[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.]
Idlib: The “Jihad” is in the Details
24 September 2018
Analysis from Salon Syria
The Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib has serious challenges and complexities in its implementation, although it does have some positive aspects. This leads to the belief that the Sochi agreement will only help in stabilizing the situation in Idlib for a few months because it merely postpones the battle and does not prevent it.
The agreement, made public after a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on 17 September, is comprised of ten points, including: keeping the de-escalation zone according to the May Astana agreement, fortifying the twelve Turkish observation posts, a fifteen- to twenty-kilometer demilitarized zone, and the ousting of all terrorist groups in this zone by 15 October, after the withdrawal of heavy weapons before 10 October.
It also stipulates that the Russian and Turkish armies will conduct joint patrols in the safe zone, in addition to “guaranteeing the free movement of local residents and goods, and restoring commercial and economic ties,” and the opening of Aleppo-Lattakia and Aleppo-Hama roads before the end of the year.
However, it also contains numerous ambiguous points, which leads to the belief that “the devil is in the details”:
1- The manner by which the fanatics would be “ousted”, especially that this has to be done in two to three weeks. Will this be carried out through “segregation,” “displacement,” or through “military action,” and who will actually do this?
2- Difficulty in separating between Tahrir al-Sham, which includes Fat’h al-Sham (previously Nusra) and includes ten thousand members, and the National Front for Liberation which includes thirty thousand members. Add to that the fact that Tahrir al-Sham refused the agreement and criticized Turkey, likening Ankara’s position in Idlib to that of the United Nations in Srebrenica, which suffered a massacre in the nineties of the previous century. There is also difficulty in separating foreign fighters affiliated with al-Qa‘ida, who number more than two thousand, from the rest of Syrian fighters.
3- One of the circulating ideas is to move those who refuse the settlement from the “safe zone” to Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria and the possibility of moving others to Kurdish-majority areas. However, how will this be carried out in such a short time?
4- The plan includes the opening of the major roads between Aleppo and Hama and between Aleppo and Lattakia. Who will protect these roads? Who will deploy observation points? This also applies for “commercial” points between opposition areas in Idlib and government areas.
5- Syrian sovereignty will symbolically return to the north, including the flag and some institutions, but what about the military presence of Damascus?
6- Some people believe that the Russian and Turkish armies along with the armies of other countries will launch an offensive against fanatics who refuse the settlement, especially because Moscow has a plan to eliminate two thousand foreign fighters. How would this be reflected in the position of the rest of the opposition factions? What would the Islamic factions’ response be?
The Russian and Turkish armies continue their consultations and exchange of security information. Turkey has also sent military reinforcements and special units to the twelve observation points in northern Syria, in addition to the possibility of carrying out covert assassinations.
Implementing the agreement constitutes a difficult test for Moscow and Ankara. At the same time, Damascus and Tehran are betting on the failure of the settlement option in order to resume the military option and drag Moscow into a military resolution similar to what happened in previous places—and the return to the postponed battle of Idlib.
“This is not a peace deal. It is an aversion-of-a-whole-scale-war deal,” the head of the United Nations Humanitarian Taskforce for Syria Jan Egeland said in Geneva. “I see a great potential for a lot of fighting … We are concerned for the civilians in these areas, so it is not over,” he added.
International Legitimacy for the Sochi Deal
21 September 2018
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Turkey asked France to “support” the Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib in the UN Security Council, according to an interview with Le Monde newspaper published on Saturday.
Le Drian said that the international pressure and warning of a looming humanitarian crisis in Idlib had proven effective.
He stressed the role played by France, especially after the failure of the Astana-sponsoring countries in reaching an agreement in Tehran. He referred to “Turkey’s request for France to act in the Security Council to support the agreement (reached by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Idlib.”
After a summit at the Sochi resort on Monday, the Russian and Turkish presidents announced a deal to establish a “demilitarized zone” in Idlib on 15 October, averting an offensive by the Syrian government on Idlib governorate, which is populated by more than three million people.
In recent weeks, the Syrian government brought in reinforcements to the outskirts of Idlib, which borders Turkey. Dozens of civilians were killed as a result of bombardment by Syrian forces and airstrikes by Russian planes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The United Nations and human rights groups warned that the Syrian government offensive would cause a “blood bath” in Idlib and “the worst humanitarian crisis” in the current century.
The Turkish-Russian agreement could be adopted “through a resolution or a statement by the Security Council,” a French diplomatic source said, adding that the issue is still under discussion in New York.
The United Nations will hold its seventy-third general assembly in New York next week. The issue of Idlib is expected to dominate the discussions.
Al-Assad Between Two Cables of Condolences
19 September 2018
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a cable of condolence to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin two days after the downing of a Russian plane in the Mediterranean; however, he sent a cable of condolence to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani only two hours after an armed attack in Ahwaz, Iran.
“On behalf of the Syrian people and by my name, we express our deep condolences to the friendly Russian people over the fall of the Russian military jet on the Mediterranean, causing the martyrdom of the Russian heroes who were doing their noble duties along with their colleagues of the Russian military forces in the fight against terrorism in Syria,” the president said in the first cable published by the Syrian news agency SANA.
“This regrettable incident was a result of the Israeli usual revelry which always uses the dirtiest means to achieve its low purposes and carry out its aggression in our region,” Assad added.
“We are completely confident that such a tragic event will not dissuade you or us in continuing the fight against terrorism,” Assad said.
Syrian air defense systems brought down a Russian military plane carrying fifteen Russian personnel during the course of responding to Israeli bombing on the coastal city of Lattakia on Monday.
On 22 September, the cable for the Iranian president said: “I extend to you and the friendly people of Iran, on the behalf of the people of the Syrian Arab Republic and on my own behalf, deepest condolences for the innocent victims, and condemn in the strongest terms this cowardly and criminal terrorist act.”
Assad praised Iran’s position “against terrorism in Syria and expressed his hope that “supporters, financers, and proponents of terrorism will understand that this danger threatens mankind as a whole, urging them to reconsider their positions.”
The attack, which was adopted by ISIS and an Ahwazi-Arab group, targeted a military parade in the city of Ahwaz in southwest of Iran, left twenty-nine dead and more than fifty injured, according to an official tally. The attack came on the national day for armed forces, which is celebrated on 22 September in memory of the day Baghdad declared war on Tehran (1980-1988).
“Media War” Between Russia and Israel
24 September 2018
The Israeli army refused the conclusions of the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding the downing of a Russian plane west of Syria, in what resembles a “media war” between Moscow and Tel Aviv.
The Russian army said that “misleading” information from the Israeli air force caused the downing of the Russian plane in Syria, denouncing the “adventurism” of Israeli pilots.
Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov presented the findings of the investigation in the downing of the Ilyushin-20 plane that was carrying fifteen soldiers by a Syrian air defense missile which was accidentally fired on 17 September.
Moscow accused Israeli pilots of using the bigger Ilyushin as a cover, resulting in Syria’s Soviet-era S-200 air defense system interpreting the Russian plane as a target.
Israel denied this version of events and its air force commander flew to Moscow to clarify the situation.
An Israeli military official confirmed on Friday that operational procedures agreed to with Russia in Syria are still in place after the death of fifteen Russian soldiers whose plane was shot down on Monday, hinting that Israel maintains the freedom to move in neighboring countries.
An Israeli delegation led by the air force chief General Amikam Norkin visited Moscow on Thursday in an attempt to calm down the situation and clarify the circumstances of how Syrian air defense mistakenly brought down a Russian military plane when Syrian forces were responding to an Israeli airstrike.
An army statement said that the “two sides stressed the importance of national interests and the continued implementation of the de-confliction system.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he dispatched General Norkin to Moscow to “preserve the cooperation between our two countries,” among other things.
Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that Syrian air defense shot down an IL-20 Russian plane on Monday as it was flying over the Mediterranean, thirty-five kilometers from the Syrian coast, on its way back to Hmeimeim base in Lattakia governorate.
The Israeli army said in a statement that General Norkin presented “the situation report for that night … from all aspects.”
The Russian Defense Ministry initially accused Israeli fighters of “using the Russian plane as a cover, thus putting it in the line of fire of Syrian air defense.”
However, Israel denies this, and its army affirmed that the Russian plane was far from Syrian positions targeted by the Israeli airstrike. It added that “when the Syrian army fired the missiles that hit the plane, Israeli jets had already returned to Israeli airspace.”
Putin sought to defuse the situation, saying in a Kremlin statement that the “matter is most likely a chain of tragic and accidental circumstances.” He urged the Israeli side not to allow such incidents to occur once more.
However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pointed accusations at Israel on Wednesday and said in a cable of condolence to Putin that “this regrettable incident was a result of the Israeli usual revelry.”
Russia is considered the most prominent Assad ally, and has been offering broad diplomatic, political, and economic support to him since the onset of the conflict in 2011. Its military intervention, which started three years ago, has also contributed to Damascus regaining the lead on various fronts.
In a rare move, the Israeli army acknowledged it had conducted the airstrike, and confirmed targeting a facility for the Syrian army that delivered systems used in manufacturing precise weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah.
Hezbollah responded through its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah who said in a televised speech on Wednesday night: “It is not true that what is being bombed in Syria is meant to be transported to Hizballah in Lebanon,” accusing Israel of “lying” and “working on preventing Syria from acquiring missile capabilities.”
Israel acknowledged this month that it conducted two hundred airstrikes in Syria in the last eighteen months against mostly Iranian targets, in an unusual confirmation of such military operations. Since the onset of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Israel has repeatedly bombed Syrian army targets and others for Iran and Hizballah.
“There has been no change in the non-engagement mechanism (between Israel and Russia) after this unfortunate incident. The non-engagement mechanism and operational procedures remain the same and have not changed,” an Israeli official said. “Non-engagement” refers to the exchange of information between the two countries and reducing the possibility of confrontations.
This mechanism between Israel and Russia was adopted in 2015 after Russian forces intervened in favor of Syrian forces in order to avoid a confrontation between the Russian and Israeli armies in Syria.
However, this coordination witnessed the most serious incident as of yet when Syrian air defense mistakenly hit a Russian reconnaissance plane in response to an Israeli airstrike on a military facility, which led to the death of the fifteen-member crew.
Hezbollah Will Stay “Until Further Notice”
19 September 2018
On Wednesday, Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that his fighters will stay in Syria until further notice, despite the calmness on the fronts after reaching the Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib, the last stronghold of opposition factions. Nasrallah denied what Israel announced regarding its targeting two days earlier of a Syrian army facility during the transportation of missile systems to his party in Lebanon, accusing it of “lying”.
“We will stay there after the settlement in Idlib and calmness in Idlib … we will stay there until further notice,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech in front of thousands of his supporters in the southern suburb of Beirut, his party’s stronghold, on the eve of Ashura commemoration.
“The calmness on the fronts and the decline of threats will, of course, affect the current number (of fighters),” he said, adding that the increase or decrease of the number is associated with “the responsibilities and the scope of threats and challenges.”
The Iranian-backed Hizballah has been publicly fighting alongside the Syrian army since 2013. Its intervention has helped in resolving numerous battles in Damascus’s favor. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated the number of Hizballah deaths in Syria at 1665.
Nasrallah’s remarks come two days after a Russian-Turkish agreement to establish a “demilitarized” zone in Idlib governorate, northwest of Syria, in a step that would spare this area from a large-scale offensive. “What happened is a step towards the possibility of a political solution, and this is a good and acceptable thing; and depends on the results and strict implementation of the terms of the agreement,” Nasrallah said.
“Based on the settlement in Idlib, if things go well and are implemented in a suitable manner, we can assume that Syria is going towards great calm, and there will be no effective fighting fronts,” he added.
Syrian government forces, backed by their allies, have regained control of vast areas in the last two years. They now control about two thirds of the country.
On the other hand, Nasrallah accused Israel of “working on preventing Syria from acquiring missile capabilities,” after the bombing of the coastal city of Lattakia on Monday night.
“It is not true that what is being bombed in Syria is meant to be transported to Hizballah in Lebanon,” he said replying to the Israeli army’s declaration that it targeted a facility for the Syrian army that was delivering systems used in manufacturing precise weapons to Lebanese Hizballah.
During its response to the Israeli airstrike, Syrian air defense systems shot down a Russian plane near Lattakia, according to Moscow, resulting in the deaths of “fifteen Russian personnel.”
Nasrallah acknowledged in his speech on Wednesday that Israeli airstrikes “in some place were related to the transportation of weapons.” However, he said that “many” of them “were not related to this issue at all,” affirming that Israel is “preventing the establishment of the Syrian army as a true military force” in Syria.