Syria: government gains, international complications

Summary: Asad government strengthens its position, but still faces rebels in two main areas. US does a deal with Turkey and concentrates on mopping up IS. Coalition bombing of Raqqa criticised.

In our posting of 16 April we commented that Syrian government forces had won another significant victory, taking control of eastern Ghouta close to Damascus, but that the war was very far from over. That is still the case, but the international players are beginning to concentrate on the end game.

On 21 May the Syrian army announced that with the recovery, from IS as it stated, of al-Hajar al-Aswad district and the adjacent Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp “Damascus and its surroundings and Damascus countryside and its villages are completely secure areas.” Reuters summarised the position. For the first time since early in the Civil War the Syrian army controlled all areas surrounding Damascus. The rebels mainly controlled two large areas, in the north-west near the border with Turkey and in the south-west near the borders with Jordan and Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; in the south-west there is a risk of conflict between Israel and Asad’s Iranian-backed allies. Turkey and the US also have presences in parts of Syria outside government control; the US military is in areas controlled by Kurdish groups that want autonomy from Damascus, and Turkey has sent forces to counter the same Kurdish groups. IS controls only two besieged desert areas in eastern Syria, to which IS fighters from Damascus have moved, with another small enclave in the south-west.

On 2 June the Syrian Foreign Minister said the government wanted to recapture insurgent territory in the south-west through a settlement in which fighters would accept state rule or leave. Since last year a de-escalation deal brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan has contained fighting there. The Minister also said that the US must leave its Tanf base in the south-east. According to rebel sources mass mobilisation of their forces is going ahead in Dara’a and al-Qunaitra provinces in expectation of a major battle. Fighting also continues in the north-west around Idlib and al-Dana; some details are in a Russian Foreign Ministry report at link.

On 4 June Syria told Lebanon it wanted refugees to return to help rebuild the country. Lebanon had tackled the Syrian government on a new “Law 10” which gave people 30 days to stake ownership claims in areas designated for redevelopment. Syria said this period had been extended to one year.

Meanwhile several complications are reported concerning external powers operating in Syria. According to a Foreign Affairs report behind a pay wall a difference has emerged between Iran, which wants to apply military pressure on Israel, and the Asad regime, Hizbullah and Russia which fear conflict with Israel could lose them what they have gained. There is more than a whiff of American wishful thinking here, though Reuters also has an exclusive report of some local friction near the Lebanon border between Russia and Iran-backed forces including Hizbullah, commenting that Israel has been pressing Russia to make sure that Iran and its allies do not entrench themselves in Syria. According to Israeli sources Russia has reached some kind of agreement with Israel about removing Iranian forces from the Israeli border.

Yesterday 5 June the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia announced that they were pulling out of Manbij in north-central Syria near the Turkish border. This followed a meeting on 4 June between the new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Turkish Foreign Minister at which they agreed on “steps to ensure the security and stability in Manbij “. An Associated Press report comments that this move “could ease a serious rift between NATO allies United States and Turkey”, enabling Turkey to control most of its border west of the Euphrates, a key Turkish objective. According to the Turkish Foreign Minister Kurdish fighters leaving Manbij would give up their weapons as part of a deal reached with the US.

The main US objective is to deal with the remaining IS presence in Syria. Pompeo has welcomed operations by the [rebel] Syrian Democratic forces against Dashisha in north-eastern Syria. According to the Pentagon there were 225 coalition airstrikes against IS in May, a 304% increase over March. Further detail on the complicated US position on Manbij is in a long special briefing on 5 June by unnamed State Department officials (an unusual event in itself these days, when the State Department no longer regularly briefs the press).

Finally Amnesty International UK have published a report on conditions in Raqqa, the “capital” of IS in Syria until it was targeted by the US-led coalition last year. Amnesty researchers report “a level of destruction beyond anything they have seen in decades of covering conflicts around the world”, with hundreds of civilians killed and thousands injured. There was “prima facie evidence that several coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law”.

This report resembles the outrage caused by Russian airstrikes, for example in eastern Ghouta in December 2017. It should be no surprise that airstrikes, which may cause few casualties or none at all on the attacking side, have humanitarian costs and can cause destruction on an epic scale.

That lesson was first learned at Guernica 81 years ago; Syria has yet to find its Picasso.

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