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.
US Conditions for Withdrawal
6 January 2019
US National Security Advisor John Bolton set out conditions for the US troops withdrawal from Syria, saying that allies must be protected.
Bolton’s statements came during a visit to Israel, indicating a more gradual troop withdrawal than the one previously set by US President Donald Trump.
After meeting the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bolton said that certain conditions must be present including guaranteeing the safety of Kurdish allies before US forces withdraw from Syria.
He also said on Sunday that not all the two thousand US troops may be withdrawn, adding that the withdrawal will take place in northern Syria and that some troops would remain in al-Tanf base in the south as part of the efforts to confront Iranian presence.
“Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. And once that is done, then you talk about a timetable,” said Bolton who will head to Turkey after Israel.
Bolton’s visit comes as a part of the US efforts to reassure allies regarding Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw troops from Syria.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met Netanyahu last week, will start an eight-day tour on Tuesday that will include Amman, Cairo, Manamah, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat, and Kuwait.
The Opposition is Against Reconciliation with Damascus
6 January 2019
Syria’s chief opposition negotiator, Nasr Hariri, said on Sunday he was surprised by countries rebuilding ties with the Syrian government and urged them to reverse their decision. Arab countries, including some that once backed the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad, are seeking to reconcile with him after decisive gains by his forces in the war, aiming to expand their influence in Syria at the expense of non-Arab Turkey and Iran.
The United Arab Emirates re-opened its embassy in Damascus last month. Additionally, Bahrain said that both its embassy in Syria, and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Manama, had been operating “without interruption”.
“We do not have the power to stop this reconciliation,” Nasr Hariri told reporters in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. He added: “We still hope there is a possibility for these countries to revisit their decisions and realize that the real and solid relation should be with their brothers of the Syrian people not with the regime that has committed all these crimes.” He stressed: “The regime in Syria is a war criminal regime. Bashar al-Assad will remain a war criminal even if thousands of leaders had a handshake with him.”
Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended in 2011 in response to the government’s violent crackdown on the “Arab Spring” protests. For Syria to be reinstated, the League must reach a consensus. “The kingdom is still against reconciliation efforts with the regime. The kingdom is confronting the Iranian sectarian project in the region,” Hariri said referring to Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s Allies on its Border
5 January 2019
The main Turkish-backed rebel army has deployed along frontlines close to extremists’ positions in northwest Syria to repel any new militant advance after an offensive that expanded their control over the country’s last rebel-held enclave, rebels and residents said.
Tahrir al-Sham, formerly affiliated to al Qaeda, entered on Sunday the town of Atareb, days after capturing from their mainstream rivals the strategic town of Darat Izza, both in the western Aleppo countryside, in a military campaign that has since spread across Idlib and areas near the Turkish border.
A convoy of Tahrir al-Sham fighters entered the densely populated town of Atareb after forcing its leaders to hand over control by threatening to storm it if mainstream rebels opposed to their hardline Islamist ideology do not leave.
The offensive by Tahrir al-Sham has alarmed the National Army, the main Turkish-backed rebel force aimed at unifying disparate factions in the northwest.
“We took a decision to repel the aggression by Tahrir al Sham on the Aleppo and Idlib countryside,” their spokesman Major Youssef Hamoud said. “Tahrir al-Sham seeks to end the presence of the National Liberation Front and control all of Idlib,” Hamoud added.
Erdogan – Putin… A New Summit
6 January 2019
Turkish and Russian media reports said that a summit between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be held in the near future to discuss new developments in Syria after Washington’s decision to withdraw its forces from that country.
The summit is expected to be held later this month, according to the official Anatolia news agency.
Russian media reported the Russian presidential spokesman as saying that the two presidents agreed on the need to hold a summit in the near future.
Turkey backs Syrian opposition forces, whereas Russia and Iran back the government.
The question now arises as to whether Turkey will take the primary responsibility for fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) after the withdrawal of the US troops from Syria.
Two British Soldiers Wounded
4 January 2019
Two British soldiers were wounded on Saturday in eastern Syria as a result of a rocket launched by ISIS, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The SOHR said the two soldiers are members of the US-led international coalition against jihadists.
The head of the SOHR Rami Abdul Rahman told the AFP that the two soldiers were taken by a helicopter to receive treatment.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was killed in this attack near al-Sha’feh in Deir Azzor governorate.
The last remaining pocket for ISIS in Syria is in Deir Azzor governorate, not far from the Iraqi border.
The international coalition has been providing support for the SDF, which launched an offensive in September against jihadists in this area that includes Hajjin, al-Souseh, and al-Sha’feh.
The SDF were able to retake Hajjin after weeks of fighting.
Kurds: Deal with Damascus is “Inevitable”
4 January 2019
Redur Khalil, a senior official in the SDF, stressed that reaching a deal with Damascus over the future of their autonomous Kurdish administration is “inevitable,” insisting that this deal should allow Kurdish fighters to stay in their areas with the possibility of them joining the ranks of the Syrian army.
“Reaching a solution between the autonomous administration and the Syrian government is inevitable because our areas are part of Syria,” Khalil told the AFP in the city of Amuda (northeast).
Marginalized for decades, Kurds were able to carve out a de facto autonomous region across an approximate thirty percent of the nation’s territory. They received large support from the United States, however, Washington’s abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria compelled them to rethink their position.
Khalil talked about “positive signs” in these negotiations, adding that “the deployment of government forces on the northern border with Turkey is not ruled out because we belong to the Syrian geography, but matters still need to be sorted regarding how these areas will be administered.”
“We still have some differences with the central government, which need negotiations with international support,” Khalil said, adding that government backer Russia could act as a guarantor state because it is a “super power and has influence over political decisions in Syria.”
According to Khalil, Kurds insist on establishing “a new constitution that guarantees the rights of all citizens, and that nationalities and ethnicities have guaranteed constitutional rights, with the rights of the Kurdish people in the forefront.”
He also referred to “joint interests” with Damascus such as “Syria’s unity and sovereignty over all of its territory,” and that “(natural) resources are owned by the Syrian people,” as well as the agreement on “fighting political Islamic intellect.”