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.
Throughout the past week Turkish President Erdogan has made repeated statements that a Turkish intervention into SDF-held northeastern Syria will take place in the near term. In the past, Turkish threats to launch an offensive into northeastern Syria have been dismissed as posturing; however, in this instance they should be taken seriously. Turkey is mobilizing forces, both inside Turkey and in opposition-controlled northern Syria; Turkey is also actively cultivating relationships with Arab tribes throughout northeastern Syria. Additionally, while the U.S. maintains military forces in northeastern Syria and continues to support the SDF, that support has always been more linked to the fight against ISIS as opposed to broader Kurdish political ambitions, and the conflict with ISIS is rapidly nearing its end. A potential Turkish intervention would likely intend to, at least initially, secure a 15-20km border buffer zone along the border and compel the SDF to withdraw from Menbij city. In any event, the mere prospect of a Turkish intervention poses a significant – if not existential – threat to the longevity of the Kurdish Self Administration project, and ultimately only bring the Kurdish Self Administration closer to the Government of Syria as a means of longer-term protection.
Throughout the reporting period, several events occured that indicate an elevated likelihood of a Turkish Armed Forces military intervention against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Ar-Raqqa. Most apparent among these are the statements made by Turkish President Erdogan regarding his intention to launch an offensive in northeastern Syria east of the Euphrates river. Though President Erdogan has frequently raised the possibility of a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria for the past several months, on December 12, President Erdogan clearly stated: “we will begin our operation to free the east of the Euphrates [river] from the separatist organisation within a few days.” In this case, President Erdogan’s rhetoric has also been matched by action; local sources in northeastern Syria note that Turkish military forces have mobilized along the Turkish-Syrian border, and began to dismantle sections of the border wall separating the two counties, in particular in the vicinity of Tel Abiad. The Government of Turkey has also reportedly openly recruited and deployed Syrian armed opposition combatants from Afrin and northern Aleppo to front lines with the SDF in Menbij and along the Euphrates river. Finally, local sources have reported that a significant number of Tel Abiad residents have begun preparations for displacement, though the precise number of potential IDPs is unclear.
There are two major factors to consider when evaluating the likelihood of a Turkish offensive in Syria: Turkish strategy, interests, and actions; and U.S. strategy, interests, and actions. Both are notoriously difficult to read. U.S. President Trump vacillates on many things, to include policy and strategy in Syria. At times, President Trump is an isolationist, as echoed by his motto ‘American First.’ Under President Obama, the U.S. presence in Syria was justified solely by the international coalition campaign against ISIS. Yet that fight is almost over, at least in Syria; the SDF captured Hajin, ISIS last remaining urban stronghold, on December 14, and the remainder of the ISIS-held pocket of Deir-ez-Zor is rapidly shrinking. Indeed, President Erdogan has already commented that as the struggle against ISIS has ended, there is now no further reason for the U.S. to remain in Syria. That perspective is not unique to Turkey; U.S. Envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffries, recently stated that U.S. support to the SDF is “tactical and temporary,” adding “we think that there will be no final conclusion of this [Syrian] conflict without very close Turkish-American cooperation.” According to Faysal Itani, of the Atlantic Council, Jeffries later clarified that: “we support the SDF for a specific goal: fighting ISIS, which they’re not doing as a favor to us. They are partners in a transactional relationship. Afterwards they are a Syrian party like anyone. We don’t have permanent relations with substate entities.” President Erdogan reportedly reiterated this point on a call with President Trump, who, according to President Erdogan, “responded positively” to Turkish plans in northeastern Syria; President Erdogan added that that “we can start our operation any moment now in the Syrian territory at any place, especially along the 500-kilometer border, without harming the U.S soldiers.” Finally, most observers note that the Turkish-U.S. relationship, with accompanying trade and military partnership in NATO, is more geostrategically significant than the SDF-U.S. alliance. President Trump’s recent statements regarding the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen hints at the lengths the U.S. will go to preserve this relationship.
At the same time, the U.S. President is a ‘chickenhawk’, disinclined to upset the hardliners upon whom he relies for much of his foreign policy advice and domestic stature. At present, the primary obstacle to a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria is not the YPG or SDF itself, but rather the presence of the U.S. soldiers. In what may be dismissed as mission creep, the U.S. Department of Defense remains committed to its Kurdish allies in Syria, and continues to reiterate – in both word and deed- its opposition to a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria. The U.S. coalition currently has between 2,000-4,000 U.S. military personnel, and perhaps many more contractors, currently stationed in northeastern Syria. As of December 11, local sources confirmed that U.S. forces completed the establishment of five observation points on the Turkish border in northern Syria, three in Tel Abiad and two in Ein El-Arab (Kobane). On December 16, U.S. coalition representatives hosted failed talks between the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga (which are also backed by the U.S.) in Derik, in the hopes of deploying Iraqi Peshmerga forces to the Syrian-Turkish border in recognition of the Peshmerga’s relatively closer relations with Turkey. Naturally these talks collapsed, as the PYD and the Peshmerga have had long standing mutually antagonistic relations. To this end, on December 14 U.S. President Trump spoke with President Erdogan, and according to U.S. media, reportedly urged him to call off his intended intervention. Finally, U.S. strategy in Syria is now closely linked to containing Iran; the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria has been consistently presented as a means of containing Iran in Syria, though it is unclear to what degree Iranian strategy in Syria is actually impacted by U.S. support for the SDF.
Yet local dynamics remain important when attempting to predict the course of the Syrian conflict. A significant component of Turkey’s strategy has been to exploit social fissures between the Kurdish and Arab tribal communities, and thereby undermine the ‘ethnically inclusive’ framework of the SDF. Since at least October 2018, Turkey has specifically called on armed opposition combatants originating from Deir-Ez-Zor, Ar-Raqqa and Al-Hasakah to “create strife between Arabs and Kurds in the [northeastern Syria] region.” Local sources report that Ahmed Al-Jarba, the former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and a prominent member of the Shammar tribe, has repeatedly visited Turkey throughout the past two weeks. The Shammar tribe is the SDF’s most critical Arab tribal ally in northeastern Syria; the Sanadid, the primary Arab armed group within the SDF, is largely comprised of Shammar and is led by Al-Jarba’s cousin Dahham Hadi Al-Jarba. Though Dahham Hadi Al-Jarba and the Sanadid have received significant financial support from Saudi Arabia, local sources report that Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced their financial support to the Sanadid in the pat two to three months, for unclear reasons. Considering these funding gaps, sources in northeastern Syria have noted that they are extremely concerned that Ahmed Al-Jarba is involved in plans to form a new ‘tribal army’ by encouraging Sanadid combatants to defect from the SDF in support of a Turkish intervention. Notably, the relations between the Kurdish Self Administration and many Arab tribes in northeastern Syria are currently extremely tense, particularly in the wake of the early November assassination of Sheikh Bashir Al-Huweidi.
A Turkish intervention into northeastern Syria would likely not take the same shape as the Euphrates Shield or Olive Branch operations, at least not initially; according to local sources, and reiterated by numerous analysts, Turkey likely has two primary objectives: a 15-20km border buffer zone and the to withdraw of the SDF from Menbij city, west of the Euphrates river. Yet regardless of whether this intervention occurs, simply the threat of a Turkish intervention poses an existential threat to the Kurdish Self Administration project. Indeed, the mere prospect of an intervention will remain a major source of internal tension between Arabs and Kurds throughout northeastern Syria, amplifying underlying ethnic disputes that have been a part of Arab-Kurdish relations for the last 7 years. Additionally, U.S. vacillation in the context of a Turkish intervention signals and highlights the fact that the U.S. is not a reliable long-term ally to the Kurdish Self Administration. Consequently, Kurdish leadership will likely have no option but to re-establish ties with the Government of Syria in order to prevent an intervention, or mitigate its expansion once it occurs. Indeed, this possibility has already been raised: On December 12, the YPG called upon the Government of Syria to take an official stance on Turkish threats, and throughout the past week YPG officials have reportedly raised the possibility that Government of Syria military units be deployed to the Syrian Turkish border.
Idleb and Northern Hama Governorates, Syria: Throughout the past week, Government of Syria forces and armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria exchanged shelling along numerous frontlines in northwestern Syria, to include locations in south and eastern Idelb, northern rural Hama, and northeastern Lattakia. Media sources also reported that Government of Syria shelling has extended to include other areas that have not been previously targeted, to include the villages of Has and Basqila in eastern rural Idleb, and Sakhar in northern rural Hama. As in previous weeks, Jarjanaz, in southeastern rural Idelb, has been heavily shelled since the alleged Aleppo city chemical attack on November 25, 2018. Meanwhile, armed opposition groups reportedly continued to mobilize along front lines throughout northwestern Syria, to include in areas within the northwestern Syria ‘disarmament zone’; indeed, local sources indicated that both National Liberation Front and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham continue to maintain a military presence in frontline areas.
Analysis: Shelling and isolated clashes within the northwestern Syria disarmament zone have markedly increased since the alleged chemical attack in Aleppo city. However, despite the increases in shelling attacks, the disarmament zone agreement is likely to persist in the near term, as both the Governments of Turkey and Russia reiterated and reinforced their commitment to the agreement at the Astana 11 talks on November 28 and 29. That said, a major Government of Syria offensive on northwestern Syria remains a distinct possibility in the medium term. Many analysts have linked recent indications of a Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria to a potential Government of Syria offensive in northwestern Syria, a ‘horse trade’ (with incredible human suffering) between the Governments of Russia and Turkey. This perspective is not without merit: Turkish Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in March 2018, and the Al-Bab offensive in December 2016 both appear to have been done in coordination with the Government of Russia in exchange for concessions in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city respectively. That said, dynamics in northwestern Syria and northeastern Syria are very different from eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta. For now, a major offensive in northwestern Syria remains possible, albeit unlikely, in the near term.
On December 18, United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura held meetings with the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey foreign ministers to discuss the formation of the Syria Constitutional Committee. The Government of Syria and the Syrian Interim Government have each submitted lists of 50 names to the constitutional committee; the Governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran will submit a third list of 50 candidates, which will theoretically consist of “civil society and independent” committee members. Of note, the latter list have been a point of contention and disagreement among representatives of the three countries. Reportedly the names of the members of the constitutional committee are to be finalized in the coming week. As of December 19, preliminary indications are that the Governments of Turkey Iran and Russia failed to fully agree on the composition of the candidate list.
Analysis: The formation of the constitutional committee is a pivotal step for the Syrian peace process, and will be a key component of any national peace agreement within the Geneva process. However, despite the role played by the UN in forming the constitutional committee, the Governments of Russia, Turkey and Iran will ultimately hold the preponderance of power in the committee itself, as the primary international actors in the Syrian conflict and the actors most responsible for selecting the committee members. It should also be noted that the Government of Syria has repeatedly refused to consider drafting of new constitution and instead insists on amending the the current Syrian constitution. Considering the fact that the Government of Syria has nearly secured a de-facto military victory, the ultimate outcomes of the constitutional drafting or amendment process are likely to have a minimal impact on the actual future trajectory of Syria.
Damascus, Syria: Local sources reported a sharp increase in propane gas prices in the past week throughout all of Syria, with the largest fluctuations occurring in Damascus. According to local sources, the price of one gas cylinder on the market has reached 10,000 SYP, more than triple the Government of Syria set price of 2700 SYP, which has adversely affected individuals and businesses alike. Government of Syria officials and local vendors have reportedly attributed the gas price increases to poor weather conditions, the latter of which temporarily closed the Mediterranean ports in Lattakia and Tartous and thereby delayed gas imports. However, local businessmen in Damascus also noted that gas imports were extremely low even when the ports were open, largely due to western sanctions. In addition, the spike of propane prices has also affected the availability of electricity provision in Damascus; according to the Electricity Coordinator of Rural Damascus, Khaldoun Hada, electricity cuts across the city have increased throughout the past week.
Analysis: The inflation of propane prices will continue to strain provision of electricity in Syria, as households and businesses will likely replace propane with electricity as means for heating. Indeed, the head of the Public Electricity Company of Rural Damascus, Bassel Omar, stated that demands on electricity usage had gone up by 100-150 megawatts, in comparison to the same timeframe last year. Furthermore, it is likely that propane prices throughout Syria will stabilize in the near term as ports are reopened and imports resume. That said, the fact that sanctions have so drastically limited the ability of traders to import from Europe will continue to cause the prices of key import commodities, like propane gas, to remain high. Additionally, the fact that brief port closures and shipment delays of a staple good such as propane caused an immediate and drastic effect on gas prices across Syria indicates the extreme fragility of Syria’s economy, internal market structure and value chains, and its immense reliance of imports to cover basic services and commodities for local markets.
Darayya, Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria: On December 14, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) reported that a total of 161 families reportedly returned to central Darayya, specifically to their neighborhood of origin known as ‘Municipality Street’, which is the only neighborhood in which electricity has been restored. However, according to media sources, only five of these families actually settled in their homes in Darayya after their return. Notably, the municipality of Darayya has released the names of individuals who are allowed to return and will reportedly continue to do so in as neighborhoods are rehabilitated; reportedly, rehabilitation plans are focused on central Darayya city, with plans to expand rehabilitation outwards. Of note, on December 17, the Russian Reconciliation Center stated that approximately 998 Syrian refugees returned to Syria between December 16 and 17, without specifying their exact destination; 267 returned from Lebanon, while 731 returned from Jordan through Nasib. As per the statement, only 230 of the returnees returned to their (unspecified) places of origin.
Analysis: Despite the increased emphasis on the frequency and number of returns by various media outlets and regional actors, the numbers of refugees and IDPs returning to their areas of origin remains low; this is especially highlighted when juxtaposed with the numbers of refugees in neighboring countries and IDPs in Syria. For example, according to UN and local NGO partners, 57,461 individuals returned to their areas of origin in November 2018; however, 92% of these were IDPs while only 8% were refugees from outside Syria. While the returns of refugees and IDPs are driven by various factors, they do share one commonality: the conditions in their communities of origin. The return conditions of many communities in Syria remain abysmal; Darayya is a prominent example. This first wave of returnees to Darayya succeeds two years of Government of Syria control over the area, and are only returning to one neighborhood in Darayya city with functional services. Similarly, returns from Lebanon and Jordan remain small in scale, intermittent, and largely uncoordinated. The fact that these returns are emphasized by the Government of Syria and Russia media are in some ways indicative of the inherent discrepancies between the announcement of returnee strategies, and their ability or willingness to foster conditions leading to returns.
New York, USA: On December 13, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2449, which authorized a one year extension of Resolution 2165, originally passed in July 2014 to authorize cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid provision in Syria. Resolution 2449 extends the mandate of Resolution 2165 until Jan 10, 2020. The resolution passed with 13 votes, and abstentions from Governments of Russia and China. The Government of Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, criticized the resolution, regarding it as a deliberate breach of the Syrian sovereignty; his counterpart, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia, stated that cross-border deliveries should be “fine tuned” in an attempt to “gradually wrap [the cross-border response] up,” and claimed that the resolution is “divorced from reality.” However, Nebenzia also stated that Russia refrained from blocking the resolution due to “appeals from our partners in the region.”
Analysis: In comparison, the UNSC approval of Resolution 2449 was much smoother than in 2017; last year, there were serious doubts that the resolution would be renewed due to the fact that the Government of Russia was expected to use its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council. The Government of Russia’s abstention from the vote, and attenuated rhetoric on cross border humanitarian aid, is an indication of the increased reliance of Russia on its regional partners. Indeed, its muted reaction to the renewal of Resolution 2165 is a reflection of increased coordination between Russia and different international actors on Syria, primarily the Government of Turkey. The future of Turkish-Russian bilateral relations in Syria necessarily hinges on the status of Turkish-held northern and northwestern Syria, and the ability of Turkey to provide cross-border humanitarian aid and associated services to both areas. It is also worth noting that the significance of Resolution 2165 has been diminished by the Government of Syria’s sweeping military gains throughout the past year; this is especially true for southern Syria, where cross-border aid from Jordan was a major component of the entire cross-border response. That said, despite the renewal of Resolution 2165, the Governments of Syria and Russia will continue to seek centralized Syria humanitarian and development coordination out of Damascus.
Damascus, Syria: On December 14, a Russian-Syria intergovernmental committee convened a meeting in Damascus, where representatives of both states agreed on several memorandums of understanding (MoUs) in various economic sectors and future projects. The Vice-President of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vladimir Padalko, reportedly stated that both governments have selected 200 companies from Russia and Syria to take part in joint reconstruction projects. Government of Russia affiliated media sources have also reported that members of the committee have reached commercial agreements related to the exploration and production of energy commodities. At the conclusion of the meeting, Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Syrian Ministry of Industry have approved and signed a ‘roadmap’ for bilateral industry cooperation.
Analysis: Up until this point, economic cooperation between the Governments of Russia and Syria has been somewhat ad-hoc in appearance, and focused on bilateral agreements between specific Russian companies or entities and Syrian public and private companies. However, Russia has now clearly staked a claim to Syria’s reconstruction and economic development with the passage of these MoUs. In turn, the MoUs are expected to facilitate the Russian business community’s investments in Syria for the foreseeable future. However, it is also important to note that these agreements generally entail investment in sectors dominated by the Government of Syria-linked business class, including natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, phosphates, and services and infrastructure such as ports and electricity production. Therefore, greater Russian-Syrian economic cooperation will likely reinforce the Syrian economy’s pre-conflict tendency to benefit the existing Government of Syria-linked business class, often at the expense of more marginal economic actors.
As-Sweida Governorate, Syria: On December 14, the Shouyoukh Karama, a Druze armed group in As-Sweida governorate, issued a statement in which it denied the group’s involvement in any reconciliation negotiations, and announced that all its members stand ready to fight against arbitrary detention and forced conscription; the statement also alleged that several of its combatants had already been forcibly conscripted. According to the Shouyoukh Karama, the Government of Syria is currently attempting to increase detentions and conscriptions of Druze men as a means of exerting greater control over As-Sweida. Notably, the Shouyoukh Karama is a popular Druze movement which has not historically positioned itself against the Government of Syria, but is categorically opposed to the conscription of Druze, as it sees the defence of the local Druze community as its primary priority. Shortly after the statement on December 16, the Security Committee of As-Sweida convened a meeting with local Druze notables and religious leaders in As-Sweida; Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Government of Syria National Security Office, was also present. Reportedly, the Druze notables and religious figures stated to Government of Syria representatives that the poor security situation in As-Sweida should not be attributed to the Druze community, but instead to “military authorities,” referring to different Government of Syria security branches and NDF groups. The Druze notables and religious leadership also reiterated that they too reject forced conscription of eligible military-aged men in As-Sweida. In response to the meeting, local sources stated that Druze notables in Jaramana, a traditionally Druze suburb of Damascus city, were notified that all development projects in Jaramana would be put on hold indefinitely until the disputes related to conscription and detainment in As-Sweida are resolved.
Analysis: The Government of Syria has historically maintained its presence within and control of the Druze community in As-Sweida governorate through its close cooperation with local notables, to include the Druze religious leadership. The Druze community has long emphasized its relative independence and ‘neutral’ stance in the Syrian conflict; however, as it is also clear that the Government of Syria will remain in control of Syria, the Druze leadership is likely cognizant that it cannot maintain this stance indefinitely. As such, despite the local popular support for the Shouyoukh Al Karama, the Druze community as a whole will likely remain subject to local notable and religious leadership decisions. Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that the Government of Syria has threatened to withhold development projects to an entirely separate Druze community in apparent response to the conscription issues in As-Sweida, likely as a means of pressuring the As-Sweida Druze community as a whole to acquiesce to its demands; this may highlight the means by which the Government of Syria intends to use development and reconstruction funding as a political tool to incentivize or threaten communities in Syria.
The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.
The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.