TSI Syria Update: June 30, 2017

Takeaway

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) fact-finding mission confirmed the use of sarin nerve gas in a deadly 4 April attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in southern Idlib governorate. The report comes four days after the White House warned about another potential chemical attack by the Syrian government.

Military

  • 30 JUN: Islamic State (ISIS) launched a counterattack on Friday against US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the eastern part of Raqqa city. The group reportedly captured parts of al-Sina’a district and attacked al-Mishlab district, the first district to fall under the SDF in the offensive to capture Raqqa on 7 June. In the western part of the city, heavy clashes took place in ISIS-held al-Dir’iyah and al-Nahda districts as the SDF attempted to advance. These development come one day after reports that the SDF have fully encircled Raqqa. (Reuters, Qasioun-AR, ARA News-AR)
  • 30 JUN: ISIS has reportedly withdrawn from its last positions in Aleppo governorate on Friday as Assad Coalition forces were advancing in the area. Assad Coalition forces captured the last stretch of Ithriya-Rasafa highway and is securing the areas that ISIS withdrew from. (SOHR, AFP, Qasioun-AR, SANA)
  • 30 JUN: Islamic State (ISIS) claimed that they killed 22 of Assad Coalition forces in an ambush in Abu al-Alaia village in eastern Hama governorate. (Qasioun-AR)
  • 30 JUN: On Friday, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) launched an airstrike on pro-government forces near al-Baath in response to a stray munition fired from Syria that landed in the Golan Heights. (@IDFSpokesperson, MEE) (Analyst Note: This is the fourth strike by Israel on pro-government forces in just under a week. The increase in strikes can be attributed to continuing clashes between armed opposition groups and Syrian government forces near the city of al-Baath in Quneitra. On 24 June, opposition groups led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham launched an offensive to capture the city. Since then, there has been a notable uptick in cross border strikes by Israel.)
  • 30 JUN: The Turkish army targeted the Kurdish YPG with artillery in Rajo area near the town of Afrin. The YPG responded by shooting mortars at the Turkish army locations. (Ara News-AR, Sputnik-AR)
  • 30 JUN: On Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) released a statement detailing the number of civilian deaths as a result of Russian airstrikes since 30 September 2015. According to the report, roughly 5,300 civilians have been killed in thousands of airstrikes since Russia began operations in Syria approximately 21 months ago. SOHR also documented numerous instances of incendiary cluster munition strikes on civilian population centers by Russian air forces. (SOHR-AR)

Political

  • 30 JUN: Tensions between Kurdish forces and Turkey in northwestern Syria escalated on Friday amid incendiary statements from both sides. On Friday, Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated Turkey would not hesitate to carry out additional military operations  in northern Syria, or to retaliate against any perceived Kurdish aggression in the area. Reports continued to circulate regarding a possible Turkish military offensive, ostensibly to be called Euphrates Sword, which will aim to capture the Kurdish-held areas around Afrin and Tel Rifaat. Turkish military officials allegedly stated the offensive could start within the next few days. Similarly, Kurdish YPG commander Sipan Hano reportedly announced that the group aims to “liberate” the area between Afrin and Jarablus currently controlled by Turkey-backed opposition groups, although no timeline for such an offensive was included in his statement. Additionally, a series of high level discussions between Turkish, Russian, and US officials took place on Friday regarding the situation in northern Syria. Erdogan and US President Donald Trump spoke via phone, after which Erdogan also spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin. US special representative to the anti-ISIS coalition also met with Turkish leaders in Ankara following his trip to northern Syria. (Reuters, Hurriyet, Daily Sabah) (Analyst Note: This escalatory rhetoric comes after nearly a week of clashes between the YPG and Turkish forces in northwestern Syria. It is likely that Erdogan would seek the acquiescence of both the US and Russia prior to launching an offensive in the area; as such, his discussions with the heads of both of these countries should be noted within this context.)  
  • 30 JUN: On Friday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission released a report confirming the use of sarin on 4 April in Khan Sheikhoun. The findings were based on autopsies, bio-medical samples from casualties, witness interviews, and environmental samples. This confirmation follows a previous preliminary OPCW analysis which found “incontrovertible” evidence of the use of sarin. (OPCW, @aronlund)
  • 30 JUN: The armed opposition group Liwa Ajnad al-Sham announced that it is separating from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and joining Ahrar al-Sham (AS). (Smart News-AR, Shaam-AR) (Analyst Note: Ajnad al-Sham joined HTS almost six months ago after being part of AS for years. Local reports linked the separation from HTS to disputes about the HTS policies and allocations of centers among HTS factions.)
  • 30 JUN: On Friday HTS arrested a leader of Ahrar al-Sham in the Jabal al-Zawiya area for dealing with Turkey-backed opposition forces. Immediately after the incident, Ahrar al-Sham retaliated by arresting several members of HTS fighters in the same area. Both sides have called in reinforcements for a possible fight. (Royaa Souria-AR, Rasd-AR)
  • 30 JUN: UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has announced today that around 440,000 internally displaced people (IDP) and 31,000 Syrian refugee from the neighbouring countries returned to their home in the first six months of 2017. UNHCR said that the main reasons that IDPs and refugees have returned are: “seeking out family members, checking on property, and, in some cases, a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country.” (UNHCR)
  • 30 JUN: Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday that Turkey, Iran and Russia were close to completing documents to define boundaries of the de-escalation zones as well as their control and operating procedures. Shoigu also said that the creation of a Syrian national reconciliation committee might be discussed in the next round of Astana talks, which are scheduled to take place on 4-5 July. (Daily Sabah, Sputnik)

Humanitarian

  • None

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 30 JUN: “OPCW Fact-Finding Mission Confirms Use of Chemical Weapons in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017” (OPCW)
  • 30 JUN: “Al-Qaeda Affiliate and Ahrar al-Sham Compete for Control in Idlib” – Ibrahim al-Assil (MEI)
  • 30 JUN: “The Signal in Syria’s Noise” – Sam Heller (War on the Rocks)
  • 30 JUN: “How Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight Assad’s War” – Ali Latifi (NYTimes)