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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.