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.

The Istanbul Summit and Syria: Four Leaders and Four Positions

27 October 2018

Leaders of Turkey, Russia, France, and Germany called for preserving the ceasefire in Idilb governorate and a “political solution” for the conflict in Syria during a summit they held in Istanbul, Turkey on Saturday.

The meeting “stressed the importance of a lasting ceasefire (in Idlib) and the need to continue the fight against terrorism,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the final statement of the summit.

The statement praised the “progress” achieved in Idlib in regards to the establishment of a demilitarized zone and the withdrawal of fanatic groups according to the Turkish-Russian agreement reached in September.

The summit was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in addition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The four leaders affirmed their determination “to work together to create favorable circumstances to preserve peace and security in Syria” and “support a political solution and strengthen international consensus on this issue.”

They also called for “the formation of a constitutional committee and for it to convene in Geneva before the end of the year if conditions are favorable.” The final statement also said that the four countries “stressed the need to create conditions that provide for the voluntary and safe return of Syrian refugees.”

It is up to the Syrian people “inside and abroad” to decide the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, said Erdogan at the end of the Summit on Saturday.

The French president called on Russia to apply very clear pressure on the Syrian government to “ensure a permanent ceasefire in Idlib,” saying “we are counting on Russia to exert a very clear pressure on the government which very clearly owes it its survival.”

Moscow “reserves the right to help the Syrian government in eliminating any terrorist threat in Idlib in case the fanatics launch an attack,” said the Russian president in a press release.

“We have to push the political process forward, which should lead to free and open elections to all Syrians, including those abroad,” said the German chancellor.

The summit was not attended by two active countries in the Syrian conflict, the two rivals Iran and the United States. However, Macron called US President Donald Trump on Thursday to coordinate positions.

On the issue of Russian influence after victories of the Syrian government, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Saturday that Russia cannot “replace the United States” in the Middle East.

 

Bombing Idlib: Who’s Responsible?

26 October 2018

The military leader of the opposition National Front for Liberations (NFL) blamed government forces for bombing the buffer zone in Hama and Idlib governorates on Saturday.

The military leader, who asked for his name not to be identified, told a news agency: “government forces continue their breach of the Sochi agreement by bombing demilitarized areas controlled by NFL factions. Twenty-five shells fell on the outskirts of Mork city in the northern countryside of Hama, and the town of al-Taman’eh in the southeastern countryside of Idlib was also bombed.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that “government forces targeted the village of al-Raffeh in the southern countryside of Idlib with artillery bombardment, killing seven civilians including three children and three women.”

Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) controls this town which is located outside the demilitarized zone established by Russia and Turkey according to an agreement reached on 17 September. The agreement spared the governorate of Idlib a military offensive that Damascus hinted to for weeks.

The SOHR said the number of deaths is “the highest” in Idlib since the Russian-Turkish agreement.

The western outskirts of Aleppo city witnessed an exchange of gunfire between the factions and government forces for two consecutive days, according to the SOHR.

A child was killed in government bombing of the Kafr Hamra town in the western countryside of Aleppo, while one week before that three civilians were killed as a result of shells launched by opposition factions.

Since the agreement was announced, Idlib and surrounding areas have witnessed calmness on battle fronts to a great extent, however, there has been intermittent bombing from both sides.

The Russian-Turkish agreement provides for the establishment of a demilitarized zone in Idlib and surrounding areas. The withdrawal of heavy weapons has been completed as a first step, but jihadist factions were supposed to evacuate by mid-October.

Although jihadist have not withdrawn yet, both Moscow and Ankara have stressed that the agreement is being implemented.

Despite the agreement, Damascus has reiterated its intention to regain control of all Syrian territory, including Idlib.

Syria “will not allow Idlib to turn into new caves for terrorists,” the official Syrian news agency SANA reported the Syrian UN representative Bashar al-Jaafari as saying during a meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday.

“It is normal for the Syrian government to fight terrorism in Idlib to rid its people of terrorism and extend its sovereignty over it,” he said.

Idlib, which hosts around three million people, is the last stronghold of opposition and jihadist factions in Syria. The majority of Idlib is controlled by Tahrir al-Sham.

 

Bombing Before the Ink Dried

28 October 2018

Turkish forces bombed positions of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river in northern Syria, according to the Anatolia news agency on Sunday.

The news agency said that the bombardment targeted the Zor Maghar area, east of Ain al-Arab in northern Syria, and that it meant to prevent “terrorist activities”.

Turkey carried out an offensive against the YPG in the Syrian city of Afrin last year, and repeatedly said that it would target the YPG east of the Euphrates.

The bombardment came during the Istanbul summit as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to target “terrorist”, in a reference to Kurds east of the Euphrates.

Erdogan gave an ultimatum on Friday for those who are jeopardizing the security of Turkish border, and said that Turkey is determined to focus on Syrian Kurds east of the Euphrates.

Addressing a group of regional leaders in the Justice and Development Party in Ankara, Erdogan added that Turkey will focus on east of the Euphrates in Syria and not Manbej because of the presence of the YPG.

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group.

 

“The Sun Rises from Moscow”

26 October 2018

The chief negotiator of the Syrian opposition said during his visit to Moscow on Friday that the opposition is “seeking to reach an understanding” with Russia to find a political solution that ends the ongoing war in the country since 2011.

“We have strived and will continue to strive for dialogue and negotiations with Russia to achieve a political solution,” Hariri told reporters before he met the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“We think it is in Russia’s interest right now to look for a comprehensive political solution, it is in our interest as well,” he said.

“We all know that Russia is a country that has major influence on the Syrian issue, and influence outside the Syrian issue … we still believe that Russia is capable of seizing this this historic moment to help fix the relationship with the Syrian people.”

Hariri said that fixing this relationship requires Moscow “to adopt a rational political solution that not only takes the interests of the government, but also takes into account the people who revolted for eight years and paid a heavy price.”

Since the Russian military intervention in Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the Syrian opposition have repeatedly characterized this intervention as an “occupation”.

But Hariri’s remarks signaled the Syrian opposition’s readiness for more concessions following the government’s battlefield successes.

After the meeting between Hariri and Lavrov, Moscow said their talks had a “frank exchange of opinions” and that they stressed the need to settle the crisis as soon as possible.

 

Confrontation over the Syrian Constitution

25 October 2018

The UN Security Council held a session on Friday called for by the United States to discuss the Syrian crisis after Damascus refused the formation of a UN-sponsored committee to draft a new constitution.

UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura failed to acquire the Syrian government’s approval regarding the constitutional committee, which he was commissioned to form during a Syrian dialogue conference organized by Russia in Sochi in January.

De Mistura did not attend the Security Council session in person, but was present through video conference.

However, de Mistura told the Security Council in person last week that he had decided to resign from his position by the end of November and that he would work in the remaining period to overcome obstacles facing the formation of the constitutional committee.

In the last few months, de Mistura sought to form a constitutional committee that would include one hundred and fifty members to revive the negotiation track between the two sides of the Syrian conflict.

Both Damascus and the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee presented a list of fifty representatives. De Mistura, who was commissioned to present a third list of fifty names, told the Security Council that Damascus did not approve of the name he chose to take part in the committee, stressing the need for the committee not to be dominated by any side.

After choosing the members of the committee, fifteen members, representing the three lists, will be commissioned with making “constitutional reforms,” according to de Mistura.

The Syrian government and the opposition have different views regarding the tasks of this committee. Damascus restricts its powers to discussing the current constitution, while the opposition says that its objective is to draft a new constitution.

SANA reported the Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moualem, who met de Mistura on Wednesday, as saying that “this whole process should be under Syrian leadership and ownership, considering that the constitution, and anything related to it, is a purely sovereign matter that will be decided on by the Syrian people themselves without any foreign intervention, by which some parties and countries seek to impose their will on the Syrian people.”

Western countries have called on the UN envoy to form this committee as soon as possible to resume the political process after it was dominated by parallel diplomatic efforts led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Since 2016, de Mistura has headed nine rounds of indirect talks between Damascus and the opposition, with little progress to settle the conflict that has led to the deaths of more than three hundred and sixty thousand people since its onset in 2011.

 

A US Drone Storm on Hmeimeim

24 October 2018

The Russian deputy defense minister accused the United States of attacking the main Russian airbase in Syria. General Alexander Fomin said in a statement reported by TASS news agency that a US reconnaissance airplane took control of thirteen drones in order to attack the Russian Hmeimeim airbase in January.

TASS reported Fomin as saying during a security conference in Beijing that a US P-8 Poseidon airplane was on “manual control” of the drones as it flew near them.

On 5 January, more than twelve drones loaded with explosives attacked the Russian airbase in Hmeimiem and the marine base in Tartus west of Syria, in a night attack, according to a report from the Russian defense ministry that was released a few days after.

At that time, the Russian army said in a statement that it was able to overtake radio communication with some drones and control them, while other drones were destroyed.

The Russian army also said then that a US plane was flying over the Mediterranean and may be involved in the attack, without presenting any charges.

The Kremlin said that the presence of evidence implicating the United States in the attack on the Russian base is “extremely disturbing”.

 

ISIS Returns to Eastern Syria

28 October 2018

ISIS retook control of all areas it lost after the advance of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is a coalition of Kurdish and Arab factions, in the last enclave it controls in Deir Azzor governorate in eastern Syria, according to the SOHR on Sunday.

On 10 September, the SDF, with support from the US-led international coalition, launched a military operation against ISIS in the area of Hajeeen, in the eastern countryside of Deir Azzor near the Iraqi border.

These forces were able to advance and control several towns and villages. However, two weeks ago, ISIS launched a counter-attack, taking advantage of a sand storm in this desert region, according to the SOHR.

The Head of the SOHR Rami Abdurrahman told the AFP “in vast attacks that continued from Friday until early Sunday, ISIS was able to regain control over all the areas that the SDF had advanced to.”

A leader in the SDF, who did not wish to be identified, confirmed to the AFP that ISIS had indeed retaken control of all the areas it lost during the last seven weeks. He attributed this to the “sand storm and ISIS’s knowledge of the area more than our forces.”

The SDF has dispatched military reinforcement, according to the SOHR.

“Military reinforcements and heavy weaponry have been sent to the fronts. Some units will be replaced with more experienced and capable units,” said the leader in SDF, adding that “a new military campaign will be launched immediately after the reinforcements arrive.”

Since Friday, ISIS’s attacks have led to the deaths of seventy-two members of the SDF, according to the SOHR.

The battles have led to the deaths of around five hundred jihadists and more than three hundred fighters from the SDF since 10 September, according to the SOHR.

The international coalition estimates the number of ISIS fighters in the enclave to be around two thousand. The coalition spokesman Sean Ryan told the AFP on Saturday that “the sandstorm allowed an ISIS counterattack … but now the air is clear, the coalition will continue to increase air and fire support to assist our partners.”

ISIS suffered consecutive defeats in Syria in the last two years, and now only controls a few small pockets at the far end of Deir Azzor and in the Syrian desert east of Homs.

 

Flashfloods and Hell

28 October 2018

Anatolia news agency reported that six immigrants died on the Turkish border with Syria after they were swept away by flashfloods. The news agency said that the immigrants were trying to illegally cross into Turkey’s border with Syria in the Hatay region. The agency did not specify the nationality of the immigrants.

Turkey, which now hosts three and a half million Syrian refugees, was a main crossroad for more than a million immigrants who went by sea to the European Union in 2015. Many of them were fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

On a different note, a 44-year old Japanese journalist went back to his country and had rice balls prepared by his mother after spending three years as a hostage by fanatics in Syria, which was described as a physical and emotional “hell”.

Jumpei Yasuda, who resigned from his job in a Japanese newspaper to cover the Iraq war in 2003, arrived in Tokyo coming from Turkey, rekindling debate in Japan about journalism in war areas, which some sea as a reckless adventure and others see as a brave journalistic work.

TV footage showed the exhausted Yasude as he descended stairs on his way to the car waiting for him at Narita airport to take him to another building near the airport. To reporters’ calls of “Welcome home” he simply nodded with a strained smile as he disappeared down a corridor to where his family waited.

Later, his wife, a singer known as Myu, bowed deeply and apologized to a packed news conference at which Yasuda did not appear. “He would like to apologize for causing a fuss and making people worry about him, but fortunately he was able to safely return to Japan,” she said, sniffing back tears.

“He feels he has a responsibility to explain things to you as much as possible,” she added, but said this would have to wait until he had undergone medical checks.

Yasuda gave few details of his captivity but told his parents, who were also there, that he had worried they might not be alive, Myu said, adding that he ate some rice balls his mother had made for him “very happily”.