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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.