TSI Syria Update: July 17, 2017

Takeaway

Tensions in northwestern Syria continued over the weekend, as the Kurdish YPG and Turkish forces — along with Turkey-backed armed opposition groups (AOGs) — clashed near Azaz and Afrin. On Saturday and Sunday, both sides exchanged shelling resulting in several reports of civilian casualties. On Monday, fighting erupted between AOGs and the YPG near Ain Daqna south of Azaz, while Turkey intensified its shelling of the surrounding area. These clashes come after several weeks of escalating fighting between Turkey and the YPG, a growing Turkish military presence in the area, and rumors of a potential Turkey-backed AOG offensive on YPG-held Afrin.

Military

  • 15-17 JUL: Assad Coalition forces attacked the besieged Eastern Ghouta towns of Zamalka, Douma, Hosh al-Dawahira, and Ein Tarma with artillery and airstrikes over the weekend and into Monday. At least 23 civilians were reportedly killed since Friday, and several civilians were injured. Assad Coalition forces clashed with armed opposition group (AOG) Failaq al-Rahman (FAR) in the outskirts of Ein Tarma, and with Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) in Hosh al-Dawahira. (SCD in Rural Damascus FB-AR, Qasioun-AR, Qasioun-AR, Ghouta GMC FB-AR, Smart News-AR)
  • 16 JUL: On Sunday, two mortar reportedly landed near the Russian Embassy in Damascus. No casualties or damage was reported, but the incident was condemned by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Al-Jazeera, Russian MFA)
  • 16 JUL: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) claimed responsibility for killing nine pro-government fighters during a special operation in Aleppo city in which members of HTS infiltrated the area near the air force intelligence center. (All4Syria-AR, RFS-AR, Smart News-AR)
  • 16 JUL: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) announced it had conducted a special operation in Latakia by infiltrating a military port al-Mina al-Bayda in Ras Shamra (Ugarit area), north of Latakia city, with a car bomb, which was detonated inside the port. Pro-government media gave conflicting accounts of the incident. They first reported a hostile operation and explosion inside the port, while other pro-government sources denied it there was an attack and claimed the explosion was part of military training or movie scene. (Almodon-AR, RT-AR, Asharq AlAwsat-AR)
  • 16 JUL: Representatives from eastern Qalamoun negotiating committee announced reaching a draft agreement with Russian mediators for a two month truce in several eastern Qalamoun towns and villages, including Jairoud, al-Ruhayba, al-Nasriya, al-Atneh, and possibly al-Doumayr. The deal is pending approval from the Syrian government. The deal would seek to achieve four key steps during an initial two month test period. First, the removal of all heavy and medium-size weapons from the towns. Second, hospitals will reopen and medical supplies will be allowed to enter the area. Third, a committee will be formed to discuss the cases of local detainees and dismissed government employees. Fourth, an elected local council will be established to govern all towns and cities covered in the deal. (RT-AR, Enab Baladi-AR, Zaman alwasl-AR AlQalamon Media Association-AR)
  • 16-17 JUL: Clashes between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG continued in northwestern Syria over the weekend. Both sides exchanged shelling on Saturday and Sunday, with the YPG reportedly targeting Azaz, and both Turkish forces and Turkey-backed AOGs targeting YPG positions near Afrin and Tel Rifaat. Violence escalated on Monday when clashes broke out between Turkey-backed AOGs and Kurdish forces around the village of Ain Daqna, while Turkey reportedly stepped up shelling in surrounding areas. Turkey has also reportedly deployed additional artillery units to the area, and there are reports of continued preparations by AOGs for a large-scale offensive on YPG-controlled territory. (Reuters, SOHR, Qasioun) (Analyst Note: These intensifying clashes come amid several weeks of fighting between Turkey and the YPG, and amid reports of the formation of a National Army by Turkey-backed opposition groups in northern Syria, designed with the intention to recapture YPG-held territory in the Afrin region.)
  • 16-17 JUL: The Assad Coalition continued its push south in Raqqa governorate toward the Islamic State-(ISIS) controlled town of al-Sukhneh over the weekend. Pro-government media said the Assad Coalition took control of several locations southwest of Raqqa city on Sunday and Monday, including the town of Zamleh and the surrounding oil fields of Deilaa, al-Mansoura, and al-Fahdeh. (Sana-AR, Smart News-AR, Reuters, Al-Masdar)
  • 17 JUL: On Monday, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the capture of the Yarmouk district in the southwest of Raqqa city. During the operation, the SDF announced it had liberated 500 civilians trapped in the area as a result of the clashes, killed 16 ISIS fighters, and destroyed two armored vehicles belonging to the group. (Raqqa Liberation FB-AR, Xendan-AR, Qasioun, AFP)

Political

  • 16 JUL: On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters Israel was opposed to the recent ceasefire agreement brokered by the US, Russia, and Jordan. Following his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Netanyahu stated the agreement perpetuates the Iranian presence in Syria. Senior Israeli officials have also voiced opposition to the ceasefire, saying the US and Russia almost completely ignored Israeli security related requests when crafting the agreement, and that it “creates a disturbing reality in southern Syria.” (Haaretz, JPost)
  • 17 JUL: The European Union placed sanctions on eight Syrian scientists and eight top military officials for their suspected involvement on the 4 April sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun. This brings the total number of people under EU sanctions related to the conflict in Syria to 255, in addition to 67 companies linked to the Assad government. (EU, Reuters, Washington Post)
  • 17 JUL: A top Kurdish counter terrorism official stated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was almost certainly alive, despite recent reports of his death. On Monday, Lahur Talabany stated “We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent that he is alive.” Talabany also noted that despite low morale within the organization, ISIS was shifting tactics, and it would likely like three or four years to eliminate the group. (Reuters)

Humanitarian

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 13 JUL: “S/2017/598 Letter dated 11 July 2017 from the Permanent Representative of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council” (UNSC)
  • 14 JUL: “Transcript of press conference at close of 7th round of intra-Syrian talks by UN Envoy for Syria” (UNOG)
  • 17 JUL: “Use of chemical weapons in Syria: EU imposes sanctions against 16 additional persons” (EU Council)
  • 17 JUL: “Will the Americans Abandon Us?” – Noah Bonsey (International Crisis Group)
  • 17 JUL: “For the U.S. and Russia, True Progress in Syria Is Still a Distant Prospect” (Stratfor)