31 October to 07 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:
The recent Turkish-SDF cross border shelling, rumors of Turkish military mobilization, and Turkish rhetoric have created massive external pressures on the Self Administration. At the same time, the recent assassination of a popular Arab tribal leader in Ar-Raqqa has also highlighted the deep internal tensions between Kurds and Arabs in northeastern Syria. Taken in tandem, both dynamics are major indications that, despite the open-ended U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria, the Kurdish Self Administration still faces significant challenges, which are likely to push the Self Administration towards continued rapprochement with the Government of Syria.
The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
- Important information on the status of the Morek crossing point (and the disarmament zone) in northwestern Syria, as well as disputes between the Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government;
- Recent Lebanese ministerial statements on Syrian refugees, highlighting internal Lebanese political divisions;
- Updates on the ongoing ISIS-Government of Syria negotiations in eastern As-Sweida
- Analysis on armed group formations in Eastern Ghouta, property demolitions in Eastern Aleppo, as well as a failed assassination attempt and a Palestinian camp ‘rehabilitation’ in Dar’a, all of which highlight the complex dynamics in post-reconciled communities.
- An examination of the recent Russian-Syria wheat importation agreement.
External and Internal Pressures In Northeast Syria
In Depth Analysis
Throughout the reporting period, two events have called attention to the extreme external and internal pressures facing the Kurdish Self Administration in northeastern Syria. Between October 28 and October 29, Government of Turkey military forces shelled SDF positions in the vicinity of Ein Arab (Kobane); SDF forces shelled into Turkey in response. The shelling itself is not unprecedented; however, it comes in tandem with drastically increased Turkish rhetoric towards Kurdish forces northeast Syria. Indeed, on October 26, Turkish President Erdogan stated, prior to a Syria summit in Istanbul, that “instead of idling around in Manbij, we are determined to turn our focus and energy to the east of the Euphrates.” Adding, “we are carrying out studies in line with our own operation plans and signs of them will soon be visible in the field. This should be regarded as our final warning.” Indeed, despite joint U.S.-Turkish military patrols, which took place in Menbij on November 2 (as a part of the jointly negotiated ‘Menbij Road Map’), President Erdogan has continued to forcefully demand that the YPG/SDF withdraw from Menbij. Most notably, numerous media outlets and local sources report that the Government of Turkey is openly recruiting and deploying Turkish-backed Syrian armed opposition combatants from Afrin and northern Aleppo to front lines with the SDF in northeast Syria. Reportedly, Government of Turkey representatives have 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 to “create strife between Arabs and Kurds in the region.”
However external forces are not the only pressures currently facing the Kurdish Self Administration. On November 3, Sheikh Bashir Faisal Al-Huweidi was assassinated in Ar-Raqqa city. Al-Huweidi was the leader of the Afadleh tribe, one of the most prominent tribes in Ar-Raqqa (and part of Bou Shaban tribal confederation), as well as a respected community leader, who had remained in Ar-Raqqa throughout the conflict, representing the Afadleh tribe to both the ISIS Tribal Office and later the Kurdish Self Administration. According to local sources, Al-Huweidi had also recently hosted a dinner for SDF and U.S. officials during which he reportedly stated that Arabs in Ar-Raqqa would not accept the long-term presence of the SDF or the U.S. in Ar-Raqqa, adding that: “we are the people of the land, and you are guests here.” Local activists and members of the Ar-Raqqa Arab community have thus largely blamed the Kurdish Self Administration for his assassination, with SDF representatives prevented from attending his funeral. Since the assassination of Al-Huweidi, Arab activists across northeastern Syria have have openly called for severing communications with the SDF until the circumstances of Al-Huwedi’s assassination can be determined. To that end, representatives and leaders from numerous tribes in northeastern Syria (to include the Sebkha, Waldeh, Al-Omeirat, Naim, Al-Mjadmeh, and Al-A’jel) have issued public statements condemning the killing of Al-Huweidi, calling on tribal members to cease working with the SDF, and labelling the SDF (and thus the Kurdish Self Administration) as “occupiers” in Ar-Raqqa.
According to local sources, much of the population in northeastern Syria is deeply concerned about the prospect of greater instability throughout northeastern Syria, either due to Turkish military action or internal instability and Kurdish-Arab divisions. Yet it is important to put some perspective on these fears. Significant Turkish military action in northeastern Syria are unlikely as long as the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops remain based in northeastern Syria. However, even the mere possibility of a Turkish military intervention will cause local actors within northeastern Syria to question the long term prospects of the Kurdish Self Administration. Indeed, the assassination of Al-Huweidi has clearly exposed the fact that many local actors are questioning the longevity of the Kurdish Self Administration in their communities; regardless of who killed Al-Huweidi, the tribal reaction to his killing has exposed the fact that Arab tribal groups hold no long term loyalty to the Self Administration itself.
Khedder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur, in an excellent paper published by the Carnegie Middle East Center in February 2017, examined how northeastern Syria’s tribes have become increasingly potent political forces. While they do note that tribal leaders do not fully represent their tribes (largely due to the fact that tribes themselves are not unified socio-political bodies), Mazur and Khaddour do note that tribal leaders play an important role as intermediaries (especially to the Government of Turkey or the Government of Syria) and also have the power to shape dynamics throughout northeastern Syria, especially when tribal leadership is unified around common interests. Therefore, the fact that numerous tribal representatives in Ar-Raqqa have at least nominally unified against the Self Administration following Al-Huwedi’s killing is symbolic, as too is the fact that this unification comes concurrently with increased pressure from the Government of Turkey. In many ways, the Kurdish Self Administration finds itself in weak bargaining position, and U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria alone is insufficient to guarantee the long-term political prospects of the Kurdish Self Administration project. It is likely in recognition of these pressures that the Self Administration leadership continues to look towards Damascus, viewing the Government of Syria as the best bad option..
Whole of Syria Review
Morek Crossing Point Opening
Morek, Northern Hama Governorate, Syria: On November 2, the Morek crossing point, located on the M5 highway and linking Government of Syria-controlled Hama city to opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, was officially reopened. Russian Military Police are reportedly present on the Government of Syria side of the crossing, and Turkish military forces are present on the armed opposition side of the crossing. Currently, the crossing is only open to commercial vehicles; however, the Salvation Government-appointed manager of the Morek crossing point, Abdullah Al-Halabi, stated that civilians would be allowed to use the crossing in the coming days. Halabi also stated that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham does not have any direct agreement with the Government of Russia on the status of the crossing point.
Analysis: The Morek crossing had been closed from the Government of Syria side since late-August 2018; when it was closed, it was viewed as an indication that a major Government of Syria offensive into northwestern Syria was imminent. The status of the Morek crossing is of particular importance to the disarmament agreement for two reasons: first, due to the fact that reopening the M5 highway for commercial transit is a major component of the agreement, and Morek is a key access point on the M5 highway; second, due to the fact that the Morek crossing remains de-facto controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, which is not a party to the disarmament agreement. The joint Turkish and Russian military presence at the crossing is an indication that the disarmament zone agreement is increasingly stable, despite challenges posed by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s control of the crossing.
Lebanese Statement on Syria Returns
Beirut, Lebanon: On November 2, the Lebanese Minister of Displaced Persons Affairs Muin Al-Mer’abi stated that 55,000 Syrian refugees have left Lebanon, adding that only 7,000 of these individuals left under the supervision of Lebanese General Security while the rest left by both “legal and illegal means.” Al-Mer’abi also stated that at least three individuals who returned from Lebanon to Syria have been killed by Syrian state security forces, “reducing the desire of the displaced to return.” However, Al-Mer’abi added that his Ministry “does not have a budget” and therefore could not accurately count the number of displaced persons in Lebanon returning to Syria. Al-Mer’abi added that the “Ministry’s work to follow up on the file of the displaced goes against those [in the Lebanese Government] who do not want it to work.”
Analysis: It is important to note that Al-Mer’abi is a member of the Mustaqbal party, the largest Sunni political party in Lebanon; Mustaqbal is nominally in opposition to the Government of Syria, and has consistently demanded that any Syrian return should be done under the supervision of the UN. However, the Mustaqbal party is currently in opposition to the ruling political coalition in Lebanon, the March 8 Coalition, which contains both Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (a Christian party led by Lebanese President Michel Aoun); both of these parties, especially the Free Patriotic Movement, have stridently pushed for Syrians in Lebanon to return to Syria. For this reason, Al-Mer’abi’s assertions, and indeed all Lebanese official statements on refugee returns, should be taken in the context of Lebanese political divisions; Lebanon remains deeply divided on the issue of Syrian refugee returns, and various political parties are in control of various components of the state apparatus. Therefore, official return numbers, drivers of return, and official policies toward refugees in Lebanon will likely remain unclear and conflicting for the foreseeable future.
ISIS Negotiations in As-Sweida
As-Sweida governorate, Southern Syria: On November 3, the Government of Syria and ISIS forces in Eastern As-Sweida governorate continued to implement a truce agreement in eastern As-Sweida, initially negotiated on October 21. As part of the agreement, the Government of Syria has sent ISIS several trucks filled with food and medical supplies; for its part, ISIS forces returned the bodies of 22 Government of Syria soldiers. Reportedly, negotiations between the Government of Syria and ISIS now center on ISIS releasing 21 Druze women and children held hostage by the group, as well as numerous Government of Syria soldiers that were taken prisoner; for their part, ISIS demands the release of several ISIS-affiliated individuals detained by the Government of Syria, and are also demanding evacuation from As-Sweida to ISIS-controlled parts of Deir-Ez-Zor (most likely Hajin).
Analysis: Temporary truces between ISIS and the Government of Syria are not unusual; however, the current truce agreement in As-Sweida is particularly notable due to the fact that it has deep implications for the Government of Syria’s relationship with the As-Sweida Druze community. The Druze community has always had an ambivalent relationship to the Government of Syria, and numerous tensions exist due to Government of Syria conscription campaigns. The Government of Syria has been heavily involved in the negotiations to release the Druze hostages, partially due to separate agreements between Druze community leaders and the Government of Syria stipulating that the return of ISIS hostages would be a precondition to a broader conscription agreement.
Demolition Operations in Aleppo City
Aleppo City, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On October 27, local media sources indicated that demolition operations have begun in the Karm Al-Tarab and Karm Al-Qasr neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo city. Karm Al-Tarab and Karm Al-Qasr are both informal housing slums in eastern Aleppo, and the large majority of former residents from both neighborhoods were evacuated to Idleb following the conclusion of the Aleppo city siege in December 2016. Reportedly, the operation is led by the Aleppo city council, under the authority of the ‘Real Estate Development and Investment Law 15’, which was passed in 2008. Law 15 theoretically gives the Aleppo City Council “the powers necessary to seize and demolish properties in order to establish different projects in their place.”
Analysis: There are significant housing, land, and property concerns in informal housing areas across Syria, especially those from which large components of the population were evacuated following reconciliation agreements. Indeed, there are similar plans to demolish and appropriate informal housing areas in Damascus and Homs cities. Several Government of Syria laws, to include Law 15 and Decree 10, give the Government of Syria considerable authority in reappropriating informal housing areas, often citing damage or the lack of proper ownership documentation. Considering the potentially significant real estate value of many informal settlements in major Syrian cities, it is highly likely that similar ‘demolition’ operations will occur.
Zamalka Militia Formation
Zamalka, Arbin subdistrict, Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria: On November 2, a new Government of Syria-affiliated militia was formed in Zamalka, Eastern Ghouta. The new militia is named Kataeb Al-Baath, and is led by Ayman Tayfour. Kataeb Al-Baath is heavily comprised of reconciled former armed opposition combatants. Each combatant in Kataeb Al-Baath will reportedly receive 50,000 SYP (~$107 USD) per month and a motorcycle; service in Kataeb Al-Baath will qualify as formal military service and members will be “exempt from any accountability for [former] revolutionary activity”. Reportedly, the role of this new milita is threefold: overseeing checkpoints; preventing looting; and enforcing internal security within Zamalka.
Analysis: The formation of Kataeb Al-Baath is a notable example of how the Government of Syria is enforcing control throughout Eastern Ghouta by drawing upon locally reconciled combatants, led by locally prominent individuals. According to local sources, Ayman Tayfour is a member of the prominent Tayfour family; he is related to Abu Muhammad Tayfour (formerly a religious leader within Faylaq Al-Rahman from Zamalka who prominently reconciled with the Government of Syria), and Abdulrahman Tayfour, a member of the newly elected Zamalka local council. This is not an isolated phenomena in Eastern Ghouta – essentially, the Government of Syria is politically, militarily, economically, and socially empowering a new group of local intermediaries to enforce ‘decentralized’ control over individual communities. It is highly likely that similar locally reconciled militias will continue to be formed through Syria’s reconciled areas for the foreseeable future.
Salvation Government Takeover of Syrian Interim Government Offices
Idleb Governorate, Northwestern Syria: As of November 5, local sources report that the Salvation Government-affiliated ‘Establishment for Equipment and Supplies’ forcibly took control of the headquarters of the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated ‘Public Establishment for Grains’ in Idleb city at gunpoint. The ‘Establishment for Equipment and Supplies’ also took control of three warehouses in Idleb Governorate (located in Idleb city, Saraqab, and Ra’a), a bakery Al-Qfeir, and a mill in Maa’ret Tamsreen. The Syrian Interim Government-affiliated ‘Public Establishment for Grains’ and the Salvation Government-affiliated ‘Establishment for Equipment and Supplies’ are governmental bodies responsible for providing flour, grain, and services related to bread production, and both sit under the economic ministry of their respective ‘governments.’ Reportedly, after the ‘Public Establishment for Grains’ offices were taken over, individual staff were personally interrogated by Abu Muataz, the head of the Salvation Government-affiliated ‘Establishment for Equipment and Supplies’; reportedly, numerous hawala transfer documents were seized and are being reviewed by Salvation Government staff. In response to the takeover, the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated ‘Public Establishment for Grains’ has suspended its work across Idleb governorate
Analysis: Abu Muataz, and indeed, the Economic Ministry of the Salvation Government, are known to be extremely close to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. Therefore, the takeover of a Syrian Interim Government service provision establishment should be taken in the context of the broader competition between the Salvation Government (supported by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham) and the Syrian Interim Government (backed by the Government of Turkey) over service provision throughout opposition controlled northwestern Syria. This particular takeover is extremely brazen, especially considering the seizure of hawala transfer documents; in effect, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham now has the financial information of any organization or individual that has worked with or sent money to the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated ‘Public Establishment for Grains’. Therefore, the closure of the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated ‘Public Establishment for Grains’ throughout Idleb will not only have an impact on service provision (and the individual’s dependant on those services); there is now the risk that individuals and organizations that have been working with the ‘Public Establishment for Grains’, or indeed, the Syrian Interim Government, will be known by the Salvation Government and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.
Palestinian Camp ‘Rehabilitation’
Dar’a City, Dar’a Governorate, Syria: On October 29, the Governor of Dar’a Governorate, Khalid Al-Hanous, announced the start of a major project to repair road networks linked to the (locally named) ‘Dar’a City Palestinian Camp.’ The Dar’a City Palestinian Camp is in central Dar’a, south of Dar’a city’s industrial neighborhood. Prior to the conflict, there were 10,500 Palestinian individuals living in the camp according to UNRWA (out of a total of ~13,000 residents). Al-Hanous stated to Sputnik news that: “Syrian authorities allowed all residents [of Dar’a] to return to their towns and villages to help rebuild their homes…but the camp residents are still in accommodation centers.” Local sources indicate that many of the Palestinians from the Dar’a city camp are indeed residing in Jbab (in As-Sanamayn subdistrict), and in other parts of Dar’a city. Also according to Al-Hanous, the camp itself is 90% destroyed, and will be rebuilt “according to a modern planning scheme [that] includes public parks and towers.”
Analysis: As noted above, there remain considerable housing, land, and property concerns in any neighborhoods that are witnessing reconstruction or rehabilitation work; these concerns are more robust for Palestinians, who face unique challenges in providing proof of ownership and other forms of documentation. In the context of existing concerns, the scope of the Governor-approved Dar’a City Palestinian Camp project, and the fact that current rehabilitation efforts are focused on road networks, it is highly unlikely that the original residents of the camp will return to the camp in the near term.
Failed Assassination in Dar’a
Tafas, Western Dar’a Governorate, Syria: On November 2, unknown gunmen attempted to assassinate Mahmoud Al-Bardan, a prominent commander in the Government of Syria 5th Division, at his home in Tafas. The 5th Division is heavily comprised of reconciled former armed opposition combatants, and the 5th Division is known to have close ties to the Government of Russia; Al-Bardan was formerly a leader in Jaish Al-Thawra, a Southern Front opposition group, and he was personally reconciled by the Russian Hmeimim Reconciliation center. The assassination attempt failed; however, Al-Bardan’s bodyguard was critically injured.
Analysis: The attempted assassination of reconciled commanders is always a noteworthy event, partially due to the fact that there are so many potential perpetrators. It is possible that the gunmen were disgruntled former opposition combatants, taking revenge for the perceived betrayal of Al-Bardan. However, it is equally possible that the gunmen targeted Al-Bardan due to his close ties to the Government of Russia. The Governments of Russia, Iran, and Syria have been engaged in a form of soft ‘competition’ over the degree to which they are able to incorporate reconciled armed opposition combatants into armed groups and militias over which they hold direct influence. As in all post-reconciled areas, monitoring the targeting of these reconciled commanders gives some insight into the potential regional actor power dynamics taking place in the post-reconciled space.
Russian-Government of Syria Wheat Agreement
Damascus, Syria: On November 5, Abdullah Al-Gherbi, the Syrian Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection, stated that the Government of Syria will soon import 1.8 million tons of wheat from the Government of Russia, and that Russia would also rehabilitate eight major wheat silos throughout Syria. According to Al-Gherbi, “We met with…Russian companies during their participation in the Damascus International Fair…these companies will build about 70 grain markets in Syria with a storage capacity of 20,000 tons each, which will be built in cooperation with a friendly Russia.” It is worth noting that Syrian Transportation Minister Ali Hammoud also recently stated that the Government of Russia intends to make Syria “a center for the export of Russian wheat to the rest of the countries of the region”.
Analysis: Considering the statements of Ministers Al-Gherbi and Hammoud, it is increasingly clear that the Government of Russia, and Russian companies, intend to use Syria as a major storage and export hub for both Russian and Syrian wheat. It should be noted that Syrian wheat production was one of the largest pre-war industries, and Syria was a major wheat exporter across the region. Similar economic arrangements between the Governments of Russia and Syria (and indeed, between the Governments of Iran and Syria) are increasingly likely; this is especially true for Syria’s other valuable raw production industries, such as cotton, phosphorus, oil, and natural gas.
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.
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