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.
Killing the Political Process to Save It
9 November 2018
Diplomatic circles have been deliberating the options facing the new UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen. In his article in Foreign Policy, Julien Barnes-Dacey talks about the need to change the political process’ strategy which has come to a dead end.
The new proposal boils down to the need to freeze the political process to apply pressure on international and Syrian actors to engage in a more serious process.
The pressure is based on the need of various actors to obtain UN approval for their projects in order to give them a sense of legitimacy. Active parties have derailed the political process for their own purposes away from the interests of the Syrian people. The United States wants to confront Iran, Turkey wants to confront the Kurdish ambition, and Russia seeks to reinforce its geopolitical presence in the Mediterranean. In brief, the author says that the killing of the current political process is an opportunity to create a more serious one.
Back to the ISIS Pocket Once Again
10, 11 November 2018
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Sunday that it had resumed a ground offensive against the last ISIS pocket near the Iraqi border, following the suspension of the offensive last month after Turkish shelling of northern Syria. The SDF said that it resumed its operations in Deir Azzor as the result of “intensive contacts between our forces’ leadership and the international coalition and active diplomatic efforts aimed at defusing the crisis on the (Turkish-Syrian) border.”
The US-led coalition kept up its airstrikes against Deir Azzor despite the pause in SDF operations. Turkey sees Kurdish influence in northern Syria as a national security threat. The SDF is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.
The Syrian government protested to the UN on Saturday about an airstrike by the US-led coalition against ISIS which killed twenty-five civilians in the village of Hajin in the eastern Deir Azzor region. When asked about reports of air strikes in that area on Friday, the coalition’s spokesman said it had “successfully struck and destroyed an ISIS observation post and staging area in Hajin, void of civilians at the time.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that forty-one people, including seventeen children, were killed in two waves of coalition air strikes on Friday in Hajin and the nearby village of al-Sha’fa on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river. The SOHR said the casualties were mostly Iraqis and family members of ISIS fighters.
10 November 2018
A Russian paramilitary leader said on Friday that groups representing Russian military veterans plan to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Russia’s secret deployment of civilian contractors in Syria, Ukraine, and Africa. The recruitment of civilians to fight abroad is illegal in Russia, and the Kremlin has repeatedly denied reports of thousands of Russian private contractors fighting along the government forces in Syria. Over one hundred Russian civilians were killed during the campaign, according to people familiar with the mission.
However, the ICC has no jurisdiction over Syria and has never handled cases like this before. More than a dozen Russian veteran organizations plan to write to Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the Hague-based ICC investigating war crimes, according to Yevgeny Shabayev, a paramilitary Cossack group leader who says he personally knows dozens of people who have been on such assignments.
“The Russians fight abroad as volunteers and without an official recognition from the Russian government,” said Shabayev, who has once served as a representative of one of self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. The veterans say in the letter they are unhappy with the fact that private contractors operate illegally and enjoy no social benefits or protection afterwards.
The ICC only has jurisdiction when a government is unwilling or incapable of investigating a serious crime and when the crime is committed on the territory of member states. Russia is not a member of the ICC.
Clashes and Crossings
9 November 2018
The SOHR said that the Syrian government forces clashed with opposition fighters in Hama governorate on Friday in one of the fiercest battles in the northwest of Syria for a year. The SOHR said that the army and allied forces attacked opposition fighters in the village of Halfaya overnight, seizing some positions.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency SANA said that soldiers killed fanatics in an ambush in Hama in response to their attacks on a military position with heavy machineguns. The SOHR said it was unclear if pro-government forces were killed. At least twenty-two members of the Jaish al-Izza faction died and dozens more were wounded, the highest casualty toll of fighters in the northwest in many months, according to the SOHR.
Intermittent exchanges of fire have broken out in northwest Syria since a deal in September between Russia, a key Damascus ally, and Turkey, which has backed the opposition. The agreement to set up a demilitarized zone staved off an army offensive against the Idlib region that is under insurgent control, including nearby parts of Hama and Aleppo governorates.
While the intermittent clashes go on, Mork crossing, which separates government-controlled areas from opposition-controlled areas in northern Hama, has reopened. This is a manifestation of the role of war economy, which is not necessarily reflected in armed clashes.
In another example of war economy, Turkey opened a border crossing on Thursday at the Syrian city of Afrin after it took control of the city through a military operation against Kurdish forces dubbed “Olive Branch,” which is the name that will be given to the border crossing.
Turkey and the “Units”: Tension
6-7 November 2018
A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey will not ease its stance against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria to meet US expectations after Washington offered rewards for information about senior Kurdish militants in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The United States offered the rewards on Thursday for information leading to the arrest of three leaders in the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish states for decades. Speaking at a news conference after a cabinet meeting, Ibrahim Kalin said that Turkey viewed Washington’s move as positive but belated.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that joint US-Kurdish patrols just over the Turkish border with Syria were unacceptable and he expected US President Donald Trump to stop them.
The SDF said on Friday that US troops had started patrolling the border in an attempt to defuse tension with Ankara – though it did not say whether its own forces had joined in. The US-led coalition in Syria said that there had been no increase in patrolling.
In a related context, a Turkish security source said on Wednesday that Turkish forces killed a Kurdish YPG militant after he fired into Turkey from Syria, in the most recent cross-border clash with Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates river. The source said that the militant fired from Ras al-Ain into Sanilurfa province in Turkey.
President Tayyip Erdogan has signaled an impending operation against YPG forces east of the river, delivering last month what he said was his “final warning” to those he said endangered Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Turkish forces last month bombarded YPG positions near Ain al-Arab, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported. It killed four Kurdish militants last week in a separate cross-border clash in the same region, broadcaster TRT reported.
Rukban Camp Under Negotiations
7-8 November 2018
Jordan said on Thursday that it held talks with Washington and Moscow to empty the Rukban camp inhabited by fifty thousand displaced Syrians, in a step aimed at defusing security tensions near a potential military flash point on its northeast border with Syria. Jordan’s foreign ministry said that the kingdom backed a Russian plan to arrange for the voluntary return of the camp’s inhabitants to their homes in eastern Syria after the Syrian government retook control of the area from ISIS.
Intelligence sources say the Russian plan entails negotiating with Syrian tribal leaders and Western-backed opposition fighters sheltering in the camp area to provide safe passage for returnees to go to opposition areas in northern Syria, and to help those who want to go back to their homes in state-held areas. Tribal figures in the camp say that many camp inhabitants are not ready to go back to homes in state-held areas for fear of being drafted for conscription.
Jordan officials have repeatedly said they suspect the camp is infiltrated with ISIS sleeper cells, a security nightmare that has haunted Amman since an ISIS militant in 2016 drove a car bomb into a Jordanian military border post, killing seven guards. Intelligence sources say a siege of the camp last month by the Syrian army that depleted food stores in the compound and raised the specter of starvation was aimed at piling pressure on Washington.
The UN recently completed the distribution of aid to thousands of Syrians in the camp. A UN convoy of more than seventy trucks arrived on Saturday under the protection of the Russian army after months of delays, carrying the first installment of aid from inside Syria to the opposition-held camp.
“We finished distribution of all items, food, sanitation and hygiene supplies, and core relief items,” said Fadwa AbedRabou Baroud, a UN official with the convoy. “The overall humanitarian situation in the Rukban camp remains dire, with shortages of basic commodities, protection concerns, and the death of several children who reportedly were unable to get medical treatment,” she added.
Release of Sweida Hostages
8 November 2018
The official Syrian television said on Thursday that government forces rescued a group of nineteen women and children who were kidnapped by ISIS during an attack on the Syrian city of Sweida and neighboring villages. The extremist group seized around thirty people when it rampaged through Sweida from a desert enclave outside the city, killing more than two hundred people and detonating suicide vests. The state television added that the hostages were freed in an area northeast of the desert city of Palmyra after the army fought with ISIS militants. Six other hostages from the same group were freed in October. The SOHR said in August that a group of the hostages had been beheaded.
The Right to Bombard!
7 November 2018
The United States said on Wednesday it hoped Russia would continue to allow Israel to strike Iranian targets in Syria, despite Moscow’s supply of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian government.
“Russia has been permissive, in consultation with the Israelis, about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria. We certainly hope that that permissive approach will continue,” Ambassador James Jeffrey, Washington’s Syria envoy, said in a conference call with reporters.
Moscow said in October it had delivered the S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria, after accusing Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet by Syrian air defenses following an Israeli air strike nearby.
“Israel has an existential interest in blocking Iran from deploying long-range power projection systems… inside Syria to be used against Israel. We understand the existential interest and we support Israel,” Jeffrey said. The downing of the Russian jet in September underscored the risks attached to the presence of numerous foreign militaries operating in proximity in Syria. “Our immediate effort is to try to calm that situation down and then move on to a long-term solution,” he added.
“The Russians, having been there before, would not in fact withdraw, but you have got four other outside military forces – the Israelis, the Turkish, the Iranian and the American – all operating inside Syria right now. It’s a dangerous situation,” Jeffrey said.
A Minor Amendment of Law No. 10
11 November 2018
The Syrian parliament passed an amendment to Law No. 10 and issued Law No. 42 dated 11 November 2018 that includes the amendment to Law No. 10, which had stirred wide controversy as it threatened Syrians’ rights in their properties under the light of the new real estate projects. The amendment is mainly focused on extending the period for submitting documents proving ownership from one month to one year.
The Minister of Local Administration and Environment Hussein Makhlouf said that the amendment gives an ample opportunity for citizens to submit their applications in regards to their property and their real estate rights when creating an organizational area, and enshrines constitutional principles of preserving ownership and provides sufficient guarantees for citizens, especially in the presence of owners who are outside the country. Makhlouf pointed out that the amendment aims to preserve property and adopt real estate records as the basis for the work committees, which were formed under this law and commissioned with evaluation, distribution, and resolving disputes. The law allows right holders to file their objections to the ordinary judiciary after judiciary committees finish their work if they were not able to file them to the dispute resolution committee.