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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.