[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.]
Ceasefire Collapses in Idlib
8, 10 August 2019
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the military media unit for Hizballah said that the Syrian army captured a strategically important town in Idlib in the rebel’s last major enclave. The capture of al-Hobeit represents the most significant advance the army has made in Idlib governorate since the start of its offensive three months ago, the SOHR said. The Hizballah media unit described the town as the gateway to the southern countryside of Idlib, to the main Damascus-Aleppo highway and to the city of Khan Sheikhoun.
Rebels have not yet commented on the fighting around al-Hobeit but this week acknowledged losing ground nearby as the army ramped up its offensive after a brief ceasefire. Fighting on Saturday killed more than one hundred fighters from both sides as the army and its allies unleashed about two thousand air and artillery strikes against rebels dug into Syria’s northwest, the SOHR said.
The three-month offensive has made slower progress than any by the Syrian government since Russia entered the war on its side in 2015, prompting a run of military victories that have brought most of Syria back under its rule.
Turkish War Drums
5 – 8 August 2019
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that his country will not let plans for a safe zone in northeast Syria stall over negotiations with the United States. This comes a day after Washington and Ankara announced plans for a joint headquarters but offered few details.
Washington and Ankara have been at odds over plans for northeastern Syria, where US allies on the ground in the battle against ISIS include groups that Turkey considers an enemy. The NATO allies have been discussing a safe zone near the Turkish border that would be kept free of fighters and heavy weapons, but Turkey wants it to extend more than twice as far into Syria as the United States has proposed. Turkey has suggested it will act militarily if the United States fails to agree to a solution that will safeguard the border. Three days of talks between military delegations ended on Wednesday with the announcement that Washington and Ankara would set up a joint operation center in Turkey to coordinate and manage the safe zone. But no agreement has been announced on key details, including the size of the zone and the command structure of joint patrols that would be conducted there.
Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, Erdogan said that talks with the United States had progressed in a “really positive” direction. “What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realized together with the Americans,” he said.
Explosion in al-Qahtanieh
7 August 2019
Local police said a car bomb killed three children near a village post office on Wednesday in al-Qahtanieh in northeast Syria, controlled by Kurdish forces who warn they face jihadist sleeper cells. Police spokesman, Ali Hassan, described it as “a terrorist blast” that had sought to target a military vehicle.
In recent weeks, a series of attacks, including car bomb blasts, has hit towns and districts in northeast Syria under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its allies. Two rigged motorcycles exploded a day before in Hasaka city, killing a fifteen-year-old boy, police said. Last month, the Islamic State (IS) claimed a car bomb that injured eight people in front of a church in Qamishli city.
Syrian Kurdish leaders have warned of the risk sleeper cells pose after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG leads, defeated the last IS enclave in eastern Syria this year.
The Awaited Committee!
9 August 2019
Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said on Friday Russia hopes that an agreement can be reached soon under UN auspices on forming Syria’s new constitutional committee and that it can convene in Geneva as early as September.
Formation of a constitutional committee is a key to political reforms and new elections meant to unify Syria and end an eight-year-old war which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of Syria’s pre-war twenty-two million population.
Last month in Damascus after talks, Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said that the United Nations was close to agreement with Syria on setting up the constitutional committee, a long-awaited step in the stalled peace process.
The Russian envoy told a briefing on Friday that he expected Pedersen to announce agreement on its composition soon after the conclusion of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. “It is a significant progress and it opens the way for first of all starting the work of the constitutional committee and in general the way to a political solution of the Syrian crisis,” he said.
Jenifer Fenton, Pedersen’s spokeswoman, said: “The Special Envoy looks forward toward the conclusion of the composition and the rules of procedures for the constitutional committee. Russia’s active support of the UN political effort toward ensuring a comprehensive political solution that is Syrian owned and led, and in line with Security Council Resolution 2254–is appreciated.”
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday the process of establishing a constitutional committee had reached the final stage. “We currently object to one name. Russia is doing what is necessary for this person to be changed,” he said.
Canadian Baxter Released
9 August 2019
A Canadian citizen held in Syria has been released, and appeared at a news conference in Beirut on Friday. “I thought I would be there forever,” said Kristian Lee Baxter, who was detained last year, breaking down in tears.
Baxter attended the press conference with the Lebanese General Security Chief, Abbas Ibrahim, who mediated for the release of the US citizen Sam Goodwin from Syria along with the Canadian ambassador, Emmanuelle Lamoureux, last month. Ibrahim said Baxter had been detained for reasons related to breaking Syrian law.
It was not clear what Baxter was doing in Syria when he was detained and Canadian ambassador said she could not give details about the case.