Syria Update: November 15 – November 21, 2018
12 December 2018

Syria Update: November 15 – November 21, 2018

12 December 2018

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Syria Update

15 November to 21 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 16, significant opposition infighting took place in Turkish-held Afrin city; Turkish military forces eventually directly intervened to end these clashes.  A collection of armed opposition groups nominally affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government National Army engaged in internecine clashes; these clashes have been subsequently framed as part of an anti-corruption and internal discipline crackdown. However, this explanation fails to take several relevant factors into account. Exploitative actions taken by armed opposition groups in Turkish-held northern Syria was indeed a major instigator of the Afrin city clashes; however, the clashes were also rooted in persistent disputes over appropriated housing, as well as the geographic origin and prior affiliations of the various armed groups within the National Army.  These clashes highlight the significant challenges facing the Government of Turkey throughout Euphrates Shield- and Olive Branch-controlled areas, especially with respect to the issue of the stability and security, and their corresponding impact on voluntary returns, as well as the internal stability of the National Army, and potentially the Syrian Interim Government.

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

  • It appears increasingly likely that the United Arab Emirates, alongside the Government of Jordan, are taking steps to normalize relations with the Government of Syria, with significant implications for both reconstruction and regional geopolitics.

    SDF military operations against ISIS continue in Hajin, yet now reportedly include direct military involvement by the Arab ‘Gulf States.’ Additionally, the Government of Syria has opened a consular office in northeastern Syria. Both these events highlight the complex local, regional, and international dynamics  in northeastern Syria.

    A large scale, coordinated defection of a group of reconciled combatants took place in Latakia, and an (almost certainly fictional) new anti-reconciliation armed group was created in southern Syria, highlighting the continued challenges posed in the aftermath of reconciliation agreements.

    The date of the Astana 11 talks was announced, and the northwestern Syria disarmament zone will likely be their primary focus.

    The return of Syrian refugees from Jdeidet Artuz has been negotiated by mediators in Rural Damascus, highlighting the importance of local intermediaries and negotiators.

    The Syrian Lira exchange rate reached its lowest point in nearly two years, and is likely to continue plummeting with the start of reconstruction.

Afrin Clashes: Stability and Security in Turkish-held Northern Syria

In Depth Analysis

On November 16, several Turkish-backed armed opposition groups to include Faylaq Al-Sham, Hamza Brigade, and Sultan Murad launched a raid on another Turkish-backed armed opposition group, Shuhada Sharqiya, in the Mahmoudiyeh neighborhood of Afrin city in northern Aleppo governorate.  The raid quickly escalated into large-scale clashes across Afrin city involving heavy weapons; reportedly, between November 16 and November 18, at least 25 armed opposition combatants and 11 civilians were killed, with scores more injured.  While all of these groups are nominally within the Turkish-backed National Army, which sits under the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defence. It is also worth noting that Shuhada Sharqiya was disbanded on October 28, reportedly at the behest of Turkey.  The conflict in Afrin city was only resolved when Turkish military forces, to include elite units and tanks, were deployed into Afrin city on the night of November 18; this marked only the second time that Turkish military forces have been directly involved in inter-opposition clashes since the start of Euphrates Shield.  On November 19 and 20, following the Turkish military deployment, the large majority of Shuhada Sharqiya combatants (to include their leader ‘Abu Khowla’) surrendered to Turkish forces, and will reportedly be redeployed to camps in Jendaires, western Afrin district. On November 19, the National Army stated that the goal of the National Army/Turkish military operation in Afrin against Shuhada Sharqiya was to “end corruption and a lack of discipline”; however, the actual origins for the conflict are much more complex, and reveal broader systems at play in northern Syria in the aftermath of operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch.

The origins of the internal conflict between the National Army groups stem from three major factors: first, the National Army’s inability to control its constituent armed groups; second, the disparate geographic origins of individual armed groups and their members; finally, the prior affiliations of the various armed groups constituting the National Army.  

 

The National Army officially accused Shuhada Sharqiya of “corruption”, and indeed, locals accuse Shuhada Sharqiya of extortion and kidnapping for ransom.  While very likely true, these accusations are fairly common throughout Afrin and Euphrates Shield-held areas.  Indeed, many of the component armed groups of the National Army are unpopular and their perceived impunity -whether real or imagined- is a growing source of tension in northern Syria.  In this particular case, the source of conflict was reportedly land, housing, and property disputes in Afrin city, specifically which armed groups claims ‘legitimate’ ownership over which appropriated houses.  It is important to note that many of the disputed properties are actually owned by Afrin’s original inhabitants, many of them Kurds, who displaced during Operation Olive Branch in January 2018.

 

The various constituent armed groups within the National Army are drawn from a range of disparate geographic areas, which further catalyzes inter-armed group conflict.  In this particular case, Shuhada Sharqiya largely consists of combatants native to Deir-ez-Zor; those groups clashing with Shuhada Sharqiya are largely drawn from Idleb and northern Aleppo.  Indeed, similar inter-opposition conflicts throughout northern Syria often occur along geographic lines; for example, on October 10, clashes took place in Afrin between Ahrar Al-Sharqiya (which also largely consists of combatants from Deir-ez-Zor) and Liwa Mustapha (which consists of combatants from northern Aleppo). Compounding this geographic is divide is previous alliances and rivalries.  For example, in 2013 and 2014, Shuhada Sharqiya had an alliance with Jabhat Al-Nusra in Deir-ez-Zor. The other armed groups in the National Army (particularly those with prior conflicts with Jabhat Al-Nusra/Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham) had reportedly distrusted Ahrar Sharqiya due to the perception that they have maintained linkages to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.

 

As noted above, the recent clashes in Afrin are indicative of some of the larger destabilizing factors in Turkish-held northern Syria.  First and foremost, the clashes point to the complexities inherent in the term ‘IDP’ in northern Syria. A large percentage of the National Army, and indeed, the population of Turkish-held northern Syria, are displaced persons from other parts of Syria (especially SDF-held eastern Syria and the reconciled areas of south and central Syria).  In Afrin especially, these displaced persons are now living in (and fighting over) property owned by the (predominantly Kurdish) individuals who were displaced during the initial Turkish-led military offensive. Essentially, IDPs throughout Turkish-held northern Syria are engaged in regular competition with one another over housing, land, and property belonging to the displaced original inhabitants.  This issue is not only a concern for the stability of northern Syria – it is also a major concern impediment to returnees. There are indications that Turkey has also begun to push for Syrian refugees to return to Syria. In July 2018 Turkey largely ceased registering Syrian asylum seekers, and began to deport Syrians back to Syria; in August 2018 President Erdogan stated that 250,000 people had already returned to Syria.  Large scale returns to northern Syria from Turkey will likely exacerbate already existing points of conflict between different displaced communities and the armed groups; additionally, larger scale returns from Turkey would also further complicate the return of many Kurdish IDPs.  

 

The recent clashes in Afrin also point to the major structural issues facing the Turkish-backed National Army.  Despite Turkish efforts to organize the National Army, it remains largely comprised of a diverse collection of individual armed groups, each with their particular hometown, leaders, respective ideology, past relationships, and specific interests.  A recent article by Haid Haid details the challenges Turkey faces in coordinating these armed groups; Haid argues that Turkey appears to be “slowly [pushing] for integration without disturbing the dynamics on the ground,” and that Turkey also continues to channel its support and instructions directly to each group rather than through the National Army, thus making each group individually dependant on Turkey.  However, this has created a situation whereby perhaps the only factor unifying these armed groups is shared Turkish support. Consequently, while the armed groups within the National Army answer to Turkey, they are neither internally coordinated or cohesive, and all are in direct competition over Turkish patronage. Thus, the lack of unity with the National Army presents a broadly destabilizing force throughout northern Syria.  The National Army’s internal instability also has inherent implications for the Syrian Interim Government as a whole. As the Interim Government continues to establish local governance bodies and initiatives throughout northern Syria, it will likely have to contend with the fact that it is not able to control its own National Army, and that disputes between competing National Army groups will become one of the primary governance and security challenges in northern Syria.

Whole of Syria Review

UAE/Jordanian ‘Normalization’ with Damascus

Damascus, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, several media outlets have reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intends to normalize diplomatic relations with the Government of Syria. These assertions are based on the fact that the UAE began maintenance on its embassy in Damascus, and UAE companies have begun to sponsor Syrian nationals for short-term tourist visas to the UAE. Relatedly, on November 18, the Government of Syria Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad stated that he welcomed any steps taken by Arab states to resume their ties with the Government of Syria; Mekdad also insisted that only the Government of the UAE could officially confirm or deny their intention to normalize ties with Syria. Separately, Jordanian news outlets announced that a Jordanian parliamentary delegation will visit Damascus on November 24 to discuss normalizing relations. Of note, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi and the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan recently met on November 17; according to Jordanian media, they discussed recent developments in Syria and Palestine.

 

Analysis: Several media outlets purport that normalization of relations between the UAE and Syria is a component of a broader U.S.-Russian political rapprochement, given the UAE’s strong bilateral relationship with the U.S.  However, the causes of normalization are likely far more complex than simply U.S.-Russian relations. The UAE has key economic interests in Syria – especially in terms of allowing UAE companies to take part in Syria’s reconstruction; this financial relationship is likely reciprocal, as thousands of upper-middle class Syrians have invested in the UAE in the past, to include Rami Makhlouf.  Additionally, both the Government of Syria and the UAE consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a major threat, and normalization of relations would allow coordination against this group and its regional supporters. Indeed, indications are that the UAE is not an outlier in its approach to Syria; as noted, the Government of Jordan has already begun to normalize relations, a decision confirmed by the reopening of Nasib border crossing.  Rapprochement between the Government of Syria and the UAE may also have additional political ramifications, especially for the development sector. Since April 2018, the UAE has provided approximately 20% of the entire U.S. coalition stabilization fund to northeastern Syria. In the event of a full normalization of relations, it is unclear how the UAE will reconcile their indirect support to the Kurdish political project with their newfound relationship with Damascus.

Latakia Defections and Conflict

Northeastern Latakia Governorate, Syria:  On November 16, an unknown number of Government of Syria combatants in the Fifth Corps defected from their units in northeastern Latakia governorate. The defections came as part of a coordinated armed opposition raid on a Fifth Corps military point in rural Latakia, and according to Government of Syria media reports, 27 Fifth Corps combatants were killed, four of whom were reportedly high ranking officers.  Most notably, the individuals who defected from the Fifth Corps were reportedly all recently reconciled fromer armed opposition combatants. Of note, the Fifth Corps is a Russian-created Government of Syria military unit, heavily comprised of reconciled former opposition fighters.

Analysis: The collective defection of recently reconciled combatants within Government of Syria forces, accompanied by a coordinated armed opposition raid, is unprecedented.  Thus far, it is unclear whether this defection and raid was an isolated incident or part of a larger military operation. This incident does indicate the inherent risks associated with the Government of Syria’s reconciliation strategy. While the Government of Syria has been reliant on reconciling and redeploying former opposition combatants, the trajectory and fate of those reconciled is unclear.  In recent months, reconciled combatants have been regularly detained and civil cases have been filed against for actions taken during the conflict. Were further defections occur, the Government of Syria may change its approach to the reconciliation process, the terms of reconciliation, and the legal status of reconciled combatants.

Conflict in Hajin

Hajin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: According to numerous local media sources, between November 15 and November 18, military units from unspecified ‘Gulf States’ have joined in the ongoing offensive against ISIS forces in Hajin, fighting alongside SDF and U.S. coalition troops.  According to local sources, the ‘Gulf State’ military forces are rumored to be from Saudi Arabia. Also according to local media, ISIS forces in Hajin have begun to allow civilians in Hajin and its vicinity to displace to SDF-held areas. Reportedly, individuals wishing to leave must pay between $700-800 in order to leave ISIS-held areas or $1,500 to $1,700 to leave with a vehicle.  Additionally, individuals must also reportedly pay an additional $300-$400 to SDF forces in order to enter SDF-held areas. It is worth noting just how densely populated the Hajin remains; according to UN partner field teams, there are an estimated 84,238 individuals living in ISIS-held Hajin and the surrounding communities, many of them displaced from other formerly ISIS held areas of Syria.

Analysis: The involvement of ‘Gulf State’ (likely Saudi Arabia) military forces in northeastern Syria is noteworthy.  The Gulf States are already heavily involved in northeastern Syria; indeed, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are currently providing 50% of the entire U.S. coalition stabilization fund to northeastern Syria.  Were ‘Gulf State’ military forces from Saudi Arabia, their direct involvement would also be especially provocative against the Government of Turkey, which views the SDF as its primary security threat. Ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have already been especially strained in recent months on account of Turkey publicizing the details of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, as well as Turkish political support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Additionally, the costs involved in fleeing Hajin are an indication that the humanitarian situation in Hajin is quickly becoming dire. Hajin’s dense population and status as ISIS’s final stronghold in Syria complicate the SDF-led offensive. As illustrated following Operation Euphrates Wrath, heavy civilian casualties and physical destruction can create a wide schism between the local population and the U.S.-led coalition, to include its local allies; while the eradication of ISIS in Syria remains a top U.S. political and military priority, avoiding civilian casualties is not only a rule of war, but also a prerequisite for effective post-conflict local governance.

New ‘Popular Resistance’ in South

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: On November 18, media sources reported on the formation of  the ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria.’ The Popular Resistance of Southern Syria is reportedly a local armed opposition group, comprised of former armed opposition combatants, that aims to launch an insurgency against Government of Syria targets.  The group claims to have assassinated several Government of Syria soldiers and officers, though these claims are unsubstantiated.

Analysis: The ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria’ is unlikely to exist.  Several local sources in southern Syria have entirely dismissed the armed group as a fictional creation of opposition activists and social media actors outside Syria.  Indeed, the Government of Syria currently maintains extremely strict security and military controls in southern Syria, as evidenced by the ongoing detention of former armed opposition combatants. The likelihood of a significant armed opposition group forming in southern Syria is thus highly unlikely. That said, the ‘creation’ of the ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria’ does highlight one key point: the importance of relying on trusted local sources and practical analysis, as opposed to social media and opposition or Government of Syria-affiliated media sources.

Astana 11 and the Disarmament Zone

Astana, Kazakhstan: On November 19, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan announced that the 11th round of Astana talks will take place on November 28 and 29.  Reportedly, the two major topics of Astana 11 will be the fate of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone and Syrian reconstruction. The announcement of Astana 11 follows statements made by the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova on November 15 at a press conference in Moscow: “the real disengagement in Idleb has not been achieved, despite Turkey’s continuing efforts to live up to its commitments.” Zahkarova also accused ‘moderate’ armed groups in the disarmament zone of backing Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.  Of note, also on November 15, the Head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, General Mohamad Ali Jaafari, stated that Iran will send peacekeeping forces, mostly comprised of advisors, to northwestern Syria at the request of the Government of Syria.

Analysis: Government of Russia statements are correct in that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham remains present within the Idleb disarmament zone.  The Government of Turkey has failed to force Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to officially endorse the disarmament zone agreement, and clashes between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Government of Syria forces have not entirely ceased, though they remain limited and intermittent in scope, frequency, and scale. The fact that local clashes have not expanded into a full Government of Syria-led offensive highlights that the desired outcome of the disarmament zone is still subject to ongoing political negotiations among Astana guarantor states.  It is thus unlikely that a Government of Syria offensive into northwestern Syria will occur until after the Astana 11 talks. It is important to note that the presence of Iranian military advisors could hint at Government of Syria plans to initiate an offensive following the conclusion of Astana 11.

GoS Opens Consular Office in Al-Hasakeh:

Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Syria: On November 18, SANA stated that the Government of Syria has opened a consular office in the center of Al-Hasakeh city.  According to SANA, the consular office will serve all SDF-held areas of Ar-Raqqa, Al-Hasakeh, and Deir-ez-Zor governorates, and will certify legal documentation and paperwork, to include birth and death certificates, cadastral documentation, travel documentation, and education certificates.

Analysis: Many analysts have marked the Government of Syria’s opening of a consular office in SDF-held Al-Hasakeh city as a major shift for the Government of Syria, which normally emphasizes its absolute sovereignty. However, the reality of the opening of a consular office is far less noteworthy; in fact, much of the attention paid to the opening of the consular office is due to confused Arabic translation, and misunderstanding Syria’s administrative structures.  Consular offices, which sit under the Foreign Ministry, exist in the capitals of nearly every governorate in Syria. These consular offices are not ‘Consulates’ in the traditional sense; instead they exist to certify legal documentation, especially for foreign travel and civil registration. The lack of a consular office in northeastern Syria was in fact a major obstacle for many individuals, as travel to Damascus was necessary for the certification of documents.  Therefore, the opening of a consular office should not be viewed as a shift in Government of Syria policy toward the Kurdish Self-Administration; in fact, the opening of a consular office is more an expression of the increasingly close working relationship between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self-Administration.

Jdeidet Artuz Returnees

Jdeidet Artuz, Qatana Subdistrict, Rural Damascus: On November 14,  Government of Syria media sources reported that a “large number” of families would return from Lebanon and Jordan to Jdeidet Artuz, located in western rural Damascus, in the near term.  The reconciliation and return of these individuals was reportedly facilitated by the Madamiyet Elsham reconciliation committee, with oversight by the Russian Military.  According to the same source, the first batch of 30 families will arrive from Lebanon soon; reportedly, there are up to 5,000 refugees from Jedidet Artuz that will return as a result of these negotiations.  During the negotiations, the Government of Syria agreed to limit the presence of National Defense Forces militias in Jdeidet Artouz, and to allow the creation of a new Government of Syria-affiliated armed group, the Jdeitdet Artuz Brigade, which will be comprised of combatants drawn from the returning population.

Analysis: A brokered agreement facilitating the return of Syrian refugees highlights the important role of local intermediaries.  Much like reconciliation agreements, the process of facilitating returns is also a heavily localized and community-driven process; in the case of Jdeidet Artouz, one of the primary impediments to the agreement was the fear on the part of many potential returnees that the National Defence Forces would remain in the area; the intercession by the Madamiyet reconciliation committee appears to have alleviated these issues. Incidents like this also underscore the fact that a broad, national return policy, as pursued by the Governments of Russia and Syria, fails to factor in or guarantee the highly localized aspect of this process.

Syrian Lira Exchange Rate

Damascus, Syria:  As of November 20, the Syrian Lira has reached its lowest exchange rate against the U.S. dollar since December 2016. At time of writing, the official, Government of Syria-mandated exchange rate is 436 SYP/USD; however, the black market exchange rate is approximately 500 SYP/USD in Government of Syria-held areas.  The current exchange rate is attributed to several factors, to include the strength of the U.S. dollar, and high demand for U.S. dollars in northern and northwestern Syria based on expectations of future instability. According to the Syria Central Bank, the inflation rate in August 2017 was 14.9%; this was the last time the Central Bank of Syria released an official inflation rate.

Analysis:  The plummeting value of the Syrian Lira will have drastic implications for nearly every aspect of Syria’s economy and, by extension, the lives of Syria’s population.  Salaries for workers, especially state employees, have not been adjusted for the lira’s extreme weakness, and the already low purchasing power of most Syrians is poised to decrease.  One would expect a decrease in armed conflict to correlate with an increase in the lira’s value; however, this is unlikely to be the case in Syria for two fundamental reasons. The first is the existence of western sanctions which impede Syrian access to western financial markets and services and prevent foreign direct investment in U.S. dollars and euros.  The second is the fact that Syria continues to import large amounts of materials, commodities, and machinery due to the impact of the last several years of conflict. The massive trade deficits caused by heavy imports will almost certainly lead to even greater inflation for the Syrian Lira. Therefore, despite the (relatively) increased stability in Syria, the Syrian Lira will likely continue to decrease in value.

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 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. 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. For more information see the European Union Delegation to Syria webpage.

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