Syria Update

22 November to 28 November, 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 November 24, shells containing ‘toxic gas’, likely chlorine, impacted Government of Syria-held neighborhoods of Aleppo city, injuring 107 people. In response, the Government of Russia launched airstrikes on several locations in northwestern Syria, the first since the start of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement in September 2018. Both the Government of Syria and the armed opposition attribute responsibility for the gas attack to one another, and in the absence of an international investigation, attribution is likely a futile task. Nonetheless, the timing of the gas attack is noteworthy; Astana 11 will take place on November 28, and the main topic of discussion will be the status of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone. The Government of Russia will likely present the gas attack as indicative of Turkey’s failure to secure the disarmament zone agreement, thereby justifying a Government of Syria offensive into Idleb. Civilians in northwestern Syria are reportedly already preparing for their potential displacement due to fears of an offensive, while Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has begun to reinforce military positions on front lines and along the M5 highway. Though the ultimate fate of the disarmament zone agreement -and Idleb by extension- is likely to be decided by the Governments of Turkey and Russia at Astana 11, the Government of Syria offensive remains eager to launch a decisive armed offensive.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:

  • The Masalmeh tribe, a prominent tribe in Dar’a demanded the resignation of the governor of Dar’a; how the Government of Syria responds to these demands is indicative of the Government of Syria’s strategy in post-reconciled southern Syria.

  • Russian Military Police arrested a group of Syrian military officers in Eastern Ghouta, highlighting the challenges Russia faces when guaranteeing reconciliation agreement terms.

  • The Government of Syria Council of Ministers dissolved the Yarmuk local council, and Yarmuk was placed under the administration of Damascus city, this act will increase centralized oversight over reconstruction and returns.

  • Raed Al-Fares and Hamoud Jneid, two prominent civil society activists, were assassinated in northwestern Syria, underscoring the extent to which extremist groups will go to silence political opponents.

  • Leaked Syrian Interim Government documents indicate that $375,000 was stolen from ‘vocational training’ funds allocated to Eastern Ghouta in the spring and summer of 2018, highlighting some of the internal administrative challenges within the Syrian Interim Government.

  • The U.S. announced the establishment of observation points along the Turkey border in northeastern Syria; presented as a concession to Turkey, these observation points are instead likely aimed at preventing a Turkish military intervention into northeastern Syria.

  • A new artificial lake project was announced in Lattakia to provide both drinking water and irrigation for local agriculture; the Government of Russia will fund the project, highlighting Russia’s continued interest in Syrian development projects.

  • The Lebanese Minister of Refugee Affairs claims that 20 Syrians were killed by the Government of Syria after returning from Lebanon, and that Government of Syria treatment of refugees is preventing their return.

Aleppo Gas Attack, and the Northwestern Syria Disarmament Zone

In Depth Analysis

 

On November 24, shells containing ‘toxic gas’ targeted the Khaldiyeh and Sharia Al-Neel neighborhoods of Aleppo city; according to Government of Syria media, 107 individuals were injured, though no fatalities were reported. According to the director of the Aleppo Health Directorate, the gas used was “likely to be chlorine gas due to the symptoms shown by the hospitalized civilians.”  On November 25, Russia conducted a series of airstrikes in opposition-held northwestern Syria in response to the gas attack, specifically targeting Jarjanaz, Khan Touman, and Rashideen. The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that the airstrikes had targeted “the identified positions of terrorist artillery in the area that shelled civilians in the city of Aleppo,” and added that “all militant targets were destroyed.”  For their part, Noureddine Al-Zenki and Faylaq Sham, the two largest armed opposition groups in the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front, have denied responsibility for the gas attack and accused the Government of Syria of fabricating the incident to justify an offensive on northwestern Syria, while also calling for an official UN investigation.  Notably, both Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Government of Turkey have yet to issue an official statement on the Aleppo city gas attack.

Speculation on which actor is responsible for the gas attack in Aleppo city is very likely futile in the absence of a formal international investigation.  Chlorine canisters have been regularly and repeatedly used by the Government of Syria against the armed opposition through the Syrian conflict, but are also notoriously simple to manufacture and therefore could be within the capabilities of certain armed groups in northwestern Syria. The Government of Syria has indeed been accused of conducting ‘false flag’ chemical attacks in the past, especially in the Khan Al-Assal attack in 2013; however, the results of the UN investigation into the Khan Al-Assal attack were notably inconclusive.  Of note, this most recent gas attack occurred only hours after a Government of Syria rocket attack targeting Jarjanaz impacted a school and killed numerous women and children; local sources have accused the Government of Syria of conducting the gas attack to distract from the rocket attack on Jarjanaz, while Government of Syria sources have claimed that the gas attack was in retaliation for the rocket attack on Jarjanaz.  Additionally, the Government of Russia has recently stated that the armed opposition is preparing to launch a chemical attack from Idleb; however, many analysts have interpreted these statements as pre-emptive rhetoric in the event that a chemical weapons attack should occur, and it remains difficult to directly link increased rhetoric on chemical weapons to actual usage.

The timing of the gas attack is perhaps more important than determining the perpetrator.  The Astana 11 talks are scheduled to begin on November 28, and the main topic of Astana 11 will reportedly be the status of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone.  Russian representatives have repeatedly stated that the terms agreed to in the disarmament zone agreement have not been met; for example, Russian spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated at a press conference in Moscow on November 15 that “real disengagement in Idleb has not been achieved, despite Turkey’s continuing efforts to live up to its commitments.” Indeed, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham remains present within the Idleb disarmament zone, and has not officially endorsed the agreement despite considerable pressure from the Government of Turkey.    Therefore, with the gas attack coming four days before the Astana 11 talks, the future of the disarmament zone appears increasingly imperiled. The Government of Russia will likely claim that the gas attack reflects the failure of the disarmament zone agreement, and subsequently press for a renewed offensive into Idleb. It is worth highlighting the potential significance of the Government of Russia’s statement that “all of the militants [responsible for the gas attack] were destroyed,” which thereby provides the Government of Russia with political cover in the event that the disarmament zone agreement is continued.  It is worth noting that it is not unusual for major incidents in the Syrian conflict to occur immediately prior to political negotiations. For example, the collapse of besieged eastern Aleppo city occurred on December 22, 2016, immediately prior to the first round of the Astana talks on December 23; the April 2017 Khan Sheikun chemical attack took place only weeks before the first ‘de-escalation agreement’ negotiated in May 2017 at Astana Four.

Whole of Syria Review

Tribal Negotiations in Southern Syria

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: On November 23, leaders of the Masalmeh tribe, one of the most prominent tribes in southern Syria, met with Government of Syria representatives including Kinan Ahwaji, a well-known intermediary and reconciliation negotiator. Reportedly, the Masalmeh tribal leaders demanded the resignation of Khaled Al-Hnous, the governor of Dar’a governorate; the Masalmeh tribal leaders cited their dissatisfaction with his overall conduct, and claimed that he had been deliberately neglecting the needs of residents in Dar’a city, likely referring to the fact that water and electricity has not yet been restored, and bread provision remains insufficient.  Masalmeh tribal leaders also denounced the Dar’a Governorate Negotiations Committee, which is partially responsible for ensuring that the terms of the Dar’a reconciliation agreements are upheld, and demanded that members of Masalmeh tribe be given control of all of the checkpoints between Dar’a Al-Balad and Dar’a Al-Mahata. On November 25, Al-Hnous held a separate meeting with tribal leaders from the Mahameed and Abazeed tribes. Reportedly, Al-Hanous attempted to secure the political support of both tribes, likely in response to the Masalmeh tribe’s demands.

Analysis: Tensions between the Masalmeh tribe and the governor of Dar’a governor highlight two key post-reconciliation dynamics in southern Syria: a continued lack of services and utilities, and tribal competition for influence.  First and foremost, the Masalmeh tribe’s grievances against the governor stem from a lack of efficient service provision in Dar’a city, where the Masalmeh tribe is largely located. It is important to note that the resumption and rehabilitation of service networks (such as electrical and water networks) is a component of nearly every reconciliation agreement in Syria, and that services in most reconciled areas have not fully resumed either due to a lack of capacity or a lack of willingness by the Government of Syria.  However, it is unprecedented that the dissatisfaction with services alone results in demands for the resignation of Government of Syria officials and control of checkpoints. Therefore, these demands are not only related to service provision, but likely also related to competition by tribal groups in Dar’a governorate for influence in the post-reconciled space; the Government of Syria’s response to the Masalmeh’s demands will indicate the degree to which the Government of Syria’s political strategy in reconciled areas relies on leveraging and playing on social and community divisions.

Russia Arrests Syrian Military Officers

Hammura, Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria: On November 25, Russian Military Police dismantled five Government of Syria Military Security checkpoints in the vicinity of Hammura, in Eastern Ghouta, and arrested four Military Security officers and two Republican Guard officers.  Reportedly, the officers were charged with alleged misconduct, specifically harassment of civilians at checkpoints, looting, and the appropriation of homes. This is not the first time that Russian Military Police have arrested Government of Syria officers in Eastern Ghouta.  However, local sources also noted that when Government of Syria military officers have been arrested by Russian Military Police in the past, their punishments are typically administered by military courts, where officers are given light punishments and generally resume their duties after a short period of time.    


Analysis:  As noted, Russian Military Police have attempted to take disciplinary actions against Government of Syria forces in Eastern Ghouta in the past; this was especially true immediately following the April 2018 reconciliation agreement in Eastern Ghouta.  However it is important to note that the Government of Russia’s attempts to stabilize Eastern Ghouta and prevent transgressions by Government of Syria military forces are hindered by two major factors. The first factor is that the number of Russian Military Police deployed in Syria is limited; maintaining systemic, long-term oversight over various Government of Syria forces is extremely difficult considering the sheer geographic scale of reconciled areas.  The second factor is that punishments for officers are arrested are limited, and temporary. In fact, local sources have indicated that civilians in Eastern Ghouta are concerned that once released, arrested officers will retaliate against civilians who filed complaints. Therefore, while Russian Military Police are attempting to provide guarantees to the civilian population of reconciled areas, these guarantees will continue to be futile so long as there are no means to provide accountability and justice for offenses carried out by Government of Syria forces.

Yarmuk Local Council Dissolved

Yarmuk Camp, Southern Damascus, Syria: On November 24, the Government of Syria’s Council of Ministers decreed that the Yarmuk local council would be dissolved, and that the administration of Yarmuk camp would fall under the jurisdiction of Damascus city. Accordingly, all future service provision, rehabilitation, and reconstruction initiatives in Yarmuk will be handled by the Damascus city council.  Notably, the Yarmuk local council was re-established in September 2018 after national local elections; prior to the Syrian conflict, the Yarmuk camp was administratively separate from Damascus city due to its status as a Palestinian camp, and answered directly to the Ministry of Local Administration.  


Analysis: The transfer of administrative jurisdiction over Yarmuk camp from the Ministry of Local Administration to Damascus city has broad implications for both the Palestinian community in Yarmuk and the future reconstruction of south Damascus.  Prior to this decision, the Palestinian Authority, under the authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, had agreed to fund the rubble removal and reconstruction in Yarmuk camp; this funding would have been allocated by the Yarmuk local council.  In effect, the transfer of Yarmuk camp to Damascus city is a means by which the Government of Syria will be able to exert greater control over the reconstruction funding and processes.  Additionally, the transfer of Yarmuk camp to Damascus also raises the distinct possibility that the Yarmuk camp will be placed under the dictates of ‘Law 10,’ which will drastically increase the risk that many Palestinians will be unable to claim their property rights in Yarmuk camp.

Activist Assassination in Idleb

Kafr Nobol, Idleb Governorate, Northwestern Syria:  On November 23, Raed Al-Fares and Hamoud Jneid, two prominent Syrian activists, were assassinated in Kafr Nobol, in Idleb Governorate.  Al-Fares and Jneid were shot by a group of unidentified gunmen while leaving Al-Fares’ radio station located in Kafr Nobol. Al-Fares was perhaps one of the most well-known and popular local opposition activists in Syria, having established the first opposition radio station in Syria: Radio Fresh. Al-Fares was also heavily involved in numerous local initiatives, including international outreach, clinics, education projects, and local governance projects.  Indeed, Al-Fares received considerable support from institutional donors for his various initiatives; following the assassination of Al-Fares and Jneid, both French President Macron and U.S. Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffries issued condolences on behalf of France and the U.S., respectively. Al-Fares was also frequently critical of both the Government of Syria and extremist armed opposition groups, to include Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. On November 26 and 27, large scale protests against Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham occurred in Kafr Nobol, as many civilians believe that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was responsible for the assassination.   

   

Analysis: No actors have claimed responsibility for the assassination of Al-Fares and Jneid; however, most local sources attribute their killing to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.  As noted, Al-Fares was regularly critical of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, which currently is in control of Kafr Nobol. Al-Fares had been detained by Jabhat Al-Nusra (which grew into Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham) in the past.  The assassinations of Al-Fares and Jneid highlight the considerable security risks facing civil society activists in northwestern Idleb as well as the extremely constrained space for independent and non-aligned activism, to include humanitarian programming. The assassinations have direct security implications for governance and civil society-oriented projects in opposition-held northwestern Syria, while underscoring the fact that in much of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-held northwestern Syria, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has the freedom and capability to disrupt projects should they appear to threaten real or perceived interests.

Syrian Interim Government Fraud

Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria: On November 25,  internal documents purportedly belonging to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) were publically leaked. The leaked documents reportedly illustrated cases of fraud within in the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated Rural Damascus Governorate Council.  Reportedly, $375,000 allocated to ‘vocational training’ in Eastern Ghouta was allegedly stolen from the Governorate Council during the spring and summer of 2018; approximately  $115,000 was taken by a Rural Damascus Council project manager, Ziad Flaytani, who was reportedly dismissed from his position. The remaining missing funds, estimated at approximately $260,000, were reportedly taken by the leader of Faylaq Ar-Rahman, Abd Al-Naser Shmeir. Local sources have indicated that Shmeir has claimed that the money was used to procure food for combatants and other armed group-related expenses.  


Analysis: The leaked documents highlight ongoing internal challenges faced by the Syrian Interim Government, and indeed any authority in Syria, with respect to financial management and oversight.   Notably, these funds in particular were reportedly allocated for Eastern Ghouta before the start of the Government of Syria’s offensive in March 2018. The general chaos surrounding the armed offensive and subsequent evacuation in April 2018 likely provided opportunities for fraud, especially considering the scale of prepositioned funding and assistance in Eastern Ghouta in the lead up to the Government of Syria offensive.

U.S. Observation Points in Northeast

Ar-Raqqa governorate, Northeastern Syria: On November 21, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that the U.S. military will establish observation points along the Turkish border in northern Syria. Mattis stated that the aim of the observation points is to provide military intelligence on any “terrorist elements” moving from Syria to Turkey, in response to Turkey’s “legitimate concerns about terrorist threats and from where they’re emanating”. However, according to a Syrian Democratic Forces commander, the observation points are only one component of a one-year memorandum of understanding between U.S. and SDF.  Reportedly, the memorandum of understanding also stipulates that the U.S. will train a total of 30,000 SDF combatants in order to “prevent the return of ISIS…and [to] remove Iran from Syria.” Indeed, according to local sources, the SDF has already begun actively recruiting combatants, forcibly in some cases. Additionally,Turkish officials have expressed their dissatisfaction with the U.S. memorandum of understanding; indeed, Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar regarded the observation points as a implicit U.S. protection for YPG, and stated that “the observation points…will have a very negative impact.”


Analysis: The U.S. observation points along the Syrian-Turkish border are likely in response to recent indications that the Government of Turkey intends to launch an armed offensive into SDF held-northeastern Syria, despite being presented as a means to address Turkey’s security concerns.  The Government of Turkey shelled SDF-held Ein Arab (Kobane) on October 28 and 29, and numerous local sources indicate that Turkey is openly recruiting and deploying Turkish-backed combatants from Afrin and northern Aleppo to front lines with the SDF in northeastern Syria. Reportedly, Government of Turkey representatives have also informed armed opposition groups of the possibility of military operations against the SDF east of the Euphrates River, and have specifically called on armed opposition combatants originating from Deir-Ez-Zor, Ar-Raqqa, and Al-Hasakah governorates to escalate conflict between Kurds and Arabs in northeastern Syria.  The presence of U.S. military observation points in northeastern Syria will thus likely prevent a direct Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, at least for the near term; however, the recruitment and training of an additional 30,000 SDF combatants will only further deepen the considerable tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, and will only exacerbate Turkey’s security concerns.

Russian Reservoir Project in Lattakia

Ras Al-Baseet, Lattakia Governorate, Syria: On November 23, the Syria Minister of Water Resources, Nabil Al-Hasan, announced a project to construct a reservoir in the vicinity of Ras Al-Baseet city, in Lattakia governorate.  The reservoir is expected to be completed by 2020 and to provide potable and irrigation water for a total of 40 villages in rural Lattakia governorate.  According to Al-Hasan’s statement, Government of Russia will provide the professional expertise and funding for the project, and that 19 other reservoirs will be constructed throughout Syria as part of a broader Russian-supported initiative.


Analysis: Access to water is a major concern for nearly all of Syria’s rural agricultural areas; indeed, drought conditions and Government of Syria regulations on irrigation have both been attributed as underlying factors for the Syrian conflict.  The fact that the Government of Russia intends to develop Syria’s water infrastructure is unsurprising; indeed, Russia is supporting numerous development projects throughout Syria which focus specifically on key infrastructure, natural resources extraction, and state-owned enterprises.  While the water to be provided by the reservoir will certainly be beneficial to the largely agricultural and impoverished rural Lattakia, the project will also almost certainly increase Russia’s influence over Syria’s agricultural sector.

Lebanon Returnee Concerns

Beirut, Lebanon: On November 14, Mo’in Mourabi, the Lebanese Minister of Refugees Affairs, stated that “90% of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon have expressed their intentions to return immediately, however Government of Syria treatment of returnees is not encouraging them to return.”  Mourabi also accused the Government of Syria of killing 20 returnees from Lebanon, and kidnapping and conscripting hundreds of others; he attributes his information to “internal sources” from Syria.  Mourabi, a member of the Lebanese Future Movement party, also criticized Lebanese Foreign Minister and head of the Free Patriotic Movement party Gibran Baseel for “co-opting the role of UNHCR.”


Analysis: Minister Mourabi has regularly called on the Lebanese Government and the UN to ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon. However, Morabi’s statement is likely more reflective of political tensions within Lebanon, and should be taken in the context of criticizing domestic rivals, specifically Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement.  Broadly speaking, all of Lebanon’s major political parties have expressed their willingness and preference to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to Syria. However, this general consensus is unlikely to be translated into an overarching national plan for Syrian refugees. Indeed, Lebanon’s political parties differ strongly on their stance toward the Government of Syria, and the means by which Syrian refugees should return.  It should also be noted that the current caretaker Lebanese Government is not capable of taking any major decisions until the Lebanese Government is officially formed, which is unlikely to happen in the near term.

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.