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.

Idlib in the Eye of the Storm

26-29 July 2018

After the seizure by the government forces of the southern part of the country, focus shifted to Idlib where two and a half million people live, half of which are displaced people, in addition to forty to fifty thousand militants including extremist elements. Opposition factions formed a new army to confront government forces heading towards Idlib governorate, a source in the opposition said.

“Opposition factions have unified, most importantly the Syrian Liberation Front, Levant Liberation Committee (Tahrir al-Sham), the National Front, Islam Army (Jaish al-Islam), and the Free Idlib Army within a new army called the Conquest Army (Jaish al-Fat’h) and with more than seventy-five thousand fighters to confront government forces that have started to mobilize towards the area from the southern and western countryside of Aleppo, the western countryside of Idlib, and the countryside of Lattakia. Each front has been given its assignment,” said the source.

The source expected military operations to begin at the end of August, after the exit of the residents of Kfraya and al-Fou’a from the countryside of Idlib. Government forces started to send major military reinforcements to the north and west of Syria.

On the other hand, the Head of the Syrian Negotiating Committee Nars Harir ruled out a battle in Idlib governorate because it “would not be easy,” based on Turkish “guarantees” to prevent this battle, which the government and its allies are pushing for.

The government’s current priority is to retake control of Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an interview with Russian media published on Thursday. “Our objective now is Idlib, although it is not the only objective,” said al-Assad. “There are territories in eastern Syria that are under the control of different groups. Therefore, we will advance towards these areas, and military officers will set the priorities. Idlib is one of these priorities,” he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country is planning to host a summit regarding developments in Syria in September with Russian, French, and German participation. The future of Idlib will be on the table in the meeting of the sponsors of the Astana process (Russia, Iran, and Turkey) in Sochi on Monday and Tuesday.

 

A Bloody Day in Sweidaa

26 – 27 July 2018

The Druze-majority Sweidaa governorate laid to rest its citizens who were killed in attacks carried out by ISIS that left more than two hundred and fifty people dead in the biggest jihadist operation in this area since the onset of the conflict in Syria since 2011.

Government forces along with local militants were able to repel the jihadist offensive in Sweidaa city and villages in the northern and eastern countryside. The latest report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that two hundred and fifty-two people were killed, including one hundred and thirty-nine civilians, and the rest were pro-government fighters, the majority of which are “local residents who took up arms to defend their villages.”

The tally has gradually increased since Wednesday morning with the death of some of the injured and the discovery of new civilian bodies; the SOHR said that they “were executed inside their homes, in addition to the death of some people due to their injuries.”

ISIS began the attack on Wednesday morning with four suicide attacks in Sweidaa city that coincided with similar attacks in the countryside. It then launched an attack on villages and took control over some of them.

After several hours of bombardment and clashes, government forces were able to repel the offensive, according to the SOHR and official media.

Sixty-three ISIS militants, including seven suicide bombers, were killed in the attack and the subsequent bombardment and clashes, according to the SOHR.

On Thursday, the official Syrian television broadcasted live images from the funerals of those who died in Sweidaa countryside amid an atmosphere of sorrow and anger.

Coffins draped with the Syrian flag were placed at the center of a hall where hundreds of Druze sheiks and youth gathered.

Some young men carried portraits of the victims, which were also placed on top of each coffin. At least two men carrying machine guns were dancing, while others were clapping and chanting.

The International Committee for the Red Cross condemned the attacks on its Twitter account, saying “From Sweidaa… Bad news. Civilians are not targets.”

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks in two separate statements on Wednesday, saying that the “soldiers of the caliphate” carried them out in Sweidaa city and countryside.

“Elements from the terrorist ISIS organization committed a barbaric and ugly crime that left hundreds of martyrs and injured” in Sweidaa, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mou’alem said on Thursday.

This is the biggest assault on the governorate, which has mostly stayed immune to the conflict. Government forces control all parts of the governorate, whereas the presence of ISIS militants is restricted to a desert area on its northeastern outskirts.

After being ousted from vast areas in Syria and neighboring Iraq, ISIS is still capable of carrying out bloody attacks starting off from pockets and desert areas.

Government forces expelled ISIS from neighborhoods in southern Damascus, while hundreds of militants were evacuated from Yarmouk camp and surrounding neighborhoods to the Syrian desert that extends from central Syria all the way to the Iraqi border and includes parts in Sweidaa governorate.

Since being evacuated, jihadists have carried out attacks on government and pro-government positions in the desert and surrounding areas, according to the SOHR.

Local social media networks posted what they said were pictures of ISIS militants who were killed during the clashes on Wednesday. They reported that some of them had IDs indicating that they were from Yarmouk camp.

 

Return of the Flag to the Liberated Rubble

27 July 2018

Some three hundred Syrian soldiers and civilians held a symbolic celebration after the government regained control of Qonaitera city in the south and resulted in the departure of opposition fighters.

The city of Qonaitera, which is semi-deserted and devastated after Arab-Israeli wars in the 1960s and 1970s, is located in the demilitarized zone near the part of the Golan Heights that Israel occupies.

Opposition factions and Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) took control of the city after the onset of the conflict in Syria in 2011.

Government forces have almost full control of the borderline with the occupied Golan Heights, after taking back most of Qonaitera governorate in a military operation that was followed by a settlement agreement brokered by Russia with factions stationed there, which resulted in the departure of hundreds of militants and civilians to northern Syria last week.

To “celebrate” this victory, three hundred people, including soldiers, civilians, and militants who agreed to hand over their weapons, gathered in the city and held a symbolic ceremony, raising the Syrian flag in the square.

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was placed on a destroyed memorial at the Tahrir Square, according to the AFP’s reporter who took part in a government-supervised tour.

 

Controversy over the Terms of Reconstruction

28 July 2018

On Friday, Russia urged global powers to help Syria revive its economy and bring back refugees, while its ally Damascus continues its campaign to restore territories it lost control over in the conflict that has been ongoing since 2011.

Russian Deputy Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky to the UN called for an end to unilateral sanctions against Syria, saying that countries should not link aid to their demands of political change to Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“Reviving the Syrian economy” constitutes “a crucial challenge”, with Syria suffering from severe shortage in construction material, heavy equipment, and fuel to rebuild areas totally devastated during the battles, said Polyansky to the UN Security Council.

“It would be wise for all international partners to join assistance in Syrian recovery efforts, to eschew artificial linkages to political momentum,” he said.

France, however, clearly said that there will be no reconstruction aid for Syria unless Assad agrees to a political transition that includes a new constitution and elections.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council that Assad was scoring “victories without peace” and that political talks were needed for a final settlement.

“We will not take part in the rebuilding of Syria unless a political transition is effectively carried out with constitutional and electoral processes” conducted “in a sincere and meaningful way,” said Delattre.

A political transition is an “indispensable” condition for stability, he said, adding that without stability, “no reason can justify France and the European Union’s financing of reconstruction efforts.”

This month Russia presented proposals for the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt that would involve international financial support.

 

A Kurdish-Baathist Roadmap

28 July 2018

On Saturday, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), announced after a meeting with representatives from Damascus the formation of bilateral committees to advance negotiations in order to develop a roadmap that would lead to decentralized rule in the country.

These are considered the first formal public talks between the SDC and Damascus to discuss the future of the self-administered areas in northern Syria. This step comes after the government regained control of vast areas in the country it had lost since the onset of the ongoing conflict in 2011.

The SDC’s visit to Damascus, which started on Thursday, came after an invitation from the Syrian government, according to a statement from the SDC posted on Facebook on Saturday.

The meeting held on Thursday resulted in “decisions to form committees at various levels to advance dialogue and negotiations to put an end to violence and war, which have exhausted the Syrian people and society on the one hand, and to place a roadmap that leads to a democratic and decentralized Syria,” according to the statement.

No official statement was issued from Damascus.

Throughout the seven year conflict, military confrontations on the ground between government forces and Kurdish fighters were a rare occurrence.

After decades of marginalization, Kurdish influence in Syria increased with the gradual retreat of government forces from their areas in 2012. They subsequently declared self-administration and then a federal system about two years ago in the Rogavav area (western Kurdistan).

The SDF, the backbone of which is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), controls around thirty percent of the country in northern Syria, making it the second dominant force on the ground after the Syrian army.

Damascus holds the Kurdish fighters’ alliance with Washington against them. The latter has provided air coverage for their military operations against ISIS through an international coalition and training, arms, and consultants on the ground.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier gave the Kurds an option to solve matters either through negotiations or military decisiveness.

 

“Voluntary” Return

28 July 2018

On Saturday, the General Directorate for Security in Lebanon secured the voluntary return of seven hundred and twenty-two Syrian refugees from Shab’a in southern Lebanon and Middle Bokaa’ in eastern Lebanon through al-Masna’ border crossing east of Lebanon towards Syrian territory.

“As part of the follow-up to Syrian refugees wishing to voluntarily return to their towns, the General Directorate for Public security and in coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has secured the voluntary return of seven hundred and twenty-two Syrian refugees from Shab’a and Middle Bokaa’ through al-Masna’ border crossing towards Syrian territory.”

The Director General for Public Security Major General Abbas Ibrahim said that the upcoming period will witness the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Syria.

It is worth mentioning that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is about one million and eight hundred and fifty thousand refugees. The General Directorate for Public Security has secured the return of hundreds of them in coordination with the UNHCR.

This comes after a visit by the Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentyev to Damascus, Beirut, and Amman to discuss the return of refugees from countries neighboring Syria.

 

Torture Lists

28 July 2018

The government’s disclosure of lists of detainees who died under torture “reveals the extent of war crimes and crimes against humanity inside government prisons,” said vice president of the Syrian National Coalition Badr Jamous. “Neither the UN nor the international commission of inquiry can condone this,” he added.

In recent days, the government handed over records of deceased people from different governorates who died under torture in various prisons. Human rights activists said that the lists included a thousand detainees from the city of Darya in Damascus countryside, seven hundred and fifty from Hasakeh, five hundred and fifty from Aleppo, four hundred and sixty from al-Mou’damieh, and thirty from Yabroud.

The goal from this disclosure is to “alleviate the crisis when orders to free detainees are given by Russia,” Jamous said. He added that the government killed tens of thousands of detainees, and revealing the matter all at once would be a great shock. “We are also fearful that the killing will go on in prisons to eliminate as many people as possible because of international silence,” he went on to say.

Jamous also said that disclosing these lists, withdrawing ID’s of the deceased, and issuing death certificates for them would help Damascus in confiscating property according to Law Number 10, which the government plans to use to carry out major demographic changes in the county.