[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 info@salonsyria.com.]

UNDOF Returns Under Russian Umbrella

4 August 2018

The UN peacekeeping force has carried out a patrol for the first time since 2014 in a key crossing point between the Syrian Golan Heights and the occupied part of these heights after coordination between Russia, Israel, and Syria, said a UN spokesperson on Friday.

Thursday’s patrol at the Qonaitera crossing point was the first since the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) withdrew in 2014 after al-Qa‘ida affiliated militants took control over the area.

Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, have regained control of territory near the Golan Heights in recent weeks.

“The patrol to the Qonaietra crossing point is part of UNDOF’s ongoing efforts to return incrementally to the area of separation,” said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

He said that the mission held talks with both Syrian and Israeli forces ahead of the patrol. Syrian forces and Russian military police conducted “simultaneous” patrols in the area, said Haq.

After the Russian army’s declaration that it intends to deploy eight military observation posts in Golan, a UN spokesperson said that any Russian presence would be “separate and distinct from that of UNDOF.”

The United Nations is seeking the full return of the force to the Syrian side.

Currently, more than half of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force’s 978 troops are deployed on the so-called Bravo (Syrian) side.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force has carried out more than thirty patrols in the northern and central parts of the disengagement zone since it resumed its activities on the Syrian side in February.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force was established in 1974 to observe the cease-fire line that separates Israelis from Syrians in the Golan Heights.


Russian Deadline for Idlib

4 August 2018

Moscow gave Ankara until the Russian-Turkish-French-German summit scheduled for 7 September to resolve the issue of Idlib, informed sources told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Ankara pressed opposition factions in northern Syria to unite and form the National Front for Liberation, which includes seventy thousand fighters, according to informed estimates. This comes as part of a plan to set a deadline for Tahrir al-Sham, which includes factions such as Fat’h al-Sham (previously Nusra), to dissolve itself so that Syrians would be able to join within the new bloc and “find a mechanism” for foreign militants to “exit.”

On the other hand, government forces continue their push for a military operation in Idlib. They have bombarded opposition positions, but are cautious in getting near the twelve Turkish observation points deployed in Idlib near the countryside of Hama, Lattakia, and Aleppo.

Around three million people live in Idlib, half of which are displaced from other areas. The Turkish side was able to get a deadline from Russia during the Sochi meeting last week in order to “resolve” the issue of Idlib before the Turkish-Russian-French-German summit on 7 September.


A Kurdish Rifle for Druze

4 August 2018

The leader of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) Siban Hamo told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that his forces are ready to head for Sweidaa to “protect” its Druze citizens from ISIS and liberate its eastern countryside from ISIS elements.

“ISIS launched barbaric attacks on our people in Sweidaa. The pain of the Druze is the same pain we felt in Kobane and Afrin. We do not distinguish between these attacks and the attacks on our people in Sweidaa. The YPG stands ready to send forces to Sweidaa to liberate it from terrorism,” said Hamo.

Negotiations collapsed between ISIS and dignitaries from Sweidaa to release kidnapped women and children that ISIS is holding. Hammoud al-Hinawi, a Druze sheikh, refused ISIS’s demands. “[ISIS] demanded, through mediators, that their elements be transferred from the Yarmouk basin in the western countryside of Daraa to a desert area in the eastern countryside of Sweidaa and that Syrian government forces retreat from villages in the desert of Sweidaa in exchange for the release of thirteen women kidnapped from the villages of Shreihi, al-Shabki, and Rami” in Sweidaa countryside, Sheikh al-Hinawi told a German news agency.

Attacks and suicide bombings left around two hundred and fifty people dead in Sweidaa, in the fiercest ISIS operation in years on this Druze majority area. Since then, residents of Sweidaa have been on high alert to confront ISIS and repel it from the administrational borders of the governorate. Attacks may come from the desert east of the city or Yarmouk basin in the west.

After sending military reinforcement to Sweidaa governorate, Damascus is preparing for an offensive on two fronts: the first towards the eastern countryside of Sweidaa and the other towards the area of Lajat in the western countryside of Sweidaa, north of the city of Daraa.


A Syria “Offer”: From Russia to the United States

4 August 2018

On Saturday, the Russian army said that it sent a message to the United States in the previous month that included a proposal for cooperation in the reconstruction of Syria and the return of refugees to their country, confirming media reports about this matter.

Chief of the Russian Army General Staff Valery Gerasimov sent a letter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford stating Moscow’s readiness to cooperate with Washington on clearing mines in the war-torn country and helping refugees return to their homes.

“It is disappointing that the US side is unable to comply with an agreement not to publish the content of the communications until after both sides agree,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Moscow urged the UN Security Council last week to help in reviving the Syrian economy and the return of refugees, at a time when its ally Damascus was waging a campaign to regain territory in the seven-year conflict.

In July, Moscow also presented proposals to the Unites States regarding the return of refugees from Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt, which included the offer of international financial support.


Distance to Israel: Forty or Eighty-five Kilometers?

3 August 2018

A senior military official in Tel Aviv refuted Russia’s claim that Iran withdrew its forces eighty-five kilometers from the disengagement border in the occupied Golan. He said that these forces are present in the vicinity of Damascus and are currently forty kilometers away from the border with Israel.

The Israeli official refused to confirm or deny the Israeli army’s responsibility for bombing three Iranian position in Khan al-Sheeh, Qatana, west of Damascus on Friday morning. He stated his government’s position in that “Iran should leave all of Syria and cease military activity there, whether it is activity by the Revolutionary Guard or militias affiliated with it.”

“Clearly, this withdrawal needs time and will happen gradually. Iranians began to show serious signs and steps for withdrawal. However, they will not hesitate to fool the world, including their Russian allies, and get around agreements and breach commitments. This will force us to increase surveillance and provide evidence for their breaches,” he said.

“We will leave Syria if we feel that it is able to achieve relative stability,” the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Bahram Qasimi said on Saturday.

On Thursday, Israel said it would stop offering treatment for those injured in the Syrian war after the Syrian army regained southern Syria.


Modest Breakthrough: Between Damascus and the Kurds

2 August 2018

The visit by the Kurdish-Arab delegation of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) to Damascus revealed the depth of the gap between the two sides and the false impressions of each side towards the other.

As for the SDC, it came to Damascus with a belief that the US-led international coalition against ISIS will remain in north-east of the Euphrates. Therefore, the SDC’s delegation raised the stakes: first, the return of services such as electricity, health, water, and education in areas controlled by the SDC, which constitute one third of Syria’s area of one hundred and eighty-five thousand square kilometers, and then reaching a formula that serves the “common interest” in investing oil fields that represent ninety percent of Syrian production and gas that represents half the national production.

According to the visiting delegation, success in “confidence-building measures” would lead to the second phase that includes the “Syrian government’s” control over border crossings with Iraq and Turkey and the deployment of security forces. The third phase would then address the nature of governance, whether that is a decentralized system or local administrations.

On the other hand, Damascus seemed not to be in a rush. Damascus was talking about “red lines”: control over all land border crossings, including those with Iraq and Turkey and under the control of the SDC, raising the official flag over all border crossings and public institutions, and the refusal of any “separatist step.” Damascus was not ready to talk about decentralization or self-administrations. Moreover, it is convinced that Law Number 107, which addresses local councils of the Ministry of Local Administration, is sufficient to take care of Kurdish concerns, in addition to some concessions regarding Kurdish rights in language, celebrations, and services.

Obviously, Damascus is relying on three things in its strict position: the recent military gains near Damascus, Homs, and southern Syria, the Russian aerial support and Iranian land support, and betting that the United States would leave Syria and that time is on Damascus’s side.

With this gap, the sole “achievement” of the meetings was the lifting of a ban by Damascus on technicians to fix electricity generating turbines in Tabaqa Dam on the Euphrates river and a ban on employees to visit health facilities. The formation of a joint committee was very slow.


“Revolution Icon”: In a Temporary Tomb

3 August 2018

Syrian opposition actress May Skaf, known as the “revolution icon,” was buried in the Paris suburb of Dourdan on Friday. Hundreds of friends, relatives, and Syrian opposition activists attended the burial.

Her son Joud said that his mother’s tomb in France is only temporary “until we all go back to Syria after it has been liberated from the Assad regime.” He said that May (forty-nine years) died suddenly on 23 July. Medical reports showed that she died of a brain stroke and rupture in one of the brain’s veins.

Syrian novelist Dima Wannous, the late May’s cousin told alarbiya.net that May “was very depressed in the previous four months because of the situation in Syria, the Iranian-Russian occupation of her country, the continuation of Syrian bloodshed, and the increase in numbers of victims dying every day.”

May was one of a few professional artists who supported the Syrian revolution from the beginning. “I will not lose hope. I will not lose hope. It is called the great Syria not the Assad Syria,” she wrote one day before her death.