Syria Update: February 21 – February 27, 2019

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Syria Update

21 February to 27 February, 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 February 21, in an apparent reversal of President Donald Trump’s previous announcements, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders announced that “a small peacekeeping group…will remain in Syria for a period of time.” Reportedly, 200 U.S. soldiers will remain stationed in northeastern Syria, in addition to the 200 soldiers stationed at the Al-Tanf border crossing in eastern Syria.  Additionally, the U.S. is requesting that multinational NATO peacekeeping forces contribute between 800 to 1,500 supplementary forces to northeastern Syria to monitor a ‘safe zone’ (often alternatively referred to as a ‘buffer zone’) in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border. A central question facing this safe zone will be the involvement of the Government of Turkey; Turkey is a NATO member and has legitimate security concerns; however, a potential Turkish military intervention is the primary reason for creating the safe zone in the first place.  Additionally, while the creation of this safe zone has been presented as a stabilizing measure, it may instead have the opposite effect: the safe zone will effectively halt ongoing negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self Administration, and will likely cause Turkey and the Government of Syria to engage in a longer term policy of internally destabilizing the Kurdish Self Administration.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Several reports indicate that Government of Syria security forces began to detain and question individuals in reconciled northern rural Homs and Eastern Ghouta due to their work with local humanitarian organizations and governance bodies formerly working in the area; protection concerns were always expected for humanitarians and administrators in reconciled areas, and should be taken into account in areas likely to fall to the Government of Syria in the medium term.
  • The General Conference of the Syrian Revolution in northwestern Syria announces that it is close to forming a Shura council to form a new Government to replace the Salvation Government, as airstrikes and shelling continue to increase across northwestern Syria. Considering the degree of conflict on frontlines in northwestern Syria, any efforts to ‘rehabilitate’ the Salvation Government are likely to be inconsequential.  
  • ISIS combatants and civilians living in ISIS areas continue surrender to the SDF in Deir-ez-Zor governorate.  The majority of these individuals are transferred to the Hol camp, and their status may become a major international issue.
  • Reconciliation negotiations continue in Rukban camp, as no individuals have reportedly used the recently established Russian ‘humanitarian corridors’.  The status of Rukban camp will likely become even more difficult to resolve considering the fact that U.S. military forces may remain at Al-Tanf indefinitely.
  • Government of Syria security officials continued to negotiate with local notables and tribal leaders in southern Syria; addressing their concerns will be extremely difficult considering the lack of unity between different Government of Syria military and security branches in southern Syria.
  • The Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics released an economic report for 2017-2018.  The report highlighted the increasingly dire economic conditions of the average Syrian, which are especially concerning considering that Syria’s economy has further deteriorated since late 2018.
  • A series of IEDs and VBIEDs took place in Afrin district. IEDs are now taking place in the vicinity of Afrin on more than a weekly basis in an indication of the deteriorating security conditions in Turkish-held northern Syria.
  • A large scale conscription campaign is announced in the western Qalamoun region, reportedly prompting many Syrians to smuggle themselves into Lebanon to avoid military service.  This incident is a major indication of the degree to which Syrians fear military conscription, and the degree to which conscription is an impediment to return for Syrian refugees.

Northwestern Syria Negotiations

In Depth Analysis

On February 21, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders announced that “a small peacekeeping group of about 200 [U.S. military forces] will remain in Syria for a period of time,” in an apparent reversal of President Donald Trump’s previous announcement of a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria in December 2018.  According to other senior administration officials, these 200 U.S. soldiers would be stationed in northeastern Syria, in addition to the 200 soldiers stationed at the Al-Tanf border crossing in eastern Syria.  Additionally, the U.S. is now requesting that multinational NATO peacekeeping forces contribute between 800 to 1,500 supplementary forces to northeastern Syria to monitor a ‘safe zone’ (often alternatively referred to as a ‘buffer zone’) in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border.  Notably, while the forces in question are often referred to as ‘peacekeeping’ forces, in actuality they will not be bound by the same engagement restrictions as an official UN peacekeeping force. Reportedly, according to U.S. defense officials anonymously cited in U.S. media, U.S. troops would remain in the area indefinitely to “prevent clashes between the SDF and Turkish forces, prevent Government of Syria forces seizing the territory, and minimize the risk of a resurgence of the Islamic State.”

While there have been some questions as to the willingness of NATO allies to contribute to a multinational peacekeeping force, French President Macron has expressed his initial willingness to do so, and it is likely that other NATO allies will also contribute to a potential safe zone. A central question facing the formation of a NATO-based safe zone military force is the involvement of Turkey in said safe zone. One anonymous U.S. defense official has already reportedly stated that Turkish and Syrian opposition forces would not be allowed in the proposed safe zone.  The fact that NATO is proposing a buffer zone whose primary purpose appears to be preventing a NATO member from launching an intervention is not lost on Turkish President Erdogan, as he stated on February 23: “It will be unacceptable for us if the safe zone would be shaped in a way that contradicts with our own strategic understanding…If a safe zone is to be established along Turkey’s border, that area needs to be under our control. We cannot take precautions after rockets hit our land and need to take precautions beforehand.”  Therefore, while President Erdogan and President Trump have personally spoken about the creation of a safe zone, the consequent role of Turkey in any safe zone remains unclear.

More important than the exact composition or boundaries of a potential safe zone is the impact it may have on the stability of northeastern Syria. President Trump’s decision to keep a small peacekeeping force and create a safe zone in Syria is being presented as a stabilizing measure. On the one hand, it will likely prevent a major Turkish intervention for the time being; however, a safe zone and multinational NATO peacekeeping force is also deeply destabilizing, especially in the longer term, for two reasons:  first, it will freeze near-term negotiations between the SDF and the Government of Syria; second, it will likely lead to increased efforts on the part of Turkey and the Government of Syria to destabilize the Kurdish Self Administration.

With the US remaining in Syria and establishing a multinational NATO safe zone force, negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self Administration will now be effectively stalled. Negotiations were not necessarily progressing well; the Government of Syria’s demands to the Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF are fundamentally the same as those of previous reconciliation agreements offered to armed opposition-held areas. Furthermore, the fact that negotiations were even taking place was likely a function of the increasingly weak negotiating position of the Kurdish Self Administration. One could interpret this as strengthening the Kurdish Self Administrations negotiating position. However, considering the fact that one of the stated purposes of the new NATO force is to act as a counter the Government of Syria, it is unlikely that serious negotiations with the Government of Syria will continue. It is more likely that U.S. officials will continue to pressure the Kurdish Self Administration to refuse negotiations with the Government of Syria.  Ultimately, the continued presence of U.S. military forces and NATO allies is likely to instead freeze all negotiations and potential territorial handovers, as opposed to incentivising a more long term negotiated solution.

The fact that the continued U.S. military presence will likely perpetuate the political and territorial status quo does not necessarily mean that the related security and stability homeostasis will hold. In actuality, the fact that the political status has been effectively frozen has the potential to lead to a deep destabilization of northeastern Syria.  Over the past several months both the Government of Syria and the Government of Turkey have taken steps to internally destabilize the Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF. The most obvious means of doing so have been by courting the support of the different Arab tribal groups in northern and northeastern Syria to exploit pre-existing grievances many of these tribal groups had with the Kurdish Self Administration.  Tribal tensions have become a major political dynamic in northeastern Syria: new tribal ‘popular resistance’ forces continue to proliferate, tribal leaders express their allegiance to either the Government of Syria or the Government of Turkey, Kurdish security crackdown on Arab communities, and tribal leaders opposed to the Kurdish Self Administration are assassinated.  It is also worth noting that while many parts of SDF-held northeastern Syria are predominantly Kurdish, in general Kurds remain a minority, or a plurality, throughout most of northeastern Syria. However, in addition to exacerbating Kurdish-Arab tensions, there are other means of destabilizing northeastern Syria. For example, the Government of Syria recently dismissed numerous civil servants for working or coordinating with the Kurdish Self Administration. Government of Syria and Kurdish Self Administration bureaucratic structures often coordinate and exist in parallel, and dismissing staff for engaging in coordination is an indication that the Government of Syria intends to administratively sabotage the Kurdish Self Administration along with violently destabilizing northeastern Syria.

The risks of a concerted policy of destabilization of the Kurdish Self Administration could deeply impact the northeastern Syria humanitarian and development response on multiple levels.  From a security standpoint, a deterioration of the security environment of northeastern Syria may lead to the targeting of western military, diplomatic, development, and humanitarian personnel, especially as all of these sectors are often locally perceived to be closely linked to the Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF.  However, perhaps the largest impact of the continued U.S. and possible NATO presence in northeastern Syria is that it has the potential to place the SDF and the Kurdish Self Administration in permanent opposition to the Government of Syria, which may have significant long-term results. In general, the Government of Syria and the SDF have worked together quite well throughout the conflict, and have regularly coordinated and shared power in several areas. By disrupting the political process, and openly placing the Kurdish Self Administration in opposition to the Government of Syria, the U.S. buffer zone may in fact harm the longer term strategic objectives of the Kurdish Self Administration.  Ultimately, U.S. military and NATO forces are unlikely to remain in Syria indefinitely. In contrast, the Governments of Syria and Turkey view the conflict on a 20 or 30 year time scale. Thus, the longer that the Kurdish leadership is prevented from, or unable to, reach an agreement with the Governments of Syria or Turkey, the more potentially catastrophic the outcome when an inevitable withdrawal of U.S. and NATO military forces takes place.

Whole of Syria Review

2019FEB21_27 Syria Update COAR page

1. Protection Concerns in Reconciled Areas

Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus; Northern Rural Homs, Homs Governorate, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, media sources indicated that Government of Syria forces have detained several reconciled individuals, to include former relief and humanitarian workers in Eastern Ghouta and northern rural Homs. In northern rural Homs, on February 25, media sources indicated that Government of Syria Military Security Forces detained at least 40 individuals in northern rural Homs communities, who reportedly either have been affiliated with armed opposition, civic groups, or are relatives of evacuees to northwestern Syria. Additionally, throughout the past week Government of Syria General Security forces reportedly detained and questioned at least 100 civilian women, to include nurses, in several northern rural Homs communities, to include Ar-Rastan and Talbiseh.  Reportedly, the women were questioned about their previous work in organizations formerly active under armed opposition control. Similarly, media sources indicated that Government of Syria forces also conducted detention campaigns targeting individuals who were previously members of humanitarian organization in Maliha, southern eastern Ghouta.

Analysis: Protection concerns for former members of the political opposition and civilians who were formerly involved in humanitarian work in opposition-held areas are likely to continue to remain an issue for the foreseeable future.  Indeed, reconciliation agreements, negotiated on both the individual and community level, have proven to be an insufficient means of mitigating detention and arrest. The detention of individuals for security and political reasons by the Government of Syria is both common and recurrent; the fact that civilians who have played a role in civil administrative governance structures or humanitarian work in reconciled areas are being targeted is particularly troubling. The status of all Syrian humanitarian or development workers and local administrators currently working with unregistered INGOs or local NGOs must be taken into account; this is especially true in areas which will likely come under the control of the Government of Syria in the foreseeable future, such as northwestern and potentially northeastern Syria.

2. Northwestern Syria Status

Northwestern Syria, Syria:  On February 23, local sources indicated that several activists involved in the General Conference for the Syria Revolution held a press conference in Idlib city, at which they announced the mechanism by which the General Conference Shoura Council will be elected. Of note, the General Conference for the Syrian Revolution is an ongoing conference in northwestern Syria, which aims to either merge the Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government in Idleb, or to reform and rehabilitate the Salvation Government into a new body. According to local sources, a High Committee for Elections has been elected from among the attendees of the conference; this High Committee, in addition other founding members of the conference, will oversee the eventual election of the Shoura Council, which will appoint the new Government.  Reportedly, the conference will conclude within the next two weeks. Concurrently, throughout the reporting period, the Government of Syria continued to drastically increase shelling and airstrikes throughout northwestern Syria, causing significant displacement in frontline communities. Local sources indicated that the most recent round of Government of Syria airstrikes have been concentrated on Khan Shaykun and Saraqab. Intense shelling has reportedly targeted almost every community in the northwestern Syria disarmament zone; media sources indicated that at least 70 civilians were killed in the course of the previous week due to the spike in conflict intensity.

Analysis: The creation of the Shoura Council and the General Conference was originally designed to legitimize the presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government under a new civil and military structure in northwestern Syria; a potential merger with the Syrian Interim Government, or elements of the Syrian Interim Government, were aspirational outcomes of the conference.  However, representatives of the Syrian Interim Government flatly rejected a potential merger. The new government which is produced by the General Conference will likely still be perceived as closely linked to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. Therefore, and especially considering the continuous and heavy Government of Syria bombardment of the Turkish-Russian disarmament zone in northwestern Syria, it is unlikely that the outcome of this conference will have any significant impact on the security of northwestern Syria. That said, an offensive in northwestern Syria does not appear likely in the near term. Indeed, it is more likely that the recent spike in conflict intensity in the area is aimed at pressuring the armed opposition to hand over limited control of some areas, especially along  the M5 highway, to the Government of Syria; this is especially true considering the intensity of the shelling and airstrikes is highest in communities along the M5 highway.

3. ISIS Combatants in Deir-ez-Zor

Baghuz, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, the SDF have continued to evacuate ISIS combatants and civilians from Baghuz, in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Of those evacuated, media sources indicated that SDF reportedly have handed over a total of 180 ISIS Iraqi combatants to the Government of Iraq. Media sources also reported that approximately 400 ISIS combatants have still refused to surrender, and have alternatively requested to be evacuated to Idleb governorate in order to join the Turkistan Islamic Party. Reportedly, the majority of the civilian evacuees are transferred to the Omar oil fields where they are subjected to a preliminary debriefing by U.S. soldiers, and then are transferred to Hol camp in southern rural Al-Hasakeh governorate, where they are assigned to tents and subsequently screened and subjected to further questioning under close supervision of SDF and U.S. military forces.

Analysis: The remaining ISIS combatants in Baguz will likely either surrender or be killed in the near-term, thus securing the last remaining populated ISIS-held area in Syria.  However, resolving the statuses of those individuals who have evacuated from ISIS to SDF-controlled areas will likely remain a major issue for the foreseeable future. Specifically, the status of the more than 39,000 people at al Hol camp, which has existed for over three years and in which the ISIS combatants or their civilian families are now placed may become entangled in larger regional and international politics.  Many of the ISIS combatants, and their families, are foreign nationals from over 40 countries; the repatriation of these combatants remains fraught with controversy. According to media sources, the SDF has noted that they do not have the resources to hold the detainees indefinitely. If some of these foreign combatants, or their civilian foreign family members, are not repatriated in their countries of origin, there is a real risk that the status of the Hol camp will be extremely difficult to resolve, and the status of the camp itself may become an international legal and political issue.

4. Rukban Camp

Rukban, Eastern Homs Governorate, Syria: On February 24, Government of Syria representatives reportedly convened a meeting with the head of the UN delegation to the Rukban Camp, Rana Zakut, as well as tribal notables from Rukban Camp, according to a statement made by the Head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation, Lieutenant General Sergei Solomatin. The meeting reportedly discussed the future status of civilians currently residing in the camp, and the potential for their future evacuation from the camp to Government of Syria-held areas. Reportedly, several camp representatives continue to demand that they be given the option to evacuate from the camp to armed opposition-held northern Syria.  Also according to camp representatives, no Rukban residents have used the Russian-sponsored ‘humanitarian corridors’, established on February 19, allowing individuals to exit the Rukban camp and reconcile their status with the Government of Syria.

Analysis:  In light of the  recent US decision to keep 200 U.S. soldiers in Al-Tanf, the reconciliation process in Rukban will likely be delayed and may in fact be postponed indefinitely. Indeed, one of the major issues with the Rukban camp is that it existed within the U.S.’s declared Al-Tanf ‘deconfliction zone’. Government of Syria military forces have been fired upon in the past for entering the deconfliction zone.  However, following the announced U.S. withdrawal, reconciliation negotiations began in the Rukban camp, under the assumption that Government of Syria forces would resume control over the area. Now that U.S. forces will remain in Al-Tanf, the status of the camp will once again be in flux. Nevertheless, the Government of Syria will likely continue to negotiate with locals notables in the camp and relevant UN representatives for the foreseeable future, although evacuations or reconciliations of Rukban residents are unlikely for the near- to medium-term.

5. Southern Syria Negotiations

Tafas, Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: On February 25, media sources indicated that the head of the Government of Syria General Intelligence Unit, Mohamad Mahla, along with several other Government of Syria representatives, to include the head of the Military Security Branch in Southern Syria, Louay Al Ali, convened a meeting with Dar’awi local notables in Tafas, in Dar’a Governorate. According to the same source, Mahla indicated that he has released a total of 28 individuals from Tafas, who were previously detained by the Intelligence Unit. In exchange, community representatives from both Tafas and neighboring communities reportedly demanded the release of other detainees, and also demanded the cessation of arbitrary detainment in the area. Additionally, community representatives reportedly requested that a total of 8000 public employees of the Dar’a Education Directorate be allowed to return to their former jobs. Reportedly, many individuals have been unable to resume working in their former jobs with the Government of Syria due to the fact that they require permissions from the National Security Office, which have not been forthcoming.

Analysis:  In an attempt to contain the continued unrest and instability in southern Syria, the Government of Syria will likely continue to attempt similar conciliatory measures with local communities in Dar’a governorate for the foreseeable future. However, the efficacy of these measures remains questionable. As highlighted in previous Syria Updates, southern Syria currently faces significant competition between various Government of Syria military and security branches, as well as significant tensions between these security branches and local tribal notables and communities. Indeed, there are no guarantees that any conciliatory measures taken by the Government of Syria will actually be put into practice, as there is no way to guarantee that security forces will adhere to their terms, considering the decided lack of unity between different security branches. For example, the lack of cohesiveness between different Government of Syria military branches and bureaucratic institutions is also likely the primary reason why thousands of employees have yet to return to their jobs in public institutions despite their reconciliation.

6. Central Bureau of Statistic Report

Damascus, Syria: On February 24, the Director of the Government of Syria Central Bureau of Statistics, Bashar Al-Qasem, released a report on the general economic situation of Syria covering 2017 to 2018.  The report stated the expenditures of an average Syrian family in 2018 were approximately 325,000 SYP per month. However, according to local sources, the highest paid Government of Syria state employees earn approximately 100,000 SYP per month. Additionally, according to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 31.2% of the Syrian population were food insecure in 2017; the percentage of the population at risk of being food insecure was 45.5% in 2017. Thus, according to the Government of Syria, in 2017 up to 76.7% of the Syrian population were food insecure, or were at risk of being food insecure in 2017; the report noted that this was a slight decrease from the previous value in 2015.

Analysis: The report issued by the Central Bureau of Statistics is highly revealing, even considering the fact that the information is somewhat out of date.  Economic conditions in Government of Syria-held areas have further declined since 2017, and have rapidly deteriorated since the end of 2018. The increase in the prices of staple goods, coupled with the low purchasing power of Syrian consumers, indicate that the sampling of those suffering from food insecurity, or those at risk of becoming food insecure, are not even the poorest individuals in the country; indeed, they represent the average. This report thus sheds light on the precarious and dire situation of the majority of the population, to include those with a relatively good income. Additionally, as previously mentioned in past COAR Syria Updates, key commodities and materials, especially fuel and gas, are often in short supply in local markets, even in Damascus city. The precarious economic situation in Syria can be attributed to various factors, to include international sanctions and the decreased production capacity of Syria’s agricultural and industrial sectors. Indeed, the impending U.S. government’s ‘Caesar’  sanctions will likely further weaken the already dire economic conditions in Syria.

7. Afrin and Euphrates Shield Instability

Afrin, Northern Aleppo, Syria: On February 21 a VBIED was detonated in Afrin city, resulting in at least one death and at least 20 injuries. Media sources indicated that the explosion was concurrent with a military parade by Turkish-backed armed groups in the area. Subsequently, on February 23, another VBIED was detonated in Jandairis, in southern Afrin district, and an IED targeted the Turkish-backed Al-Hamza Brigade in the vicinity of Afrin city. It is unclear how many individuals were killed in both attacks. Additionally, throughout the reporting period, intermittent clashes between Turkish supported groups and YPG combatants reportedly occurred on frontlines throughout western rural Aleppo governorate.

Analysis: IEDs and targeted attacks in Afrin and Euphrates Shield-held areas have occured on a weekly basis for the past several months. It remains unclear whether YPG sleeper cells are responsible for these incidents, as many Turkish-supported armed groups engage in regular local disputes with each other. That said, YPG sleeper cells are certainly responsible for a portion of the ongoing attacks in northern Syria.  The deteriorating security situation in northern Syria is indicative of the Government of Turkey’s seemingly limited capacity to maintain stability in the area. In light of the fact that the Government of Turkey continues to threaten to intervene militarily in northeastern Syria, asymmetric attacks are likely to continue to take place in northern Syria and Afrin for the foreseeable future.

8. Qalamoun Conscription

Western Qalamoun Region, Central Syria: On February 25, Government of Syria forces issued a list of names of individuals requested for military service by the end of February throughout the western Qalamoun region.  Reportedly, the National Defense Forces and the Syrian Arab Army 4th Division have established several checkpoints on the outskirts of communities in the area; namely Qara, An Nabk, Yabroud, Deir Attiyeh. The list of names reportedly includes a total of 1500 individuals, some of whom are above the age of 40 and some of whom are deceased.  This has compelled many of those individuals requested for conscription to resort to fleeing to Lebanon through local smuggling networks in order to avoid military service.

Analysis:  The conscription and detentions campaigns in the Qalamoun is a major indication of the continued impediments to the return of refugees from the Qalamoun to their areas of origin; this is especially true for many of Syrian refugees in Lebanon from the Qalamoun, many of whom currently reside in the Lebanese Beqaa valley.  Indeed, the fact that many individuals are reportedly fleeing the Qalamoun region to Lebanon in order to avoid conscription highlights the extremes individuals are willing to go to avoid being drafted into the Syrian military, and should be taken into account when discussing potential future waves of displacement from Syria. Despite their destabilizing impact, local conscription campaigns will likely continue to take place throughout Syria for the foreseeable future.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Media Anthology: February 19 – February 25, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

February 18 to 25, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Al-Sheikh Mountain: The "7th Division" continues pressuring Al-Harmon troopsArabicAl modonFebruary 20, 2019Conflict and Military
Including about 180 ISIS members, more than 2000 persons, mostly ISIS members’ families, got out through Coalition trucks from al-Baghuz farms east of the EuphratesEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsFebruary 20, 2019Conflict and Military
Nasriyeh base in the Qalamoun is under Iranian controlArabicAl modonFebruary 22, 2019Conflict and Military
Russia suggests appointing ‘The Tiger’ as commander of the armyEnglishThe Syrian ObserverFebruary 22, 2019Conflict and Military
Iranian forces strengthen capabilities in SyriaArabicStrategy WatchFebruary 22, 2019Conflict and Military
Does businessman Nabil Al-Kuzbari still support the regime?ArabicEqtsadFebruary 22, 2019Economic
In light of Bashar's speech, Syrian pound to where?ArabicEqtsadFebruary 22, 2019Economic
The emerging commercial elites in Syria, Al-Qattan and Al-Qaterji as examplesArabicOmran CenterFebruary 22, 2019Economic
"Ghawar of Aleppo" controls its roads, the Ministry of Interior is unable to stop himArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 25, 2019Economic
Assad adviser rejects idea of granting Syrian Kurds autonomyEnglishReutersFebruary 19, 2019Governance and Service Management
The gas crisis pushes people toward harder solutions: Harsh travel to Lebanon to get a cylinderArabicAl SouriaFebruary 21, 2019Governance and Service Management
In crumbling Aleppo, residents scramble for shelterEnglishDaily Mail OnlineFebruary 21, 2019Governance and Service Management
Pro-regime areas are experiencing public discontent because of the deterioration of securityArabicStrategy WatchFebruary 22, 2019Governance and Service Management
Latakia: like a thieves marketArabicAl modonFebruary 24, 2019Governance and Service Management
One hundred British children born to Islamic State brides remain in Syria, experts warnEnglishThe Telegraph February 24, 2019Social Dynamics
Jordan: Syrian refugees do not want to return to their countryArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 20, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Response Coordination Group: Thousands of families have displaced from disarmament areasArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 20, 2019Humanitarian & Development
International Organizations leave proposed “Safe Zone”EnglishThe Syrian ObserverFebruary 20, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Syria: Concerns for Civilians Escaping ISIS HoldoutEnglishHuman Rights WatchFebruary 22, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The effects of Syria’s war on health could last for generationsEnglishMiddle East MonitorFebruary 20, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Syrians call for revoking British citizenship of Assad's wifeEnglishAl ArabyFebruary 20, 2019International Intervention
Turkey's Erdoğan hails 'significant progress' with Russia, Iran over Syria's IdlibEnglishHurriyet Daily NewsFebruary 23, 2019International Intervention
Returnees to Syria are displacing to Lebanon againArabicAl modonFebruary 19, 2019Other
"European Foreign Affairs" endorses repatriating the European ISIS fighters on an individual basisArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 19, 2019Other
Syria's Kurds made three demands to substitute the American withdrawn ArabicAsharq Al AwsatFebruary 21, 2019Other
A hollow victory over the Islamic State in Syria? The high risk of Jihadi revival in Deir ez-Zor’s Euphrates river valleyEnglishCombating Terrorism CenterFebruary 24, 2019Other
Largest IS mass grave yet found outside Syria's RaqqaEnglishFrance 24February 21, 2019Other
'From the gutter to the rain': Inside HTS' takeover of northwestern SyriaEnglishSyria DirectFebruary 25, 2019Other
They came to Syria to fight Isis. Now they want to stayEnglishThe IndependentFebruary 25, 2019Other

Media Anthology: February 12 – February 18, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

February 12 to 18, 2019

TitleLanguageSourceDateCategory
Increase in Russian presence in Al-Ghouta, accompanied by reduced the influence of military security and Republican GuardsArabicdamascus voiceFebruary 12, 2019Conflict and Military
"Nar Al Nimer," the most important leader in Suhail Al-Hassan's group, transferred to the Fourth DivisionArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 15, 2019Conflict and Military
The South Saraya releases its first statement and threatens Assad forces in Dar'aArabicWatan FMFebruary 12, 2019Conflict and Military
ISIS defeated militarily in East Euphrates, victory to be announced soon: SDF commanderEnglishKurdistan 24February 16, 2019Conflict and Military
Joint operation may be held in Idlib: ErdoğanEnglishDaily NewsFebruary 16, 2019Conflict and Military
‘War continued through other means’: How reconstruction risks perpetuating violence in a post-war SyriaEnglishSyria DirectFebruary 12, 2019Economic
Syriatel reveals its huge profits in 2018, how did the Assad government help it?ArabicAl SouriaFebruary 15, 2019Economic
As sanctions loom, Syria looks to retrieve funds from abroadEnglishAl-MonitorFebruary 15, 2019Economic
Can Syria rebuild with Assad still in power?EnglishFinancial TimesFebruary 17, 2019Economic
Container trip from Germany to DamascusArabicAl modonFebruary 17, 2019Economic
Limited Exports: Syrian crops “choked” in the domestic marketEnglishEnab BaladiFebruary 13, 2018Economic
Reconstruction in Kurdish-held areas: Measures and prospectsArabicShar MagazineFebruary 19, 2019Economic
Khamis demands a timeline for issuing the final regulatory plansArabicSyria StepsFebruary 11, 2019Governance and Service Management
Conscription: A division inside Syria between decision makers and their opponentsArabicAl modonFebruary 11, 2019Governance and Service Management
Salvation Government seeks to import electricity from TurkeyArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 15, 2019Governance and Service Management
The regime holds on to properties belonging to former activists in the revolution in Dar'aArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 14, 2019Governance and Service Management
Idleb: where did the negotiation between Tahrir Al-Sham and the opposition reach? ArabicAl modonFebruary 16, 2019Governance and Service Management
For the first time, Russian forces appoint a sheik to Tadmor, Step Agency reveals his life detailsArabicStep NewsFebruary 12, 2019Social Dynamics
Aid agencies pull out of Idlib in face of new terror threatEnglishThe GuardianFebruary 12, 2019Humanitarian & Development
France discusses withdrawing its forces from SyriaArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 12, 2019International Intervention
France Arrests Former Regime Intelligence MemberEnglishThe Syrian ObserverFebruary 15, 2019Other
In this way, Assad gets rid of his Shabiha:  Al-Hawasli and Al-Fa'our as an exampleArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 12, 2019Other
Syrian people suffer after Pyrrhic victoryEnglishLondon School of Economics and Political ScienceFebruary 12, 2019Other
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda: Affiliates or Foes?EnglishFanackFebruary 14, 2019Other
Sunni Jihad is going localEnglishThe AtlanticFebruary 15, 2019Other
Breaking: Denmark rejects Trump’s plea, won’t take back ISIS fighters captured in SyriaEnglishAl-Masdar NewsFebruary 17, 2019Other
Russia attracts the "reconciliation youths" and opponents in south SyriaArabicAsharq Al AwsatFebruary 17, 2019Other

Syria Update: February 14 – February 20, 2019

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Syria Update

14 February to 20 February, 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 February 17 Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivered an hour long speech in Damascus to the recently elected heads of city and municipal councils in Government of Syria-controlled territory; this was the first major speech President Al-Assad has made since August 2017.  Much analysis has centered on President Al-Assad’s statements about the U.S. role in northeastern Syria; however, the speech actually covered a number of topics to include the new role of local governance in Syria, refugee returns, the ongoing economic crisis in Syria, the formation of the Syrian constitutional committee, and the hostile role of ‘foreign actors’ in Syria, to include the U.S. and Turkey.  In some ways the speech reiterates long standing Government of Syria political positions, namely the sovereignty of the Government of Syria and the role of foreign countries as instigators of the conflict. However, it is important to note that in Syria, an official speech made by the President is de-facto Government of Syria official policy; indeed, the Syrian Prime Minister’s office has already held preliminary meetings on how to implement the agenda laid out by President Al-Assad.  Therefore, understanding of the specific themes and terms used in President Al-Assad’s speech will be a critical component to understand the Government of Syria’s priorities in the coming year.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • The presidents of Turkey, Russian and Iran met in Sochi. The Government of Russia appears to openly endorse the prospect of a Turkish military intervention in the event of a breakdown of negotiations between the SDF and the Government of Syria; it is also likely that Turkey will take direct action in northwestern Syria to resolve the status of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone.
  • The SDF military council met to discuss their post-ISIS strategy; however, the SDF’s current set of demands remain unfeasible considering their weak negotiating position.  
  • ISIS forces continued to negotiate their surrender, while the fate of the captured international ISIS combatants remains a source of concern for many western nations.
  • Humanitarian corridors were established at the Rukban camp, allowing individuals to leave Rukban and reconcile their status with the Government of Syria; despite reported concerns from many IDPs, it is likely that many individuals will utilize the corridors in the coming weeks due to the dire conditions in the camp itself.
  • Opposition-held northwestern Syria witnessed the heaviest shelling since the start of the Northwestern Syria Disarmament Zone agreement, highlighting the extreme fragility of the agreement and the increasingly possibility of a major offensive in the absence of direct Turkish intervention.
  • Assassinations and asymmetric attacks, as well as continued detention campaigns, continued to take place in Dar’a governorate, in a further indication of the rapidly deteriorating security conditions in southern Syria.
  • The Government of Syria Customs Forces cracked down on businessmen in Homs and Hama for trading in cross-line goods; the crackdown is not likely designed to prevent cross-line, but instead an effort to centralize cross-line trade under the Government of Syria.
  • The new Lebanese Minister of Displaced Peoples Affairs visited Damascus; Lebanon’s new government, despite its divisions, is somewhat unified in its stance in favor of increased Syrian refugee returns.
  • Many Government of Syria civil servants were dismissed for working or coordinating with the Kurdish Self Administration. Government of Syria and Kurdish Self Administration administrative structures often coordinate and exist in parallel; thus, dismissing staff for this reason is an indication that the Government of Syria intends to apply further governance pressure to the Kurdish Self Administration.

President Al-Assad’s Speech

In Depth Analysis

On February 17, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivered a televised speech in Damascus to the heads of every local council, city council, and municipality in Government of Syria-held territory.   President Al-Assad spoke for nearly one hour, with frequent ‘spontaneous’ interruptions from participants in attendance to voice their approval, recite poetry, or applaud the President’s points.  This was the first major speech President Al-Assad has made since August 2017.  Much of the media coverage and analysis of the speech has incorrectly centered on President Al-Assad’s statements about the role of the U.S. in northeastern Syria, such as his statement: “we say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you…the Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter.”   However, President Al-Assad’s speech was much more broad reaching, spoke to numerous pressing issues across Syria, and should be viewed as an expression of the Government of Syria’s priorities and political stances with respect to the entire of the Syrian conflict and the future post-conflict Syria. In the speech, President Al-Assad touched upon five essential points: the new role of local governance in Syria; refugee returns to Syria; the worsening economic situation, especially the ongoing gas crisis, in Syria; the formation of the constitutional committee; and the role of ‘foreign actors’ in Syria, namely the U.S. and Turkey.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivers his hour-long speech to the heads of local governance bodies from throughout Syria, in Damascus on February 17, 2019. Image courtesy of SANA.

Local Governance

As President Al-Assad was addressing the heads of Syria’s city councils and municipalities (all of whom were recently elected in national elections in September 2018), local governance was a major if not the central focus of the speech.  President Al-Assad regularly cited the successes of building local governance in Government of Syria-held areas, particularly through the implementation of Decree 107, which according to President Al-Assad “should have been implemented within five years, but it was issued at the time when the war began on Syria.”  President Al-Assad further stated that local governance will become “vital for the central authority [of the state] in terms of devising more realistic plans that suit the needs of citizens and the country,” and noted that decentralization must be done in coordination with “central establishments [that] can focus on an overseeing role and on comprehensive strategies and policies.”  Decree 107 was passed as part of the reforms package of 2011, and delegated more authority to locally elected city councils and municipalities; it is also notoriously complex and subject to interpretation. Of note, Decree 107 had actually been used as a framework to justify many former armed opposition and Kurdish local governance bodies in Syria, and many of these same actors have at one point cited the decentralization component of the decree as a potential means of preserving existing bodies in a post-conflict Syria.  This use of Decree 107 by the opposition and the Kurdish Self Administration was also addressed by President Al-Assad, stating that “countries that support terrorism…[are] applying a type of decentralization that is different from the one Decree 107 proposes; a decentralization that weakens the state’s authority and marginalizes it, thereby weakening sovereignty, nationalism, and social cohesion, which would lead to social division and ultimately geographic division.” In this way, President Al-Assad is committing the Government of Syria to this new local administrative structure, and is in a sense imbuing them with actual authority, yet while also reiterating that this authority is subject to the more centralized Government of Syria state structures.

Refugee Return

The issue of refugee return was also a major focus of President Al-Assad’s speech.  President Al-Assad stated that the issue of Syrian refugees is one which has been exploited by “states that support terrorism” (in likely reference to western countries and Turkey); he added that resolving the refugee issue would mean that “those sides would lose their political excuses and the financial benefits…this is why European and American officials make audacious statements openly opposing the return of refugees under silly and unconvincing excuses…there are constant attempts to convince refugees and expatriates that they are wanted and would be arrested if they enter Syria.”  President Al-Assad concluded by calling “on all those who left the country because of terrorism to return and carry out their national duties and contribute to building the homeland.” Here it is worth noting that return to Syria, for those refugees who wish to even do so, is by no means an easy process. For example, a Syrian refugee who fears detention upon return must first go to the Syrian embassy and apply for reconciliation. This reconciliation application is then submitted to the National Security Office in Damascus for approval; not all applications are approved, though the reasons for rejection are rarely given. Even upon return, there is also no guarantee that reconciliation would guarantee protection from arrest or detention.   Furthermore, while personal reconciliation extends to the Government of Syria civil state, it does not necessarily include the various security branches that reportedly keep their own security lists, as well as the myriad local pro-Government militias. Finally, reconciliation does little to mitigate fears of conscription, which is reportedly a major concern for many men.

Economic Conditions and ‘The Four Wars’

President Al-Assad also addressed the ongoing economic crisis in Syria, especially the gas crisis, noting that there are three “self-evident” points that must be addressed when discussing Syria’s economic challenges: first, that “the complaints that were heard expressed actual suffering that wasn’t fabricated or exaggerated”; second, that “criticism is necessary when there are shortcomings, but should be objective”; and third, that “dialogue…should be productive and based on facts, not emotions.”  President Al-Assad equated the economic challenges in Syria to the fact that the war is not over, and that, “we are now waging four wars: the first war is a military one, the second is the ‘siege’ (referring to international sanctions), the third is via the internet and social media, and the fourth is the war launched by corrupt people.” President Al-Assad thus acknowledged the economic challenges facing Syria; however, he placed the onus of the economic crisis on economic sanctions, and the efforts of outside actors who “seek to create chaos from inside the Syrian society.”  He devoted considerable time to condemning social media coverage of the economy (and in Syria generally), which he claimed was often “based on spreading misinformation via pages or sites that assume national identities or claim to represent a local village or city or neighborhood.” He also acknowledged that corruption, and combating corruption, would increasingly become the responsibility of local governance bodies, as “such details cannot be managed with a centralized approach.” In effect, President Al-Assad is telling the Syrian people that economic conditions are likely to remain poor, and shortages will continue, while simultaneously blaming them on western governments and condemning social media coverage of these economic challenges, which “spread stories about the economy that affect citizens’ trust in their country.”

Former United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and other representatives discuss the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s first session, on December 18, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland. Image courtesy of AP.

The Constitutional Committee

President Al-Assad further addressed the ongoing Syria peace process and the formation of the Constitutional Committee; here, President Al-Assad repeatedly highlighted Syria’s sovereignty.  He stated that “the future of Syria is decided exclusively by the Syrians, and friends providing advice…the UN is welcome to play a role, when it does so based on its charter, which is based on state sovereignty.”  He added that “the constitution is not subject to bargaining, and Syria will not allow ‘hostile states’ to achieve their objectives through their agents who hold Syrian nationality”; regarding the constitutional committee itself, he stated that “there is a side that represents the viewpoint of the Syrian government and the Syrian people…but the other side doesn’t represent Syrians…rather it represents the Government of Turkey.”  To some extent, President Al-Assad is here openly rejecting the ongoing Syria peace process, at least the Geneva process; indeed, regarding the peace process as a whole, he stated that it “hasn’t achieved anything, because hostile countries are still insisting on their aggression” and these hostile countries continue to “obstruct of any special, serious processes such as Sochi and Astana.”

‘Foreign Actors’

The end of President Al-Assad’s speech, and the part which has attracted the most analysis, was his specific discussion of the role of Turkey and the U.S. in Syria; although indeed, the theme of hostile foreign involvement in Syria was a major component of nearly every topic of the speech. President Al-Assad outright rejected the legitimacy of Turkish proxies in northern and northwestern Syria Syria, as well as Turkish proposals of a ‘Safe Zone’, adding that “[Turkey] had been calling for [Safe Zones] since the first year of the war.”  President Al-Assad also stated that “the problem lies with the Syrians who worked with the West, the US, and Turkey, and who gave justifications for Turkey to interfere, all the way back since the beginning”; these comments were certainly directed at both Turkish proxy groups in northern and northwestern Syria, as well as the Kurdish Self Administration. To these groups, he added that: “The question today is: where is freedom? It seems the freedom they had been talking about is only in the bosom of the Americans or the occupiers…it seems that democracy is giving foreigners free rein in their [Syrian] lands. To them we would say: why do you act like lions against your state, and act like a cats against the occupier?…the Americans will not protect you…you will be a bargaining chip in their pocket along with the dollars they have, and they have already started bargaining. If you don’t prepare yourselves to defend your country, you will be slaves for the Ottomans. Only your state will protect you, and only the Syrian Arab Army will defend you when you join it and fight under its flag.”  Much of the existing analysis on these statements is broadly correct: President Al-Assad is clearly indicating to the Kurdish Self Administration that the terms of the ongoing negotiations with the Government of Syria will be based on full submission to the Government of Syria, and that any preservation of local governance will, at least from the Government of Syria’s perspective, be based on their interpretation of Decree 107.

A panorama of the heads of local governance bodies attending President Bashar Al-Assad’s address in Damascus on February 18, 2019. Image courtesy of SANA.

What Does it Mean?

In some ways, President Al-Assad’s speech is nothing new; he emphasized the Government of Syria’s sovereignty, he blamed the conflict on foreign actors, and he rejected attempts to change the structure of the Syrian government or the constitution.  While lacking in charisma and new content, President Al-Assad’s speech is extremely important as an expression of Government of Syria de-facto policy. Indeed, the Syrian Prime Minister’s office has already convened a preliminary meeting to “develop the executive program” noted in the President’s speech.  Thus, the themes addressed in the speech may come to define the upcoming period of the Syrian conflict and post-conflict.  A more empowered and theoretically independent local administration, which still remains beholden to more centralized state apparatuses, will certainly become a major focus for international actors and UN agencies, funds, and programmes working in Syria.  The Government of Syria will likely continue to call for and nominally ‘facilitate’ refugee returns, while simultaneously making return extremely challenging for untrusted individuals and populations. The concept of the ‘Four Wars’ as a justification for poor economic conditions will likely be repeatedly cited in the coming year; indeed, the Four Wars concept makes the Syrian conflict an endless conflict, and justifies not only continued military action, but also crackdowns on social media use and internal arrests of Government of Syria officials for corruption.  The rejection of the Constitutional Committee, and the emphasis on the need for the Kurdish Self Administration (and Turkish groups in northern Syria) to submit to the Government of Syria, will naturally have a major impact on the Syrian peace process.

However, perhaps the most important point in the speech is indicated by a stylistic choice made by President Al-Assad; not once in the speech does President Al-Assad use the term ‘civil war’ (harb ahliya).  He repeatedly cites the conflict as a ‘war against terrorists’ or against hostile foreign powers, but refuses to use terminology that would suggest that the war has pitted Syrians against Syrians, thus implying that those who fight against the Government of Syria are either traitors or have been duped by foreign powers. This is troubling; the Syrian conflict is most certainly a civil war, fought between different social, religious, economic, geographic, and political communities within Syria.  To make it state policy to refuse to accept this basic reality is an indication that the Government of Syria has no intention of resolving the myriad of underlying causes and grievances that sparked the conflict; unfortunately, returning to the Syria of 2010 is impossible, and a new local governance system is insufficient to ensure Syria’s future stability.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Sochi Process

Sochi, Russia: Between February 14 and 15, President Putin of Russia, President Erdogan of Turkey, and President Rouhani of Iran convened a meeting in Sochi, Russia, during which they discussed developments of Syria. The Sochi meeting reiterated the importance of Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity.  The Government of Turkey emphasized the potential creation of a safe zone in northeastern Syria, although this proposal was not entirely endorsed by both the Governments of Russia and Iran; Russia, in particular, continued to emphasize the existing legal frameworks between Governments of Turkey and Syria, namely the 1998 Adana Agreement, which allows Turkey to launch anti-PKK operations in Syria so long as proper notification and coordination with the Government of Syria occurs. Indeed, following the meeting, on February 18 President Putin’s spokesman Dimitri Peskov indicated that Russia would be open to “[Turkish] cross-border operations by entering to a certain degree.” With regards to northwestern Syria, the convening parties agreed to take additional measures to end the presence of extremists groups in northwestern Syria; the specific details on these new steps were not disclosed. However, President Erdogan reportedly stated following the Sochi meeting that “joint operations [in Idleb] can be held at any time in line with the developments. There is no obstacle in front of these.”  Additionally, regarding a potential offensive in northwestern Syria, Russian spokesman Peskov added that “we do need an operation, but we have to decide on whether it will be Turkey’s operation or some other countries.”  To that end, it is highly noteworthy that several media sources have indicated that President Erdogan had reportedly requested access to airspace above Idleb during the Sochi talks.

Analysis:  The Sochi and Astana processes are in some ways the most important diplomatic processes ongoing in the Syrian conflict, largely due to the fact that the Governments of Russia and Turkey have a large degree of leverage over the fates of both northwestern and northeastern Syria.  Two specific points stand out from this round of the Sochi agreement: The first is that, through the repeated citation of the Adana agreement, the Government of Turkey has been effectively given a justification to directly intervene against the Kurdish Self Administration. This is not likely to happen in the near term – indeed, it is likely to be contingent upon both the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the ongoing negotiations between the Kurdish Self Administration and the Government of Syria.  Nevertheless, should the U.S. withdraw, and the Self Administration fail to reach an agreement with the Government of Syria, the diplomatic groundwork has been laid for further Turkish military interventions. The second is that the situation in northwestern Syria is now extremely precarious, although not as one might assume. President Putin, and Russian representatives, have repeatedly stated that a Russian-led Idleb offensive is not forthcoming in the immediate future, but have indicated that an offensive remains possible and that the onus is on the Government of Turkey to resolve the situation in northwestern Syria.  The fact that President Erdogan reportedly requested airspace access is particularly concerning, and a possible indication that Turkey may be compelled to take more direct military action against Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Idleb in order to prevent a Government of Syria-led northwestern Syria offensive.

2. SDF Military Council

Al-Hasakeh City, Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Syria: On February 17, the SDF Military Council convened a meeting to discuss its future strategy in light of the expected defeat of ISIS in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate. The meeting covered a variety of topics; in a statement released after the meeting the SDF committed itself to two important points: the first was that the SDF rejected Turkish claims that it posed a threat to Turkish security, and that Turkey was the actual threat to Syrian security through its occupation of northern Syria; however, the statement added that the SDF was open to an “internationally monitored safe zone along the northern borders of Syria.” The second was that the SDF remains willing to hold negotiations with the Government of Syria, on the condition that the Government of Syria take into account the special status of the SDF, and make a constitutional recognition of the Kurdish Self Administration in northeastern Syria.

Analysis:  The outcomes of SDF Military Council’s meeting are somewhat surprising for two reasons.  It is certainly surprising that the SDF would acquiesce to any potential safe zone in northeastern Syria, as currently the most likely safe zone proposals often appear to effectively cede control to groups closely linked to the Government of Turkey (such as Iraqi Peshmerga); therefore, the request for an ‘internationally monitored’ safe zone is notable, but it is unclear which international actor could or would possibly assume such a responsibility. Furthermore, the SDF’s demands for autonomy are increasingly unlikely to come to fruition, especially considering President Assad’s recent statements directed at the Kurdish Self Administration (and covered in the in-depth analysis section above).  Considering the fact that U.S. military forces will begin to withdraw from Syria in the near-term, the Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF are quickly running out of time to negotiate a favorable agreement, or indeed, any agreement at all.

3. ISIS Combatants in Deir-ez-Zor

Baghuz, Eastern Deir-Ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, limited fighting continues to take place between the SDF and ISIS in the vicinity of Baghuz, in eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate.  Media reports indicated that those ISIS combatants remaining in the area have asked for a safe passage to Iraq, but the SDF has rejected their request; as per the same source, the SDF has allowed the entry of humanitarian aid to a total of 300 combatants and civilians in the area, in return for ISIS freeing SDF prisoners.  The fate of the international ISIS combatants continues to remain undecided. In a tweet on February 17, U.S. president Donald Trump asked that European countries repatriate more than 800 ISIS combatants of various European nationalities. For its part France expressed its willingness to repatriate 130 French ISIS combatants, whereas a German Ministry of Interior spokeswoman indicated that the return of German citizens is conditional on their access to a consular office.  In turn, Denmark rejected Trump’s request, as per a statement made by a spokesperson for Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

Analysis: Regarding the fate of the captured international ISIS combatants, it is likely that eventually most will be repatriated, and put on trial, in their countries of origin; indeed, this would likely be the most preferable outcome, as the alternative would be to turn over these captives to the SDF or the Government of Syria.  Should this take place, it would be extremely difficult to track these individuals, especially considering the degree to which the Government of Syria has utilized jihadist prisoners for political purposes in the past.

4. Humanitarian Corridors in Rukban

Rukban Camp, Eastern Homs Governorate, Syria: On February 19, the chief of Russia’s National Defense Control Center, Mikhail Mizintsev, stated that two humanitarian corridors for Rukban residents were now open for the evacuation of civilians; Mizintsev indicated that the corridors were opened in coordination with the Government of Syria, but not the U.S.  The two corridors were reportedly opened in Jlieb and Jabal Al-Ghorab, where Russian Police will oversee the process of evacuation and the resettlement of evacuees to their former areas of origin. A statement made by the head of Rukban local council, Derbas Al-Khalidi, indicated that many camp residents remain reluctant to evacuate through these corridors due to the fact that the Jleib crossing is only open to Government of Syria controlled areas; alternatively, Al-Khalidi requested the evacuation of civilians to opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria.

Analysis: Recent steps to establish ‘humanitarian corridors’ at the Rukban camp indicate that the Governments of Syria and Russia intend to fully resolve the status of the Rukban camp, without necessarily linking the status of the Rukban to broader developments pertaining to the U.S. military withdrawal from Al-Tanf.  Indeed, the joint SARC-UN humanitarian convoy sent to the camp last week, and the “intention survey” conducted, also demonstrate the Government of Syria’s willingness to make the resolution, and reconciliation, of the Rukban camp a local Syrian issue, as opposed to an international one. Despite Al-Khalidi’s comments, it is possible that these humanitarian corridors could be used by some camp residents, especially those who had previously fled ISIS and now face increasingly dire humanitarian circumstances.

5. Northwestern Syria

Northwestern Syria, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, Government of Syria shelling in northwestern Syria drastically increased across numerous communities; indeed, the shelling between February 14 and February 19 targeted nearly every major community in northern Hama, southern Idleb, and eastern Idleb, and has been the most intense and widespread shelling since the start of the September 2018 Northwestern Syria Disarmament Zone Agreement. In response armed opposition groups retaliated by shelling As-Suqaylabiyah, Muhradah, northern rural Lattakia governorate, and Hama city; this marked the first significant armed opposition shelling of Hama city in at least two years.  This increase in conflict intensity resulted in numerous deaths and injuries. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organization, a medical organization in northwestern Syria, stated that the shelling on Khan Shaykun and Ma’arrat An Nu’man alone killed at least 18 civilians between February 16 and 18.  Notably, on February 18, The Salvation Government issued a statement condemning the Government of Syria attacks, and urged armed opposition groups to retaliate collectively.

Analysis:  As noted, the degree of Government of Syria shelling in northwestern Syria is unprecedented. Normally, a spike in the intensity and frequency of shelling to this degree would indicate that a major offensive is immediately forthcoming. However, in light of the outcomes of the Sochi conference, a major Government of Syria offensive is not necessarily likely in the near term; indeed, Russian representatives have repeatedly noted that a final agreement on northwestern Syria has not yet been decided.  That said, the intensity of the conflict in northwestern Syria now poses a separate problem in that continued Government of Syria attacks in northwestern Syria may trigger increased retaliation from armed opposition groups, which could eventually lead to an unintended breakdown of the northwestern Syria Disarmament Zone Agreement, and thus a larger confrontation between the Government of Syria and the armed opposition.

6. Southern Syria Instability

Dar’a Governorate, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, several media sources continued to report on the increasingly regular targeting of Government of Syria military and security forces in Dar’a governorate. On February 14, a Military Security Branch commander was reportedly killed by small arms fire on the road linking Tafas and Da’el, western Dar’a; the attack has yet to be claimed by any group. Following that, on February 15, Government of Syria forces were reportedly targeted by small arms fire in As-Sanamayn, reportedly causing several deaths and injuries.  Another Military Security Branch commander was shot and injured by unknown assailants on February 17; the Dar’a Popular Resistance subsequently claimed responsibility on a pro-opposition Facebook page. Additionally, reports of Government of Syria detentions and raids throughout southern Syria continued. Reportedly, a series of raids took place in Hara and Nawa, western Dar’a, on February 13; the raids reportedly targeted former armed opposition commanders and local activists that were formerly involved in local opposition administrative structures and councils.

Analysis:  Reports of general instability in southern Syria, specifically in Dar’a governorate, have been ongoing since the reconciliation agreement implemented in July 2018. The turmoil and unrest in Dar’a, as noted in previous COAR Syria Updates, is likely a manifestation of two specific dynamics: the growing local discontent in Dar’a on account of a lack of services and military conscription, as well as the reported competition between different Government of Syria military and security forces in the area, all of which are now heavily comprised of reconciled former opposition combatants from southern Syria. An absence of services, increased insecurity, and growing mistrust between local tribal notables and the Government of Syria will likely continue to shape  dynamics in southern Syria for the foreseeable future, or at least a new local agreement is reached and maintained.

7. Cross-line Goods Crackdown

Homs City, Homs Governorate, Syria: On February 19, media sources indicated that the Government of Syria Customs Forces closed at least eight commercial shops in Homs city, under the pretext of carrying Turkish goods that were identified as ‘illegitimate.’  As per the same source, the Customs Forces also imposed fines on the shop’s owners, and closed down several other shops for not having required military approvals and not paying taxes. Government of Syria Custom forces also reportedly took similar measures at several poultry stores in Hama city that were accused of purchasing their goods from opposition-controlled northwestern Syria.

Analysis: The ongoing raids targeting businessmen trading in Turkish goods were covered in a previous COAR Syria Update. These raids, led by the Customs Forces, are likely a means for the Government of Syria to regain its monopoly over cross-line trade with armed opposition-controlled areas. . The current cross-line trade between Government of Syria and armed opposition-controlled areas is reportedly largely controlled by numerous businessmen and importers, who have business interests in both armed opposition and Government of Syria-held areas. Therefore, the Government of Syria is not likely seeking to halt the flow of Turkish commodities; rather it seeks to solidify its control on the laissez-faire commercial dynamics in northwestern Syria.  Indeed, a wholesale ban of Turkish goods would be nearly impossible, as they are reportedly ubiquitous even in Damascus city.

8. Lebanese Minister in Damascus

Damascus, Syria: On February 18, Lebanese and Syrian media sources stated that the newly appointed Lebanese Minister of Displaced Peoples Affairs, Saleh Gharib, visited Damascus city at the invitation of the Government of Syria. Of note, Saleh Gharib is a member of the Lebanese Democratic Party, a Lebanese-Druze political party, which is aligned with the Free Patriotic Movement, the leading pro-Government of Syria Lebanese political party in the new Lebanese government. The new government was officially formed on February 15, and included the reshuffling of numerous ministerial positions; however, despite the establishment of a new Lebanese government, there is still no clarity on the position of the Lebanese government on the Syrian refugee issue.  Indeed, the inaugural ministerial statement of the newly established government explicitly refrained from stating Lebanon’s official stance on the process of Syrian refugee return, referring only to ‘the safe return of refugees’ as being a priority, and referencing both the Russian-led refugee return proposals as well as UN proposals (which place a greater emphasis on ‘voluntary’ returns) as possible initiatives.

Analysis:  Despite the recent establishment of a new Lebanese government, the potential and manner of refugee return will likely remain a major point of contention amongst Lebanon’s political parties. That said, as the newly appointed Lebanese government mirrors that of the recently elected parliament, and consequently parties close to the Government of Syria (namely the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal Party, and Hezbollah) form a majority.  However, even those parties which are nominally opposed to the Government of Syria, such as the Lebanese Forces, are also opposed to the continued presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Therefore, while some parties, such as Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri’s Future Movement, have emphasized the ‘safe and voluntary’ return of refugees as being a major priority, the largely consensus-based Lebanese political system appears to be heavily weighted towards a more ‘forceful’ approach toward Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

9. Civil Servant Dismissals in Al-Malikeyyeh

Al-Malikeyyeh City, Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Syria: On February 18, local sources indicated that the Government of Syria Health Ministry in northeastern Syria issued an administrative decision to dismiss several civil servants in Malkiyeh city, Al-Hasakeh governorate, under the pretext that these civil servants were working with the Kurdish Self Administration. The individuals dismissed included the joint director of Health Directorate of the Kurdish Self Administration, and two directors of of the National Hospital in Al-Malikeyyeh city.

Analysis:  Government of Syria and Kurdish Self Administration governance structures often exist in parallel throughout northeastern Syria, and indeed, regularly coordinate, despite the fact that nominally both administrative structures have regarded each other’s processes and regulations as illegitimate. Given the major threats facing the Kurdish Self Administration with respect to the imminent withdrawal of U.S. forces and the potential Turkish intervention, it is increasingly clear that Kurdish Self Administration governance structures will be compelled to subordinate to the Government of Syria.  Thus, this incident should be viewed as the Government of Syria signalling that Kurdish administrative structures are increasingly illegitimate, and will undermine the Kurdish Self Administration’s legitimacy and capacity.

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.

Syria Update: February 07 – February 13, 2019

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Syria Update

07 February to 13 February, 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 22, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill, colloquially known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which stipulates extensive new sanctions on Syria. While the so-called Caesar sanctions are not implemented, as they have not yet passed the Senate, it is likely that they will be passed in the coming weeks. The Caesar sanctions are the most far reaching Syria sanctions to date, and not only will likely sanction the Syrian Central Bank, but will also sanction any individual or entity that does business with the Government of Syria. Syria has already been deeply impacted by existing Syria sanctions, as evidenced by the ongoing gas crisis in Syria. However, the new sanctions, when passed, may also impact regional economies, and will effectively transform Syria into a economic pariah state; this will naturally disrupt, and may even prevent, Syria’s economic recovery and reconstruction.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Northwestern Syria continues to witness Government of Syria shelling and military deployments, as the Salvation Government ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution’ is rejected by the Syrian Interim Government.  Barring the political intervention of the Government of Turkey, a Government of Syria offensive is likely in the near- to medium-term.
  • Southern Syria continues to witness considerable instability; the deployment of the National Security Branch into southern Syria is an indication that the Government of Russia intends to take control of independent security forces in the region.
  • The Wall Street Journal cites several Pentagon officials who stated that the U.S. will fully withdraw from northeastern Syria by April 2018.  The Kurdish Self Administration now has a 2-3 month window to negotiate an agreement with the Government of Syria, or it will likely face a Government of Turkey intervention.
  • Reports of Shiite conversion in Deir-ez-Zor highlight considerable social tensions in Deir-Ez-Zor, as well as the impact of Iranian soft power in northeastern Syria.
  • The largest SARC/UN convoy to date reaches the Rukban camp; convoy volunteers also conducted an intentions survey of camp residents.  It is highly likely that Government of Syria efforts to reconcile the camp will increase over the coming months, considering the impending U.S. withdrawal from Al-Tanf.
  • A Syrian customs raid took place in Qamhana, northern Hama; no goods were confiscated, as the pro-Government groups in the area likely had forewarning of the raid.  The incident highlights the considerable difficulties faced by the Government of Syria and Russia in attempts to control highly independent local militias and Government of Syria military units.
  • A Syrian Arab Army decree effectively lowers the upper limit age military conscription from 42 to 38, theoretically releasing thousands of combatants from military service.  Government of Russia pressure is believed to be behind the decision, though for what purpose remains unclear.
  • The Syrian Prime Minister called on MOLAE to release a series of regulatory plans (often referred to as ‘Master Plans’) for 165 communities in Syria.  The regulatory plans are effectively urban development plans; however, they may have major implications for HLP, social cohesion, and local security and stability.

New Sanctions in Syria

In Depth Analysis

On January 22, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed Bill H.R. 31, also known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which stipulates extensive new sanctions on Syria.  The U.S. Senate version of the bill, which was designated as Bill S.1, was packaged within a larger foreign policy package known as the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act; when put to the U.S. Senate floor on February 5 the act passed, and will now revert back to the U.S. House of Representatives, where it is expected to move forward and pass in the coming weeks.  For his part, President Trump (or at least his staff) has already indicated that he supports the new Syria sanctions.

The Caesar sanctions (named for a Syrian defector who smuggled pictures of Government of Syria prisoner abuses out of Syria) will be the most extensive sanctions levied against Syria to date; indeed, they will be among the most intense U.S. sanctions ever issued, and have been compared to the Iraq sanctions of 1990-2003 or the Iran sanctions of 2006-2016. Currently, numerous Government of Syria governmental bodies, Syrian companies, and prominent Syrian individuals are sanctioned, while U.S. individuals doing business with these entities will be prosecuted. The Caesar sanctions, as currently written, stipulate that the Central Bank of Syria will be investigated as an “institution of primary money laundering concern” (and thus likely will also be quickly sanctioned)  More importantly, the Caesar sanctions also extend to any foreign [not-American] person that knowingly engages in a transaction with the Government of Syria, or any entity owned or controlled by the Government of Syria; among other terms, non-American persons are also to be sanctioned if they “knowingly, directly or indirectly, provide significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria.” Any foreign individuals sanctioned will have all property transactions blocked, and will be barred from receiving a U.S. visa.  The sanctions are not to been withdrawn until seven separate points have been met, among them: the Government of Syria releasing all political prisoners; the Government of Syria permitting the safe voluntary return of displaced Syrians; and the Government of Syria taking steps to establish “meaningful accountability for perpetrators of war crimes in Syria and justice for victims of war crimes committed by the Assad regime,” including “participation in an independant truth and reconciliation process.”

In effect, when passed, the Caesar sanctions will make Syria’s reconstruction, economic development, and local industrial rehabilitation extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  The sanctions, as written, would effectively sanction any foreign person or entity who does business with the Government of Syria or takes part in Syria’s reconstruction in any capacity; this includes Russian, Iranian, Gulf state, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Lebanese individuals and companies, many of which are already economically engaging with Syria.  Certainly, waivers will be issued for some individuals and companies and there are provisions in the Caesar sanctions to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. However, even those individuals or entities who do not engage with the Government of Syria or are not engaged in sanctioned activities in Syria will face major challenges in doing business in Syria, due to the fact that most financial institutions will likely consider any transactions in or to Syria as extremely high risk. Potential new U.S. sanctions, which will likely come in tandem with recently tightened European Union sanctions, have the potential to fully isolate Syria’s economy from the rest of the world.

The existing sanctions on Syria have already been deeply felt by the Syrian economy.  As noted repeatedly in past COAR Syria Updates, Syria has faced a major gas crisis for the past several months, which has been exacerbated by international import sanctions on Syria.  Propane gas and diesel fuel rationing is already in place through a ‘smart card’ system instituted by the General Directorate of Fuel; local sources indicate that fuel distributed is insufficient to meet local needs, and that the ‘smart card’ propane and diesel allocation system is rife with local corruption as individuals purchase and then resell at inflated prices. Several of Syria’s few remaining productive industries have almost entirely shut down; for example, the Damascus ceramics industry almost entirely came to a halt in early January due to fuel shortages.  The lack of diesel fuel and propane gas has also caused the prices of many other fuel dependant goods to drastically increase. According to local sources the average monthly wage for a (working) Syrian in much of Damascus is ~40,000 SYP; a kilogram of lamb is now ~7000 SYP (up from ~6000 SYP in January), and a kilogram of chicken is now ~1200 SYP.  Additionally, many Syrians in Government of Syria-held areas who are unable to procure propane through the ‘smart card’ system have resorted to consistently eating cheap canned food, as cooking has become prohibitively expensive due to propane shortages. According to local sources, a large percentage of Syrians in Damascus have resorted to cutting meat from their diets entirely, and many are substituting meat with bouillon cubes.  Electricity provision throughout Government-held Syria, much of which is dependant on natural gas, has also been drastically curtailed by fuel shortages.

As noted, sanctions, such as the Caesar sanctions, will impact Syria’s reconstruction and post-conflict development.  The ultimate objective of these sanctions, like any sanctions, is to pressure the Government of Syria to change its political policies.  However, the Government of Syria has clearly, repeatedly, and consistently indicated that it prioritizes absolute sovereignty over all other considerations, and that it will not succumb to foreign pressure to reform or change in any meaningful way, and certainly not in the ways called for in the Caesar sanctions. Considering the fact that the Government of Syria is unlikely to fundamentally change course, sanctions may now impact the entire Middle East region.  Lebanon’s economy is extremely fragile, and capitalizing on Syria’s reconstruction was one of the few potential growth areas for the Lebanese private sector; Gulf states such as the UAE, and the Government of Jordan have already begun rapprochement with the Government of Syria, in part to pursue economic opportunities, while the Government of Russia and Iran have both signed numerous economic memorandums of understanding with Syria. All of these countries, and their economies, will be deeply impacted by the new round of sanctions.  That said, ultimately, the sanctions will likely be most profoundly felt by Syria’s civilians, who will now be forced to continue to live in what is quickly becoming an economic pariah state.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Northwestern Syria Developments

Northwestern Syria, Syria: On February 10, the ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution’ commenced in Bab Elhawa; as noted in last week’s COAR Syria Update, the ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution’ is an attempt to reform the Salvation Government into a new governance body, potentially through a merger with the Syrian Interim Government. shortly thereafter, the Syrian Interim Government released a statement rejecting the conference and stated that it does not represent the Syrian population. Meanwhile, on February 5, local sources indicated that disputes and tensions heightened between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Hurras Al-Deen in Saraqeb had escalated, following reports of an unidentified number of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants defecting and joining Hurras Al-Deen. However, on February 8, Hurras Al-Deen and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham reached a ceasefire agreement following clashes in rural Idleb governorate. Additionally, throughout the reporting period, Government of Syria forces intensified shelling on various communities in southeastern rural Idleb governorate and northwestern rural Hama governorate. Concurrently, Government of Syria-affiliated media outlets reported that Government of Syria reinforcements, mainly the 5th Corps and the 9th Armoured Division, have arrived to northern Hama and western Aleppo in preparation for a potential, as yet unannounced, Government of Syria military offensive on northwestern Syria.

Analysis:  It should be noted that the ultimate aim of the ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution’ is to rehabilitate the image of the Salvation Government, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, in order to prevent a Northwestern Syria offensive. However, as noted previously, one of the largest challenges facing the General Conference of the Syrian Revolution was that, short of direct Government of Turkey political pressure, the Syrian Interim Government has no major incentive to merge with the Salvation Government. Indeed, a merger with the Salvation Government would likely be more detrimental to the Syrian Interim Government’s relationship with many international actors, than it would be beneficial to rehabilitating the image of the Salvation Government.  The tensions and clashes between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Hurras Al-Deen are also a manifestation of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s attempts to moderate itself; however, considering the lack of progress of the General Conference thus far, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is likely to mend its relationship with Hurras Al-Deen. The fact that the conference already appears to have faced a major setbacks in the Syrian Interim Government’s rejection of the conference, and the fact that the Government of Syria are heavily mobilizing in the vicinity of northwestern Syria makes the prospect of a major offensive increasingly likely. Indeed, so long as the Government of Turkey does not politically intervene in the outcome of the General Conference, a northwestern Syria offensive is likely to take place in the near- to medium-term.

2. Southern Syria Instability

Dar’a Governorate, Syria: On February 11, media sources indicated that National Security Branch forces raided several houses in Nawa, western rural Dar’a governorate, and reportedly detained two former armed opposition commanders. This came after National Security Branch representatives cancelled all outstanding arrest warrants in Dar’a following an agreement between the Dar’a negotiation committee and the Government of Syria in December 2018. Notably, the National Security Branch nominally oversees all other security and military branches in Syria, and is heavily influenced by Russia; in practice, many security branches operate with a high degree of local independence. Relatedly, local sources reported that throughout the reporting period, Military Security Branch and Air Force Intelligence forces detained a total of 22 reconciled former armed opposition commanders in southern Syria. The detainees were reportedly reconciled under guarantees made by the Government of Russia.

Analysis: The involvement of the National Security Branch in southern Syria, rather than the already present Air Force Intelligence and Military Security Branch forces, is significant.  Indeed, the fact that National Security Branch forces appear to be taking a much more active role in the recent wave of detentions and negotiations in Dar’a is an indication that the high levels of local instability are now a cause of considerable concern to the Government of Syria.  The increased prominence of the National Security Branch in Dar’a also likely points to the fact that the Government of Syria and the Government of Russia intend to bring the largely independent, and often competitive, security branches in southern Syria under more formal control.

3. U.S. Withdrawal in Northeastern Syria

Northeastern Syria, Syria: On February 7, the Wall Street Journal published an article citing several Pentagon officials who stated that the majority of the U.S. military forces deployed in Syria will pull out by mid-March, with a complete withdrawal taking place by the end of April 2019; this withdrawal will also include the U.S. forces stationed in Al-Tanf.  Following the article’s publication, on February 11, the Head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, reiterated that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is taking place in the coming weeks, but refrained from specifying any timeline as the withdrawal remains “subject to developments in the field.” Meanwhile, SDF/ISIS clashes have reportedly increased in the vicinity of Baghuz, near Abukamal, following a short ceasefire last week; SDF advances in the area have reportedly been delayed due to IEDs and the use of civilians as human shields in residential areas.  Media sources indicated that at least 38,000 civilians, and several hundred ISIS combatants, fled the area during the temporary ceasefire agreement; an estimated 500 ISIS combatants alongside an unspecified number of civilians remain present in the ISIS-controlled Baghuz pocket. Media sources have also reiterated that the SDF continues to negotiate the surrender of ISIS forces. Reportedly, negotiations currently center on a potential evacuation of ISIS combatants to Anbar Province, Iraq, or Al-Badiya in eastern rural Homs governorate, along with other terms pertaining to the facilitation of civilian evacuation and the release of prisoners.

Analysis:  Despite the fact that many analysts have maintained that a complete U.S. withdrawal is unlikely, the timetables referenced in the Wall Street Journal should be taken seriously.  Most analysis arguing that a U.S. withdrawal was unlikely is based on traditional geopolitical thinking, and on assumptions that branches of the U.S. military, foreign policy, or political establishment could prevent or delay a full U.S. withdrawal.  Yet U.S. President Donald Trump is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military, and having given an order, it is expected that the U.S. military will now implement that order. The primary impact of the U.S. withdrawal in April will naturally be the ongoing negotiations between the Kurdish Self Administration and the Government of Syria.  Indeed, if the Kurdish Self Administration has not reached a settlement with the Government of Syria by the end of April, the probability of a Turkish military offensive on northeastern Syria will be high. Thus, the Kurdish Self Administration will thus likely strive to negotiate some form of agreement before the full withdrawal of U.S. forces.

4. Iranian Soft Power in Deir-ez-Zor

Al-Mayadin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: On February 7, media reports indicated that an Iranian delegation visited Al-Mayadin city, in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate, and urged residents to join Iranian-backed military groups during a meeting with key notables and community members in the area. Other sources also reported an increased number of Shia religious rituals taking place in the vicinity of rural Deir-ez-Zor allegedly aimed at convincing Sunni individuals to convert to Shiism.

Analysis: Reports on the proliferation of Iranian militias in Syria and associated efforts to spread Shiism in Syria are certainly common and recurrent; yet judging the veracity of these reports is difficult.  Similar concerns and incidents of growing Iranian religious influence have been present in many areas, to include Dar’a, Aleppo city, southern Damascus. Indeed, reports of Shiite conversion are common in areas where Iranian-backed forces are deployed, but in many cases the actual extent and intention of the conversion efforts is questionable; certainly, local sources in Deir-ez-Zor indicate that conversions have taken place, and are a significant source of local tension in Deir-ez-Zor specifically.  Coupled with the chaotic presence of numerous militias, and the already existing tribal tensions, growing Sunni-Shia community tensions could contribute to the further destabilization of Deir-ez-Zor.

5. UN convoy to Rukban Camp

Rukban Camp, Eastern Homs Governorate, Syria: On February 6, a UN-SARC interagency convoy delivered humanitarian aid to 40,000 civilians Rubkan camp. The convoy was accompanied by 15 Russian Military Police cars and two helicopters that secured road for the convoy. The convoy is reportedly the largest humanitarian assistance convoy to reach the Rukban camp to date; it was comprised of 165 trucks, carrying food rations, WASH materials, education kits, and vaccines. Most importantly, volunteers in the convoy also carried out “intention surveys” asking civilians in the area to express their desired means of returning to normalcy; i.e., the means they deem best to resolve the status of Rukban camp as a whole. A member of the local Politics and Public Relations Committee of Rukban Camp, Shokri Shehab, stated that these surveys were taken by 20% of the camp’s residents; Shehab indicated most of the respondents preferred not to return to Government of Syria-controlled areas under the pretext of a lack of security and protection concerns vis-a-vis potential military conscription and detainment, and also indicated scepticism about the expected outcomes of the survey, which will reportedly eventually be announced by SARC and the Government of Syria.

Analysis:  The delivery of humanitarian aid to Rukban camp, and the associated intention surveys attempting to discern individual willingness to reconcile, are likely indicative of Government of Syria intentions to resolve the status of the camp by means of a reconciliation agreement. It is important to note that the Government of Syria has regularly used its control over aid delivery and access as a means of incentivising civilians to reconcile; in a similar manner to all previous reconciliation agreements, humanitarian aid approvals are granted in an area as a prelude to extensive reconciliation negotiations.  Indeed, rumors indicate that the Government of Syria is already in regular communication with local notables in the Rukban camp. Efforts to reconcile individuals in Rukban, and to resolve the status of the camp, are also likely driven by Government of Jordan pressure on the Government of Syria to close the camp, and the recent indications that the U.S. military will soon withdraw from the Al-Tanf de-escalation zone. It is likely that the status of the Rukban camp will indeed be resolved in the medium term, concurrent with the U.S. withdrawal from Al-Tanf.

6. Customs Raid in Qamhana

Qamhana, Hama Governorate, Syria: On February 9, Government of Syria affiliated General Directorate of Customs reportedly raided several storage warehouses containing Turkish commercial goods in Qamhana village, in northern rural Hama, shortly after the closure of Murak crossing on February 8. However, the Government of Syria reportedly failed to confiscate or find any Turkish commodities in the area;  as per media sources, National Defense Forces and Tiger Forces commanders are the owners of these storage warehouses, and were thereby warned about the aforementioned raid.  The General Directorate of Customs was commissioned to end the smuggling from opposition-controlled areas; reportedly, the Government of Syria intends to expand the mandate of the General Directorate of Customs, thereby allowing it to take immediate action without prior approvals.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s intention to halt the illegal trade of smuggled commodities from opposition-controlled areas is not likely intended to halt trade with opposition-held areas, but is intended to restore the Government of Syria’s control over key economic, administrative and military functions.  Indeed, in many front line locations, local pro-Government of Syria militias have secured an effective monopoly over Turkish-smuggled goods from northwestern Syria; certain armed groups, such as the Tiger Forces, have disproportionately benefited from these smuggling routes as they have played a leading role in all of the Government of Syria’s major offensives throughout the conflict.  Indeed, containing the power of many of these pro-Government armed groups will be one of the major challenges facing the Government of Syria in the post conflict period; as noted in the point below, the Government of Russia will likely assume a significant role in these attempts.

7. Reduction of Military Age Limits

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 specific causes and ultimate objectives of the new administrative order are difficult to discern.  Some local sources indicated that this decision is likely to be temporary and localized, and that it was specifically aimed at reducing tensions with the Druze community in As-Sweida governorate.  However, other sources have attributed the order to Russian military pressure; however, there is dispute as to whether Russian pressure was intended to reduce the considerable tensions across Syria due to military conscription, or was done in an effort to force out many older Syrian officers and combatants that are not directly linked to the Government of Russia.  Indeed, the Government of Russia has taken clear actions to remove certain military officers and personnel from the ranks of the Syrian military as a means of restoring order to the fractured pro-Government military landscape. To that end, local sources indicated that the Government of Syria, under Russian pressure, has commissioned a security committee to conduct regular screening and supervision of army bases; allegedly this committee will also start a wide dismissal campaign aimed at various Generals in the Syrian Arab Army.   Therefore, while the ultimate reasoning behind the administrative order is unclear, the increased Russian role in compelling the Syrian military to accept Russian-driven policies is certainly likely to remain a major dynamic for the foreseeable future.

8. MOLAE Regulatory Plans

Damascus, Syria: On February 11, Government of Syria Prime Minister Imad Khamis requested that the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment finalize and issue regulatory plans for 165 cities in Syria within a week.  Regulatory plans, often referred to as ‘Master Plans’, are effectively urban planning documents which seek to redesign Syrian communities and prioritize reconstruction priorities.  Accordingly, some of these regulatory plans will also take place within cities themselves; for example, Damascus city is also currently working on specific regulatory plans in Qaboun, Barzeh, and Jober neighborhoods, to be completed this year.

Analysis:  The finalization of ‘Master Plans’ for many communities in Syria is an issue fraught with considerable implications for humanitarian, development, and stabilization actors working in Syria.  Syria is certainly badly in need of urban planning, and a structured urban framework must be applied to Syria’s post-conflict communities. However, there are deep concerns that these regulatory plans intend to fully destroy and replace informal housing areas in many communities, thus preventing the return of the thousands displaced from these communities.  Additionally, there are concerns that these master plans may exacerbate sectarian or social tensions in some communities by designing Syrian cities to benefit one population or neighborhood over another. Nonetheless, these ‘Master Plans’ will likely be impeded due to the required prior approval from all 14 military and security branches of the Government of Syria, which must take into consideration communities’ geographical proximity to military and security bases, border areas, and military housing. Military and Security branches thus have the right to request a new plan or propose minor changes, despite technocratic dictates.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Media Anthology: February 05 – February 11, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

February 05 to 11, 2019

TitleLanguageSourceDateCategory
The Palestinian Al-Quds brigade: from Iranian to Russian supportArabicAl modonFebruary 5, 2019Conflict and Military
Daesh in Deir-ez-Zor: the last meters of the battleArabicAl modonFebruary 11, 2019Conflict and Military
Assad forces close Morek crossing in rural Hama for unknown reasonsArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 8, 2019Economic
Kurdish militia provides the Assad regime with oil thanks to Al-Qaterji's mediationArabicAl ArabyFebruary 9, 2019Economic
A Russian order to exempt 1981-born citizens from military reserve . "without delay"ArabicAl modonFebruary 7, 2019Governance and Service Management
Idleb: a unified army and one civilian government, security constraints and proposed solutionsArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 7, 2019Governance and Service Management
The regime compels visitors to Duma to leave the city before 9 pm or face the consequences, fines and arrestsArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 7, 2019Governance and Service Management
The Interim Government: we don't recognize the General Conference in IdlebArabic Enab BaladiFebruary 11, 2019Governance and Service Management
“Reconciling” with the regime: A deadly gameEnglishAl JumhuriyaFebruary 5, 2019Social Dynamics
Eastern Aleppo: Evacuating buildings at risk of collapse, and residents without shelterArabicAl modonFebruary 5, 2019Humanitarian & Development
SARC delivers aid convoy of 133 trucks to Al-Rukban CampEnglishSyrian Arab News AgencyFebruary 6, 2019Humanitarian & Development
85% of the disarmament zone population in Idleb displaced due to shellingArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 9, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Corpses for Syrians who died because of cold found at the Turkish bordersArabicAl-7alFebruary 11, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Crisis of trust might shuffle the cards again in the Syrian conflictArabicAl Quds Al ArabiFebruary 5, 2019International Intervention
Ankara declares the forging of a joint force with Washington ArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 7, 2019International Intervention
U.S. Military Sets April Target Date for Leaving SyriaEnglishThe Wall Street JournalFebruary 7, 2019International Intervention
A triple endorsement for Ahmad Al-Jarba's plan of deploying 10,000 fighters to the area "between the two rivers" in north SyriaArabicAsharq Al AwsatFebruary 5, 2019Other
An Iranian delegation visits Al Mayadin seeking to mobilize militias near American forcesArabicAsharq Al AwsatFebruary 6, 2019Other
A deadly welcome awaits Syria’s returning refugeesEnglishForeign PolicyFebruary 6, 2019Other
Assad regime releases Islamic State prisonersEnglishThe Syrian ObserverFebruary 7, 2019Other
By name, the Civil Society list in the the Constitutional CommitteeArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 10, 2019Other

Media Anthology: January 29 – February 04, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

January 29 to February 04, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
ISIS in Deir-Ez-Zor is negotiating with the with coalition to evacuate towards Al-BadiaArabicBalaid NewsFebruary 3, 2019Conflict and Military
Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Horas Al-Din reach reconciliation agreementEnglishSouth FrontFebruary 2, 2019Conflict and Military
Clashes continue between 4th Division and the 5th Corps in rural HamaArabicSyria TVJanuary 30, 2019Conflict and Military
"Al-Qaterji" how did the sons of a "tailor" became the whales [prominent businessmen] in Syria?ArabicJesr PressFebruary 1, 2019Economic
"Syrian Central Bank" gives foreign currency traders a month to reconcile their situationArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 31, 2019Economic
Syria, Iran reach new economic agreementsEnglishThe Washington PostJanuary 29, 2019Economic
80 thousand apartments threaten to fall in Aleppo and 85 percent of its buildings are crackedArabicAl-SouriaFebruary 3, 2019Governance and Service Management
Daily domestic gas production stabilized at 25,000 cylinders in Aleppo and 14,000 in LatakiaArabicSyrian Arab News AgencyFebruary 3, 2019Governance and Service Management
The reverse migration of Syrian refugees from Europe to Turkey has been increasing recentlyArabicBaladi NewsJanuary 28, 2019Social Dynamics
“HTS” is exporting milk for children [infant formula] to regime-controlled areasArabicAl ModonJanuary 29, 2019Social Dynamics
Cold kills Syrian newborns as families flee fighting in eastern SyriaEnglishMiddle East EyeJanuary 31, 2019Humanitarian & Development
50 thousand people deprived of bread in Jisr-Ash-ShugurArabicEnab BaladiJanuary 27, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Mevlut Cavusoglu: The committee to draft a new constitution for Syria will see the light within daysArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 3, 2019International Intervention
UAE rejects the Turkish "Safe Zone" proposal and supports a non-Arab separatist militia in SyriaArabicAl QudsJanuary 31, 2019International Intervention
Senate rebukes Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, Afghanistan\EnglishThe Washington PostJanuary 31, 2019International Intervention
About Guarantees and Reconciliation: Southern Syria experienceArabicAl JumhuriyaFebruary 1, 2019Other
ISIS could reclaim territory in months without military pressure, warns Pentagon in draft reportEnglishNBC NewsFebruary 1, 2019Other
The Role of Local Charities in Reconstructing SyriaEnglishChatham HouseJanuary 30, 2019Other
US court finds Assad regime liable for Marie Colvin's death in SyriaEnglishThe GuardianJanuary 31, 2019Other

Syria Update: January 31 – February 06, 2019

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Syria Update

31 January to 06 February, 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 February 3, a group of political representatives and civil society leaders from across northwestern Syria met in Idleb city and announced the formation of the ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution,’ to be held by the end of February; the ultimate objective of the General Conference is to create a unified civil administration throughout northwestern Syria, potentially by merging the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-linked Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government. This is not as far fetched as it perhaps might appear; indeed, the ‘rehabilitation’ of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has long been posited as a potential trajectory in northwestern Syria. However, there are numerous challenges that could prevent such a merger. On the local level, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is deeply unpopular in several communities and with many Syrian Interim Government-linked groups. On the international level, it is unclear if Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is capable of ever rehabilitating itself in the eyes of western Governments. Internally, the decision to attempt to moderate may cause significant fractures within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, and between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and other extremist groups such as Hurrass Eldeen. Therefore, while a merger or the creation of a new governance body is possible, and indeed may be necessary in order to prevent a large scale Government of Syria offensive, it will certainly be extremely difficult to negotiate.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Government of Turkey representatives met with Syrian and Russian representatives in Moscow; the topic of discussion was reportedly the implementation of the 1998 Adana agreement.  Simultaneously, Ahmed Jarba, a prominent Arab tribal leader, has been negotiating the creation of a Arab tribal force, to be supported by Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga trained in Iraq, in a theoretical safe zone.  Ultimately, the continued negotiations on the Adana Agreement framework will weaken the Kurdish Self Administration’s bargaining position vis-a-vis the Government of Syria.
  • The Government of Syria conducted a series of detentions and conscriptions in As-Sweida, further highlighting the deepening tensions between the Government of Syria and the As-Sweida Druze community.
  • Hezbollah forces unilaterally withdrew from Yabroud, which they have controlled for several years; considering the drastically increased tensions between Israel and Iran, it may be an indication that Hezbollah is preparing for active conflict with Israel.
  • The conflict between the SDF and ISIS in northeastern Syria continued, though it is nearing its conclusion.  The fact that many of the remaining ISIS combatants are foreigners, their capture has become a major priority for the U.S.-led coalition and may thus prolong negotiations.
  • A series of new Russian investments, as well as a new economic memorandum of understanding was announced.  Russia continues to invest in both natural resources and real estate sectors; while Russian and Syrian investment is critical to the Syrian economy, it continues to be invested in sectors which will do little to alleviate Syria’s extreme unemployment.
  • The 5th Corps forcibly demanded the conscription of a prominent local militia in Aleppo city.  Despite speculation that the incident was a reflection of Russian and Iranian tensions, it is more likely an indication that the 5th Corps is attempting to take greater control over increasingly independent local militias.
  • The Government of Syria announced an agreement with private Lebanese companies to import gas into Syria; while the agreement and increased domestic production will partially alleviate the gas crisis, the crisis will likely continue to persist.
  • Local unrest, and asymmetric attacks against Government of Syria checkpoints continued in Dar’a; both are a reflection of the increasing instability in southern Syria, fuelled by competing Government of Syria armed groups and local dissatisfaction with the Government of Syria.
  • A inter-tribal dispute in Tabqa led to a series of clashes, followed by an SDF imposed curfew.  The SDF continues to have serious tensions with Arab tribes; however, tribes are not unified actors, and also often have major disputes with each other.

Northwestern Syria Negotiations

In Depth Analysis

A group of northwestern Syria stakeholders announce the General Conference of the Syrian Revolution on February 3rd. Image courtesy of Eldorar.

On February 3, a group of political representatives and civil society leaders from across northwestern Syria met in Idleb city and subsequently announced the convention of the ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution,’ which is expected to be held by the end of February.  According to both participants and local media, the ultimate objective of the General Conference is to create a unified civil administration throughout northwestern Syria. According to local media, the General Conference will create a new northwestern Syria shura council, which will be authorized to unify the various opposition civil administrations; this unification will be accomplished by means of either the existing Salvation Government or Syrian Interim Government bodies, a merger of the two, or the creation an entirely new governance structure.  While media sources have stated that the General Conference will also attempt to merge Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the remaining National Liberation Front groups in northwestern Syria, local sources have noted that there were no military representatives at the General Conference; however, local sources did note that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Faylaq Al-Sham (the largest component of the National Liberation Front) have held several smaller meetings regarding a potential merger. Indeed, at the introductory meeting of the General Conference, representatives known to be affiliated with Faylaq Al-Sham proposed a unified military body alongside the unified civilian body; this proposal was reportedly well received. Local sources also noted that the General Conference was jointly approved by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Faylaq Al-Sham, despite the fact that armed group representatives did not attend; additionally, unconfirmed reports indicate that the Government of Turkey has also encouraged the initiative.

Speculation that the Salvation Government would eventually attempt to merge with the Syrian Interim Government is not new.  The Salvation Government is an effective governance body, largely staffed by competent technocrats, self-funded, and with administrative control over nearly every community in northwestern Syria (with the notable exceptions of Ma’aret An-Numan and Ariha).  A merger of the Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government would, in a sense, grant different forms of legitimacy to each governance body, and both do admittedly provide much-needed services. Perhaps most crucially, a merger of the two entities, or the formation of a new governance body, would at least temporarily mitigate one of the most critical threats facing northwestern Syria: the prospect of a major Russian-supported Government of Syria offensive, theoretically justified by the consolidated presence of the Salvation Government and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.

Yet discussion with respect to unification will not necessarily result in unification, and there remain three major challenges facing the General Conference of the Syrian Revolution.  The first challenge is in terms of local acceptance: many key communities in northwestern Syria, as well as many of the combatants in both the National Liberation Front and the Syrian Interim Government-affiliated National Army, deeply resent Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.  Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, and its progenitor organization Jabhat Al-Nusra, regularly clashed with many National Army and National Liberation Front-linked groups over the past several years, while many communities and civil society leaders hold Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham responsible for repeated abuses, assassinations, and impediments to local humanitarian and civil society work as well as co-opting the ultimate political arch of the activist-led Syrian uprising.  

The second challenge is international.  A component of merging the Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government, or forming a new governance body, is the provision of local, regional, and international legitimacy to the new governance body, as the Salvation Government and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham are identified as terrorist or proscribed organizations by nearly all international actors associated with the Syrian conflict.  Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has attempted to re-brand in the past, most notably when Jabhat Al-Nusra renounced Al-Qaeda and reformed as Jabhat Fath Al-Sham in July 2016; while the renunciation of Al-Qaeda may have sought to placate local armed opposition groups rather than western governments, it certainly failed to change the assessments of international actors. Similarly, even a merger with the Syrian Interim Government is unlikely to convince the international community that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has fundamentally changed its character; indeed, it may instead call into question the perceived legitimacy of the Syrian Interim Government instead.

The third challenge is related to the potential for internal fragmentation in Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.  Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s aforementioned attempt to ‘legitimize’ itself by renouncing Al-Qaeda led to a series of defections of key leaders, several of whom eventually formed Hurrass Eldeen in 2018, which remains Al-Qaeda affiliated.  While Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has traditionally worked quite closely with Hurrass Eldeen, tensions between the two groups have begun to manifest themselves publicly. For example, two religious leaders in Hurrass Eldeen issued a statement rejecting any proposals to join a joint military body with Faylaq Sham leaders, rejected reputed Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham proposals to negotiate with the Government of Syria over the status of the M5 highway, and called on Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants to “reject the new inclination” of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham; both of these leaders, Abu Hamam Al-Shami and Sami Araydi, were former leaders in Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Additionally, on February 2, a high judge in Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, Abu Yaqzan Al-Masri announced his resignation; another prominent Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham commander, Abu Malik Al-Telli, is also believed to have resigned.  Both are expected to affiliate themselves, and combatants loyal to them, with Hurrass Eldeen.

The degree to which Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government will be will be able to pursue unification will be dictated by some combination of local legitimacy, international acceptance, and internal unity.  Indeed, the internal tensions within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham as it attempts to ‘moderate’ itself are likely to become one of the largest obstacles in any unification efforts with the Syrian Interim Government. That said, the deciding factor in the attempts to unify the two governance bodies likely ultimately lies with the Government of Turkey.  Should the Government of Turkey accept the initiative, give requisite support to the different armed and political groups involved, and provide political cover and buy in from the Governments of Russia and Iran, a unification certainly is within the realm of possibility.

Whole of Syria Review

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1. Turkish Meeting with GoS in Moscow

Moscow, Russia:  On February 5, media sources stated that representatives of the Government of Turkey and Syria convened a meeting in Russia, upon the invitation of Government of Russia.  The meeting reportedly concerned the prospect of implementing both the 1998 Adana Agreement and a Turkish safe zone in northern Syria stretching from Quamishli city to Ain Al Arab. The meeting came after a statement made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s on February 3, in which he announced that Turkish intelligence is communicating directly with Government of Syria intelligence forces regarding the establishment of the aforementioned safe zone. Erdogan’s statement was followed by a statement by the Turkish Presidential office spokesperson, Ibrahim Qalon, in which he affirmed the direct Turkish-Syrian communication.  Concurrently, media sources have also indicated that Ahmad Jarba, a prominent Syrian tribal leader in northeastern Syria, has been negotiating with Massoud Barzani, the head of the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic party, U.S. representatives, the SDF, and the Government of Turkey on the prospect of establishing an Arab tribal force to be deployed in the theoretical Turkish safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The creation of this force would reportedly be a part of a broader agreement that will also entail the deployment Syrian Peshmerga forces that have been trained in Iraq. Both forces would reportedly be positioned in their respective ethnic areas within the safe zone area.

Analysis: The fact that the 1998 Adana agreement is being seriously considered as a negotiating framework is of extreme importance to the ultimate trajectory of northeastern Syria.  The 1998 Adana agreement required that the Government of Syria pledge 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, the primary military and political groups within the Kurdish Self Administration.  Additionally, the apparent involvement of Ahmed Jarba and Masoud Barzani indicates that some form of a Turkish-Russian brokered agreement, likely one which marginalizes the Kurdish Self Administration, may be forthcoming; Jarba has continuously advocated for a northeastern Syria tribal force, and Barzani has also reportedly agreed to use Iraqi Peshmerga forces to help secure a northeastern Syria ‘safe zone,’ and both are known to be aligned with the Government of Turkey.  Therefore, the negotiating position of the Kurdish Self Administration continues to diminish vis-a-vis ongoing discussions with the Government of Syria on the ultimate status of the Kurdish Self Administration as a governance body.

2. GoS Detentions in As-Sweida

As-Sweida Governorate, Southern Syria: On January 31, the Government of Syria continued to detain numerous individuals throughout As-Sweida governorate for the purposes of conscription. However, according to local and media sources, prior to their referral to the relevant military division that requested their military service, many individuals are reportedly being detained in Sednaya prison for a minimum of 15 days under the pretext of collaboration with ISIS or Government of Israel. Additionally, Druze conscripts are reportedly being forced to serve in military divisions in locations far from As-Sweida, despite the alleged promises made by the Government of Syria to enroll them in the First Division, based in southern Syria. Druze conscripts are also reportedly not given temporary leave without first securing guarantees from a Druze Government of Syria commander in their unit, in order to ensure that they will return to service. Most importantly, Druze locals in As-Sweida are reportedly requesting that the Shouyoukh Al-Karama, a prominent local Druze militia, intervene against the Government of Syria in order to release individuals from detention.

Analysis: Disputes and tensions between the Government of Syria and the Druze community, specifically related to local armed factions and religious leaders, are likely to continue to escalate in the foreseeable future as the Government of Syria seeks to impose control and sovereignty and ensure the Druze community’s adherence to local conscription practices. Despite the fact that the major disputes between both parties pertain to the Druze community rejection of conscription, these tensions more generally indicate the way in which the Government of Syria will seek to realign its relationship with the Druze minority.  Historically, the Druze in Syria have maintained a degree of autonomy, while religious figures and notables wield significant influence. Throughout the conflict, the margin of Druze autonomy has increased significantly to the extent that it currently threatens the presence and sovereignty of Government of Syria institutions and military forces. Thus, the Government of Syria will likely take more aggressive measures to ensure its control on the Druze community, which in turn will fuel a strong reaction, especially given that the Druze armed and religious leadership so far have managed to maintain a high degree of unity and cooperation.

3. Hezbollah Withdraws from Yabroud

Yabroud, Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria: On January 31, media sources reported that Hezbollah had withdrew its forces from Al-Qa’a neighborhood in Yabroud, in western Qalamoun. Other sources also reported that former residents of the neighborhood were notified that they could return to their houses in the city, from which they had been previously displaced upon Hezbollah’s taking control of the area in 2014. The specific reasons behind Hezbollah’s withdrawal remain unclear; however, other media sources have also indicated that Hezbollah has in fact repositioned its forces in the eastern Qalamoun, but have not withdrawn entirely.

Analysis: While the specific causes of the withdrawal or repositioning are difficult to discern, media sources have maintained two competing explanations: one is that Hezbollah seeks to reposition forces to support a major armed offensive inside Syria; second, that Hezbollah is taking precautionary measures in anticipation of a major conflict with Israel.  There are several reasons to support the argument that military movements are a preemptive response to potential Israeli escalation, most important being the recent establishment of the Lebanese Government, which has mirrored the political representation in the Lebanese Parliament and is thus a major victory for Hezbollah and its political allies. Against this backdrop, Israeli media has regarded the formation of the Lebanese Government as a reflection of growing Iranian influence in the region. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu stated on February 3 that “[Hezbollah] actually control[s] the government of Lebanon. It means that Iran controls the government of Lebanon.” Additionally, the general commander of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, recently reiterated in an interview on January 31 that the party remains ready to respond militarily to any Israeli threat to Lebanon and Syria; therefore, a confrontation in one country could potential lead to conflict in both countries.  Consequently, the prospect of a confrontation in either or both Syria and southern Lebanon is becoming increasingly likely.

4. Ongoing Deir-ez-Zor Conflict

Hajin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, clashes between SDF and ISIS have continued in the vicinity of Hajin, in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate, specifically in the vicinity of Ash-Shajilah village.  However there has been a reported decrease in clashes due to ongoing negotiations between ISIS and the SDF. ISIS has reportedly agreed to release SDF prisoners in exchange for evacuating the area, but the SDF has remained adamant that ISIS forces must entirely surrender.  Reportedly, the status of the remaining ISIS combatants in the vicinity of Hajin is of critical importance to the U.S.-led coalition, considering that many of these remaining combatants are foreigners; indeed, the U.S. State Department is encouraging other nations to “repatriate and prosecute” foreign ISIS fighters captured in Syria.  On January 30, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic stated that a total of 2,000 civilians remain in ISIS controlled areas in the vicinity of Hajin.  So long as the negotiations between ISIS and the SDF continue to stall, the humanitarian situation for civilians in Hajin will continue to deteriorate, despite the SDF reportedly sending seven convoys of relief aid upon a ceasefire agreement with ISIS from January 29 until 31. Notably, the head of the Russian Center of Syrian Reconciliation, General Sergei Solomatin, accused the SDF of blocking a SARC humanitarian aid convoy from accessing the area.  Civilian evacuees from the area are also in need of urgent relief aid; a WHO statement on January 31 indicated that a total of 23,000 civilians have reached Hol Camp over the past two months, and at least 29 children died, mostly from hypothermia, during their evacuation.

Analysis:  The ongoing conflict with ISIS in the vicinity of Hajin is nearly over.  ISIS is now relegated to an extremely small area, and is effectively surrounded by the SDF and the Government of Syria in the vicinity of Ash-Shajilah.  There is even some speculation that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of ISIS, is also located in Ash-Shajilah. Considering the potential presence of Al-Baghdadi, and the fact that many of the remaining ISIS combatants are foreigners, the U.S.-led coalition will prioritize capturing as many ISIS combatants alive as possible.  Therefore, the negotiations between the SDF and ISIS may continue for some time before eventually ending in ISIS’ ultimate capitulation, or their complete destruction.

5. Russian Investments in Syria

Damascus, Syria: On February 2, media sources indicated that two Russian companies are currently negotiating with Sham Holding Company to establish a joint company for investing in the Marota City real estate project, to be implemented in Daraya, Mazzeh and Kafar Souseh. The negotiations have reportedly attracted several other Syrian companies for future joint investments, specifically in terms of the construction of commercial and residential buildings. Relatedly, in a February 1 statement, the Government of Syria Minister of Industry, Mohamad Maan, announced that the Government of Syria and Russia had signed a memorandum of understanding for future investment projects in the industrial sector. According to Maan’s statement, the agreement entails both governments’ collaboration on the production of cements, industrial machineries, chemical and medical industries, and the rehabilitation of industrial companies in the country. Notably, Maan indicated that investment in the industrial sector will mainly focus on raw materials necessary for reconstruction. This came shortly after the Government of Syria and Iran signed 11 memorandums of understanding on January 29, entailing their collaboration in economic, educational, cultural, infrastructure, and service sectors, as well as investment and real estate. These agreements include long term strategic economic collaboration agreements, most importantly in raw material production industries, real estate investment, and commerce, among other sectors and projects.

Analysis: The Governments of Russia and Iran’s contribution to economic rehabilitation and future reconstruction is currently indispensable for the Government of Syria, especially considering the fact that foreign and local investment in Syria will face serious challenges in light of international sanctions imposed on Syria. In fact, many investors in the Marota City project have been listed in the recent EU and US sanctions on Syria, as noted in last weeks’ COAR Syria Update.  However, it is also important to note that the Governments of Russia and Iran have clearly concentrated their investment in real estate, such as Marota City, and raw material extraction; neither of these industries generate large numbers of employment opportunities, and may in fact further aggravate inequalities in Syria’s economy. That being said, Government of Syria economic capacity and service provision are unlikely to witness a noticeable improvement for the foreseeable future.

6. 5th Corps Conscription of NDF

Aleppo City, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: Throughout the past week, the Government of Syria-affiliated 5th Brigade requested that the Al-Bakir Brigade, based in Aleppo city, hand over all of its Syrian combatants who have yet to complete formal military services. Of note, the Al-Bakir Brigade is mainly comprised of Syrian members of the Baggara tribe, and is known to have close ties with the Hashd Shaabi in Iraq. The brigade reportedly refrained from complying with the 5th Brigade request. Consequently, the 5th Corps detained seven combatants from the Al-Bakir Brigade in Aleppo city. This developments comes amidst continuous rumors that the 5th Brigade, which is known to be a recipient of considerable Government of Russian support, will assume responsibility for curtailing the role of militias throughout the country.

Analysis: Recent rhetoric on the role of the 5th Corps in Syria has been largely focused on its close alignment with the Government of Russia, and its function as a means to curtail Iranian presence and influence within Government of Syria military structures. However, considering the fact that Russian and Iranian policy appear to be generally aligned in Syria, the 5th Corps role is more likely inward-facing, and focused instead on bringing some form of command and control to the myriad pro-Government militias across Syria. As such, the Government of Syria, with the Government of Russia’s support, will likely seek to contain the presence and power of local militias.

7. Lebanese Gas Imports

Damascus, Syria: On February 4, Mostafa Haswiyeh, the General Manager of the Sadcob Company for Fuel, the Government of Syria’s state fuel company, stated that the availability of gas in Syria will increase; according to his statement, the expected increase in gas availability will be due to an increase in production, as well as imports via agreements with Lebanese private companies. Haswiyeh indicated that the production of gas has increased from 350,000 to 500,000 tons per day; however, to fully cover gas needs in Syria would require an estimated 1,500,000 tons per day. Consequently, the Government of Syria is currently pursuing several measures in order to facilitate imports via sea and land from neighboring countries. Indeed, the Economic Committee of the Syria cabinet has reportedly endorsed the Ministries of Fuel and Economy to allow individual industrial chambers in different Syrian cities to import gas from nearby countries.

Analysis: The Government of Syria will likely seek to alleviate shortages of state provided services by facilitating and ensuring a larger role for the private sector in service provision. Gas shortages in Syria have exponentially increased throughout the past several months.  The gas shortage in particular has revealed many of the challenges the Government of Syria faces from international sanctions, and has also demonstrated the Government of Syria’s increasingly limited capacity to respond to local needs. Yet despite the aforementioned measures will partially alleviate these challenges, the impact of sanctions will likely continue to limit the private sector’s readiness to engage with the Government of Syria.

8. Ongoing Dar’a Unrest

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: On January 31, an IED attack targeted a Government of Syria 5th Corps checkpoint in Nahteh, located in eastern rural Dar’a governorate. The attack was concurrent with a demonstration against the Government of Syria and the reconciliation process in formerly opposition-held neighborhoods of Dar’a city. Following that, on February 3, several individuals shot at an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint in Da’el; concurrently, several civilians in Da’el reportedly tore down pictures of Bashar Al-Assad. However, despite the rising discontent in southern Syria, local and media sources indicated that at least 3,500 individuals in Nawa voluntarily joined the Syrian military.  Local sources also continued to report significant tensions between different Government of Syria armed groups throughout Dar’a governorate, specifically between the Security Branch forces and the Air Force Intelligence.

Analysis: IEDs, clashes, and tensions are likely to persist in Dar’a governorate in the foreseeable future. This is due to both internal tension and competition among different Government of Syria-affiliated security forces as well as the Syrian Arab Army’s limited capacity to maintain security in the area. Against this backdrop, the security situation in Dar’a governorate will likely be among the top priorities of the Government of Syria in the near to medium term.  As such, the Government of Syria will likely launch a security operation in the area to restore security. However, if Government of Syria efforts proved futile, tensions between different Government of Syria security forces will most likely expand into inter-tribal and communal tensions, especially considering the widespread local discontent with the southern Syria reconciliation agreement.

9. Clashes and Curfew in Tabqa

Tabqa, Ar-Raqqa Governorate, Syria: On February 4, media sources reported on a local dispute between two individuals from the Nasser and Waheb tribes in the city. The dispute reportedly escalated into a direct confrontation between members of both tribes, which reportedly resulted in the death of at least one individual from each tribe as well as several injuries. In an attempt to contain these clashes, the SDF-affiliated civilian council of Tabqa city enforced an indefinite curfew and forbade any movement from and to the city. Additionally, the SDF has reportedly closed down all SDF official institutions and set up several checkpoints in the city.

Analysis: SDF and the Kurdish Self Administration mediation and security efforts are unlikely to be effective in local tribal and communal disputes in northeastern Syria, especially in Ar-Raqqa governorate. Ar-Raqqa governorate is predominantly Arab, and many tribes have already voiced their rejection of the SDF presence in the area. In fact, SDF governance structures have deliberately sidelined prominent community notables and traditional interlocutors, which will in turn prove detrimental to the future stability of the area and its general social cohesion. This incident also highlights the fact that while many tribes in northeastern Syria may be united in their opposition to the SDF, they are not a unified force in and of themselves, and have numerous inter-tribal alignments and grievances.

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.