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.
Sochi Results in a Constitutional Committee with UN Sponsorship
4 February 2018
The Syrian National Dialogue Conference in Sochi stirred heated controversy over the possibility of its convening and its role in reaching a gateway to a political solution.
A number of opposition forces, including the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), boycotted the meeting; and a delegation from the armed opposition factions, which came after “encouragement” from Ankara, withdrew upon its arrival at the airport, commissioning the Turkish delegation to represent it. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura attended the conference. The United States and France criticized the conference, attending as observers. The Russian-Turkish concord seemed to have contributed to the conference not being abated.
The conference concluded with a statement focused on the formation of a Constitutional Committee comprised of the Syrian government delegation and a widely-representative opposition delegation. Its task will be to draft constitutional reforms that contribute to a political settlement according to Security Council Resolution 2254, with de Mistura supervising over this committee. The statement stressed that “Syria is a democratic non-sectarian state that is based on equal citizenship,” while emphasizing independence and the unity of its people and land. The final statement also focused on holding democratic elections that will enable the Syrian people to decide their own future.
The Syrian government welcomed the outcomes of the conference with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that the conference constitutes an important step in the political process and a foundation for any future negotiations. Despite the boycott of the HNC due to the Russian bias, which oversees the conference, toward the regime and the fear that it is merely an attempt to circumvent the role of the UN in Geneva, the HNC’s president Nar al-Hariri welcomed the outcomes of the conference provided that they coincide with Security Council resolutions and guarantee a political transition process in Syria.
There was evidently close coordination as the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed their satisfaction over the outcomes of the Sochi conference during a phone call between the two. In concord with the Russian stance on the settlement in Syria, Turkey withdrew its insistence on the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, declaring that he must leave “at some point” and stressing the priority of a “political transition” that leads to a new constitution and elections. (Reuters, al-Jazeera, the Middle East, al-Hayat)
Not So Rapid Olive Branch
The Olive Branch Operation launched by Turkey in cooperation with Syrian opposition factions in Afrin, which is controlled by People’s Protection Units (YPG), continues to this day. The battles do not seem to be heading for a quick resolution, with slow Turkish advancement and no major breakthroughs so far. The operation has left hundreds dead including civilians, according to Interfax agency. The head of the main hospital in Afrin stated on Wednesday that supplies are running short, with the hospital receiving forty-eight dead and eighty-six injured since the onset of the attack. (Reuters)
Erdogan said that the Turkish army “started controlling hills… and is advancing toward Afrin,” in reference to the near end of the operation. The Turkish Anadolu News Agency reported that the number of Turkish soldiers killed in the Olive Branch Operation on Saturday reached seven. This brings the total toll of Turkish military losses to fourteen deaths, which reveals the ferocity of the fighting going on. (AFP)
Saraqeb Battle … and Shooting Down of a Russian Jet
3 February 2018
Regime forces are rapidly advancing towards Saraqeb city after controlling Abu al-Duhur city and its military airport. The forces are heading for Saraqeb, as they have taken over a number of villages and towns in the last few days.
Saraqeb witnessed fierce bombardment that resulted in civilian casualties, in addition to the targeting of Oday Hospital in the city, which was condemned by the UN. The Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Panos Moumtzis said that this was the fourth time in ten days in which air strikes have resulted in major structural damage in a hospital in Saraqeb. Moumtzis stated that last year witnessed one hundred and eleven documented attacks on medical facilities in Syria, in addition to at least thirteen attacks so far in 2018.
On the other hand, a Russian pilot was killed in a ground exchange of fire with Islamic opposition factions after his fighter jet was shot down in Idlib governorate northwest of Syria. Tahrir al-Sham claimed responsibility for the downing of the plane. After this incident, the Russian army declared that it hit the area where the plane fell with ‘high precision weapons’ and confirmed that it had killed “more than thirty fighters from al-Nusra Front” in this strike. (AFP, the Middle East)
Chemical Weapons Again
3 February 2018
Senior US officials said on Thursday that the Syrian government may be in the last stages of developing new types of chemical weapons, and that President Donald Trump’s administration is ready to take military action once more against Syrian government forces, if there is a need to deter it from using such weapons.
Defense Minister Jim Mattis said the Syrian government repeatedly used chlorine gas as a weapon. A day earlier, Washington said it is ready to consider taking military action if there is a need to deter the Syrian government from launching attacks using chemical weapons.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied US allegations that its forces had used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus against opponents who hold control of it, stating that these allegations are baseless lies. Moscow accused Washington of seeking to “demonize” Damascus and “cripple a political solution”.
The previous US administration considered the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, and threatened military strikes after chemical weapons were used in Ghouta in 2013. The pressure resulted in the handing over of Syrian chemical weapons to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013 and 2014. The chemical weapons issue resurfaced after they were used in Khan Sheikhon, after which the current US administration launched a military strike against al-Shoa’irat military airport in Homs, Syria.
The “red line” seems to include sarin only and not chlorine, according to an American official. (Reuters)