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 Government of Russia has regularly emphasized, in both speech and action, that it considers creating the conditions for Syrian refugee returns to be a major component of its broader Syria strategy. In fact, Russia has promoted the narrative that Syria is already safe for returnees, and that refugees are already preparing to return to Syria in large numbers. The Government of Russia’s naturally promotes this narrative due to the fact that refugee return is viewed a prerequisite to securing Syria reconstruction funding. However, it is unclear to what degree the Government of Russia is actually capable of influencing the Government of Syria to create the conditions for return. Many analysts have touted the recent amendment of the controversial Law 10 as evidence that the Government of Syria can be influenced by both international and Russian pressure; however, the actual impact of the amendment is negligible, and indeed, Law 10 itself is not the primary impediment to Syrian refugee returns. Therefore, existing narratives concerning a large scale return to Syria in the near term certainly remain premature.
Updates on the clashes in northern Hama, which threaten the integrity of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement.
An examination of a Russian oil and gas investment agreement with Syria’s largest public chemical production company.
Reports on negotiations between the SDF and ISIS in Hajin, with an emphasis on social/tribal component of the negotiations and the ramifications of the siege of Hajin.
Information on the ongoing Hama prison strike, highlighting complex dynamics in Syria’s prison system.
Coverage of UNRWA’s extreme funding shortages, as well as the political dynamics surrounding the reconstruction of the Yarmouk camp, with an emphasis on the complex humanitarian and political concerns of Syria’s Palestinian community.
Analysis of the ongoing bread crisis in Euphrates Shield-held areas, underscoring the dependance of the region on Turkish imports and support.
Information on new taxes and fees levied in reconciled northern Homs, specifically taxes and fees accrued by civilians during the period of armed opposition control.
At a November 7 meeting of the Russian-Syrian Coordination Center for the Reception, Allocation, and Accommodation of Refugees (CCRAAR), Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev stated that “Lebanon and Jordan have been actively assisting in the return of Syrian refugees to their homes. Lebanese authorities have expressed readiness to ensure the return of about 200,000 refugees before the end of the year.” Mizintsev added that these plans imply only the voluntary return of refugees, based on the fundamental principles of the United Nations. As of November 2, the Russian Hmeimim Reconciliation center has stated that 5,723 individuals have returned to Syria from Jordan, and 21,541 individuals have returned from Lebanon.
Russia has made the return of Syrian refugees, not to mention shaping and messaging a narrative that returns are already occurring in large numbers, a key component of its broader Syria policy. The Government of Russia’s emphasis on the topic of Syrian refugee returns arises for one primary premise: linking refugee returns to the provision of western reconstruction funding, especially from European governments. Indeed, to quote President Putin, speaking in Germany in August 2018: “I remind you that there are a million refugees in Jordan and a million in Lebanon. There are 3 million refugees in Turkey. This is potentially a huge burden on Europe, so it is better to do everything possible so that they can return home.” To this end, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had several joint calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the topic of humanitarian aid to the Government of Syria and the need to support reconstruction to facilitate returns; Putin further highlighted that refugee returns were a major component of Russian policy for Syria at a joint summit with Germany, France, and Turkey in Istanbul in late October. Additionally, Russia has reportedly engaged in serious talks with the Government of Jordan on the topic of refugee return, and is involved in joint talks to facilitate the return of the approximately 50,000 individuals living in the Rukban camp. However, despite efforts to lobby both neighboring states and Europe to accept Russian narratives on refugee returns and associated conditions, the Government of Russia faces several major obstacles, perhaps the largest being the policies of its closest ally in the Syrian conflict: the Government of Syria itself.
The Government of Syria does not appear to be as concerned as its partners with facilitating the conditions for a safe return for Syrian refugees. The Government of Syria continues to maintain strict security checks for any individuals entering Syria, checks which many Syrian refugees reportedly cannot pass. Even inside Syria, internally displaced individuals face difficulties returning to their communities of origin; for example, many of those who were displaced from Eastern Ghouta during the offensive in March 2018 have yet to return to their communities due to their inability to pass internal security checks. Furthermore, the fear of detainment, for national conscription or otherwise, prevents many individuals from considering return to Syria, while Syrian officials regularly make statements to the effect that Syrians who fled Syria are not welcome back. Indeed, reports indicate that Syrian refugees who receive security approvals to return to Syria are still at risk of detention; for example, on November 12, 20 Syrians who returned to Syria from Lebanon were reportedly detained, despite having received security approvals to return
It is unclear to what degree the Government of Russia is able to influence the Government of Syria with respect to its laws and policies regarding refugee returns. On November 8, the Syrian parliament agreed to amend Law 10, which, among other points, stipulates how Syrians (to include refugees) claim property ownership. Many Syria analysts and policy makers have noted that Law 10 had the potential to permanently prevent individuals from returning, as most Syrian refugees would be unable to produce the necessary ownership paperwork within the one-month deadline from the time of the passage of Law 10. Thus, the amendment of Law 10, which extends the deadline to claim property from one month to one year, has been hailed as a success story illustrating international (and Russian) capacity to influence the Government of Syria. However, ‘success’ may indeed by an exaggeration. Even with the amendment to Law 10, many Syrian refugees are still unlikely to be able to provide ownership documents; this is especially true for individuals living in informal housing neighborhoods (the likeliest targets of Law 10, and the communities of origin for many of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees and IDPs).
Additionally, and as noted in ‘Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home’, Carnegie Middle East Center’s comprehensive study of Syrian refugee return dynamics, many Syrian refugees do not plan to return to Syria in the near term, and “a majority are unwilling to go back unless a political transition can assure their safety and security, access to justice, and right of return to areas of origin.” One could also point to a September 2018 report ‘Conditions of Return for the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon’, which can be obtained from the Common Space Initiative, which states that the conditions for return for nearly 79% of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are ‘Bad’ or ‘Moderately Bad’ (on a ranked scale of 1-6). Therefore, short of compelling the Government of Syria to fundamentally change its approach toward security and governance, the Government of Russia’s attempts to promote Syrian refugee returns and shape an external message linking returns to reconstruction are likely premature at best and fanciful at worst.
Northern Hama, Northwestern Syria: On November 9, a Government of Syria NDF militia, Qawat Salhab, launched a raid into Zalaqiyat town, in the vicinity of Latamneh, opposition-held northern Hama. During the raid, up to 20 combatants from Jaish Al-Ezza, a prominent armed opposition group in northern Hama, were killed; of note Jaish Al-Ezza currently has a close relationship with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. In response to the raid, on November 10 Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a retaliatory attack on a Government of Syria military point in the vicinity of Helfaya, in Government of Syria-held northern Hama; reportedly, eight Government of Syria combatants were killed. Following the attack on Helfaya, on November 11, the Government of Turkey deployed military patrols to Latamneh, and Russian Military police closed the Morek cross-line crossing point. Additionally, reports indicate the Government of Syria has put the Tiger Forces, an elite Government of Syria military unit, on high alert and has deployed them to front lines in northern Hama.
Analysis: The recent conflict in northern Hama is the most intense series of clashes since the start of the northwestern Syria disarmament agreement negotiated by the Governments of Turkey and Russia in September 2018. Latamneh and Helfaya are front line communities within the boundaries of the disarmament zone; therefore the fact that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (which is not party to the agreement, and should theoretically not be within the disarmament zone boundaries) directly launched a retaliatory raid into Government of Syria-held areas makes this incident the greatest threat to the maintenance of the disarmament zone yet. However, the fact that the Governments of Turkey and Russia quickly reacted to the incident is an indication that despite the breaches to the agreement, the disarmament zone agreement will likely continue to be broadly maintained for the near term. Nevertheless, the fundamental issue with the long term status of the disarmament zone remains the fact that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, the largest armed opposition group in northwestern Syria, is not party to the agreement; furthermore, Hay;at Tahrir Al-Sham appears unlikely to dissolve or divide itself in the near term. Therefore, the agreement remains inherently fragile, despite the apparent commitment of the Governments of Turkey and Russia.
Homs city, Homs Governorate, Syria: On November 5, Syrian media reported on a new economic agreement between the Government of Syria’s state owned ‘Public Company for Fertilizers,’ based in Homs city, and a Russian oil and gas company, Stroytransgaz. Reportedly, the ‘Public Company for Fertilizers’ and Stroytransgaz will sign the agreement in the near term, in which Stroytransgaz will heavily invest in the ‘Public Company for Fertilizers’ three main production plants for a period of 25 to 40 years; in return, Stroytranzgaz will take a 65% controlling share of the ‘Public Company for Fertilizers,’ and will have the option to export Syrian fertilizer so long as Syria’s domestic market is “sufficient.”
Analysis: It is increasingly clear that the Government of Russia, and Russian companies, intend to heavily invest in and privatize Syria’s state owned companies. One of Syria’s major industries is chemical production thanks to Syria’s rich phosphorus and sulphur deposits, and the ‘Public Company for Fertilizers’ is the largest chemical industrial complex in Syria. The ‘Public Company for Fertilizers’ three main factories produce nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers, in addition to many other critical chemical products such as acid, phosphorus, and sulfur. Similar economic arrangements between the Government of Syria and Russian companies are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, especially true for Syria’s other valuable industries.
Northern Homs Governorate, Syria: According to both local and media sources, the Government of Syria has begun to demand that residents of northern rural Homs pay taxes and fees for governmental services used during the period when the area was controlled by the armed opposition. Reportedly, northern Homs residents are being asked to pay back fees for electricity usage (which according to local sources, have been accurately tracked by Syria’s Ministry of Electricity); shopkeepers have also been asked to pay for accumulated commercial taxes. The Government of Syria has reportedly agreed to waive late fees for the electricity bills and taxes (referring to the time period where residents were not paying their bills due to the fact that the armed opposition controlled the area).
Analysis: The Government of Syria’s demands to residents of northern rural Homs underline some of the more challenging governance dynamics facing post-reconciled areas. The population of northern rural Homs was indeed using electricity produced by Government of Syria electrical plants while the armed opposition was in control of the area, and from the Government of Syria’s perspective, individuals with outstanding bills or taxes must pay, regardless of the circumstances. To justify this measure, the Government of Syria would likely point to the fact that Syrian citizens living in Government of Syria-held areas continued to pay their respective bills and taxes throughout the conflict. Nonetheless, it is important to note that most individuals living in northern Homs were unable to reach Government of Syria administrative offices to pay due to the enforcement of a military siege; additionally, many individuals are unlikely to be able to pay now due to having expended their finances during the years long siege conditions in northern Homs imposed by the Government of Syria. Government of Syria demands that individuals pay their electricity bills and taxes accrued while the area was besieged strongly points to the Government of Syria’s underlying philosophy towards reconciled areas; the Government of Syria emphasizes its sovereignty, and its conception of the rule of law, over the ‘spirit’ of reconciliation. Indeed, perhaps what is most surprising is the fact that the Government of Syria is willing to waive the late fee and fines accrued by individuals during the time that they were unable to pay their required bills and taxes.
Hajin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Northeastern Syria: On November 8, ISIS forces in Hajin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, released 11 civilian hostages, as well as the bodies of several SDF combatants killed in recent clashes as part of negotiations with the SDF. Notably, the hostages are members of the Shaitiat tribe; ISIS still reportedly still holds 11 Shaitiat civilians as hostages in Hajin. In return, the SDF allowed 16 trucks containing food and medicine to enter Hajin. It is worth noting that, reportedly, prices of staple goods in Hajin are extremely high, as the area is effectively besieged by the SDF: 1kg of flour is reportedly 6000 SYP (as opposed to 100 SYP in SDF-held areas; 1kg of sugar is reportedly 5000 SYP (as opposed to 300 SYP in SDF-held areas); and 1kg of tomatoes is 1500 (compared to 300 SYP in SDF-held areas). Despite the temporary agreement with ISIS, the SDF announced on November 11 that they would resume Euphrates Wrath Offensive operations against remaining ISIS forces in Hajin; the SDF claimed that they halted only the offensive due to the threats presented by Turkish shelling in Kobane on October 28 and 29 (for more information please see the previous Syria Update).
Analysis: The social identity of the ISIS hostages is highly noteworthy; the Shaitiat tribe is a notoriously anti-ISIS tribe, largely due to the fact that ISIS massacred many Shaitiat members 2014 following a Shaitiat uprising against ISIS. Furthermore, the Shaitiat are roughly evenly divided between supporting the Government of Syria and the SDF, which partially explains why releasing Shaitiat hostages and thereby securing tribal support is a major priority for the SDF. This incident also highlights the extremely desperate ISIS position in Hajin. As noted the area is now effectively besieged, and from a humanitarian standpoint it should be noted that Hajin is highly populated, with approximately 84,238 individuals living in the ISIS-controlled areas in its vicinity as of October 31, according to partner organization field teams. It is likely that the SDF will secure control over Hajin in the near term.
Hama City, Hama Governorate, Syria: On November 6, the Military Court in Hama city sentenced 11 individuals in the Hama city civil prison to death for terrorism charges. The sentencing also stipulated that these 11 prisoners should be transported to Sednaya prison, in Rural Damascus, for execution. Those sentenced to death immediately requested that the execution take place in the Hama city prison and that their families receive their remains. Shortly after the sentencing, the prisoners in Hama prison called a general hunger strike, subsequently releasing a video from inside the prison; in the video, prisoners called for a general amnesty for Hama city’s prisoners, and for a stay of execution for those 11 individuals sentenced to death. It is worth noting that the prisoners in Hama city prison effectively took control of the prison in April 2016, and have negotiated prisoner releases in the past, and that past prisoner transfers often required Government of Syria forces to enter the prison by force.
Analysis: The prison strike in Hama city prison highlights some of the complex dynamics within Syria’s prisons, especially its civil prisons. Hama city prison is not the only prison effectively under the control of the prisoners; Homs city prison is also controlled by its prisoners, with the Government of Syria only able to enter the prison through negotiated access or the use of force. Additionally, the fact that the strike was instigated following a death sentence is also noteworthy; those sentenced to death were reportedly willing to accept their sentences, but refused to be transferred to Sednaya (a military, rather than civil, prison), due to fears that remains would not be returned to their families following an execution in a military prison. It is unclear how the Government of Syria will respond to the Hama city prison strike; however, in the past, prison strikes have generally led either to a negotiated settlement including a limited prisoner releases or overwhelming force used against prisoners.
Damascus, Syria: On November 12, local media sources stated that UNRWA has decided to stop distributing regular humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, and will return to focusing only on emergency cases. According to the media sources, “the distribution of the last in-kind aid is currently being distributed to the Palestinian refugees, after which this assistance will stop. The distribution staff have been informed that the distribution…will be suspended by the end of this year.” Additionally, UNRWA is expected to lay off up to 100 staff in Syria in order to reduce expenses.
Analysis: The funding gaps for UNRWA are well known and easily attributable. U.S. President Donald Trump chose to cease all funding for UNRWA on August 31, and had frozen $300 million in UNRWA funding in January 2018. Previously, the U.S. was the largest financial supporter of UNRWA, and provided nearly 33% of UNRWA’s funding. UNRWA is the primary UN agency responding to the sometimes extreme needs of Syria’s Palestinian community in camps and gatherings across Syria, to include in Yarmouk, Khan Elshih, and Bab Neyrab (in Aleppo city). Therefore, the loss of UNRWA funding is likely to present major gaps for the Syrian response as a whole.
Yarmouk Camp, Southern Damascus, Syria: On November 12, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis directed the Governor of Damascus, Busher Sabban, to begin rehabilitating infrastructure and restoring basic services to Yarmouk Palestinian camp. This came shortly after a statement made by Anwar Raja, the Information Officer of the PFLP-GC (a pro-Government Palestinian armed group), which indicated that Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad had made an “official decision” to return the people of Yarmouk to the camp; the majority of Yarmouk’s former residents are currently residing in nearby Yalda, Babella, and Beit Saham. Prior to the conflict nearly 160,000 individuals lived in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp. In related news, on September 18, the Palestinian Ambassador to Jordan, Atallah Khairi, stated that the process of removing rubble and reconstruction in Yarmouk refugee camp would be funded at the expense of Palestinian Authority “under the authority of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.”
Analysis: The reconstruction of Yarmouk, and the involvement of the Palestinian Authority in that reconstruction, highlights some of the interesting political dynamics facing the Palestinian community (both inside and outside Palestine). Prior to the conflict, Hamas was the most powerful Palestinian actor in the Yarmouk camp, and generally maintained a close relationship with both the Government of Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. However, at the start of the Syrian conflict, the Palestinian community was divided into pro- and anti-Government factions, with anti-government sentiment heavily exacerbated following an incident on Nakba day in May 2011, which ultimately led Hamas to ally itself with the Syrian armed opposition. Therefore, the fact that the Palestinian Authority (led by Hamas’ rival, Fatah) is involved in Yarmouk’s reconstruction is an indication that the Government of Syria is seeking to increase Fatah’s political influence at the cost of Hamas.
Northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria: According to media and local sources, there is an ongoing bread price crisis in Euphrates Shield-held areas of northern Aleppo. Reportedly, the bread crisis began in late October 2018, but has dramatically worsened as of mid-November, especially in highly populated areas such as Al-Bab and Azaz. Reportedly, the rise in prices is due to several factors, including the high price of fuel, and the lack of availability of subsidized flour (forcing bakeries to buy more expensive unsubsidized flour to meet demand). Currently, average bread prices in Euphrates Shield-held areas are approximately 150 SYP per bread packet; normal prices in Euphrates Shield-held areas are roughly 100 SYP per packet.
Analysis: The current bread crisis highlights the fact that Euphrates Shield-held areas of Syria are heavily dependant on Turkish imported or subsidized flour. Subsidized flour in northern Syria is generally provided by AFAD (a Turkish government agency) and IHH (a Turkish relief organization), as well as the ‘Public Establishment for Grains’, a Syrian Interim Government body responsible for providing flour, grain, and services related to bread production (which is also backed by Turkey). Reportedly, Turkish officials have attributed the current flour shortages to the fact that new contracts are being negotiated with companies producing flour. However, the fact that Turkish contract negotiations have the ability cause a 50% rise in the price of bread for an entire region is significant, especially as Syria (especially northeastern Syria) is a major wheat and flour producer (by comparison, one packet of bread in Damascus costs roughly 75 SYP). This points to a lack of trade with existing internal markets in Syria; or, alternatively, efforts by Turkey to reorient markets in Euphrates Shield-held areas exclusively toward Turkish markets, at least with respect to key commodities such as flour.
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.