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.
Snow and Refuge
8 – 9 January 2019
Winter storms in Lebanon have flooded refugee camps, compounding the misery of the residents enduring powerful winds and biting cold.
The UN refugee agency said that the storm completely flooded or ruined fifteen informal camps out of sixty-six that were heavily damaged. In the Bekaa valley and other areas, the cold was accompanied by snow, adding a new chapter to the suffering of Syrian refugees.
US Contradictions on the Withdrawal
12 – 13 January 2019
Mustafa Bali, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) media offices, said on Sunday that ISIS militants “are living their final moments” in their last enclave in Syria near the Iraqi border, where these US-backed forces are attacking them. “Our fighters have stepped up attacks in the last two days and taken special measures in areas where ISIS is present, cutting escape routes and denying them the ability to reorganize… The border is under control and ISIS is surrounded,” he added.
The spokesman for the US-led coalition acknowledged the progress made, but said that the fight continues.
US President Donald Trump announced last month that he would withdraw troops from Syria, declaring they had succeeded in their mission to defeat ISIS and were no longer needed there. This announcement was followed by sharp contradictions between US officials, the last of which was the announcement by the coalition that it had begun withdrawing troops on Friday, however, US officials later said it involved only equipment!
Trump discussed with French President Emmanuel Macron US plans to withdraw from Syria during a phone call on Monday, after France expressed reservation over the US decision to withdraw from Syria without consulting partners.
Damascus Surprises Foreign Diplomats
12 January 2019
The Syrian foreign ministry surprised a number of foreign diplomats living in Beirut with its decision to cancel their diplomatic residency in Damascus in order to “exercise pressure” on their government to reopen the embassies in the Syrian capital.
At the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, Western countries decided to close their embassies in Damascus, except for the Czech Republic which maintained diplomatic relationships at the ambassadors’ level and oversaw US interests in Syria. A number of diplomats are stationed in Beirut and others are active in neighboring countries, especially Turkey and Jordan, to “cover the Syrian issue.”
Some Western diplomats have gradually begun to visit Damascus as the political atmosphere and security situation changed there. They maintained their diplomatic residency in the Syrian capital offered to them by the foreign ministry. The meetings were restricted to intermittent protocol visits at the ministry, low-level public meeting, or secret visits, which included cautious political sessions with the head of the Europe department in the ministry.
The foreign ministry, which had strictly issued visas for UN workers and sought to move international institutions from neighboring countries to Damascus, informed the diplomats living in Beirut, including those from Chile, that their residencies had been cancelled. Diplomats said the decision was aimed at “pressing to reopen embassies and diplomatic relationships with Syria.” Although some countries began group coordination or coordination through the UN, some diplomats said that this could impact UN aid to Syria.
Turkey is Threatening
11 – 12 January 2019
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akkar vowed on Friday to wage a campaign against US-backed Syrian Kurdish factions, sharpening focus on a potential conflict the United States has sought to avoid. Despite being NATO allies, the division between Turkey and the United States runs deep in regard to the implementation of President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw about two thousand troops stationed in Syria. The plan hinges on Turkish cooperation to secure northeastern Syria as the United States departs.
While the US withdrawal has been clouded with conflicting messages from both Trump and his administration, the spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS said on Friday that the withdrawal began on Friday.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton sought to secure guarantees that Turkey would not harm the People’s Protection Units (YPG) after the withdrawal, however, this was met with stiff rebuke from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“When the time and place come, the terrorists here will be buried in the ditches they have dug, as was done in previous operations,” Akar said in a speech to military personnel at a command center in the province of Sanliurfa, referring to two other cross-border campaigns that Turkey has carried out in Syria.
“We recognize the Turkish people’s right to defend their country from terrorists, but we also know that those … who are not terrorists and fighting alongside us for all this time deserve to be protected,” Pompeo told reporters. “There are many details to be worked out but I am optimistic we can achieve a good outcome,” he added.
Damascus is Intensifying Dialogue with Kurdish Groups
11 – 13 January 2019
The Assistant Syrian Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan said on Sunday that the Syrian government hoped dialogue with Syrian Kurdish groups would “intensify”, signaling support for talks the Kurds hope will lead to a political deal between two of the main players in the conflict. Kurds have sought Russian meditation for talks with the Syrian government as part of their strategy to fill the void that will be left when US forces withdraw from the country, as instructed by President Donald Trump. The Kurd’s objective is to prevent an invasion by neighboring Turkey, which considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the main Syrian Kurdish group – as a national security threat, in addition to preserving autonomy in northern Syria.
“We hope for the intensification of the dialogue. Many of the Kurdish statements were positive regarding their concern for the unity of Syria,” said Sousan. “We are confident that through dialogue we can deal with some of the demands … and this dialogue guarantees that, as long as it based on a commitment to Syria’s unity,” he added.
Russia stressed the importance of dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian government. “In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance. After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society,” said Zakharova.
Tahrir al-Sham Dominates Idlib
10 January 2019
Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra), which is on a US list of terrorist organizations, tightened its grip over most parts of Idlib after a military campaign against Turkey-backed factions, forcing some the factions to dissolve and others to accept a peace deal recognizing civilian control by an administration backed by Tahrir al-Sham.
Turkey and Russia did not intervene during Tharir al-Sham’s campaign. Turkish Foreign Minister said: “We are taking the necessary precautions.”
According to Reuters, an official in the opposition said that Ankara played a key role in preventing the fighting from spreading further by pressing the opposition to accept the deal.
According to Enab Baladi website, one thousand fighters from the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham and others affiliated with Jaish al-Nasr faction have left Hama countryside for Afrin on Sunday under an agreement with Tahrir al-Sham, after the latter entered the area and took control of it. This number is part of two thousand and seven hundred fighters getting ready to leave for areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo because of their distrust in Tahrir al-Sham. Enab Baladi’s reporter said that the remaining group of fighters will leave Hama countryside on Monday.
Turkey is Mobilizing near Idlib
12 January 2019
Official media reported that Turkish troops and tanks carried out military exercises on the border with Syria on Saturday, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said a Turkish convoy crossed the border into northern Syria. The Turkish army sent tanks and armored vehicles to the border in the second day of reinforcement near the governorate of Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold in Syria.
On Friday, a Turkish military source said the Turkish army had been rotating forces in and out of the region, and declined to say whether the latest movement was in preparation for an operation inside Idlib itself.
The rise of the extremists has raised doubt over the future of a deal agreed in September between Turkey and Russia to avert a Syrian government army offensive. The agreement requires banned extremist groups to be expelled from a frontline buffer zone. The escalation comes as US forces prepare to withdraw from a region in northeastern Syria.
Israel Bombs and Acknowledges
11 – 13 January 2019
The official Syrian news agency said Israeli warplanes fired a number of missiles toward the Damascus area on Friday, triggering Syrian air defense that shot down most of them. The results of the airstrike were limited to a strike on one of the warehouses at Damascus airport. This attack is part of a series of Israeli attacks, the last of which was on 25 December that left three Syrian soldiers wounded according to official Syrian statements.
This time however, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged on Sunday Israel’s weekend attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria. Last week, an observer in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, Tzachi Hanegbi, said that there had been “more than two hundred and twenty” Israeli operations against Iranian targets in Syria. (Reuters)
Severe Fuel Crisis
13 January 2019
Syria has been going through the worst crises in terms of fuel, electricity, and infant formula for the last month, leading some to describe it as the most difficult stage the country has witnessed throughout the war. The current crises differ from the previous ones because their justifications are unclear amid government confusion.
For more than a month now, Syrians do not know the reason for the shortage of natural gas, amid conflicting government statements, starting from the Ministry of Petroleum which denied the presence of a crisis in the first place and confirmed that it was pumping the country’s need. Then came a statement from the Syndicate of Petroleum Workers accusing the Ministry of Internal Commerce of not regulating the market and stressing that black market traders were behind the crisis.
After that, the Ministry of Petroleum said that sanctions against Syria, Iran, and Russia delayed the arrival of the gas tanker ships. This was followed by yet other statements that gas would be available within days. The ministry then said weather conditions delayed the arrival of the tankers. The most recent statement came on Thursday indicating a problem in supply with previously signed contracts. The price of household natural gas reached eight times the official price in some areas.