TSI Syria Update: July 19, 2017

Takeaway

Clashes erupted last night between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham across the opposition-controlled Idlib governorate, and continued throughout the day today. Several villages have reportedly changed hands thus far during the fighting. This is the most group infighting that the governorate of Idlib has seen in recent weeks and comes after weeks of mediation attempts to calm tensions between the groups. The Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council released a public statement condemning HTS, and encouraging opposition groups to fight against it.

Military

  • 18 JUL:  On Tuesday, a group of defected Syrian Army officers based in Aleppo launched an initiative called the National Unified Syrian Army with the objective of unifying all AOGs into one body under one leadership. A second group of defected army officers located south of Damascus released a statement supporting the initiative. (@VR_Syria 2011AR, @VR_Syria 2011AR, Qasioun-AR) (Analyst Note: This initiative comes a few days after the opposition group Jaysh al-Islam announced its support for a unification initiative in Eastern Ghouta suggested by the Military Council of opposition groups in Damascus and Rural Damascus.)
  • 18-19 JUL: On Tuesday night, clashes erupted between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham across opposition-held Idlib governorate, and continued throughout the day on Wednesday. Fighting reportedly started when HTS attacked Ahrar in several locations capturing the city of al-Dana, the northern part of Saraqeb city, and several points in Salqeen city, while Ahrar seized the cities of Sarmada and Armanaz. HTS reportedly handed control of the two towns Hazreen and Kafrnabel over to Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated factions to neutralize them. During the clashes in Saraqeb city, a car bomb exploded near an Ahrar command center, killing five people and injuring several others, including civilians. Ahrar claimed they were acting in self-defense against HTS aggression. The Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council released a statement calling the HTS attacks on Ahrar an act of aggression, urging all factions allied to HTS to defect, and calling on all armed opposition groups (AOGs) to join the fight against HTS. Additionally, there are unconfirmed reports that Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, leader of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – one of the founding groups of HTS – was injured in an ambush during the fighting. (Reuters, Baladi News-AR, Smart News-AR, All4syria-AR, Syrian Islamic Council-AR, @Charles_Lister, @GIIMedia, @GIIMedia, Orient News, Zaman Alwsl-AR)
  • 18-19 JUL: US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to battle Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Raqqa amid reports of a slow-down in the progress to capture the city. The SDF reportedly advanced deeper into the Nazlat Shahada district and the Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik district near the Old City amid intense clashes with the remaining ISIS fighters in the city. On Tuesday, the US-led Coalition carried out several airstrikes on ISIS positions in Raqqa city. Local sources reported the deaths of at least four civilians in the strikes, and accused the Coalition of using white phosphorus incendiary munitions. (@Raqqa_SL, Qasioun, 7al-AR, Rudaw)
  • 19 JUL: Assad Coalition forces and AOGs clashed today near the besieged Eastern Ghouta towns of Arbin and al-Rayhan. The clashes were accompanied by airstrikes and shelling that targeted residential areas of Douma, al-Shifuniyah, and Ein Tarma. Several civilians were injured in the attacks. (all4Syria-AR, Smart News-AR, Ghouta Media Center FB-AR)

Political

  • 18 JUL: On Tuesday, Turkish state news outlet Anadolu Agency released detailed information regarding the positions of US forces in northern Syria. According to the agency, the US has increased its presence in the area, and currently has ten bases: two air bases, and eight outposts or field bases. Included in the report is the locations of all bases, military equipment, and in some cases, the number of US and international forces present. (The Daily Beast, AA)
  • 18 JUL: Saraqeb city in Idlib governorate elected a new Local Council and executive office members on Tuesday. 15 candidates were nominated for executive office, and two candidates as head of the Local Council. There are reports that more than 4,000 citizens voted in the elections. (Zaman Alwsl-AR, Syrian PC-AR, Baladi News-AR)
  • 19 JUL: Israeli Prime Minister reportedly told the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia that Israel has struck Hezbollah “dozens of times” in Syria, saying, “When we see them [Iran] transferring weapons to Hezbollah, we will hurt them.” Netanyahu’s comments, made in a private meeting with the leaders, was reportedly accidentally transmitted to the earbuds of reports and was shut down within a few minutes. (Haaretz, Qasioun)
  • 19 JUL: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian announced that France wants major international powers involved in the Syrian conflict to join a contact group which will make recommendations to warring parties. Le Drian stated, “This initiative presumes that we don’t set a pre-condition to the talks that Bashar al-Assad must leave,” echoing French President Macron’s earlier statements regarding the future of Assad. Previously, Macron stated he hoped such a contact group would be composed of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Britain, Russia, France, and China – in addition to regional powers and opposition and government officials. (Reuters)
  • 19 JUL: US officials announced on Wednesday that President Trump had decided to scrap the the CIA’s program to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight the Assad government. Officials stated Trump made the decision nearly a month ago after a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Ending the CIA’s program was not a condition of the recent ceasefire agreement brokered by the US and Russia in southern Syria, and officials noted it reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to cooperate with Russia in Syria, which saw the program as working against its interests. (Washington Post) (Analyst Note: Beyond demonstrating the seeming willingness of the Trump administration to defer to Russian interests in Syria, terminating the US anti-Assad train and equip program demonstrates a lack of interest in the moderate opposition, indicates a shift in the US stance on the future of Assad, and is the latest in a policy that appears to emphasize short-term goals over achieving long-term strategic objectives.)

Humanitarian

  • None.

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • JUL: “‘Most of the Men Want to Leave:’ Armed groups, displacement and the gendered webs of vulnerability in Syria” – Lana Khattab and Henri Myrttinen (International Alert)
  • JUL: “The Regime and Loyal Militias Will Struggle to Disentangle Their Relationship” – Mazen Ezzi (Chatham House)
  • 18 JUL: “After The Buses: Life in a Government-Controlled Damascus Suburb” – Youmna al-Dimashqi (Syria Deeply)
  • 19 JUL: “De-Escalation in Syria” (The Economist)
  • 19 JUL: “Turkey Leaks Secret Locations of US Troops in Syria” – Roy Gutman (The Daily Beast)
    19 JUL: “Palestinian-Syrian Militarization in Yarmouk” – Tom Rollins (Atlantic Council)