2018DEC13 Political Demographics: The Markings of the Government of Syria Reconciliation Measures in Eastern Ghouta COAR




Political Demographics


The Markings of the Government of Syria Reconciliation Measures in Eastern Ghouta

Political Demographics

The Markings of the Government of Syria Reconciliation Measures in Eastern Ghouta

Executive Summary

In late March and early April 2018, opposition-held communities in Eastern Ghouta reconciled with the Government of Syria following a large-scale offensive, which targeted every community in the formerly besieged and opposition-held pocket. Reconciliation agreements are not a new development in the Syrian conflict; however, Eastern Ghouta marked the first reconciliation agreement covering a densely populated and geographically large area. 1 Over the course of the Eastern Ghouta offensive, the Government of Syria militarily divided the region into three pockets, and the predominant armed groups in each pocket subsequently negotiated independent reconciliation agreements with the Government of Syria.

Much has changed in Eastern Ghouta in the eight months following the implementation of the Eastern Ghouta reconciliation agreements, much of it very relevant for policy-makers and programmers. This pa-per employs case studies that examine post-reconciliation dynamics in the largest communities in each of the reconciled pockets of Eastern Ghouta, namely Duma, Arbin, and Harasta, and identifies key trends and conclusions relevant to future humanitarian, development, and stabilization programs and policy. This report was compiled over the course of several months, and relies on both publically available data as well as key informant interviews with current and former residents of these communities.

Based on an analysis of Duma, Harasta, and Arbin, it is apparent that the Government of Syria seeks to increase control over areas and populations formerly governed and controlled by the armed opposition through a process socio-political engineering and selective localization. This strategy is premised on the identification and division of communities and residents into ‘controllable’ and ‘uncontrollable’ cat-egories, and subsequently implemented through the application of a policy of selective returns based on strict security procedures, the (s)election of trusted local governance leadership, and the deliberate prioritization of service provision and rehabilitation projects.

In practice, this strategy acts as a form of socio-political engineering that reinforces the presence of ‘con-trollable’ populations through the prioritization of scarce resources to their communities, empowers a new class of proven local intermediaries and functionaries, and simultaneously penalizes or neglects ‘uncontrollable’ populations through impediments to return and a lack of support. The policies and practices implemented in post-reconciliation Eastern Ghouta should be considered as a possible model for the reincorporation of formerly opposition-held communities throughout Syria.

Introduction

Throughout the Syrian conflict, there have been frequent instances in which humanitarian assistance was instrumentalized by parties to the conflict in order to achieve political and security ends.2 While lamentable, this phenomenon is also in many ways unavoidable, as service provision, political legitimacy, and state security in an asymmetrical conflict environment – are in many ways inextricably linked.3 Yet even as armed conflict ebbs, the significance of the interlinkage between services, security, and politics remains paramount; political and security objectives take a new form while essential services are eclipsed by development and reconstruction plans and goals.

The Russian intervention in Syria marked the beginning of the end for the armed and political opposition. Communities that had previously been besieged for several years began to surrender, one after another, through the application of what has been euphemistically termed the Government of Syria’s ‘reconciliation’ strategy. 4 In the spring of 2017, three of the largest remaining armed opposition-held areas, Eastern Ghouta, southern Syria, and northern rural Homs, reconciled.   The Government of Syria’s apparent victory through military force, rather than political negotiations, means that many of the initial grievances and drivers of the conflict remain unaddressed.  In the case of ‘reconciled’ communities, there has been no tangible peace and reconciliation process, but rather the reimposition of state sovereignty through more traditional means.

Trapped between power, ideals, traditional morality, and practical humanitarian necessity, the international response to the Syrian crisis continues to walk on eggshells.   Conflict sensitive and ‘do no harm’ approaches are increasingly difficult to implement within the context of such a protean political and military environment. The arguments presented in this paper therefore seek to cast light on the logic and dynamics that shape reconciled areas, recognizing that the basis of well-informed decisions, whether by policy-makers or practitioners, is solid information and thoughtful analysis.  

Findings

Eastern Ghouta fell to the Government of Syria in March 2017.  At present, the Government of Syria is in the process of reincorporating these formerly opposition-held communities and reimposing sovereignty.  Based on an analysis of three communities in Eastern Ghouta – Duma, Harasta, and Arbin – the Government of Syria seeks to align assistance and development, local governance, security, and political strategies in order to reinforce ‘passive’ forms of social control upon which it – and arguably any government – relies.

Political Demographics

One of the premises explored in this paper is the existence of ‘controllable’ and ‘uncontrollable’ population. The classification of indigenous people by an external analyst is fraught with methodological, ethical and reputational risks; that risk only increases when categories are loosely defined and politically-informed. That said, the ‘controllable’ versus ‘uncontrollable’ framework is germane to the Syrian conflict, and reputational risks to the analyst are balanced by the very real risks associated with external interventions, regardless of the degree to which altruism is a motivating factor.

In the context of reconciled areas, ‘controllable’ refers to individuals who have passed strict Government of Syria security vetting procedures, as explored below, and have thus been permitted to return to their community of origin.  As noted by multiple local key informants, the large majority of those receiving security approvals to return to formerly opposition-held communities in Eastern Ghouta had displaced in much earlier stages of the conflict. Indeed, the very act of fleeing the armed opposition and actively choosing to remain in Government of Syria-held communities is politically significant and is understood to be a key defining characteristic of ‘controllable’ populations currently returning to Eastern Ghouta.  Critically however, this does not mean that ‘controllable’ populations are necessary active supporters of the Government of Syria; rather, demonstrations of loyalty required the passive acceptance of the Government of Syria and its associated systems, proven through the act of displacing to and subsequently residing in Government of Syria-held areas during the conflict.

Dr. Lisa Wedeen explores this concept of passive acceptance and social control in pre-conflict Syria in her article Acting ‘As If’; Wedeen argues that social control and ‘trustworthiness’ in Syria is not necessarily built on strongly-held beliefs and fealty, but rather on the idea that by “acting as if they do [believe]…[Syrians] thus confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” 5 Thus, ‘controllable’ populations are not necessarily hardcore loyalists, but instead a population that the Government of Syria perceives as controllable, and who in turn ‘act as if’ by buying into passive forms of social control and accepting the status quo Syrian state system. 6

Who Returns?

The first and primary method of securitization is through controls imposed on returnees to reconciled communities in Eastern Ghouta.  In the cases of Duma, Arbin, and Harasta (and indeed all of previously opposition-held Eastern Ghouta) lists of individuals wishing to return must be approved by the Government of Syria’s National Security Office, headed by Ali Mamlouk; those few individuals that pass this vetting all share a common characteristic: political trustworthiness as demonstrated by having lived in Government of Syria- eld communities during the besiegement and thereby having already passed relevant security checks7 One key example of this phenomenon is the case of Harasta city: following the reconciliation of Harasta, nearly the entire population of opposition-held Harasta city was either evacuated or displaced to IDP camps in Government-held areas.  As of October 31, 2018, the total population of Harasta city is 1,095 people, which includes 711 returnees. [Footnote] As of October 1, according to UN and local NGO partners, there were approximately 1,095 individuals living in Harasta, 711 of whom were returnees. It is important to note that two neighborhoods of Harasta were consistently under Government of Syria control; the majority of those individuals who remained in Harasta lived in these neighborhoods.[/footnote]   What is notable is that returnees to Harasta are almost entirely former residents of Harasta city who had fled when the armed opposition took control of the city, and had previously resided in Government-held areas.  Of the roughly 19,000 IDPs who fled during the final stages of the siege, very few – if any – have received those security permissions necessary to return. Recent returnees, which comprise the overwhelming majority of the current Harasta population, are thus considered ‘controllable.’

This phenomenon extends beyond Harasta city: neighboring Arbin and Duma also experienced significant displacement throughout the conflict, and at present security   permissions are reportedly only extended to former residents who displaced to Government of Syria-held areas following the armed opposition takeover; however, Arbin and Duma experienced less displacement as a percentage of total population, and therefore the proportion of ‘vetted returnees’ is lower and the ‘controllable’ population is less, relative to Harasta city. In the case of Arbin, Government of Syria local intermediaries have also reportedly begun to actively encourage ‘controllable’ populations to return; for example, key informants reported that much of the Christian population that fled Arbin between 2011-2014 to Government of Syria-held areas have recently been encouraged to return to Arbin with the approval and coordination of both religious officials and the National Security Office.

Who Serivces?

Perhaps most notable is how service provision and future rehabilitation plans have been distributed across all three of the recently reconciled communities. In all three areas, services such as water, electricity, and road networks remain largely nonfunctional. While there is some limited rehabilitation work ongoing, it is largely insufficient and in early stages; however, in both Duma and Arbin the courthouse, police station, municipal offices, and civil registries have been rehabilitated, while there are comparatively little significant efforts to rehabilitate water and power networks.

It is also noteworthy that of the three communities examined in this report, the most significant rehabilitation work thus far has been in Harasta city, which has the lowest total population of all three communities 8with 1,095 total inhabitants compared to 40,811 in Duma and 13,342 in Arbin. 9 Additionally, Harasta city also has comparatively more ongoing, longer-term UN and INGO projects focused on rehabilitation and development and has seen more investment (reportedly encouraged by the Government of Syria) from the Damascus business community. According to one Government of Syria official,10 Harasta has been prioritized due to its role as part of the greater Damascus rehabilitation plan and a key entry point into reconstructing Damascus’ suburbs.

One might argue, however, that Harasta has been selected as an anchor, and thus receives greater rehabilitation and resilience support, due to its relatively high proportion of ‘controllable’ inhabitants. Currently, approximately 65% of Harasta is comprised of returnees, a much higher percentage than in any other community in Eastern Ghouta. The fact that a community of 1,095 individuals is receiving a disproportionate amount of reconstruction and rehabilitation support, when compared to far more densely populated communities, hints at the Government of Syria’s broader strategy of prioritizing returns and associated services in communities populated by ‘controllable’ inhabitants.

Who Governs?

In terms of local governance, all three communities possess a similar dynamic: the Government of Syria intends to defer to a pre-selected trusted local intermediary class to engage in decentralized local governance. On September 16, the Government of Syria held national-level local elections throughout Syria. While there were nominally ‘independent’ candidates in local elections across Syria, Baath party candidates won the majority of seats in communities examined in this paper. What is notable is not necessarily the success of the Baath party, but rather the profiles of those victorious local candidates, whether on Baath or independent election lists. The vast majority of victorious local election candidates in those communities germane to this paper fall into two categories: first, a Government of Syria-oriented local elite, consisting primarily of members of prominent families deeply involved in local business (historically allied with Government of Syria leadership) and individuals closely linked to the upper echelons of Baath party leadership; and second, technocrats affiliated with various line ministries. 11 In fact, in several cases, candidates had previously been involved in or even dominated cross-line trade structures throughout the siege of Eastern Ghouta siege, while others members of the reconciliation committees in their respective cities.

Effectively, the war-economy business class and the local Baath party elite will now become the local governing class; it is likely that the technocrats will be responsible for what rehabilitation does take place, while trusted local business and political intermediaries will govern and act as intermediaries to enforce the Government of Syria’s control over the local community.

Who Secures?

At present, the groups responsible for securing communities in Eastern Ghouta are either highly trusted Syrian military units or proven and controllable pro-Government militias originally from the area. This is the case in many other reconciled areas; the deployment of local groups, consisting predominantly of individuals who fled to Government of Syria-held areas during the besiegement, speaks to the Government of Syria’s strategy of working through pre-selected, and controllable local intermediaries, under the supervision of larger institutions. The Republican Guard and the 4th Division, both considered elite Government of Syria military units, are stationed in all three communities. Local militias and armed groups also form a component of local security forces in all three communities. For example, in the case of Duma, one of the primary security forces is Jaish Al-Wafaa, an NDF unit nominally under the aegis of the Republican Guard. 12 Jaish Al-Wafaa is almost entirely comprised of combatants originally from Eastern Ghouta, who had remained loyal to the Government of Syria throughout the conflict and fled to Damascus in the early stages of the conflict. Similarly, the Harasta NDF is composed of former Harasta residents who had fled in 2012, though are currently based in neighboring Dahiet Al-Assad (2km away) following accusations of looting.[footonote] It is also worth noting that in early May 2018, at least 4,000 former armed opposition combatants and civilians reconciled with the Government of Syria and joined Government of Syria military forces, subsequently deployed across numerous communities in Eastern Ghouta. Many of these were reportedly former Jaish Al-Islam and Faylaq Ar-Rahman combatants, although exact numbers are extremely difficult to confirm. In all three communities, reconciled former opposition recruits are present; while some have been deployed outside of Ghouta, a component remains within Eastern Ghouta. Therefore, there is a now an originally local body of reconciled combatants that now are affiliated with the Government of Syria securitizing the recently reconciled communities.  [/footnote] In effect, in both ‘controllable’ or ‘uncontrollable’ communities, security follows a pattern similar to governance, and relies on carefully-selected local intermediaries as well as formal state security forces.

Conclusion

The Government of Syria appears to be devoting or directing significant resources to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Harasta. In addition to allowing greater access for humanitarian and development agencies, the Government of Syria is also encouraging the Damascus business community to work and invest in Harasta. Simultaneously, either through a lack of capacity or by design, the Government of Syria is not prioritizing or encouraging rehabilitation work in Duma or Arbin to the same degree, despite the fact that both communities are much more densely populated.

The Government of Syria likely plans to approach reconstruction on a case-by-case; ostensibly, Harasta has been prioritized due to the fact that it is in closer proximity to Damascus city and is a major part of Damascus’ urban plans. The fact that resource distribution and urban revival planning is disconnected from population density and needs speaks not only to the priorities of the Government of Syria, but also its broader reconstruction strategy, which is very likely informed by political and security objectives.

Socio-political engineering, implemented by restrictions on returns, very likely underpins the Government of Syria’s post-conflict security and reconstruction strategy, especially in heavily damaged (and predominately formerly opposition-held) communities. Some may view this policy as collective punishment; others may view this as a means of ‘safeguarding’ investments in Syria’s reconstruction. Given the consistent instrumentalization of international assistance by all parties to the conflict, it should be no shock that security, political, and development interests align. Yet rather than providing fodder for advocacy, this paper seeks to document and analyze dynamics in reconciled areas to inform decision-making.

Post-Reconciliation Case Studies

Harasta, Duma, and Arbin

Since the negotiation of the reconciliation agreements in each opposition pocket, the security, governance, and services environment in Eastern Ghouta has been radically altered. Opposition military, governance, and service provision entities have been largely dismantled and replaced by Government of Syria bodies. However, this was not a wholesale policy of removal and replacement, but rather also included the selective incorporation of ‘reconcilable’ individuals; for example, many armed opposition combatants were not evacuated to northern Syria, but rather incorporated into Government of Syria security forces, reportedly in large numbers. Furthermore, the reconstructed governance and service provision space has clearly been designed to take into account Government of Syria strategic priorities, especially as these relate to returnees and potential reconstruction opportunities. This paper argues that these strategic priorities are largely related to exerting greater control over Eastern Ghouta through a policy of localization built around a new class of trusted local intermediaries, and prioritizing service provision to controllable populations and neglecting those deemed politically uncontrollable. 

The following section provides case studies based on a careful examination of security, social governance, and service provision dynamics in three significant communities in Eastern Ghouta: Duma, Arbin, and Harasta city.

Harasta

Harasta city is almost entirely depopulated. Prior to the Government of Syria offensive in Eastern Ghouta during March 2018, there were approximately 24,212 individuals living in opposition-held Harasta city. The March 2018 Eastern Ghouta offensive caused the overwhelming majority of the Harasta city population- nearly 19,000 individuals- to displace to collective shelters and camps; following the reconciliation agreement, an additional 5,204 individuals were evacuated to opposition-held northern Syria. As a result, only 384 individuals resided in Harasta city immediately following the reconciliation agreement.13

Due to the fact that nearly the entirety of the city was evacuated, there were no guarantor provisions in the reconciliation agreement, such as a stipulation requiring the deployment of Russian Military Police. Likely due to the absence of Russian Military Police, Government of Syria military forces, to include the Republican Guard, the 4th Division, and the Harasta NDF (which was largely comprised of former residents of Harasta who fled to neighboring Dahiet Al-Assad during 2012-2013) reportedly looted many of the abandoned homes.14 Subsequently, Government of Syria forces established numerous checkpoints in the vicinity of Harasta, and the Harasta NDF was withdrawn to Dahiet Al-Assad.

Initially following the reconciliation agreement, and partially due to the scale of looting, limited numbers of IDPs were afforded permission to returned to Harasta. However, as of October 31, 2018, 711 IDPs have reportedly returned to the city. 15 According to local sources, most of these returnees had fled the city when it fell to the armed opposition in 2012. Currently, IDPs from Harasta seeking to return must present security permissions issued by National Security Office at checkpoints located outside Harasta. The number of detentions in Harasta is reportedly low, though once again this is likely due to the extremely low population and the displacement of those previously living under armed opposition control. 

The entire Harasta opposition local council, like much of the remainder of the Harasta population at the time of the reconciliation agreement, was evacuated to Idleb. Shortly after the agreement, in April 2018, the Government of Syria established the Harasta city council (Majlis Medinat Harasta); reportedly nearly half of the Harasta city council staff were former members of the pre-war Harasta city council, who had fled to Damascus during the conflict and besiegement. The other half were employees of various Government of Syria Ministries, described by local sources as technocrats. Following elections held on September 16, twenty-one of the newly elected Harasta city council members came from the Baath party election list and one is independent.16 All local to Harasta, and come from either prominent Harasta business families and/or closely linked with the Baath party, or are known to be technocrats affiliated with various Government of Syria line ministries.17

Despite the returning population, as of November 2018, state-run service provision in Harasta remains only semi-functional. Reportedly, the water network only functions in one neighborhood of Harasta city; this is attributed to significant damage to the water pumping stations. Electricity only functions for up to 10 hours per day, and only in the Al-Ajami and old Harasta neighborhoods. Roads networks remain extremely damaged, and there is considerable rubble cleanup required, though the Public Company for Bridges and Roads is currently working to rehabilitate the road linking Harasta to Damascus. The public bus from Harasta to Al-Tell and Harasta to Abasiyeen Square is now running but is reportedly insufficient, and taxi prices remain extremely high. Markets remain largely non-functional, and the majority of individuals living in Harasta use markets in Damascus or Al-Tell. The hospital in Harasta was rehabilitated and is now functional. Additionally, the Government of Syria is reportedly strongly encouraging local businessmen and businesses in Damascus to work and invest in Harasta.

As of November 2018 there are numerous international NGOs, Syrian NGOs, and UN Agencies working in Harasta; projects include school rehabilitation and street cleaning. Compared with more densely populated neighboring communities, Harasta has a disproportionately high number of assistance and rehabilitation projects. Partially, this can be attributed to Government of Syria prioritization of the area. For example, according to the Harasta city council, a meeting was held in July 2018, hosted by the Japanese Consulate to Syria.18 Representatives from UN agencies and INGOs attended, as well as the head of the Harasta city council, a representative from the Ministry of Local Administration, and a representative from the Rural Damascus Governorate council. At the meeting, plans were reportedly made for the rehabilitation of Harasta; according to the Harasta city council, nearly $1,350,000 was allocated to Harasta, the majority of which from Japan; indeed, on December 5, the Harasta city council announced that this allocation had been increased to $5 million.19 Reportedly, several of these projects have already entered implementation. According to Government of Syria officials, Harasta has been prioritized due to the fact that it is seen as the northern ‘gateway’ to Damascus, and is a key component of the Damascus city rehabilitation plan.20

Duma

Following the negotiation of the reconciliation agreement with Jaish Al-Islam, 19,181 individuals were evacuated to Jarablus and Al-Bab from Jaish Al-Islam-held areas,21 to include approximately 8,000 Jaish Al-Islam combatants and roughly 11,000 individuals from the Duma local council, local humanitarian implementing partners, civil society groups, and associated family members.22 Despite the fact that forced conscription was to be delayed by six months as part of the reconciliation agreement, in early May 2018 the Government of Syria began to conduct regular conscription campaigns in Duma. In tandem with the forcible conscription campaigns, a reconciliation office was established in Duma, and reportedly a number of former Jaish Al-Islam combatants and local civilians who did not evacuate willingly joined Government of Syria military forces.23 Additionally, there are numerous reports of former activists and civil defence workers being detained for ‘investigations’ by security services, particularly Air Force Intelligence; confirming exact numbers of those detained for investigations is extremely difficult.

As of November 2018, the Government of Syria State Security Branch, the Republican Guard, and several NDF units under the oversight of the Republican Guard are now stationed in Duma. Russian Military Police are also semi-regularly present in Duma. It is worth noting that the majority of Government of Syria military forces in Duma are locals, which paradoxically has been a major source of tensions. The majority of the combatants in the largest NDF unit in Duma, Jaish Al-Wafaa, are loyalists who had fled Eastern Ghouta in the early stages of the conflict.24 Reportedly, this group especially has been responsible for many of the reports of local abuses such as looting, harassment, and property confiscation. Additionally, the majority of the former armed opposition combatants and civilians from Duma who joined Government of Syria forces joined the Republican Guard; according to local sources, many of these individuals are still stationed in Duma.25 The reason why these individuals have not been deployed outside Duma has been attributed to the fact that they must still undergo training, and that the terms of the reconciliation agreement stipulate that they will not be deployed for six months, and have thus not yet been deployed to any major front lines.

Once the model of opposition local governance, Duma’s local representation and governance are similar to other recently reconciled communities. Following reconciliation in March 2018, Duma was governed by a newly established ‘executive committee’, which was largely comprised of technocrats chosen from different line ministries. New representatives for the Duma city council were elected during the national-level local elections on September 16. As in Harasta, the Baath party won the majority of seats on the new Duma city council; twenty-eight individuals came from the Baath party list and eight came from the ‘independent’ list. Also as in Harasta, the majority of these candidates can be grouped into two categories: first, prominent local businessmen and individuals tied to either the upper echelons of the Government of Syria or the Baath party; and second, technocrats affiliated with various line ministries.26

As of October 31, there are 40,198 individuals living in Duma, a significant decrease when compared to the November 2017 population estimate of 121,123. Also as of October 31, 4,459 individuals have returned to the city since the end of military operations in Eastern Ghouta. However, the majority of those who have returned are from the temporary shelters outside Duma and returned relatively shortly after the conclusion of the reconciliation agreement; unlike in Harasta, many of those individuals who fled Duma to Damascus between 2012-2014 have reportedly not yet begun to return to Duma in large numbers.27

Services remain largely nonfunctional in Duma city. Water networks are disrupted, though SARC, in partnership with a UN Agency, has reportedly installed several large water tanks in Duma to provide potable water. Access to water remains a significant need and hygiene conditions in the city are reportedly dire, as garbage remains uncollected and there is insufficient water for washing. There is little to no electricity in Duma, and reportedly, there are few, if any, projects rehabilitating water and electricity networks. Additionally, there is extremely limited NGO or INGO activity ongoing in Duma, with the exception of SARC and Syria Trust.28 Road networks linking Duma to Damascus and to southern Eastern Ghouta remain non-functional, which has drastically impacted and disrupted local markets.29 Many of Duma’s inhabitants continue to rely on periodic humanitarian assistance delivered by the UN (or in one instance, the Government of France).30

Additionally, many Governmental buildings, to include a courthouse, civil registry, and’ police station are under rehabilitation; the prioritization of these government buildings is noteworthy, and in many ways speaks to Government of Syria’s priorities in Duma.31 There are no other known plans to rehabilitate electricity or water networks in Duma, although this may be due to the fact that the newly elected city council has not yet assumed their positions.

Arbin

Similar to Harasta and Duma, Arbin experienced significant displacement following the siege of Eastern Ghouta, and very low levels of returns. Following Faylaq Ar-Rahman’s reconciliation in March 2018, nearly 41,984 individuals were evacuated from Faylaq Ar-Rahman-held areas, to include Arbin.34 This number not only included combatants but also the vast majority of local governance officials, humanitarian aid workers, civil society activists, and their families, in Arbin.35 As of October 31, there are 13,342 inhabitants in Arbin, a significant decrease when compared to the November 2017 population estimate of 34,950 people; the current population of Arbin reflects a total of 1,891 returnees from Damascus,36 with the remaining 33,059 individuals having remained in the area throughout the besiegement and having reconciled their status with the Government of Syria. Shortly after the end of the siege and accompanying reconciliation agreement, the Government of Syria established a police station, a Baath party office, and a municipality.

A reconciliation committee was established in Arbin, and continues to function; the reconciliation committee logs and tracks the names of those individuals who wish to return to Arbin.37 Much like in other reconciled communities, the lists of individuals wishing to return to Arbin are sent to the Government of Syria’s National Security Office and only ‘vetted’ individuals are permitted to return to Arbin through the Damascus checkpoint.38According to one local source, the National Security Office is more lenient on allowing women and children to return, although only so long as they are unaccompanied by male family members. Also of note, Arbin once hosted a sizeable Christian community. Boutros Lahham, a Christian Orthodox religious figure, has begun to organize many of the Christian IDPs from Arbin in order to facilitate their return with the approval of the National Security Office.39 As noted above, as of September 1, 2018 at least 1,454 individuals are returnees to Arbin (out of a total population of 13,015).

After Arbin’s reconciliation, an ‘executive committee’ was established in Arbin, largely comprised of line ministry affiliated technocrats. Following the September 16 elections, a ten-person city council was elected; seven of the victorious candidates came from the Baath party list, and three are ‘independant’. As in Harasta and Duma, the majority of these candidates can be grouped into prominent local business families, local individuals closely linked to the upper echelons of the Baath party, or technocrats affiliated with different line ministries. For example, one victorious Baath party candidate Nazir Youssef Arbineeya. Arbineeya was a part of the Arbin reconciliation committee, and is also a prominent local businessman. Another is Addeba Baalbeki, a female candidate; Baalbeki won on the Baath party ticket, but is known as a competent agricultural engineer.

Services in Arbin remain largely nonfunctional. According to the Arbin executive committee, only one of the three primary water networks are currently functioning. Electricity is largely non-functional, however, three neighborhoods in Arbin have generator power providing 3 hours of electricity per day. Roads remain largely nonfunctional, with the exception of the road linking Arbin to Damascus, which has been rehabilitated; public transportation remains nonfunctional.40 There are several humanitarian agencies working in Arbin, to include SARC, Syria Trust, and several local NGOs and charities. However, in order to receive aid from SARC, many individuals in Arbin must reportedly pass a set of SARC guidelines and paperwork demonstrating that they are indeed from Arbin and living in Arbin.41 There have been occasional UN convoys that have reached Arbin since the reconciliation agreement, and there are also small-scale INGO programs.

In general, there is little significant rehabilitation work ongoing in Arbin. That said, as in Duma, the courthouse, police station, municipality, and civil registry are under rehabilitation, again highlighting the Government of Syria’s strategic priorities in Arbin. Further emphasizing these priorities, the Arbin municipality requested approximately 350 million SYP (approximately $750,000) from the Rural Damascus Governorate on June 13 in order to continue to rehabilitate key infrastructure, road networks, and to fund garbage collection; representatives from the Government of Syria reportedly stated that funds were not available.42According to local sources, the population of Arbin is increasingly frustrated with the Arbin municipality due to the lack of rehabilitation work.

Annex 1: Population Figures55

[supsystic-tables id=18]

Annex II: Timeline - De-escalation, Offensive, and Reconciliation

De-Escalation

At the start of 2017, the dominant political theme of the Syrian conflict was the implementation of the Government of Syria’s ‘reconciliation’ strategy, which involved the surrender and subsequent evacuation of opposition-affiliated actors in most of the besieged opposition enclaves of Rural Damascus; at this time, an Eastern Ghouta offensive appeared imminent. Yet by May 2017, the Astana guarantor states (namely, Turkey, Russia, and Iran) had signed a joint agreement regarding the creation of ‘de-escalation’ areas in southern Syria, Eastern Ghouta, northern rural Homs, and opposition-held northwestern Syria. At this time, Eastern Ghouta was largely divided between two armed opposition factions; Jaish Al-Islam, which was in control of much of northern Ghouta to include Duma city, and Faylaq Ar-Rahman, which was in control of much of southern Ghouta, to include Arbin. Ahrar Al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham also maintained a limited presence in Eastern Ghouta; Ahrar Al-Sham’s was largely limited to Harasta city, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s presence was limited to Jobar and several communities in southern Eastern Ghouta.

In the early stages, the Eastern Ghouta de-escalation agreement appeared to improve dire siege conditions for civilians in Eastern Ghouta. However, also in May 2017, the neighborhoods of Barzeh and Qaboun, in Damascus, reconciled with the Government of Syria. These two neighborhoods held the most important tunnel networks into Eastern Ghouta; therefore, by taking control of both neighborhoods, the Government of Syria effectively closed nearly every major access point into opposition-held Eastern Ghouta with the exception of the Al-Wafideen formal crossing point, located near Duma city and on the opposition side controlled by Jaish Al-Islam.

By August 2017, the de-escalation agreement had largely broken down, and the Government of Syria began to launch regular airstrikes and shelling attacks into Eastern Ghouta. Furthermore, armed opposition factions, especially Jaish Islam and Faylaq Ar-Rahman, were not only in open armed conflict with the Government of Syria, but also with one another. The failure of the de-escalation agreement was at least nominally attributed to the continued, albeit limited, presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Eastern Ghouta. The Government of Syria regularly demanded Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s surrender and evacuation to preserve the agreement; however, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was largely located in areas controlled by Faylaq Ar-Rahman, which was either unable or unwilling to forcibly dissolve the group.43

The breakdown of the Eastern Ghouta de-escalation agreement was also partially due to the fact that the Government of Syria was also engaged in continuous but parallel reconciliation negotiations with individual armed opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta. The most notable of these was in Harasta, where the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Local Reconciliation44 conducted extensive negotiations with the Harasta Local Council. Reportedly, a reconciliation agreement was almost finalized in January 2018, when Ahrar Al-Sham launched an offensive from Harasta into Damascus city and captured the strategic Armoured Vehicle Base in Harasta; the offensive was reportedly launched in order to halt the reconciliation negotiations.

The Harasta negotiations were not the only reconciliation negotiations taking place at this time. The Ministry of Local Reconciliation, alongside Russian negotiators, were also engaged in parallel negotiations with both Jaish Al-Islam and Faylaq Ar-Rahman. However, it is worth noting that, in general, Jaish Al-Islam was engaged in much more frequent and regular reconciliation negotiations with the Government of Syria.45 The fact that the Government of Syria appeared to favor reconciling with Jaish Al-Islam was a major source of internal conflict within the armed opposition; therefore, the de-escalation agreement, and subsequent reconciliation negotiations, were largely used by the Government of Syria to promote a strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ within the armed opposition itself.

Escalation in Hostilities in Eastern Ghouta: Spring 2018

In late February 2018, the Government of Syria launched a major and decisive offensive on Eastern Ghouta. By the start of March 2018, nearly every community in Eastern Ghouta was subjected to heavy, and near constant, airstrikes and shelling, all commercial crossings were closed,46 and humanitarian access and programming had decreased drastically. The Government of Syria subsequently launched a major ground offensive while simultaneously continuing to demand that local armed opposition groups and community leaders reconcile. Most notably, on March 10, Government of Syria forces negotiated the withdrawal of the armed opposition from Misraba, in central Eastern Ghouta; this agreement was largely facilitated by Mohieddine Minfoush, a prominent businessman local to Misraba who was responsible for the majority of the cross-line commercial trade through the Al-Wafideen crossing point. By securing Misraba, the Government of Syria had thus captured nearly half of opposition-controlled Eastern Ghouta, and had separated the area into three pockets: Jaish Al-Islam controlled Duma city, and its outskirts; Faylaq Ar-Rahman controlled Arbin and Saqba, and their outskirts, and Harasta city.

Reconciliation Measures and Effects

Following the division of Eastern Ghouta into three pockets, the Government of Syria began to negotiate individual reconciliation agreements with each opposition-held pocket, thereby creating three parallel negotiations tracks.47Additionally, on March 4, the Government of Syria established a series of ‘humanitarian corridors,’ which in theory would allow civilians to flee military operations in Eastern Ghouta to camps in the vicinity of Eastern Ghouta.48 In practice, and as occurred in Eastern Aleppo, ‘humanitarian corridors’ were also used to justify continued heavy conflict and besiegement.

Harasta (Ahrar Al-Sham)

On March 21, Ahrar Al-Sham reached an agreement with the Government of Russia and the Government of Syria regarding the evacuation of Ahrar Al-Sham combatants and ‘irreconcilable’ civilians from Harasta. The primary negotiators on the Government of Syria side were a Republican Guard officer,49 a Russian military representative, and representatives from the Ministry of Local Reconciliation. The agreement stipulated that all armed opposition combatants were to be fully evacuated to Idleb with their light weapons and that civilians choosing to remain in Harasta would be permitted to stay with guarantees of Russian protection. There is no known publicly available written version of this reconciliation agreement. By March 23, an estimated 5,204 people had evacuated Harasta to Idleb under this agreement.50

Southern Ghouta (Faylaq Ar-Rahman)

On March 24, Faylaq Ar-Rahman also agreed to reconcile communities under its control, namely, Arbin, Saqba, Ein Terma, and Jobar, and the Syrian Arab Army forces subsequently entered these communities.  The Government of Syria used numerous negotiators in its agreement with Faylaq Ar-Rahman; in Jobar, the reconciliation was largely negotiated by officers in the 4th Division; the negotiations in the other Faylaq Ar-Rahman-held communities were led by Russian representatives and Suheil Hassan, the leader of the Tiger forces.  On the Faylaq Ar-Rahmans side, the lead negotiator was Abul Nasr, the nominal leader of Faylaq Ar-Rahman. As part of its agreement, Faylaq Ar-Rahman surrendered its heavy weapons, identified to Government of Syria forces the locations of tunnels and landmines, and agreed that any combatants and individuals that were unwilling to reconcile would be evacuated to Turkish-controlled northern Aleppo.  Ultimately 41,984 individuals were evacuated from Faylaq Ar-Rahman held areas.51

The means by which Faylaq Ar-Rahman agreed to the reconciliation was unique. Faylaq Ar-Rahman was comprised of a core armed group, with several other adjacent armed groups nominally affiliated with Faylaq Ar-Rahman. Prior to the official reconciliation, two of these groups, the Majd Brigade and the Ashaari Brigade, negotiated their own individual reconciliations with the Government of Syria, and handed over the communities of Hammura and Ashaari to Government of Syria forces. Additionally, it was revealed after the reconciliation that a prominent religious leader within Faylaq Ar-Rahman, Bassam Defdah, was in fact working on behalf of the Government of Syria to both report on Faylaq Ar-Rahman, and to internally influence Faylaq Ar-Rahman to reconcile.52

Northern Ghouta (Jaish Al-Islam)

By late March, the only remaining opposition held pocket of Eastern Ghouta was the Jaish Al-Islam held areas in and around Duma city. Jaish Al-Islam had been continuously negotiating reconciliation terms with the Government of Syria. Mohammad Alloush, a delegate to the Astana talks and the brother of former Jaish Al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush, and Issam Bweidani, the leader of Jaish Al-Islam, negotiated the reconciliation from the Jaish Al-Islam side. From the Government of Syria side, Russian representatives reportedly led the negotiations. Between late March and early April, Duma city and its surroundings were heavily shelled and targeted by airstrikes. Despite the fact that reconciliation negotiations had been ongoing for a relatively long period of time, Jaish Al-Islam regularly refused to fully reconcile, and instead insisted that it maintain some presence in Duma, and that elements of the Duma local council were preserved.

On April 7, the Government of Syria was accused of dropping bombs filled with toxic chemicals on Duma city. According to local sources, between 40 and 70 people were killed by these attacks and between 500 to 1,000 were injured. The day after the alleged chemical attack, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had reached an agreement with Jaish Al-Islam in Duma, whereby all Jaish Al-Islam-affiliated combatants and their families would be evacuated to either Idleb governorate or northern Aleppo. In further statements made by Syrian state television, the agreement also included guarantees that the Syrian Arab Army would not enter Duma, and that a Russian Military Police presence would guarantee that remaining civilians neither be conscripted nor detained by Government of Syria forces for a period of at least six months.53
In addition, the agreement reportedly stipulated that trade via the Al-Wafideen crossing would be resumed upon the arrival of Russian Military Police, that students would be free to resume their studies upon reconciling their statuses with the Government of Syria, and that Jaish Al-Islam would free all Government of Syria-affiliated detainees. Additionally, the Rural Damascus governorate committee would also enter Duma city, and begin to resolve civil issues, such as recording child births, marriages, and deaths. Ultimately, more than 19,18154Numbers courtesy of ACU. individuals were evacuated from Duma and northern Ghouta, largely to northern Aleppo.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

The Wartime and Post Conflict Syria program and this website were produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

The Member States of the European Union have decided to link together their know-how, resources, and destinies. Together, they have built a zone of stability, democracy, and sustainable development whilst maintaining cultural diversity, tolerance, and individual freedoms. The European Union is committed to sharing its achievements and its values with countries and peoples beyond its borders.

Media Anthology: December 11 – December 17, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

December 11 to 17, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Erdogan announces the start of East Euphrates operation within daysArabicEnab BaladiDecember 12, 2018Conflict and Military
The assassination of "Yousef Al-Hashish,” who is targeting the reconciliation leaders in Dar'a?ArabicAl ModonDecember 12, 2018Conflict and Military
Turkish artillery targets Government of Syria forces in southern rural AleppoArabicSyrian Press CenterDecember 13, 2018Conflict and Military
Why is "Umm Ali" buying real estate along the Babella - Sayyeda Zeinab road?ArabicAl ModonDecember 14, 2018Economic
Assad says Syria reconstruction to cost $400bnEnglishPress TVDecember 14, 2018Economic
Russia & Syria to dump dollar in mutual trade, agree joint energy projectsEnglishRussia TodayDecember 14, 2018Economic
Housing Institution: Allocation of more than 2,900 dwellings during the first month of 2019ArabicSyrian Arab News AgencyDecember 16, 2018Economic
What is the Regime’s purpose to classify Syria into planning regions?ArabicJisr TV12/13/20148Governance and Service Management
Syria’s regime has given the Fatah Islamic Institute influence, but at what cost?EnglishCarnegie Middle East CenterDecember 17, 2018Governance and Service Management
A meeting of the tribal dignitaries and sheikhs with the civil bodies in MenbijArabicMenbij Military CouncilDecember 16, 2018Social Dynamics
‘Like a big prison’: Months into reconciliation, invisible borders still divide Syria’s southwestEnglishSyria DirectDecember 12, 2018Social Dynamics
Trust needed between Arabs and Kurds to stabilize Raqqa, Deir ez-ZorEnglishAl MonitorDecember 14, 2018Social Dynamics
Russian Defense Ministry requests  Damascus to clarify the rumors about the fees for issuing documents for returneesArabicRussia TodayDecember 11, 2018Humanitarian & Development
UNHCR: We reached an agreement on the mechanism for the repatriation of Syrian refugees from LebanonArabicHalab TodayDecember 13, 2018Humanitarian & Development
UN approves aid deliveries across borders to SyriansEnglishThe Charlotte ObserverDecember 13, 2018Humanitarian & Development
UN: 250,000 Syrian refugees could return to homeland next yearEnglishPress TVDecember 11, 2018Humanitarian & Development
"McGurk": The coalition will stay in Syria till the formation of internal security forcesArabicSmart News AgencyDecember 12, 2018International Intervention
US Department of Defense announces the establishment of observation points northern of Syria ArabicAl-Yaum TVDecember 12, 2018International Intervention
De Mistura postpones his statement waiting for the announcement of the "guarantor countries" agreement on the "Constitutional Committee"ArabicGeiroon NetworkDecember 14, 2018International Intervention
America’s hidden war in SyriaEnglishThe Washington PostDecember 14, 2018Other
'Thank God you survived the war': How life returned to Aleppo's Old CityEnglishMiddle East EyeDecember 15, 2018Other
The Assad Regime's Financial ViabilityEnglishHarmoon Center For Contemporary StudiesDecember 15, 2018Other

Syria Update: December 13 – December 19, 2018

Syria Update

13 December to 19 December, 2018

The Syria Update is divided into two sections.  The first section provides an in-depth analysis of key issues and dynamics related to wartime and post-conflict Syria.   The second section provides a comprehensive whole of Syria review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance.

The following is a brief synopsis of the in-depth analysis section this week:

Throughout the past week Turkish President Erdogan has made repeated statements that a Turkish intervention into SDF-held northeastern Syria will take place in the near term.  In the past, Turkish threats to launch an offensive into northeastern Syria have been dismissed as posturing; however, in this instance they should be taken seriously. Turkey is mobilizing forces, both inside Turkey and in opposition-controlled northern Syria; Turkey is also actively cultivating relationships with Arab tribes throughout northeastern Syria.  Additionally, while the U.S. maintains military forces in northeastern Syria and continues to support the SDF, that support has always been more linked to the fight against ISIS as opposed to broader Kurdish political ambitions, and the conflict with ISIS is rapidly nearing its end. A potential Turkish intervention would likely intend to, at least initially, secure a 15-20km border buffer zone along the border and compel the SDF to withdraw from Menbij city.  In any event, the mere prospect of a Turkish intervention poses a significant – if not existential – threat to the longevity of the Kurdish Self Administration project, and ultimately only bring the Kurdish Self Administration closer to the Government of Syria as a means of longer-term protection.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Shelling continues and has increased in many parts of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone.  Some analysts view events in northeastern and northwestern Syria as closely related, and hint at a potential Russian-Turkish quid-pro-quo, as has occurred in the past; while there is logic in this line of reasoning, confirmation of this remains challenging.
  • United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura, held meetings with the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss the formation of the Syria Constitutional Committee, to be finalized next week; the constitutional committee is an important part of the Syria peace process, but its ultimate outcomes will be colored by the fact that the Government of Syria is in the process of securing a  de-facto military victory.
  • Propane gas shortages are reported across Syria, causing a 300% spike in the price of propane in Damascus.  Shortages are attributed to port closures and western sanctions, and highlight the extreme fragility of Syria’s internal economy.
  • Tensions between the Government of Syria and the Shouyoukh Karama, a Druze armed group in As-Sweida, continue, primarily due to disagreements related to detainment and conscription. This has likely led to the indefinite suspension of redevelopment in Jaramana, home to a sizable Druze community, and could indicate a broader Government of Syria strategy to link reconstruction to acquiescence of Government of Syria policies.  
  • A small number of returnees were reported in the central neighborhood of Darayya city. The small number, and the fact that this is the only area within Darayya city with electricity restored, indicates the lack of will or ability to foster returns of Syrian refugees by restoring basic services.
  • Resolution 2449 was approved by the UN Security Council, effectively extending Resolution 2165’s mandate for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian response in Syria. The Government of Russia’s abstention from the vote, and attenuated rhetoric on cross-border humanitarian aid, is an indication of Russia’s increased reliance of its regional partners in Syria.
  • The Governments of Syria and Russia agree on a series of MoUs, which lay the foundations of Russian-Syrian economic partnership.  Prior Russian-Syrian economic agreements were often ad-hoc and bilateral; however with these MoUs, Russia has clearly staked a claim to Syria’s reconstruction and economic development.

NES Offensive Possibilities

In Depth Analysis

Throughout the reporting period, several events occured that indicate an elevated likelihood of a Turkish Armed Forces military intervention against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Ar-Raqqa.  Most apparent among these are the statements made by Turkish President Erdogan regarding his intention to launch an offensive in northeastern Syria east of the Euphrates river. Though President Erdogan has frequently raised the possibility of a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria for the past several months, on December 12, President Erdogan clearly stated: “we will begin our operation to free the east of the Euphrates [river] from the separatist organisation within a few days.”   In this case, President Erdogan’s rhetoric has also been matched by action; local sources in northeastern Syria note that Turkish military forces have mobilized along the Turkish-Syrian border, and began to dismantle sections of the border wall separating the two counties, in particular in the vicinity of Tel Abiad.  The Government of Turkey has also reportedly openly recruited and deployed Syrian armed opposition combatants from Afrin and northern Aleppo to front lines with the SDF in Menbij and along the Euphrates river. Finally, local sources have reported that a significant number of Tel Abiad residents have begun preparations for displacement, though the precise number of potential IDPs is unclear.

Enforcements of the Turksih Army heading towards Syrian borders, December 2018. image courtesy of Anadolu.

There are two major factors to consider when evaluating the likelihood of a Turkish offensive in Syria: Turkish strategy, interests, and actions; and U.S. strategy, interests, and actions.   Both are notoriously difficult to read. U.S. President Trump vacillates on many things, to include policy and strategy in Syria. At times, President Trump is an isolationist, as echoed by his motto ‘American First.’   Under President Obama, the U.S. presence in Syria was justified solely by the international coalition campaign against ISIS. Yet that fight is almost over, at least in Syria; the SDF captured Hajin, ISIS last remaining urban stronghold, on December 14, and the remainder of the ISIS-held pocket of Deir-ez-Zor is rapidly shrinking.  Indeed, President Erdogan has already commented that as the struggle against ISIS has ended, there is now no further reason for the U.S. to remain in Syria.  That perspective is not unique to Turkey; U.S. Envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffries, recently stated that U.S. support to the SDF is “tactical and temporary,” adding “we think that there will be no final conclusion of this [Syrian] conflict without very close Turkish-American cooperation.”  According to Faysal Itani, of the Atlantic Council, Jeffries later clarified that: “we support the SDF for a specific goal: fighting ISIS, which they’re not doing as a favor to us. They are partners in a transactional relationship.  Afterwards they are a Syrian party like anyone. We don’t have permanent relations with substate entities.” President Erdogan reportedly reiterated this point on a call with President Trump, who, according to President Erdogan, “responded positively” to Turkish plans in northeastern Syria; President Erdogan added that that “we can start our operation any moment now in the Syrian territory at any place, especially along the 500-kilometer border, without harming the U.S soldiers.”   Finally, most observers note that the Turkish-U.S. relationship, with accompanying trade and military partnership in NATO, is more geostrategically significant than the SDF-U.S. alliance. President Trump’s recent statements regarding the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen hints at the lengths the U.S. will go to preserve this relationship.

At the same time, the U.S. President is a ‘chickenhawk’, disinclined to upset the hardliners upon whom he relies for much of his foreign policy advice and domestic stature.  At present, the primary obstacle to a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria is not the YPG or SDF itself, but rather the presence of the U.S. soldiers. In what may be dismissed as mission creep, the U.S. Department of Defense remains committed to its Kurdish allies in Syria, and continues to reiterate – in both word and deed- its opposition to a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria.  The U.S. coalition currently has between 2,000-4,000 U.S. military personnel, and perhaps many more contractors, currently stationed in northeastern Syria. As of December 11, local sources confirmed that U.S. forces completed the establishment of five observation points on the Turkish border in northern Syria, three in Tel Abiad and two in Ein El-Arab (Kobane). On December 16, U.S. coalition representatives hosted failed talks between the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga (which are also backed by the U.S.) in Derik, in the hopes of deploying Iraqi Peshmerga forces to the Syrian-Turkish border in recognition of the Peshmerga’s relatively closer relations with Turkey. Naturally these talks collapsed, as the PYD and the Peshmerga have had long standing mutually antagonistic relations. To this end, on December 14 U.S. President Trump spoke with President Erdogan, and according to U.S. media, reportedly urged him to call off his intended intervention.   Finally, U.S. strategy in Syria is now closely linked to containing Iran; the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria has been consistently presented as a means of containing Iran in Syria, though it is unclear to what degree Iranian strategy in Syria is actually impacted by U.S. support for the SDF.

Yet local dynamics remain important when attempting to predict the course of the Syrian conflict.  A significant component of Turkey’s strategy has been to exploit social fissures between the Kurdish and Arab tribal communities, and thereby undermine the ‘ethnically inclusive’ framework of the SDF.  Since at least October 2018, Turkey has specifically called on armed opposition combatants originating from Deir-Ez-Zor, Ar-Raqqa and Al-Hasakah to “create strife between Arabs and Kurds in the [northeastern Syria] region.”  Local sources report that Ahmed Al-Jarba, the former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and a prominent member of the Shammar tribe, has repeatedly visited Turkey throughout the past two weeks.  The Shammar tribe is the SDF’s most critical Arab tribal ally in northeastern Syria; the Sanadid, the primary Arab armed group within the SDF, is largely comprised of Shammar and is led by Al-Jarba’s cousin Dahham Hadi Al-Jarba.  Though Dahham Hadi Al-Jarba and the Sanadid have received significant financial support from Saudi Arabia, local sources report that Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced their financial support to the Sanadid in the pat two to three months, for unclear reasons.  Considering these funding gaps, sources in northeastern Syria have noted that they are extremely concerned that Ahmed Al-Jarba is involved in plans to form a new ‘tribal army’ by encouraging Sanadid combatants to defect from the SDF in support of a Turkish intervention.  Notably, the relations between the Kurdish Self Administration and many Arab tribes in northeastern Syria are currently extremely tense, particularly in the wake of the early November assassination of Sheikh Bashir Al-Huweidi.

A Turkish intervention into northeastern Syria would likely not take the same shape as the Euphrates Shield or Olive Branch operations, at least not initially; according to local sources, and reiterated by numerous analysts, Turkey likely has two primary objectives: a 15-20km border buffer zone and the to withdraw of the SDF from Menbij city, west of the Euphrates river.   Yet regardless of whether this intervention occurs, simply the threat of a Turkish intervention poses an existential threat to the Kurdish Self Administration project.  Indeed, the mere prospect of an intervention will remain a major source of internal tension between Arabs and Kurds throughout northeastern Syria, amplifying underlying ethnic disputes that have been a part of Arab-Kurdish relations for the last 7 years.  Additionally, U.S. vacillation in the context of a Turkish intervention signals and highlights the fact that the U.S. is not a reliable long-term ally to the Kurdish Self Administration. Consequently, Kurdish leadership will likely have no option but to re-establish ties with the Government of Syria in order to prevent an intervention, or mitigate its expansion once it occurs.  Indeed, this possibility has already been raised: On December 12, the YPG called upon the Government of Syria to take an official stance on Turkish threats, and throughout the past week YPG officials have reportedly raised the possibility that Government of Syria military units be deployed to the Syrian Turkish border.

Whole of Syria Review

Northwestern Syria Shelling

Idleb and Northern Hama Governorates, Syria: Throughout the past week, Government of Syria forces and armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria exchanged shelling along numerous frontlines in northwestern Syria, to include locations in south and eastern Idelb, northern rural Hama, and northeastern Lattakia.  Media sources also reported that Government of Syria shelling has extended to include other areas that have not been previously targeted, to include the villages of Has and Basqila in eastern rural Idleb, and Sakhar in northern rural Hama. As in previous weeks, Jarjanaz, in southeastern rural Idelb, has been heavily shelled since the alleged Aleppo city chemical attack on November 25, 2018.   Meanwhile, armed opposition groups reportedly continued to mobilize along front lines throughout northwestern Syria, to include in areas within the northwestern Syria ‘disarmament zone’; indeed, local sources indicated that both National Liberation Front and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham continue to maintain a military presence in frontline areas.


Analysis: Shelling and isolated clashes within the northwestern Syria disarmament zone have markedly increased since the alleged chemical attack in Aleppo city.   However, despite the increases in shelling attacks, the disarmament zone agreement is likely to persist in the near term, as both the Governments of Turkey and Russia reiterated and reinforced their commitment to the agreement at the Astana 11 talks on November 28 and 29.  That said, a major Government of Syria offensive on northwestern Syria remains a distinct possibility in the medium term. Many analysts have linked recent indications of a Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria to a potential Government of Syria offensive in northwestern Syria, a ‘horse trade’ (with incredible human suffering) between the Governments of Russia and Turkey.  This perspective is not without merit: Turkish Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in March 2018, and the Al-Bab offensive in December 2016 both appear to have been done in coordination with the Government of Russia in exchange for concessions in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city respectively. That said, dynamics in northwestern Syria and northeastern Syria are very different from eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta.  For now, a major offensive in northwestern Syria remains possible, albeit unlikely, in the near term.

Constitutional Committee Talks

On December 18, United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura held meetings with the  foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey foreign ministers to discuss the formation of the Syria Constitutional Committee. The Government of Syria and the Syrian Interim Government have each submitted lists of 50 names to the constitutional committee; the Governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran will submit a third list of 50 candidates, which will theoretically consist of “civil society and independent” committee members. Of note, the latter list have been a point of contention and disagreement among representatives of the three countries. Reportedly the names of the members of the constitutional committee are to be finalized in the coming week.  As of December 19, preliminary indications are that the Governments of Turkey Iran and Russia failed to fully agree on the composition of the candidate list.

Analysis: The formation of the constitutional committee is a pivotal step for the Syrian peace process, and will be a key component of any national peace agreement within the Geneva process.  However, despite the role played by the UN in forming the constitutional committee, the Governments of Russia, Turkey and Iran will ultimately hold the preponderance of power in the committee itself, as the primary international actors in the Syrian conflict and the actors most responsible for selecting the committee members. It should also be noted that the Government of Syria has repeatedly refused to consider drafting of new constitution and instead insists on amending the the current Syrian constitution.  Considering the fact that the Government of Syria has nearly secured a de-facto military victory, the ultimate outcomes of the constitutional drafting or amendment process are likely to have a minimal impact on the actual future trajectory of Syria.

Syrian Propane Shortage

Damascus, Syria: Local sources reported a sharp increase in propane gas prices in the past week throughout all of Syria, with the largest fluctuations occurring in Damascus.  According to local sources, the price of one gas cylinder on the market has reached 10,000 SYP, more than triple the Government of Syria set price of 2700 SYP, which has adversely affected individuals and businesses alike.  Government of Syria officials and local vendors have reportedly attributed the gas price increases to poor weather conditions, the latter of which temporarily closed the Mediterranean ports in Lattakia and Tartous and thereby delayed gas imports.  However, local businessmen in Damascus also noted that gas imports were extremely low even when the ports were open, largely due to western sanctions. In addition, the spike of propane prices has also affected the availability of electricity provision in Damascus; according to the Electricity Coordinator of Rural Damascus, Khaldoun Hada, electricity cuts across the city have increased throughout the past week.


Analysis: The inflation of propane prices will continue to strain provision of electricity in Syria, as households and businesses will likely replace propane with electricity as means for heating.  Indeed, the head of the Public Electricity Company of Rural Damascus, Bassel Omar, stated that demands on electricity usage had gone up by 100-150 megawatts, in comparison to the same timeframe last year. Furthermore, it is likely that propane prices throughout Syria will stabilize in the near term as ports are reopened and imports resume.  That said, the fact that sanctions have so drastically limited the ability of traders to import from Europe will continue to cause the prices of key import commodities, like propane gas, to remain high. Additionally, the fact that brief port closures and shipment delays of a staple good such as propane caused an immediate and drastic effect on gas prices across Syria indicates the extreme fragility of Syria’s economy, internal market structure and value chains, and its immense reliance of imports to cover basic services and commodities for local markets.

Returns to Darayya

Darayya, Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria:  On December 14, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) reported that a total of 161 families reportedly returned to central Darayya, specifically to their neighborhood of origin known as ‘Municipality Street’, which is the only neighborhood in which electricity has been restored. However, according to media sources, only five of these families actually settled in their homes in Darayya after their return.  Notably, the municipality of Darayya has released the names of individuals who are allowed to return and will reportedly continue to do so in as neighborhoods are rehabilitated; reportedly, rehabilitation plans are focused on central Darayya city, with plans to expand rehabilitation outwards. Of note, on December 17, the Russian Reconciliation Center stated that approximately 998 Syrian refugees returned to Syria between December 16 and 17, without specifying their exact destination; 267 returned from Lebanon, while 731 returned from Jordan through Nasib. As per the statement, only 230 of the returnees returned to their (unspecified) places of origin.

Analysis: Despite the increased emphasis on the frequency and number of returns by various media outlets and regional actors, the numbers of refugees and IDPs returning to their areas of origin remains low; this is especially highlighted when juxtaposed with the numbers of refugees in neighboring countries and IDPs in Syria.  For example, according to UN and local NGO partners, 57,461 individuals returned to their areas of origin in November 2018; however, 92% of these were IDPs while only 8% were refugees from outside Syria. While the returns of refugees and IDPs are driven by various factors, they do share one commonality: the conditions in their communities of origin. The return conditions of many communities in Syria remain abysmal; Darayya is a prominent example.  This first wave of returnees to Darayya succeeds two years of Government of Syria control over the area, and are only returning to one neighborhood in Darayya city with functional services. Similarly, returns from Lebanon and Jordan remain small in scale, intermittent, and largely uncoordinated. The fact that these returns are emphasized by the Government of Syria and Russia media are in some ways indicative of the inherent discrepancies between the announcement of returnee strategies, and their ability or willingness to foster conditions leading to returns.

UNSC 2449/2165 Renewal

New York, USA: On December 13, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2449, which authorized a one year extension of Resolution 2165, originally passed in July 2014 to authorize cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid provision in Syria. Resolution 2449 extends the mandate of Resolution 2165 until Jan 10, 2020.  The resolution passed with 13 votes, and abstentions from Governments of Russia and China. The Government of Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, criticized the resolution, regarding it as a deliberate breach of the Syrian sovereignty; his counterpart, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia, stated that cross-border deliveries should be “fine tuned” in an attempt to “gradually wrap [the cross-border response] up,” and claimed that the resolution is “divorced from reality.” However, Nebenzia also stated that Russia refrained from blocking the resolution due to “appeals from our partners in the region.”


Analysis:  In comparison, the UNSC approval of Resolution 2449 was much smoother than in 2017; last year, there were serious doubts that the resolution would be renewed due to the fact that the Government of Russia was expected to use its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.  The Government of Russia’s abstention from the vote, and attenuated rhetoric on cross border humanitarian aid, is an indication of the increased reliance of Russia on its regional partners. Indeed, its muted reaction to the renewal of Resolution 2165 is a reflection of increased coordination between Russia and different international actors on Syria, primarily the Government of Turkey.  The future of Turkish-Russian bilateral relations in Syria necessarily hinges on the status of Turkish-held northern and northwestern Syria, and the ability of Turkey to provide cross-border humanitarian aid and associated services to both areas. It is also worth noting that the significance of Resolution 2165 has been diminished by the Government of Syria’s sweeping military gains throughout the past year; this is especially true for southern Syria, where cross-border aid from Jordan was a major component of the entire cross-border response. That said, despite the renewal of Resolution 2165, the Governments of Syria and Russia will continue to seek centralized Syria humanitarian and development coordination out of Damascus.

Russian-Syrian Economic MoUs

Damascus, Syria: On December 14, a Russian-Syria intergovernmental committee convened a meeting in Damascus, where representatives of both states agreed on several memorandums of understanding (MoUs) in various economic sectors and future projects. The Vice-President of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vladimir Padalko, reportedly stated that both governments have selected 200 companies from Russia and Syria to take part in joint reconstruction projects. Government of Russia affiliated media sources have also reported that members of the committee have reached commercial agreements related to the exploration and production of energy commodities.  At the conclusion of the meeting, Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Syrian Ministry of Industry have approved and signed a ‘roadmap’ for bilateral industry cooperation.


Analysis: Up until this point, economic cooperation between the Governments of Russia and Syria has been somewhat ad-hoc in appearance, and focused on bilateral agreements between specific Russian companies or entities and Syrian public and private companies.  However, Russia has now clearly staked a claim to Syria’s reconstruction and economic development with the passage of these MoUs. In turn, the MoUs are expected to facilitate the Russian business community’s investments in Syria for the foreseeable future. However, it is also important to note that these agreements generally entail investment in sectors dominated by the Government of Syria-linked business class, including natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, phosphates, and services and infrastructure such as ports and electricity production. Therefore, greater Russian-Syrian economic cooperation will likely reinforce the Syrian economy’s pre-conflict tendency to benefit the existing Government of Syria-linked business class, often at the expense of more marginal economic actors.

Druze Community Tensions:

As-Sweida Governorate, Syria: On December 14, the Shouyoukh Karama, a Druze armed group in As-Sweida governorate, issued a statement in which it denied the group’s involvement in any reconciliation negotiations, and announced that all its members stand ready to fight against arbitrary detention and forced conscription; the statement also alleged that several of its combatants had already been forcibly conscripted. According to the Shouyoukh Karama, the Government of Syria is currently attempting to increase detentions and conscriptions of Druze men as a means of exerting greater control over As-Sweida.  Notably, the Shouyoukh Karama is a popular Druze movement which has not historically positioned itself against the Government of Syria, but is categorically opposed to the conscription of Druze, as it sees the defence of the local Druze community as its primary priority. Shortly after the statement on December 16, the Security Committee of As-Sweida convened a meeting with local Druze notables and religious leaders in As-Sweida; Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Government of Syria National Security Office, was also present. Reportedly, the Druze notables and religious figures stated to Government of Syria representatives that the poor security situation in As-Sweida should not be attributed to the Druze community, but instead to “military authorities,” referring to different Government of Syria security branches and NDF groups. The Druze notables and religious leadership also reiterated that they too reject forced conscription of eligible military-aged men in As-Sweida.   In response to the meeting, local sources stated that Druze notables in Jaramana, a traditionally Druze suburb of Damascus city, were notified that all development projects in Jaramana would be put on hold indefinitely until the disputes related to conscription and detainment in As-Sweida are resolved.


Analysis: The Government of Syria has historically maintained its presence within and control of the Druze community in As-Sweida governorate through its close cooperation with local notables, to include the Druze religious leadership. The Druze community has long emphasized its relative independence and ‘neutral’ stance in the Syrian conflict; however, as it is also clear that the Government of Syria will remain in control of Syria, the Druze leadership is likely cognizant that it cannot maintain this stance indefinitely.   As such, despite the local popular support for the Shouyoukh Al Karama, the Druze community as a whole will likely remain subject to local notable and religious leadership decisions. Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that the Government of Syria has threatened to withhold development projects to an entirely separate Druze community in apparent response to the conscription issues in As-Sweida, likely as a means of pressuring the As-Sweida Druze community as a whole to acquiesce to its demands; this may highlight the means by which the Government of Syria intends to use development and reconstruction funding as a political tool to incentivize or threaten communities in Syria.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Media Anthology: December 04 – December 10, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

December 04 to 10, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
US-backed SDF advances further into ISIS held Hajin, takes control of hospitalEnglishThe Daily StarDecember 10, 2018Conflict and Military
Assad’s forces repeated attempts at sneaking in to Idlib, commanders explain clarify the reasonsEnglishEnab Baladi12//2018Conflict and Military
Syria to export medicine to Russia, Arab States starting 2020EnglishFARS News AgencyDecember 10, 2018Economic
Syria’s standard of living crisis infographicEnglishChatham HouseDecember 8, 2018Economic
Government of Syria issues 2019 budget of $9 billion and no deficitArabicSky News ArabiaDecember 7, 2018Economic
ReconstructionArabicThe Syria PageDecember 10, 2018Economic
A year after the end of ISIS control in Raqqa, a ruined city looks to rebuildEnglishSyrian Observatory of Human RightsDecember 8, 2018Governance and Service Management
Impact of the war on the governmental educationArabicSalon SyriaDecember 10, 2018Governance and Service Management
After years in jail without trial or hope, Syria’s hunger strikers fight for justiceEnglishThe GuardianDecember 7, 2018Social Dynamics
A Russian patrol was expelled from the city of Shahba in As-SweidaArabicEnab BaladiDecember 6, 2018Social Dynamics
Aid deliveries to Syria at risk in UN Security Council voteEnglishIntegrated Regional Information Networks NewsDecember 4, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Major UN aid delivery to Syria from Jordan EnglishReliefwebDecember 9, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Post-Soviet security bloc ready to organize humanitarian mission in Syria EnglishTASS Russian NewsDecember 9, 2018Humanitarian & Development
SDF disintegrate Arishah camp south of Hasakeh and its inhabitants refuseArabicBaladi NewsDecember 6, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Russia bolsters its outreach in Syria amid struggle for influenceEnglishThe Arab WeeklyDecember 9, 2018International Intervention
Washington is training around 40 thousand fighters in SyriaArabicEnab BaladiDecember 7, 2018International Intervention
Mass graves highlight challenges in post-ISIS RaqqaEnglishVoice of America NewsDecember 8, 2018Other
In about 93 months, about 560 thousand were killed in Syria since the day of claiming rights to the international human rights dayEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human Rights12//2018Other
The road to Damascus: the Arabs march back to befriend AssadEnglishWar on the RocksDecember 7, 2018Other

Media Anthology: November 27 – December 03, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

November 27 to December 03, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Open source survey of the alleged November 24 2018 chemical attack in AleppoEnglishBellingcatDecember 28, 2018Conflict and Military
Shelling and targeting operations renew between SDF and ISIS within the latter’s enclave in the east of the EuphratesEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsDecember 3, 2018Conflict and Military
The other side of the border: In southern Syria, promise of Naseeb border rings hollow for civilians mired by rising pricesEnglishSyria DirectNovember 28, 2018Economic
Syria’s Standard of Living CrisisEnglishChatham HouseDecember 2, 2018Economic
Efforts to rebuild raqqa continue after Islamic StateEnglishVoice of America News December 1, 2018Governance and Service Management
Republic of the Euphrates ShieldArabicAl ModonDecember 3, 2018Governance and Service Management
Syrian regime considers "missing" by virtue of "deaths"ArabicNedaa SyriaDecember 2, 2018Governance and Service Management
Syria must account for thousands of detainees who died in custody: U.N.EnglishReutersNovember 28, 2018Social Dynamics
Local actors in the Syrian Coastal Area: Characteristics and prospectsEnglishArab Reform InitiativeNovember 23, 2018Social Dynamics
Syrian Arab Republic Situation Report - November 2018EnglishFood and Agriculture OrganizationNovember 29, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Clothing drive in Saraqib revives community spiritEnglishAl-MonitorNovember 28, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Life in Idlib returning to normal with Turkey's support after regime's chemical attackEnglishDaily SabahDecember 2, 2018International Intervention
What's behind Russia's humanitarian intervention in Syria?EnglishMiddle East EyeDecember 2, 2018International Intervention
Why Ghouta refugees in Afrin refused to send their children to schoolEnglishAl-MonitorDecember 2, 2018Other
A life among the ruins: Displaced East Aleppo residents pushed to sell homes as promises of reconstruction, security go undeliveredEnglishSyria DirectNovember 29, 2018Other
The True Origins of ISISEnglishThe AtlanticNovember 30, 2018Other

Media Anthology: November 20 – November 26, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

November 20 to 26, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
U.S.-backed Syria forces clash with Islamic State, dozens dead: monitor, SANAEnglishReutersNovember 25, 2018Conflict and Military
More casualties due to the security chaos raise to 100, the number of citizens who have been killed and assassinated in Idlib province and the countryside connected to it since late April 2018EnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsNovember 25, 2018Conflict and Military
Warplanes stab Putin – Erdogan deal and bombard areas within the demilitarized zone for the first time since it was put in effectEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsNovember 25, 2018Conflict and Military
"The National Army" launch a military campaign in three cities in rural AleppoArabicEnab BaladiNovember 20, 2018Conflict and Military
Ministry of Foreign Affairs: The terrorist attack on Aleppo by poison gas as a result of some countries facilitating the access of chemicals to terroristsArabicSyrian Arab News AgencyNovember 25, 2018Conflict and Military
Damascus Awaits Its First Skyscrapers With Housing Complex Construction UnderwayEnglishSputnik NewsNovember 23, 2018Economic
What is behind the deterioration of the Syrian pound "SYP"ArabicAl-Hal11/201/2018Economic
Turkish delegations draw the structure of rural Aleppo's economicArabicEnab BaladiNovember 25, 2018Economic
Syrian regime grants citizenship to Iranians, Hezbollah fightersEnglishThe Jerusalem PostNovember 25, 2018Governance and Service Management
Government of Syria invokes the remnants of war to remove entire streets in eastern AleppoArabicBaladi NewsNovember 20, 2018Governance and Service Management
Ar-Raqqa is facing difficulties in reopening the schools because of the lack of assistanceArabicReutersNovember 26, 2018Governance and Service Management
Arab tribes in "Manbij" respond to the decision of compulsory recruitment and call for Turkey to intervene militarilyEnglishNedaa SyriaNovember 26, 2018Social Dynamics
Government of Syria arrests people who previously worked in the opposition factions in Dar'aArabicEnab BaladiNovember 21, 2018Social Dynamics
Civilians, monitors accuse US-led coalition of ‘disregard’ for civilian life as anti-IS Hajin campaign drags into third monthEnglishSyria DirectNovember 21, 2018Humanitarian & Development
“Fear of terrorism”… “Pretext” to reduce financial support for civil projectsEnglishEnab BaladiNovember 17, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Despite Sochi agreement, what prevent the people of the disarmament zone in rural Hama from returning?ArabicAl-HalNovember 20, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Government of Germany resolves the debate over the deportation of Syrian refugeesArabicMadar DailyNovember 20, 2018Humanitarian & Development
A report warns of stopping the humanitarian organizations' work in Idleb due to the kidnappingArabicEneba BaladiNovember 21, 2018Humanitarian & Development
US sends large supply of weapons to Kurdish-led forces in SyriaEnglishAl-Masdar NewsNovember 25, 2018International Intervention
U.S. targets Iran-Russia network over oil sent to SyriaEnglishReutersNovember 20, 2018International Intervention
Even a ‘Diplomat’s Diplomat’ Can’t Solve Syria’s Civil WarEnglishThe AtlanticNovember 26, 2018International Intervention
Turkey determined to clear northern Syria of YPG terror before handing region to localsEnglishDaily SabahNovember 23, 2018International Intervention
The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist ThreatEnglishCenter for Strategic & International StudieNovember 20, 2018Other
Was Syria different? Anticipating the next Islamic StateEnglishBrookingsNovember 20, 2018Other
The Syrian Conflict’s Next FrontEnglishHuman Rights WatchNovember 23, 2018Other
Assad regime, opposition swap detainees in Syria: Turkey's Foreign MinistryEnglishDaily SabahNovember 24, 2018Other
Syrian Women Seek Role in Drafting ConstitutionEnglishVoice of America NewsNovember 24, 2018Other

Media Anthology: November 13 – November 19, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

November 13 to 19, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Russian-Iranian Conflict Erupts in Deir ez-ZorEnglishChatham HouseNovember 15, 2018Conflict and Military
The objectives of the Turkish security campaign in AfrinArabicANA PressNovember 19, 2018Conflict and Military
Gulf forces enter the front line east of EuphratesArabicMalper PostNovember 18, 2018Conflict and Military
Damage to Farmers in Syria Exceeds a Trillion PoundsEnglishThe Syrian ObserverNovember 15, 2018Economic
Car plant shows limits to Iran's economic ambitions in SyriaEnglishReutersNovember 14, 2018Economic
The largest olive exporter area in Syria looking for a market to dischargeArabicEnab BaladiNovember 18, 2018Economic
Law 10 amendments: Damage still existsArabicAl ModonNovember 13, 2018Governance and Service Management
Syria's new media law: No prison for journalists, and more authorities for the "cyber crimes" officeArabicAl ModonNovember 19, 2018Governance and Service Management
‘We don’t even know if he’s alive’: Despite promises of reconciliation, rebels and former opposition figures disappearEnglishSyria DirectNovember 15, 2018Social Dynamics
Joint patrols for "Air Intelligence" and "Military Security" arrest senior officers of the government of Syria in DamascusArabicEldorar Al-ShamiehNovember 19, 2018Social Dynamics
Assad Calls on Alawite Youth to Join MilitaryEnglishThe Syrian ObserverNovember 19, 2018Social Dynamics
UNICEF reaches 25 villages in rural Hama, Syria with safe drinking waterEnglishUNICEFNovember 14, 2018Humanitarian & Development
What is humanitarian deconfliction?EnglishIntegrated Regional Information Networks NewsNovember 13, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Crossing between opposing forces opens near Idlib, SyriaEnglishAl-MonitorNovember 15, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Russian army: Nearly 270,000 Syrian refugees returned homeEnglishAssociated Press NewsNovember 16, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Europe Is the Key Player in Syria: An Alternative Template for TransitionEnglishArab Reform Initiative October 4, 2018International Intervention
There’s a Right Way to End Syria’s WarEnglishForeign AffairsNovember 14, 2018International Intervention
No more 'moderates'? Al Nusra terrorists unite ALL Idlib militants under single anti-Assad commandEnglishRussia TodayNovember 16, 2018Other
Will the defeat of ISIS mark the end of battle against terrorismArabicANA PressNovember 18, 2018Other
Absent an International Outcry, Detainees Start Hunger Strike for Justice in SyriaEnglishHuman Rights WatchNovember 18, 2018Other

Media Anthology: November 06 – November 12, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

November 06 to 12, 2018

TitleLanguageSourceDateCategory
Fight Against Last Vestige of ISIS in Syria Stalls, to Dismay of U.S.EnglishThe New York TimesNovember 6, 2018Conflict and Military
Al-Asa'eb Al-Hamra avenge Jaish Ezza, and attack the Russian Fifth Corps and regime forces in rural HamaArabicSyrian Observatory For Human RightsNovember 10, 2018Conflict and Military
Fuel Prices Increases Suffering in Opposition AreasEnglishThe Syrian ObserverNovember 12, 2018Economic
Four trade and humanitarian crossings link Turkey and rural AleppoArabicEnab BaladiNovember 10, 2018Economic
Raqqa after Isis: Meet the 30-year-old woman rebuilding the former capital of the ‘caliphate’EnglishThe IndependentNovember 10, 2018Governance and Service Management
Parliament Amends Law No. 10EnglishThe Syrian ObserverNovember 8, 2018Governance and Service Management
The only working hospital in Deir-ez-Zor is Al-Assad HospitalArabicAl-HalNovember 6, 2018Governance and Service Management
Where Are ISIS Fighters Following Its Military Defeat?EnglishChatham HouseNovember 8, 2018Social Dynamics
After the assassination of about 385 people in Idleb and its surroundings, unknown [individuals] loot a relief organization office north of IdlebArabicSyrian Observatory For Human RightsNovember 6, 2018Social Dynamics
Needs and Skills - Market AssessmentEnglishRoia NGO October 15, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Civil society, aid organizations withdraw into the shadows as Syrian government reasserts controlEnglishSyria Direct November 8, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Northeast Syria: Area-Based Assessment of Deir-ez-Zor Governorate - November 2018EnglishReliefwebNovember 8, 2018Humanitarian & Development
New Syria UN envoy should kill political process to save itEnglishOrient NewsNovember 11, 2018International Intervention
After the Jordanian approval, Russia is rallying in support of its plan to remove Ar-Rukban campArabicEnab BaladiNovember 8, 2018International Intervention
Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social ContractsEnglishCarnegie Endowment for International PeaceFebruary 1, 2017Other
Legacies of Survival: Syria's Uncomfortable Security HybridityEnglishCarnegie Middle East CenterOctober 30, 2018Other
Armies, Milities, and (re)integration in fragmented StatesEnglishCarnegie Endowment for International PeaceOctober 30, 2018Other
ISIS release 7 U.S soldiers after negotiations with SDFArabicBaladi NewsNovember 6, 2018Other

Media Anthology: October 30 – November 05, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

October 30 to November 05, 2018

TitleLanguageSourceDateCategory
Erdogan vows to crush U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters east of Euphrates in SyriaEnglishReutersOctober 30, 2018Conflict and Military
ISIS thrives in As-Sweida and Government of Syria arrests an ISIS leaderArabicAl ModonNovember 5, 2018Conflict and Military
Statement: SNHR Calls for Sanctions to be imposed on Russian and Iranian Companies and Urges that they should be Prohibited from Contributing to Reconstruction Efforts in SyriaEnglishSyrian Network for Human RightsOctober 30, 2018Economic
A luxury city shows blueprint for Syria’s rebuilding plansEnglishAP NewsMay 11, 2018Economic
Syria's vital economic points are under Russian controlArabicMadar DailyMay 11, 2018Economic
Syrian children to study at Russian cadet schools for freeEnglishCommittee on International Affairs of the State DumaOctober 31, 2018Governance and Service Management
"Al-Jazeera" peasants lose one third of their ‘white gold’ [cotton crops] to the Kurdish Administration and the regime tradersArabicEqtsadOctober 30, 2018Governance and Service Management
Aleppo, the city that Assad despisedArabicEqtsadNovember 5, 2018Social Dynamics
HTS: some of the "National Liberation Front" components seeks a civil war between the Armed opposition groupsArabicEldorar Al-ShamiehOctober 30, 2018Social Dynamics
YPG presence east of Euphrates prevents displaced Syrians from returning to homeEnglishDaily SabahNovember 4, 2018Social Dynamics
High tension in Ar-Raqqa, and Arabic tribes boycott SDFArabicNedaa SyriaNovember 4, 2018Social Dynamics
UN aid trucks reach remote Rukban camp in SyriaEnglishOrient NewsNovember 4, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Funding Issues Leave Lattakia Refugee Camps Without WaterEnglishThe Syrian ObserverOctober 21, 2018Humanitarian & Development
U.S.-Turkish Ties May Be Cut for Good in SyriaEnglishForeign PolicyNovember 5, 2018International Intervention
Big Guys on the BosphorusEnglishCarnegie Middle East CenterNovember 2, 2018International Intervention
Syria’s Solution RugEnglishThe Syrian ObserverOctober 31, 2018International Intervention
The Iranian presence in Syria will endArabicEqtsadNovember 4, 2018Other
What is the fate of the Syrian militias? Russia is trying to dissolve them while Iran trying to fund themArabicAl-HalNovember 5, 2018Other

Syria Update: December 06 – December 12, 2018

Syria Update

06 December to 12 December, 2018​

The Syria Update is divided into two sections.  The first section provides an in-depth analysis of key issues and dynamics related to wartime and post-conflict Syria.   The second section provides a comprehensive whole of Syria review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance.

The following is a brief synopsis of the in-depth analysis section this week:

On December 6 and 7, Lebanese security forces reportedly detained and subsequently deported approximately 1,000 Syrian refugees.  Though no public statement has been made, this incident appears to mark the first large-scale forced return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon.  According to recent analysis, fears of detention and concerns related to conditions in Syria have impeded many voluntary returns, and indeed the issue of voluntary returns has also been a major source of consternation for those responding to the Syria crisis.  While this particular incident is noteworthy, it is also important to highlight the fact that Lebanon does not, nor is likely to have, a formal state policy with respect to Syria refugees and accompanying returns. Lebanon has not officially formed a government, and individual ministries and directorates are controlled by disparate group of individuals affiliated with rival Lebanese political parties. Rather, Lebanese ‘policy’ with respect to Syrian refugees appears to be implemented haphazardly, with decisions based on domestic political agendas and grievances.  That said, the Lebanese Parliament will eventually form a Government, and this Government will likely take a more aggressive approach toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Heavy conflict continues between the SDF and ISIS in Hajin, leading to the destruction of the city’s primary hospital; the conflict in Hajin is likely to conclude in the near to medium term, and the humanitarian needs stemming from the Hajin offensive will be immense.

  • Armed men in As-Sweida governorate from the Druze community expelled a group of Russian Military Police from the village of Shahba.  Recent Russian efforts to re-structure Druze armed groups in As-Sweida governorate may exacerbate the considerable tensions between the Government of Syria and the Druze community over conscription issues.

  • The Head of the Da’el Reconciliation Committee, as well as a former armed opposition commander, were assassinated in Dar’a Governorate. It is unclear who is responsible for these assassinations, though local rumors variously accuse either disgruntled former armed opposition groups or the Government of Syria.  This incident, and the accompanying accusations, highlight the complex political and security dynamics in recently reconciled areas.

  • Assassinations and IEDs continue to target Turkish-backed armed opposition combatants in Afrin.  While the majority have been claimed YPG sleeper cells, continued tensions between competing Turkish-backed armed groups have also been a major source of local instability in Operation Olive Branch-held areas, and inter-opposition conflict cannot be discounted.  

  • Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued the 2019 Syrian budget; while cited as a budgetary increase, the 2019 budget instead reflects Syria’s dire economic and monetary conditions, especially its inability to fund reconstruction and its reliance on foreign partners.

  • Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham withdrew from the key Morek crossing point, which coincided with reports of deployments by Iranian and Government of Syria-affiliated armed actors in western rural Hama governorate.   Although unclear, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s withdrawal could either be an indication of their attempt to comply with the northwest Syria disarmament agreement, or of their preparation for a renewed Government of Syria offensive.

  • The Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government reshuffled several key ministry positions, merged other ministries, and appointed a new Prime Minister. It is likely that the reshuffling is related to the lack of available funding, thereby requiring the Salvation Government to consolidate revenue-generating ministries and directorates into more centralized bodies.

  • The Governor of Hama was prevented from entering the village of Qamhana by local NDF groups reportedly due to local concerns that the purpose of his visit was to crack down on smuggling operations.  This incident highlights the considerable command and control issues facing the Government of Syria due to its limited control over the myriad pro-Government local militias.

Forced Returns and Internal Divisions in Lebanon

In Depth Analysis

On December 6 and 7, Lebanese security forces conducted a series of raids in the vicinity of Arsal, and reportedly detained approximately 750 Syrian refugees, including entire families, women, and children.   Those detained subsequently joined an additional 250 Syrian individuals who had been previously arrested or detained by Lebanese security forces across Lebanon, and the total group consisting of 1,000 individuals were delivered to “Syrian authorities at the Syrian border.”  According to Anwar Al-Bounni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer, Lebanese General Security claimed that these ‘returnees’ had previously signed documents stating that they had promised to return to Syria; however, Al-Bounni has challenged this assertion, implying that these documents, if they do indeed exist, were signed under duress.  He also noted that if these 1,000 individuals wished to return to Syria on their own, there would be “no need for raids, arrests, and forced surrender.”  According to local sources, the majority of those who were delivered to the Syrian border originated from northern rural Homs. If confirmed, this incident marks the first large-scale forced return to Syria from Lebanon.  As of December 13, the fate of the recent returnees upon entering Syria remains unclear.

There are many factors impacting and impeding voluntary returns to Syria; as noted in ‘Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home’, a recent study by the Carnegie Middle East Center, a majority of Syrian refugees in neighboring states are unwilling to return unless a political transition can assure their “safety and security, access to justice, and right of return to areas of origin,” none of which concerns have been sufficiently addressed thus far.  According to UN and local NGO partners, only 46,768 individuals have returned from neighboring countries to Syria between January and October 2018; of these, 11,921 refugees have returned from Lebanon, a mere fraction of the approximate 1.1 million Syrian refugees in the country according to UNHCR. The fear of forced or premature returns from Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan, has been a major source of concern and advocacy for the international and local response to the Syrian crisis, due to both the significant ethical and moral considerations and the fact that a premature or forced return would have a disastrous impact on the already poor humanitarian conditions in many parts of Syria.

While reports of large-scale forced returns from Lebanon are troubling, it should not necessarily be taken as indicative of Lebanese state policy with respect to Syrian refugee return.  Political appointments and policies of individual ministries and directorates have not taken place since the May 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections; directives and policies for individual Lebanese ministries remain diffuse with regards to Syrian refugees, and are underpinned by the political rivalries within the caretaker Lebanese government. Indeed, while all of Lebanon’s major political parties have expressed their preference to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to Syria, Lebanon’s political parties differ strongly on their stance toward the Government of Syria, and the vulnerability criteria and means by which Syrian refugees should return.  Therefore, in effect there is currently no single ‘Lebanese policy,’ but rather numerous Lebanese policies, depending on individual officials, ministries, and directorates.

Syrian refugees preparing to leave Arsal camps in Lebanon under the supervision of the Lebanese Authorities in July 2018. Image courtesy of Reuters/Mohamed Azakir.

The asynchronous treatment of and rhetoric towards Syrian refugees has been apparent throughout the past several months. The forcible detention and return of refugees to Syria in the past week was supposedly conducted by Lebanese General Security, which is reported to take into consideration the political perspective of Lebanese Hezbollah.  Similarly, in June 2018, Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil ordered the freezing of UNHCR expatriate staff residency applications in Lebanon, claiming that UNHCR was “spreading fear” amongst Syrian refugees by discouraging returns to Syria; Bassil is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Hezbollah-allied political party, led by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, which strongly advocates for Syrian refugee return and closer ties with the Government of Syria.  In contrast, the Lebanese Minister of Refugee Affairs, Mo’in Mourabi, has issued numerous statements over the past two months condemning Lebanon’s handling of Syrian returns, and has claimed that numerous Syrians who have returned have been detained or killed. Mourabi is a member of the Future Movement, the primary Sunni political party in Lebanon, led by the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has consistently been opposed to both the Government of Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah, and therefore against the forcible return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  

Considering the major divisions within the current Lebanese caretaker Government, it is unlikely that Lebanon will form a government or a unified political policy with respect to the issue of Syria refugee return in the near term.  Indeed, the issue of refugee return is only one of many issues dividing Lebanon’s numerous political blocs; issues surrounding Lebanon’s stance toward the Government of Syria, oil and gas contracts, public infrastructure projects, political-sectarian representation, and the dire state of the Lebanese economy also divide Lebanon’s political parties.

Whole of Syria Review

Conflict in Hajin​

Hajin, Deir-ez-Zor governorate, Syria: As of December 7, clashes between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with heavy support by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, and ISIS combatants continued near Hajin, in eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate.  On December 7, Government of Syria-affiliated SANA news agency reported that the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes destroyed the Hajin National Hospital, which resulted in the death of numerous civilians.  On December 10, the SDF released a statement announcing they had secured significant advances along Hajin and Upper Baguz frontlines, and secured the Hajin National Hospital in central Hajin town; in apparent response to the SANA report, the SDF claimed that the hospital was destroyed when ISIS combatants detonated IEDs in the hospital prior to their withdrawal. Separately, significant SDF reinforcements have since reportedly arrived from Menbij in northern Aleppo to support the U.S.-led counter-ISIS ‘Jazeera Storm’ Operation in Deir-ez-Zor governorate.

Analysis: It is unclear how the Hajin National Hospital was destroyed.  According to Operation Inherent Resolve press releases, a total of 781 airstrikes have targeted the ISIS-held Hajin since October 21; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also reported that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have resulted in the death of at least 265 civilians since November 2018.  Notably, there are approximately 84,238 individuals currently residing in the ISIS-controlled areas surrounding Hajin according to UN and local NGO partners; in addition to heavy levels of conflict, the area has also faced siege conditions since early September 2018.  With the arrival of significant SDF reinforcements to the front lines, and heavy U.S. aerial support, it is likely that the SDF will secure the remaining ISIS-held pockets in Deir-ez-Zor in the near- to medium-term. As in all densely populated areas succumbing to siege conditions, such as eastern Aleppo city or Eastern Ghouta, the humanitarian needs, deprivation, and casualties stemming from the Hajin offensive are likely to be immense.

Assassinations and IEDs in Afrin​

Afrin District, Northern Aleppo, Syria: On December 10, the YPG claimed responsibility for two IED explosions in Bulbul subdistrict in Afrin, and has claimed responsibility for several other assassination attempts targeting Turkish-backed armed opposition combatants in the area in the past two weeks.  A second IED killed several Turkish-backed armed opposition combatants in Baia village, also in the vicinity of Afrin; this IED was attributed to the YPG by local sources. Notably, two additional, yet unattributed, IEDs also targeted combatants from Faylaq Al-Sham and Sultan Murad, two prominent Turkish-backed armed opposition groups in Afrin, throughout the past week.

Analysis: IED attacks, clashes, and assassinations in Afrin are frequent; while Kurd-Arab tensions in Afrin are extremely high, Turkish-backed armed opposition infighting is also common.  Although the Government of Turkey took control of Afrin district following Operation Olive Branch in March 2018, YPG forces continue to maintain sleeper cells in the area and regularly launch reprisal attacks against Turkish-backed groups.  However, not every IED or assassination in Afrin should be attributed to the YPG, as Turkish-backed armed groups regularly engage in clashes with one another, generally over control of the local war economy or appropriated housing. Therefore, the precarious security situation in Afrin is unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future.

As-Sweida Tensions

As-Sweida governorate, Southern Syria: On December 6, several armed men in Shahba village, As-Sweida governorate, expelled a Russian Military Police unit patrolling the area. Though the exact motivation behind the expulsion is unclear, it is reportedly related to recent Russian Military Police attempts to restructure and centralize armed group formations in As-Sweida and increase the frequency of conscription campaigns in the governorate.  Russian Military Police have recently convened several meetings with local Druze armed groups in As-Sweida governorate, to include the Shouyoukh Al-Karama. Reportedly, the Russian Military Police have been in negotiations with Druze armed groups in order to create more formal structures.  Of note, the Shouyoukh Al-Karama is a Druze armed group and social movement that is not necessarily opposed to the Government of Syria politically, but is very much against the conscription and deployment of Druze individuals outside of As-Sweida governorate.

 

Analysis: Tensions between elements of the Druze community and Russian Military Police likely stem from a series of incidents in July 2018.  In late-July, ISIS kidnapped numerous Druze women and children in an attack across numerous communities in As-Sweida. Immediately following the kidnappings, Maher Al-Assad, the leader of the of the 4th Division (and brother of President Al-Assad) proposed, in a Russian facilitated meeting with Druze community representatives, that all military-aged Druze males adhere to conscription policies and join the Syrian Arab Army’s 1st Corps; in return, the Syrian Arab Army would defeat ISIS in the area and free the Druze hostages.  Several Druze community representatives were open to these terms; however, no official agreements were implemented. On November 8, Druze hostages were rescued by Government of Syria military forces; since that time, the Government of Syria has exerted pressure on the Druze community to increase conscription numbers, despite continued local protests. Considering the role Russia played in facilitating these local negotiations, and its function more broadly as both a guarantor of local agreements and a supporter of the Syrian State, it is not surprising that Russia has attempted to centralize and formalize Druze militias.  Yet by doing so, Russia appears to have encountered it appears to have earned the ire of the Druze community of As-Sweida. More broadly speaking, it is unlikely that the Government of Syria will actually take any serious steps to conscript or exert further central control over the Druze community, given their unique geopolitical position, and so it is unclear why Russia has chosen to do so.

NDF/Governor of Hama Disputes ​

Qamhana, Hama Governorate, Syria: On December 9, Mohamad Al Hazouri, the Governor of Hama governorate, entered Qamhana village accompanied by police forces, in order to confiscate smuggled goods in the village, which reportedly included Turkish goods channeled through opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria.  His entrance was reportedly prevented by local inhabitants of Qamhana as well as the head of the Qamhana Military Committee, the primary NDF coordination body in Qamhana. Notably, local sources report that traders in Qamhana provide local NDF militias with both financial kickbacks and a portion of the smuggled products in return for facilitation of smuggling and protection.

Analysis: The fact that local residents and their associated militias can prevent a governor from entering a community is an indication of the growing role and power of the myriad armed actors in Syria; it also highlights that this growing power comes at the expense of Syria’s bureaucratic and administrative governance bodies. The disaggregated and highly localized nature of the Government of Syria’s aligned militants further exacerbates these fissures. Not only does this incident demonstrate the limited power the Government of Syria’s regional representatives, appointees, and other public employees, it also highlights the Government of Syria’s current inability to fully control its forces within a clear command and control structure.  For more information on these dynamics, Khedder Khaddour recently discussed some the challenges faced by the Government of Syria when controlling its diffuse militias in a recent article.

Syria 2019 Budget Approved ​

Damascus, Syria: On December 6, Syrian President Bashar Assad issued the 2019 Syrian National Budget, following Syrian Parliamentary approval in October 2018. The 2019 budget is totaled at 3.88 trillion SYP ($7.8 billion USD), an increase of 19.8% from the 2018 Syrian budget.  The 2019 budget allocates 811 billion SYP ($1.6 billion USD) for ‘social support,’ which is further allocated as follows: 361 billion SYP ($727 million USD) for flour subsidies, 430 billion SYP ($866 million USD) for gas and fuel subsidies, 10 billion SYP ($20 million USD) for the ‘agricultural production funds’, and 10 billion SYP ($20 million USD) for social assistance. The 2019 budget also allocates 1.1 trillion SYP ($2.21 billion USD) for investment, and a total of $50 billion SYP ($100 million USD) for reconstruction and job opportunities. Yet, the 2019 budget did not allocate any funding for public sector wage increases, nor did the budget allocate funding to areas outside of direct Government of Syria control, namely Idleb governorate, Hasakeh governorate, SDF-controlled Deir-ez-Zor governorate on the east bank of the Euphrates River, rural Hama and western rural Aleppo.   It is also important to note that the budget indicated Government of Syria will only begin to pay accumulated debt beginning in 2034.

Analysis: In large part, the expansionary Syrian budget is an expression of the inflationary pressure facing the Syrian Lira.   According to the Government of Syria, the 2019 budget of 3.882 trillion SYP is equal to $8.92 billion (USD). However, the Government of Syria claims that the SYP/USD exchange rate is 435 SYP/USD, while the de-facto rate in most of Government-held is 496 SYP/USD, as of December 12.  It is also worth noting that the exchange rate is constantly depreciating; by example, the October 2018 informal exchange rate was 465 SYP/USD. Therefore, the more realistic 2019 budget is closer to $7.8 billion USD, and this number will certainly decrease as the SYP/USD exchange continues to depreciate.  

While the 2019 budget has been hailed as the largest since the start of the conflict, it actually reflects the Government of Syria’s deep financial constraints.  For instance, the budget did not allocate any increase in public sector wages, which have already been drastically impacted by the depreciating SYP exchange rate; the importance of public sector wages is illustrated by Jihad Yazigi, who calculates that nearly 90% of Syrians living in Government of Syria-held areas had some form of state employment in 2016.  Furthermore, the approximately $100 million USD allocated to reconstruction is dwarfed by the estimated $200-$400 billion USD cost of Syria’s reconstruction – although it is clear that the 2019 budget does not cover the reconstruction of areas outside of Government of Syria control. Most critically, the meager allocation for reconstruction funding necessitates foreign investment in reconstruction projects, which will only solidify Syria’s allies political and economic influence over the country, especially considering the delayed debt repayment plan. Notably, the Governments of Russia and Iran have both invested in infrastructure and natural resource production, and their economic influence will likely increase dramatically in Syria’s internal affairs and foreign policy.

HTS Withdraws from Morek Offices ​

Morek, Northern Hama Governorate, Syria: On December 7, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated combatants reportedly withdrew from offices at the Morek crossing point in northern Hama to unknown destinations in Idleb governorate.  The withdrawal of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham from Morek was concurrent with the reported deployment of Iranian combatants and proxy groups in the vicinity of Morek, along the nearby highway linking Hama city to Muharda in western rural Hama. Notably, continuous media reports have indicated Iran’s armed presence in western rural Hama in areas close to the disarmament zone for approximately the past two months. However, on December 9 Government of Syria military sources indicated to Syrian media outlets that a Government of Syria offensive on opposition-controlled northwestern Syria is to occur in the near-term, and that the offensive will eventually lead to the separation of northwestern Syria into five separate pockets, each of which to be reconciled individually

Analysis: Morek is one of the most vital and profitable cross-line points in northwestern Syria, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham would be unlikely to abandon it without cause.  However, the specific reason behind Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s evacuation from the Morek crossing remains unclear. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s withdrawal could be regarded as indication that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has succumbed to diplomatic pressure from the Government of Turkey, and is taking steps to follow the terms of the disarmament zone agreement. However, in light of reported Iranian military deployments, as well as weekly indications of increased Government of Syria military deployments, the withdrawal of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham could equally be registered as anticipation for an impending Government of Syria offensive. Public statements following the Astana 11 talks, held on November 28 and 29, reiterated that the governments of Turkey and Russia remain committed to the disarmament zone agreement; however, the potential Government of Syria offensive cannot be discounted and is indeed increasingly likely, considering the recent reports of Government of Syria military deployments.

Salvation Government Reshuffling​

Bab Elhawa, Idleb Governorate, Northwestern Syria: On December 10, the Salvation Government Constitution Drafting Assembly convened a general conference at Bab Elhawa in northern Idleb governorate to approve the new Salvation Government ministerial appointments and to appoint Fawwaz Hilal as its new Prime Minister. Local sources indicated that Hilal, as well as most of the newly appointed ministers, are known for their close affiliation with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The general conference also reduced of the number of Salvation Government ministries by two, merging the Ministries of Economy and Agriculture and the Ministries of Housing and Reconstruction with Local Administration and Services. It is important to note that one of the reasons given for the reshuffling of the Salvation Government ministries was that the Salvation Government’s Prime Minister, Mohamad Al-Sheikh, had resigned; Mohamad Al-Sheikh has previously submitted two resignation letters that were rejected over the past year.

Analysis: According to local sources, Mohamad Al-Sheikh and several other Salvation Government ministers have been dissatisfied with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s inability to fulfill its financial pledges to the Salvation Government since its creation in November 2017.  Indeed, the Salvation Government does suffer from funding shortages, which has reportedly impacted local administration and service provision, according to local sources. As such, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has most likely chosen to implement the changes in the Salvation Government for two reasons; first, in an attempt to ‘refresh’ the image, reputation, and mandate of the Salvation Government by effectively creating a new government; and second, by merging ministries with existing means of revenue-generation to allow for greater flexibility in the aggregation and allocation of funding.

Assassinations of Reconciled Commanders ​

Da’el and Mzeireb, Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria:  On December 9, Mashour Kanakri, the Head of the Da’el Reconciliation Committee, western Dar’a Governorate, was assassinated in Da’el; those responsible for the Kanakri’s assassination are unknown. Notably, Kanakri was a key figure in the reconciliation of armed opposition groups in Da’el;  Kanakri had previously led the Southern Front’s Liwa’ Moujahidi Horan, reconciled with the Government of Russia during the southern Syria offensive in June 2018, and gone on to join the Government of Syria’s Military Security Branch.  An anonymous statement was circulated on social media December 10, accusing the ‘Popular Resistance’ in Dar’a governorate of responsibility; however, on the same day, the Popular Resistance denied their responsibility for the assassination. On December 11, Yousef Muhamad Hashish, a second reconciled armed opposition commander, was also assassinated in Mzeireb. Following his reconciliation in June 2018, Hashish also joined the Government of Syria Military Security Branch.  Of note, the ‘Popular Resistance’ was reportedly formed on November 15, 2018 and is believed to be comprised of armed opposition group members in Dar’a governorate who refused to evacuate to northwestern Syria in July 2018 following the conclusion of the Government of Syria’s southern Syria offensive.

Analysis:  These assassinations speak to the unstable socio-political and security environment in recently reconciled communities, as well as the specific challenges facing reconciled armed opposition combatants in southern Syria.  Instability in the region is unlikely to resolve itself in the near term nd similar dynamics will likely continue in all reconciled areas for the foreseeable future. Although no actor has claimed responsibility for the assassinations, detentions and assassinations of reconciled former opposition commanders are common in post-reconciled areas, particularly in southern Syria.  Local sources reported that Mashhour Kanakari had close ties with the head of the Military Security Branch in Dar’a governorate, Louay Ali; however, they also noted that Kanakri was closely linked to Russian reconciliation efforts in southern Syria. Furthermore, it is unclear what specific affiliations and relationships Yousef Hashish maintained. There are certainly tensions between commanders who reconciled under the aegis of the Government of Russia and commanders who were more closely linked to Government of Syria reconciliation efforts; consequently, it is as likely that Kanakri was assassinated by disgruntled former armed opposition groups as by Government of Syria forces.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.