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.
A “Humanitarian Corridor” with No Crossing
27 February 2018
Moscow declared the implementation of a humanitarian truce in the besieged eastern Ghouta on 27 February, however, no civilians were reported to have gotten out at the set crossing, located northeast of Damascus.
During this truce that began on Tuesday, a “humanitarian corridor” was to be opened at the Wafideen crossing, northeast of the city of Duma, to allow for the exit of civilians. No civilians were reported to have gotten out after five days. Reporters witnessed Russian officers and soldiers along with soldiers from the Syrian regular army at the crossing. Volunteers from the Syrian Red Crescent were also present with two ambulances. At the army post, portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin along with one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were hung on one of the walls. The crossing appeared completely empty of any civilian movements at a time when no shells or bombardment were heard in the neighbouring, besieged Ghouta.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that no civilians have left the Wafideen crossing since the start of the Russian truce on Tuesday, except for two Pakistani nationals who left on Wednesday under separate negotiations handled by the Pakistani embassy in Damascus.
Damascus and Moscow, on one hand, and the opposition, on the other, exchanged accusations concerning the bombardment of the “humanitarian corridor.”
A Comeback to Chemical Weapons
28 February 2018
Various media outlets, including The New York Times and The Middle East newspapers, have leaked documents that indicate North Korea is supplying the Syrian government with equipment that could be used to make chemical weapons. The documents show the ongoing cooperation even after UN Security Council Resolution 2118 on the disposal of the chemical weapons arsenal of the government.
The report, consisting of hundreds of pages, dedicated more than fifteen paragraphs to restricted transactions under international resolutions between Pyongyang and Damascus. “There are more than forty unreported shipments from North Korea to Syria between 2012 and 2017 that involve entities designated by a number of UN member states as interfaces of the Council of Scientific Research in Syria, in the town of Jamraya.”
The US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the North Korean government “has become more desperate and they are looking for different ways to fund their criminal regime.”
“For Russia to claim that the Assad regime has eliminated its chemical stockpiles is just absurd and simply incredible,” US Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood told the Conference on Disarmament held in Geneva under UN sponsorship, while the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the Syrian government has disposed of its chemical arsenal.
Putin Announces His “Tested” Weapons in Syria
1 March 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual speech in front of the Russian Socialist Assembly to announce his weapons, rockets, and nuclear arsenal ahead of the presidential elections scheduled on the eighteenth of this month.
Putin said that Moscow has successfully tested eighty types of advanced rockets in Syria adding: “The whole world saw our capabilities and now knows the names of Russian rockets and technologies that have carried out important missions.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu unveiled that the newest fifth-generation Russian jetfighter Sukhoi 57 carried out “a successful combat trial program in Syria.” Adding, “they really were there for a short time. Just two days. Over this time, they conducted a trial program, including a direct combat trial. I can tell you that the trial was successful; the planes returned home a week ago.”
On the other hand, the official, Alexander Venediktove, an aide to Russia’s Security Council Secretary for International Security affairs lashed out at the United States, saying “the presence of twenty American military bases on territory controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in eastern Syria constitutes a clear example of obstacles created by foreign intervention.”
Two days later, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that the United States is using the al-Tanf area at the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border as a “safe haven for terrorists.” Speaking to Russia-24 Fomin said, “We can only be concerned with the fifty-five kilometer safe zone near the town of al-Tanf near the Syrian-Iraqi border, which has effectively seen the establishment of a terrorist safe haven.”
US Pressure on Russia
2 March 2018
US President Donald Trump made two phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, on the highest US engagement in the Syrian issue.
There were two goals from these calls: the first is to exert pressure on Russia to comply with resolution 2401 for a truce, the second is accountability for using chemical weapons.
According to a statement of the German Chancellery, the Syrian government must be held accountable for attacks on and bombardment of civilians in eastern Ghouta. Also adding that during the Thursday phone call, Merkel and Trump considered that “the Syrian government must be held accountable for the ongoing deteriorating humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta. This goes for the use of chemical weapons by (President Bashar) al-Assad’s government, as well as attacks on civilians and freezing humanitarian aid.”
Paris criticized Washington when former President Barack Obama backed down from targeting the Syrian government after a chemical attack on Ghouta at the end of 2013.
Damascus denies using chemical weapons and accuses the opposition of “fabricating” attacks to pave the way for a potential strike from the West.
Trump’s calls coincided with the arrival of US aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean to participate in manoeuvres with Israel. They also coincided with a draft resolution put forward by the United States to the UN Security Council to form a committee to investigate chemical weapons in Syrian and accountability for its use.
“Dismemberment” in Ghouta
3 March 2018
Government forces have made an additional advance on 3 March in the east and southeast of Ghouta near Damascus in an attempt to separate areas controlled by different groups from each other.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that government forces controlled the towns of al-Shaifonieh and Otaya in the east and southeast of the besieged area, after they were subject to heavy air raids and artillery fire in the last few days. Government forces and their allies have intensified their attacks, enabling them to control the villages of Hosh al-Zawahra and Hosh al-Zreiqieh in addition to two previous military bases.
These areas were under the control of Jaish al-Islam, the biggest faction in eastern Ghouta.
The spokesman for Jaish al-Islam Hamzeh Beiraqdar said in a statement that government forces are implementing “a scorched earth policy,” confirming the withdrawal of fighters from their posts in Hosh al-Zawahra and Shaifonieh because they were “exposed to hysterical bombardment.”
Government forces are attempting to advance “in order to isolate the towns al-Marj (southeast) and Duma (north), which include the greatest number of civilians, from the rest of towns in the western part of the besieged eastern Ghouta.”
More than six hundred and thirty civilians, including one hundred and fifty children, have been killed since the onset of the government campaign on the besieged eastern Ghouta.
Turkish Air Strikes on Allies of Damascus
3 March 2018
Turkish jet fighters targeted pro-government forces in the village of Kafr Janneh in Afrin that have been supporting Kurdish fighters for two weeks in facing an attack launched by Turkey and other Syrian factions on the area located north of Syria.
The Kurds confirmed the targeting of these forces on Saturday.
This is the third such incident where Turkish planes targeted positions of fighters allied with Damascus in the last two days, after the death of eighteen soldiers on Wednesday and Thursday from Turkish air strikes on two villages northeast of Afrin, raising the total of deaths to at least fifty-four soldiers since Thursday night.
After Kurdish demands for Syrian government forces to intervene in order to face the ongoing Turkish attack on Afrin that has been going on for a month and a half, Syrian forces entered Afrin and were described by official state media as “popular forces,” whereas Kurds said that they were “military units” affiliated with the Syrian army.
These strikes come at a time where Turkish forces and Syrian factions loyal to them were able to control large parts of the strategic town Rajo, located northwest of Afrin. They also advanced on another front northeast of Afrin, as they controlled parts of a strategic mountain that overlooks several other towns and villages.
Since the start of their attack, Turkish forces were able to capture more than eighty villages and towns. Two hundred and fifty-two soldiers from Syrian factions loyal to Ankara were killed as opposed to two hundred and eighty-one Kurdish fighters during the battles and air strikes, in addition to the death of one hundred and forty-nine civilians. Turkey has reported the death of forty of its soldiers.