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.
The Fourth Envoy: Pedersen
31 October 2018
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen will be the new UN Syria envoy. Pedersen, who is currently Norway’s ambassador in China, has the informal approval of the council’s five permanent members – Russia, China, the United States, France, and Britain, according to Reuters. “In taking this decision, I have consulted broadly, including with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Guterres wrote. “Mr. Pedersen will support the Syrian parties by facilitating an inclusive and credible political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.”
Pedersen will replace Staffan de Mistura who will step down at the end of November, as the Syrian government, backed by Iran and Russia, has retaken most of the country and a political agreement remains elusive.
Pedersen is the fourth UN envoy to Syria after Kofi Anan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Staffan de Mistura. None of them were able to achieve any breakthrough towards reaching a political solution to the conflict. UN efforts are currently focused on trying to convene a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution.
“We will cooperate with the new special envoy, Geir Pedersen, the way we did with two previous special envoys if he refrains from using the methods of his predecessor. And he must declare his commitment to Syrian territorial integrity and to the people of the Syria; he cannot take the side of the terrorists like his predecessor did,” Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told a local newspaper.
ISIS Once Again
2, 4 November 2018
ISIS has resurfaced once again as it claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks, including the attack on Friday that targeted two civilian buses carrying Copts near the Alanba Samuel monastery in Egypt, which left seven dead and eighteen injured. ISIS also claimed responsibility for an attack on Shiite pilgrims in Iraq that killed three Shiite pilgrims near the city of Khanqin north-east of Iraq.
ISIS also claimed responsibility for a car bomb that exploded near a military position in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Sunday. Security forces in the city said one civilian was killed and several others were injured including civilians and militants.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had launched a counterattack against ISIS fighters in eastern Syria, after an ISIS attack in which it was able to retake some territory from the US-backed SDF. ISIS launched this attack in Deir Azzor governorate near the border with Iraq on Friday. Iraqi Shiite militants reinforced their ranks on the border and the Iraqi army said it was ready to counter any attempt by radicals to cross the border.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that around seventy SDF fighters were killed in the ISIS attack that came during a sand storm in which suicide bombers and women took part. The SDF said that it lost fourteen of its fighters. The spokesman for the US-led coalition forces said that ISIS was able to recapture some territory but the SDF “would come back with the support of the coalition.”
“This battle is give and take sometimes like most military fights and we have been saying from the beginning, this will be a difficult struggle,” said Colonel Sean Ryan, the coalition’s spokesman, according to Reuters. UN aid chief Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council on Monday up to fifteen thousand people remain within the ISIS-controlled area and around seven thousand people have in recent weeks been displaced by fighting from Hajin, the last major stronghold of ISIS in Syria on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) said it had reinforced along much of the border with Syria after the SDF was pushed back by ISIS. Iraqi army spokesman Brigadier Yehya Rasool said that the PMF, who were formally integrated into the security forces earlier this year, have indeed reinforced along the border.
Helicopters dropped leaflets to Iraqi forces and tribes warning them of attempts by ISIS fighters to cross the border in retreat from their fight with the SDF, the interior ministry’s security media center said.
On Wednesday, the PMF said that it had killed two ISIS commanders who ordered an attack last week on US-backed SDF along the Iraq-Syria border.
Aid Arrives at Rukban
3 November 2018
A UN aid convoy reached the Rukban refugee camp in Syria near the border with Jordan on Saturday, a member of the camp’s local council said. The UN said it was delivering food, sanitation and hygiene supplies, and other assistance to fifty thousand people in Rukban camp, an area under the control of opposition militants, in an operation expected to take three to four days.
A UN statement said that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is also taking part in the convoy, which will also include an emergency vaccination campaign for ten thousand children against measles, polio, and other diseases. “While this much-needed delivery is an important achievement, a longer-term solution must be found for the many civilians living in Rukban,” said Ali al-Za’tari, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria.
Turkey in All the Details
30 October & 1,2 November 2018
There have been various Turkish statements, initiatives, and field movements in regards to the Syrian issue, especially in northern Syria. Turkish officials have given details on the Idlib and Manbej agreements and their statements include a declaration for a new and imminent large-scale military operation. This demonstrates the expansion of the potential Turkish role in Syria’s future alongside the pivotal Russian role.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump discussed the situation in Manbej and Idlib in northern Syria in a call on Thursday and stressed their determination to strengthen ties between the two countries, the office of the Turkish President said. Turkish and US forces began joint patrols on Thursday in Manbej, which was a source of dispute between the two sides in recent years after Kurdish forces took control over parts of it in a US-backed offensive to oust ISIS in 2016.
The SDF said on Friday that US forces have started patrolling the Syrian border with Turkey to defuse tensions after threats from Ankara. A spokesman for the US-led coalition said it carries out regular military visits in the region and had not increased patrols.
Turkish forces have shelled positions this week in northern Syria under the control of the SDF, which Washington trains and arms. The SDF, which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) spearheads, returned fire and pledged to respond to any more attacks.
Ankara has repeatedly warned it would launch a cross-border offensive east of the Euphrates River in Syria if the US military does not ensure the YPG’s withdrawal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday vowed to crush Syrian Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates.
The SDF general command said Turkish attacks led to a pause in its assault against ISIS militants in the eastern Deir Azzor region. Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for the US-led coalition, said on Thursday through an email statement that the suspension was still in place while talks continue.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that a total of two hundred and sixty thousand Syrians went back to an area north of Syria where Turkey carried out a cross-border operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield”. This came as “a result of the infrastructure work and security and stability in the region provided by the Turkish armed forces,” he added.
Turkey hosts more than three and a half million Syrian refugees who fled the conflict in their homeland. Some Turks view them as an economic burden and a threat to jobs.
On Tuesday, Turkey rejected Syrian government accusations that it is not meeting its obligations under an agreement to create a demilitarized zone around the opposition-held Idlib region, saying the deal was being implemented as planned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said after a four-way summit on Syria with Turkey, Germany, and France on Saturday that Ankara was fulfilling its obligations in Idlib, which with adjacent areas is the last stronghold of the anti-Assad insurgency. However, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in comments reported late on Monday that Turkey appeared unwilling to implement the deal. “The terrorists still exist with their heavy arms in this region and this is an indicator of Turkey’s unwillingness to fulfill its obligations. Thus, Idlib is still under the control of terrorism that is supported by Turkey and the West,” Moualem said in Damascus, according to the official news agency SANA.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Turkey was doing its best to fulfill difficult obligations in Idlib, but that “not everything was going as it was planned”. Russia did not see a threat that the agreement would fail, he added.
The Interfax news agency reported that the Russian foreign ministry accused Nusra Front militants in the Syrian Idlib governorate of trying to wreck a Russian-Turkish initiative to create a demilitarized zone in the opposition-held governorate. “There are still Nusra militants in Idlib who are not stopping their attempts to wreck the implementation of the memorandum that was agreed between Russia and Turkey,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, was cited as saying.
The leaders in the four-way summit stressed the importance of reaching a permanent ceasefire in Syria, saying that the constitution committee must meet before the end of the year. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of the Justice and Development Party on Tuesday that Turkey will ensure a more active international role after the summit.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that at least eight people were killed on Friday after government forces bombed the opposition-held Idlib governorate – the highest daily toll since a Russian-Turkish demilitarization zone was set up around the region. The SOHR said the deaths occurred in the town of Jarjanaz, which lies on the inner edge of the 15-20 km deep zone agreed in September.
Syrians’ Mental Health
30 October 2018
A public health insurance company in Germany issued a survey on the mental and health status of asylum seekers in Germany. According to the study published by Tagesspiegel newspaper on 30 November, more than six hundred thousand refugees and asylum seekers in Germany experienced at least one form of trauma, of which fifty-eight percent experienced repeated mental trauma. The study showed that the Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans were the most effected due to war experiences they went through in their countries, in addition to their refuge journey before they arrived in Germany.
According to the study, three out of four Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees were mentally and physically traumatized. The study indicates that the reason behind the mental deterioration for forty percent of the refugees who suffer mental trauma was direct war casualties caused by militants, while one third suffered mental trauma due to reasons related to kidnapping and twenty percent due to torture. The study also says that six percent of the traumatized refugees were victims of rape and sixteen percent of them witnessed killing, physical violence, or torture.
French “Arrest” Warrants
5 November 2018
France issued international arrest warrants against three senior Syrian intelligence officials in regards to the case involving two French-Syrian nationals, according to judicial sources on Monday.
The sources say that the warrants targeted the Chief of the National Security Bureau Major General Ali Mamlouk and two others for “collusion in torture, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”
The warrants were issued on 8 November but were announced on Monday according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
The two other officials are Major General Jamil Hasan, chief of the Airforce Intelligence, and Major General Abdel Salam Mahmoud who is responsible for interrogations in the Airforce Intelligence at the Mazzeh military prison in Damascus. The three officials are wanted in regards to the disappearance of Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh, a father and a son who were arrested in November of 2013. Their trace was lost after their detention in Mazzeh prison according to the International Federation for Human Rights.