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 Highway

9 February 2020

Syrian government forces have recaptured more than six hundred square kilometers of territory so far in a campaign to seize control of the last rebel strongholds of Idlib and the Aleppo countryside, a statement from Syria’s armed forces said on Sunday.

Government forces are now closer than ever from controlling the Aleppo-Damascus international highway. They only have two more kilometers to recapture it in its entirety, after a new advance in northwest of the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Sunday.

In December, government forces with Russian support launched a wide offensive in Idlib and surrounding areas which are controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) and other less influential opposition factions.

The offensive mainly targeted the southern and southeastern countryside of Idlib and the adjacent southwestern countryside of Aleppo, where the M5 international highway passes, connecting Aleppo to the capital Damascus and running through Hama and Homs all the way to the southern border with Jordan.

Since the onset of the offensive, government forces have recaptured dozens of cities and towns in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo, including the city of Saraqeb most recently, which the M5 passes through.

Saraqeb at a Crossroad

8 February 2020

The Syrian army on Saturday took total control over the city of Saraqeb in Idlib, the meeting point of two international roads connecting several governorates.

This comes within the context of a wide offensive by government forces backed by Russian support that was launched in December in Idlib and surrounding areas, home to three million people.

The government offensive is focused on the southern and southeastern countryside of Idlib and the adjacent southwestern countryside of Aleppo, where the M5 international high passes, connecting Aleppo to Damascus and running through major cities like Hama and Homs all the way to the southern border with Jordan. Damascus is vigorously pressing to retake total control of this road.

The city of Saraqeb in the southeastern countryside of Idlib is of strategic importance because it is a meeting point between the M5 and another road that connects the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib with the governorate of Lattakia.

Turkish Deadline

8 February 2020

Turkey threatened on Saturday to respond to any attack against its military positions in Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, one day after officials said that forces allied to Damascus surrounded three Turkish army posts.

Turkey established twelve observations posts in Idlib to confront any offensive by Syrian government forces under a deal with Russia. It sent one hundred and fifty vehicles along with special forces and ammunition to reinforce these posts. Officials said on Friday that Syrian government soldiers surrounded three of the posts.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave Syrian an ultimatum to pull out its soldiers from the military observation posts by the end of February after eight Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian government forces on Monday.

A Russian delegation held talks on Saturday with Turkish officials on the situation in Idlib.

Turkey and Russia have closely worked together in recent years to find a solution to the situation in Idlib, even though the two side have conflicting positions in the conflict.

“ISIS” Bride

7 February 2020

A woman who got married to an ISIS militant in Syria when she was a teenager lost an appeal against a decision by the British government to strip her of her nationality on Friday. The immigration appeal court said the stripping Shamima Bijom of her British nationality does not mean that she has become stateless.

Bijom will appeal the decision, her lawyer said in a statement, adding that it will be “difficult to explain” the decision to Bijom because the court accepted the idea that she is in “great danger” inside a refugee camp but did not allow her to go back to Britain to continue her legal battle.

It is worth nothing that Bijom’s British parents were born in Bangladesh, and the court has argued that this means she is not stateless because she can claim her Bangladeshi citizenship.

Bijom left London in 2015 when she was a fifteen-year-old student with two of her friends to join the terrorist group.

Chemical Leak

7 February 2020

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Thursday criticized two of its previous inspectors for leaking confidential documents that question the results reached by the agency on the chlorine attack in 2018 in the Syrian city of Douma, refusing to identify them as “whistle-blowers.”

In late May of 2019, OPCW chief Fernando Arias announced an investigation to look into the leaking of an internal document on the conclusions the OPCW reached regarding the Douma attack in April 2018, which killed forty people.

In November 2019, Arias defended once again the report after another leak by the Wikileaks website, which posted an email from one of the members in the investigation team in Douma. The email accused the OPCW of changing the original results of the investigators to make the evidence of a chemical attack look more definitive.

Western countries, led by the United States, held the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the attack. Moscow, one of Damascus’s key allies, has used the two leaks to cast doubt the OPCW investigations.

Condemnation and Massacre

7 February 2020

Western countries at the United Nations on Thursday vigorously condemned the campaign by the Syrian government, with Russian support, to take control of Idlib governorate, considering it a “massacre.”

In an urgent UN Security Council meeting called for by the United States, Britain, and France, the US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said she is appalled at the developments of the situation. “[President Donald] Trump’s administration strongly condemns the Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah, and the military, barbaric, and uncalled for assault by Russia,” she said.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, announced the release of thirty million dollars to increase housing equipment and other basic aid for thousands of civilians stuck in a “humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Syria.

Plane in Danger

7 February 2020

The Russian army accused Israel of using a 320 Airbus plane with one hundred and seventy-two passengers on it as a shield to escape Syrian air defense missiles fired on Wednesday night in response to an Israeli strike near Damascus airport.

The Israeli air force launched strikes in the outskirts of the Syrian capital that was repelled by Syrian air defenses, according to a statement by the Russian defense ministry. The toll of the Israeli strike against several areas surrounding Damascus and south of the country has risen to twenty-three fighters including eight soldiers, in addition to Syrian and foreign fighters allied with Iran.

Since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Syrian army positions and those of its allies, including Iran and Hezbollah.

The “Honeymoon” Test

5 February 2020

The bloody battles between the Turkish army and Syrian forces in northwest Syria threaten to put an end to the “honeymoon” between Turkey and Russia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strengthened ties with Russia and established a close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the former survived a coup attempt in 2016, which was followed by widespread repression that was criticized by the West.

In the meanwhile, Syria – where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad’s government, whereas Ankara supports opposition factions – has turned into a prominent issue to strengthen the cooperation between the two capitals despite the conflicting interests.

This relationship, which Erdogan characterizes as “strategic,” has been disrupted for several weeks as a result of the situation in northwest Syria, in addition to the disputes about Libya, where the two countries support opposing parties.

The tension intensified on Wednesday when Syrian artillery targeted Turkish positions in Idlib governorate, killing eight people. Ankara immediately retaliated by bombarding government forces, in a development that killed at least thirteen Syrian soldiers.

A diplomatic row between the two countries erupted in 2015 when Turkish jet fighters downed a Russian jet fighter over the border with Syria. However, analysts have ruled out a similar crisis given the solid mutual interests in various aspects such as energy, defense, and commerce.

Half a Million Displaced

4 February 2020

More than a half million people, eighty per cent of whom are women and children, have been displaced as a result of the military campaign by government forces and their Russian ally in northwest Syria in one of the biggest displacement waves since the onset of the conflict which is coming near to completing its ninth year, said the United Nations.

Since December, government forces, with Russian support, have escalated their campaign in Idlib and its surrounding, home to more than three million people half of whom are displaced. Idlib is controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) and its allies, with other less influential opposition factions present. This escalation has left three hundred civilians dead and fifty-three medical facilities closed their doors last month, according to the World Health Organization.

Several towns have become deserted as their residents fled before the military operations reached them. The latest influx of displaced people is the largest since the onset of the conflict in 2011.

This situation is worsening the already bad humanitarian situation after four hundred thousand people were displaced between April and August as a result of a similar military campaign by Damascus, with support from Moscow, in that period.