkey to “exercise restraint”, whereas Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed that his government is determined on “crushing” anything that poses a threat to Turkey (AFP). France called for a meeting of the UN Security Council on 22 January, however, it did not result in a joint statement or a condemnation.
The Turkish-American contention was exacerbated further by Turkey’s demand for US forces to be withdrawn from Manbij (AFP) and the cessation of arms supplies to the SDF and YPG. The US side, which is allied with the SDF, introduced the idea of a thirty-kilometer-deep safe zone in Syrian territories that runs along Turkey’s border, however, Turkey refused the idea due to the “lack of trust” in Washington.
The Syrian regime, according to an official source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, expressed “the Syrian Arab Republic’s strong condemnation of the brutal Turkish aggression against the city of Afrin, which is an integral part of Syrian territories,” and called on the international community to “condemn this aggression and take the necessary steps to stop it immediately.” (SANA)
The Russian position toward the Turkish intervention was conservative and focused on the importance of preserving the integrity of Syrian territories, while encouraging the self-administration to coordinate with the Syrian government. Russia repositioned its military police in Afrin away from confrontation areas.
As for the Syrian opposition, the National Coalition announced its support for Operation Olive Branch in a statement circulated one day after its launch, in order to rid Afrin of the YPG. Numerous armed factions have also stated their support for the attack and participated in it directly from both Syrian and Turkish territories.
Initial Losses … Permanent Scars
Afrin has enjoyed relative stability since 2012. Many of the displaced have settled there, due to its booming economic activities as a result of its resources and location among several unstable areas. The city’s economy also flourished after battles erupted between Hayat Tahir al-Sham and other factions in Idlib city and countryside last July. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seized control over Idlib, which prompted Turkey to close the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The commercial route was then switched to the Bab al-Salamah border crossing north of Aleppo. Convoys carrying oil, building materials, and other basic goods started to enter the crossing towards the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib governorate, passing through Afrin.
However, after the launch of Operation Olive Branch, this commercial route was halted, negatively affecting Afrin, opposition areas in Idlib city and countryside, and Hama countryside (Inab Baladi). According to SANA, the Turkish assault resulted in the death of eighty-six civilians and left another two hundred injured in just one week, in addition to the displacement of thousands of civilians from their homes and villages, and major destruction in homes, infrastructure, and historical ruins (SANA). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the confrontations have left more than one hundred and ten dead in the ranks of Syrian fighters allied with Turkey and the YPG since last Saturday, as well as the death of thirty-eight civilians, most of whom died as a result of Turkish bombardment. The Turkish army said that “at least three hundred and ninety-four terrorists were neutralized” in the operation, whereas two Turkish soldiers were killed on Tuesday, raising the number of Turkish soldiers who have been killed since the start of the operation to five, in addition to forty injured soldiers. (AFP)
The danger in the Afrin battle is that it strengthens all elements for the continuation of the conflict in Syria as a result of the direct participation of the Turkish army in the fighting and the bombardment of an area that was considered to be stable, with all the destruction, killing, and animosity that a military intervention carries. The battle deepened divisions between Syrians, as opposition factions have headed to fight Syrians in Afrin. This was used by some parties to politicize identity, taking advantage of Syrian, Kurd, and Arab nationalisms, and to justify violence against the other. The battle also constitutes a new form of war economy through providing direct incentives for some groups such as weapons and financial support, or indirect incentives by allowing the seizure of property and the control of new routes for smuggling; in addition to the negative incentives such as blockades, displacement, and deprivation of the most basic elements of life.
Vienna … A Meeting in Lost Time
26-27 January 2018
Syrian peace talks were concluded on Friday in Vienna without any progress in solving the seven-year-old crisis. The Syrian opposition received a Russian commitment to a ceasefire in the besieged eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, starting at midnight Friday. However, the deal did not hold up.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the bombardment of eastern Ghouta, which is controlled by the opposition, continued early Saturday after a spokesperson for the opposition had announced late Friday that Russia pledged to seek a ceasefire. (Reuters)
A group of five countries (United States, Britain, France, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), also called “the small group”, presented a paper supporting a political solution in Syria on Thursday 25 January. The paper included proposals regarding the constitution, elections, presidential and governmental powers, and the status of security apparatuses, according to Resolution 2254. The paper focused on limiting the president’s powers in the amended constitution, while expanding the powers of the prime minister and giving powers to “provincial governments”. The paper also focused on the importance of including all Syrians at home and abroad in the new electoral law. It stressed the importance of reforming the security apparatuses and subjecting them to civil authorities to ensure accountability (Al-Jazeera). The delegation of the Syrian government to Vienna rejected the non-official paper altogether.
Sochi … Dialogue without the Opposition
28 January 2018
Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres has decided to ask Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Conference in Sochi on 29 and 30 January, despite the lack of progress in the Vienna negotiations and the Syrian Negotiation Committee’s declaration that it will boycott the conference. Major Kurdish forces have also declared that they will not participate in the conference.
According to the Middle East newspaper, the conference will focus on two documents: the final statement that includes the acknowledgement of the twelve principles set by the Special Envoy which were developed according to a draft prepared by the consultant of the Special Envoy Vitaly Naumkin, and an appeal to the Syrian people; in addition to the formation of three committees: the Sochi Conference Committee, the Constitution Committee, and the Elections Committee.
The conference has sparked wide controversy since its announcement. Most opposition forces fear that it will be a substitute for the Geneva talks and that Russian supervision over the preparation and invitations will be used as leverage by the regime to exclude the opposition’s demands, including commitment to political transition according to Security Council Resolution 2254.
United States in Raqqa … Stability without Reconstruction
22 January 2018
The Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said after a visit to Raqqa that the civil mission was not to rebuild but to help civilians return home by clearing roadside bombs, lifting the rubble, restoring electric power, and fixing water pipes. He added: “The mission for us is stabilization not reconstruction… Our part of it is restoring essential services and there is a lot of work to do.” He said that he would be heading to Europe in the coming days to press allies to help in stabilization efforts.