TSI Syria Updates: February 14, 2017

Takeaway

On Monday and Tuesday, the opposition advanced from the southern side of Daraa city, prompting numerous airstrikes from Syrian and Russian forces that killed at least 12 civilians while forcing thousands of residents to flee the city. After a long period of relative calm, Daraa city has once again become a key battlefield after armed opposition groups launched a new offensive to take control of government-controlled parts of the city. The campaign is being led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (the now twice-rebranded incarnation of Jabhat al-Nusra), but reportedly also includes Ahrar al-Sham and moderate Free Syrian Army forces.

Military

  • 14 FEB: Intense fighting in Daraa city continued on Tuesday. In retaliation for the opposition taking control of the al-Mansheya neighborhood on Monday, Russian and Syrian warplanes bombed al-Mansheya as well as the Naemeh suburb. Armed opposition forces started an offensive to take the city from pro-government forces over the weekend. The offensive is reportedly by led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but also includes Ahrar al-Sham and Free Syrian Army-linked Southern Front units, who formed a joint coordination room to retake Daraa (Syria Direct, Syrian Observer, Step NewsAR, all4SyriaAR)
  • 14 FEB: On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that the Islamic State (ISIS) is losing ground in its stronghold of al-Bab and confirmed that it “has largely been taken under control finally.” Al-Bab is now besieged by Russian-backed government troops to the south, and by Turkish-backed forces to the north, west, and east. Yesterday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish military is going to push through al-Bab to the nearby ISIS stronghold in Raqqa: “The ultimate goal is to establish a safe zone by cleansing a 4,000 to 5,000sq km area from the terrorists.” (Analyst note: this zone could become a flashpoint as competing sides race to capture the city. It will put the new political understanding between Turkey and Russia to the test.) (AFP, Al Jazeera, Reuters)
  • 13 FEB: On Monday, Russian warplanes allegedly conducted airstrikes in the Idlib countryside. The planes targeted residential neighborhoods, which caused infrastructural damage as well as civilian injuries. (Qasioun)

Political

  • 10 FEB: A group of 40 tolerated “internal opposition” and pro-regime figures met in Beirut on Friday where Syrian dissident Louay Hussein launched a new opposition group, National Bloc. Hussein hopes to form a lobby at Geneva during the upcoming Geneva talks. The Friday conference was attended by 15 diplomats, including the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin, as well as representatives from Iran and the European Union. The group has adopted the slogan “All together to build Syria.” (AP, Enab BaladiAR) (Analyst note: This appears to be another Russian-sponsored attempt to form pro-Assad “alternative oppositions” to delegitimize the mainstream Syrian opposition and help blunt its calls for Assad to go. Several similar delegations already exist.)
  • 13 FEB: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that the second round of the Astana talks will take place this week from February 15-16, before the start of the UN-sponsored Geneva talks next week. It is unclear whether opposition factions will attend, claiming that Russia failed to take steps to implement a ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect in December. (Anadolu Agency, Reuters)
  • 13 FEB: UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria Ali al-Za’atari asked for immediate humanitarian assistance to the “Four Towns” (Fu-ah, Kafarya, Madaya, and Zabadani). The four besieged towns have been the subject of various ceasefire agreements, but little help has reached civilians. Al-Za’atari said “the situation is a looming humanitarian catastrophe.”  (AFP, Al Jazeera, OCHA)
  • 13 FEB: 38 Syrian civil society wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling on the UN to set up an independent monitoring mechanism for the ceasefire, stressing that other parties such as Russia do not have the credibility to lead this process. The letter also demanded a rigorous enforcement mechanism to impose consequences on ceasefire violators. (Save Our Syria)
  • 14 FEB: The Russian Ministry of Defense called the recently published “Breaking Aleppo” report by The Atlantic Council false, asserting that none of the report authors were present in Aleppo to verify the claims. On Monday, the Atlantic Council held a live event in Washington DC to introduce the report along with the authors and former resident of East Aleppo.  (TASS, Breaking Aleppo Report, Atlantic Council Event)
  • 14 FEB: UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura postponed once more the upcoming Geneva peace talks until February 23. He confirmed that the invite letters have been sent yesterday. The talks were originally scheduled for 8th February before being pushed back until February 20. Consultations among attendees will occur during the days leading up to the talks, February 20-22. On Monday, the Syrian opposition appointed a new delegation to participate in these talks. The delegation head is Nasr al-Hariri and Mohammad Sabra is the chief negotiator. (Reuters, RT-Arabic, @Charles_Lister)

Humanitarian

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 7 FEB: “Have The Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?” – Roy Gutman (The Nation)
  • 12 FEB: “Breaking Aleppo” – Atlantic Council (Atlantic Council)
  • 13 FEB: “The Battle for Al-Bab: Verifying Euphrates Shield Vehicle Losses” – Christiaan Triebert (Bellingcat)
  • 13 FEB: “US Coalition Killing More Civilians Than Russia in Syria: Report” – MEE staff (Middle East Eye)
  • 13 FEB: “Syria: Coordinated Chemical Attacks on Aleppo” – The Human Rights Watch (HRW)
  • 14 FEB: “The Syrian War Isn’t Stopping for Trump” – Ishaan Tharoor (The Washington Post)
  • 14 FEB: “Don’t look away…Syria isn’t over yet” – Valerie Szybala (Fox News)