Welcome to Syria Deeply’s weekly summary of our coverage of the crisis in Syria.
Sochi talks: The Moscow-sponsored “Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue” began in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Monday. These are the first Syria negotiations to be held in Russia, though Moscow has previously led the trilateral talks in Astana.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is attending the talks, where he is expected to lead a new constitutional commission that will be set up at the two-day Sochi talks, according to Reuters.
Last week, a Turkish official told Hürriyet Daily News that around 1,600 participants were expected to take part in negotiations, but a number of delegations have since said they would boycott the Sochi talks.
The Syrian Negotiation Commission – the opposition’s main negotiating bloc – said on Friday that it would not be attending the Sochi congress, AFP reported. Many other Syrian opposition groups have said they will boycott the congress. However, members of the Moscow platform, “a dissident faction of the opposition,” said it will attend, according to Al Jazeera.
Kurdish authorities have also said that they will boycott Sochi talks because of a continued Turkish assault on Afrin, according to Middle East Eye.
According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “The fact that some representatives of the processes currently taking place in Syria are not participating is unlikely to stop this congress from going ahead, and is unlikely to seriously undermine the importance of the congress,” he said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.
No cease-fire in Eastern Ghouta: After Syrian opposition reports of a cease-fire agreement in the Eastern Ghouta on Friday, fighting continued between pro-government and rebel forces over the weekend in the Damascus suburbs.
On Friday, a rebel official said that during recent U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Vienna, Russia said it would put pressure on the Syrian government to enforce a cease-fire in the area, Reuters reported. Damascus never acknowledged the cease-fire.
At least 23 aerial raids and 40 missiles targeted the city of Harasta and its outskirts and dozens of artillery and aerial raids targeted the city of Arbin on Monday, killing 34 civilians, including at least one child and one woman, in Eastern Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. SOHR said on Sunday that government bombardment in the area killed eight people between then and Saturday.
Operation Olive Branch: Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made repeated threats to expand Turkey’s ongoing operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-controlled city of Afrin to other Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria.
On Friday, Erdogan said operations could extend eastward all the way to the Iraqi border, where the United States – Turkey’s NATO ally – has troops deployed. On Saturday, Turkey’s foreign minister called on the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Manbij ahead of a potential Turkish attack, but the commander of the U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, told CNN on Sunday that withdrawing from Manbij was “not something we are looking into.”
Erdogan later said that “step by step, we will clean our entire border,” in a speech following one of the first significant gains Turkish troops and allied rebels made since Operation Olive Branch began nine days ago. On Sunday, they seized Mount Barsaya, which is located near the Kurdish town of Afrin and overlooks the town of Kilis on the Turkish side of the border and Azaz on the Syrian side.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Turkish airstrikes between Sunday and Monday killed 13 people, including five children and three women, and injured another five, all from the same family in the village of Kobla in northeastern Afrin city.
On Friday, Turkish airstrikes damaged roughly 60 percent of the ancient Ain Dara neo-hittite temple, built by the Arameans in the first millennium B.C., in Afrin, according to the BBC. “The Turkish regime’s destruction of the Ain Dara Temple was a barbaric act, and a completion of the plan led by this regime to destroy the Syrian cultural heritage,” Mahmoud Hammoud, Syria’s director general for antiquities and museums, said, according to state-run news agency SANA.