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.

 

Ankara “Communicating” with Damascus

3 February 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that his country has maintained low-level contacts with the Syrian government even though Ankara has supported the armed opposition who fought for years to topple the government. He said that intelligent services operate differently to political leaders. “Leaders may be cut out. But intelligence units can communicate for their interests,” Erdogan said. “Even if you have an enemy, you should not break the ties. You may need that later,” he added.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December Turkey and other countries would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election. Last month, Cavusoglu said Ankara was in indirect contact with Damascus via Russia and Iran.

Erdogan is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for talks on Syria in the Russian resort of Sochi on 14 February.

Al-Hol Children Freezing to Death

1 February 2019

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Friday that it asked the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to designate a site on route to al-Hol camp where civilians fleeing fighting in harsh winter can get aid after twenty-nine children died.

The SDF are fighting ISIS in the Hajin enclave of Deir Azzor governorate in northeast Syria. They are in “de facto” control of the zone, but have not replied to the request made two weeks ago, the UNHCR said.

Civilians, mainly women and children, are fleeing towards al-Hol camp, whose population has tripled in two months to thirty-three thousand.

At least twenty-nine children and babies are reported to have died in the camp in northeastern Syria over the past eight weeks, mainly due to hypothermia and malnourishment, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Near End of ISIS Pocket

29 January 2019

The acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Tuesday that ISIS is expected to lose its final bits of territory in Syria to US-backed forces within a couple of weeks.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by two thousand US troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with Islamic State in eastern Syria after helping drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

The SDF said on Tuesday that Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing the SDF to slow its advance to protect civilians.

“I’d say 99.5 percent plus of the ISIS-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians. Within a couple of weeks, it will be 100 percent,” Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon.

Senate Rebukes “Symbolic Withdrawal”

1 February 2019

The Republican-led US Senate advanced largely symbolic legislation on Thursday opposing President Trump’s plans for any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The Senate voted sixty-eight to twenty-three in favor of a non-binding amendment, drafted by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying it was the sense of the Senate that ISIS groups in both countries continue to pose a “serious threat” to the United States.

The amendment acknowledges progress against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria and Afghanistan but warns that “a precipitous withdrawal” without effective efforts to secure gains could destabilize the region and create a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or Russia. It calls upon the Trump administration to certify conditions have been met for the groups’ “enduring defeat” before any significant withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

Coalition Planes Target Syrian Army

3 February 2019

US-led coalition jets attacked a Syrian army position near the battle front against the ISIS pocket late on Saturday, causing damages and injures.

“U.S. coalition aircraft launched an aggression this evening against one of the Syrian Arab army formations operating in the Albukamal area in the southeastern countryside of Deir Azzor,” Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) cited a military source early Sunday. The attack injured two soldiers and destroyed an artillery piece, SANA added.

Our partner forces were fired upon and “exercised their inherent right to self-defense,” the coalition spokesman said, adding that the incident is under investigation.

Army Bombardment of Idlib

29 January 2019

Rescue workers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that Syrian army shells killed more than ten people on Tuesday in the opposition pocket in northwest Syria, where Russia and Turkey agreed on a truce in September.

The civil defense said Tuesday’s shelling hit the town of Maarat al-Numan, killing twelve civilians and injuring twenty-five, as well as other towns and villages in the southern part of the enclave. The SOHR said two children were among eleven people killed on Tuesday.

Syrian state news agency SANA said: “The army carried out precise operations against the positions of terrorist groups in the southern countryside of Idlib… Syrian Arab Army units in the northern countryside of Hama responded to terrorist violations of the truce in the de-escalation zone with concentrated attacks on their movement and infiltration towards military posts and villages.”

Targeting of the Salvation Government

29 January 2019

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a female suicide bomber targeted the headquarter of the National Salvation Government in Idlib, which is a governing council linked to Nusra, on Tuesday, killing one person and injuring three others.

The attack follows a series of attacks in the opposition-held northwest in recent months, where rival factions have fought for control.

US Ruling in Colvin’s Killing

31 January 2019

A US judge has ruled that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is liable for at least $302.5 million in damages for its role in the 2012 death of renowned American journalist Marie Colvin while covering the Syrian civil war for Britain’s Sunday Times.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson said in a ruling made public on Wednesday that the Syrian government was “engaged in an act of extrajudicial killing of a United States national.” Colvin (56 years) and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the besieged Syrian city of Homs in 2012 while reporting on the Syrian conflict.

Iranian-Syrian “Eternal” Deals

28 January 2019

Iran struck economic and trade deals with Syria on Monday. The Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said that Tehran reached “very important agreements on banking cooperation” with Syria. Iran will also help repair power stations across Syria and set up a new plant in the coastal governorate of Lattakia, he added.

Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis said Syria and Iran signed an agreement on Monday for long-term economic cooperation which includes industry, trade, and agriculture.

The two countries signed several memorandums of understanding during Jahangiri’s visit to Damascus which Khamis described as historic. Officials said they covered education, housing, public works, railways, investment, and other fields.

Safe Zone for Return of Refugees

28 January 2019

Turkey is aiming to form safe zones in northern Syria so that around four million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey could return, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday. Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan also said nearly three hundred thousand Syrians had already returned and that he expected millions of Syrian nationals would return to the safe areas.

US President Donald Trump announced in December the withdrawal of all US troops from Syria and Erdogan subsequently said they had discussed setting up a twenty-mile-deep safe zone in Syria along the border.

France Preparing for the Return of Jihadists

29 January 2019

The French Interior Minister said on Tuesday that his country is preparing for the return of dozens of French jihadists held by Kurdish authorities in Syria after the United States announced the withdrawal of its forces, marking a shift in Paris’ policy on the issue.

Government policy until now has been to categorically refuse to take back fighters and their wives. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has categorized them as “enemies” of the nation who should face justice either in Syria or Iraq.

“The Americans are disengaging from Syria and there are people who are in prison and held because the Americans are there and they will be released. They will want to come back to France,” Castaner said. “I want all those who return to France to be put immediately into the hands of justice,” he added.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by two thousand US troops and air support from nations including France, are holding about one hundred and fifty French citizens in north-eastern Syria, according to military and diplomatic sources.

Excluding families, officials estimate two hundred and fifty French jihadists are still fighting in Syria, including one hundred and fifty in the Hajin area, one of the final bits of territory held by Islamic State in eastern Syria, and one hundred others in Idlib governorate.