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.
Northern Syria Between Turkey and the United States
7 December 2018
The Turkish-US working committee on Syria said on Friday that the two countries agreed to speed up efforts to put in place an agreement on Manbij, in the countryside of Aleppo, by the end of the year. Turkey and the United States reached the deal on Syria’s Manbij this year after months of disagreement, under which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is to withdraw from the city. Ankara, which considers the YPG a terrorist organization, says that the withdrawal has not happened yet. During a meeting on Friday, the two sides also agreed to continue joint work with regard to other areas, as mentioned in the Manbij roadmap. The official Anadolu news agency said that Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told the US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey that the United States should give up on building observation points in Syria.
Last month, the United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that his country is setting up “observation posts” along parts of the border between Turkey and Syria to help keep the focus on defeating ISIS in Syria. However, Turkey has expressed unease with the plans and has been angry at US support for the YPG, which is a main ally in the fight against ISIS.
9 December 2018
A former leader in the Free Syria Army (FSA), Mashhour al-Kanakri, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Da’el, in the countryside of Daraa on Sunday. According to Enab Baladi website, two unidentified gunmen shot al-Kanakri while he was in Da’el and he was killed instantly. Government forces did not comment on his death and no one has claimed responsibility for the assassination. Al-Kanakri was from the city of Da’el and held a leadership role in al-Jabha al-Janobieh Brigade (The Southern Front), which was affiliated with the FSA, before he settled his status and joined the government forces in July.
In Afrin, one person was killed and several others were injured on Sunday 9 December, after an explosive device was detonated in a car for the Sultan Murad Brigade, which is affiliated with the FSA and stationed in the town of Bolbol in Afrin countryside. This is the second explosion of its kind in one week, according to Enab Baladi, after another explosive device was detonated in one of the brigade’s car in the al-Mahmodieh district of Afrin, which left one person dead and another injured. No one claimed responsibility for this explosion either. This incident comes two days after the YPG declared the deaths of members of the Turkish army and the FSA, after targeting their positions in Afrin.
9 December 2018
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that it has gained new territory from ISIS in the Hajjin area in the countryside of Deir Azzor. The SDF stated that its forces were able to advance two kilometers and deploy thirty posts in al-Baghoz and deploy thirty-five new posts after repelling fierce ISIS attacks. On the other hand, the ISIS new agency Amaq said that the group’s fighters targeted a gathering of SDF fighters with a guided missile in the village of al-Bahra, east of Hajjin. SDF has been engaged in military operations with the support of the international coalition to control the Hajjin pocket in the countryside of Boukamal, east of the Euphrates. In the last two days, the US-led international coalition’s airplanes have intensified their airstrikes against Hajjin, the last stronghold for the group.
5 December 2018
The UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that the UN has reports of ISIS executing people who are perceived as cooperating with opposition fighters in Deir Azzor governorate in eastern Syria.
Speaking to a news conference in Geneva, Bachelet voiced deep concerns for seven thousand civilians who she said were in a trapped situation by the Islamic State fighters, which has prevented them from leaving Deir Azzor and the effects of the air strikes by the US-led coalition. She explained: “we also have reports of ISIS executing people perceived as cooperating with the SDF or other parties to the conflict,” adding that civilians were being used as “pawns and bargaining chips” in the conflict.
Attack on Damascus Airport?
9 December 2018
(Reuters and Enab Baladi)
The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) issued a report on Sunday saying that the Syrian air defenses had intercepted enemy targets around Damascus international airport, but later in the day SANA said that the attack had not happened. In its initial report the agency said: “our air defenses intercepted enemy aerial targets in the vicinity of Damascus international airport in southern Damascus.” The agency later removed the report from its website. Still, it quoted later a source at the Damascus international airport as saying “there was no attack on the airport and the air traffic is normal.” However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) declared that there had been firing near the airport. Several explosion sounds were heard in Damascus suburbs as air defenses were launched close to the airport, according to the SOHR.
Al-Ikhbarieh al-Sourieh, an official TV news channel, started its live coverage of the bombing near Damascus at ten in the evening, only to abruptly stop afterwards. Damascus Now network said that, the vicinity of Damascus airport and military positions south of Damascus, were subject to “unidentified” bombardment. Voice of the Capital network also mentioned preliminary information that confirms the targeting of a recently built depot in the vicinity of Damascus airport. Israel did not comment on the bombardment, a policy taken in several bombing events of military positions in Syria in recent months. These latest events come one week after a rocket attack that targeted Syrian government military positions in al-Kisweh, in the western countryside of Damascus, and southern Syria.
North Korea and Syria
4 December 2018
Officials said that Syria and North Korea’s foreign ministers met in Damascus on Tuesday and thanked each other for their support during years of international isolation. The Foreign Minister of North Korea Ri Yong Ho thanked Walid al-Moualem for Syria’s opposition to economic sanctions on Pyongyang, according to Syria’s foreign ministry. Moualem said Syria was grateful for North Korea’s support in international forums. UN monitors say the relationship has gone deeper than diplomacy and accused North Korea in February of cooperating with Syria on chemical weapons–a charge North Korea had denied.
Israel in 2007 bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in eastern Syria which it said was being constructed with help from North Korea and had been months away from activation. Syria, a signatory of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has always denied that the site was a reactor or that Damascus engaged in nuclear cooperation with North Korea. Both countries have faced international isolation, North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, and Syria over its nearly eight-year-old civil war.
Pressure on Refugees
6 December 2018
The Lebanese General Security announced a campaign to close violating shops that are owned or managed by Syrian citizens. The campaign includes various areas only in Akkar governorate, where the General Security is carrying out inspections of institutions and shops owned by Syrians, according to the state-run National News Agency.
In February of 2017, the Labor Ministry issued a decree stipulating conditions for Syrians to open investment projects in Lebanon. Under the decree, a Syrian project owner must have two or more Lebanese sponsors, in addition to paying due taxes. If the shop is small, the decree stipulates that the shop owner must employ a Lebanese citizen, in addition to paying taxes.
This decree led to the closure of tens of shops in various Lebanese governorates because their owners were not able to adhere to the required conditions. The Lebaneses constantly complain about competition from Syrian refugees in the labor market, and have repeatedly demanded that their commercial shops be closed.
Failure of the Return
7 December 2018
(Enab Baladi and Daily Star)
The Ministry of State for Refugee Affairs said that the Russian plan to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to Syria cannot be implemented from a practical standpoint. In a statement to the Daily Star on Friday 7 December, Minister Mouin al-Merehbi said that Russia does not have the capability to implement the plan because it did not and will not provide the necessary guarantees to encourage refugees to return. Merehbi added that the Russian plan has stalled, but Moscow did not officially acknowledge that.
In July, Russia announced a plan for the return of Syrian refugees to their country, saying that under the plan 1.7 million refugees would go back. Since then, Russia has sought to mobilize international support for its plan, however, it was faced with international refusal, especially after the European Union said that Syria “is not safe yet” for refugees to return.
Although Lebanon was one of the first countries to welcome the Russian plan, Merehbi statements indicate the failure of its implementation in Lebanon. Several Lebanese officials held meeting with Russian officials to discuss the implementation of the plan in Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri asked his counselor for Russian affairs to communicate with Russian officials to understand the details of the suggestions announced by Moscow. A Lebanese official close to the Russian initiative said the government vacuum in Lebanon has hampered the Russian plan in the country.