Syria Update: January 24 – January 30, 2019

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Syria Update

24 January to 30 January, 2019

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:

Negotiations between the Kurdish Self Administration and the Government of Syria are expected to restart within days.  For their part, the Kurdish Self Administration’s initial negotiating terms, which have been released on numerous Arab media outlets, make significant concessions to the Government of Syria.  However, even these concessions will likely be insufficient, largely due to the extremely weak negotiating position in which the Kurdish Self Administration now finds itself. The U.S. withdrawal from Syria is impending and Turkey continues to threaten military intervention.  Additionally, the Government of Russia recently cited the 1988 Adana agreement as a potential framework to address Turkish concerns; however, the terms of the 1988 Adana agreement would necessitate incorporating the Kurdish Self Administration fully within the Government of Syria, and potentially the dismantlement of the YPG/PYD, as well as many of the predominant military and political bodies in the Kurdish Self Administration.  Additionally, Kurdish Arab tensions continue to plague Kurdish Self Administration-controlled areas, and indeed, these tensions have been exacerbated by both Government of Syria and Kurdish Self Administration actions. The Kurdish Self Administration is currently in an extremely weak negotiating position, and that position is rapidly weakening.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Two Government of Syria military units, the 4th Division and 5th Corps, engaged in a series of clashes in northern Hama, and the 5th Corps engaged in a series of internal clashes in Dar’a governorate.  Many analysts have pointed to these events as a reflection of Russian-Iranian competition; however, they are more likely a reflection of local rivalries and a lack of unified command and control within Government of Syria military forces.
  • The Government of Syria continued to deploy reinforcements to front lines in northwestern Syria, and continued to launch heavy airstrikes and shelling attacks on several communities.  These incidents are a major indication that the disarmament zone agreement is now increasingly fragile, and that a major offensive may be forthcoming in the near-term.
  • A series of IEDs targeted numerous communities throughout Turkish-held northern Syria, highlighting the continued political and security instability in the area as well as the significant and ongoing risk posed by YPG and ISIS sleeper cells throughout Turkish-held areas.  
  • The Government of Syria released a list of 105 organizations it designated as terrorist organizations; among them are numerous INGOs and NGOs, as well as several regional political parties.  This list was published in numerous Arab media outlets, and organizations on this list may now face increased challenges with governments that are increasingly willing to begin rapprochement with the Government of Syria.
  • Both the EU and the U.S. House of Representatives expanded sanctions against Syria; Syria sanctions have already had a major impact on the Syrian economy and have led to an ongoing fuel crisis, which has caused considerable discontent even amongst pro-Government of Syria populations.
  • Negotiations to close the Rukban camp are set to resume in the near term; however, actually closing the camp will remain extremely challenging, considering that many individuals in the camp fear detention and/or conscription by the Government of Syria.
  • The Ministry of Transportation announced a plan to rehabilitate and expand the Syrian railways, with the support of the Government of Iran; however, considering the size and scope of the project, it is unlikely to be implemented in the near term.
  • Jordan appointed a new charge d’affaires to Damascus, further indicating Jordanian willingness to normalize relations with the Government of Syria.

Northeastern Syria Negotiations

In Depth Analysis

As of January 28, negotiations between the Syrian Democratic Council, the primary political body within the Kurdish Self Administration, and the Government of Syria are expected to resume in the coming days with respect to the future status of northeastern Syria.  According to one YPG commander: “there are attempts to hold negotiations [and] the government’s position was positive.”  Indeed, in preparation for the upcoming talks, a set of preliminary Kurdish Self Administration terms have been released on several Arabic media sites.  These terms include the following provisions: Syria will not be divided into separate bodies; the regime in Syria is a republican democratic system, and the Kurdish Self Administration will be a part of this system; autonomous regions [in reference to the Kurdish Self Administration] will have representation in parliament; besides the Syrian flag, there should be flags representing the Kurdish Self Administration; international diplomacy in Kurdish Self Administration areas will not be contrary to the interests of the Syrian people or the constitution; the SDF will be a part of the Syrian army; internal security forces will operate according to local councils, in a manner that does not contradict with the Syrian constitution; Arabic is the official language in the whole of Syria, but Kurdish, as well as Kurdish history and culture, will be taught in Kurdish Self Administration; and Syrian wealth will be distributed to Syrian regions in a fair manner [in likely reference to northeastern Syria’s oil and gas fields].  Several sources have also noted that the Kurdish Self Administration negotiators also intend to agree that Bashar Al-Assad should remain the president of Syria.

The Kurdish Self Administration’s preliminary negotiating terms, if true, give major concessions to the Government of Syria.  Indeed, the Kurdish Self Administration currently has extremely limited political leverage and the Government of Syria will likely demand even further concessions in recognition of the Kurdish Self Administration’s constraints.  In effect, the Kurdish Self Administration has conceded some of the most critical points of the negotiation: they are accepting that the Syrian state will remain fundamentally unchanged, that the SDF will incorporate within the Syrian Arab Army, and that ultimate decisions on foreign policy will be left to the central government in Damascus.   Ultimately, these concessions reflect a degree of pragmatism: the Government of Syria has strongly and consistently emphasized its total sovereignty over all of Syria, to include local administrative structures; while the Government of Syria is likely willing to make small concessions on the issue of local governance, as it has in some reconciled communities, it is unlikely to ever fully accept a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria.

The Kurdish Self Administration’s lack of leverage is a product of many factors. First is the impending U.S. withdrawal from Syria: while the withdrawal has not yet been completed, there are no major indications that President Trump intends to reverse his December 2018 decision.  Additionally, the primary objective cited for U.S. military forces remaining in Syria remains the defeat of ISIS, and this objective is soon to be reached: ISIS forces in northeastern Syria are now confined to a 6km2 area in the village of Mursheda, which is expected to be captured by joint SDF-US military forces within days. The second factor depriving the Self Administration of political leverage is Turkey, which appears increasingly inclined to launch an intervention into northeastern Syria, especially on Menbij, using the Turkish-backed National Army; Turkey has also openly called for a Turkish ‘safe zone’ reaching 20km into northeastern Syria and potentially employing Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq, who are notably antagonistic towards the PYD.  The third factor constraining the Self Administration is that the Government of Russia appears increasingly willing to acquiesce to Turkish concerns and objectives in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish Self Administration had initially looked towards Russia as the key mediator between themselves and the Government of Syria.  However, on January 23 Russian President Putin pointed to the 1988 Adana agreement as a possible framework for addressing Turkish concerns with respect to the YPG/PYD.  In the 1988 Adana agreement, the Government of Syria pledged to prohibit the activities of the PKK in Syria; by citing the Adana agreement as a political framework for the Governments of Syria and Turkey, Russia has indicated a willingness to support the Turkish position with respect to the YPG/PYD, which itself could pave the geopolitical way for a Turkish intervention focused on border security.   Depending on its interpretation, the Adana agreement could also read as a means of marginalizing the largest political and military groups within the Kurdish Self Administration. In the longer term, short of dissolving the YPG/PYD or fully subsubing it under the Government of Syria, the Kurdish Self Administration will be vulnerable to a diplomatically justified Turkish offensive.

One additional critical point of leverage currently being used against the Kurdish Self Administration is the increasingly tense relationship between the Self Administration and Arab tribes in northeastern Syria.  The already tense Kurdish-Arab relationship in northeastern Syria is being actively exacerbated by the Government of Syria. For example, on January 26, the Government of Syria hosted a meeting in eastern Hama governorate with up to 1,500 different tribal leaders from across Syria to discuss “the Government of Syria’s vision for northern and eastern Syria”; many of those invited were naturally from Kurdish-held northeastern Syria. Of note, the meeting was reportedly hosted and funded by Hussam Al-Qaterji, one of the most newly prominent businessmen in northeastern Syria and a Syrian Parliament member. However, the SDF reportedly detained many of the tribal representatives from Ar-Raqqa and Al-Hasakeh that were en route to the meeting; video has since been released of SDF security forces subjecting one tribal leader, Jasim Muhamad Al-Jasim, to humiliating treatment while in detention.  The detentions of tribal leaders took place only shortly after a series of mass protests in Ar-Raqqa city on January 24, during which 22 Arab men from the Bukhamis tribe were detained by SDF and Asayish forces for anti-Kurdish Self Administration protests.  The protestors were demonstrating against the killing of a Bukhamis tribal leader, Zain Hamed Al-Zain, who was killed at an SDF checkpoint.  

Considering the extreme external and internal pressures facing the Kurdish Self Administration, it is unlikely that it will be capable of negotiating any of their current demands with the Government of Syria.  Therefore, it is likely that this next round of negotiations, like the previous round on negotiations on January 11, will collapse. However, time is running out for the Kurdish Self Administration to negotiate an agreement with the Government of Syria; more importantly, as more time passes, the negotiating position of the Kurdish Self Administration will only weaken and the status of northeastern Syria more precarious.

Whole of Syria Review

1. GoS Armed Group Clashes

Northwestern Hama governorate; Dar’a governorate, Syria: On January 22, the 5th Corps clashed with the 4th Armoured Division in Sahel Al Ghab, in northwestern Hama governorate; both are important Syrian Arab Army military units.  The 5th Corps was created by, and maintains a close relationship with, the Government of Russia; the 4th Armoured Division grew from the Rifa’at Al-Assad’s elite Defense Companies and remains closely associated with the upper echelons of the Government of Syria, especially given the role of President Bashar Al-Assad’s brother, Brigadier Maher Al-Assad. Subsequently, on January 25, the 5th Corps reportedly took control of several areas in the Sahel Ghab region of northern Hama previously under the control of the 4th Armoured Division and 4th Division-linked National Defense Forces (NDF) following a negotiated agreement that entailed the withdrawal of the 4th Armoured Division and the NDF from communities adjacent to opposition-held areas. On January 29, media sources reported that clashes resumed between the 5th Corps and the 4th Armoured Division in northwestern Hama governorate, which resulted in the latter retaking control of several of the communities previously handed over to the 5th Corps on January 25. Concurrent with the clashes in northern Hama, on January 22, forces loyal to Ahmad Oudeh and Abu Saddam Badawi, both commanders within the 5th Corps in southern Syria, clashed in Busra Esh-Sham, in Dar’a governorate. Rumors have circulated that the clashes erupted following Oudeh expelling Badawi from the 5th Corps; however, the rumors are yet to be confirmed.

Analysis: Much of the analysis on the recent clashes between the 4th Armoured Division and 5th Corps has been directed at the fact that the 5th Corps is heavily supported by the Government of Russia, while the 4th Armoured Division is associated with the Government of Syria, and to a lesser extent with the Government of Iran. Indeed, many analysts have pointed to these clashes between Government of Syria military forces as evidence that the Government of Russia is pursuing a policy of confronting Iranian backed groups in Syria. However, drawing the conclusion that the Governments of Russia and Iran are engaged in a confrontational policy in Syria is likely premature. In general, Russia and Iran appear to coordinate quiet closely in nearly every other aspect of Syria’s policy. It is difficult to foresee a scenario in which the Governments of Russia or Iran would take a clear policy position to confront each other on the local level in Syria.  What is more likely is the fact that different Government of Syria armed groups, and the individuals leading them, are now part of separate patronage and support networks; this would naturally lead to local level competition, independent of the strategic priorities of their benefactors. Indeed, local sources indicate that the origin of these recent clashes are more related to competition over which armed group will be permitted to be on the front lines in any upcoming northwestern Syria offensive, not for valor or due to regional actor strategic priorities, but rather in order to obtain the most lucrative opportunities for looting. Therefore, while these clashes may not be indicative of a broader Russian-Iranian confrontation, they are indicative of the considerable challenges facing the Government of Syria military establishment in the absence of a unified source of authority between all Government of Syria military groups and militias. Government of Syria military groups will likely continue to clash over local level concerns for the foreseeable future.  

2. Northwestern Syria Situation

Idleb and Northern Hama Governorates, Syria: As of January 22, Government of Syria forces continued to shell several communities in northern Hama and Idleb governorates, to include: Zayzun, Ziyara, Kafr Zeita, Jarjnaz, Tah, Skik, Madiq Castle, Murek, Tamanaah and Qasabiyeh. Shortly after, on January 28, Government of Russia targeted Kafr Nobol with airstrikes, which resulted in the injury of several civilians. Meanwhile, Government of Syria military reinforcements continued to arrive to communities under their control in northern Hama, and eastern Idleb. Subsequently, on January 29, heavy Government of Syria shelling targeted Ma’aret An-Numan, which resulted in the death of 9 civilians.

Analysis: Since January 10, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has militarily secured the majority of northwestern Syria, while their governance body, the Salvation Government, has now become the primary administrative body in almost every community in northwestern Syria. For this reason, the disarmament zone agreement established on September 17 has become increasingly fragile, largely due to the fact that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was notably excluded from the agreement and is considered a terrorist organization by most major international actors. Thus, the Governments of Syria and Russia are now theoretically ‘justified’ in targeting much of northwestern Syria with airstrikes and shelling; indeed, they are likely to do so in order to increase pressure on both the armed opposition and civilians living in armed opposition-held areas. Therefore, it is likely that the Government of Syria and Russia will continue to target northwestern Syria with shelling and airstrikes in the near term, and it is increasingly likely that a major northwestern Syria offensive will be forthcoming in the medium term.

3. IEDs in Aleppo

Al Bab, Jarablus, and Afrin, northern Aleppo governorate, Syria: On January 23, two VBIED attacks took place in Afrin, in the vicinity of Turkish-supported armed group military positions. Subsequently, on January 24, four separate IED attacks occurred throughout Aleppo governorate; the first in Ghandorah, in Jarablus subdistrict, resulted in the death of three civilians; the second and third occurred in Qabasin, in Al-Bab subdistrict, and resulted in the death of seven civilians; and the fourth occurred in Al-Bab city, which killed one civilian and injured numerous others.  No armed group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Analysis: Throughout the reporting period, and concurrent with the first anniversary of the start of the Turkish Operation Olive Branch in Syria, Turkish-held areas in northern Aleppo have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of asymmetric attacks targeting different Turkish-backed National Army armed groups. The ongoing attacks against Turkish-supported armed groups are persistent reminders of the fact that YPG sleeper cells remain active in northern Aleppo and that Turkish-held areas of northern Syria remain deeply insecure. It is likely that the last series of IEDs were also conducted by several different YPG-affiliated sleeper cells. Indeed, the Afrin Liberation Front, a YPG-affiliated armed group, claimed responsibility for previous IED attacks and attempted assassinations that took place on January 19 and 20 in Afrin. One major reason for the continued lack of internal security in northern Syria is the fact that the Turkish-supported armed groups in the National Army do not have a cohesive or unified internal security body; additionally, the various National Army groups are in general oriented toward conducting major offensives (such as in Afrin and potentially in Menbij in the near term), rather than maintaining internal security. Therefore, it is likely that IED attacks and assassinations will continue to take place in northern Syria for the foreseeable future.

4. GoS Terrorist Organizations List

Damascus, Syria: On January 28, numerous Arab media sources released a reputed Government of Syria list of 105 organizations, political parties and charities that are designated as terrorist organizations as part of Act 1767/18. Entities on the list include: the Lebanese Future Party (the political party of Saad Al-Hariri, the caretaker Prime Minister of Lebanon) Alfa Lebanese Telecommunication (reportedly owned by allies of Saad Al-Hariri), Turkish IHH (alongside a number of other Turkish aid organizations), Qatari Red Crescent (alongside a number of other Gulf state NGOs and charities), Mercy Corps International, Chemonics, and the Syrian Interim Government. Notably, the publication of the Government of Syria’s terrorist entities list has been covered in numerous major Arab media outlets, to include Al-Jadeed.

Analysis: It is clear that the Government of Syria has primarily targeted foreign organizations, and/or entities that receive foreign money, in their list of designated terrorist organizations. None of the organizations listed are registered in Damascus and many were previously quite prominent in humanitarian or development program implementation in opposition-controlled areas.  The inclusion of many of these entities on the recently released terrorist list should be viewed not only as an expression of Government of Syria sovereignty, but also within the framework of a new humanitarian and development paradigm in which INGOs and development companies are not perceived as neutral actors but rather as instruments of western foreign policy. In some cases, this perception is not necessarily inaccurate.  The inclusion of the Lebanese Future Party, and Future Party-linked entities, is also noteworthy. The Future Party is Lebanon’s primary Sunni political party, and is one of the largest and most powerful political parties in Lebanon; the Future Party has been notably opposed to the Government of Syria since the start of the conflict. Considering the fact that the list has been released widely, many organizations on this list may now face increased challenges working in countries whose governments have begun the process of rapprochement with the Government of Syria, to include Jordan, the Arab Gulf, and potentially Lebanon.

5. EU and U.S. Sanctions

Washington D.C., USA and Brussels, Belgium: On January 21, the European Union Council added eleven prominent Syrian businessmen to the list of individuals subject to European sanctions against the Government of Syria, including: Samer Foz, Hussam Al-Qaterji, Anas Tlass, Nazir Ahmad Jamal Eddine, Mazin Al-Tarazi, Khaldoun Al-Zoubi, Hayan Qaddour, Maen Haykal, and Nader Qalei. Additionally, the following five entities were also added to the sanction list: Rawafed Damascus Private Joint Stock Company, Aman Damascus Joint Stock Company, Bunyan Damascus Private Joint Stock Company, Mirza, and Developers Private Joint Stock Company.  The EU Syria sanctions list currently includes 270 persons and 72 entities; individuals are subject to a travel ban, an asset freeze, and restrictions on certain investments, while Syria itself is subject to an oil embargo and the freezing of Syrian central bank assets held in the EU. Relatedly, on January 22, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that allows the White House to sanction foreign persons and entities that engage with the Government of Syria or its supporters. The U.S. sanctions also targeted the Fatemiyoun brigade and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade, both supported by the Government of Iran.

Analysis: EU and U.S. sanctions on Syria and Syrian businessmen are extremely damaging to the Syrian economy. International sanctions have been a major contributor to the drastically worsening fuel crisis in Syria; the fact that sanctions have limited the ability of traders to import goods into Syria has caused the prices of key import commodities, such as natural gas and fuel, to remain high due to a lack of availability. This has caused considerable discontent in Government of Syria-held areas, even amongst Government of Syria supporters (for example, please see the COAR Syria Update December 13-19). Meanwhile, it is important to note that U.S. sanctions, when put into effect, will target not only the Government of Syria, but also countries who deal and trade with the Government of Syria. Therefore, the only states and companies that will be willing to trade with Syria are ones that are already sanctioned, or that are unconcerned with U.S. or European sanctions.

6. Rukban Camp Negotiations

Eastern Homs, Syria: On January 26, the Jordanian Minister of Media Affairs, Joumana Ghneimat, announced that the Governments of Jordan, the U.S., and Russia have resumed negotiations regarding the dissolution of the Rukban Camp, located on the Jordanian border in eastern Homs governorate.  According to her statement, the Government of Jordan believes that conditions are “appropriate” for the residents of the camp to return to their homes, which are largely in Government of Syria-controlled areas. On the same date, the commander of the U.S.-supported Maghawir Al-Thawra, an armed opposition group that secures Al-Tanf and Rukban, stated that residents of Rukban Camp would prefer to be evacuated to opposition-held areas instead of Government of Syria-held areas due to fears of detentions and conscription. Meanwhile, the UN is currently working on getting approval from Damascus for a second humanitarian aid convoy to Rukban camp; however, no convoy has yet been confirmed. Notably, on January 15, Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Al-Safadi, reportedly told the Russian government that the return of Rukban inhabitants to locations under Government of Syria control is “the sole solution” to the issue of Rukban camp.

Analysis: Negotiations between the Governments of Russia, U.S. and Jordan regarding the dissolution of Rukban Camp have been ongoing since September 2018. Plans to relocate camp residents to Government of Syria-controlled areas are unlikely to appeal to many camp residents, despite the extremely challenging conditions they currently endure; as in other reconciliation agreements across Syria, individuals likely have significant concerns of detention by Government of Syria security forces and conscription. Meanwhile, the Rukban Public Relations and Political Affairs Commission requested that the camp be placed on the UN refugee camp list, in the event that the relocation of camp residents proves to be impossible. The commission also emphasized that humanitarian and medical assistance was urgently needed and must be provided more consistently.  Considering that a resolution of the status of the Rukban camp is unlikely in the near term, the 50,000-80,000 IDPs in the Rukban camp will likely continue to suffer from dire humanitarian conditions, particularly considering the ongoing harsh winter weather conditions and the ongoing lack of humanitarian aid and medical services.

7. Rehabilitation of Syrian Railways

Damascus, Syria: On January 27, the Government of Syria Ministry of Transport announced that it had established a plan in conjunction with the Government of Iran to rehabilitate the railway lines both within Syria and connecting Syria to its neighbors. The plan includes the rehabilitation of the railway line from Tartous port to the phosphate mines in Khneifis and Sokhneh, in eastern Homs, to transport and export phosphate. Additionally, the plan entails the rehabilitation of the eastern railway line from the Syrian port cities of Lattakia and Tartous to Iran; this line will pass through Homs city, Al-Tanf (at the Iraq-Syria border), Ramadi (Iraq), Um Qasr port (Iraq), and finally to Iran; the length of the railway line is expected to reach 1420km. Notably, in September 2018, Russian Railways, a Russian state-owned railway company, had previously stated that it was looking for opportunities to develop Syria’s railway network and infrastructure.

Analysis: Despite announcements from the Government of Syria Ministry of Transport regarding the rehabilitation of the railway roads, the Government of Syria is extremely unlikely to go through with railway rehabilitation in the near term due to the massive logistical and financial components of such an undertaking. First, large amounts of land would likely need to be appropriated, especially in major major cities, in order to rehabilitate and expand Syrian rail networks. Second, even with Russian and Iranian support, the cost of rehabilitation will remain very high. Notably, many of these railway expansion plans had been in place before 2011, but were never implemented due to the extremely high costs, and the Government of Syria certainly has fewer financial resources available to it now than prior to the conflict, even with Russian or Iranian support. Thus, the rehabilitation and expansion of Syrian railways is likely to remain a long-term dream of the Government of Syria.

8. Jordanian Chargé D’affaires in Syria

Amman, Jordan: On January 22, the spokesperson for the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sufyan Al-Qudah, stated that the Government of Jordan has appointed a diplomat, at the rank of chargé d’affaires, to its embassy in Damascus. Al-Qudah further stated that this decision is in accordance with the Government of Jordan position to keep its embassy open in Damascus, and that the Government of Jordan has always sought to push for a political solution in Syria that restores security and stability and provides conditions for the voluntary return of refugees.

 

Analysis: The appointment of the Jordanian chargé d’affaires in Damascus is a further indication of the increasing normalization of the Bashar Al-Assad government, especially with respect to other Middle Eastern countries. The Government of Jordan in particular has numerous reasons for normalizing its relations with Damascus. The first among these is the extreme economic importance of the Nasib border crossing and the significant implications that Nasib crossing has on the Government of Jordan’s economy.  The second is that Jordan has considerable concerns with respect to border security and requires a formal counterpart, in the absence of proxy armed groups, with which to coordinate; the necessity of a formal counterpart with respect to border security also extends to the status and accompanying international pressure concerning the lack of humanitarian access to Rukban Camp, also along its border. Third, the Government of Jordan recognizes the fact that it must maintain positive relationships with the Government of Syria in order to preserve the relationships it has cultivated with many former armed opposition combatants, tribal groups, and local elites in southern Syria. Maintaining these relationships is likely to be a component of Jordanian policy in Syria for the foreseeable future.

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.

Media Anthology: January 22 – January 28, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

January 22 to 28, 20189

 languagesourceDateCategory
"Sahl Al-Ghab": The clashes expand between the 4th Division and the 5th CorpsArabicAl ModonJanuary 22, 2019Conflict and Military
Kurdish-led force captures last ISIS-held village in SyriaEnglishThe New ArabJanuary 23, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey to create Syria security zone in 'few months', says ErdoganEnglishThe New ArabJanuary 25, 2019Conflict and Military
Sahel Al Ghab: Forth Division handed over their positions to the Fifth CorpArabicAl ModonJanuary 25, 2019Conflict and Military
Syria bill to sanction regime backers passes US House of RepresentativesEnglishThe NationalJanuary 23, 2019Economic
Gas crisis: Sanctions on oil tankers to SyriaArabicAl ModonJanuary 24, 2019Economic
US-Gulf tensions mount over restrictions on Syria reconstructionEnglishAl-MonitorJanuary 27, 2019Economic
Assad blocks access to Damascus for EU envoys -diplomatsEnglishZawyaJanuary 22, 2019Governance and Service Management
Jordan opens main border crossing with Syria, upgrades diplomatic tiesEnglishSouth FrontJanuary 23, 2019Governance and Service Management
With slow steps, "Salvation Government" is trying to control Idleb Local CouncilsArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 27, 2019Governance and Service Management
For the second successive Friday, a demonstration by Al-Sheitat against the SDFEnglishDeirezZor 24January 26, 2019Social Dynamics
Syrian tribes hold major meeting ahead of U.S forces withdrawalEnglishSouth FrontJanuary 25, 2019Social Dynamics
Damascus and its countryside left without electricity and natural gas while snowstorms strikeEnglishEnab BaladiJanuary 25, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Government of Syria lists some political and humanitarian entities as "terrorists"ArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 28, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Military escalation in rural Hama threatening population displacementArabicAl HalJanuary 28, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Lavrov reveals the date of the new round of "Astana"AraicBaladi NewsJanuary 28, 2019International Intervention
Turkey is in Syria for humanitarian purposes, Erdoğan saysEnglishDaily SabahJanuary 24, 2019International Intervention
Ilham Ahmad in an interview for "Riyadh": Areas under Turkish control are headquarters for ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and we seek constitutional amendments to ensure participationArabicDemocratic Council SyriaJanuary 28, 2019Other

Syria Update: January 17 – January 23, 2019

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Syria Update

17 January to 23 January, 2019

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:

Throughout the reporting period, the security situation in Dar’a governorate has become increasingly unstable, with instability manifested in several ways. A series of assassinations and assassination attempts have targeted local governance officials and several local military commanders, and recent weeks have seen an increase in small scale clashes and attacks, as well as local protests. Many external analysts have attributed this instability to a resurgent local armed opposition group called the ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria.’ However, according to local sources, the ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria’ is unlikely to actually exist, and has been dismissed as a fictional creation of opposition activists and social media actors from outside Syria. More likely, recent instability in southern Syria is driven by two factors. First, local discontent with the implementation of the southern Syria reconciliation agreement continues, especially with respect to poor service provision and aggressive conscription campaigns. The second factor is more complex: southern Syria was reconciled through a patchwork set of agreements, with different actors (to include the Government of Russia) leading in different areas. According to local sources, military and intelligence groups and commanders are currently engaged in internal competition for predominance, which has caused some if not much of this violence. Were this to be the case, the causes of instability in southern Syria are likely to be long term, and will require security sector reform to ameliorate.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Israeli airstrikes targeted the Damascus International Airport. Israeli airstrikes have increased in frequency over the past several weeks, and Israel is now notably claiming the airstrikes it launches, indicating that Israel intends to more actively confront Iran in Syria for the foreseeable future.
  • Government of Syria and Government of Russia shelling and airstrikes targeted numerous locations in northwestern Syria, while Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham engaged in conflict with ISIS forces inside northwestern Syria, highlighting the increasing internal and external fragility of the northwestern Syria following Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s complete takeover of the region.
  • A set of attacks targeted U.S. coalition forces in northwestern Syria, killing several U.S. military personnel and contractors; these attacks will likely speed up, rather than delay, the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria.
  • An IED killed several individuals in Afrin city, marking the one year anniversary of the start of Operation Olive Branch.  Afrin is likely to remain deeply unstable, largely due to the considerable demographic and social tensions in the community.
  • Iran and Syria negotiated a new long-term economic cooperation agreement in Tehran, formalizing the increased Iranian role in both Syria’s economy and Syria’s reconstruction.
  • Lebanese officials emphasized the importance that Lebanon places on being a part of Syria’s reconstruction, despite the obstacles posed by international sanctions; to that end, Lebanon continues to expand and develop the Tripoli port in order to facilitate its role in Syria’s reconstruction.
  • Academi, a U.S. private military company formerly known as Blackwater, proposed replacing U.S. military forces in Syria; this proposal is more likely to be accepted than it appears, and if accepted it would possibly have a destabilizing effect on northwestern Syria.
  • A social media campaign criticized Government of Syria service provision, and several prominent pro-Government of Syria individuals took part; social media criticism was addressed in Syrian Parliament, highlighting the increasingly dire economic conditions and service provision gaps throughout Government of Syria-held areas.

Destabilized Dar’a

In Depth Analysis

Over the course of the past several weeks, the security situation in Dar’a governorate has grown increasingly unstable.  On January 17, the heads of the municipalities of Yadoudeh and Mseifra were assassinated; it is worth noting that the previous head of the Yadoudeh municipality was also assassinated on January 4.  Also on January 17, assassination attempts targeted the head of the Mzeireb municipality as well as a Syrian Arab Army military commander in Nawa; it is currently unclear if either individual survived.  According to local sources, assassinations and assassination attempts have continued to steadily increase in southern Syria since the negotiation of the southern Syria reconciliation agreements in July 2018; the majority of these assassinations and attempts targeted Government of Syria-affiliated military commanders and recently reconciled former armed opposition members now serving in Government of Syria-affiliated military or intelligence forces.  Local sources also indicate that the number of assassination attempts in southern Syria is likely higher than is currently being reported on in the media. As of January 20, local sources report that the Government of Syria intends to turn over all military checkpoints in southern Syria to the Military Security Branch in response to these recent assassinations and attempts, rather than allowing different military groups and intelligence branches to maintain their own checkpoints as is currently the practice.

Protests in Dar’a City erupt during December 2018. Image courtesy of Enab Baladi.

The recent wave of assassinations are not the only manifestations of instability and unrest in southern Syria. Small scale clashes and attacks have also become more frequent.  For example, on January 11, an unidentified armed group launched an attack on the headquarters of the Air Force Intelligence branch located in Karak, in the eastern suburb of Dar’a. On November 25, 2018, attacks were carried out at a Government of Syria checkpoint and at the Criminal Security branch in the city of As-Sanamayn in central Dar’a.  Several large scale protests have also taken place in southern Syria since the negotiation of the southern Syria reconciliation agreements, the largest of which took place at the Al-Omari mosque in Dar’a city on December 22, 2018. Protestors regularly demonstrate against poor service provision and conscription, demand the release of detainees, and condemn former armed opposition combatants who are now members of Government of Syria military forces or intelligence branches. Anti-Government of Syria graffiti has reportedly proliferated throughout southern Syria; while not important in and of itself, graffiti is very symbolically important considering the role it played in the earliest days of the Dar’a uprising.

Many Syria analysts and observers have attributed the increased instability in southern Syria to the ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria.’ The Popular Resistance of Southern Syria is supposedly a local armed opposition group that formed in November 2018.  The group regularly claims responsibility for attacks and assassinations, though they have yet to claim responsibility for any of the recent assassinations.  Ironically, the ‘Popular Resistance of Southern Syria’ may not even actually exist: many local sources have entirely dismissed the armed group as a fictional creation of opposition activists and social media influencers outside Syria.  The same local sources note that the Government of Syria maintains extremely strict security and military controls in southern Syria, as evidenced by the ongoing detention and conscription campaigns; in this context, it would be extremely difficult to maintain a cohesive and operational armed opposition group.  Indeed, the increased instability in southern Syria should not be directly attributed to former armed opposition actors waging a local insurgency; rather, its origins are more complex and less easily understood.

Hundreds of former armed opposition combatants reconcile with the Government of Syria following the July 2018 southern Syria offensive. Image courtesy of Al-Masdar.

The increased instability in southern Syria should first be broken into two categories: social instability (public protests, local notable protests, and graffiti) and violent instability (checkpoint attacks and assassinations).  As for the social instability, the origins are clear: nearly six months after reconciliation agreements were negotiated in southern Syria, services remain largely nonfunctional, and local conscription campaigns in southern Syria have become increasingly intense.  Throughout southern Syria, electricity is intermittent or nonexistent, water networks are frequently damaged or nonfunctional, and the price of staple goods is extremely high. Yet conscription is very likely the primary driver of local discontent in southern Syria.   Local sources indicate that large numbers of military-aged males no longer leave their homes due to fears of conscription and while local notables, through a new negotiating body known as the ‘Dar’a Crisis Committee,’ continue to engage in negotiations with Government of Syria representatives with respect to waiving or postponing conscription, press-ganging continues throughout southern Syria.  That said, concerns over conscription and a lack of services is not unique to southern Syria, but is rather the norm in nearly every reconciled area, and in many longtime Government of Syria-held areas.

The violent instability in southern Syria is more difficult to diagnose.  As noted, attributing the recent assassinations and clashes to a resurgent armed opposition may very well be inaccurate.  The recent violence is much more likely to originate from within, and between, different Government of Syria military and intelligence groups.  The two largest Government of Syria military groups in southern Syria are the 4th Division and the 5th Division; the two most important intelligence groups are the Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence.  All of these groups have incorporated large numbers of former armed opposition combatants and commanders into their ranks, as in other reconciled area. What is more noteworthy than incorporation is the means by which they were incorporated.  As argued by COAR’s analysts in a assessment entitled ‘Dividing Dar’a’ (published in their former incarnation – the Mercy Corps Humanitarian Access Team), the reconciliation of southern Syria was a piecemeal process: in some areas and for some groups, the Government of Russia led the reconciliations process; in other areas and for other groups, the Government of Syria (and Iran) led.  Thus, armed opposition commanders and combatants were incorporated into different Government of Syria-affiliated military groups, and subsequently developed separate allegiances to rival security actors. According to local sources, different Government of Syria-affiliated security actors, and their associated local allies, are now engaged in competition over control of specific military branches, communities, and associated governance bodies.   Were this hypothesis to be true, the root causes of instability in southern Syria will be much more difficult to address, especially with respect to humanitarian, development, and peace-building actors.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Israeli Airstrikes on Damascus

Damascus, Syria: On January 20, a series of six Israeli airstrikes impacted locations in the vicinity of the Damascus International Airport.  On the same day, the Government of Syria-affiliated SANA news agency stated that the Government of Syria had “responded to Israeli aggression,” and that air defence had “prevented the Israeli Air Force from achieving any of its objectives.” Subsequently, on January 21, an Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson, Afichay Adraee, stated that the Israeli airstrikes targeted Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Syrian air defence positions near Damascus International Airport.  Adraee further stated that the Israeli air raid was in response to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard launching a missile from Syria over the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu also commented on the airstrikes, stating that “we are acting against Iran and the Syrian forces that abet the Iranian aggression…whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility.”  The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that at least four Syrian soldiers were killed; for their part, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that at least 21 individuals were killed, of which 12 were Iranian. On January 22, IDF Spokesperson Jonathan Conricus stated that the IDF had used communication channels with the Russian military prior to the recent airstrikes on Syria.

Analysis: The recent Israeli airstrikes are perhaps the most provocative Israeli strikes in Syria to date.  It is unusual for the Government of Israel to publicly claim responsibility for airstrikes in Syria; it is also unusual for airstrikes to target locations in the vicinity of the Damascus International Airport, and to kill Syrian military as opposed to more explicit Iranian targets. Given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent statement, it is likely that Israel intends to increase the number of airstrikes on Syria, which is partially a function of Israeli concerns with respect to Iranian present and influence, exacerbated by the impending U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria.  Iranian rhetoric has also exacerbated and confirmed these Israeli fears; for example, on January 15, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari stated to Iranian media outlets that Iran intends to keep its “military advisers, revolutionary forces, and its weapons in Syria.” That said, increased Israeli military pressure on Syria and Iran are not likely to have major impact on the overall Syrian conflict for the time being.

2. Northwestern Syria Situation

Idleb and Northern Hama Governorates, Syria: On January 18, Governments of Syria-affiliated forces shelled several communities in northern Hama governorate, to include Murak, Kafr Zeita, and Latmana. Shortly thereafter, on January 20, Government of Russia airstrikes reportedly targeted Baksariya, in rural Jisr Ash-Shughur, which resulted in the death of two civilians; on January 21, Russian airstrikes targeted a neighborhood in Khan Elsobol, also in Jisr Ash-Shughur. Concurrent with the increased Government of Syria and Government of Russia targeting of armed opposition areas, considerable internal tensions continue to fragment the armed opposition in northwestern Syria. For example, on January 19, ISIS sleeper cells reportedly carried out several attacks against Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Idleb governorate, the most notable of which being an IED attack targeting a Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham military position in southern Idleb, which resulted in the death of 15 Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants. On the same date, local sources indicated that several Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants were shot in Daret Azza, Khan Elsobol, Harim, and Maaret Tamsrin by unknown individuals.

Analysis: As of January 10, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has military secured the majority of northwestern Syria, while their governance body, the Salvation Government, has now become the primary administrative body in almost every community in northwestern Syria. However, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will likely face three major challenges in the near term. First, the disarmament zone agreement established on September 17 has become increasingly fragile in light of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s takeover of northwestern Syria, largely due to the fact that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was notably excluded from the agreement. Thus, the Governments of Syria and Russia now have the justification to target northwestern Syria with airstrikes and shelling to increase pressure on both the armed opposition and civilians living in armed opposition-held areas. Second, while Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has clearly demonstrated that they are the strongest armed actor in northwestern Syria, many other armed groups and armed individual do remain in Idleb governorate, to include ISIS sleeper cells and recently defeated National Liberation Front groups; all of these groups are now likely to prioritize the asymmetric targeting Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants and commanders. Third, due to the Salvation Government’s administrative takeover of northwestern Syria, the entire region will now likely become internationally isolated, especially in terms of humanitarian and development aid. For example, on January 11 the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) suspended their aid to northwestern Syria; according to local sources this suspension will have a major impact on the health sector in northwestern Syria, which is heavily dependant on GIZ funding.

3. ISIS Attacks in Northeastern Syria

Menbij, Aleppo governorate and Shadadah, Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Syria: On January 16, ISIS carried out a suicide bombing attack in Menbij targeting a joint U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) military convoy, killing at least 15 people.  Reportedly, four Americans were killed, which includes two U.S. military personnel, a Defense Department civilian employee, and a U.S. military contractor. Subsequently, on January 21, Operation Inherent Resolve released a statement indicating that a VBIED attack targeted a joint U.S.-SDF convoy in Shadadah, in Al-Hasakeh, killing five SDF combatants.  According to the statement, there were no U.S. casualties; however, different local and Turkish media claim that between two to five U.S. soldiers were injured. Later that day, ISIS released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, in a phone conversation on January 21, Turkish President Erdogan reportedly told U.S. President Trump that that the Government of Turkey is ready to take over security in Menbij. Additionally, Erdogan reportedly told Trump that the recent Menbij attack was a provocation by ISIS to influence and expedite the expected U.S. withdrawal from Syria.  Concurrent with the increased asymmetric attacks against U.S.-led coalition convoys in Syria, local sources noted that the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, reportedly resumed their negotiations with the Government of Syria. The Kurdish Self Administration released a set of 10 terms to be submitted to the Government of Syria during their negotiations. Some of the terms entailed in the proposal are: the Kurdish Self Administration will have representatives in the Syrian Parliament in Damascus; Kurdish Self Administration flags will accompany Government of Syria flags; the Kurdish Self Administration acknowledges that Bashar Al-Assad is the President of Syria; and that the SDF will be a part of the Syrian Arab Army.

Analysis: Many analysts -especially in the U.S.- assert that these IED attacks targeting U.S. convoys will slow down the anticipated U.S. withdrawal from Syria; in reality, these recent attacks will likely have the opposite effect.  President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited the killing of U.S. soldiers as a reason for withdrawing from Syria; thus, the recent attacks will validate his decision-making, and indeed, these attacks will likely accelerate the U.S. withdrawal. As for the ongoing negotiations between the Syrian Democratic Council and the Government of Syria: in their original terms, the Kurdish Self Administration seemed to have agreed to many of the demands presented by the Government of Syria; however, it will remain especially difficult to tackle the actual implementation of the Government of Syria’s demands, particularly with respect to local administration and local governance in SDF-controlled areas. Given the increased military and political pressures on the SDF, it is likely that the Kurdish Self Administration will be forced to accept much more unfavorable terms with the Government of Syria.

4. Afrin Attacks

Afrin, Aleppo governorate, Syria: On January 20, a VBIED attack took place in Afrin city, in northern Aleppo governorate, resulting in the death of three civilians and the injury of several others. Additionally, in December 2018, two separate VBIED attacks struck markets in Afrin, with the “Olive Rage Movement” subsequently claiming responsibility for the blasts.  Notably, the “Olive Rage Movement” is reportedly comprised of YPG sleeper cells in Afrin that seek to destabilize Turkish control in Afrin. In response to the attack, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Operation Olive Branch have “buried all terrorists organizations in Afrin.”

Analysis: January 20th marks the first anniversary of  the start of the Turkish Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. The fact that the VBIED attack occurred on the same day of the anniversary is not a coincidence; it reiterates the fact that YPG sleeper cells remain active in Afrin, and reinforces the fact that Afrin remains plagued by both social tensions and security concerns. Indeed, IED attacks, assassinations and clashes have regularly occurred in Afrin since February 2018. The reason for this instability is likely due to the political and ethnic demographic change that has occurred over the past year in Afrin. Indeed, the YPG, and a large segment of the Kurdish population that previously inhabited Afrin, fled or was forcibly evacuated following Operation Olive Branch. Since then, Afrin has been increasingly repopulated by opposition-affiliated individuals forcibly evacuated from other parts of Syria, especially Eastern Ghouta, northern Homs, southern Syria, and northwestern Syria.  Thus, Afrin has become a place where a forcibly evacuated population was replaced with another forcibly evacuated population from across Syria; naturally, social tensions between Kurds and Arab, and between Arabs from different parts of the country, are extreme. It thus remains increasingly likely that IED attacks and assassinations will continue for the foreseeable future.

5. Iranian-Syrian Economic Agreement

Tehran, Iran: On January 20, the Government of Syria Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Mohammad Samer Al-Khalil, signed a long-term economic cooperation agreement with Iranian officials in Tehran. The agreement reportedly stipulates comprehensive cooperation at the financial and banking levels, and contributes to facilitating trade and investment between Iran and Syria. Additionally, Iranian Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Mohammad Eslami, stated that the agreement was only the beginning of “broad” cooperation between the two countries in the future.

Analysis: It has become increasingly clear that the Government of Iran intends to heavily invest in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, development, and rehabilitation. This is not particularly unusual, but investments in Syria’s infrastructure, particularly by the Governments of Iran and Russia, are always noteworthy. Additionally, previous COAR weeklies have cited the increased efforts of the Government of Iraq, with Iranian cooperation, to establish joint Iraqi-Iranian-Syrian economic cooperation in the future, which allows the Government of Iran to increase its economic and political influence over the entire levant region.  

6. Lebanon Reconstruction

Beirut, Lebanon: On January 18, the Lebanese Caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gibran Basil, stated that: “No one can prevent the Lebanese from participating in Syria’s reconstruction.” Basil’s statement was concurrent with the Arab League Economic Summit held in Beirut, which was marked by considerably hostile political rhetoric regarding the participation of Syria in the summit.  Additionally, Mckinsey and Company, a prominent management consultancy contracted by the Government of Lebanon, recently publicly released its report on the economic vision for Lebanon. One of the key recommendations of the report is Lebanon’s capitalization on Syria’s reconstruction as a means to overcome its economic recession and repay its debt. To that end, the Caretaker Minister of Economy, Raed Khoury, has repeatedly stressed on the importance of the report, claiming that that it will serve as an asset for Lebanon’s future economic vision. To that end, there are numerous indications that the Government of Lebanon intends to expand the port of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, in order for it to function as a transit hub for Syria reconstruction projects. Indeed, the Government of Lebanon has already reportedly invested in the port’s expansion; additionally, CMA-CGM, a French shipping company, has reportedly bought a 20% stake in Gulftainer Lebanon, the Tripoli Port’s terminal operator, and the Saudi Arabia–based Islamic Development Bank approved a loan to expand the Tripoli port.  Furthermore, several media sources reported on the Government of China’s willingness to invest in Tripoli’s port, though news on an agreement between Chinese companies and the Tripoli port administration remains contradictory.

Analysis:  Foreign Minister Basil’s statement should be read in light of the difficult set of constraints facing Lebanon’s involvement in Syria’s reconstruction. In many ways, Lebanon is in a difficult position and must officially avoid direct agreements with the Government of Syria with respect to reconstruction, due to both domestic political constraints as well as associated risks posed by international sanctions and the Syria-specific policy of Lebanon’s closest allies.  At the same time, these risks will not necessarily impede the Lebanese private sector from investing in and pursuing opportunities, nor will it change the fact that Lebanese ports remain a critical point of ingress for reconstruction-related material. In the meantime, and in light of the continued political gridlock in Lebanon and the absence of political consensus in the Lebanese cabinet, an official Government of Syria economic agreement with the Government of Lebanon is unlikely in the near future.

7. Academi (Blackwater) Proposal in Northeastern Syria

Washington D.C., USA.: In an interview with Fox News, Erik Prince, the founder of Academi,  stated that although the U.S. does not have a long-term strategic obligation in Syria, “it would be wrong to abandon American allies in Syria,” referring to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); Prince further suggested that private military contractors could replace American troops in northeastern Syria. Notably, Academi is a U.S.-based private military company formerly known as Blackwater. Academi has taken part in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has reportedly implemented several major CIA contracts; reportedly, Academi is also attempting to secure contracts to replace many of the U.S. military forces that are intended to return from Afghanistan.  Of note, Prince, a public supporter and personal friend of U.S. President Donald Trump, is holding meetings in Washington this week to sell his proposal to U.S. policymakers.

Analysis: The potential that Academi could replace U.S. troops in northeastern Syria should not entirely be discounted.  Academi has proposed supporting U.S. forces in northeastern Syria, and replacing U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for some time; these proposals were reportedly always refused by former U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis.  However, considering Mattis’ resignation, and Prince’s personal relationship with President Trump (as well as numerous other U.S. lawmakers), the possibility that President Trump could approve replacing U.S. military forces with private military company forces is indeed within the realm of possibility.  However, it should be noted that were this to occur, it would likely not fundamentally change the ultimate trajectory of northeastern Syria. U.S. military forces are direct symbolic representatives of U.S. policy, especially in Syria. The primary impediment to a Turkish or Government of Syria intervention was never the approximately 2,000 U.S. soldiers in northeastern Syria; it was rather the fact that the deaths of these soldiers could result in further direct action by the U.S. military.  Much like when U.S. forces killed numerous Russian Wagner Group private military contractors in February 2018, the killing of Academi forces may not draw a direct U.S. response. Additionally, U.S. military forces are subject to U.S. military courts of justice; as experienced repeatedly in Iraq (most crucially in the Nisour Square Massacre in 2007, when Blackwater employees killed at least 17 Iraqi civilians), the legal frameworks protecting private military contractors, or their actions, are extremely unclear.  

8. Service Provision in GoS Areas

Damascus, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, a social media campaign criticizing Government of Syria service provision in Government of Syria-controlled areas has been ongoing on numerous social media channels, to include pro-Government of Syria Facebook channels and Twitter. Numerous prominent pro-Government of Syria individuals, to include Syrian actor Ayman Zeidan and actress Dima Kandalaft, took part.  The social media campaign is being conducted in response to the deteriorating humanitarian and economic conditions in Government of Syria-held areas throughout the past month. As mentioned in the January 4-9 COAR Syria Update , deteriorating conditions in Government of Syria-held areas are generally related to price spikes for staple goods as well as electricity cuts.  In response, Syrian Speaker of Parliament Hammoudeh Sabbagh accused “foreign actors” of being behind the social media campaign during a regular session of the parliament on January 21.  During the same parliamentary session, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis presented a proposal related to Government of Syria efforts to improve living conditions and service provision. Khamis further stated that the Government of Syria is looking to cooperate with friendly countries and allies to insure availability of key commodities in local markets.

Analysis:  As noted in past COAR Syria Updates, the ongoing price spikes and electricity shortages in Government of Syria-held areas are related to a lack of natural gas, fuel, and propane.  The absence of fuel and natural gas is in no small part due to the fact that Syria’s natural gas resources are not under the direct control of the Government of Syria as well as damaged extraction infrastructure caused by the conflict.  Shortages are also due to the fact that imports are increasingly difficult to secure, largely on account of concerns related to U.S. and European sanctions. Gas and fuel shortages naturally impact the prices of nearly all goods as well as electricity generation and availability; gas and fuel shortages have thus created a situation whereby the Government of Syria is unable to provide key economic resource upon which the Syrian economy relies.  The fact that known pro-Government of Syria individuals are openly criticizing the Government’s inability to provide these services is a major indication of the severity of the present situation.

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.

Media Anthology: January 15 – January 21, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

January 15 to 21, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
US backed Kurdish group seizes key village from IS militants in SyriaEnglishMiddle East EyeJanuary 15, 2019Conflict and Military
Islamic State Returns to Guerrilla Tactics as It Loses TerritoryEnglishThe Wall Street Journal 01/17/2019iConflict and Military
Syrian offensive against rebel enclave more likely after Al-Qaeda-linked fighters take controlEnglishThe Washington PostJanuary 19, 2019Conflict and Military
Clashes between the Fifth corps and the Fourth divisionArabicJesr PressJanuary 20, 2019Conflict and Military
US-blacklisted Syrian businessman leads UAE-Syria investment forumEnglishMiddle East EyeJanuary 21, 2019Economic
"Assad" is cutting  exports to the north and doubling pricesArabicSyrian ReporterJanuary 18, 2019Economic
The Government of Syria officially allows entry of "Asian" goods through Nasib crossingArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 15, 2019Governance and Service Management
Dar'a: the replacement of "reconciliation" commanders after the end of their timeArabicAl ModonJanuary 17, 2019Social Dynamics
Dar'a: The assassination of MayorsArabicAl ModonJanuary 18, 2019Social Dynamics
The United Nations in the Syrian Arab Republic statement expressing concern for the protection of civilians in Hajin and conditions in RukbanEnglishUnited NationsJanuary 15, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The first results of "HTS" control over Idleb: Germany suspends its humanitarian aid and danger threatens the medical sectorArabicAl QudsJanuary 18, 2019Humanitarian & Development
A 'security zone' in northern Syria? Easier said than doneEnglishMiddle East EyeJanuary 17, 2019International Intervention
Why hasn’t Syria used S-300?EnglishThe Jerusalem PostJanuary 21, 2019International Intervention
Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scramblingEnglishIntegrated Regional Information Networks NewsJanuary 16, 2019Other
Syrian Kurds, government, plan for US withdrawalEnglishAsia TimesJanuary 18, 2019Other

Media Anthology: January 08 – January 14, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

January 08 to 14, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Ceasefire sees jihadists cement grip over IdlibEnglishThe Arab WeeklyJanuary 13, 2019Conflict and Military
"Ahrar Al-Sham" dissolves itself in rural Hama in an agreement with "HTS"ArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 9, 2019Conflict and Military
Unknown gunmen targets a checkpoint for regime Air Intelligence east of Dar'aArabicOrient NewsJanuary 11, 2019Conflict and Military
Netanyahu admits Friday's airstrikes: Iranian warehouses at Damascus airportArabicAl ModonJanuary 13, 2019Conflict and Military
Exclusive: New documents link Huawei to suspected front companies in Iran, SyriaEnglishReutersJanuary 8, 2019Economic
A delegation of 26 Syrian businessmen, including Hamsho, Al-Sawah, Al-Debis, and Al-Qattan will visit the UAE next weekArabicEmmar SyriaJanuary 11, 2019Economic
"Yalbga Compound" in Wassim Qattan's hands. Another suspicious deal?ArabicAl ModonJanuary 13, 2019Economic
Oil Minister: The economic blockade imposed on Syria led to the suspension of a large part of gas supply operations, and local production will increase in the next phaseArabicSyria OilJanuary 8, 2019Economic
Free Syrian Police in northwestern Syria to ‘dissolve’ amid HTS takeoverEnglishSyria DirectJanuary 10, 2019Governance and Service Management
Sectarian militias are one of several reasons for the continuing bread crisis in Aleppo city.ArabicZaman Al WaslJanuary 10, 2019Governance and Service Management
Government of Syria promises to solve the fuel crisisArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 13, 2019Governance and Service Management
Russia restructures regime's forces: Is it retirement time!ArabicAl ModonJanuary 12, 2019Governance and Service Management
A Framework for Neutral Aid Work in Syria Is Urgently NeededEnglishChatham HouseJanuary 12, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Thousands fleeing fighting in northeast Syria – UNHCREnglishUnited Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesJanuary 11, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Safadi: A possible close encounter between Russia, Jordan and U.S about Ar-Rukban campArabicSputnik NewsJanuary 8, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Statement by the Syrian NGO Alliance on the recent targeting of health facilities and humanitarian workers in northwestern SyriaArabicSyrian NGO AllianceJanuary 10, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The return of the first batch of Madamiyet Elsham refugees from Jordan through Nasib crossingArabicDamascus VoiceJanuary 10, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Islamic State evacuations from last Syrian holdout exceed 600 as assault loomsEnglishMiddle East EyeJanuary 13, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Netanyahu Reveals Israel Struck Iranian Arms in Damascus Over the WeekendEnglishHaaretzJanuary 13, 2019International Intervention
Turkey says will launch Syria attack if US delays troop pulloutEnglishAl JazeeraJanuary 10, 2019International Intervention
Paris: Withdrawal from Syria after political solutionArabicAl ModonJanuary 10, 2019International Intervention
Trump threatens Turkey to establish "Safe Zone" 32 Km deep inside Syria in case Turkey attacks the KurdsArabicAl HalJanuary 14, 2019International Intervention
Intra-rebel ceasefire agreement brings HTS offensive to a halt, but expands hardline control in northwestEnglishSyria DirectJanuary 10, 2019Other
"Salvation Government": from foundation to control of IdlebArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 10, 2019Other
"Free Syrian Army" commanders in Dar'a receive a Russian pledge to secure their exit in an unannounced agreementArabicSmart News AgencyJanuary 13, 2019Other
"Euphrates Shield" and "Olive Branch" Areas: Where to?ArabicSalon SyriaJanuary 11, 2019Other

Syria Update: January 10 – January 16, 2019

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Syria Update

10 January to 16 January, 2019

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 January 10, the National Liberation Front signed a ceasefire agreement with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, after 10 days of armed opposition infighting across northwestern Syria. Most critically, the ceasefire stipulates that the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government will now become the primary administrative body in every community in northwestern Syria. The Salvation Government was formed in November 2017 by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham as an alternative to the Syrian Interim Government; the Salvation Government is effective, unified, and able to impose its decrees thanks to its relationship with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. Much of the conflict in northwestern Syria has its origins in administrative control and legitimacy; now, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has ensured that the Salvation Government will effectively be the sole governance body in northwestern Syria, despite popular resistance from some communities and organizations. Nevertheless, the Salvation Government takeover of northwestern Syria raises the prospect that the Government of Syria will launch a major offensive into northwestern Syria as the major political impediment (namely, the presence of a Turkish-backed ‘moderate’ opposition) is gone. Furthermore, by taking control northwestern Syria, the Salvation Government will drastically complicate the northwestern Syria humanitarian and development response. INGOs and local NGOs working in northwestern Syria have already faced severe challenges due to the presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government; maintaining the northwestern Syria response while still meeting due diligence and compliance requirements will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, in many communities.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • A U.S. military spokesman announced that the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria is indeed taking place, while the Government of Turkey continues to threaten to launch a military intervention and negotiations between the Kurdish Self-Administration and the Government of Syria continue.  It is increasingly likely that a Government of Turkey military intervention will take place, although not necessarily in the immediate future, which will likely compel the Self-Administration to accept many of the Government of Syria’s demands.
  • Israel launched a series of airstrikes in Damascus and Rural Damascus; unusually, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed responsibility for these airstrikes, indicating the degree to which Israel intends to escalate its confrontations with Iran inside Syria.
  • A Government of Syria intelligence headquarters was attacked by unknown combatants in Dar’a; similar incidents have increased in frequency over the past several months, indicating the severe unrest in southern Syria following the July 2018 reconciliation agreement.
  • The SDF continues to clash with ISIS forces in Deir-ez-Zor governorate; however, the ultimate trajectory of this conflict remains unclear considering the impending U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
  • Recent reports indicate that the Government of Russia has engaged in restructuring Syrian military institutions by removing, detaining, or reshuffling high ranking officers; this could partially be attributed to attempts to remove Iranian influence, and partially related to attempts to reassert control over more independant military commanders.
  • A Syrian business delegation, led by prominent businessman Mohammad Hamsho, accepted an invitation to travel to the UAE to meet with Emirati and diaspora Syrian businessmen.  The business delegation is indicative of the rapid ‘rehabilitation’ of the Government of Syria in the Arab world, particularly in the Arab Gulf.
  • Three Belgian companies are on trial for reportedly selling multi-use chemical compounds to the Government of Syria between 2014-2016, indicating the degree to which Syria sanctions will impact the future trajectory of the Syrian economy.
  • A large number of ceramics factories in Damascus closed their doors over the past 40 days due to continuing natural gas and propane shortages.  The gas shortages will have a major impact on numerous sectors of the Syrian economy, and highlight the challenges facing the Syrian economy more broadly.

Salvation Government Takes Control of Idleb

In Depth Analysis

On January 10, the National Liberation Front signed a ceasefire agreement with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, following 10 days of armed opposition infighting across northwestern Syria.  As covered in last weeks COAR Syria Update, the fighting began on January 1, when Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a major attack on Noureddine Al-Zinki, a National Liberation Front-affiliated group in western Aleppo and eastern Idleb.  By January 4, Noureddine Al-Zinki dissolved itself, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham capitalized on its momentum by launching attacks on Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham positions in southern Idleb and northern Hama.  By January 10, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham had seized nearly all of opposition-held northwestern Hama, capturing or surrounding nearly every major community in northwestern Syria, and forcing the dissolution of Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham, two other National Liberation Front groups which have existed since the earliest days of the Syrian conflict.  The terms of the January 10 ceasefire agreement partially stipulated that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will cease attacks and permit Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham combatants that wish to evacuate to Turkish-held Afrin to do so.  However, the final stipulation of the ceasefire agreement is the most critical: the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government will now become the primary administrative body in every community in northwestern Syria. The ascendancy of the Salvation Government will dramatically reshape the political landscape of northwestern Syria, and will likely fundamentally shape the trajectory of the northwestern Syria conflict.

Representatives of Salvation Government meeting the Local Council of Atareb after taking control over the city in January 2019. Photo courtesy of Naba’ Agency

The Salvation Government was formed in November 2017 by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham as an opposition government alternative to the Syrian Interim Government, which is openly supported by Turkey and the primary governance structure in Turkish-held northern Aleppo.  Since its formation, all communities that are militarily controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham have come under the authority of the Salvation Government, sometimes forcibly. In some ways, the Salvation Government has been a successful governance project; the Salvation Government is largely self-funded, generally technocratic, and delivers relatively effective service and cohesive governance.  A huge component of this efficacy lies in the degree of unity between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government. Through Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, the Salvation Government has achieved a monopoly on the use of ‘legitimate’ violence in areas it controls, and thereby compels local governance bodies and organizations to abide by its dictates. This efficacy and structured use of violence can be contrasted with the Syrian Interim Government, which varies widely in effectiveness and only has nominal control over the myriad armed actors which comprise the National Army.   

Nearly all of the inter-opposition tensions and conflict in northwestern Syria have had their origins in administrative affiliation and the question as to whether each of the various local governance bodies and armed groups will align with the Salvation Government, the Syrian Interim Government, or remain independent; the unification of northwestern Syria under one administrative body has thus been the primary objective of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham since the Salvation Government’s formation.  Indeed, while Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is not militarily in control of all of northwestern Syria, it is in de-facto control of nearly every major community as well as the majority of the M5 highway; by defeating the National Liberation Front, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has now made the Salvation Government the sole governing authority in northwestern Syria. Of course, some communities and entities remain deeply hostile to the Salvation Government; local notables in Ma’aret An-Numan in particular continue to reject the Salvation Government, and the Idleb Free Police announced their dissolution rather than fall under Salvation Government control.  However, these cases are exceptions and for all intents and purposes, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and its associated Salvation Government is now effectively in control of all of northwestern Syria.

There are thus two major outcomes to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham seizure of control of northwestern Syria.   The first is that the future status of the November 2018 disarmament zone agreement is now very much in question.  As noted in the recent COAR Northwestern Syria Scenario Plan, a Government of Syria military offensive into northwestern Syria is much more likely now that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has secured control over northwestern Syria.  The Government of Turkey will face extreme difficulties justifying the necessity of the disarmament zone agreement, as both the Governments of Syria and Russia can now credibly claim that the agreement only protects ‘terrorist’ groups. The timeline for a potential offensive is unclear, though it is worth noting that local sources report that Government of Syria military forces, to include the Syrian Arab Army 9th Division, have already begun to deploy to northern Hama. The second major outcomes is humanitarian and development; by taking control of every administrative body, the Salvation Government will drastically complicate the already complex northwestern Syria response. Local organizations and INGOs working in northwestern Syria have already endured severe compliance and due diligence challenges in northwestern Syria due to the presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government, and several INGOs have already been penalized for allowing aid to benefit the organization.  Indeed, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Salvation Government also regularly interfere in NGO work, most frequently through beneficiary selection, the imposition of local staff, and the compulsion of intervention areas.  Previously, organizations could mitigate this interference to some degree by basing themselves in communities not controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, such as Daret Azza, Atareb, or Ma’aret An-Numan. Now that the Salvation Government is the primary administrative actor, the risks facing NGOs may require the drastic scaling back of certain programs, at a time when they should instead be preparing for the potentially devastating humanitarian impact of a potential Government of Syria offensive.

Whole of Syria Review

U.S. Syria Withdrawal

Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Northeastern Syria:  On January 11, the spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force-Inherent Resolve, Colonel Sean Ryan, stated that the U.S. coalition has begun its withdrawal from Syria, but refrained from giving any further details on the timeline and movement of troops. However, local reports are conflicting; some media reports indicate that no military personnel have yet left Syria, while other sources reported that that convoys of both personnel and military equipment have been withdrawn to Iraq. Concurrent with the phased U.S. withdrawal, the Government of Turkey continues to threaten to launch a military intervention into northern Syria, particularly in Menbij; for example, on January 10, Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmet Cavusoglu stated that a Government of Turkey military offensive in northeastern Syria will take place irrespective of U.S. withdrawal, adding that “we will not seek permission from anyone.”  However, shortly following Cavusoglu’s statements, on January 13, U.S. President Donald Trump stated in a tweet that “[The U.S.] will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone.”  Immediately following the tweet, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu stated that Turkey is not opposed to a 20 mile safe zone, but added that he is “bothered by Trump’s inappropriate use of Twitter.”  On January 15, President Trump reportedly spoke with Turkish President Erdogan; regarding their conversation, President Trump tweeted: “Spoke w/ President Erdogan of Turkey to advise where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20 mile safe zone. Also spoke about economic development between the U.S. & Turkey – great potential to substantially expand.”  In light of the impending U.S. withdrawal and potential Turkish intervention, negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self-Administration also continue to take place; however, on January 13, the head of the Syria Democratic Committee Executive Committee, Ilham Ahmad, stated that negotiations between Syrian Democratic Forces and the Government of Syria have not yet reached any conclusion; as per her statement, both parties have thus far failed to reach an agreement due to the Government of Syria’s insistence on “resuming its former policies, and imposition of full control over the region.”

Analysis: Despite the continued U.S. insistence that ensuring the protection of Kurdish forces in Syria is a major priority despite the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, it is clear that the Government of Turkey intends to apply considerable military and diplomatic pressure to the Kurdish Self-Administration and the SDF.   However, Turkey is unlikely to launch any offensive so long as U.S. military forces remain present; indeed, the potential for a Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria is more likely to be contingent on a broader Turkish-Russian-Government of Syria agreement. As noted in the in-depth analysis section above, there remains a distinct likelihood that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s recent consolidation of control in northwestern Syria now gives the opportunity for Turkey to permit a Government of Syria offensive in northwestern Syria in exchange for a Turkish offensive in Menbij, where Government of Syria forces jointly control territory with the SDF.  Additionally, and despite the apparent lack of progress thus far in the negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self-Administration, the SDF will likely be compelled to submit to Government of Syria demands, and potentially hand over large swaths of territory in Menbij, Deir-ez-Zor, and Ar-Raqqa in order to prevent a potential Turkish intervention. Further concessions are also possible; for example, Ahmad Jarba, an opposition leader with linkages to Arab tribes in northeastern Syria, who is also known to have close ties with Turkey, recently proposed the creation of a tribal force along Syria-Iraq border using elements of the SDF.  While unlikely to be implemented in the near term, the dismantlement of the SDF, especially the Arab tribal components with linkages to Turkey, is increasingly likely to become a component of an eventual northwestern Syria agreement.

Israeli Attack on Damascus

Damascus, Syria: On January 12, Government of Syria spokesman stated that the Government of Syria had intercepted an Israeli air raid in Damascus; according to the statement, the Israeli airstrikes only inflicted damage on storage facilities at the Damascus airport.  However, other media reports indicated that the Israeli airstrikes actually targeted, and likely destroyed, three Hezbollah and Iranian weaponry storage in southern and western rural Damascus.  On January 13, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu affirmed that the Israeli airstrikes did take place and were successful, and reiterated that Israel will take whatever steps necessary to curb Iranian presence in Syria. Relatedly, on January 11, Israeli warplanes reportedly breached Lebanese airspace over Bekaa, Beirut, Marjeyoun, and Tripoli, among other areas in Lebanon.

Analysis:  Israeli efforts to curb Iranian presence and influence in Syria and Lebanon are likely to increase, especially as the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has increased perceptions in Israel that Israel must act unilaterally to protect its interests. Indeed, Israeli rhetoric has lately been increasingly hostile to Hezbollah and Iran in Syria; it is also worth noting that President Netanyahu’s acknowledgement of the Israeli airstrikes is highly unusual, as Israel generally does not claim airstrikes in Syria.  Government of Israel airstrikes in Syria and military activities along the northern Israeli border have also increased tensions with Lebanon, which has recently filed at least two complaints to the UN Security Council. While these tensions are unlikely to have a major impact on the course of the Syrian conflict, increased Israeli military activity always has the potential to escalate into wider a conflict with Hezbollah, both in Syria and in Lebanon.

GoS Headquarters Attack in Dar’a

Karak, Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria:  On January 11, an unidentified armed group, believed to be former armed opposition combatants, reportedly targeted the headquarters of the Government of Syria Air Force Intelligence branch located in the village of Karak, in the eastern suburb of Dar’a. Since the negotiation of the southern Syria reconciliation agreement in July 2018, several similar attacks have been reported in Dar’a; for example, on November 25, 2018, an attack was carried out at a Government of Syria checkpoint and a Criminal Security branch in the city of As-Sanamayn in central Dar’a, resulting in the death of several individuals. The attacks have been locally, though not officially, attributed to the ‘Popular Resistance,’ a Dar’a-based group that announced its establishment in mid-November 2018 and which has claimed responsibility for most attacks carried out against Government of Syria forces in Dar’a.  

Analysis: Although there have been several attacks carried out against the Government of Syria in Dar’a during the last few months, these attacks are unlikely to cause a significant change in the general status quo of the area. These incidents speak more generally to the unstable socio-political and security situation in the reconciled communities of southern Syria, and more generally throughout Syria. Despite coordination between Government of Syria and local tribal leaders, tensions persists between the two concerning the Government of Syria’s arbitrary detainment of reconciled armed opposition combatants and civilians, and their lack of commitment to the terms of the reconciliation agreement. It is worth noting that the extent to which the Government of Syria is capable of maintaining firm control in southern Syria is heavily if not entirely reliant on its ability to secure the allegiance of tribal leaders and notables. Indeed, shortages in services and essential commodities are likely to exacerbate general discontent in southern Syria.

ISIS-SDF Clashes

Abu Badran, Deir-ez-Zor, Northeastern Syria: On January 14, the SDF captured Abu Badran,  from ISIS forces, thereby advancing further south and east in Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Notably, between January 12 and 13, media sources estimated that a total of 3200 civilians have evacuated from the remaining ISIS-controlled pocket in eastern Deir-ez-Zor towards SDF-controlled areas; the evacuation of these civilians was reportedly facilitated by the SDF.  According to SDF spokesmen, the majority of those individuals that evacuated from ISIS-held areas, in both Syria and Iraq, went to the Al-Hol camp; throughout the past week, at least 2383 individuals reportedly arrived at the camp, among whom 983 are Syrians and 1370 are Iraqi.

Analysis: The SDF will likely secure the remaining ISIS-held pocket in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor in the near- to medium-term. Considering the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Syria, it is likely that U.S. forces remaining in Syria will apply considerable pressure to the SDF eliminate the remaining ISIS pockets of Deir-ez-Zor prior to the full U.S. withdrawal. However, it is likely that SDF forces in eastern Deir-ez-Zor will not heavily prioritize the conflict with ISIS, despite U.S. pressure, due to the fact that there are significant concerns of a Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria.  Whatever the status of the conflict, it is highly likely that individuals will continue to flee the ISIS-held pocket of Deir-ez-Zor, and will likely prioritize SDF-held areas.

Russian Restructuring of GoS Military

Damascus, Syria: On January 12, media sources reported on a series of recent attempts by the Government of Russia to dramatically restructure Government of Syria military forces. Reportedly, the Government of Russia has demanded the dismissal of a total of 450 Government of Syria Generals throughout the past several months, under the pretext of injuries or corruption charges; as of January 2019, representatives of Government of Russia have reportedly reshuffled at least 100 other high ranking military positions, and detained at least 90 high ranking Government of Syria military commanders. Reportedly, many of those commanders who have been dismissed or detained are either perceived as having close ties with Iran, or are primarily based in the vicinity of Damascus city. Other governmental institutions, such as state security, police and the foreign ministry have reportedly undergone similar restructuring.  

Analysis: The Government of Russia attempts to restructure Government of Syria military branches can be regarded as means of solidifying control over the structure of the Syrian military establishment. Throughout the conflict, Government of Syria military officers have engaged in continuous internal jockeying for power, and officers regular attempt to secure competing allegiances with regional backers of the Government of Syria. While the Government of Russia is clearly attempting to assert control over military structures by ‘purging’ officers it considers untrustworthy, this will likely be extremely difficult to implement on a national level.  Local militias, as well as Government of Syria commanders, often assuming de-facto independent control over areas in which they are stationed; therefore, the extent to which Russia is actually able to bring about real changes in the structure of Syria military forces is questionable. Additionally, while it is likely that the Government of Russia is attempting to remove Iranian influence from the Syrian military, this should not be taken as a reflection of the broader Russian-Iranian relationship; indeed, despite tensions between Russia and Iran within certain state institutions and in certain areas, Russia will likely remain closely aligned with the Government of Iran on a strategic level.

Syrian Business Delegation to UAE

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: On January 11, a delegation of 26 Syrian businessmen accepted an invitation from the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry to visit the UAE on January 19. The delegation will reportedly meet with representatives from the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce as well as other Emirati and Syrian businessmen.  The head of the Syrian delegation businessmen is Mohammad Hamsho, an extremely prominent Syrian businessman with close linkages to the Al-Assad family. In related news, representatives from an Emirati company, Damac Properties, reportedly recently visited Syria and examined the prospects of investment in real estate. Additionally, several Gulf airlines, to include Emirates, have also reportedly been inspecting Damascus airport in an attempt to resume flights to Syria in the near future.  

Analysis: The Syria businessmen delegation to Abu Dhabi will likely set the stage for future economic cooperation between the Government of Syria and the UAE, signifying the increased rapprochement between both governments following the UAE reopening of its embassy in December 2018. While this reproachment is part of a broader rapprochement between Arab states and the Government of Syria, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have adhered to their previous position, and recently reiterated their rejection of reconciliation with Damascus. Arab economic investment in the reconstruction of Syria will likely further accelerate the process of rehabilitating the Government of Syria’s regional relationships.

Belgian Companies Trial

Brussels, Belgium: As of January 15, trials are ongoing for the three Belgian companies, AAE Chemie Trading, Anex Customs, and Danmar Logistics, all of which are accused of illegal exportation of chemicals to Government of Syria. The trials began on January 3, and a verdict  is expected in late January. The three Belgian companies are reportedly accused of exporting a total of 168 tons of isopropanol to Syria between 2014 and 2016, and forging customs permits. The three companies reportedly claim that they were not informed that special authorizations were required for the exports of these products to Syria.  Of note, the EU recently extended its sanctions and restrictions on export to Syria; among these sanctions are embargoes on the export of “equipment and technology that could be used for internal repression.” Of note, isopropanol is used for a wide range of commercial, industrial, and military purposes, from nail polish remover to the production of sarin gas.

Analysis: While the specific details of this particular court case are unclear, the prosecution of three European companies highlights some of the challenges presented by Syria sanctions.  Syria currently faces numerous import, export, and financial sanctions from both the U.S. and the European Union. Sanctions are expected to impact the recovery of Syria’s economy in the foreseeable future, as many western companies will refrain from re-establishing trade relations and investing in Syria in fear of prosecution.  This will naturally influence economic recovery, while also ensuring that western firms will eschew working with Syrian companies and financial institutions.

Ceramics Factory Closures

Damascus, Syria: Local sources reported that ceramic factories, mostly concentrated in the vicinity of Damascus, halted the majority of their work approximately 40 days ago.  Reportedly, the primary reason that ceramics production has halted is due to continuous natural gas and propane shortages. The closing of ceramics factories has reportedly resulted in the dismissal of thousands of workers. The owners of ceramics factories reportedly requested permission to import more propane and natural gas three months ago; however, the Government of Syria rejected this demand, citing the lack of availability and funding. Reportedly, the lack of propane gas has also impacted individual consumption and other gas dependant industries, such as bakeries.  Considering the gas shortages, the average price of gas has continued to rise; in response to price increases, on January 8, the Government of Syria Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, Ali Ghanem, stated that the the Government of Syria will attempt to increase local production of gas from 30% to 70%. The Government of Syria is also reportedly working on managing gas through the application of ‘smart card’ to regulate gas purchases.

Analysis: The shortages of fuel and gas, and associated price increases are major indications of the Government of Syria’s limited local production capacity, as well as the heavy toll of economic sanctions on its economy. Indeed, natural gas and propane are among the most critical goods in Syria, not only for local industry, but also for the numerous secondary services that are dependant on gas such as bakeries and heating.  The current gas shortages are thus also an indication of the the worsening living conditions in the capital, especially with respect to the availability of key commodities; it should also be noted that if gas shortages are being noticed in Damascus, rural or periphery regions of Syria are almost certainly impacted to an even greater degree. Despite the abundance of natural resources, to include natural gas, in Syria, it is also clear that the Government of Syria does not have the capacity to dramatically increase production, either due to infrastructure damage, lack of funds, or the fact that gas fields are not currently under the Government of Syria’s control, as is the case in northeastern 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.

Northwest Syria Scenario Plans January 10, 2019

Northwest Syria Scenario Plans

10 January, 2019

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Executive Summary​

Following the conclusion of conflict in southern Syria in July 2018, the Government of Syria set its sights on the northwest. Indeed, the Government achieved many of its key strategic priorities in 2018, and northwestern Syria remains the last region not under the direct control of an international actor. In September 2018, the Astana guarantor states of Russia, Iran, and Turkey implemented a joint agreement to enforce a disarmament zone in northwestern Syria. Like the previous de-escalation zone agreement, the disarmament agreement was designed as a temporary measure aimed at providing the Government of Turkey time to resolve the primary political and military impediment in northwestern Syria: the presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.

As of the January 9, considerable inter-armed opposition conflict is ongoing throughout much of northwestern Syria. On January 1, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a major offensive against the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front-affiliated Noureddine Al-Zinki in western rural Aleppo. By January 4, Noureddine Al-Zinki had been militarily defeated and effectively dissolved; remaining combatants fled to Turkish-held southern Afrin, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham enlarged its area of military control. The defeat of Noureddine Al-Zinki appears to have emboldened Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to attack several of the other smaller National Liberation Front-affiliated groups; further conflict is expected in Ariha, Ma’aret An-Numan, and northern Hama in the near term. It is unclear why The Government of Turkey did not take immediate action to defend Noureddine Al-Zinki. The Government of Turkey may have ‘permitted’ Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to eliminate Noureddine Al-Zinki, as they reportedly did not trust the group. It is equally possible that Turkey did not wish to risk confronting Haya’t Tahrir Al-Sham until a time of its choosing.  However, despite the recent tactical shifts on the ground, control of the trajectory of northwestern Syria remains solidly in the hands of the Government of Turkey.

This report is structured as a scenario plan; it will describe three scenarios assessed to be most likely to occur in northwestern Syria over the next three to six months. Scenario 1 details intense internal armed opposition infighting; Scenario 2 details a major Government of Syria offensive; Scenario 3 details a negotiated agreement between the Government of Turkey and Russia to isolate Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and formally divide northwestern Syria into areas of influence. Each scenario will forecast the most likely series of events, explore key assumptions, identify indicators, and assess associated humanitarian impacts.

Northwest Syria

Current Situation

The northwestern Syria disarmament agreement, negotiated between the Governments of Turkey and Russia in September 2018, was intended to delay an impending Government of Syria offensive into northwestern Syria. The disarmament agreement is an inherently unstable and unenforceable agreement. Like previous de-escalation zone agreements, local truces, cessations of hostilities, and ceasefires that have occurred throughout the last seven years of conflict in Syria, the disarmament agreement was never intended to be a long-term solution. Rather, it was a temporary measure aimed at buying the Government of Turkey time to shape the ground situation to one more favorable to its longer-term strategic interests. In this way, the current status quo in northwestern Syria is poised to change decisively, likely within the next six months.

Despite finding itself in the crosshairs once again, northwestern Syria has not traditionally been an area of key importance to the Syrian state. There are no easily extractable or inherently valuable natural resources in Idleb or western rural Aleppo, and the population is both predominantly agrarian and poor, with few strong linkages to either the Ba’ath party or the ruling elite. For this reason, as well as the significant presence of extremist armed groups, the Government of Syria has not prioritized retaking this area. However, northwestern Syria does have one critical strategic dimension: the presence the M5 and M4 highways. The stretches of the M5 and M4 highways in northwestern Syria link Damascus and coastal Syria to Aleppo city, and establishing control over sections of these highways is critical for both trade and military mobility. With the fall of southern Syria in July 2018, the Government of Syria has secured nearly all of the remaining stretches of the M5 highway in the country. Recapturing northwestern Syria would thus once again link the major cities of western Syria to each other for the first time since the start of the conflict. For this reason, recapturing the remainder of the M5 highway is currently one of the top strategic priorities for the Government of Syria.

Indeed, the current phase of the Syrian conflict is nearly over, with only northern Aleppo, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Syria remaining outside Government of Syria control. However, there remains one crucial obstacle preventing discussions of a national level Syrian peace agreement (or more structured end to the conflict): Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. As noted, the trajectory of the Syrian conflict and the associated post-conflict space is no longer driven by local actors, but rather by regional and international powers. In northern Aleppo, the armed and political opposition are under the aegis of the Syrian Interim Government, and thereby under the indirect but functional control of the Government of Turkey. The Syrian Interim Government could easily be brought to the negotiating table at Turkey’s behest. While the Kurdish Self Administration remains in control of much of northeastern Syria, their longer-term independence was in many ways determined by the presence of U.S. forces, and the recently announced U.S. withdrawal is expected to rapidly accelerate negotiations between the Kurdish Self-Administration and Damascus. However, in northwestern Syria, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, an armed group that is internationally considered to be a terrorist organization, is the largest component of the armed opposition. So long as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham remains a major armed opposition actor negotiating a national peace agreement that encompasses all of Syria’s territory will remain impossible.

The Government of Syria is certainly militarily capable of retaking northwestern Syria, so long as it has Russian support. However, the Government of Russia is clearly unwilling to provide this support in order to preserve its relationship with the Government of Turkey. Turkey has the most sway in determining the ultimate outcome in northwestern Syria due to both Turkey’s own strategic concerns and its existing relationships with armed actors in northwestern Syria.

Government of Turkey Strategic Concerns

The Government of Turkey has three narrow but critical interests in northwestern Syria; these three interests indicate that the Government of Turkey will continue to attempt to prevent a Government of Syria military offensive into northwestern Syria. First, the Government of Turkey will seek to protect its investments in northwestern Syria, as part of its broader geopolitical strategy to present itself as the champion of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. Turkey has already invested considerable resources into various armed groups and political bodies in northwestern Syria, which has given Turkey popular support throughout much of Idleb. The funding Turkey has provided, and the relationships that is has cultivated, would be lost or irreparably damaged if the Government of Syria retook control of opposition-held Idleb and northern Hama. Indeed, abandoning northwestern Syria could also negatively impact relations with Turkey’s other client armed groups and populations in northern Aleppo.

Second, Turkey will seek to maintain control and influence over northwestern Syria as a means of gaining leverage over the entire Syrian peace process. Ironically, Turkey’s main strategic concern is not northwestern Syria, but rather the northeast, where Turkey continues to have real concerns over the future of the PYD in Syria. Turkey thus wants to maintain influence and control in northwestern Syria in order to maintain its role as a stakeholder in any final agreement in Syria. Turkey likely will seek to leverage its ability to act as a broker in northwestern and northern Syria in order to have a say in determining the ultimate fate of northeastern Syria, and by extension, the PYD.

Third, the Government of Turkey has humanitarian concerns related to possible large-scale displacement. Northwestern Syria has a fairly large population of almost 3 million people, which includes 1.2 million IDPs. As Turkey already faces considerable challenges with respect to refugees, a vast displacement to its immediate border region in northeastern Syria would not be an ideal outcome. Turkey is also disinclined to accept additional Syrian refugees. A unilaterally coordinated Government of Syria-led armed offensive would likely result in both of these outcomes.1 Thus, the Government of Turkey will seek to shape any armed offensive so that such displacement is contained and limited.

Local Actors and Relationships with Turkey

In order to ensure that an offensive does not take place, the Government of Turkey will need to leverage its relationships with the major local actors in northwestern Syria; most critically, it must somehow find a solution to the problem of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. With its international identification as a terrorist organization, there is little to no possibility of a place for them in a future Syrian state.

There are nominally three major local armed opposition umbrella groups in northwestern Syria: Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, The National Liberation Front, and a collection of extremist jihadist groups.2 Each of these actors has their own unique relationships with the Government of Turkey and with one other; understanding these relationships is key to identifying how Turkey will use these groups to shape the future trajectory of northwestern Syria. It is also worth noting that, while there are areas that these actors do directly control, there is considerable ‘marbling’ and intermixing of these groups geographically throughout northwestern Syria.

Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham

Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was formed in January 2017 following a merger between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra), Ansar Al-Din, Noureddine Al-Zinki, and Jaish Al-Sunnah. Since its formation, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has denied affiliation to Al-Qaeda. As of December 2018, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is in control of many of the major communities in northwestern Syria, namely Idleb city, Saraqeb, Jisr Ash-Shughur, Murak, Khan Sheykhun, Dana, and Sarmada. The group is also in control of many major crossing points, to include Murak (cross-line on the M5 highway) and the Bab El Hawa border crossing with Turkey. In addition to direct military control, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham also formed a governance body in November 2017, the Salvation Government, to manage and coordinate local councils, civil services, and general administration in the areas they control in northwestern Syria.

Relations between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Government of Turkey are generally limited to coordination. While the Government of Turkey does not control or direct Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, it does exert considerable financial leverage over the group through the Bab El Hawa crossing. Bab El Hawa is the primary border crossing in northwestern Syria, and is used for humanitarian, commercial, and civilian purposes; control over this crossing affords Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham considerable taxation revenues. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham also provides protection to Turkish forces in Idleb at the 12 Turkish observation points in northwestern Syria. It is also worth noting that the Government of Turkey has used Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in the past as means of threatening armed groups in northwestern Syria that refuse Turkish orders. For example, according to local sources, when Ahrar Al-Sham refused Turkey’s orders to attend the first rounds of the Astana conference in January 2017, Turkey reportedly messaged to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham that they would not oppose an attack on Ahrar Al-Sham.

It is important to mention that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is not necessarily a monolithic organization. According to local sources, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is currently split into two camps. The first is led by Abu Mohammad Julani, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s general commander, and mainly consists of Syrian combatants. This group includes two other prominent commanders: Abu Ahmad Hdoud, who is responsible for controlling the border areas of Dana, Sarmada, and Harem and Abu Maria Al-Qahtani,3 who is generally considered to have the strongest support amongst combatants within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The second camp largely consists of foreign jihadist fighters and is headed by Abu Malek Al-Talli, who is Syrian, and also includes prominent Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham commanders such as Abu Yaqzan Al-Masri, an Egyptian. The divisions within these camps may be overstated; indeed, many analysts believe that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is far more unified than it is divided. However, the fact that these divisions exist is important. There is a strong likelihood that once real conflict begins in northwestern Syria that the more pragmatic, largely Syrian component of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will be compelled to dissolve itself, merge with Turkish-backed groups, or reconcile with the Government of Syria. Whether they will be permitted to do any of these actions is open for debate.

National Liberation Front

The National Liberation Front was formed in May 2018, by a collection of ten opposition groups in northwestern Syria at the behest of the Government of Turkey.4 These ten groups were joined by four more armed opposition groups in August 2018.5 Of these groups, the most important is Faylaq Al-Sham.6 Faylaq Al-Sham7 is one of the largest armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria. Some National Liberation Front groups, to include Faylaq Al-Sham, are also part of the National Army, the primary Turkish-backed armed opposition coalition in Turkish-held northern Syria, which exists under the aegis of the Syrian Interim Government. Thus, in theory, the National Liberation Front is considered to be close to the Syrian Interim Government and the National Army. In practice, the disparate armed groups that currently fall under the banner of the National Liberation Front differ greatly in terms of ideology and local interests and are only unified by their collective reliance on direct Turkish support, which is provided to each of the groups individually, not as part of a centralized body.

In fact, it is this lack of collective unity which led to the events of early January 2018, which are noted in the executive summary. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s takeover of western Aleppo, and their subsequent defeat of Noureddine Al-Zinki, a formerly key component of the National Liberation Front, can be directly attributed to both the lack of unity within the National Liberation Front and Turkish mistrust of numerous National Liberation Front groups. While Noureddine Al-Zinki was nominally supported by the Government of Turkey, according to local sources Turkey never fully trusted Noureddine Al-Zinki due its reputation as an unreliable partner.8 There are thus two potential interpretations of the ‘abandonment’ of Noureddine Al-Zinki: the first is that the Government of Turkey ‘permitted’ Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s defeat of Noureddine Al-Zinki; the second, is that Turkey and Turkish-backed groups were powerless to stop Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s offensive due to their preoccupation with northeastern Syria.9

The Government of Turkey provides the National Liberation Front groups with weapons and funding, and, in turn, the National Liberation Front serves as the primary proxy umbrella group for the Government of Turkey inside northwestern Syria. The National Liberation Front groups have extremely tense relations with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. While some coordination does occur, for example with regard to control over major crossing points, there are also regular clashes and targeted assassinations.10 Indeed, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the National Liberation Front recognize one another to be key adversaries, largely due to the (likely accurate) perception that the Government of Turkey will eventually use the National Liberation Front to eliminate or marginalize Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.11

Extremist Jihadist Groups

The remaining armed groups are considered to be extremists, with the most significant being Hurras Al-Deen and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Hurras Al-Deen is largely comprised of groups and individuals that previously fell under the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham umbrella, but defected following Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s ‘official’ disassociation with Al-Qaeda. In April 2018, Hurras Al-Deen merged with another local armed opposition group, Ansar Al-Tawheed,12 to form the Nusrat Al-Islam coalition. Reports indicate that the Nusrat Al-Islam coalition is directly affiliated with Al-Qaeda, with several Al-Qaeda-linked former Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham commanders playing central roles in Hurras Al-Deen, particularly those that had rejected Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s initial shift away from Al-Qaeda in 2016. Hurras Al-Deen also includes a significant number of foreign fighters, particularly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and France. Despite their defection, members of Hurras Al-Deen retain close relationships with certain members and factions of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, particularly Abu Malek Al-Talli’s faction.

The Turkistan Islamic Party is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization founded by Uyghur jihadists in western China. The Turkistan Islamic Party has participated in numerous offensives in Syria, most notably the Jisr-Ash-Shughur offensive in 2015. They are mainly located in Jisr-Ash-Shughur, Jabal Turkman, and Jabal Akrad. Local sources have noted that the Turkistan Islamic Party is comprised of two camps: one that coordinates with the Government of Turkey and the other that coordinates with Hurras Al-Deen. However, in the event of a major conflict in Idleb, all of the extremist Jihadist groups in northwestern Syria are far more likely to closely coordinate and associate themselves with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham than the National Liberation Front.

Scenarios

The following section details the three most likely scenarios to occur in northwestern Syria. In short, they are: a prolonged series of armed opposition infighting between the National Liberation Front and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham; a full-scale Government of Syria offensive; and a negotiated agreement between the Government of Turkey and the Government of Russia, with a more limited Government of Syria offensive. As noted, the ultimate objective of the Governments of Turkey and Russia is the eventual dissolution, or extreme marginalization, of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in northwestern Syria in order to pave the way for substantive peace talks covering all of Syria’s territory. However, it is important to note that these scenarios do not exist in isolation; indeed, elements of these scenarios are certainly likely to occur in tandem. This is especially true for ‘Scenario 1: Armed Opposition Infighting.’ Conflict between National Liberation Front groups and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is already ongoing and will likely be a factor in the other two scenarios. For each scenario below, the general trajectory of events will be detailed supported by key analytical assumptions underpinning the assessed likelihood of each scenario, a set of relevant indicators will be given, and the accompanying humanitarian impact of the scenario will be assessed.

Overarching Assumptions

All three scenarios below are built on three overarching assumptions. The first assumption is that the future trajectory of northwestern Syria will be implemented through agreement and coordination between the Governments of Turkey and Russia. The second assumption is that ‘reconciliation’ will necessarily be a component of the future trajectory of northwestern Syria, though notably this does not necessarily refer to the reconciliation of only armed opposition actors. The third assumption is that the Government of Syria, with Russian aerial support, is militarily capable of securing whatever territory it is permitted to capture.

The future of northwestern Syria will unfold with the complete coordination of the Governments of Turkey and Russia, largely due to the fact that their alliance is the cornerstone of a final Syrian peace agreement. The Governments of Turkey and Russia began to closely coordinate following the Turkish shootdown of a Russian military jet in November 2015. The Governments of Turkey and Russia have since shown that they are an unified force in the Syrian conflict, despite their backing of the armed opposition and the Government of Syria respectively.13 Indeed, the Turkey-Russia relationship, partially due to their coordination in Syria, is now an important global alliance by which both states have major economic and trade linkages that are far more significant than disputes that might arise in arguably marginal parts of Syria. It is thus it is unlikely that northwestern Syria will be resolved without general agreement and cooperation between Turkey and Russia, whatever the outcome.

Second, given that reconciliation has been a major component in every Government of Syria offensive, or potential offensive, in armed opposition areas, reconciliation will likely remain a key component of all the three scenarios for northwestern Syria. It is worth mentioning that reconciliation is not limited only to armed opposition combatants, but also includes local businessmen and tribal leaders. Indeed, the Government of Syria has employed reconciliation negotiations prior to armed offensives in other parts of northwestern Syria, using a range of diverse actors as entry points, and there remains some indication and likelihood that certain elements of the armed opposition in northwestern Syria could be co-opted.14 While evacuation has been a component of past agreements, so too has incorporation into the ranks of the Syrian military. Elements of the National Liberation Front, and even Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, could conceivably join the ranks of Government of Syria security forces, especially were the Government of Turkey to shift the nature of its support.

Finally, the Government of Syria, with Russian support, is militarily capable of launching a successful large-scale offensive. Though many analysts disparage the military capabilities of the Government of Syria, past cases indicate that with sufficient Russian support, the Government of Syria can secure armed opposition areas with little difficulty, as was proven in Eastern Ghouta and southern Syria. While Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is an undeniably powerful military force, it is nonetheless unlikely to be able to repel a concentrated Government of Syria ground offensive with Russian aerial bombardment.

Scenario 1 - Armed Opposition Infighting

Likelihood: 4/5

Description

In this scenario, armed opposition group infighting increases in intensity and in frequency throughout northwestern Syria. Nearly every community in northwestern Syria will be impacted to some degree as the Turkish-supported National Liberation Front engages in heavy clashes with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The clashes are likely to center around several different axes. First, National Liberation Front-affiliated groups will likely engage with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in the vicinity of Daret Azza 15 and Atareb, in western Aleppo governorate, as well as in the vicinity of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-controlled Dana, Sarmada, and Termanin. National Liberation Front-affiliated groups in Al-Mar’a are also expected to clash with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants on the front lines in Telamnas and Hamdieh. Clashes will also likely take place on front lines in Mastumeh and Jabal Zawiya. However, the most intense infighting is expected to be in areas where armed opposition groups share control, particularly in Idleb city, Kafr Nobol, Heish, areas east of Idleb governorate along the M5 highway, and Skik. Infighting is also likely to take place on the front lines in Khan Sheykhun and Zayzun, in Hama governorate. Notably, infighting is perhaps less likely to initially take place in locations that are prominent front lines with the Government of Syria, such as in eastern Idleb. Extremist groups, including Hurras Al-Deen16 and the the Turkistan Islamic Party, are expected to engage in clashes alongside Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, due to their similar ideology and relatively closer relationship.

It is also worth noting that the Government of Syria will certainly attempt to capitalize on armed opposition infighting. The most likely locations for a limited Government of Syria offensive are in northern Hama, and in Jisr-Ash-Shugour. Northern Hama, especially Murak, is likely to be targeted due to its proximity to the M5 highway, while Jisr-Ash-Shughour is likely to be targeted due to its symbolic prominence and strategic value to the Governments of Syria and Russian.17

In this scenario, prolonged infighting will likely result in the articulation of clearer territorial control and influence with respect to armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria, particularly along front lines and in areas presently jointly controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the National Liberation Front. While Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is certainly the more capable and cohesive group, it is unclear precisely which armed group coalition would emerge victorious; in practice, the ultimate outcome will likely be determined by whether, to which degree, and which armed groups under the National Liberation Front umbrella Turkey elects to support.18

Key Assumptions

This scenario assumes the following:

  • The long-standing grievances and tensions between the National Liberation Front and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham cause small scale, localized clashes to expand into larger scale clashes across Idleb.  Following the establishment of the disarmament zone in northwestern Syria, armed groups affiliated with the National Liberation Front have clashed with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants on several occasions.19  However, these clashes were generally mediated through local negotiations largely at the urging of the Government of Turkey.  However, should the Government of Turkey cease to play a role as a mediator, or should local mediation fail, small conflicts will quickly spiral into a larger conflict spanning the entire northwestern Syria region, especially considering the degree to which the National Liberation Front and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham are intermixed in many communities.
  • The Government of Turkey EITHER: takes a definite stance that it will directly command the National Liberation Front, and potentially the National Army, to confront Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham OR effectively halts support to the National Liberation Front, and allows Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to secure nearly all of northwestern Syria.  Prior to the establishment of the disarmament zone in northwestern Syria, the Government of Turkey had been attempting to resolve the threat of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham by requesting that the group dissolve or disarm itself; however, that possibility is becoming increasingly less likely. Thus, Turkey now has two options: either to abandon most of the National Liberation Front and leave Idleb entirely to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, or through its support to the National Liberation Front and the National Army attempt to end the presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and other Al-Qaeda affiliates, and assume full control of northwestern Syria.
  • The Government of Turkey successfully lobbies the Government of Russia to postpone an offensive, in order to allow the National Liberation Front to either take full control of Idleb, or at least clearly delineate Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-controlled areas from National Liberation Front areas.  As noted, a full Government of Syria offensive on northwestern Syria would require massive aerial support from the Government of Russia, and would naturally involve targeting areas held by Turkish proxy groups. However, provided that the Government of Turkey disapproves of a full-scale offensive, it is likely that the Government of Russia will be reluctant in providing support to the Government of Syria, particularly considering the close partnership between the Governments of Russia and Turkey.

Indicators

  • A dramatic increase, or decrease, in Government of Turkey support to the National Liberation Front, including financial support.
  • Reports of mounting Government of Turkey-supported National Army military reinforcements deploying to the border with Idleb.
  • Increased rhetoric from the Government of Turkey against Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham; this includes in Turkish media, such as Daily Sabah and Yeni Şafak.
  • Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham taking control of all of the major crossing points in northwestern Syria, to include Qalaat Al-Madiq A major deterioration of the security situation in Idleb, to include assassinations, armed opposition clashes and increased IED attacks.

Impact of Scenario 1

Scenario 2 - Government of Syria Offensive

Likelihood: 2/5

Description

In this scenario, a full-scale Government of Syria military offensive on armed opposition groups takes place in northwestern Syria, with the goal of retaking all of opposition-held Idleb and northern Hama. Initially, the areas most likely to be targeted are along the M5 highway. Additionally, the Government of Syria will likely target areas in northern Hama, northern Lattakia and Sahel Al-Ghab. It is expected that the Government of Syria will advance into armed opposition-controlled northwestern Syria from four front lines, likely simultaneously, with the ultimate goal of isolating northwestern Syria into distinct and isolated pockets. The first front line lies along Government of Syria positions in western Aleppo governorate, to include Aleppo city, Hadher, and Zyare Semaan, into armed opposition-controlled Kafr Hamra, Iss (a major crossing point), Skik, Tal Tufan, and Al-Rashideen. The second front line will likely be from Government of Syria positions in Abul Thohur, in eastern Idleb governorate, into Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-controlled Saraqeb. The third front line will be from Government of Syria forces positioned in Suran, Halfaya and Muharda, and will aim to securing opposition-controlled areas in northern Hama, particularly Murak (a major crossing point), Latmana, Kafr Zeita, Khan Sheykun, and Madiq Castle (also a major crossing point). The fourth front line will likely be from northern Lattakia into Jisr Ash-Shughour, Jabal Turkman and Jabal Akrad.20In this scenario it is expected that the Government of Turkey will withdraw from the observation points in northwestern Syria.

Following that, Government of Syria forces are expected to move to the second phase of the offensive, which entails advances from the initial front lines deeper into Idleb governorate. It is likely that the Government of Syria forces will advance from the front lines in western Aleppo, eastern Idleb, and Jisr Ash-Shughour concurrently into Saraqeb and the M4 highway, thus separating northwestern Syria into two pockets. Additionally, the Government of Syria forces are likely to secure western Aleppo governorate in the second phase of the offensive, thus securing the entire current borders of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria.

As noted in the assumptions below, a full scale Government of Syria offensive will likely give the Turkish-supported National Liberation Front three possible options; these options will likely be dictated by Turkish policy and priorities. First, the National Liberation Front could withdraw their forces further to the center of Idleb governorate and thus avoid major clashes with Government of Syria forces in the aforementioned front lines. However, this option will likely lead to clashes with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, as Idleb city is considered one of the latter’s most significant strongholds. Second, the National Liberation Front could withdraw to Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria secured by the Turkish-led operations Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations.21 Third, elements of the National Liberation Front may reconcile with the Government of Syria, either on their own or with Turkish facilitation.22

Key Assumptions

This scenario assumes the following:

  • The disarmament zone agreement established between the Government of Turkey and Russia collapses.  As noted, the disarmament zone agreement is inherently unstable. Several terms of the agreement are unclear, or have clearly not been implemented. The most significant unmet term of the agreement is the removal of all extremist armed groups, namely Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, from the disarmament zone.23  Additionally, there are still regular clashes and mutual shelling between armed opposition groups and the Government of Syria.24  A series of extended clashes between the Government of Syria and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham could weaken the disarmament zone agreement to the point that it becomes impossible for Turkey to diplomatically maintain the agreement.
  • Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham defeats or marginalizes the National Liberation Front.  The National Liberation Front is not the most important Turkish proxy group; the National Army in northern Aleppo is certainly more important to the Government of Turkey’s critical strategic interests in northern and northeastern Syria.  As noted, the National Liberation Front is also not a unified entity. It is certainly possible that the Government of Turkey will pull its support from the National Liberation Front, and either merge its constituent groups and combatants into the National Army in northern Aleppo or tacitly accept their reconciliation with the Government of Syria as a means of maintaining long-term influence within the Government of Syria.25  This would mean effectively ceding almost all of northwestern Syria to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (as a component of Scenario 1), and thus remove the pretext for preventing a Government of Syria offensive.
  • The Government of Syria sees unilateral control of the M5 highway as a strategic imperative. As noted repeatedly, securing the M5 highway has been amongst the Government of Syria’s primary main strategic priorities throughout the Syrian conflict, and, having secured the majority of the highway elsewhere,26 it is now very likely to seek to unilaterally control the sections of M5 and M4 that remain outside of its control in northwestern opposition-held areas.

Indicators

  • The withdrawal of Government of Turkey forces from the 12 observation points in northwestern Syria.
  • The resumption of Governments of Russia and Syria airstrikes, particularly on Idleb city, Jisr Ash-Shughour, Al-Ma’ra, Saraqeb, and Murak.
  • Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launches an attack on Government of Syria positions in Hadher, Aleppo city, Muharda and Suran.
  • Statements or reports from the Government of Russia announcing their participation in the Government of Syria-led offensive on northwestern Syria.

Impact of Scenario 2

Scenario 3 - Negotiated Agreement/Limited Offensive

Likelihood: 3/5

Description

In this scenario, the Government of Turkey and the Government of Russia reach a negotiated agreement to divide northwestern Syria into zones of influence. The new agreement will likely stipulate the joint administration of the M5 highway by both the Government of Turkey and the Government of Syria. Following the establishment of the agreement, the Government of Turkey will likely expand their areas of influence from the M5 highway further into central Idleb governorate. The Government of Turkey will seek to secure key communities including Idleb city, Dana, and Sarmada, that link northwestern Idleb with Turkish-held northern Aleppo governorate. As in the Turkish-held Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch regions, Turkish-controlled areas will likely closely adhere to Government of Turkey policy.

In this scenario, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants will face two options with respect to their presence and areas of control in northwestern Syria. First, the Government of Turkey is extremely likely to request the group disband or for elements of the organization to merge with and under the leadership of the National Liberation Front.27 Those elements of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham that refuse to dissolve will be forced to withdraw and evacuate from areas of current control to areas outside of Government of Syria and Government of Turkey control in the northwest. In this case, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants are expected to withdraw to Salqin, one of their most prominent strongholds in Idleb. The Government of Turkey’s demand that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham disband will certainly exacerbate differences between moderate and extremist fractures of the group. Pragmatic combatants will likely agree to defect from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, particularly if the Government of Turkey sought to secure their entire areas of control in northwestern Idleb. Extremist factions will likely remain and attempt to fight Government of Syria forces or the Government of Turkey proxy forces, to include the National Army.

Meanwhile, the Government of Syria is expected to take control over the eastern part of the M5 highway, as per the agreement with the Government of Russia. It is likely that Government of Syria forces will secure areas west of Aleppo city, and the entire opposition-controlled areas east of the M5 highway. Additionally, with Russian support, Government of Syria forces are expected to launch a limited-scale offensive on the remaining Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants that refused to evacuate or disband. The offensive will likely focus on three front lines; first, the Government of Syria is expected to target areas in eastern Idleb governorate. Second, the offensive will target areas in northern Hama, and as a result, Government of Syria forces will likely secure Murak, Khan Sheykhun and Madiq Castle. Finally, Government of Syria forces will likely launch an offensive and secure Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party-controlled Jisr-Ash Shughour, Jabal Turkman, and Jabal Akrad.

Key Assumptions

This scenario assumes the following:

  • The Government of Turkey and the Government of Russia seek to jointly maintain influence in northwestern Syria. The Government of Turkey is unlikely to approve a full-scale Government of Syria offensive on northwestern Syria for many of the reasons listed above. However, also as noted, Turkey likely does not have extremely critical strategic priorities in much of northwestern Syria.  By allowing a limited offensive on northwestern Syria, the Government of Turkey would be able to maintain its influence in the most critical parts of Idleb governorate, while simultaneously isolating the more extremist elements of the armed opposition geographically. Additionally, by creating well-defined and delineated lines of control, the Governments of Turkey and Russia will effectively isolate Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham geographically. Finally, the joint administration of the M5 highway with the Government of Syria will give Turkey a major political card to play in the broader Syrian peace process.
  • The internal fractures within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham become more pronounced, to the point of causing an internal divisions within the organization. Local sources indicate that there are persistent, ongoing rumors that the National Liberation Front and elements of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham have held negotiations regarding a merger between the Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government. A merger between the two political bodies is unlikely; however, the fact that these negotiations were rumored is itself an indication that there may be some willingness on the part of elements of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to moderate themselves and attempt to become a more mainstream opposition group.   Exacerbated tensions between the more pragmatic and ideological fractions within Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham would eventually lead to defections, fragmentation, and shifts in allegiances, which would be facilitated by more clearly delineated geographic separation between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ groups.
  • There are plans in place to isolate, but not entirely destroy, the extremist elements of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.  In this scenario, elements of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham which do not dissolve or defect will eventually be pushed into northern and northwestern Idleb, especially in the vicinity of Salqin.  This pocket of Syria would thus consist of the most extremist elements of the Syrian opposition, all concentrated in a small region bordering both Turkey and Government of Syria-controlled areas.  While this would seem to be unacceptable to the Government of Turkey, in fact this may be an important point of leverage. By controlling access into, and out of, this region, both the Governments of Syria and Turkey would hold a valuable piece of leverage: contained jihadists, who pose a threat not just within Syria but also globally.  The existence of this zone would allow the Governments of Syria and Turkey to extract political and economic concessions, while also framing themselves as front-line actors in the war on jihadist terrorism.

Indicators

  • Government of Turkey military reinforcements to the observation points, particularly along the M5 highway, Eastern Idleb and western Aleppo.
  • Reports of large scale Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham withdrawal from their major strongholds, including Idleb city, Khan Sheykhun, and northern Hama.
  • Increased rhetoric from the Government of Turkey on a National Army presence established in northwestern Syria.
  • Reports of Government of Turkey-supported National Army deployment to southern Afrin district.  
  • Reports of an agreement between the Government of Syria and Government of Russia on the final status of the disarmament zone.

Impact of Scenario 3

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 program and this website were 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 Member States of the European Union have decided to link together their know-how, resources, and destinies. Together, they have built a zone of stability, democracy, and sustainable development whilst maintaining cultural diversity, tolerance, and individual freedoms. The European Union is committed to sharing its achievements and its values with countries and peoples beyond its borders.

Media Anthology: January 01 – January 07, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

January 01 to 07, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
HTS won, and Al-Zinki to AfrinArabicAl modonJanuary 5, 2019Conflict and Military
Hidden reasons of clashes between Tahrir Al-Sham" vs "National Liberation Front", military sources revealEnglishNedaa SyriaJanuary 4, 2019Conflict and Military
Russia and Iran Prepare For New Syria BattlefieldEnglishInstitute for the Study of WarJanuary 7, 2019Conflict and Military
HTS reopens Murak crossing againArabicBaladi NewsJanuary 6, 2019Economic
After "Islamic Bank of Syria", Samer Foz invests in "Al-Baraka" bankArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 1, 2019Economic
Assad regime's brokers sell houses of Deir Al-Zour for Iranian militias under forged contractsEnglishNedaa SyriaJanuary 3, 2019Economic
Before water and electricity, the regime’s government rehabilitates the recruitment division’s building in DoumaArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 6, 2019Governance and Service Management
Talbiseh and Dar'a, a second revolution?ArabicAl modonJanuary 3, 2019Social Dynamics
Civilians’ fate threatened by uncontrolled circulation of weapons in Al-Neirab campEnglishAction Group for Palestinians of SyriaJanuary 7, 2019Social Dynamics
“We were eating grass”: Syrians flee as fight pushes on against last ISIS remnantsEnglishNational Public RadioJanuary 6, 2019Humanitarian & Development
A group of displaced people returned from Al-Rukban camp to northern Homs provinceArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 3, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Appeals to open a humanitarian corridor in Eastern AleppoArabicSyria Press CenterJanuary 4, 2019Humanitarian & Development
A ‘secret offer’ was carried by Kurdish delegation to Moscow: The borders for Damascus and cooperation against Ankara.ArabicAsharq Al AwsatJanuary 5, 2019International Intervention
Turkey seeks major U.S. military support to adopt fight in SyriaEnglishThe Wall Street JournalJanuary 4, 2019International Intervention
Turkish army brass at odds over military operation in SyriaEnglishAl-MonitorJanuary 4, 2019International Intervention
Erdogan: Trump Is Right on Syria. Turkey Can Get the Job Done.EnglishThe New York timesJanuary 7, 2019International Intervention
Assad will remain in power 'for a while', says Jeremy HuntEnglishThe GuardianJanuary 3, 2019International Intervention
Bashar Al-Assad’s international rehabilitation has begunEnglishThe Washington PostJanuary 5, 2019Other
Ahmad Al-Jarba seeks bigger role in the east of EuphratesArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 5, 2019Other

Media Anthology: December 18 – December 31, 2018


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

December 18 to 31, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
HTS prohibits fighting against SDF and attacks Al-ZinkiArabicAl ModonDecember 31, 2018Conflict and Military
Fifth Corps deployed from Dar'a to Deir-Ez-Zor: Urgent Russian callArabicAl ModonDecember 26, 2018Conflict and Military
Israel targets locations of Iranian militias in the vicinity of Damascus.ArabicDamascus VoiceDecember 26, 2018Conflict and Military
The Turkish - Russian cease-fire is witnessing more violations and an increase in areas targeted by regime forces in four governoratesArabicSyrian Observatory For Human RightsDecember 18, 2018Conflict and Military
Reintegrating Syrian Militias: Mechanisms, Actors, and ShortfallsEnglishCarnegie Middle East CenterDecember 12, 2018Conflict and Military
Former French deputy calls for the establishment of a Syrian-French association to restore economic relationsArabicSyrian Arab News AgencyDecember 19, 2018Economic
Iran offers guarantees to investors to push them contribute in the reconstruction of SyriaArabicShaam NetworkDecember 20, 2018Economic
30 Russian projects announced in Syria over the next two yearsArabicEnab BaladiDecember 26, 2018Economic
How do ‘armed opposition groups’ manage human trafficking from Syria to TurkeyArabicAl-HalDecember 23, 2018Economic
The [Syrian] Central Bank raises 50 SYP for trading this morningArabicEmmar SyriaDecember 26, 2018Economic
Officially signing of a long-term economic agreement between Iran and SyriaArabicEnab BaladiDecember 31, 2018Economic
Syrian Interim Government restructuring the Ministry of DefenseArabicBaladi NewsDecember 18, 2018Governance and Service Management
The regime expands the powers of the police to arrest individuals delaying conscriptionArabicEnab BaladiDecember 23, 2018Governance and Service Management
SDF forms a new civil council in northern rural Deir-Ez-ZorArabicAl-HalDecember 26, 2018Governance and Service Management
UAE reopens embassy in Syria as Arab leaders begin to welcome Assad back from the coldEnglishThe TelegraphDecember 27, 2018Governance and Service Management
Palestine Security Branch will make inquiries about the Palestinians returning to DamascusArabicAl ModonDecember 20, 2018Social Dynamics
Tell Abiad: Achilles heel of the Syrian Kurdish beltEnglishWashington InstituteDecember 21, 2018Social Dynamics
Renewed popular and military moves against the Syrian regime in reconciled areasArabicNedaa SyriaDecember 26, 2018Social Dynamics
More than 3,500 people in southern Damascus to join the Syrian army within 48 hoursArabicDamascus VoiceDecember 31, 2018Social Dynamics
Only five families returned to DarayyaArabicDamascus VoiceDecember 19, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Syrian refugees in Lebanon; return or remain in 2019?ArabicArabi 21December 24, 2018Humanitarian & Development
ICRC expects the displacement of thousands from Deir-ez-Zor towards Al-HasakahArabicEnab BaladiDecember 19, 2018Humanitarian & Development
A new batch of Syrian refugees returning from Jordan to SyriaArabicSyrian Arab News AgencyDecember 26, 2018Humanitarian & Development
6,500 families affected by the rainstorm in northern Syria campsArabicEnab BaladiDecember 28, 2018Humanitarian & Development
Russia, Turkey, Iran fail in push for new Syrian constitutionEnglishAl JazeeraDecember 19, 2018International Intervention
US military preparing for full withdrawal from northeastern SyriaEnglishSputnik NewsDecember 19, 2018International Intervention
Turkey: We agreed with the U.S. to complete the Menbij road map before the withdrawalArabicEnab BaladiDecember 25, 2018International Intervention
Regional players prepare for imminent U.S pullout from SyriaEnglishSmall Wars JournalDecember 25, 2018International Intervention
Deputy Foreign Minister: Russia to host Astana summit on Syria in early JanuaryEnglishUrdu PointDecember 26, 2018International Intervention
International Coalition: No change in military deployment in MenbijArabicAl HadathDecember 28, 2018International Intervention
U.S. exit seen as a betrayal of the Kurds, and a boon for ISISEnglishThe New York TimesDecember 19, 2018International Intervention
Secretary General of the Syrian Tribal Coalition clarifies their position on Turkish operationsArabicNedaa SyriaDecember 21, 2018International Intervention
The Islamic State is not defeated. Trump must reverse his decision to withdraw from Syria.EnglishThe Washington PostDecember 20, 2018International Intervention
'We will curse them as traitors': Syrian Kurds react to U.S. troop withdrawal planEnglishNational Public RadioDecember 24, 2018International Intervention
U.S. citizen, believed executed in Syrian prison, heightens fears for othersEnglishThe Wall Street JournalDecember 18, 2018Other
Israeli analysts: U.S. withdrawal from Syria is a severe blow to Tel AvivArabicAl QudsDecember 20, 2018Other
SDF maneuvering: A proposal for the Syrian regime, and a threat to EuropeArabicAl ModonDecember 21, 2018Other
Kurdish fighters discuss releasing almost 3,200 ISIS prisonersEnglishThe New York TimesDecember 20, 2018Other
SDC sets out conditions for accepting the return of the Syrian regimeArabicEnab BaladiDecember 25, 2018Other
Find out about the trajectory of the displacement of Aleppo city and the details of negotiationsArabicSyria TVDecember 22, 2018Other
SDF: Government of Syria forces must take control of MenbijArabicSputnik NewsDecember 28, 2018Other

Syria Update: January 04 – January 09, 2019

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Syria Update

04 January to 09 January, 2019

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 January 1, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a major offensive against National Liberation Front-affiliated Noureddine Al-Zinki in western Aleppo. By January 4, Noureddine Al-Zinki had been entirely defeated and announced its dissolution; its remaining combatants fled into Turkish-held southern Afrin, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham assumed control over almost all of western Aleppo. In some ways, the conflict in western Aleppo highly localized; Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has taken control of a valuable piece of real estate, while simultaneously removing an armed group with which it had extremely poor relations.  However, the conflict also has a significant regional dimension, as when Noureddine Al-Zinki joined the National Liberation Front in August 2018, it theoretically came under the aegis of the Government of Turkey. The fact that Turkey did not come to the aid of Noureddine Zenki can be interpreted in one of two ways. The first interpretation is that the Government of Turkey ‘permitted’ Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s to eliminate Noureddine Al-Zinki, due to the fact that Turkey never fully trusted the group. The second interpretation is that Turkey and Turkish-backed groups were powerless (or unwilling) to stop Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s offensive, due to the fact that it would have sparked a wider conflict at a time not of Turkey’s choosing. Whatever the Turkish reasoning is, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is now in control of two of the more important communities in northwestern Syria: Atareb and Daret Azza, which are both economically important and are hubs for the humanitarian response in northwestern Syria.  Additionally, the defeat of Noureddine Al-Zinki appears to have emboldened Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to attack several of the other smaller National Liberation Front groups; further conflict is expected in Ariha, Ma’aret An-Numan, and northern Hama in the near term.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Russian Military Police completed their first patrols in the vicinity of Menbij alongside Government of Syria forces, while SDF forces continue to withdraw from the city; U.S. forces remain in place in the city itself. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the U.S. withdrawal timeline, it is likely that the Government of Syria will assume control over Menbij in the near- to medium-term.
  • The SDF continued to advance against ISIS in Deir-ez-Zor, despite the fact that U.S. military forces are expected to withdraw shortly; these military operations are expected to end as the prospect of a Turkish intervention increases and Kurd-Arab tensions intensify.
  • Approximately 210 IDPs reportedly returned from Rukban Camp in southeastern rural Homs. While their reconciliation status or process remains unclear, more individuals are expected to return from the Rukban camp as the likelihood of a U.S. withdrawal from the Al-Tanf military base increases.
  • Heavy rainfall in northern Syria caused significant flooding and mudslides, dramatically impacting humanitarian conditions and access in IDP camps in northwestern Syria; the weather, combined with the ongoing conflict in northwestern Syria, has the potential to further intensify the humanitarian crisis.
  • Iran, Iraq, and Syria announced the formation of a joint transportation company; this company will further draw the economies of all three states together, and will further economically empower Iran across the Levant.
  • Humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate in Government of Syria-held areas, largely due to fuel shortages, price spikes, and electricity cuts; it is becoming increasingly clear that the Government of Syria will have difficulties providing basic services and increasing economic functionality, even in areas that they have controlled for the entire conflict.
  • An NDF commander was detained in Dmeir, in the Eastern Qalamoun, allegedly for running a drug smuggling network. The fact that even loyalist militia leaders are subject to detention highlights the challenges facing the Government of Syria in controlling the myriad militias throughout the country.
  • Conscription deadlines were extended in southern Syria, after negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Dar’a Crisis Committee, a local negotiating body, indicating that the Government of Syria is, in fact, willing to make concessions to local community leadership.

Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham Captures Western Aleppo

In Depth Analysis

On January 1, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a major attack on Noureddine Al-Zinki positions in western Aleppo and eastern Idleb.  The conflict began when Noureddine Al-Zinki killed five Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants in the vicinity of Daret Azza on December 31; however, the conflict quickly expanded to numerous locations throughout northwestern Syria, as several of Noureddine Al-Zinki’s ostensible allies in the National Liberation Front launched simultaneous attacks on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.  However, by the evening of January 4, Noureddine Al-Zinki had been militarily defeated by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and consequently announced its own dissolution; many Noureddine Al-Zinki combatants and leadership have since fled into Turkish-held Afrin, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has now assumed control over most of western Aleppo, where Noureddine Al-Zinki was previously based.  The conflict between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Noureddine Al-Zinki marks the largest inter-opposition conflict in northwestern Syria since the start of the northwestern Syria disarmament agreement in September 2018; it a harbinger of more conflict to come.

In some ways, the conflict between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Noureddine Al-Zenki is a standard case of inter-armed opposition infighting, and could be easily viewed through an exclusively local lens: Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham seized a valuable piece of real estate, while simultaneously removing an organization, which had been a thorn in its side for years.  Noureddine Al-Zenki was always a highly localized and independent group and controlled Daret Azza, one of northwest Syria’s most lucrative fuel trade routes. The relationship between both groups had also been marred by long-standing tensions for years. Noureddine Al-Zinki was formed in late 2011 in western Aleppo; it was a beneficiary of U.S. support to the armed opposition and regularly clashed with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s progenitor, Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Noureddine Al-Zenki lost U.S. support in 2015, and by January 2017, it had pivoted to become a founding member of the Jabhat Al-Nusra-led umbrella, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, albeit reluctantly. However, in July 2017, it defected from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, largely due to economic tensions related to the control of crossing points, and formed the Syria Liberation Front, which engaged in regular clashes with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham until its eventual merger with the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front in August 2018.  

While these local dynamics are important, the elimination of Noureddine Al-Zinki has a regional dimension with respect to Turkey’s relationship to the armed opposition in northwestern Syria.  When Noureddine Al-Zinki joined the National Liberation Front in August 2018, it theoretically came under the aegis of the Government of Turkey, as Turkey backs the National Liberation Front. However, when the conflict between Noureddine Al-Zinki and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham began, many National Liberation Front groups, to include Faylaq Al-Sham (the most prominent group in the National Liberation Front) did not take part.  There are two potential interpretations of the ‘abandonment’ of Noureddine Al-Zinki: the first is that the Government of Turkey ‘permitted’ Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to defeat Noureddine Al-Zinki; the second, is that Turkey, and Turkish-backed groups, were powerless to stop Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s offensive.

Regarding the first interpretation, it is certainly a possibility that the Government of Turkey tacitly allowed Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to eliminate Noureddine Al-Zinki by pressuring or ordering other armed groups within the National Liberation Front not to respond to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s belligerence.  Noureddine Al-Zinki was certainly not the Government of Turkey’s most preferred partner in northwestern Syria. Indeed, local sources and analysts have noted that Turkey has never fully trusted Noureddine Al-Zinki, largely due to the fact that it was such an independant and highly local group, which had held numerous affiliations throughout the conflict; it is thus certainly plausible that Turkey would choose to allow Noureddine Al-Zinki’s defeat, and thus remove the organization’s ‘unreliable’ leadership while simultaneously absorbing its combatants into more trusted groups within the National Army.

However, it is equally possible that Turkey was unable or unwilling to defend Noureddine Al-Zinki.  By ordering its proxies to intervene in a conflict with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, Turkey would have likely required a mass deployment of National Army forces from Afrin, and would likely have sparked an Idleb-wide conflict, which could have easily led to the end of the entire northwestern Syria disarmament agreement.  Turkey is clearly currently preoccupied with events in northeastern Syria, especially in Menbij; a major conflict in northwestern Syria, eventually leading to a potential Government of Syria offensive, would certainly distract from Turkey’s more immediate objectives. Indeed, it is worth noting that in President Erdogan’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, he devotes considerable time to discussing Turkish concerns in northeastern Syria, and barely mentions northwestern Syria at all.  Therefore, while not powerless per se, Turkey may have been unable to intervene due to the fact that committing such significant resources to northwestern Syria would be counter to their immediate strategic priorities.     

Whatever the interpretation of events, the defeat of Noureddine Al-Zinki will have a drastic impact on northwestern Syria’s current landscape.  Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is now in control of Atareb and Daret Azza, two of the more important communities in northwestern Syria. As noted, there are critical fuel trade routes which run through Daret Azza;  Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will certainly capitalize on these revenues generated by trade through the Atma and Daret Azza crossings. Additionally, both Daret Azza and Atareb were considered to be local hubs for many of the humanitarian and development agencies working in northwestern Syria.  The local governance structures and NGOs in both of these formerly independent communities will now fall under the influence of the Salvation Government, greatly complicating the humanitarian and development response in northwestern Syria; indeed, according to local sources, this process has already begun.

The central question remaining in northwestern Syria is now what Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will do next.  Considering the ease with which Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham captured western Aleppo, and the lack of a Turkish response (for whatever reason), it is likely that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will now seek to eliminate several of the other smaller National Liberation Front groups with which it has long-standing grievances, in preparation for a broader Idleb conflict to come.  According to local sources, the most likely targets of a future Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham offensive are Soqour Al-Sham and Ahrar Al-Sham, and on January 8, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham demandeded the dissolution of both groups. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is likely to launch attacks on parts of northern Hama (especially the Sahel Ghab region), Ma’aret An-Numan, and Ariha in the near-term.  For now, it is unlikely that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will attempt to attack Faylaq Al-Sham, the largest and reportedly most preferred Turkish proxy group in Syria. However, as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham continues to eliminate groups and secure critical territory in Idleb, the likelihood of a broader conflict with the National Liberation Front grows.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Menbij/U.S. Withdrawal from Syria

On January 8, Russian Military Police spokesperson Yusuf Mamatov stated that the first Russian convoy has conducted a patrol in western rural Menbij, and that Russian forces will continue to make systematic patrols in western rural Menbij. In the same time period, local sources reported that U.S military forces reportedly continue to patrol in the city; while SDF forces reportedly remain in the city, an estimated 400 SDF combatants have withdrawn from Menbij city to eastern rural Deir-ez-Zor throughout the past four days. With regards to the status and timeline of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton stated on January 6 that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria “will be conditioned on the defeat of the Islamic State and the safety of Kurdish allies,” and that the U.S. will continue negotiations with the Government of Turkey to secure protection for Kurdish allies in the northeastern Syria.  For his part, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated Bolton’s claim, and stated on January 7 that “[President] Erdogan made a commitment to President Trump as the two of them were discussing what this ought to look like…that the Turks would continue the counter-ISIS campaign after our departure and that [SDF], that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign, would be protected.”  However, on January 8, Turkish President Erdogan rebuked both Bolton and Pompeo’s statements, remarking that “Bolton has made a serious mistake and whoever thinks like this has also made a mistake. It is not possible for us to make compromises on this point” and that “different voices have started emerging from different segments of the [U.S.] administration.”  President Erdogan subsequently refused to meet with Bolton, who was due to travel Turkey that day. Local sources in Menbij also stated that civilians in Menbij have continued to hold demonstrations in protest of the potential Turkish military offensive.  

Analysis: The announced withdrawal of U.S. military forces from northeastern Syria has made control of Menbij a critical point of friction for both the Government of Turkey and the SDF.  Notably, the SDF’s capture of Menbij in August 2016 was viewed as an existential threat to the Government of Turkey, due to the fact that the SDF had captured territory west of the Euphrates River; indeed the Turkish Armed Forces’ Operation Euphrates Shield into northern Syria (also in August 2016) was in direct response to the SDF’s capture of Menbij.  As U.S. military forces remain present in Menbij, the Government of Turkey is unlikely to launch an offensive to retake the city. However, and despite the statements given by both National Security Advisor Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo, the U.S. will likely withdraw from Menbij, and Syria, within the next four to six months, as per President Trump’s directives.  Considering the presence of Governments of Syria and Russia military patrols, it is therefore increasingly likely that Menbij will ultimately be handed over to the Government of Syria, either prior to or immediately following a U.S. withdrawal. Government of Syria control of Menbij will likely prevent a Turkish intervention; however it will also likely impede the current humanitarian response based in northeastern Syria, particularly due to the fact that a majority of humanitarian actors in the region are not registered with the Government of Syria.

2. SDF advances in Deir-Ez-Zor

Shafa, Deir-Ez-Zor, Eastern Syria: On January 3, the SDF reportedly advanced into the last remaining ISIS-held pocket in Deir-Ez-Zor governorate and secured Shafa, Upper Baguz, and Lower Baguz, with U.S.-led coalition airstrike support.  The clashes between the SDF and ISIS, compounded by the heavy U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, reportedly prompted significant civilian displacement from Shafa and Susat to SDF-controlled Al-Tanak oilfield, southeast of Deir-ez-Zor, and Hole Camp.  However, concurrent with the still ongoing conflict with ISIS, on January 4 approximately 100 trucks transported the first contingent of U.S. forces from northeastern rural Deir-ez-Zor to northern Iraq.

Analysis: Following President Trump’s December 19 announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the number of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting the remaining ISIS-held pockets in northern Deir-Ez-Zor governorate has actually increased.  However, despite the continued U.S. military support, the impending withdrawal of U.S. military forces has brought the status of the entire anti-ISIS conflict in northeastern Syria into question.  While the SDF is still combating ISIS, there have reportedly been concerns that the SDF will abandon counter-ISIS operations either prior to, or immediately following, a U.S. withdrawal in order to prepare for a potential Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria, as well as to counter increased hostilities currently arising from anti-SDF Arab tribes.  Therefore, it is likely that the ongoing conflict between the SDF and ISIS in Deir-ez-Zor may come to a halt in the near term.

3. Returnees from Rukban Camp

Eastern Homs, Syria: On January 4, approximately 210 refugees reportedly returned from Rukban Camp, in eastern Homs governorate, to Mahin, in southeastern rural Homs; this marks the first significant wave of returns from the Rukban camp, though details with regards to the reconciliation status of those who returned remain unclear. On the same date, a child reportedly died in Rukban camp due to a lack in available medical treatment. Previously on December 28, the local administration in Rukban released a statement calling the international community and the United Nations Security Council to take steps to ensure the safety of the camp residents by relocating them to safer areas. Additionally, on January 8, Jordanian Prime Minister Ayman Safadi called for Russian, U.S., and Jordanian negotiations to resolve the status of Rukban, ahead of his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jordan on the same date; however, no outcome of the meeting was immediately announced.

Analysis: The U.S. supports Maghwir Al-Thawra, an armed opposition group that secures Al-Tanf and Rukban; following President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from Syria, it appeared that Rukban camp would fall under the control of the Government of Syria, and returns would be handled under the framework of the Government of Syria’s reconciliation procedures.  However, following U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s recent statement that U.S. military forces may, in fact, remain in Al-Tanf, the status of the camp and its inhabitants is unclear.  Despite the uncertainty surrounding the status of Rukban camp, future small-scale returns are expected in the near-term. It is also likely that the Governments of Jordan, Syria, and Russia will continue discussions with respect to the relocation of Rukban IDPs to other Government of Syria-controlled areas in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, IDPs in Rukban camp will continue to suffer from dire conditions, particularly considering harsh winter weather and a lack of aid and medical services.

4. Floods in Idleb

Idleb, Northwestern Syria, Syria:  Since of December 27, heavy rainfall and flooding in northern Syria has severely impacted 32 IDP camps (host to approximately 70,000 IDPs) throughout Idleb governorate.  Reportedly, approximately 220 tents were destroyed in the Atma refugee camp alone.  While no casualties have yet been reported, several herd of livestock reportedly perished. Camps in Atma, Qah, Sarmada and Kherbet Eljoz released statements calling on local and international NGOs to provide emergency assistance. According to Anadolu Agency, a Turkish media news outlet, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) have reportedly announced that temporary shelters will be established, but have yet to announce the locations of these shelters.

Analysis:  Due to the intense rainfall, mudslides in the vicinity of IDP camps in northwestern Syria have made many camps extremely difficult to access by NGOs operating in Idleb governorate. The flooding has destroyed a large number of tents, which will likely result in a significant displacement from IDPS camps. However, as noted above, clashes between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the National Liberation Front have also intensified in the past week, which has the potential to further exacerbate already dire humanitarian conditions and access impediments in northwestern Syria, particularly in areas where IDPs camps are located. The humanitarian situation in northwestern Syria will likely continue to deteriorate in the near term as armed opposition infighting results in displacement, and conditions of IDPs worsen due to difficult winter conditions.

5. Iran-Iraq-Syria Joint Company

On January 5, the Head of Joint Iranian-Syrian Economic Committee, Beiman Kashfi, stated that a joint Iraqi-Iranian-Syrian transportation company will be established to facilitate the transit of goods from Iran to Syria through Iraq.  The Governments of Iran and Iraq have also reportedly discussed mechanisms to facilitate monetary transactions between all three countries, and the potential to establish a new trade center in Damascus for commercial and economic actors.

Analysis:  As indicated in the previous COAR weekly report from December 20 – January 3, the increased economic participation of the Government of Iraq in Syria is an indispensable component of bilateral economic agreements between Governments of Syria and Iran. Considering Iran’s influence over Iraqi politics, and its direct involvement in the Syrian conflict and Syrian war economy, establishment of long-term economic cooperation between the three countries in the form of multilateral agreements are increasingly likely in the future, which will further enhance Iranian economic and political influence throughout the entire Levant region.

6. Humanitarian Conditions in GoS Areas

Damascus, Syria: Local sources have reported that living conditions throughout many Government of Syria-held areas, to include in Damascus city, have continued to worsen throughout the past month. As per local source reports, the duration of electricity outages now averages approximately 11 hours per day in Rural Damascus governorate; in other governorates such as Dar’a, electricity outages last approximately 20 hours per day on average.  The prices of a propane gas canister has also continued to increase, as local sources report that the black market price of one 200 liter canister of propane gas has reached 7000 SYP in the Damascus; the increase in propane prices is partially attributed to the fact that Government of Syria civilian and military personnel reportedly frequently demand bribes or when distributing gas. Gasoline prices have also increased, as the price of one liter is currently 325 SYP/liter in Damascus.  The prices of food and other staple goods have also continued to progressively increase, especially potatoes and tomatoes. Reportedly, the increase in food prices have been attributed to the decline in agricultural production throughout Syria.

Analysis: Despite the fact that the Government of Syria has reportedly attempted to prioritize service provision and market functionality throughout many Government of Syria-held communities, humanitarian conditions and market functionality in many places remains quite poor.  Indeed, while much of the humanitarian and development response focused on opposition-held areas, largely due to higher needs and access-related issues, food shortages and price spikes in electricity, fuel, gasoline, and staple goods have been the norm throughout many Government of Syria-held areas.  Markets in Syria will likely continue to suffer shortages of food and staple goods due to the decreased in production capacity, and communities will likely continue to lack basic services and commodities for the foreseeable future.

7. NDF Commander Detained

Dmeir, Eastern Qalamoun:  On January 3, media reports indicated that Government of Syria forces detained Qasem Khalaf (also known as Al-Kharban), a prominent NDF commander in Dmeir. The government of Syria intelligence units are also reportedly attempting to detain Khalaf’s brothers, who also live in the vicinity of Dmeir.  Khalaf’s detention was reportedly linked to his involvement in the smuggling of captagon and hashish to Damascus city. Notably, Khalaf and his siblings established several NDF militias in the Eastern Qalamoun following the armed opposition seizure of the area in 2012, in particular in Raheiba, Dhmeir and Jirud.

Analysis:  The Government of Syria will likely continue its attempts to mitigate the power and influence of local militia commanders, especially in reconciled areas, to further consolidate and centralize security throughout the country.  However, as seen in this case, detention of armed group commanders is not only limited to former armed opposition commanders: even loyalists are subject to detention. Previously, Government of Syria forces detained several prominent reconciled military commanders, who were subsequently sentenced to death, as occurred most recently in Barzeh.   However, the capacity of the Government of Syria to impose complete control over the myriad of local military actors and militias throughout Syria is questionable. Indeed, as discussed in a recent article by the Carnegie Middle East Center, reintegrating Syria’s militias into more comprehensive and controllable bodies will be one of the central challenges facing the Government of Syria for the foreseeable future.

8. Dar’a Conscription Deadlines Extended

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: Media and local sources indicated that Government of Syria National Security forces have reached an agreement with the Crisis Committee of Dar’a (comprised of representatives of former armed opposition groups) to extend the deadline of military conscription for six months. As per the statement of Crisis Committee member Adham Krad, the agreement has been effective as of December 24, 2018, and has called off all outstanding detention orders for civilians and former combatants that have reconciled with the Government of Syria. However, other members of the Crisis Committee have also pointed out that the extension has only been extended to those individuals who have already reconciled but have yet to join the military, whereas defectors and individuals who did not reconcile their status are still governed by the amnesty degree issued in October 2018, effective until only February 2019.

Analysis: The agreement to extend the deadline of military service for individuals in Dar’a and Quneitra governorate is in many ways a concession on the part of the Government of Syria. Despite the fact that reconciliation of southern Syria has been effective as of July 2018, numerous local and media reports have continuously reported on continued detentions and harassment of individuals at checkpoints throughout Dar’a, Quneitra, and other Government of Syria-controlled areas. Therefore, the extension of the conscription deadline for many individuals in southern Syria appears indicative of the Government of Syria’s willingness to respond to the repeated demands of local tribal leaders, who are reportedly heavily represented in the Crisis Committee.  That said, it is highly likely that while conscriptions may be temporarily halted in southern Syria, they will continue at scale at the conclusion of the six-month extension.

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.