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.
11 March 2019
Hundreds of Syrians in the southern city of Daraa protested on Sunday at the erection of a new statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad, nearly eight years after the original was toppled at the outbreak of the Syrian conflict.
Demonstrators and witnesses said residents walked through the war-ravaged old quarter of the city calling for Assad’s overthrow, as security forces closed off the area to stop residents from other parts of the city joining the demonstration.
The government had given schools and government employees a day off on Sunday to attend a pro-government rally to inaugurate the new bronze statue of late president Hafez al-Assad, erected on the site of the previous statue felled by protesters. A witness said that the rally broke up after gunfire from near the square caused panic among attendees. A group of youths protesting in Daraa’s old quarter carried a placard reading: “It will fall. Your statue is from the past; it is not welcome here.”
The Syrian authorities have reinstalled several large statues of the elder Assad after military victories that have seen his son regain most of the territory once held by opposition forces.
Holding War Criminals Accountable
8 March 2019
International investigators are moving ever closer to finding justice for victims of atrocities in Syria’s eight-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, the head of a UN war crimes body said.
Former French judge Catherine Marchi-Uhel,head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), said that her office had received fifteen requests from national judicial or prosecution authorities for cooperation on Syria-related cases in five countries, and amassed a million records in all. The IIIM was set up in 2016 to probe and help prosecute the most serious crimes committed in Syria. “We are progressing I have no doubt, we are going in the right direction,” said Marchi-Uhel.
During the war, large numbers have died in air strikes and bombardment of cities. The United Nations has documented repeated chemical weapons attacks on civilians, and countless have faced torture, summary execution, and disappearance.
Marchi-Uhel is building on evidence gathered by the separate UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a body of independent experts headed by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro since 2011. “My mandate is to investigate the most serious crimes from all sides and do preparatory work for those most responsible for those crimes to face justice,” she said.
“I don’t sign off on any indictment. With the team we have stopped when we consider a case is ready (for prosecution) … These things take a long time. It is not a bad sign; it means authorities are working seriously.”
Lawyers representing twenty-eight Syrian refugees in Jordan this week asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Syria, arguing the court has jurisdiction because Jordan is a signatory. Also, nine torture survivors submitted a criminal complaint in Sweden on 19 February against Syrian officials, invoking universal jurisdiction.
The Black Enclave
5 – 11 March 2019
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an attack on the Islamic State’s final enclave in eastern Syria on Sunday, aiming at wiping out the last shred of its territorial rule that once spanned a third of Syria and Iraq. Although al-Baghoz is the last residential area controlled by the group, ISIS still constitutes a major security threat through its activities in other remote area and ability to launch guerrilla attacks. The SDF paused their advance towards the surrounded pocket more than once to allow for the exit of civilians, including the wives and children of the group’s fighters. The SDF said that more than four thousand jihadists surrendered last month and tens of thousands of civilians were evacuated.
The United Nations said on Friday that more than sixty-two thousand people displaced by fighting around the ISIS enclave have flooded al-Hol camp, with five thousand and two hundred people arriving between 5-7 March and thousands more expected.
The weather is cold and rainy and there is a shortage of tents and supplies. Dozens of children have died on the way to the camp. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) on Friday said al-Hol was at “breaking point”. Those arriving in al-Hol are in “extremely poor health” with malnutrition, diarrhea, and skin diseases.
Safe Zone on Cold Fire
6-8 March 2019
Turkey cannot accept control of a planned safe zone in northern Syria being given to anyone else, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday. If the United States could not take back the weapons it had given to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, it should give them to Turkey.
Fawza Youssef, a senior Kurdish politician, said that the Kurdish-led authorities in northern Syria want a multinational force to deploy at the Turkish border and reject the creation of a large “safe zone” that Turkey hopes to control. The Kurdish-led authorities have proposed their idea in talks with US officials while stressing the need for continued joint efforts against ISIS, which is on the brink of losing its last enclave in eastern Syria.
The Kurdish-led authorities were left scrambling for a strategy to protect their region from Turkey in December when President Donald Trump abruptly declared his intention to withdraw all US forces.
Since then, the US has partially reversed that decision and will keep two hundred troops in Syria to join what is expected to be a total commitment of about eight hundred to one thousand five hundred troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone in the northeast.
In a related context, General Joseph Votel, Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Thursday that he was under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Donald Trump ordered the drawdown of most US troops from Syria. “What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS, and so that is our principal focus, and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” Votel said.
“There is not pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Votel added.
4 March 2019
Adel Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said on Monday it was too early to restore diplomatic ties with Syria or reinstate Damascus to the Arab League without progress on a political process to end the eight-year-old war. “This (reopening the embassy) is related to progress on the political process, so it is still early,” Jubeir told a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said he discussed Syria and Libya with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who is visiting Doha, the first stop in a Gulf tour. A political solution in Syria is the only option for the war-torn country, Al Thani said.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s participation seven years ago, and recently said that Syria’s restoration requires consensus of member states.
9 March 2019
UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi said the United Nations refugee agency should have a bigger presence inside Syria to observe and help refugees returning from abroad and from displacement within the war-torn country. After almost eight years of fighting, President Bashar al-Assad now controls most of Syria and the front lines appear stable for now between government territory and two big enclaves in the north and east still outside Damascus’s control.
“It is important that in areas of return, organizations like UNHCR are present and can observe the return, can have access to the returnees, and can help them address some of the problems they face,” Grandi said in Beirut, as the Syrian conflict approaches its eighth anniversary next week. “Without that presence, there is an element of confidence that is missing in the return of the people,” he added. Grandi also said that UNHCR was working with the Syrian government and its Russian ally on these matters.
Britain’s foreign office minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said on Saturday the Syrian government had not so far done enough to make Syria a safe place for returnees. “It is clear (Assad) does not want to see many of his refugees return,” Burt told the BBC. “It is essential there will be no reconstruction support from UK and EU until there is a political settlement that goes some way to meeting the needs of those people,” he added.