The Syria Update is divided into two sections. The first section provides an in-depth analysis of key issues and dynamics related to wartime and post-conflict Syria. The second section provides a comprehensive whole of Syria review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance.
Throughout the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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