[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.] 

Idlib Countdown

8 September 2018

After the failure of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit in Tehran, the countdown for the governorate of Idlib, the last stronghold for the opposition which also includes fanatics, has started. This has raised concerns over a government offensive and the new humanitarian crisis that would follow.

Russian planes launched airstrikes on the headquarters of Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) and Islamic Ahrar al-Sham in the governorate, leaving at least five dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

On Thursday, hundreds of civilians started to leave areas in Idlib in fear of an imminent attack. Displacement is focused in the southeastern countryside, which has been targeted for days by Syrian and Russian airstrikes and is expected to be the front for the first battles in case the offensive is initiated.

Eight international NGOs active in Syria called on “international leaders” meeting in Tehran and New York to “work together to avoid the worst humanitarian catastrophe since the onset of the conflict in Syria seven years ago,” which left more than three hundred and fifty thousand dead and millions of displaced people.

Russia, Iran, and Turkey are the sponsors of the Astana peace talks. These talks began after the Russian military intervention in the conflict in 2015, which was in effect a turning point in the conflict in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s government. These talks overshadowed the UN-led Geneva process. Before the summit, some media outlets mentioned the possibility of reaching an agreement on Idlib, however, the final statement said that the three presidents agreed to resolve the situation in Idlib “in a spirit of cooperation that has marked the Astana talk.”

“We have discussed concrete measures regarding a phased stabilization in the Idlib de-escalation zone, which stipulate… a possibility of making peace for those ready for dialogue,” Putin said after the summit, referring to militants willing to hand over their weapons. Erdogan and Rouhani called for the need to protect civilians, while UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura called for concrete measures at a UN Security Council session in New York on Friday.

“People should be granted safe passage to places of their own choosing if they want to leave,” de Mistura said through video conference. “We must allow the opening of sufficient number of protected voluntary evacuation routes for civilians in any direction: east, north, and south,” he added. De Mistura is scheduled to have talks next week in Geneva concerning the crisis in Idlib with representatives from Turkey, Russia, and Iran.

Government forces have been sending reinforcements to surrounding areas of Idlib, as artillery shelling has intensified in recent days on areas in the southeastern countryside with the participation of Russian planes. The United Nations says that displaced people constitute half of the governorate’s population, in addition to their presence in the adjacent governorates of Hama, Aleppo, and Lattakia.

Idlib: Fierce Airstrikes

9 September 2018

The governorate of Idlib was targeted by Russian airstrikes which were described as the “fiercest” since Damascus, along with its ally Moscow, threatened to launch an imminent attack on the region, according to the SOHR.

Russian planes carried out approximately sixty airstrikes in less than three hours on towns and villages in the southern and southeastern countryside of Idlib, as well as artillery and aerial bombardment with explosive barrels by government forces, leaving four civilians dead including two children, according to the SOHR.

Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the SOHR, told the AFP that the ongoing airstrikes are focused on headquarters of militant jihadist factions, some of which are empty and others are still operational. These strikes are considered the “fiercest” on northern Syria in the last month, as Russian and Syrian airstrikes have left fifty-three deaths, including forty-one civilians in the town of Orm al-Kobra in the western countryside of Aleppo near Idlib, according to Abdul Rahman.

These strikes come after the summit in Tehran that joined President Hasan Rouhani of Iran and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who are allies with Damascus, in addition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who supports the opposition.

Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra) controls most of Idlib, whereas other Islamic factions are deployed in the remaining areas. Government forces are present in the southeastern countryside.

Trilateral Differences in Tehran

7 September 2018

The presidents of Iran, Turkey, and Russia failed in overcoming their differences on the governorate of Idlib during the summit they held in Tehran yesterday. “Trilateral differences” emerged and prevented the establishment of a plan or ceasefire in northern Syria.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the need for their ally Damascus to regain control over the governorate of Idlib, which is home to three million people, half of which are displaced from other areas. “The legitimate Syrian government has the right to regain control over all its national territory, and it is obliged to do that,” said Putin.

On the other hand, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned that an attack on Idlib would lead to a “catastrophe.” The final statement of the summit did not include Erdogan’s call for a truce. After the summit, Putin and Erdogan separately met with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

In the meantime, the UN Security Council held a session upon a call from the United States to discuss the situation in Idlib. UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura called for safe passages for civilians. The most prominent warnings came from the current president of the council, US Representative at the Security Council Nikki Haley, who stressed that “Iran and Russia will face serious consequences,” while other representatives cautioned from a “new humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib.

Turkish Segregation in Northern Syria

6 September 2018

Ankara put forward a plan for the exit of armed factions from the Syrian governorate of Idlib, in an attempt to avoid a bloodbath that could follow a major offensive by Syrian government forces, according to a Turkish official newspaper on Friday.

The presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran met in Tehran on Friday to reach a solution for the seven-year Syrian conflict. Ankara, worried by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces’ attempt to regain the last stronghold of armed factions in Idlib, put forward a plan to avoid the offensive, according to Sabah newspaper. According to the plan, twelve armed groups, including Tahrir al-Sham, would lay down their arms and be evacuated from the governorate, the newspaper said, without revealing its sources.

The groups would be offered safe passage to a buffer zone, under the surveillance of the moderate opposition on condition they hand over weapons to a loose coalition of other rebel groups backed by Ankara, the newspaper continued. Foreign fighters in the group would be allowed to return to their home countries if they wish, Sabah said. But the groups who refuse to disarm and evacuate would be targeted by counter-terror operations.

As in other regions controlled by Ankara-backed rebels, Turkey will later train militants to ensure Idlib’s security. The plan will also secure the Russian Hmeimeim military base in Lattakia governorate, as well as mineral deposits in the region, the newspaper said.

Turkey, which has already listed Nusra and al-Qa‘ida as terror groups, added Tahrir al-Sham to the list last month. Ankara fears a major offensive on Idlib could spark an influx of refugees across its border, and warned a military solution would only cause a “catastrophe.” Turkey has been carrying out intensive negotiations with Russia for weeks. Analysts say Ankara could be prepared to accept a limited Russian-backed government offensive against extremist groups, even if it leaves the question of the long-term control of the governorate open for now.

A Test East of the Euphrates

8 September 2018

Eighteen members of Syrian government forces and Kurdish security forces (Assayish) were killed on Saturday in confrontations between the two sides in the northeastern city Qamishli, which they share control of, according to a statement from the Kurds and the SOHR.

Observers considered the confrontations as a “bloody test of strength,” as the government has two “security squares” in Qamishli and Hasakeh east of the Euphrates, which is under the US-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The deaths included eleven Syrian military soldiers, who were on patrol when they reached a checkpoint for the Assayish in the city, and seven Kurdish fighters, in addition to injuries on both sides.

Assayish leadership said in a statement that its members opened fire in response to “the targeting by patrol soldiers of our forces using light and medium weapons. Our forces responded to this aggression, which left eleven government soldiers dead and two injured … Seven of our comrades were also killed with one injury.”

“A checkpoint for the Assayesh stopped a government military vehicle when it passed on a street in the city and asked its members to step out,” the SOHR said.

“When they refused to do this, shots were fired at the vehicle. Fierce clashes erupted between the two sides as they both brought in military reinforcement,” the SOHR added.

There were three empty government military pick-up trucks in the area where the clashes took place, and traces of bullets and blood on the ground were visible, the SOHR reported. A state of tension looms over the city as Kurdish security forces were put on high alert and called for additional military reinforcement, the SOHR noted.

Clashes between the two sides are a rare occurrence in the city where they share control. Government forces control the airport of the city and most Arab majority neighborhoods, whereas Kurdish forces control the larger part.

Bloody clashes between the two sides occurred in April of 2016 after a problem at one of the security checkpoints in the city. The clashes left dozens dead from both sides, in addition to civilian casualties.

Syrian government forces gradually withdrew from Kurdish majority areas as the conflict in Syria expanded in 2012. However, it retained governmental and administrational offices, as well as some military forces, especially in the cities of Hasakeh and Qamishli.

Syrian Kurds, who control around thirty percent of the county, initiated direct negotiations with Damascus in July. An agreement was reached regarding the formation of committees to advance the negotiations and place a roadmap that would lead to a de-centralized administration in the country. In the meantime, Damascus has reiterated its intention to restore control over all of its territory.

Washington: Sanctions and Threats

5 September 2018

The US Treasury Department said it has imposed sanctions on four individuals and five entities it accuses of facilitating transportation of oil shipments and financing to the Syrian government. A US envoy said that he sees “evidence that Damascus is getting ready to use chemical weapons in Idlib.” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin linked the sanctions to the imminent attack by Syrian government forces on Idlib, the last governorate controlled by the opposition in the north near the Turkish border.

Among the people hit by the sanctions is Mohammed al-Qatrji, whom the department describes as having facilitated commercial oil deals between the Syrian government and ISIS.

“Millions of innocent people in Idlib province are currently under the threat of an imminent attack from the Assad government, backed by Iran and Russia, under the pretense of targeting ISIS.  At the same time, the Assad government has a history of trading with the terror group,” Mnuchin said. He also described the Syrian government as “murderous.”

The United States maintains a number of sanctions against the Syrian government, including a number of procedures that were imposed after the civil war erupted in 2011.

There is “lots of evidence” that chemical weapons are being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib region in northwest Syria, the new US representative for Syria said, warning any attack on the last big rebel enclave would be a “reckless escalation.”

“I am very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings,” said Jim Jeffrey, who was named on 17 August as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s special adviser on Syria overseeing talks on a political transition in that country.

“Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation … There is lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared,” Jeffrey told a few reporters.

Jeffrey said an attack by Russian and Syrian forces, and the use of chemical weapons, would force huge refugee flows into southeastern Turkey or areas in Syria under Turkish control.

Chemical Weapons and Airstrikes, Once Again

8 September 2018

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said on Saturday that he is having “routine dialogue” with President Donald Trump about military options in case Syria ignores US warnings against using chemical weapons in an expected offensive on Idlib.

The United States has not decided whether to employ military force in response to a future chemical attack in Syria, Dunford said. “But we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” he told a small group of reporters during a trip to India. Dunford later added: “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mobilized his army and allied forces on confrontation lines in the northwest, and Russian planes have joined in the bombardment of opposition militants there, in a prelude to a widely expected offensive despite objections from Turkey.

The White House warned that the United States and its allies would respond “swiftly and vigorously” if government forces used chemical weapons in Idlib.

Trump bombarded Syria twice because of its alleged use of chemical weapons in April of 2017 and April of 2018.

The commander of the French army also said that his forces are ready to hit Syrian targets if chemical weapons are used in Idlib.

Dunford declined to comment on US intelligence regarding potential Syrian preparation of chemical agents. When asked if there was a chance to avoid an attack on Idlib, Dunford said: “I do not know if there is anything that can stop it. It is certainly disappointing but perhaps not (surprising) that the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians were not able to come up with a solution yesterday.”

Dunford warned against the potential for a humanitarian crisis in Idlib and instead has recommended more narrowly tailored operations against militants there. “There is a more effective way to do counterterrorism operations than major conventional operations in Idlib,” he said.