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 email@example.com.
The Last Evacuation from Damascus
29 April 2018
Damascus reached an agreement with opposition factions that provides for the exit of opposition fighters from a site south of the Syrian capital that witnessed a military operation by government forces against ISIS fighters. This declaration came a week after the attack meant to oust ISIS fighters from the southern neighborhoods of the capital, including Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees.
The official Syrian news agency (SANA) said that an agreement was reached on Sunday to evacuate opposition fighters and their family members from areas controlled by the opposition, east of Yarmouk Camp.
SANA cited information about an agreement being reached between the Syrian government and armed groups south of Damascus in the towns of Yalda, Bibeela, and Beit Sahem with guarantees from the Russian army, adding: “the agreement provides for the exit of fighters and their families who wish to leave, and settlement of the situation for those who wish to stay after they hand in their weapons.”
This agreement is the most recent in a series of similar agreements, in which the government took control over areas near the capital after the withdrawal of opposition fighters.
This agreement in Yalda allows the government to deploy forces on the eastern side of Yarmouk Camp, after other units advanced towards the camp from its western side, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The SOHR said that eighty-five fighters from government forces and seventy-four fighters from ISIS were killed during the ten-day battle south of Damascus.
The Three “Guarantors”
28 April 2018
The foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, and Iran concluded a several-hour meeting on Saturday in Moscow, stressing the importance of the Astana talks to push for a political settlement for the conflict in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif held bilateral and tripartite meetings in Moscow. In a joint press conference held at the end of these discussions, the three ministers stressed the consensus of their views on Syria.
Russia and Iran, which support the Syrian government, along with Turkey, which supports Syrian opposition factions, sponsored the Astana talks that led to the establishment of four de-escalation zones in Syria.
Lavrov said that “the political dialogue in Astana has achieved results” more than other negotiation processes, emphasizing that the Astana talks “stand firmly on their feet” thanks to the “unique” cooperation between the three countries. Lavrov stressed that “Despite some differences, Turkey, Russia, and Iran have a common interest in helping Syrians.”
S-300 and Pragmatism
28 April 2018
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Friday in Washington that Israel is not concerned by Russia’s presence in Syria because Moscow is a “pragmatic” actor with whom deals can be struck.
“What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” said Lieberman in response to questions regarding the current alliance between Moscow and Tehran in Syria, during a forum held by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Lieberman, who himself is of Russian origin, said: “At the end of the day they are reasonable guys, and it is possible to close deals with them and we understand what their interests are.” He added, “Their interest is very different from our interest but we respect their priorities. We try to avoid direct frictions and tensions.”
These statements came two days after an interview he made with the Ynet news website, in which he threatened to attack the Russian S-300 air defense system, which Moscow intends to supply Syrian forces with, in case it is used against Israeli targets.
Moscow signed an agreement with Damascus in 2010, in which the former delivers S-300 air defense batteries, however Damascus has not yet received these missiles primarily because of Israeli pressure, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
A “Play” in The Hague
27 April 2018
Representatives of several Western countries in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) denounced what they called a “blatant farce” prepared by Russia when the Syrian delegation in The Hague confirmed that there had been no chemical attack on the city of Douma near Damascus.
According to this delegation, which took the stand in front of representatives of the OPCW in The Hague, with the participation of the Russian Ambassador Alexander Shulgin, the supposed chemical attack in Douma on 7 April, was nothing more than a play.
Britain, followed by France, the United States, and a number of EU countries explicitly denounced the Syrian delegation’s briefing.
“The OPCW is not a theatre,” Peter Wilson, Britain’s envoy to the agency, said in a statement, adding “Russia’s decision to misuse it is yet another Russian attempt to undermine the OPCW’s work.” On his part, France’s Ambassador to the OPCW, Philippe Lalliot, called the Syrian briefing in The Hague an “obscene masquerade” prepared by the Syrian government “that has been killing and using gases against its own people for more than seven years.”
Footage from Douma was widely circulated, in which men, women, and children were sprayed with water after a supposed chemical attack.
In a press conference held in one of The Hague’s hotels, a Syrian man named Khalil, who presented himself as a doctor from Douma, said: “Unknown men created chaos and sprayed people with water … we clearly saw that there were not any symptoms from the use of chemical weapons.”
Confiscating Property of the Refugees
27 April 2018
A decree by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which allows for the confiscation of Syrian refugees’ properties, was met with resentment by the German government.
The German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, citing a statement from the German foreign ministry, said in its Friday issue that the German government intends to consult with partners in the European Union on “how to confront these treacherous plans.” The ministry’s statement said: “With deep concern, we are following attempts by the Assad government to question, through suspicious legal rules, the ownership of property belonging to numerous Syrians who fled the country.”
The ministry said that the Assad government is seemingly attempting “to radically change the situation in Syria in favor of the government and its supporters, making it difficult for a large number of Syrians to go back.” According to the newspaper’s report, the German government is calling on the United Nations to adopt this issue. The ministry’s statement said: “We call on the supporters of the Assad regime, especially Russia, to do what they can to prevent the implementation of these laws.”
Assad signed a decree this April that allows the Syrian government to put in place developmental property plans. The decree obliges house owners to present proof of ownership of their property within thirty days or else they will lose their entitlement for their property, which will be confiscated by the government. It is difficult for many Syrian refugees, who fled from the Assad government, to carry out these rules under the current circumstances.
A Decline in Aid
24-15 April 2018
UN Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said on Wednesday that donor countries pledged 4.4 billion dollars to help the Syrian people and the region in 2018, at a time when the UN is seeking to bridge the financial gap of more than six billion dollars.
More than eighty high-level delegations participated in the conference, which was hosted by the European Union and the United Nations in Brussels, with the aim of mobilizing financial support for Syria.
Lowcock said that several major donors, including the United States, had not yet confirmed their pledges for this year because of ongoing internal budget wrangling, adding that despite the shortage in funding “there is no doubt that without holding such conferences and without the funding we guarantee, things would have been much worse.”
The conference, which was attended by representatives from most of the global and regional powers, sought to revive the stalled UN-led peace process.
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini called on Iran and Russia, the two main allies of the Syrian government, to “exercise pressure on Damascus so that it accepts to sit at the table under the UN auspices.”
The UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, who is trying to mediate a political agreement to end the conflict, said that he also did not expect a breakthrough after the conference, noting that military gains of the Syrian government will not be politically reflected on the negotiation table.