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 email@example.com.
Siege and Bombardment of Ghouta, Damascus
5 January 2018
Russian jetfighters launched air raids targeting Harasta and villages in eastern Damascus, leaving behind scores of civilian deaths and casualties. This occurred in an area designated as a “de-escalation zone” as per an agreement between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in May 2017 with Russian sponsorship and Egypt acting as a mediator.
Government forces and their allies have intensified their shelling on several cities and towns in Eastern Ghouta after an offensive launched by ‘Ahrar Al-Sham’ and ‘Tahrir Al-Sham’ factions on government-held bases in Harasta near the ‘Military Vehicles Administration’, which killed and injured scores of government troops including high-ranking officers.
Government forces have been enforcing a tight siege over Eastern Ghouta since 2013, which led to a severe shortage of food and medicine supplies in an area home to an estimated four-hundred thousand residents.
Twenty-nine critically-ill patients were evacuated from the area last week in exchange for the rebel factions’ release of the same number of captives they have been holding as part of a deal with government forces.
Schools in Harasta Suburb Postponed due to Mortar Shells
6 January 2018
With the fierce fighting in the city of Harasta to lift the siege enforced by ‘Ahrar Al-Sham’ and ‘Tahrir Al-Sham’ on the ‘Vehicles Administration’ post, Harasta Suburb (or Al-Assad Suburb) has been subject to an intense assault with more than one-hundred and twenty mortar shells falling in the last couple of days, resulting in civilian casualties and wide material damage. The area was also targeted with tens of rockets on New Year’s Eve forcing residents to stay indoors. Bomb disposal officers could not access the unexploded ordnance until the next day.
Dwailaa’, Al-Wafdin Camp, and Al-A’mara neighborhoods in Damascus were also targeted with rockets, killing two civilians and injuring twenty-four others.
In light of the deteriorating security situation in Harasta Suburb and demands by parents to close schools for the sake of their children’s safety, the Directorate of Education has approved the head of the town council’s appeal to suspend schools until next Sunday and postpone exams. This comes one day before the end of the latest postponement where schools were suspended from Tuesday, January 2, until Sunday, January 7, of this year. Harasta Suburb has been continuously bombed by opposition factions in Eastern Ghouta. An attempt by ‘Islam Army’ to overtake it in September 2015 in a campaign called “God is Victorious” forced many of its residents to flee.
Counter-incursion in Idlib
6 January 2018
Syrian government forces have pressed forward in Idlib province, the largest remaining stronghold for armed opposition in the country, advancing toward Abu Al-Duhur military airport, over which opposition forces have had complete control since September 2015 following a three-year siege.
Government forces are proceeding under the command of Colonel Suhail Al-Hasan (a.k.a. The Tiger) who received President Vladimir Putin’s support when the two met at Hmeimim base last month.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday that government forces and their allies have captured eighty-four villages since October 22, including fifty-two villages, hills, and districts since December 25.
Russia Today’s website stated that “army units and allied forces have developed their field techniques by forming advanced spearheads and insurmountable traps to face armed groups active along a frontline that extends for more than fifty kilometers, from the town of Al-Tamani’ah in the southern Idlib countryside all the way east to Al-Shakosieh in the eastern Hama countryside, where many formations are active.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that battles and air raids have forced more than sixty-thousand people to flee their homes since November. Damascus had lost control over Idlib Province, which borders Turkey, when the opposition overtook the province’s capital in 2015. It is currently the only province in the country fully controlled by the opposition. The main opposition force in the province is Tahrir Al-Sham, which includes Fatih Al-Sham previously called Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Idlib is situated in areas designated by Russia as a “de-escalation zone” with the purpose of diffusing the intense fighting in Western Syria. Moreover, there are Turkish forces in northern Idlib as part of a de-escalation deal with two Syrian allies, Iran and Russia.
Opposition is Advised to Have Dialogue with Moscow
3 January 2018
A delegation from the opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC), presided over by Nasr Al-Harir, visited Jordan and Egypt before the Geneva negotiations and the National Dialogue Conference in Sochi scheduled to be held on the 21 and 29 of this month respectively. According to sources in the committee, Arab officials have stressed three points: first, the need to adhere to Geneva negotiations as a reference and the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254; second, the Sochi conference should be part of the Geneva negotiations and dialogue with Russia should serve that purpose; third, acknowledgement of the committee’s position in the previous round of the Geneva negotiations and its delegation’s interactions with Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.
The committee’s delegation was scheduled to visit Brussels, Berlin, and London, however, the tour was cancelled due to a meeting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, in which the Sochi conference will be a main topic. Russia is set to begin on Monday, after Russian New Year’s Eve celebrations, communications will address three main obstacles facing the Sochi conference:
First, Kurdish participation in light of Turkish rejection against the participation of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and Kurdish People’s Protection Units; second, the participation of the Syrian opposition, as most factions of the Free Syrian Army, Islamic factions, political forces, and civil society institutions issued official statements against the Sochi conference. However, the HNC has not issued such a statement and has been advised to carry out a dialogue with Moscow; third, international participation, where two aspects arise: the first is Moscow’s desire for numerous countries to attend the Sochi conference, in addition to Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura who stipulated that Sochi be a supplement to the Geneva process.
Attack on “Russian Victory”
4 January 2018
Hmeimim airbase was attacked, with conflicting estimates of losses. The Russian Kommersant newspaper stated that at least seven Russian jet fighters were damaged when armed rebels launched mortar shells targeting Hmeimim airbase on December 31. The Russian Ministry of Defense denied the scope of losses, but acknowledged the death of two Russian soldiers in that attack. The Ministry of Defense also mentioned that a Mi-24 helicopter had crashed in Syria on December 31 due to a technical fault killing both pilots.
This escalation coincides with the advancement of Syrian government forces, under Russian coverage, in southern Idlib, reflecting a feverish race to accomplish gains on the field prior to the Geneva negotiations on the twenty-first of this month and the Sochi conference at the end of the month.
Hmeimim airbase’s website announced that the airbase was attacked by an “unidentified object”, while opposition sources said that the attack was carried out using drones.
These sorts of issues are troubling for Moscow because they are an attack on the Russian discourse of “military victory.”
Rehabilitating Public Factories with Private Administrations
6 January 2018
Fara’oun Group, which works in the cement development industry, has taken hold of Adra Cement General Company in order to develop its three production lines and raise the capacity as per a contract signed by both sides, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA. This same group’s previous experience in rehabilitating Tartus Cement, as per Contract Number 26 in 2008, was unsuccessful after many problems surfaced relating to corruption and not reaching the set production rates. The contract was then annulled after the breakout of the Syrian conflict.
In 2015, the same group was re-commissioned to rehabilitate the Tartus factory and settle the problems in the previous contract. It was also commissioned to rehabilitate Adra cement factory in exchange for quotas of the production for fifteen years. Moreover, the group was awarded with a license to build a cement factory on the premises of Adra Cement Company according to a ‘Build, Operate, Turnover’ formula, where the government provides the land and quarries and the investor is obliged to provide production that meets the latest technological standards. The contract duration is thirty years, after which the factory becomes government property with a production capacity equal to eighty percent of the capacity in the contract. These engagements with major investors in the private sector indicate a continuation of pre-conflict policies, where the investment of public economic establishments was granted to the private sector.