Russian-backed Assad regime forces are on the verge of taking the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria's Eastern Ghouta enclave, in the Damascus suburbs. A Russian military commander boasted: "The militants are being evacuated from Douma, their last bastion in Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days the humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta must be completed." This "humanitarian operation" has seen the near-total destruction of Ghouta by aerial bombardment over the past weeks, with some 1,500 killed. Thousands of fighters and residents have been allowed to evacuate via buses to Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held province, under what was reported as a "surrender agreement." (Al Jazeera, Syria Direct)
International backers of negotiations to end the conflict in Syria should ensure that any transitional process includes a robust independent body to investigate thousands of "disappeared," Human Rights Watch said Aug. 30, the UN-designated International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has determined that the use of enforced disappearance by the Syrian government is widespread, and may amount to a crime against humanity. Human Rights Watch called for creation of an independent institution in charge of investigating the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, as well as unidentified human remains and mass graves in Syria.
The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad has installed a crematorium at the notorious Saydnaya military prison outside Damascus in order to destroy the remains of thousands of murdered prisoners, the United States charged May 8. "We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison," said Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. The State Department also released commercial satellite photographs showing what it said is a building in the prison complex that has been modified as a crematorium. Jones said Washington's information came from "credible humanitarian agencies" and from the US "intelligence community," and that as many as 50 people per day are thought to be hanged at Saydnaya. In presenting the photographs, Jones said Assad's regime "has sunk to a new level of depravity" with the support of Russia and Iran.
Free Syrian Army militia backed by Turkish forces took the Syrian city of al-Bab from ISIS militants Feb. 23, although fighting continues in some districts. The ISIS fighters withdrew via a route left open for them by the commanders of Operation Euphrates Shield, the joint Turkish-FSA campaign. (Rudaw, Feb. 23) As US-led Iraqi and Kurdish forces close the circle on ISIS in Mosul, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance on Raqqa. The US commander in Iraq predicts the imminent taking of both Mosul and Raqqa. "Within the next six months, I think we'll see both conclude," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend outside Baghdad Feb. 8. The enemy is "overwhelmed anywhere that they are," added Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led Combined Joint Taskforce. (Rudaw, Feb. 8)
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)
The Russian Defense Ministry announced Jan. 23 that its warplanes have flown their first joint combat mission in Syria with US-led aircraft, according to the Associated Press. The ministry said that two jets from the US-led coalition "participated in an anti-ISIS air-strike alongside Russian aircraft." The Pentagon, however, denied such a mission took place. "The Department of Defense is not coordinating air-strikes with the Russian military in Syria," said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon. US Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a coalition spokesman, said the Russian announcement is "propaganda." However, the new administration of Donald Trump has signalled that it is open to cooperating with Russia in Syria. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that President Trump "would work with any country that shares our interest in defeating ISIS." (ARA News, FoxtrotAlpha, Jan. 24)
Remember the reports of a Russian "withdrawl" from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia's military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow's warplanes. Let's hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian's war fleet from Syria's coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: "Russia 'starts to withdraw' forces from Syria." The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is "just getting started" with a military build-up in Syria.
After initiating talks on Syria that exclude Washington, Turkey and Russia each accused the US of backing what they called "terrorist groups" in the country. The accusations came Dec. 27, the same day both governments agreed to hold further talks in Kazakhstan next month. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had evidence that US-led coalition forces support ISIS as wel as the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG). "They were accusing us of supporting Daesh," Erdogan said at a press conference in Ankara, using the Arabic abbreviation for ISIS. "Now they give support to terrorist groups including Daesh, YPG, PYD. It is very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos." The US State Department issued a requisite statement dismissing Erdogan's claims as "ludicrous." (Al Jazeera, Dec. 21)