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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.