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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.