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.

 

Last Gasp for ISIS

10 February 2019

The US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) engaged in fierce battles, on Sunday, in eastern Syria as part of their “decisive battle” to oust ISIS from the last stronghold in its self-declared caliphate.

ISIS, which declared the Islamic caliphate in 2014 over vast areas it controlled in Syria and neighboring Iraq estimated to be around the size of Britain, has suffered major losses in the last two years. Its presence is now restricted to desert areas along the border between Iraq and Syria.

The SDF announced, on Saturday, the start of the “decisive battle” to eliminate the group’s elements after a one week pause to allow civilians to escape.

There are still around six hundred jihadists, mostly foreigners, trapped inside. It is unclear if the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is inside the encircled enclave. Military operations have forced more than thirty-seven thousand people to leave the area, mostly women and children from the group’s families including three thousand and four hundred militants, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

 

Idlib Between Two Solutions

9 February 2019

A race between allies Russia and Turkey over the Syrian “northern triangle” has emerged, with Moscow talking about a “limited operation” in Idlib’s countryside amid bombardment by the Syrian government and Ankara seeking to incorporate local elements from Nusra Front into a military formation affiliated with the opposition.

Turkish intelligence has intensified their contacts with opponents to such a formation and is discussing the distribution of “powers and responsibilities” and the fate of foreign fighters in Tahrir al-Sham, which includes Nusra.

The city of Khan Shaikhoon, south of Idlib, was bombed as Damascus continues to send reinforcements to the neighboring countryside and Moscow talking about a “limited military operation” that may include the city of Jisr al-Shoghoor, where the Islamic Turkestan Party is based.

This comes days before the Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit in the Russian city of Sochi next Thursday.

 

Three Issues and Three Presidents

8 February 2019

Three issues will be put on the discussion table when Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meet in Sochi on Thursday: filling the void left after the US withdrawal, the fate of the Syrian “northern triangle,” and the constitutional committee and agreement of the third list.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran have different interests in regards to each of the three issues, which leaves the door open for potential bargains between the “sponsors.” One of the scenarios is that Moscow will settle for a limited operation in Idlib while giving Ankara more time in exchange for Turkish “flexibility” on the constitutional committee and Ankara’s acceptance of the Adana Accord as an alternative to the “safe zone.”

 

Disaster Warning

7 February 2019

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has warned that the situation of more than forty thousand people in al-Rikban camp in southern Syria is deteriorating rapidly.

The spokeswoman for the WFP in Syria Marwa Awad said this is one of the worst humanitarian crises witnessed in recent history, adding that “people are exhausted. You can see the exhaustion in their eyes.”

Awad took part in the one hundred and thirty truck aid convoy that arrived last Wednesday carrying food supplies, medicine, and warm clothes. This is the first convoy to arrive in the area in three months, and the largest UN convoy ever in Syria, according to Awad.

Most of the refugees in al-Rikban camp are woman and children. It lies in a desert area near the Jordanian border. Many children, including infants, died in recent weeks because of shortage in supplies and cold winter weather.

In June 2017, Jordan considered al-Rikban a closed military zone after an attack that targeted a Jordanian border post that provided assistance to the refugees, killing six soldiers and injuring others. ISIS declared responsibility for the attack.

 

Full Withdrawal, No April’s Fool

7 February 2019

The Wall Street Journal said that the US army is getting ready to withdraw all its troops from Syria by the end of April.

Unless the Trump administration changes course, the army plans to withdraw a big portion of its two thousand troops by mid-March, with full withdrawal by the end of April, according to the newspaper.

The Pentagon refused to comment on these plans. “We are not discussing the timeline of the US withdrawal from Syria,” Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson told the newspaper.

US President Donald Trump earlier said that he believed that he would be able to declare the defeat of ISIS by next week. “I want to wait for the official word. I don’t want to say it too early,” President Trump said to a gathering of foreign ministers of the global coalition against ISIS in Washington.

Trump had ordered the army to end its presence in Syria with no timeline in place. Officials from several European countries expressed their concern over the potential “void” after the withdrawal of US forces.

 

Iran Mobilizing to Fill the Void

6 February 2019

Iran stepped up its field maneuvers to recruit elements into its militias east of Syria in an attempt to “fill the void” after the US withdrawal.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that an Iranian delegation visited the city of al-Mayadeen, urging the youth in the city and the countryside to go back to their areas and join the ranks of Iranian forces and pro-government militias.

This comes after the Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Mohammed Islami, declared the inauguration of a highway linking Kerman Shah in west Iran with Hamil east of Syria. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, met the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moualem, in Tehran to discuss economic cooperation.

Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said that his county would play the role of mediator between Ankara and Damascus. “You cannot replace an occupation with another occupation,” said Zarif in an indirect criticism of Ankara’s insistence on establishing a security zone.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, held a meeting in Washington with the foreign ministers of countries representing the “small group” of US allies concentrating on Syria, before a meeting for the international coalition against ISIS. Pompeo said the United States would “continue to lead” the international coalition against ISIS despite its planned withdrawal from Syria.

 

Arabs and Kurds to Fill the Void

6 February 2019

The President of the Tomorrow Movement, Ahmad al-Jarba, presented US and Turkish officials and the former President of Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barazani, with a proposal to deploy ten thousand Arab and Kurdish fighters in the “security zone” north-east of Syria.

Washington and Ankara are finalizing a plan to establish a twenty-eight to thirty-two-kilometer-deep security zone between Jarablus north of Aleppo to Faish Khabor near the Iraqi border after the US withdraws from east of the Euphrates. Turkey has demanded that the zone be free from US military bases and heavy weaponry, in addition to the removal of some seven thousand Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Sources say that the US and Turkish officials and Barazni support Jarba’s proposal to deploy between eight and twelve thousand fighters from his “elite force” and the Peshmerga, which includes Kurdish and Syrian fighters who received training in the Kurdistan region, with the possibility of providing US aerial support from Ayn al-Asad base in western Iraq and al-Tanf base in southeast Syria.

Senior officials in the YPG questioned this proposal’s potential for success and continued their talks with Moscow and Damascus to reach an understanding in regards to the US withdrawal. For its part, Russia proposed enacting the Adana Accord between Syria and Turkey.

Al-Jarba along with a delegation from east of Syria met with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow to obtain support for the plan.

 

Pedersen and Moualem in Tehran

5 February 2019

Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moualem, and the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, arrived into Tehran to hold a round of talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.

The Iranian Fars news agency said that Pedersen met the Iranian foreign minister and the senior consultant for the Iranian foreign minister for political affairs Hussein Jabri Ansari.

This is Pedersen’s first Trip to the Iranian capital after being appointed as the UN special envoy to Syria, succeeding Staffan de Mistura.

Moualem and Pedersen’s visit to Tehran coincides with the trilateral summit in the Russian resort city of Sochi on 14 November which includes the three sponsoring countries of the Astana process: Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

 

European Blocking of Arab “Racing”

4 February 2019

A ministerial conference for Arab and European countries was held in Brussels, with curbing “Arab normalization of ties with Damascus” being one of the main topics.

Efforts were made to adopt a “conditional engagement” approach for the forthcoming Arab-Euro summit in the Egyptian capital. European and sponsor counties expressed their commitment to “linking the participation in rebuilding Syria with achieving progress in the political process and supporting the mission of UN Envoy Geir Pedersen.”

Informed sources say that some countries called for holding normalization with Damascus until the Euro-Mediterranean summit and that major European countries will not allow the joint summit to provide legitimacy for the resolution of the Tunisian summit to normalize ties with the Syrian government. According to these sources, US and European “advice” contributed to “curbing the normalization,” whether through protests made by western ambassadors, or during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Arab region last month, in addition to European sanctions against figures close to Damascus and the US Congress adopting a draft resolution awaiting the approval of President Donald Trump in regards to “punishing parties participating in the reconstruction.”