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.
War in Idlib
7 June 2019
Battles intensified in northwest Syria on Friday after opposition fighters mounted an attack to repel an army offensive that has pounded the country’s last major rebel stronghold for weeks.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said that “the army absorbed the attack by terrorist groups on frontline positions” after fierce clashes with militants overnight. It said insurgents fired shells at a village in the northern Hama countryside.
Opposition factions said they seized three key villages in the Hama countryside late on Thursday in their counterattack. They denied reports that government forces had recovered the positions and said army units were suffering heavy losses as fighting raged on Friday.
The violence in Idlib governorate and a strip of nearby Hama has marked the biggest military escalation between the Syrian army and opposition forces since last summer. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, many of them sheltering at the Turkish border from air strikes that have killed scores of people.
The bombing has shut down fifty-five medical facilities since late April, the UOSSM aid group that operates in opposition territory said on Friday.
Hostilities have hit dozens of health facilities and schools, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says. “It is appalling … and it must be brought to an end,” OCHA spokesman Jens Larke told reporters in Geneva on Friday. Even in hospitals that have not been hit, he added, “they fear that they may be hit. So the doctors, the healthcare personnel are leaving, the patients are not going.”
3 June 2019
The Kremlin rebuffed criticism from US President Donald Trump of Russian and Syrian government military action in Idlib, saying on Monday it was needed to shut down opposition attacks being launched from there. Trump on Sunday urged Russian and Syrian government forces to stop bombing Idlib, following a Friday Kremlin statement that signaled Moscow would continue to back a month-long Syrian government offensive there.
The assault has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis as Syrians displaced by the fighting seek shelter at the Turkish border. More than two hundred thousand people have fled since strikes began at the end of April, according to the United Nations.
When asked about Trump’s criticism on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said militants were using Idlib as a base to launch attacks against civilian and military targets, something he called unacceptable. “Of course strikes by militants from Idlib are unacceptable and measures are being taken to neutralize these strike positions,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
He said Turkey bore responsibility for ensuring such attacks from Idlib did not happen under a deal reached between Russia and Turkey in September. The agreement provided for the establishment of a demilitarized zone in Idlib and called for it to be free of all heavy weapons and jihadist fighters. Turkey has called for a ceasefire in Idlib, the last significant opposition stronghold, to prevent more civilian deaths and a possible new surge of refugees fleeing the fighting.
Farwell to al-Sarout
9 June 2019
Thousands of people participated in the funeral on Sunday of a Syrian soccer star turned fighter who became an icon of the revolt against the government. Abdul Baset al-Sarout, 27, died on Saturday from wounds he sustained in northwest Syria, where an army offensive has pounded the last major opposition bastion for weeks.
Once a well-known goalkeeper from the city of Homs, al-Sarout gained a new kind of fame when the popular uprising against the government erupted in 2011. He was dubbed the “singer of the revolution” for chanting ballads at rallies that eulogized slain activists and vilified the government.
After the iron-fisted crackdown on the protests, al-Sarout took up arms and became a wanted man. His path mirrored the uprising’s spiral into an armed fight to the death between Damascus and the myriad militias and guerrilla bands that the conflict spawned. Al-Sarout’s body was moved from a hospital in Turkey, which backs the opposition, across the border on Sunday, with a convoy of cars and motorcycles following the coffin into Syria. Four of al-Sarout’s brothers and his father had already died fighting pro-government forces.
Displacement of Refugees
4 June 2019
Aid agencies warned on Tuesday that at least fifteen thousand Syrian children will be at risk of homelessness if the Lebanese government goes ahead with the planned demolition of “semi-permanent structures” built by refugees in southern Lebanon,
Save the Children, World Vision, and Terre des Hommes Foundation said in a joint statement the government made a decision in April that dictated all structures made of materials other than timber and plastic sheeting will be knocked down in the border town of Arsal. Syrians have until June 9 to make the necessary changes to their structures, after which they will be demolished, the statement said. According to the aid agencies, in Arsal alone there are five thousand six hundred and eighty-two hard structures made of concrete that are set to be included in demolition plans, hosting more than twenty-five thousand people. Other villages in eastern Lebanon are expected to witness similar measures.
Burning of Crops!
4 June 2019
The United Nations said on Tuesday that fighters have set fire to thousands of acres of wheat and other crops in northwest Syria in a campaign that has turned food supplies in a “weapon of war” and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee.Satellite images released last week showed fields, orchards, and olive groves burning in the region where Syria’s Russia-backed army has been assaulting opposition forces in their last major stronghold.
Both sides in the fight had blamed each other for the destruction, the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) said. “The latest outbreak in violence in Idlib and north Hama has left dozens of casualties, burned several thousand acres of vital crops and farmland, and forced at least three hundred thousand people to flee their homes,” WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said. “Crops such as barley, wheat, and vegetables have been destroyed. Destruction to farmland and the agricultural sector is unacceptable,” he told a news briefing in Geneva.
Farmers had not been able to get to their fields or tend to their remaining crops during the harvest season, as the warring sides vied for control and territory, Verhoosel said. “The most important thing for us is that it is not acceptable to take one more time the civilian population hostage, to basically use food, distribution of food as a weapon of war,” he added.
US President Donald Trump on Sunday urged Russia and Syrian government forces to stop bombing Idlib, following a Friday Kremlin statement that signaled Moscow would continue to back a month-long Syrian government offensive there.
Fires had also broken out in other areas away from the fighting, amid high temperatures, the WFP said. In all, less than five per cent of Syria’s current crop had been affected, it added.
Repatriating ISIS Families
5 June 2019
Kurdish-led authorities said on Wednesday that two US women with Islamic State ties and six children were repatriated from northeast Syria, adding that their return came at the request of the US government. The eight Americans are among thousands of wives and children of foreign jihadists detained by US-backed forces who defeated the last ISIS foothold in eastern Syria in March.
The Kurdish-led forces are holding the women and children in already overflowing camps, on top of hundreds of foreign fighters in prisons. Kurdish leaders say they cannot hold the foreigners forever and warn that the prisoners pose a threat in northeast Syria.
Abdul Karim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the Kurdish-led region, said foreign governments now appeared more willing to repatriate citizens but “only humanitarian causes”. He said that he expected more foreign women and children to be sent home from Syria in the near future. Eight Americans were due to arrive in the United States on Wednesday, according to Omar.
The Kurdish-led administration, which controls swathes of north and east Syria, said it had helped repatriate them based on their “free and voluntary desire to return to their country.”
5 June 2019
The US Sixth Fleet said that a Russian fighter jet made a dangerous high-speed pass that put a US Navy surveillance aircraft at risk during an intercept over the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday, but Moscow said its pilot had behaved responsibly.
“While the Russian aircraft was operating in international airspace, this interaction was irresponsible,” the Sixth Fleet said in a statement. “The US aircraft was operating consistently with international law and did not provoke this Russian activity,” it said.
The Sixth Fleet said the Russian jet had made three intercepts, two of which it deemed to be safe. But it said one of the intercepts of the P-8A Poseidon involved a high-speed pass directly in front of the US aircraft that produced wake turbulence and “put our pilots and crew at risk.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said it had scrambled a Sukhoi Su-35 jet from its air base in Syria to intercept the US plane which it said had been approaching Russia’s Tartus naval facility on the Syrian coast, the RIA news agency reported on Wednesday.
Moscow denied its aircraft had acted irresponsibly, saying it had stayed at a safe distance and had returned to its base after the US aircraft changed course.