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.

 

US Outrage and Syrian Presidency

29 May 2018

The US State Department expressed its outrage that Syria will assume the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament for the next month, saying that Damascus lacks credibility to preside over the body because of its use of chemical weapons.

“We are outraged at the Syrian regime’s blatant disregard for human life, its serial violations of and contempt for its international obligations and its audaciousness in assuming the presidency of an international body committed to advancing disarmament and non-proliferation,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday.

US Ambassador Robert Wood withdrew from the conference when the Syrian ambassador presided over the conference.

 

US Condemnation and Syrian Recognition

30 May 2018

On Wednesday, the United States condemned Syria’s decision to recognize two breakaway regions in Georgia, saying it fully backed Georgia’s independence and reiterating its call for Russia to withdraw from the area.

“The United States strongly condemns the Syrian regime’s intention to establish diplomatic relations with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“These regions are part of Georgia. The United States’ position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is unwavering,” the statement said.

The US statement came one day after Georgia said that it would sever diplomatic relations with Syria after Damascus moved to recognize the two regions as independent states.

Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which broke away from Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Following a war in the early 1990s, Georgia and Russia fought a war over the regions in August 2008.

The United States and the European Union have backed Georgia in calling the Russian operation a naked land grab.

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged deeper security and economic support for Georgia, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the ceasefire agreement that followed the 2008 war. The state department echoed that request on Wednesday.

 

US-Turkish Map

30 May 2018

The US State Department on Wednesday denied media reports that a deal had been reached between the United States and Turkey on a three-step plan for withdrawing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Manbij, Syria.

“We do not have any agreements yet with the government of Turkey,” department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement in Washington. “We are continuing to have ongoing conversations regarding Syria and other issues of mutual concern,” she said, adding that American and Turkish officials had met in Ankara last week for talks on the issue.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency had previously said that Turkey and Washington reached a technical agreement on the withdrawal plan, a move Turkey has long sought from the United States.

Turkey is outraged by US support for the YPG, considering them a terrorist organization. Ankara has threatened to push its offensive in northern Syria’s Afrin region further east to Manbij.

Manbij is a potential flashpoint. The Syrian government, Kurdish militants, Syrian rebel groups, Turkey, and the United States all have a military presence in northern Syria.

Under the terms of the plan to be finalized during a visit by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Washington on 4 June, the YPG will withdraw from Manbij thirty days after the deal is signed, Anadolu said, quoting sources who attended meetings at which the decisions were made.

Turkish and US military forces will start joint supervision in Manbij forty-five days after the agreement is signed and a local administration will be formed sixty days after 4 June, Anadolu said.

 

Russian-Israeli Understanding

31 May 2018

Russian and Israeli defense ministers met in Moscow on Thursday, while Russia is providing indirect support for Israel in efforts to remove Iranian troops from southern Syria, near the Israeli border.

Russia has managed to maintain close relations with regional rivals Israel and Iran as it provides decisive military support for the Syrian government in Syria’s multi-sided civil war.

“Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs, especially the situation on our northern border,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement from Lieberman’s office.

The meeting lasted more than an hour and a half and concerned security issues between the two countries and Israel’s effort to “prevent Iran from establishing bases in Syria,” the statement said.

Russia, on the previous day, demanded that foreign soldiers leave southwestern Syria’s civilian safe zone, near the Israeli border, without directly mentioning Iran.

There are international agreements that all non-Syrian forces must leave the zone, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, adding that Russia has been working on the issue with the United States and Jordan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the previous week that Iran must leave all of Syria because Iran’s long-range missiles threaten Israel’s national security.

“We are not satisfied with Iranian withdrawal from southern Syria alone,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

 

Opposition Against Iran

31 May 2018

The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal opens the way to raising pressure on Tehran to stop its military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Syrian opposition leader said on Thursday.

Nasr Hariri of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) spoke in Brussels as Assad declared that US forces should leave Syria because people in the Middle East were tired of foreign invasions.

Hariri pushed back against Assad’s comments, stressing that Russia and Iran had been fighting on behalf of Assad in the Syrian war, helping him retake considerable territory from rebels and Islamic groups. Hariri said there were now up to one hundred thousand Iranian or Iran-affiliated fighters in the country.

“The role of Iran is getting bigger and bigger, at the expense of our people,” Hariri said. “So we are supporting any international mechanism that could limit the influence of Iran in the region in general, and in our country in particular.”

Hariri had talks with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini about the matter on Thursday. “While Iran and Iranian militias are present in our country, there will not be a political, negotiated solution. There will not be a solution while these foreign partners are there. We are looking for ways to force Iran out of Syria,” he said.

 

Return of Syrians from Lebanon!

31 May 2018

Lebanon is working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria, a Lebanese official said on Thursday.

Lebanese President Michel Auon and other politicians called for refugees to go back to “secure areas” before reaching a deal to end the Syrian war.

According to UN estimates, Lebanon hosts around one million registered Syrian refugees or about one quarter of the of the country’s population, who have fled the war in Syria since 2011. The Lebanese government estimates the number of refugees to be more than one and a half million.

After Syrian forces backed by Iran and Russia recaptured vast areas of land, several Lebanese politicians have stressed their demands for the return of refugees, which is at odds with the international view that it is not safe yet.

“There are contacts with the Syrian authorities about thousands of Syrians who want to return to Syria,” Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese state figure and the head of the General Security agency, told reporters on Thursday. “The stay of Syrians in Lebanon will not go on for a long time. There is intensive work by the political authority,” he added without giving a timeframe for the return, however, he suggested that at least some refugees would return soon.

In an emailed statement in response to a question from Reuters, the UNHCR said that it was “aware of several return movements of Syrian refugees being planned to Syria,” and that “UNHCR is in regular contact with the General Directorate of the General Security on this issue.”

In April, several hundred refugees were transported from Shabaa in southern Lebanon to Syria, in an operation supervised by General Security and in coordination with Damascus.

Saad al-Hariri, who is prime minister of the outgoing Lebanese government and has been designated to form the next one, said Lebanon is against forced returns of refugees.

“We are going to establish ten centers for our Syrian brothers allover Lebanon to regulate their administrative and security status and legalize their presence in Lebanon.”

 

Reinforcements, Assurances, and Threats

1 June 2018

Al-Qamishli city has experienced great tensions after statements by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on handing over areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the Syrian government, a security source in the SDF said. The source added that the city has witnessed Kurdish military reinforcements.

“People’s Protection Units (YPG) brought in big military reinforcements from the counterterrorism forces in al-Malkieh north-east of Hasakeh Governorate to al-Qamishli on Thursday evening because of security developments in the city and surrounding countryside,” the source, who asked not to be identified, said to a German news agency.

Syrian sources said that “one of the leaders of the SDF from Tal Hamis south of Qamishli defected and handed himself in to one of the Syrian army’s checkpoints in Thibbaneh village.”

“We will deal with the SDF in one of two options. The first, which is that we began to open doors to negotiations because these forces are made up of Syrians and because we are Syrians who will live with each other. The second option is that if there are no negotiations, we will resort to force because we don’t have any other option,” the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Russia Today channel.

The Pentagon warned the Syrian president not to use force against US-backed Arab and Kurdish fighters to restore areas controlled by them north-east of Syria.

“Any interested party in Syria should understand that attacking US Forces or our coalition partners would be a bad policy,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said in a press briefing.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that the US army is deployed in Syria to fight ISIS. “Our desire is not to get involved in the Syrian civil war,” she said in a press conference.

 

The Lowest Toll

1 June 2018

The toll of civilians killed in May is the lowest since the onset of the conflict seven years ago despite the fact that there were about two hundred and fifty civilians killed, the AFP reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) as saying.

The SOHR said that the number of civilian deaths last month was two hundred and forty-four, including fifty-eight children and thirty-three women, which is “the lowest toll in civilian deaths since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution” in 2011.

This decrease in numbers compared with those of previous months comes after government forces controlled all of eastern Ghouta and several towns near Damascus in April.

This control was a result of a military offensive that coincided with fierce aerial and artillery bombardment that left hundreds of civilians dead.

The number of civilians killed in April was three hundred and ninety-five according to the SOHR.

Battle fronts were calm to a large extent last month as the fighting concentrated south of Damascus, where government forces were able to oust ISIS from the last enclave it was entrenched in, and thus Damascus and its countryside were declared as “safe” zones.

Of the civilians killed in May, there were seventy-seven killed in aerial and artillery bombardment by government forces and nineteen others killed as a result of airstrikes carried out by Russia which supports Damascus. Thirty-nine others were killed in airstrikes by the US-led international coalition that targeted pockets controlled by ISIS.