Fighting has erupted again in the southern Syrian town of Daraa, where an opposition-controlled neighborhood is resisting pressure to disarm. Assad regime forces placed the area, Daraa al-Balad, under military siege in late June, and later escalated to intermittent shelling of the enclave. A new ceasefire was brokered by pro-regime Russian forces over the weekend, under which the opposition forces were to begin the process of disarming but maintain some autonomy within the district. However, the ceasefire broke down almost immediately—allegedly due to violations by Iran-backed militias fighting for the regime. Shelling of the neighborhood has since resumed. The UN relief agency UNRWA has especially expressed concern for the some 3,000 Palestinian refugees living in a camp within the besieged area. UNRWA reports that water and electricity are completely cut off inside the camp. (Middle East Monitor, Daily Sabah, Daily Sabah, Reliefweb)
Doctors and healthcare workers held a demonstration outside a hospital in the Syrian city of Idlib June 1, to protest the election of the Bashar Assad regime to the executive board of the World Health Organization (WHO). Syria was elected to the board for a three-year term by the 22 countries of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region—the latest coup for normalization of the Assad regime. "How can we trust WHO [when] one of its executive board members is the murderer who is killing my colleagues, my friends?" said Dr. Salem Abdan, head of health services for opposition-administered Idlib, in a WhatsApp message. Read a banner at the protest: "We reject the idea that our killer and he who destroyed our hospitals be represented on the executive board." Idlib province is part of a remaining rebel-held pocket in the northwest of the country, where Assad regime warplanes have for years been bombing hospitals and clinics.
Ten years ago this week, the Syrian Revolution began with peaceful pro-democracy protests. The first demonstrations broke out in the city of Deraa after local schoolchildren painted a mural depicting scenes and slogans from the recent revolutions in other Arab countries, and were detained and brutalized by the police. The Bashar Assad regime responded to the demonstrations with serial massacres. After months of this, the Free Syrian Army emerged, initially as a self-defense militia to protect protesters. But the situation soon escalated to an armed insurgency. The regime lost control of large areas of the country, and local civil resistance committees backed by the FSA seized control. Assad then escalated to levels of violence rarely seen on Earth since World War II.
The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, on Feb. 24 convicted a former officer of Syria's General Intelligence Directorate, Eyad A., on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity—specifically, torture and deprivation of liberty committed against 30 persons. Eyad received a sentence of four years and six months in prison for his role in arresting people who were later tortured. The 30 persons, who were all civilians, had been participating in anti-government protests in Douma in 2011 when they were rounded up and sent by bus to Branch 251, or the al-Khatib detention center in Damascus. At Branch 251, they suffered grave physical, emotional and psychological abuse, in addition to being subjected to inhumane and degrading conditions. The court stated that "Eyad A. had already known about the regular and systematic torture in the prison of department 251 when the demonstrators were arrested... He also expected that the torture was part of a planned, organized action by the government to suppress opposition forces."
A United Nations Human Rights Council report released on July 7 concluded that air-strikes on civilian infrastructure by Syrian government and Russian forces in Idlib and Aleppo provinces amounted to war crimes. The report, prepared by the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, assessed incidents that occurred from November 1, 2019, to June 1, 2020. The Syrian government and Russian Aerospace Forces carried out both land and air attacks, which destroyed civilian infrastructure. The report documented 52 "emblematic attacks" that led to civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. These included 17 attacks on hospitals and medical facilities as well as 14 attacks on schools.
Protesters gathered in the town of Atmeh in Syria's opposition-held Idlib province on June 23 to demand the release of a locally based British aid worker arrested by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist militia formerly known as the Nusra Front that now controls much of the province. Tauqir Sharif, who has been based in Atmeh near the Turkish border since 2013, was detained by HTS earlier in the week in a raid on his home. Footage of the protest showed many women and children among dozens chanting and holding banners calling for Sharif to be freed, as they marched through the town. The crowd finally gathered outside the closed gates of a compound guarded by masked militiamen. Demonstrators also protested closure of education and other social services by HTS, chanting "We want schools to open."
A report published by Amnesty International on May 11 found that the Syrian government, supported by Russia, committed a series of war crimes in northwest Syria in late 2019 and 2020. The report found that "attacks from the air and the ground repeatedly struck residential areas and crucial infrastructure." The findings are based on interviews of Syrians on the ground and international aid workers, as well as videos, photographs, satellite imagery, logs of aircraft observations and intercepted aircraft radio communication. The attacks mainly occurred in opposition-held areas of Idlib province, western Aleppo province and northwestern Hama province. The report documents 18 attacks in these areas on schools and medical facilities. The report calls these attacks "serious violations" of international humanitarian law.
The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a diplomatic think-tank established by presidential decree, has issued a report predicting that Russia, Turkey and Iran will soon reach a joint agreement to remove Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from power, replacing him with a transitional government including members of both the regime and opposition, as well as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In its coverage of the report, Russian news agency TASS suggested that Moscow fears a repeat of the "Afghan scenario" in Syria if it continues to back an unpopular regime. It also suggested that Assad is perceived by Moscow as too beholden to Tehran.