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.
Idlib: The Race Between War and Settlement
28 August – 2 September 2018
There were many appeals and warnings regarding the anticipated government attack on Idlib. On Sunday, Pope Francis appealed to all parties who have influence in Syria to protect opposition-held Idlib. “The winds of war are blowing and we are receiving troubling news about the risk of a possible humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, in the province of Idlib. I renew my heartfelt appeal to the international community and all the actors involved to use the tools of diplomacy, dialogue and negotiation to ensure the respect of international human rights and to safeguard civilian lives,” Francis said in his weekly blessing. (Reuters)
On Thursday, the UN called on Russia, Iran, and Turkey to avert a battle in Idlib which would affect millions of civilians and could see both militants and the government potentially use chlorine as a chemical weapon. More than a million Syrian children are at risk in case the Syrian army launches an attack on rebel-held Idlib governorate, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The agency has set up plans for providing clean water and food supplies for around seven hundred thousand potential refugees. An estimated 2.9 million people live in the northern region of Idlib, half of whom have been displaced from other areas in Syria as opposition supporters fled when government forces took over. (Reuters)
UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura called on the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Germany, France, and Egypt to participate in talks scheduled on 14 September in Geneva, according to a UN spokesperson on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that the United States considers any attack by the Syrian army on the rebel-held Idlib governorate as an escalation of the Syrian crisis, while the US State Department cautioned that Washington will retaliate in the event of a chemical attack by Damascus. The State Department said that the new US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffery would travel to the Middle East to underscore that “the United States will respond to any chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian government.” A spokeswoman for the German government said on Friday that Chancellor Angela Merkel expects the Kremlin to use its influence with the Syrian government to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the rebel-held northern region of Idlib. Merkel discussed the issue last week with both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Turkey also expressed its concern over the potential attack on Idlib. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that seeking a military solution in Idlib would be catastrophic and could lead to a new wave of refugees. A Turkish presidential decree published on Friday said that Turkey placed Tahrir al-Sham on its list of terrorist organizations. An implicit agreement between Turkey and Russia indicates that Tahrir al-Sham will be targeted in the anticipated attack.
On the other hand, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Thursday that government forces will go all the way in Idlib, and that the main objective of Damascus is Nusra fanatics. He said that Syrian forces would try to avoid civilian casualties. “We are taking the last step to end the crisis in our country and liberate all of our territory from terrorism,” said Muallem after talks with Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday. A source close to the Syrian government said that government forces are preparing a phased attack on Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in northwest of the country.
Russia has stepped up its military and media escalation in preparation for the attack on Idlib. The Russian defense ministry said that it would conduct large-scale military exercises in the Mediterranean on Saturday. The Kremlin said that failure to deal with the fanatics in the Syrian governorate of Idlib justifies this move. “This hotbed of terrorists (in Idlib) does really not bode anything good if such inaction continues,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The Russian defense ministry said more than twenty-five warships and submarines and thirty planes, including fighter jets and strategic bombers, would take part in the Mediterranean drills which it said would take place from 1 to 8 September. They would involve anti-aircraft, anti-submarines, and anti-mining exercises.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said that he told US officials this week that Russia is concerned by signs that the Unites States is preparing for new airstrikes against Syria and warned against “a groundless and illegal aggression against Syria.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday described militants in Syria’s last big rebel-held enclave of Idlib as a “festering abscess” that needed to be liquidated. He told reporters that there is a political understanding between Turkey and Russia on the need to distinguish between the Syrian opposition and people he described as terrorists in Idlib governorate. Moscow is discussing the situation in opposition-controlled Idlib governorate and the region of Afrin with Iran and Turkey as well as the government and the opposition, the Russian news agency reported the Russian Deputy Foreign Ministry Mikhail Bogdanov as saying on Wednesday.
The Russian army is carrying out talks with militant groups in opposition-held Idlib to reach a peaceful settlement, Russian news agency reported the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu as saying on Tuesday. The objective of these talks is to reach a peaceful solution similar to the settlements reached in eastern Ghouta and Daraa, he added.
28 & 30 August 2018
Talk of a political settlement continues side by side with the rhetoric of war. The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday that Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov discussed the options of a political settlement in Syria with Nasr al-Hariri, Head of the Negotiation Committee in the Syrian opposition. The statement said that the ministry stressed the need to establish dialogue between the Syrian government and the “constructive” opposition.
The United States will participate in UN-led talks in Geneva next month to discuss negotiations regarding a new constitution for Syria, an official in the US State Department said on Tuesday. “The United States has accepted the invitation by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to participate in the Geneva talks on 14 September,” the official added.
On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to achieve peace and security in Iraqi and Syrian regions not under Turkish control, adding that terrorist organizations in those areas would be eliminated.
Return on Television?
27 & 28 August 2018
Official media said that thousands of Syrians have begun to go back to Daryya on Tuesday for the first time since government forces recaptured it two years ago. The city was one of the main centers for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and suffered massive damage during the fighting, forcing most of its residents to flee. Civilians and militants who refused the settlement with the government were transferred through buses to opposition-held areas in the north, while others were transferred to government-controlled areas near the capital; the latter are most likely the ones returning to the city now.
The EU does not think that Syria is safe for refugees to return, an official in the European Union said in response to Russian efforts that seek the return of refugees to the war-torn country and the contribution of the international community in reconstruction projects. European foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss this issue later this month in Austria. EU officials predict that the bloc will stick to its position that it would not offer reconstruction money as long as President Bashar al-Assad does not let the opposition share power.
UNRWA and Trump’s Policy
31 August 2018
The United States halted funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) saying that its business model and fiscal practices made it an “irredeemably flawed operation.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that “the administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA.” The agency said it provides services to about five million Palestinian refugees, most of whom are descendants of people who fled Palestine during the 1948 war that led to the establishment of the state of “Israel”.
The UNRWA said that the US decision was a disappointment and surprising. It rejected US criticism that its programs are “irredeemably flawed”. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said that, “We reject in the strongest possible terms the criticism of UNRWA’s schools, health centers, and emergency assistance programs.”
Debate on Iranian Presence
28 & 31 August 2018
Israeli defense minister said that Iran has slowed down its long-term deployment in Syria, attributing this to Israeli military intervention as well as an economic crisis gripping Tehran as US sanctions are restored. “The Iranians have reduced the scale of their activity in Syria,” he said, adding that there was “no activity at this stage” in Iranian efforts to build missile production factories on Syrian territory.
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami visited Damascus on Tuesday and said that his country would maintain its presence in Syria. The two countries signed a defense pact that includes restoration of Syria’s military industry. He said that the pact confirms the support for the territorial integrity and independence of Syria, adding that it goes into effect the day it was signed. “In the eight-year war in Syria, factories of the defense ministry have been damaged and Iran will help reconstruct these factories,” he said.
2 September 2018
An official in the regional coalition supporting Damascus said on Sunday that the explosions heard in Mazzeh military airport near Damascus were a result of a missile attack and that Syrian air defenses responded to that attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the explosions were a result of an Israeli air strike that left a number of deaths and injuries.
However, Syrian official media said that the explosions, which were heard in the vicinity of Mazzeh military airport near Damascus early Sunday, were a result of an explosion in a weapons depot near the airport that was caused by an electric short-circuit. “A military source denied any Israeli attack on Mazzeh airport,” the Syrian news agency reported.