Media Anthology: March 19 – March 25, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

March 19 to 25, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
An assault targets a regime checkpoint in Da'el, Dar’a GovernorateArabicSyrian Press CenterMarch 19, 2019Conflict and Military
For the first time: Turkey deployed an observation patrol near Al Rashdin, west of Aleppo governorateArabicBaladi NewsMarch 18, 2019Conflict and Military
What can we understand by reading the government’s locations around Idleb?ArabicGeiroon Media NetworkMarch 20, 2019Conflict and Military
"Al Zenki" dissolved itself into the "National Army" in rural AleppoArabicEnab BaladiMarch 26, 2019Conflict and Military
Kuwaiti newspaper: The Kuwaiti police arrested the pro-government Syrian businessman, Mazen Al-Tarazi, and four of his assistantsArabicEmmar SyriaMarch 19, 2019Economic
Lattakia port for Iran.. Reading into the details and implicationsArabicEqtsadMarch 19, 2019Economic
How is the regime stealing Syrians' remittancesArabicSyria TVMarch 19, 2019Economic
Rami Makhlouf claims his properties in ZakyehArabicSyrian Press CenterMarch 22, 2019Economic
Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham presures Kafr Takharim into submission to Salvation GvoernmentArabicShaam NetworkMarch 19, 2019Governance and Service Management
"Salvation Government" opens the door for candidates to apply for Idleb Shura Council electionsArabicEnab BaladiMarch 25, 2019Governance and Service Management
Syrian Sunni-Alawite Dialogue forms council to implement coexistence agreementArabicAsharq Al AwsatMarch 19, 2019Social Dynamics
Suwaida factions force the Syrian regime to release one of the detaineesEnglishNedaa SyriaMarch 18, 2019Social Dynamics
Mostly through informal contracts. The underage marriage percentage increased to 13% in SyriaArabicAl SouriaMarch 19, 2019Social Dynamics
A pause in Afrin denouncing the military faction's actionsArabicEnab BaladiMarch 22, 2019Social Dynamics
Peace protests renewed in Al Bab city...and the protesters insist on their demandsArabicNedaa SyriaMarch 24, 2019Social Dynamics
Syrian Arab Red Crescent supports 6,500 families in Dar'a with 35 trucks of relief itemsArabicSyrian Arab Red CrescentMarch 24, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Brussels renewed again, but incompleteArabicAl JumhuriyaMarch 19, 2019International Intervention
An authoritarian marriage of convenienceEnglishInternational ReviewMarch 19, 2019Other
The religious domain continues to expand in SyriaEnglishCarnegie Middle East CenterMarch 19, 2019Other
The ISIS ambassador to TurkeyEnglishHomeland SecurityMarch 18, 2019Other
The weaponization of Syrian civilians’ sufferingEnglishAl JumhuriyaMarch 18, 2019Other
UN Envoy discusses detainee file with Syrian opposition in DamascusEnglishThe Syrian ObserverMarch 20, 2019Other
After "Lafarge"; another French company accused to help ISIS in SyriaArabicEnab BaladiMarch 20, 2019Other

Syria Update: March 21 – March 27, 2019

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Syria Update

21 March to 27 March, 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 March 23, following the capture of Baghouz village, in Deir-ez-Zor, the SDF declared that ISIS had been defeated in Syria. Though ISIS maintains forces in the eastern Syrian desert and sleeper cells throughout Syria, it is no longer in full control of any community in Syria. The fall of Baghouz has created a local humanitarian crisis, as the small village of Baghouz contained a much larger number of individuals than previously assessed. The large majority of these individuals have been evacuated to the Al-Hol camp in Al-Hasakeh governorate, where more than 72,000 individuals now reside in reportedly dire conditions. This situation is compounded by the fact that Al-Hol has become an issue of international concern owing to the difficulty of defining an ‘ISIS affiliate’, especially in the case of women and children, as well as a lack of clarity over the repatriation of foreigners. Additionally, the potential ‘resurgence’ of ISIS is now a major concern for much of the international community. It is true that – like Al-Qaeda – ISIS is likely to remain an important jihadist idological framework and insurgent movement. However, this focus may mask real local grievances; there is now concern that any new Sunni Arab movements arising in areas formerly controlled by ISIS will be presented as an ISIS resurgence, when this may in fact not be the case

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Government of Syria-affiliated armed groups shelled Dar’a city, indicating that the ongoing protest movement in Dar’a will face increasingly violent reprisals from the Government of Syria.
  • A group of IDPs reportedly used Russian humanitarian corridors to evacuate from the Rukban camp; though their ultimate destination is unknown, it is likely that more Rukban IDPs will evacuate and reconcile in the near-term.
  • An alleged chemical attack targeted Government of Syria-held areas along front lines in northwestern Syria, while Russian airstrikes and shelling continues to target opposition-held communities in the demilitarized zone; despite continued cross-line shelling, the status quo is unlikely to change in the area for the time being.
  • A real estate company linked to Rami Makhlouf sued numerous property owners in reconciled Zakyeh, highlighting the considerable HLP concerns facing reconciled areas.
  • An explosion targeted an Iranian-backed group headquarters in Deir-ez-Zor city; there are numerous competing militias and social tensions in the city, and a major conflict between different Government of Syria-affiliated groups is increasingly likely.
  • A prominent former armed opposition commander and several local intermediaries were arrested in reconciled northern rural Homs; detentions of reconciled leaders are relatively common in reconciled areas, increasing tensions throughout nearly every reconciled area in Syria.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump officially recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory; though this will have no immediate impact in Syria, it has deep regional implications and gives rise to continued questions over the role of the U.S. in the Middle East.
  • The Director of the Bab El Hawa border crossing was replaced; the new director is believed to be much more closely linked to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, further highlighting the group’s control over economic activity in northwestern Syria.
  • Civilians protested against National Army groups in Al-Bab; the different groups within the National Army often directly coordinate with Turkey, and thus command and control between different armed groups and political bodies in northwestern Syria is often extremely weak, leading to significant tensions with the civilian population.

ISIS ‘Defeated’ in Syria

In Depth Analysis

On March 23, the SDF declared that they had “totally defeated” ISIS in Syria. The victory over ISIS was declared after the SDF took control of Baghouz, the last remaining ISIS-held enclave in Syria. ISIS combatants and their families continue to surrender to the SDF in unexpectedly large numbers; for example, dozens of ISIS combatants in Baghouz surrendered to the SDF on March 25, and more ISIS combatants may be hiding in tunnels underneath Baghouz and could surrender in the near term. Additionally, ISIS forces are present in the eastern Syrian desert and within sleeper cells throughout the country. For all intents and purposes however, ISIS no longer controls any community in Syria.

As noted repeatedly in past Syria Updates, the besiegement and capitulation of the Baghouz pocket has caused a local humanitarian crisis. According to the SDF, more than 66,000 people have fled Baghouz since January, including 5,000 ISIS combatants and 24,000 dependents and family members. The large majority of ISIS combatants have been detained by the SDF, and most family members and civilians have been evacuated to Al-Hol camp, in Al-Hasakeh governorate. Reportedly, more than 72,000 people now reside in Al-Hol, over 50,000 more than it was originally designed to host. According to local media sources, 20,000 of those in the camp are children under the age of 15. Conditions are reportedly dire and, according to local sources, deep tensions are in evidence between ISIS sympathizers and other camp residents. These tensions have prompted camp managers to forcibly segregate these two groups to help mitigate potential violence.

Compounding the local humanitarian crisis created by the fall of Baghouz is the fact that the status of the ‘ISIS’ IDPs and detainees has now become an issue of regional and international concern. One of the largest concerns is how (or if) foreign ISIS members will be repatriated in their countries of origin and, indeed, how one defines a member of ISIS. The group is comprised not only of combatants, but also counts many females – both Syrian and foreign – amongst its support base. Moreover, nearly one third of the camp is under 15, most of whom have been raised and educated for almost their entire adolescent lives under ISIS rule. Despite repeated appeals from the U.S., European states have yet to take a unified stance on repatriation. However, the alternative to repatriation – ISIS members remaining in Syria – is certainly not an option. It is highly likely that ISIS members remaining in Syria would eventually end up in Government of Syria prisons, increasing the difficulty of tracking their status, and mean they may be used by the Government of Syria as political leverage.

Since the announcement of ISIS’s ‘defeat’ in Baghouz, considerable media attention has focused on the fact that ISIS has in fact not been defeated, and that a resurgence of ISIS should be a major concern to the international community. It is certainly true that while ISIS no longer exists as a territorial entity, it still exists as an ideological framework, and an insurgent terrorist group. ISIS, or individuals claiming ISIS affiliation, will continue to attempt to launch asymmetric attacks in Syria, Iraq, throughout the Middle East, the U.S., and Europe. Much like Al-Qaeda, ISIS has certainly not been ‘defeated’; it will remain an important touchstone for the global jihadist movement for the foreseeable future. That said, the focus on a potential resurgence of ISIS should not be overemphasized, and combating a resurgent ISIS as a driving force in governmental policy may be counterproductive. Indeed, there is the very real risk that any Sunni Arab unrest against the Kurdish Self Administration (or indeed, any governing body that now controls former ISIS-held areas) will be presented as a resurgence of ISIS, thus masking the often legitimate grievances facing these communities.

Whole of Syria Review

2019Mar 21-27 COAR Syria Update Map

1. GoS Shells Dar’a City

Dar’a City, Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: According to local and media sources, on March 24, a local armed group affiliated with the Government of Syria Military Security Branch shelled parts of the Arbaine neighborhood of Dar’a city. The attack was reportedly carried out from the Government of Syria air base in western Dar’a governorate. The armed group identified as responsible in these reports is led by Moustapha Kasem; notably, Kasem is a prominent former armed opposition commander in the south who facilitated the reconciliation of his militia with southern Syria’s Military Security Branch. Following the shelling, on March 24, a Russian military delegation visited Dar’a city to investigate the incident and reportedly met with the Dar’a negotiation committee.

Analysis: As mentioned in last week’s COAR Syria Update, protests in Dar’a governorate have generally called for the fall of the Government of Syria, the release of prisoners and detainees, and the restoration of basic services as stipulated in the southern Syria reconciliation agreement. Protests have been regularly disrupted by gunfire or surrounded by Government of Syria military forces, but the shelling of a neighborhood is the most drastic action taken against a protesting community in Dar’a to date. It is likely that Government of Syria security forces in Dar’a intend to increasingly use military force on a selective basis to quash the growing protest movement in Dar’a governorate and compel civilians to moderate their demands.

2. Rukban Camp IDPs

Rukban Camp, Homs Governorate, Syria: On March 24, the head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Viktor Kupchishin, released a statement indicating that approximately 360 IDPs had left Rukban Camp via the ‘Jleib’ humanitarian corridor. Aside from reports that those leaving the area have arrived in Government of Syria-controlled areas, the ultimate destination of these 360 IDPs remains unclear. Kupchishin also noted that the Russian and Syrian Joint Coordination Committees would hold further consultations at Jleib crossing point on March 26 regarding the gradual dismantlement of  Rukban camp. Of note, on March 22, the Deputy Governor of Homs Governorate, Amir Khalil, stated that Homs governorate is ready to receive IDPs from Rukban Camp, and that the Government of Syria has rehabilitated more than 1300 schools in Homs governorate in preparation for their return.

Analysis: The Government of Syria-controlled area to which the Rukban IDPs have returned remains unclear. However, as noted in last week’s COAR Syria Update, on March 14, an official from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in Lattakia city stated that the city is prepared to host Rukban IDPs. Taken in tandem with the statements made by the Deputy Governor of Homs, it is increasingly likely that the Government of Syria is stepping up measures to accommodate IDPs from Rukban Camp. Although the number of returnees is still only a fraction of the 50,00-70,00 IDPs in the camp, the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian conditions will likely prompt more IDPs to return.  It is also worth noting that IDPs in Rukban Camp originate from all across Syria; indeed, many IDPs in Rukban originally fled ISIS or the armed opposition, and may not have major issues with returning to Government of Syria-controlled areas. The near term trajectory of both Rukban Camp and the Tanf border crossing are also likely to be partially affected by the fact that ISIS combatants pose a dispersed threat throughout the eastern Syrian desert.

3. Northwestern Syria Update

Northwestern Syria, Syria: On March 23, the Government of Syria-affiliated SANA news agency reported that 21 people suffered from choking symptoms stemming from a poisonous gas attack after “terrorist groups” shelled Rasif and Aziziyeh, in northern rural Hama governorate. SANA also cited the Head of the As-Suqaylabiyah National Hospital, who both confirmed the attack and shared images and footage of individuals wearing oxygen masks in hospital beds. The following day, several armed opposition sources denied responsibility for the attack, and stated that accusations of their involvement are Government of Syria “fabrications”. Meanwhile, on March 22, heavy Government of Russia airstrikes targeted Foah and Kefraya, reportedly following rumors of a meeting in the area between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). However, local sources report no such meeting took place, and that the airstrikes targeted civilian neighborhoods. Additionally, Government of Syria shelling continued to target areas within the disarmament zone, to include Jajrnaz, Tahtaya, Khan Sheykhun, Kafr Zeita, and Latmana.

Analysis: Reports of a chemical attack in northern rural Hama are unconfirmed. To date, reports on the use of chemical weapons have emerged only from Government of Syria-affiliated media outlets, and no local sources have yet been able to confirm the attack. The alleged targeted locations are situated along front lines in northwestern Syria, and are relatively close to opposition-held areas that have been subject to intense bombardment in recent weeks. An armed opposition chemical attack, whether verified or not, may therefore be used to justify ongoing Government of Syria military activity in northwestern Syria, particularly in the vicinity of the M5 highways. Displacement from the demilitarized zone is thus likely to continue in the context of continuous Government of Syria shelling and Russian airstrikes, increasing the likelihood that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will be compelled to concede control over parts of northwestern Syria in the near- to medium-term.

4. Private Sector Real Estate Claims

Zakyeh, Rural Damascus, Syria: On March 22, media sources reported that the Sondouk Al-Mashreq company, owned by Rami Makhlouf, sued approximately 50 individuals in Zakyeh, west of Damascus, for residing on land owned by Makhlouf. The same source added that several real estate agents in the area are affiliated with Makhlouf and are reportedly convincing owners to sell their land in Zakyeh. Of note, Zakyeh reached a reconciliation agreement with the Government of Syria in 2016 which stipulated that Government of Syria forces would not be stationed in the area.

Analysis: Sondouk Al-Mashreq’s real estate claims in Zakyeh highlight some of the critical HLP concerns facing many reconciled areas, as well as the power and priorities of Syria’s business elite. Reconciliation agreements usually emphasize the protection of civilians and former combatants in the reconciled area; in principle, reconciliation documentation granted to individuals safeguard against conscription and detention. However, these agreements seldom encompass other frameworks that ensure reconciled communities are able to return to economic and social normalcy. As such, HLP risks, as well as local livelihood opportunities, remain a major concern in reconciled areas. Cases of property expropriation are not uncommon, and are often undertaken under the pretext of either local administrative frameworks, or criminal law stipulations (such as counter-terrorism laws).  However, in this case Sondouk Al-Mashreq is using real estate claims and permits issued prior to the conflict to secure real estate in Zakyeh. Reportedly, Sondouk Al-Mashreq intends to develop this real estate, which is generally located on the outskirts of Damascus, into semi-affordable housing in order to profit when economic conditions in Damascus improve. Business elites and the Al-Assad regime are closely intertwined (indeed, Makhlouf is considered a key member of the regime); thus, both the judicial system, and existing HLP legal frameworks have limited capacity to safeguard civilian properties in the face of large scale reconstruction or business projects.

5. Deir-ez-Zor City Explosion

Deir-ez-Zor city, Deir-ez-Zor governorate, Syria: On March 24, media sources reported that an explosion struck the headquarters of an Iranian-backed Afghani militia in Deir-ez-Zor city. The explosion is believed to have been caused by a suicide bomber. The attack is highly unusual, and, if confirmed, is the first suicide attack to have taken place in Deir-ez-Zor city since the Government of Syria took control of the city in December 2017. It is also worth noting that the considerable presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed military groups is a major source of social tensions in Deir-ez-Zor governorate; indeed, there are regular allegations that Iranian representatives are attempting to convert Sunni tribes in the villages south of Deir-ez-Zor city to Shiism.

Analysis: Security incidents in Deir-ez-Zor are reflective of the poor security and management of the city. This is mostly due to the lack of coordination and clear command and control structures amongst the myriad armed entities present in both the city and the governorate. Armed groups currently active in the city include different NDF groups closely linked to either the Government of Syria or Iran, the ‘Tribal Army’, which is linked to the Tiger forces, as well as numerous Iranian-backed militias, to include Liwa Fatimiyoun, an Afghani Shiite militia. As such, similar attacks are likely for the foreseeable future, and it is equally likely that they will be conducted by either competing militias or ISIS sleeper cells. Indeed, significant unrest and internal conflict is expected to become a dominant trend within Deir-ez-Zor city and governorate over the near- to medium-term.

6. Northern Homs Arrests

Northern rural Homs, Homs governorate, Syria: On March 23, media sources indicated that the Government of Syria’s Air Intelligence Units and Hezbollah forces detained the former commander of Jaish Al-Tawheed, Manhal Al-Salouh, in Talbiseh, northern rural Homs. Of note, Jaish Al-Tawheed was amongst the most prominent armed opposition groups in northern rural Homs, and played a significant role in brokering the area’s reconciliation agreement. According to the same source, Government of Syria forces have also detained at least four other individuals closely linked to Salouh, and who were involved in northern rural Homs’s reconciliation.

Analysis: The revocation of reconciliation agreements and systematic targeting of prominent brokers, mediators and former opposition leaders involved in reaching reconciliation deals is common across all reconciled areas. Indeed, there are reports that Government of Syria forces have repeatedly attempted to detain members of Jaish Al-Tawheed in the past, but refrained from doing so due to the close coordination of former Jaish Al-Tawheed members with Government of Russia representatives. The Government of Russia’s role as a mediator and guarantor of reconciliation agreements has frequently been challenged in southern Syria, Eastern Ghouta and northern rural Homs however, and its ability to curb the influence of the Government of Syria in reconciled areas is often questionable. Similar incidents are likely for the foreseeable future in all reconciled areas, and are expected to further deepen cleavages between local communities and Government of Syria security actors.

7. Golan Heights Recognition

Golan Heights, Southern Syria, Syria: On March 21, U.S. President Donald Trump released a tweet in which he stated that “it is time for the U.S. to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and regional stability.” Subsequently, on March 25, during a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump signed a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Meanwhile, the European Union released several statements indicating that their position regarding the Golan Heights remains unchanged, and that it  “does not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the territories it has occupied since July 1967, including the Golan Heights.”

Analysis: It is important to note that Trump’s statement and his recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory is highly destabilizing to the region, especially in  light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection as Israel’s Prime Minister. It is extremely noteworthy that many of the U.S.’s allies have condemned the decision, to include Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the EU, not to mention the entirety of the Arab League. Though Trump’s statement is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the current dynamics in Syria given the Golan Heights are already under de-facto Israeli control, the statement will likely enflame regional tensions. It is also expected to fuel uncertainty around increasingly erratic U.S. foreign policy, and highlight the growing unreliability of the U.S. as an interlocutor in the Middle East.

8. Bab El Hawa New Administration

Bab El Hawa Crossing, Northwestern Idleb governorate, Syria: On March 22, media sources reported that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham appointed Mohamad Zein Eddine as the Director of the Bab El Hawa border crossing, replacing the previous director, Sajed Abou Firas. Local sources indicated that the appointment of Zein Eddine is likely is a part of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s efforts to maintain firmer control over the crossing. According to the same source, the former Director of Bab El Hawa, Sajed Abou Firas, was known for his close coordination with Turkey, and his deliberate disregard of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. While Abou Firas was in office, the Director of Bab El Hawa functioned as the ultimate authority over the crossing with regards to coordination with the Government of Turkey. The new director, Mohammad Zein Eddine, is known to have close ties to important leadership figures in Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. Indeed, Zein Eddine was previously head of the ‘information desk’ in the Bab El Hawa administration, which is closely linked to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. It is also rumoured that the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Mohamad Joulani, is Zein Eddines’ brother-in-law. The same local source also reported on the possibility that Bab El Hawa will soon exclusively be used for humanitarian purposes in the near to medium term. This is expected to take effect as soon as the newly opened border crossing in Jandairis, in Afrin district, is ready to handle larger commercial trade volumes (for more information on the Jandairis border crossing, please see last week’s COAR Syria Update).

Analysis: Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s new appointment to the Bab El Hawa civil administration is likely part of a broader attempt to solidify its administrative control and increase its economic prominence across northwestern Syria. These efforts will be highly – if not entirely – contingent upon the degree of latitude granted by the Government of Turkey. Indeed, the future of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham hinges on the degree to which they will be allowed to participate in the reopening of trade routes (namely the M4 and M5 highways) which are expected to serve as key components of any major agreement in the northwest. Presently however, the possibility that commercial trade will be redirected to Jandairis could indicate that the Government of Turkey is attempting to sideline Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham by diminishing the importance of the Bab El Hawa crossing.

 

9. Anti-National Army Protests

Al-Bab, Aleppo Governorate, Northern Syria, Syria: Between March 21 and March 23, large-scale civilian protests took place in Al-Bab city. Demonstrators accused the National Army’s security and military bodies of corruption and called for military police to release detainees and prisoners. Of note, the Second Corps of the National Army is responsible for military activities, security, and service provision in Al-Bab city and is comprised of the Hamza Brigade and the Sultan Murad group. On March 23, the Al-Bab Revolutionary Council assured protestors that the National Army would meet the demands of demonstrators and release prisoners within 48 hours. However, the failure of the National Army to fulfil this promise resulted in further civilian protests in the city.

Analysis: It is worth noting that the majority of combatants in both Sultan Murad and Hamza Brigade are not originally from Al-Bab city. This has created tensions with the civilians of Al-Bab, who often accuse them of corruption, and there are regular claims that combatants from the two groups are responsible for looting and theft. Sultan Murad in particular has an especially poor reputation amongst civilians in northern Syria. Tensions are also related to the fact that National Army factions and local councils do not coordinate with one another effectively, instead coordinating directly with the Government of Turkey. In addition, coordination between political bodies and armed groups in Euphrates Shield areas is also ineffective, leading to misunderstandings and tensions. Civilian protests are likely to continue until military police release prisoners and/or restore security in Al-Bab city.

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: March 12 – March 18, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

March 12 to 18, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
((a video)) within a greater escalation of targeting…about 12 raids target Saraqeb area and the International Highway near it along with ground targeting by about 60 shattered missiles to Al-Taman’aaEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMarch 13, 2019Conflict and Military
"Tahrir Al-Sham" shares control of checkpoints in Idleb with the "National Front"ArabicEnab BaladiMarch 13, 2019Conflict and Military
Thousands of jihadists flee ISIL's final stronghold as Baghuz is poundedEnglishThe Telegraph March 14, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey attempts to salvage Sochi agreement as bombing devastates IdlibEnglishSyria DirectMarch 13, 2019Conflict and Military
Syria punishes Lebanon: “passing through our lands is expensive”ArabicAl modonMarch 13, 2019Economic
Washington keeps the same amount of aid for Syrian Kurds in 2020ArabicSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMarch 14, 2019Economic
Al-Ghab Plain is between the flames of the regime and the exploitation of tradersArabicMENA Monitor March 14, 2019Economic
No one wants to help Bashar Al-Assad rebuild SyriaEnglishThe AtlanticMarch 15, 2019Economic
After Dar'a, the spark of protest reaches QuneitraArabicBaladi NewsMarch 12, 2019Social Dynamics
Demonstrations in Aleppo to demand that Turkey  stop escalations by the regime and Russia in IdlebArabicBaladi NewsMarch 13, 2019Social Dynamics
About Al-Assad and Shalish's boys and girlsArabicAl modonMarch 14, 2019Social Dynamics
Brussels Conference: The European donations for Syria were lower than expectedArabicAl modonMarch 14, 2019Humanitarian & Development
UN Envoy to Asharq Al-Awsat: Five armies are embroiled in Syrian ConflictEnglishAsharq Al AwsatMarch 13, 2019International Intervention
The best of bad options for Syria’s IdlibEnglishInternational Crisis GroupMarch 14, 2019International Intervention
Statement by the governments of France, Germany, UK and US on the 8th anniversary of the Syrian conflictEnglishThe Government of the United KingdomMarch 15, 2019International Intervention
Newspaper: 30 Jordanian detainees in  Al-Assad prisons after the opening of Nasib crossingArabicZaman AlwslMarch 11, 2019Other
Instability in Syria's Idlib may trigger new wave of refugees to WestEnglishDaily SabahMarch 13, 2019Other
The Unsustainability of ISIS Detentions in SyriaEnglishMiddle East InstituteMarch 12, 2019Other
Why is the SDF is releasing ISIS detainees? ArabicAl modonMarch 13, 2019Other
An Assessment of Russia’s Rules of Engagement, Strike Policy and Adherence to International LawEnglishAction on Armed Violence March 14, 2019Other
Secretary-General appoints Khawla Matar of Bahrain deputy special envoy for SyriaEnglishUnited NationMarch 14, 2019Other

Syria Update: March 14 – March 20, 2019

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Syria Update

14 March to 20 March, 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:

March 15, 2019, marked the 8th anniversary of the conflict in Syria. Fundamentally, conflict in the country can be categorized into two distinct eras: pre-Russian intervention (March 2011 – September 2015), and post-Russian intervention (October 2015 – present). The pre-Russian intervention period was marked by the growing expectation — at least on behalf of much of the western world — that the Al-Assad regime would eventually collapse. Syria strategy, such as it was, generally centered on this assumption, with military, political, humanitarian, development, and stabilization programing structured mainly around the implications of a post-Al-Assad Syria.   Upon the intervention of Russia however, the Al-Assad regime was stabilized, and a series of military victories have resulted in Al-Assad’s control over the vast majority of Syrian territory. Unfortunately, western policy and strategy did not necessarily change to reflect the new realities of the second period in the ongoing conflict. Indeed, though much language concerning ‘regime change’ may have diminished, the actual implementation of programs and policy remains similar to that of the conflict’s earlier stages. In commemoration of the 8th anniversary of the Syrian conflict, COAR has prepared a longer, in-depth analysis section, with a specific examination of the current strategic realities of Syria, and a set of recommendations for institutional donors, UN agencies, and humanitarian and development INGOs.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Russian airstrikes targeted northwestern Syria for the first time in 2019, amidst continuous government of Syria shelling. Direct Russian airstrikes in this area likely indicate that both Turkey and Russia intend to increase pressure on Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to withdraw from the M5 highway.
  • Conflict continued in Baghuz, Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Though this is swiftly nearing a conclusion, lingering issues around humanitarian conditions in Hole camp, the status of former ISIS combatants and civilian supporters, and continued insurgent attacks remain an ongoing concern.
  • Dar’a city has witnessed ongoing unrest, some of which is related to the anniversary of the Syrian revolution, but which mainly has its roots in much deeper dissatisfaction with the Government of Syria and the deteriorating security environment.
  • Government of Syria officials announced that Lattakia city could host evacuated IDPs from Rukban camp but very few, if any, have so far left the camp.
  • The Syrian Interim Government National Army opened a commercial crossing between Al-Bab city and Government of Syria-held areas. This crossing is expected to become extremely important, and will likely divert traffic from the YPG-held crossing in the vicinity of Menbij.
  • Claims that Kurdish celebration of Nowruz were prohibited in Afrin were proven false; though serious tensions between the Kurdish and Arab populations are a factor in Afrin, these tend mainly to manifest more as armed clashes than social tensions.
  • Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian officials met in Damascus to discuss the opening and protection of commercial routes linking Tehran to Damascus, further emphasizing the importance of the Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian influence over land routes in the Levant.
  • Properties belonging to former opposition members and their family members were reportedly confiscated in Eastern Ghouta, highlighting serious HLP concerns in reconciled areas.

Conflict in Syria: Eight Years In

In Depth Analysis

As noted in a joint statement released by the French, German, British and American envoys to Syria, as well as numerous public demonstrations globally, March 15, 2019, marked the 8th anniversary of the conflict in Syria. Although preceded by smaller demonstrations in Dar’a governorate, the protests in Damascus and Aleppo cities on this date in 2011 have been used to mark the start of the Syrian conflict. The movement rapidly evolved into an armed and political insurgency, and by July 2011, a group of defected Syrian military officers had formed the Free Syrian Army, the first formal armed opposition umbrella group. Shortly after, in August 2011, a group of Syrian political figures and opposition groups formed the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, which would go on to become the Syrian Interim Government. After the failure of a UN-mediated ceasefire agreement in summer 2012, Syria was engaged in a fully fledged civil conflict in nearly every region of the country.

A man pushes a trolley under a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus during the spring of 2016. Image courtesy of Hassan Ammar/Associated Press.

Syria’s conflict timeline can be cut many ways, but in essence, it is defined by two distinct phases: pre-Russian intervention (March 2011 – September 2015), and post-Russian intervention (October 2015 – present). For the western political establishment, the first period was marked by the reasonable belief that the Al-Assad regime was close to collapse. Much of the international political and military response to Syria (not to mention aspects of stabilization, development, and humanitarian programming) were therefore predicated upon accelerating Al-Assad’s downfall and ensuring a political transition that avoided the kind of full state collapse observed in other Arab-spring states. Attempts at shaping a stable transition were accomplished broadly through the provision of support and capacity building to armed and political opposition groups, governance structures, and civil society bodies, to include Syrian civil society organizations, initiatives like the ‘Free Police’ and ‘White Helmets’, and local councils, as well as national-level bodies such as the Syrian Transitional Council and the Syrian Interim Government. Occurring beyond the state, these initiatives sought — at least conceptually — to avoid empowering the Al-Assad regime and to isolate it both politically and economically.  This strategy was altered, though not fundamentally reversed, by the rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria. Indeed, while the fight against ISIS eventually became the primary western military and strategic priority in Syria, this goal was often linked to the necessity of regime change or transition. For example, as late as September 2015, U.S. President Obama stated at the UN that “Assad must go” to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and that “Syria cannot return to the pre-war status quo.”

Children play amongst the rubble in an unknown location. Image courtesy of the Italian Instutute of International Political Studies.

The second, post-Russian intervention period has been marked by continued Russian-supported battlefield successes by the Government of Syria.  Between December 2016 and July 2018, the Government of Syria recaptured every opposition-held community in southern and central Syria. At present, the remaining armed or political opposition is either comprised of internationally proscribed extremist groups (such as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government), or is almost entirely under the aegis of the Government of Turkey.  ISIS has been almost entirely defeated in Syria, and is now relegated to bands of marginal guerillas in the eastern Syrian desert. The Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF, neither of which represent a component of the opposition, are themselves engaged in long-running negotiations to secure their political re-unification with the Syrian state (though these are necessarily complicated by the continued presence of U.S. and European military forces).

Regrettably, the phase of the conflict in Syria has not witnessed a shift in western strategy that reflects realities on the ground. True, there are now few who use language demanding ‘regime change’ in Syria. But discourse now centers on permanently ‘isolating’ Al-Assad with sanctions or restrictive measures, open-ended commitments to combat Iranian influence, ensuring the prospect for a safe return of Syrian refugees, and maintaining the status quo in the northeast.  The methods by which these goals are sought are essentially the same however; they still involve support for sub-state armed groups and funding to opposition or Kurdish governance structures and affiliated civil society groups, and they still involve a basket of humanitarian and development activities implemented by local actors generally in partnership with INGOs and the UN. These programs are often fundamentally similar to those implemented in 2015, and the shift from cross-border humanitarian operations to Damascus-based programming has often been more a function of access than any cohesive strategy.  For that reason, western organizations must adjust their approach to the Syrian conflict based on five key realities:

1. The Al-Assad regime will remain in control of the Government of Syria for the foreseeable future. Over the course of the current conflict, President Al-Assad has quashed significant dissent. Though several small-scale armed insurgent movements in Government of Syria-held areas continue, none pose a threat to the ultimate control of the regime (referring to President Al-Assad and his inner circle) over the Syrian state. The majority of those living in Government of Syria-held areas (i.e. the vast majority of Syrians) do not have the economic, political, or security frameworks necessary to mount any grassroots challenge to the current status quo, even those who were previously supportive of the armed opposition.

2. The Government of Syria has structurally changed: the Government of Syria is now much more decentralized than in the pre-war period. Local elections were held in September 2018, and considerable powers have been divested to Syria’s city councils, local councils, and municipalities. Certainly, the vast majority of the individuals elected to these councils were ranking Ba’ath party members, local prominent businessmen, or linked to Government of Syria-affiliated armed groups. However, many are also qualified technocrats that were locally elected, and in many cases they are popular locally. Additionally, in many areas, there is now some level of local accountability and oversight over the distribution of resources, programming, and funding streams.

3. Syria has not entered a period of economic recovery, the economy is worsening.  Sanctions and restrictive measures are a major impediment to Syria’s economic functionality, but the largest challenges facing Syria’s economy are a result of the country’s devastated infrastructure, the destruction and dysfunction of pre-war industry, and the lack of resources amongst the Government of Syria and its allies to engage in any comprehensive rehabilitation.  Shortages of key commodities, especially gas and diesel, are endemic, and are having a major knock-on effects the price and availability of most staple goods. Despite the promise of reconstruction, many parts of the country are almost entirely neglected by both the international response and the Government of Syria.

4.  The majority of Syrian refugees will not willingly return and should not be forced to do so. As noted, the Al-Assad regime will likely remain in power for the foreseeable future, and the Syrian economy shows few signs of recovery. Although conflict conditions may have decreased in much of the country, a safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Syria’s refugees is premature. Indeed, despite statements to the contrary, the Government of Syria shows few signs of proactively facilitating the return of refugees. Syrian returnees face a complicated and contradictory bureaucracy, and locals report that many applicants are outright rejected by the Government of Syria’s myriad security branches. For those that arrive, anecdotal evidence suggests some returnees have been arrested, detained, or conscripted upon reaching their place of origin.

5. The fate of the areas outside of Government of Syria control are largely in the hands of the international community, namely the U.S., Turkey, and Russia. The future the Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF is now almost entirely dependant on the willingness of the U.S. and its allies to remain physically present in northeastern Syria.  Indeed, the continued presence of the U.S. and its allies in many ways prevents any agreement with the Government of Syria, especially considering that the continued support to the SDF is often presented as an anti-Iran measure.  Similarly, northern Aleppo (Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield areas) is now entirely dominated by Turkey, to the point that every armed group, and most local councils, often answer directly to Turkish representatives as opposed to the Syrian Interim Government. The fate of northwestern Syria is now essentially in the hands of the geopolitical considerations shaping Russian and Turkish interests regarding Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the demilitarized zone agreement. Ultimately, northwestern Syria will likely either be retaken militarily by the Government of Syria, or fall under the kind of Turkish control observed in northern Aleppo.

Recommendations

How should international organizations revise their strategy in light of the above strategic realities? There is of course no easy answer. However, below are four possible frameworks to consider.

1. Fully isolating Syria is the wrong approach, both strategically and morally.  Continuing to isolate Syria politically and economically through sanctions, restrictive measures, and the withholding of reconstruction funding will likely be counterproductive to the strategic aims of western governments and development/humanitarian organizations. Additionally, isolating Syria is tantamount to punishing much of the Syrian population for failing to unseat President Al-Assad. Syria remains in great need of support, and the consequences of Syria becoming an economic wasteland will only likely produce further violence, migration and displacement, and even greater regional instability.

2. Fully legitimizing or normalizing the Al-Assad regime is also likely to be counterproductive.  While it may be tempting to conclude that the Government of Syria is ‘the only game in town,’ the Al-Assad regime has its own priorities. These priorities run counter to those of both western governments and humanitarian and development programmers, meaning an unconditional return to Damascus in order to facilitate ‘access’ will likely result in programming informed by regime interests. This is likely to include the selective rehabilitation of some areas over others, delivering services to ‘trusted’ populations, and ensuring that reconstruction or rehabilitation financially benefits the upper echelons of the Syrian regime.

3. It is possible to work in Syria, and with the Government of Syria, without necessarily benefitting the Al-Assad regime, but this can only be accomplished with a clear understanding of local dynamics. International donors, UN agencies, and humanitarian and development organizations will need to work with the Government of Syria, but they must acknowledge that the regime and the Government of Syria are different. As noted, the Government of Syria’s political-economic structure has changed over the past eight years.  Local governance bodies, and local leaders and intermediaries, now have much more authority over Syria’s communities than in the past. The Syrian regime has grown increasingly dependant on the Syrian business community to fill local economic and service gaps, and the business community has in turn become more powerful in civic life (this topic is covered in much greater depth in a recent COAR Situation Report, linked here). The Al-Assad regime will remain in power, and will remain the central force dictating Government of Syria policy, but there are considerable opportunities at the local level.

Syrian individuals participate in a sit-in marking the eighth anniversery of the Syrian conflict in Beirut, Lebanon, on March 17, 2019. Image courtesy of AP Photo/Bilal Hussein.

4. Syrian civil society, both in and outside of the country, must become a major focus of the response.  If the current conflict has produced one positive, it is the flourishing Syrian civil society that has formed both within Syria and abroad. Although they played a crucial role in the Syrian uprising, conflict, and response, this not only refers to the ‘operational’ local organizations that formed in response to local needs and implemented donor or INGO-funded programs. Indeed, these citizen-activist networks are likely to be heavily restricted in a post-conflict Syria. Syrian civil society also extends to the academics, researchers, analysts, key informants, religious groups, journalists, artists, students, and activists living in opposition-held areas, Government-held areas, SDF-held areas, and in neighboring countries and Europe.  Many of these individuals are highly skilled technocrats with deep information networks and a clear understanding of the local dynamics and challenges facing Syrian communities. With the conflict reaching its end, many of these individuals have become increasingly disengaged, are seeking work in other sectors or countries, or are abandoning work on Syria entirely. Any strategy which prioritizes ‘localization’ must therefore help all forms of Syrian civil society have a voice in Syria’s future development.

Whole of Syria Review

WoS map

1. Northwestern Syria Update

Northwestern Syria, Syria: According to the Response Coordination Unit, the Government of Syria shelled 89 locations in opposition-held northwestern Syria between March 9 and 15. Six locations subject to Russian airstrikes over this period in Idleb governorate were also identified in this report, to include Idleb city and Khan Sheykhun. The Idleb Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets) also accused Government of Syria forces of dropping 40 white phosphorus bombs on Tamanaah, in Idleb governorate, on March 15. These reported attacks are subsequent  to heavy Government of Syria and Russia airstrikes on the main Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-managed central prison in Idleb city on March 13. Between 100 to 200 prisoners are believed to have escaped, many of whom are reportedly ISIS combatants and captured members of Government of Syria forces. The Russian Defense Ministry stated that it had coordinated with the Government of Turkey in this attack, and that it’s primary target had been a Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham weapons storage facility. Of note, these airstrikes marked the first Russian airstrikes in northwestern Syria since the start of 2019.  On March 14, Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, announced that he had reached an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to establish a Joint Coordination Center in Idleb. Joint Russian-Turkish military patrols have already been undertaken in order to put a stop to continued heavy bombardment of the demilitarized zone by the Government of Syria, but it is notable that 400 mortar shells struck western rural Hama governorate a day after the conclusion of a Turkish patrol along the demilitarized zone on March 18.

Analysis: As noted in last week’s COAR Syria Update, it is likely that continued Government of Syria bombardment of areas within the northwestern disarmament zone is intended to cause mass displacement along the M5 Highway. The M4 and M5 highways in northwestern Syria remain firmly under armed opposition control, despite the fact that both should be open to commercial transit as part of the northwestern Syria demilitarization zone agreement. Attacks in the vicinity of these two key routes are therefore likely intended to facilitate the displacement of much of the population, and the ultimate restoration of Government of Syria control through either military or political means. Recent Russian airstrikes should also be viewed in this light. Notably, Russian airstrikes on Idleb governorate were likely undertaken with some degree of coordination with the Government of Turkey. Indeed, it would be difficult for the Government of Russia to unilaterally launch airstrikes in northwestern Syria without at least informing the Turkish government. This indicates increased coordination between the two powers with regard to the intensification of military pressure on Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, likely to compel the group to negotiate access to the M5 highway (in the first instance). Notably, the next round of Astana talks between the three guarantor states is scheduled for early April 2019, when a more comprehensive agreement on northwestern Syria is expected. Until then, Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes are likely to continue, causing significant displacement over the near- to medium-term.

2. ISIS in Baghuz

Baguz, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Eastern Syria: On March 16, three suicide attacks at three different SDF-controlled crossings targeted civilians leaving Baguz, the last ISIS-held enclave in Deir-ez-Zor governorate. An SDF spokesperson, Mustafa Bali, stated that six civilians were killed and three SDF fighters were injured. The attackers were reportedly wearing women’s clothing, but the perpetrators have yet to be identified. On March 17, spokesperson for the SDF, Kino Gabriel, stated that the SDF continues to clash with ISIS in the area but that “the operation is over, or as good as over, but requires a little more time to be completed practically.” Gabriel added that over 60,000 people, mostly civilians, had so far fled from areas in the vicinity of Baguz. Locals leaving the area report that considerable numbers remain in the town as the SDF advanced on several ISIS-held positions under cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on March 17.

Analysis: Having been the target of intense shelling and airstrikes for several months, the number of people that continue to leave Baguz is unexpectedly high. This highlights several issues of humanitarian and international concern. Those fleeing the town have effectively been besieged for several months, and IDPs that have managed to escape have been subsequently redirected to Hole camp, in Al-Hasakeh governorate, where conditions are reportedly deteriorating. Additionally, the status of former local and international ISIS combatants residing at Hole camp remains a major issue, with their release or repatriation posing considerable security, ethical, and political challenges. Several European countries have refused to accept the return of ISIS-affiliated nationals, but their release alongside Syrian ISIS combatants risks prolonging the  group’s insurgency. As highlighted by the suicide bombings at the checkpoint this week, differentiating between ISIS combatants and civilians is extremely difficult: women, and children are frequently active ISIS combatants and supporters, and women were often used as suicide bombers. Moreover, there have been numerous unconfirmed reports of ‘ISIS civilians’ having major tensions with other IDPs in the Hole camp. Vetting those leaving Baghuz will likely remain a major challenge.

3. Dar’a Unrest

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: Local sources reported that demonstrations were held on March in Dar’a, Jasim, and As-Sanamayn to mark the 8th anniversary of the Syrian conflict. Demonstrators variously called for the fall of the regime, the release of prisoners, and expressed solidarity with the population of Idleb. A protest also reportedly took place in Da’el, in the vicinity of the local Air Force Intelligence headquarters, where demonstrators specifically voiced objection to the Iranian military presence in southern Syria and associated security measures. Meanwhile, violent incidents continue to take place in the south. On March 15, an unknown group attacked an Air Force Intelligence unit in Da’el, and on March 17, a prominent Air Force Intelligence commander, Raafat Al-Nahas, was assasinated. Al-Nahas was known for his close relations with Iran and differences with the Head of Military Security in Dar’a, Louay Al-Ali.

Analysis: The anniversary of the Syrian conflict represented an opportunity for the expression of deep-seated grievances found widely across southern Syria. The root causes of this unrest can be summarized as deriving mainly from the following: the firm grip of the Government of Syria’s various military divisions over local security; the unwillingness (or inability) of the Government of Syria to resolve the status of prisoners and the disappeared; arbitrary conscription; and the failure to restore public services. Competition between different Government of Syria-linked military and security divisions has further contributed to local instability, with attacks on checkpoints, assassinations, and IEDs proliferating throughout Dar’a governorate. Although further unrest is likely in this context, this is unlikely to threaten the Government of Syria’s ultimate control over southern Syria.

4. Lattakia to Host Rukban IDPs

Lattakia City, Lattakia Governorate, Syria: On March 14, media sources reported that an official from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in Lattakia city, Bashar Dandash, stated that the city is ready to host IDPs from Rukban Camp. Relatedly, the Transport Directorate of Lattakia city announced it is ready to send up to 30 buses in order to collect IDPs from the camp and bring them to Lattakia. A Government of Syria-affiliated news outlet has since reported that armed opposition groups in Rukban are demanding that residents pay $300 per person in order to secure their evacuation. Of note, no camp residents are known to have used the Government of Russia-facilitated humanitarian corridors to date. These corridors were opened on February 16, 2019.

Analysis: As evidenced by both permissions for UN convoys and the announcement of Russian-facilitated humanitarian corridors, the Russian and Syrian government’s handling of Rukban Camp mirrors their treatment of former opposition-held urban areas. In this context, the Government of Syria is therefore likely to continue to pressure Rukban’s IDPs to resolve their status and evacuate, potentially to Lattakia.  Though Lattakia may seem an unusual destination, it is important to note that there are between 50,000-70,000 people residing in the camp; these individuals originate from all over Syria, and many likely do not have any major issues with the Government of Syria. Syrian and Russian-led attempts to unilaterally resolve Rukban’s status are complicated by the role of the U.S. military presence at the Al-Tanf base and the surrounding 55 km de-confliction zone, as well as local U.S.-affiliated armed groups.  Of note, the near term future of both Rukban and the Tanf border crossing are also likely to be affected by an imminent end to SDF-ISIS clashes in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor. Specifically, the Government of Syria is likely to identify the dispersal of ISIS combatants and sleeper cells across the eastern Syrian desert as a threat to Rukban residents and the border crossing, providing a pretext for more assertive Government of Syria intervention.

5. National Army Opens Al-Bab Crossing

Al-Bab, Northern Aleppo, Syria: On March 18, media sources reported that the Syrian Interim Government National Army announced the opening of the Abou Zendin crossing, linking Al-Bab to Government of Syria-controlled areas in northeastern Aleppo governorate. The crossing is located west of Al-Bab city, in the vicinity of Shamawiya village. A spokesperson for the National Army, General Yousef Hamoud, has explained the crossing will allow the transit of civilians and commodities from Euphrates Shield areas to Government of Syria-controlled areas in Aleppo governorate. The crossing is therefore likely to divert traffic that had previously travelled via YPG-controlled Menbij city, thereby increasing National Army checkpoint revenues. Hamoud also noted that Abou Zendin crossing will be managed through a joint civilian-military administration, and that its profits are to be distributed to all factions within the army.

Analysis: The gradual restoration of road networks between Euphrates Shield and Government of Syria-controlled areas is indicative of broader Turkish and Russian priorities to re-open Syria’s major highways and commercial routes. Indeed, and as noted in the first point of this week’s Syria Update, the status of Syria’s major road networks is expected to dominate dynamics in northern and northwestern Syria for the foreseeable future. These priorities are beginning to have notable effects on the ground, with the Abou Zendin crossing serving to further delineate de facto borders between zones of control. Moreover, the crossing will also serve to diminish – if not eliminate – the role of the YPG-controlled Tal Refaat and Tayha crossings, which have been of high economic importance to northern Syria’s economy.

6. No Nowruz Restrictions in Afrin

Afrin, northern Aleppo, Syria: There were numerous reports that Kurdish civilians in Afrin were to be prevented from celebrating the occasion of Nowruz, the traditional Persian new year celebration. However, local sources report that these claims turned out to be false, and noted that celebrations were freely observed, albeit under close police supervision.  Indeed, on March 17, local councils in Ma’btali, Afrin, Sheikh El-Hadid, Raju, Sharan, Bulbul, and Jandairis issued statements congratulating Kurdish communities on the occasion. Each local council also announced Nowruz to be an official holiday on March 21, although Maa’btli’s local council later issued a statement reversing its earlier announcement, reportedly under pressure from the Government of Turkey.

Analysis: Ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds will likely remain of concern in Afrin, but it is important to note that these manifest mainly between armed groups, and less often at the community level. This is primarily due to the fact that the most politically active Kurdish civilians fled the area upon the conclusion of the Government of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, with many of those remaining maintaining fairly harmonious relations with other residents. In fact, local sources indicated that the efforts of local courts to contain ethnic tensions, as well as cases of targeted persecution, have been fairly effective since the early stages of Turkish control in Afrin city. That said, tensions and lack of trust persist across Afrin, especially in the more diverse Afrin city, and are in many cases deliberately highlighted by the media. Local sources explain that local governance structures and small-scale humanitarian actors permitted to operate in the area have yet to address these deeply rooted grievances.

7. Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian Joint Meeting

Damascus, Syria: Chief of Staff of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Beghari, arrived in Damascus on March 17. Beghari participated in a tripartite Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian meeting on March 18, in which future military cooperation between the three governments towards combating ISIS, as well as measures towards securing road networks linking Tehran and Damascus were reportedly discussed. Beghari stated that the “linkage of roads between Syria and Iraq serves the trade affairs and travelers, and is a great importance for Iran”. Commander of the Iraqi Army, Othman Al-Ghanimi, echoed these sentiments, asserting the integrity of the Syria-Iraqi border as a primary concern, and further stated the Al-Qaim border crossing will open officially in the near term. Also of note, Beghari stated on March 17 that Iranian forces will remain in Syria for as long as they are required by the Government of Syria, and that foreign forces without the authorization of the Syrian state must leave the country (implicitly referring to the U.S.). During his time Syria, Beghari also visited several Syrian and Iranian military bases, to include the Iranian military base in the vicinity of Damascus airport, Kisweh, as well as military sites in Eastern Ghouta, and Abukamal and Deir-ez-Zor.

Analysis: Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian coordination regarding the restoration of road networks and trade between the three countries is a key driver of their current relationship, particularly in view of the sanctions regimes targeting Iran and Syria. Similar meetings between industry figures and transport officials from the three countries have taken place in Damascus in recent months, producing several economic agreements and memorandums of understandings in this regard. A functioning Tehran-Damascus road network will necessarily enhance the Government of Syria’s access to goods and markets, and Tehran’s prioritization of the issue will decrease the burden of rehabilitation on the Government of Syria. Meanwhile, assertive Iranian statements on its intention to retain a presence at the request of the Syrian government are likely further increase Israel’s hostility. They are also likely to pose a challenge to understandings between the Israeli and the Russian governments regarding Iran’s presence in Syria.

8. Confiscated Properties in Eastern Ghouta

Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus, Syria: On March 17, media sources reported that the Government of Syria is confiscating property belonging to those formerly affiliated with the armed or political opposition or those related to opposition members. These sources explain homes and stores are being appropriated in accordance with Law 10, or on the basis of allegations of terrorism. The Government of Syria has also been imposing restrictions on civilian mobility in Eastern Ghouta, and has reportedly increased detention and raiding campaigns across the area in recent months.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s reported persecution of former opposition affiliates and assertive security procedures are likely to persist both in Eastern Ghouta and other reconciled areas. Regardless of the legal framework under which these measures are reportedly taken, residents of reconciled areas are heavily scrutinized, and individuals with personal or familial links to the armed or political opposition face acute HLP risks.

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.

Beyond Checkpoints: Local Economic Gaps and the Political Economy of Syria’s Business Community

Beyond Checkpoints: Local Economic Gaps and the Political ​Economy of Syria's Business Community​

15 March, 2019

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Executive Summary​

The humanitarian and development community remains fixated on the Syrian ‘war’ economy, as part of their efforts to eschew, mitigate the effects of, or transform Syrian war economy dynamics.  In some ways, this fascination is a reflection of concerns associated with indirect effects of the emergency humanitarian response; in other ways, it is a product of contemporary peacebuilding and post-conflict paradigms. Unfortunately, the prevailing conceptualization and approach to the Syrian war economy focuses on its most simplistic manifestations, such as checkpoint bribery; monopolization of cross-line access; or the taxation patterns of proscribed armed actors.  This exclusive focus on the ‘symptoms’ of the Syrian war economy, in particular the extractive activities of non-state actors, deliberately obfuscates the role and nature of the current war economy.

To understand the Syrian war economy requires a basic familiarity of the pre-conflict political economy of Syria.  Following their coup d’etat in 1970, the Baath party entered into a marriage of convenience with the Syrian business elite whereby the military-dominated state established control over much of the state economy and distributed patronage to supporters in the business community.  Following the economic liberalization policies of both Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Syrian economy was increasingly privatized, allowing business community allies of the Syrian regime to benefit from new opportunities previously monopolized by the state-centric economy.  Thus, by the time of the Syrian conflict, much of the business community had been systematically incorporated into the state itself, and became a critical component of many state-run activities and services.

The Syrian conflict has devastated the Syrian economy and realigned many relationships both within the business community and between the business community and the Syrian regime; however, fundamentally, the overarching nature of the partnership between the Syrian business community and the state (and accompanying security apparatus) has endured and remains largely unchanged.1  Without the financial and political capacity to maintain state services, the Government of Syria has increasingly relied on the private sector as a means of replenishing diminished state capacity.  While the political-economic structures that had characterized the pre-conflict business-state ecosystem remained in place, loyalist business elites began to take a more active role in supporting the collapsing state – to include militarily- while new loyalist economic actors also emerged to fill gaps created by the conflict.

Of note: In this paper, the ‘Government of Syria’ or the ‘Syrian state’ is used to refer to the official Syrian state structure, such as the state bureaucracy, the military, and other official government apparati. The Syrian ‘regime’ specifically refers to the person of Bashar Al-Assad, his family, and his close inner circle, which systematically interlinks with the integrated business community.

As always, the primary recourse for international donors, UN agencies, funds, and programs, INGOs, and development agencies is to examine ‘war economy’ dynamics and actors through the lens of localization and contextualization, to include local-level sectoral and functional interactions for the objective of service provision.  In some cases, there are simple ways of leveraging interventions to directly transform or replace the war economy by filling specific service gaps; in many other cases, attempting to marginalize war economy actors may be a destabilizing force.   With the impending conclusion of the cross-border response (on any meaningful scale), humanitarian and development actors will increasingly be forced to directly confront and engage with ‘war economy’ actors (many of whom may also be prominent local governance officials); recognizing the strong incentives to continue activities as well as Government of Syria access and registration impediments, it will likely fall to the donor community to design strategies to identify and mitigate these concerns.

What is the ‘War Economy’?

Despite international preoccupation with the ‘war economy’ – both in Syria and in other development contexts – the concept often remains widely misunderstood.  Jenny Peterson, in her landmark book Building a Peace Economy?: Liberal Peacebuilding and the Development-security Industry, defines the war economy as:

“[The] systems in which economic incentives either motivate actors to instigate and participate in political violence, or which facilitate the ongoing conflict by providing a means of financing violent struggle.”2

The fixation on a ‘war economy’ as different from a ‘normal economy’ came to prominence in the early 1990s, ushered in alongside the rise of the concept of ‘new wars’ during, such as the Rwandan Genocide, the Balkan conflict, and the war in Somalia.3  These so called ‘new wars’ were generally understood as civil wars, incited by ethnic/sectarian tensions, and characterized by not only open conflict but also diminished ‘normal’ economic activity and opportunity; many academics maintaining this discourse thus argued that war economies arose when local sub-state armed actors extracted resources or established economic activities either to fund their armed struggle or to engage in profit-seeking as its own ends.4  In view of the accepted philosophy that many internal conflicts were, to some degree, caused or exacerbated by an underdeveloped or underperforming state, a ‘nexus’ of peace and development studies was introduced as an academic discipline whereby the state and institutional development would underpin the maintenance of peace. The theory was that readjusting political-economic incentives would thereby end conflict and transform a ‘war’ economy into a normal or ‘peace’ economy.  This ‘transformation’ continues to be a major component of the broader peacebuilding mantra, and underpins many post-conflict development strategies.5  Indeed, despite having been subject to various critiques, this perspective remains both a basic framework and an inherent part of international peace-building projects, at least as they correspond to war economy transformational mechanisms.

The limitations of this definition of a war economy lies in the fact that it is centered on purely extractive activities conducted predominately by non-state actors.  Indeed, in the case of Syria, the ‘war economy’ is a many-headed hydra, a system that identifies and capitalizes on profit-making opportunities, many of which are service provision ‘gaps’ created by the conflict itself.   The absence of essential services, formal banking mechanisms, and the free flow of goods and commodities created opportunities; as the Syrian state was either unable or unwilling to fill these gaps, businessmen with the necessary local and national-level relationships stepped in to fill these gaps and earn a profit.  Due to pre-existing business linkages to the State, the process of exploiting these gaps was facilitated and in certain cases directly supported by formal government policy. Thus, while it might be convenient to focus on incidents of checkpoint bribery, the reality is that the categorization of economic activities as licit or illicit, ‘war’ or ‘normal’ economy, are artificial distinctions which are less relevant in this particular context.

As noted, the concept of a ‘war’ economy often presupposes that the war economy is an aberration from a ‘peace’ economy, yet from a structural standpoint, much of the ‘war economy’ is a continuation of the pre-conflict Syrian economy, albeit through more decentralized mechanisms6.  The fundamental relationships – essentially barriers to entry – have not changed from pre-conflict patterns.   For example, one of the most cited examples of the access-based war economy was Mohieddine Al-Minfoush’s monopoly on trade into besieged Eastern Ghouta through the Al-Wafideen crossing. However, Al-Minfoush achieved his control over commercial access through forging (and ultimately purchasing) a relationship with the integrated Syrian business-state elite (in Minfoush’s case, Mohamad Hamsho and Rami Makhlouf)7.  Thus, in some ways entering the ‘access-based war economy’ functionally resembles the process for opening a Mercedes dealership in Mezzeh in 2010.

The Government of Syria’s Minister of Tourism visiting Mohieddine Al-Minfoush’s kiosk during the May 2017 “Food Expo” Industrial Exhibition in Damascus City. Photo courtesy of Enab Baladi.

Syrian Political Economy: From Pre-Conflict to Post-Conflict

Modern Syria Economic Foundation

It is important to investigate how the Government of Syria (and regime) relationship with the business community is broadly structured, and how the current Syrian political-economic landscape was informed by the path dependence of pre-conflict Government of Syria policy.  In a sense, the pre-conflict regime structure reflects an early marriage between the Syrian Baath Party political establishment and the traditional Syrian business community. When the Baath party, which was initially comprised of and led by rural minoritarian Arab nationalists, took power in 1963, it adopted a socialist, state-centric economic system.8  This naturally came at the expense of the traditional mercantile class. Following the Baath party coup in 1970, and in order to gain the tacit acquiescence of the still powerful Sunni business class, the Baath party co-opted elements of this business class within the nascent state-managed economy.9  This marriage transformed the Baath party in some ways in that elements of the traditional mercantile class not only survived the nationalization of the Syrian economy, but also became an integral part of the Syrian Baath party and subsequently gained access to the upper echelons of the Syrian regime.

Neo-Liberalization and the Private Sector State

The marriage of the business sector and the military/security-informed political elite, operating in tandem under a state-driven economic model, defined the pre-1990s Syrian state.  Yet beginning in the 1990s, the Syrian economy was transformed by the liberalization policies undertaken by Hafez Al-Assad. These policies in some ways loosened the State’s direct control over the economy, naturally implemented with the full support of the self-interested Syrian business class, and allowed for a more ‘business-friendly’ environment, albeit one that was still supported by and subservient to the state. Perhaps the most important manifestation of this liberalizing shift was the 1991 passage of the ‘New Investment Law No. 10,’ which “permitted Syrian and foreign investors to invest in previously prohibited sectors [to include the industrial sector].”10  Law No. 10 revoked previous statist policies by allowing businessmen to invest in sectors that were previously the exclusive domain of the state or that previously had not existed (e.g. mobile telecommunications); however, in its application, Law No. 10 ensured that these sectors were devolved to the same elements of the business community that had previously formed close relationships with the Syria regime. Future amendments to Law No 10 further advanced the role of the private sector in Syria’s economy, and gradually unwound the state’s monopoly on various economic sectors, to include agriculture, transportation, and industry.11

Upon his assumption of the Presidency in 2005, Bashar Al-Assad resumed and expanded the liberalization policies previously set forth by his father, Hafez, and consequently further solidified the marriage between the Syrian regime and Syrian private business. For example, one of Bashar Al-Assad’s reforms further loosened state control on investment, and thus allowed predominately regime-aligned businessmen even greater access to capital.  Other similar liberalization policies included increased free trade; privatization of state-owned farms; market-based reforms and the reduction of state subsidies and price controls; banking liberalization to facilitate the establishment of private banks; and drastically increased state use of private sector entities as a contractors.12  Mirroring the patterns of elite capture in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, businessmen closest to the upper echelons of the Syrian regime were often given preferential access to these new economic opportunities.13 Hence, the course of legislation governing economic liberalization effectively reinforced past practices and further cemented the marriage between business elite and regime.  Thus, by the outbreak of the conflict, the distinction between regime and business elite was increasingly blurred.14

‘Tamwin Coupons’: A set of coupons distributed to every Syrian family to receive subsidized goods The amount of Tamwin coupons distributed is dependent on the number of family members.

Post-2011

The outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 drastically impacted the Syrian economy and the role of the business class.  With the territorial fragmentation of the country, the Government of Syria lost control over major highways, natural resources, and agricultural lands. Many less prominent businessmen fled, while many of those whose interests were intertwined with the ruling political system were heavily sanctioned.15 Without the financial and political capacity to maintain state services, the Government of Syria increasingly relied on the loyalist private sector as a means to replenish its diminishing capacity to provide services.  New economic actors emerged in parallel with the expansion of the political influence and role of already prominent business elites.  While the political-economic structures that had characterized the pre-conflict corporate-state ecosystem remained in place, business elites began to take on a more active role in supporting the collapsing state, to include in sectors previously outside the private sector mandate, such as state security through privately-funded militias.

Additionally, new economic actors ascended into the Syrian business elite, yet without structural changes to the pre-conflict political-economic relationship.  Some of these new businessmen were former militia leaders whose war profits were repurposed as ‘legitimate’ start-up capital.16 Other ‘new’ businessmen became prominent by adopting intermediary roles between the Government of Syria and non-Government of Syria armed actors, such as George Haswani, who facilitated the trade of oil from ISIS-controlled areas to Government of Syria-controlled areas,17 and Ayman Al-Qaterji, who facilitated the crossline trade of agricultural produce (wheat and textile) and oil from ISIS and subsequently Syria Democratic Forces-held areas.18

The business community will ultimately take part in the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria;  indeed, relevant legislations for reconstruction will likely continue to reassert the utility, relevance, and necessity of the regime’s allied business class. 19 For example, the Government of Syria issued Decree 66 in 2012, which stipulated private sector-led redevelopment of many heavily damaged informal housing areas in Rural Damascus governorate, with the objective of turning low income neighborhoods into higher end real estate developments.  Subsequently, Law No.10 expanded the stipulations of Decree 66 to a national scale, and thereby further created opportunities for the business elites to benefit at a national level in the post-conflict space. An additional tool to build state-sanctioned business opportunities for regime-aligned corporate actors are the public-private partnership laws that were introduced in January 2016; these laws essentially authorized the private sector to manage and develop state assets in various economic and service provision sectors. 20 For example, in August 2017, Aman Holding Company, owned by Samer Foz, announced that it would take part in the reconstruction of Basateen Al-Razi in Mezzeh, Rural Damascus, in collaboration with Damascus Cham Private Joint Stock Company.21

Left: Ayman Jaber stands with President Bashar Al-Assad. Right: Jaber leading the Hawks of the Desert in battle against ISIS; Jaber is holding the head of a presumed ISIS combatant. Photo courtesy of Zaman Al-Wasl.

As noted, sanctions and restrictive measures levied against Syrian regime officials and prominent businessmen have had a counterintuitive impact on the war economy by actually empowering some elements of the existing Syrian business community. Indeed, one consequences of sanctions and restrictive measures was to force the regime to increasingly rely on mid-level members of the business community as a means of eschewing targeted individuals and entities.  However, new sanctions on Syria have expanded and will target entire sectors of the economy; for example, in November 2018 OFAC warned that it would more aggressively enforce existing sanctions on all actors involved in the oil industry, including shipping companies, insurance firms, and banks that are involved in Syria’s oil industry, which consequently led to widespread oil and gas shortages across Syria. Blanket sanctions have also naturally impacted foreign investment, and without considerable foreign investment and expertise, the Syrian economy will continue to face major gaps in both capital and technical capacity.22 As such, the Government of Syria and the Syrian regime will have an even greater reliance on the Syrian business community, as only local, unsanctioned business actors will be capable of generating local capital, as well as leveraging independent business networks to import needed goods.

Redevelopment and reconstruction, alongside the transfer of state services to public-private partnerships and coordination to avoid international sanctions, will further cement the relationship between the Syrian business elite and the state, as represented by the regime. While the Government of Syria and the Syrian regime will likely remain central to dictating the future course of Syria’s economy,23 they will also do so in a manner that benefits the existing Syrian business community and entrenches this community more deeply within the state.

In Defense of Localization and Contextualization

The onset of the Syrian civil war was a major shock for the Syrian economy; however, the actual structure of the Syrian economy, namely the partnership between the Syrian business class and the state (and accompanying security apparatus), continued through the conflict.  For that reason, focusing solely on the extractive iterations of the war economy is not useful in understanding the nature of the political military-business alliance. Indeed, the exclusive focus on economies of violence, cross-line trade of certain commodities, the activities of individual businessmen, or armed actor taxation structures may be sufficient at the project-level, but lack the depth an analysis necessary for organizational strategy and policy, especially for those who seek to uphold do-no-harm and other humanitarian principles.

That said, opportunities nonetheless exist for principled interventions.  An understanding of the local manifestations of war economy dynamics, as well as the broader state-business alliance in Syria, must be a prerequisite for interventions.  Analysis capable of assessing all relevant transformations of the Syrian economy throughout the war – and by extension the indirect impact of humanitarian and development programming – requires the study of more localized political economy relationships and actors at the community-level.  Essentially, community-level political economies should constitute the building blocks of Syrian war economy analysis and intervention strategy, rather than generalized extractive-informed perspectives or a recycled theory of change originally devised for other conflicts and contexts, as far removed as Somalia.

Based on the case studies below, one major dynamic that is common throughout Syrian communities is the fact that the ‘war economy’ is in many cases a response to new economic gaps and blockages created by the conflict itself (whether deliberate or accidental determined on a case-by-case basis).  As the overarching political/military-business alliance in Syria survived throughout the conflict, those seeking to capitalize on conflict-created needs and gaps necessarily engage with the regime in a manner similar to pre-conflict paradigms. In this way, the distinction between licit and illicit economies is –in many cases– theoretical at best.   The actual function of these local war economies is community-dependent, and naturally shaped by the specific needs and gaps, geographical areas, and the response of each local community and its stakeholders.

Case Studies

Below are four case studies that demonstrate how local actors have responded to service gaps during the conflict and in different areas of political control: Case Study 1 concerns Internet service provision in Eastern Ghouta; Case Study 2 details electricity in Duma city, Eastern Ghouta; Case Study 3 describes textile production in Deir-ez-Zor city; and Case Study 4 details Hawala offices in Al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria. All four cases are similar in that they describe the manner by which the business community filled service gaps caused by the conflict.  The way in which these various actors have responded to gaps is in each case quite unique; war economy actors and their services have had a stabilizing effect in some cases, destabilizing in others.

Case Study 1: Electricity Services in Duma City

The Gap

In December 2012, the Government of Syria effectively cut off the majority of electricity services throughout Eastern Ghouta due to the rapidly escalating conflict and the fact that the area had increasingly fallen under the military control of the armed opposition. By June 2013, fuel imports into Eastern Ghouta were cut as well, and the area entered into a de-facto siege that lasted for over 6 years. In response to the significant electrical shortages, communities in Eastern Ghouta were compelled to resort to various other methods of electricity generation (many donor-supported), such as solar energy, biogas generators, wind turbines, and locally produced fuel.24  However, these methods were of low efficiency, highly expensive, and under persistent risk of damage due to constant shelling and airstrikes.

A control panel managing and organizing household electricity through power generators in Duma. Photo courtesy of Enab Baladi.

Filling the Gap:

Between 2015 and 2016, prominent businessmen and families in Eastern Ghouta, specifically two business families, the Hasaba and the Abd El-Daim families, started to import electricity generators into Eastern Ghouta, in particular to Duma City. Both families were able to import the generators due to their linkages with traders outside Eastern Ghouta as well as with prominent high ranking Government of Syria officials. Despite the siege, cross-line fuel trade continued, albeit at higher prices and lower availability. During this time, members of the Hasaba and the Abd El-Daim families effectively monopolized the generation of electricity in Duma via their imported generators, and also became important fuel traders through the Al-Wafideen checkpoint.25

Maintaining the Gap:

The Government of Syria established control over Duma City on May 2018 following intensive aerial and ground attacks that left the city heavily damaged.  Essential services such as water, electricity, and shelter have yet to be restored in many communities. Notably, prominent families and individuals that had played a significant economic role during the siege have retained their prominence as service providers and more recently as local governance officials. In fact, members of both the Abd El-Daim and Hasaba families won seats in the current local council of Duma in the recent local elections on September 16, 2018. These two families have also maintained their monopoly over private generators, and are reportedly currently lobbying against the restoration of electrical networks with the Government of Syria Electricity Ministry, in an attempt to maintain economic interests. In the meantime, there is very little public electricity in Duma.

Case Study 2: Internet Services in Eastern Ghouta

The Gap

Due to the cessation of Government of Syria-provided electricity to Eastern Ghouta in December 2012, telecommunication and Internet services which were linked to landlines and electricity networks, effectively ceased in many parts of Eastern Ghouta. While some areas located closer to Damascus city were still capable of linking to Syriatel or MTN Internet connections,26 the connection was reportedly intermittent and slow.  Additionally, with shelling and airstrikes targeting nearly every community in Eastern Ghouta, the remaining Internet-related physical infrastructure had been heavily damaged by 2013. At this time, neither armed opposition groups nor local administrative entities were capable of restoring connectivity.

Filling the Gap :

In 2012 and 2013, a group of local businessmen in Eastern Ghouta installed a set of Internet ‘bridges’; these bridges connected to satellites Internet networks and thus provided Internet access to many residents of besieged Eastern Ghouta. To ensure the continuity of the service, business owners regularly installed solar panels to power these bridges.  This approach was so effective that Internet service in Eastern Ghouta remained remarkably functional, and was -according to local researchers- faster in besieged Duma City than in Beirut. Several businesses provided this ‘bridging’ service in Eastern Ghouta, the most prominent being the Moslim Network, Al-Keresh Network, and Bro Net network. Local sources indicated that their internet services were relatively affordable throughout this period of time, though it is unclear whether other subsidies/funding streams were involved.

An internet ‘bridge’ providing satellite internet in Eastern Ghouta. Photo courtesy of Rozana.

Maintaining the Gap

An internet antena used to broaden the network availability of satellite internet in Eastern Ghouta. Photo courtesy of Enab Baladi.

Following the Government of Syria military campaign between February and April 2018, most satellite bridges were destroyed, and telecommunication and Internet services are now largely provided by Syriatel.  Some local telecommunication companies that had arisen during the conflict continued activity after the opposition’s capitulation, such as the Moslim and Al-Kersh Network, albeit with drastically reduced reach and capacity; yet of note, both networks were able to continue functioning only by negotiating an affiliate relationship with Syriatel through which both companies essentially became local subcontractors.  Formal Internet service provision through Syriatel remains only partially functional. For example, despite the allocation of 500 Internet ports to the city of Saqba, only 100 actually work. This lack of functionality is primarily due to the fact that Syriatel Internet ports are directly linked to phone networks, which are not yet restored; phone network restoration has reportedly commenced in some areas, but has yet to be completed. Additionally, Syriatel Internet services requires access to the electrical grid, unlike the former satellite services that depended on solar power to charge the Internet routers.

The availability of Internet service continues to vary across communities in Eastern Ghouta. However, in this case, the restoration of state-sponsored telecommunication and Internet service has actually reduced the availability and speed of Internet for many residents.  The provision of Internet service in Eastern Ghouta highlights cases in which war economy dynamics can (at least temporarily) have a beneficial effect on local community service provision. Additionally, one explanation for the relative functionality of the Internet in Eastern Ghouta was due to the fact that it was never centralized under one businessman, and, instead, remained a collection of local businesses.  Now that the Government of Syria has retaken control of Eastern Ghouta, Syriatel has become the primary Internet service provider and resumed its monopoly on Internet service provision.

Case Study 3: Agricultural Transportation in Deir-ez-Zor City

The Gap

The destruction of local production factories and processing facilities has been hugely detrimental to Deir-ez-Zor’s economy. The local population of Deir-ez-Zor was heavily dependent on agricultural outputs, of which wheat and cotton were the most important.  Many of these raw agricultural products were transported to Deir-ez-Zor City, where they were processed and then distributed onwards. Beginning in mid-2014, with the majority of the city under the control of ISIS,27 Deir-ez-Zor was heavily bombarded by both the Government of Syria and the U.S.-led coalition.  Many agricultural processing facilities were destroyed, to include the largest textile production factory in Syria, which was damaged multiple time throughout 2012-2013, and finally rendered out of service by 2014 due to the fact the cotton gin was stolen by ISIS.  Heavy damage to these Deir-ez-Zor-based factories and facilities necessitated that local producers and traders find alternative means to process raw commodities.

Filling the Gap

A local ‘war’ economy developed to transport raw agricultural materials to processing plants elsewhere in Syria, largely to Damascus.  The Sarraj Company, which is a prominent local Deir-ez-Zor trucking and transportation company led by the locally prominent Sarraj family, filled the gap created by the destruction of these agricultural processing facilities (especially the Deir-ez-Zor textile factory).  The Sarraj Company created transportation networks linking local agricultural producers, especially cotton farmers, to processing facilities in Damascus city. These transportation networks were extremely difficult to establish, and necessitated the Sarraj company to negotiate access through both ISIS and Government of Syria-held checkpoints.  The Sarraj company heavily profited from transporting these unfinished goods (especially cotton) to processing factories in Damascus.

The destroyed textile factory in Deir-ez-Zor city in 2015. Photo courtesy of Syrian Observatroy for Human Rights.

Maintaining the Gap

The Sarraj Company is now one of the most important economic actors in Deir-ez-Zor, and the Sarraj family wields considerable political influence at the local level. Reportedly, the Sarraj company has begun to heavily lobby the newly-elected Deir-ez-Zor City council to postpone rehabilitation of the textile production plant in Deir-ez-Zor in order to maintain their trucking-related business interests. According to local sources, the Sarraj company’s lobbying efforts have been successful, and there are no current plans to rehabilitate the textile factory in Deir-ez-Zor city.

Case Study 4: Hawala Offices in Al-Hasakeh

The Gap

Prior to the conflict, expatriate money transfers and currency exchanges in northeastern Syria were largely conducted through Western Union offices or Syrian banks.  However, the enforcement of sanctions on the Syria National Bank and many private banks as well as the plummeting value of the Syrian Lira rendered formal money transfer businesses non-functional.  In 2013, numerous informal money transfer offices, known as ‘Hawala’ networks, began to open offices across all of Syria; these offices initially existed to support expatriate remittances but very quickly shifted to handle the large influx of cash sent by humanitarian organizations and armed group supporters.  Thus by 2014, Hawala offices assumed a position of key importance by serving as a bridge for both humanitarian and non-humanitarian support.28

Filling the Gap

According to local researchers, the Kurdish Self-Administration facilitated the establishment of several new Hawala offices in 2014 that were owned by individuals closely aligned with the Kurdish Self-Administration or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  In addition to supporting the creation of new ‘trusted’ Hawalas, the Kurdish Self-Administration also sought to sideline non-affiliated or ‘untrusted’ hawalas. The sidelining of these hawalas was largely accomplished through both bureaucratic obstacles (rejection of approvals) and taxation; the Kurdish Self- Administration Monetary Directorate requested a total of $50,000 as an insurance deposit, plus a $5,000 fee to establish a hawala office; subsequently, hawalas would pay annual commercial taxes, similar to other businesses in Kurdish Self-Administration governed areas. However, local sources indicate that the newly established Hawala offices with links to the Kurdish Self- Administration were often ‘exempted’ from initial fees and deposits, and requirements linked to transaction and profit disclosures, thereby reducing internal barriers and increasing competitiveness.  The proliferation of ‘trusted’ hawalas indirectly benefited the Kurdish Self- Administration by affording it access to external transactions beyond the scope and scrutiny of international banks, governments, and other regulatory authorities, while also providing the Self- Administration with indirect oversight over inbound transactions.

At present, three of the most important Hawala offices in SDF-controlled Al-Hasakeh governorate are:

  • Al Bouti for Money Exchange: located in Tal Hajar and owned by sons of Abd Agha Al Bouti, Al Bouti for Money Exchange has shareholders from the Haso and Saadi families; both the Haso and the Saadi families are linked through familial relationships to senior SDF commanders.
  • Ayman Kalash Company: also located in Tal Hajar and run by Ayman Kalash, in partnership with Mahmoud Haj Qasem. Mahmoud Haj Qasem is the owner of Alaz for Logistics, a major contractor that provides support to INGOs and registered with the Kurdish Self-Administration. Members of Qasem’s family are known for their direct linkages to the PKK. The Kalash Company has branches throughout Syrian territory and abroad.  
  • Norjan for Money Exchange: located in Mofto neighborhood, according to local sources several of the owners of Norjan for money exchange have been affiliated with the PKK since 2003, before the Syrian conflict.  Norjan for Money Exchange works closely with the Kurdish Self Administration; indeed, two Asayish patrols are called by Norjan for Money Exchange on a daily basis, at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, to protect their vehicles used to transfer cash.
A hawala agent organizes payments with external offices via Whatsapp. Photo courtesy of Eqtesad.

Maintaining the Gap

In this case, there is no need for local business elites to pressure the governing authority to artificially maintain a service gap that they can benefit from filling. The broader financial infrastructure constraints will make transferring money to Syria very difficult for the foreseeable future.  However, in the case the Kurdish Self-Administration, the absence of a formal banking system has allowed for internal profit generation, oversight over most financial transactions, and access to external financial transfer mechanisms. In fact, the primary driver for entrance into the hawala sector appears not to be profit generation, but rather direct control over a quasi-banking structure.

The Kurdish Self-Administration will attempt to maintain a monopoly over money-transfer mechanisms in its areas of control.  In this particular example, the Kurdish Self-Administration is not necessarily deliberately maintaining a service gap, but rather preventing ‘untrusted’ actors from entering the market.  It is nonetheless important to note that the future of current hawala actors in northeastern Syria necessarily hinges on the political future of the Kurdish Self-Administration and the stipulations and nature of a negotiated settlement with the Government of Syria.

Conclusion

Current academic and development frameworks for analyzing and transforming ‘war’ economies are flawed.  Approaches appear unfamiliar with the Syria and recycled from other conflict contexts. Perhaps as a consequence, current approaches insist on the division of economies into ‘licit’ and ‘illicit,’ for indeed checkpoint bribery is the lowest common denominator unifying Syria with South Sudan.   Yet Syria is not South Sudan, Afghanistan, or Somalia. Thus, while past credentials and experience may be relevant for curriculum vitae, they cloud and obscure approaches and ‘best practice’ for Syria. The unit of analysis for Syria-specific policy and strategy should be Syria, and in the case of the Syrian ‘war’ economy, an acknowledgement that while an ‘extractive’ war economy does exist, it is overshadowed by an economy that appears to blur conflict and post-conflict, state and business.  Bashar is not Basheer.

As demonstrated in the case studies above, the local war economy in Syria is often a continuation of pre-conflict local economies and may even be construed as a local response to gaps created by the conflict itself.  War economy actors capitalize on the new conflict economy, which cannot easily be disentangled, sidelined, or isolated from the post-conflict space, especially as these actors are legitimized through policy and local elections.   A better approach to analysis of ‘war’ economy actors would be a renewed focus on localization and specification. Manifestations of the war economy, the actors involved, and the degree to which the war economy impacts stability in Syria can only be understood properly at the community and ‘project’ level.  Whether spoilers or stabilizers, stakeholders should also be understood through a functional framework, which is to say the extent to which each actors contributes to or hinders the restoration and availability of local services. Access to service provision and livelihoods – the end state for humanitarian, stabilization, and development interventions – may involve partnering with unpalatable actors in certain contexts.  Yet, in many cases, INGOs and development actors have already indirectly partnered with these actors during earlier stages of the conflict, and actively reinforced their local prominence. That said, post-conflict development does not necessarily require a direct partnership with Syria Trust or Rami Makhlouf.

Key Takeaways

1: The Syrian war economy should be viewed as a continuation of the ‘peace’ economy. Adopting a simplistic, extractive-focused approach to the Syrian war economy is problematic in the case of Syria, both due to the political-economic history of Syria and on the ground realities created by the conflict; the cases studies presented in this paper demonstrate how contextualization, specificity, and function are key components to assessing ‘war’ economy dynamics.

 

2: Syrian war economy actors cannot be isolated from their local political economy. War economy actors may not always be political officials, but in almost every case private sector power-brokers maintain linkages to the political-economic nexus that shaped the pre-conflict Syrian economy; moving forward, many ‘war economy’ actors – whether new or old – will remain politically prominent, and the symbiotic relationship between political authority and economic activity will continue.

 

3: War economy transformation needs to consider the way in which new economic actors are filling gaps that existed due to the conflict, and to what degree this benefits the community.  All of the actors in the case study above were or are providing a badly-needed service to local communities and local economies.  To take a reflexive stance against these actors, or to attempt to marginalize them on principle, may be deeply destabilizing in the short term.

 

4: Now that the active conflict is ending, there is a need to shift from an actor-centric to a community-centric view of war economy transformation.  Essentially, the question to be asked should not be ‘how do we mitigate the effects of certain economic or political actors’ but instead ‘what needs to happen to make the community more economically functional and stable’? By focusing exclusively on actors at the expense of the broader community level context it will be extremely difficult to attempt any programming in consideration of the political affiliation prerequisites to doing business in Syria.

 

5: In some cases, direct INGO/UN/Donor-driven ‘filling’ of gaps could have powerful effects on war economy transformation.  However, these efforts will be directly counter to war economy actor interests, with associated programmatic risks.  For example, Case Studies 1 and 3 illustrate how war economy actors initially filled a gap created by the conflict, but are now impediments to the restoration of services and livelihoods.  International development interventions that could negotiate and fill these gaps would be positive and potentially be transformative.

 

6: In other cases, legitimizing ‘new’ economic actors may be the most stabilizing solution on a community level.  For example, in Case Study 2 detailing internet service provision in Eastern Ghouta, the transition from pre-conflict to post-conflict has involved the formalization of service providers whose business models arose from filling conflict-specific gaps and whose services were, on the whole, quite effective.  Interventions that reinforced and supported these sorts of economic actors, despite their relationship to the ‘war economy’ would be positive. Additionally, certain ‘war’ economies, such as the hawala offices in Al-Hasakeh, are difficult to alter or indeed transform, for the benefits are as much political as economic and the current response – especially humanitarian – relies heavily on the continued their functionality.


7: Sanctions or restrictive measures that target individuals will continue to increase the reliance of the Syrian regime on the unsanctioned business community; similarly, sanctions or restrictive measures which target sectors of the economy will likely create gaps which can be exploited by war economy actors.  Indeed, a major component of the Syrian business community’s current prominence within the Syrian regime and local governance structures is due to the fact that they are capable of circumventing sanctions. This does not mean that sanctions or restrictive measures should be withdrawn; continuing to target individuals is indeed an important point of political leverage, so long as the purpose of the sanctions is clearly defined.  However, sanctions that target entire sectors of the economy may needlessly create economic gaps and blockages, which will only punish Syrian civilians and strengthen those Syrian business community actors that have most profited from the conflict.

Media Anthology: March 05 – March 11, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

March 05 to 11, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
The National Front: Turkey did not ask us to respond to the regime's violationsArabicEnab BaladiMarch 5, 2019Conflict and Military
As the ‘caliphate crumbles’, the Islamic State is seeding a new insurgencyEnglishThe Washington PostMarch 7, 2019Conflict and Military
Russia curbs Maher al-Assad’s influenceEnglishThe Syrian ObserverMarch 8, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey deployed its first military patrol to the disarmament area in IdlebArabicEnab BaladiMarch 8, 2019Conflict and Military
ISIL fighters 'surrender in large numbers' in final Syria enclaveEnglishAl JazeeraMarch 5, 2019Conflict and Military
A new agreement to import Turkish electricity to the northArabicEnab BaladiMarch 3, 2019Economic
Jordan to allow its airlines to utilize Syrian airspace, with conditionsArabicEnab BaladiMarch 5, 2019Economic
Russia and Iran: Economic influence in SyriaEnglishChatham HouseMarch 8, 2019Economic
Syria: Difficulties facing people in proving property ownership in Eastern GhoutaArabicSyrians for Truth & JusticeMarch 7, 2019Governance and Service Management
British citizens are being deprived of their nationality because of racism, not terrorismEnglishMiddle East EyeMarch 8, 2019Social Dynamics
The Syrian regime besieges Eastern Ghouta againArabicNedaa SyriaMarch 9, 2019Social Dynamics
Dar'a is returning to its beginnings; hundreds of protesters demanding the toppling of the regimeArabicBaladi NewsMarch 10, 2019Social Dynamics
Al-Jarba and the impossible princedom dreamArabicAl modonMarch 10, 2019Social Dynamics
The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisisEnglishIntegrated Regional Information Networks NewsMarch 6, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivers humanitarian assistance to 50,000 people in Menbij, Aleppo governorateEnglishUN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsMarch 7, 2019Humanitarian & Development
High Commissioner for Refugees visits Syria, assesses humanitarian needsEnglishUN High Commissioner for RefugeesMarch 7, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Trump: 'I agree 100 percent' with keeping some US troops in SyriaEnglishAl JazeeraMarch 6, 2019International Intervention
Turkish military bases in SyriaArabicHarmoon Centre For Contemporary StudiesMarch 6, 2019International Intervention
Support for Germany's request for Lebanon to extradite Syrian general Jamil HassanEnglishU.S. Department of StateMarch 5, 2019Other
Iraqi Al-Nujaba Militia on the American terrorism listArabicSyria TVMarch 6, 2019Other
Where we stand on the Syria sanctionsEnglishThe Syria ReportMarch 6, 2019Other
The U.S. threatens Jordanian traders and industrialists through the Caesar Act to not deal with Al-Assad regimeArabicHalab Today TVMarch 7, 2019Other
By names, the distribution of Iran and Hezbollah bases in South of SyriaArabicI am Human StoryMarch 9, 2019Other
Syria: 75 Private security companies, with multiple loyaltiesArabicAl modonMarch 11, 2019Other

Syria Update: March 07 – March 13, 2019

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Syria Update

07 March to 13 March, 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:

The Governments of Turkey and Russia continue to both militarily coordinate and politically negotiate in northern and northwestern Syria.  Turkish and Russian military units are conducting patrols along front lines in northwestern Syria, and Turkish and Russian representatives are currently negotiating the opening of the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway for commercial trade. The northwestern Syria military patrols have not yet led to a decrease in Government of Syria shelling, and the highway negotiations have been complicated by the involvement of both Iran and the YPG.  However, both developments are major indications of the priorities of both Russia and Turkey: securing, and then utilizing Syria’s major highways and road networks and restoring Syrian internal and external trade routes. The fact that these road networks have assumed a newfound prominence in the political landscape of northern and northwestern Syria may fundamentally reshape northern Syria’s local economic structures; it may also at least partially legitimize the armed actors in control of these routes and formalize the current zones of control. Considering that the next round of the Astana talks will take place in early April 2019, it is thus increasingly likely that a more permanent and comprehensive agreement on the status of northern Syria’s major highways will be forthcoming in the coming weeks.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Numerous large scale protests and several asymmetric attacks took place throughout Dar’a governorate, indicating widespread discontent and drastically deteriorating security situation in southern Syria.
  • A cross-line UN convoy reached Menbij, in northern Aleppo; the convoy was likely approved at least partially as a result of the ongoing negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self-Administration, though the actual status of the Menbij negotiations remains in flux.  
  • The administration of aspects of the Lattakia port will be handed over to the Iranian Ministry of Transportation in the near term; Iranian management of the port has multiple implications for Syria’s reconstruction, its oil exports, and the ongoing sanctions targeting both Syria and Iran.
  • A group of Jordanian MPs condemn U.S. requests that Jordan refuse to make economic agreements with Syria; citing that sanctions targeting Syria will not only impact Syria, but will also impact the inextricably interlinked  economies of neighboring states.
  • The Government of Turkey announces a new border crossing directly linking Turkey to Afrin, signalling that Turkey intends to both profit off of Afrin’s relatively strong economy and also securitize the increasingly unstable region.
  • A checkpoint attack took place in reconciled northern rural Homs. As with the case of  Dar’a, the attack is likely signifies increasing dissatisfaction with the Government of Syria’s post-reconciliation policies.
  • A prominent SDF commander was assassinated in Ar-Raqqa, the second in two weeks, further evidence of a growing Arab anti-SDF insurgency in Ar-Raqqa city.
  • A Russian Military Police patrol was targeted by unknown armed groups in Aleppo city; the targeting of Russian military personnel in Syria is extremely unusual, and is indicative of the deteriorating security situation in Aleppo city.

Russian-Turkish Negotiations in Northern Syria

In Depth Analysis

Throughout the reporting period, two developments took place indicating that the Governments of Turkey and Russia are increasingly close to reaching a larger agreement in both northern and northwestern Syria. First, Turkey and Russia are conducting military patrols along front lines in northwestern Syria; and second, Turkish and Russian representatives are currently negotiating the opening of the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway to commercial trade. Despite the fact that the military patrols have not yet led to a decrease in shelling, and that the highway negotiations have yet to produce concrete results, both developments are likely to shape the ultimate trajectory of the northern Syria political and economic landscape.

First and foremost, as of March 8, the Government of Turkey has begun to conduct military patrols along front lines in northwestern Syria. Turkish observation planes have also reportedly begun to patrol airspace over northwestern Syria, after being granted airspace by the Government of Russia. This marks the first time that the Government of Turkey has conducted military patrols in northwestern Syria, since the start of the November 2018 demilitarization zone agreement. For their part, the Government of Russia have also begun to conduct military patrols along front lines in northwestern Syria. Ostensibly, the Russian-Turkish military patrols are taking place in order to put a stop to the ongoing heavy shelling and airstrikes being conducted by the Government of Syria throughout northwestern Syria. To that end, Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and his Russian Counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, intend to meet in Turkey on March 18, where they will specifically discuss the situation in northwestern Syria; for their part, the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to deny that any Russian airstrikes have taken place in northwestern Syria.

Concurrent with the joint Russian-Turkish military patrols, Russian and Turkish representatives held a meeting in Marnaz, in opposition-held northern Aleppo. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the eventual opening of the Gaziantep-Aleppo highway to commercial trade. Reportedly, the outcome of the meeting was inconclusive; thus far the discussions remained limited to exploring the potential for Turkish-Russian joint patrols of the highway ahead of a final agreement.  Local sources indicate that the negotiations are complicated by the fact that to open the highway, both Iran and the YPG must be involved in the negotiations in some capacity. This is due to the fact that the YPG remains in control of Tel Rifaat, northwest of Aleppo city, and Iranian-backed groups are in control of Nubul and Zahraa, immediately south of Tel Rifaat.   Tel Rifaat, Nubul, and Zahraa will need to be fully secured and patrolled, in order to secure the Gaziantep-Aleppo highway.  Naturally, compelling the Turkish-backed National Army to locally coordinate with the YPG or Iranian-backed groups will be extremely difficult.

As noted, neither the Turkish-Russian military patrols in northwestern Syria, nor the negotiations over the status of the Gaziantep-Aleppo highway, have yet achieved their desired aims. Heavy shelling continues in northwestern Syria, and the Gaziantep-Aleppo highway is not expected to open to commercial trade in the near term. However, these two developments, taken in tandem, are further indications that the political and economic landscape of northern and northwestern Syria will continue to be primarily shaped by the Governments of Turkey and Russia, and will continue to hinge on the status of northern Syria’s major road networks. As noted in last week’s COAR Syria Update, the continued Government of Syria shelling in northwestern Syria appears to be designed to cause mass displacement along the M5 highway, thus setting the stage for a larger agreement which opens the M5 highway to commercial trade. Similarly, the negotiations over the Gaziantep-Aleppo highway, while in their early stages, are a major step towards the re-opening of northern Syria’s critical commercial corridors.

Indeed, should both the M5 and the Aleppo-Gaziantep highways re-open to commercial trade, with the current controlling actors remaining in place, it could have a major impact on the Syrian economy as a whole. There are already large-scale, complex trade networks in northern Syria which link Turkish importers and exporters to Government of Syria-held areas; reopening northern Syria’s highways will greatly improve and facilitate the ease of trade between Government of Syria-held areas and Turkey. Additionally, if an agreement can be negotiated that re-opens both highways, it would be a major step toward formalizing the existing governance structures in place.  Effectively, the Government of Syria would lose much of its justification for launching an offensive in either area, and it would re-emphasize the primacy of Turkish influence in both northern and northwestern Syria. Furthermore, an agreement would economically bind Turkish markets to opposition controlled northern and northwestern Syria, to include the local economy of Aleppo city, and markets in Damascus, southern Syria and Jordan.  In certain respects, this development would reflect a return to the pre-war status quo. The next round of the Astana talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran are expected to take place in early April 2019. It is increasingly likely that a more permanent and comprehensive agreement on the status of northern Syria’s road networks will be forthcoming following the talks.

Whole of Syria Review

2019MAR13 COAR Syria Update Map

1. Dar’a Protests

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: Throughout the reporting period, local and media sources have reported on several large-scale civilian protests and general unrest throughout Dar’a governorate. On March 10, two demonstrations took place in the formerly opposition-controlled neighborhoods of Dar’a city and Dar’a Al-Balad; the protests were sparked by the Government of Syria’s reinstatement of a statue of Hafez Al-Assad in the city. Civilians from the city organized a march, locally referred to as the “March of Loyalty”, which was disrupted by gunfire from unknown sources shortly after beginning. The march was subsequently followed by another protest against the Government of Syria. Local sources indicated that Government of Syria military forces surrounded civilians, but refrained from using force to end the protests. Concurrently, on March 10, local sources indicated that civilian protests took place in Tafas; these protests also called for the release of detainees held by the Government of Syria. The next day, on March 11, local sources reported that an IED attack in Dar’a city targeted a Hezbollah patrol, which resulted in the death of four Hezbollah combatants. A second IED attack took place in Tafas on the same day; the IED reportedly targeted and killed Maher Metwali, a prominent local figure who was locally believed to be attempting to convert individuals in Tafas to Shiite Islam.

Analysis:  General discontent with the Government of Syria, and its perceived allies, has been a major facet of the social and political landscape of southern Syria since the southern Syria reconciliation agreement in June 2018.  This discontent has generally manifested itself in increased protests and peaceful demonstrations; however, over the past several months there has been a gradual increase in asymmetric violence, checkpoint attacks, and targeted assassinations.  Much of this asymmetric conflict has been attributed to different Government of Syria military and security branches, which have engaged in a significant degree of local competition. However, the intensity of the recent protests is notable – anti-Al-Assad rhetoric is common.  Especially considering the fact that negotiations between local tribal and community notables and Government of Syria representatives have reportedly reached an impasse, it is increasingly likely that Dar’a may indeed host a growing local insurgency movement. In general, and despite this growing instability, the Government of Syria remains firmly in control of southern Syria.  However, if primary community demands (generally concerning the release of detainees, and the restoration of public services) are not met, the security situation in southern Syria will likely continue to deteriorate.

2. Menbij UN convoy

Menbij, Northern Aleppo, Syria: On March 7, the first UN and SARC inter-agency humanitarian convoy entered Menbij, northern Aleppo governorate, through Government of Syria-controlled Aleppo city. The convoy was comprised of 37 trucks, carrying 862 metric tons of food, NFIs, educational materials and medical supplies. Reportedly, the contents of the convoy were provided by WFP, UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO and UNHCR. Fran Equiza, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, stated that: “This is the first time we managed to deliver assistance to Menbij through Aleppo, and one of the factors that made it possible was the collaboration and support by all the parties in the area”. The food supplies in the convoy will reportedly cover the needs of 50,000 people for approximately 30 days.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s approval of the delivery of humanitarian aid to SDF-controlled areas is likely part of the ongoing negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Kurdish Self-Administration, and a product of local-level negotiations between the Government of Syria and local Arab leadership in Menbij.  However, the approval of a convoy in itself is not sufficient to determine the prospects of these negotiations pertaining to the future control of Menbij. Any agreement regarding the future control of Menbij largely hinges upon the outcome of Turkish-U.S. negotiations on the one hand, as well as Turkish-Russian agreements on the future status of northeastern Syria as a whole, on the other. Turkish-U.S. negotiations on the status of Menbij have been stalled since U.S. announced its decision to withdraw its forces from Syria in December, 2018; the Turkish official stance indicated that the implementation of an agreement in Menbij would be completed upon the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. However, given the recent U.S. decision to retain 400 troops in Syria, 200 of whom will be deployed in northeastern Syria, the future status of Menbij, and cross-line humanitarian access to Menbij, still remains unclear.

3. Lattakia Port Administration

Lattakia city, Lattakia Governorate, Syria: On March 7, local sources indicated that the Government of Syria issued an administrative decision concerning the General Directorate of Lattakia Port, dated February 27, 2019.  The decisions stipulate that administrative functions at the port, specifically the management of the Port Authority, will be handed over to the Iranian Transportation Ministry. The decision is reportedly part of a broader economic memorandum of understanding between both governments.  Reportedly, the Iranian Transportation Ministry has not yet assumed administrative control over the port; this is largely due to the fact that the specific terms of the memorandum of understanding have not yet been finalized.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s decision to hand over the administration of the Lattakia port to the Government of Iran is further evidence of both countries’ economic coordination, specifically in transportation and shipping.  Indeed, this collaboration is part of a series of wide- ranging economic memorandums of understandings between the Governments of Syria and Iran. However, the fact that the Lattakia port specifically will be handed over is highly noteworthy; many Syria’s critical oil pipelines lead directly to Banyas, which is south of Lattakia city; therefore, increased Iranian influence at Lattakia port certainly coincides with Iran’s critical interest in Syria’s oil industry.  Of note, the role of Lattakia port is also likely to dramatically increase in importance due to the fact that it will be the most logical point of entry for reconstruction materials brought into Syria. However, the Government of Iran’s increased role in the administration of the port will likely create severe challenges to international shipping via Lattakia port, as it will thus become subject to an even higher degree of scrutiny in terms of U.S. and EU sanctions and restrictive measures targeting both Iran and Syria.

4. Jordanian MP Condemnation of Sanctions

Amman, Jordan: On March 11, twenty members of the Jordanian parliament issued a statement to the head office of Parliament, in which they condemned the warnings of a U.S. commercial attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan regarding joint Syrian-Jordanian economic collaboration. According to both the statement and a Jordanian MP’s statement to Jordanian media outlets, the U.S. commercial attaché warned Jordan against any economic activity with Syria, to include commercial trade, potential reconstruction, and the sale of medication. Instead, the official allegedly urged Jordanian officials to directs future economic collaboration to Iraq instead of Syria. According to Wafaa Beni Mustafa, a Jordanian MP, warnings from the U.S. embassy regarding trade with Syria should be viewed as an “infringement on Jordanian sovereignty.”

Analysis: The Government of Jordan, alongside numerous other countries in the region that are both U.S.-aligned and formerly hostile to Syria, are currently embarking on a policy of rapprochement with the Government of Syria.  One of the primary reasons for this policy of rapprochement is the fact that neighboring states (many of which, like Jordan, have struggling economies) seek to capitalize on the prospect of revived trade with Syria, and the economic incentives of participating in Syria’s reconstruction.  Trade and economic collaboration with Syria in various sectors has always been a major asset to the economies of Jordan, Lebanon and other nearby countries. However, these countries will likely face multiple challenges in economically engaging with Syria in light of the U.S. ‘Caesar’ sanctions (covered in detail in a recent COAR Syria Update), as well as other sanctions and restrictive measures, imposed on Syria and companies and individuals that trade with Syria.  Restoring badly needed economic relations with Syria thus presents a major dilemma, as it may impact Jordan’s relationship with the U.S., which is Jordan’s primary ally in the region.  That said, the impact of the Caesar sanctions largely hinges on the degree to which it is actually applied; if sanctions are applied to every small- and medium-sized business engaging in Syria, they could have a devastating impact on Jordan’s economy.

5. Afrin Border Crossing

Afrin, Northern Aleppo Governorate Syria: On March 6, Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan, stated that the ‘Olive Branch’ border crossing linking southern Hatay, Turkey, with Turkish-backed armed opposition-held Afrin in northwestern Syria, will be operational as of next week. Government of Turkey officials have repeatedly emphasized Turkey’s intention to open a crossing with Afrin since the end of Operation Olive Branch in 2017; thus far, Turkey has utilized several informal border crossings into Afrin, or has used the Bab Elsalameh border crossing in Azaz city, in northern Aleppo.

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. Northern Rural Homs Instability

Northern Rural Homs, Homs Governorate, Syria: On March 8 and 9, media sources indicated that Government of Syria Air Force Intelligence and Military Security forces were targeted at a checkpoint by small arms fire from unknown assailants in northern rural Homs. As per the same source, this was the first such attack on a checkpoint in northern rural Homs since the start of the northern rural Homs reconciliation agreement in May 2018. In response to the attack, Government of Syria forces reportedly detained at least 18 individuals, but later released them on March 10. In the meantime, Government of Syria forces are reportedly on high alert in various communities of northern rural Homs, and are conducting numerous patrols.

Analysis: The systematic targeting of Government of Syria forces in northern rural Homs will likely increase in the foreseeable future, and may follow similar trends to the current tensions and confrontations with respect to Dar’a governorate. Tensions between communities in northern rural Homs and Government of Syria forces have gradually intensified after the reconciliation agreements. These tensions actually have their roots in the fact that many armed opposition combatants joined Government of Syria military units and remain deployed in the area. Many individuals in northern rural Homs had considerable grievances against armed opposition combatants during the time when the armed opposition was in control of northern rural Homs. These same individuals often remain in place, albeit under the nominal command of the Government of Syria. Thus, incidents of guerilla-style violence such as IEDs, assassinations, and political demonstrations are more likely to continue to take place so long as these underlying tensions remain unresolved.

7. Assassination in Ar-Raqqa

Ar-Raqqa city, Ar-Raqqa Governorate, Syria: On March 8, media sources reported that SDF Head of General Intelligence, Fawaz Al-Thahir, was assassinated in southwestern Raqqa city. Al-Thahir was one of the most important military figures in the SDF, and according to local sources was locally perceived to conduct arbitrary imprisonment of local tribal figures in Ar-Raqqa governorate. Reportedly, Al-Thahir was also believed to have close ties with both the U.S. and French military. The assassination of Al-Thahir comes shortly after the assassination of another SDF Intelligence Commander, Haval Shiro, on February 28 in Ar-Raqqa city, concurrent with civilian demonstrations against the SDF in Ar-Raqqa.

Analysis: Systematic targeting of SDF commanders and affiliates has increased throughout the past several months, especially in Ar-Raqqa governorate, reflecting the growing grievances between the local population and SDF concerning control over the area and perceived arbitrary detentions and security practices. Indeed, although similar attacks throughout SDF-controlled areas have occurred for several months, assassinations of SDF commanders, communal mobilizations, and strikes have always been more common in Ar-Raqqa than Al-Hasakeh. Partially, this is due to the fact that Ar-Raqqa is almost entirely Arab, and Arab-Kurdish communal tensions are at an all-time high.  The public discontent is also likely fueled by the fact that the SDF and the Kurdish Self-Administration has not fully entrenched local military and political structures in Ar-Raqqa, and thus both the SDF and the Kurdish Self Administration are often locally viewed as foreign occupying forces. In light of the growing uncertainties regarding the future of the Kurdish Self-Administration, similar security incidents are likely to increase.

8. Russian MP Targeting in Aleppo

Sheikh Najjar, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On March 4, media sources indicated that a joint patrol of Russian Military Police and Government of Syria Intelligence forces was targeted by unknown assailants with small arms fire in Sheikh Najjar, located on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo city. The attack reportedly resulted in the death of four Government of Syria combatants, and several Russian Military Police casualties. It is important to note that this was the first time that Russian Military police were targeted in Aleppo. Targeting of Russian forces is extremely rare throughout Syria as a whole.

Analysis: While the group responsible for the attacks remains unknown, this incident is highly noteworthy as it is indicative of the deteriorating security situation in Aleppo city, which is creating conditions for local warlordism.  Since the Government of Syria established control over Aleppo city in December 2016, the security situation in the city has been turbulent due to the presence of numerous of militias and Government of Syria military divisions with no clear command and control structure. Indeed, within Aleppo city itself there are numerous local militias, several militias originally from eastern Syria and rural Aleppo governorate, several militias directly supported by the Governments of Iran and Russia (some of which are not even from Syria), as well as numerous Government of Syria military and security divisions. Indeed, clashes between these different armed groups are a regular occurance in Aleppo city; for example, the Government of Syria 5th Corps, a military unit closely linked to the Government of Russia recently forcibly detained numerous members of the Al-Baqir militia, from northeastern Syria, in Aleppo city under the pretext of its members’ misconduct, looting, harassment of civilians, and refusal to conscript into formal military units. Russian Military Police attempts to bring these militias under a clear organizational structure will thus likely remain a priority 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 26 – March 04, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

February 26 to March 04, 2019

TitleLanguageSourceDateCategory
Security states: the ISIS's new strategy ArabicAl modonFebruary 27, 2019Conflict and Military
Zuhair Al-Assad imposed new settlement on Zakyeh residents with new conditionsArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 28, 2019Conflict and Military
Mysterious assassinations, bombings as ‘security breakdown’ mires Daraa’s fragile peaceُEnglishSyria DirectFebruary 28, 2019Conflict and Military
Wrath of the Olives: Tracking the Afrin insurgency through social mediaEnglishBellingcatMarch 1, 2019Conflict and Military
Ankara threatens to withdraw from Astana talks, and asked the factions to respond to regime shellingArabicAl Quds Al ArabiMarch 2, 2019Conflict and Military
The regime's government finished studying three industrial zones in Rural DamascusArabicEnab BaladiFebruary 27, 2019Economic
All about Abdullah al-Dardari, the engineer of the Syrian economy, on the size of Rami MakhloufArabicEqtsadMarch 3, 2019Economic
At Tall: The "sixth battalion" with civilian responsibilities? ArabicAl modonFebruary 26, 2019Governance and Service Management
Resignation of Jawad Abu Hatab the head of the Interim GovernmentArabicEnab BaladiMarch 1, 2019Governance and Service Management
Syrian regime arrested 60 children in Ar-Rastan in HomsArabicBaladi NewsFebruary 28, 2019Social Dynamics
Turkish authorities impose a ban on travelling for these states for SyriansArabicNedaa SyriaMarch 2, 2019Social Dynamics
Flash update 3: Syria: Al-Hole camp and Suar transit-centre, Deir Ez-Zor, 25 February, 2019 [EN/AR]EnglishUN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsFebruary 25, 2019Humanitarian & Development
slamic State supporters and victims flee the ruins of its 'caliphate'EnglishReutersFebruary 27, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Syria daily: Rukban camp — Russia and Assad regime threaten forced removal of displacedEnglishEA World ViewFebruary 28, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Between Sochi and WarsawArabicOrient Research CentreFebruary 26, 2019International Intervention
New Danish assessment makes future uncertain for Syrian asylum seekersEnglishThe LocalFebruary 28, 2019International Intervention
UN envoy wants action on Syria’s missing, new constitutionEnglishThe Washington PostFebruary 28, 2019International Intervention
A Turkish ‘safe zone’ in Syria: Prospects and policy implicationsEnglishThe Washington InstituteMarch 1, 2019International Intervention
Syria: Intercepting the holders of this card is forbidden ArabicAl modonFebruary 27, 2019Other
Russia threatens to starve Syrian refugee camp and force men into armyEnglishAl ArabyFebruary 27, 2019Other
Hezbollah, ISIS and Iranian militia...encircling As-Sweida cityArabicI am a HumanMarch 2, 2019Other
UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria: Continued hostilities and lawlessness countrywide render safe and sustainable returns impossibleEnglishUnited Nations Human Rights CouncilFebruary 28, 2019Other
OPCW issues fact-finding mission report on chemical weapons use allegation in Douma, Syria, in 2018EnglishOrganisation for the Prohibition of Chemical WeaponsMarch 1, 2019Other
Orient unfolds Al-Qusayr issue and reveals Hezbollah and Iran's actions in the areaArabicOrient NewsFebruary 28, 2019Other

Syria Update: February 28 – March 06, 2019

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Syria Update

28 February to 06 March, 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:

Heavy Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes continue to target nearly every community in southern Idleb and northern Hama; armed opposition groups, to include the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front, have now begun retaliatory shelling.  However, despite the extreme escalation in shelling, a Government of Syria ground offensive is not likely to be forthcoming in the near-term, as Russia has yet to indicate its approval. There are thus two possible explanations why the shelling and airstrikes targeting northwestern Syria have been so intense, and for so long.  The first is that the Government of Syria has been attempting to provoke the armed opposition into retaliating, and thus justify a ground offensive. The second, and more likely, is that the Governments of Syria and Russia are attempting to set the groundwork for the implementation of some of the terms of the initial 2018 northwestern Syria demilitarization agreement; this would be accomplished by severely depopulating areas within the demilitarized zone and along the M5 highway.  Indeed, almost 70,000 individuals have already been displaced due to the continuous shelling and airstrikes; thus, the shelling has already compelled many civilians and armed opposition groups to abandon the demilitarized zone.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • U.S. State Department representatives stated that it will only support a resolution to the the status of the Rukban camp that is “coordinated with all parties,” and added that “unilateral Russian initiatives…do not meet these standards.”  Considering the continued presence of the U.S. in Syria, the status of the Rukban camp will be extremely difficult to resolve.
  • Unconfirmed media reports indicate that ISIS combatants in northeastern Syria are paying to be smuggled into, and out of, the Hole camp in Al-Hasakeh governorate; while these reports are impossible to confirm, they do highlight the international importance, and the uncertainty, surrounding the status of the Hole camp.
  • Syrian Interim Government Prime Minister Jawad Abu Hatab announced his resignation; reportedly, Abu Hatab resigned due to pressure from different factions within the National Army.
  • President Bashar Al-Assad visited Iran, his first trip to Iran since the start of the conflict, and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif attempts to resign as a consequence; his surprise trip is an indication of the increasingly strong position of President Assad, as well as the internal political divisions in Iran.
  • Prime Minister Imad Khamis issued a decision allowing the Chambers of Commerce and Industry to import fuel and gasoline for three three months; while the decision may temporarily alleviate Syria’s critical fuel and gas shortage, it will likely have little effect long term due to continued U.S. and EU sanctions.
  • A new large scale Iranian real estate and construction project entitled ‘Damascus Belt’ was announced; Iran continues to develop numerous economic memorandums of understanding with the Government of Syria, and real estate remains a critical component of Iranian economic interests in Syria.
  • Two individuals returning to Syria from Turkey were detained, despite reportedly following the proper returns procedures;the continued uncertainty regarding the protection of returnees will likely continue to impact the degree to which Syrian refugees are willing to attempt to return.

Northwestern Syria Shelling and Airstrikes Continue

In Depth Analysis

A sign “Welcome to New Kernaz”, a sign installed by IDPs from Kernaz in Rural Hama who built a new village in Rural Idleb in their location of displacement. December 2018. Image courtacy of Enab Baladi.

Throughout the reporting period, heavy Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes continue throughout northwestern Syria, targeting nearly every community in southern Idleb and northern Hama.  Notably, the shelling and airstrikes are especially focused on nearly every major community on the M5 highway to include Murak, Saraqab, Khan Shaykun, and Maaret An-Numan.  Due to the extreme escalation of shelling and aerial attacks, both Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the National Liberation Front have shelled Government of Syria-held Muharda, Suqaylabieh, Salhab, and Abul Thohur in response.  Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Government of Turkey had directed the National Liberation Front to respond to shelling in northwestern Syria; however, the National Liberation Front has denied this, stating that Turkey did not ask them to respond, and that their “bombing of the positions of Assad forces is a legitimate right… to respond to any breach of the Sochi agreement.”

Despite the escalation of shelling and airstrikes, a major ground offensive into northwestern Syria is not likely to be forthcoming in the near-term; this is largely due to the fact that the Government of Russia has yet to take a definitive stance on the ultimate trajectory of northwestern Syria.  According to local sources, the Government of Russia has refrained from launching airstrikes in northwestern Syria, and all of the shelling and airstrikes targeting northwestern Syria within the past month have reportedly been attributed to the Government of Syria. Without decisive Russian support, the Government of Syria is unlikely to launch a major offensive into northwestern Syria.  Additionally, Turkish representatives reportedly reassured National Liberation Front leaders that a major ground offensive would not be forthcoming so long as the 12 Turkish monitoring points in northwestern Syria remain in place. Indeed, several media reports have also indicated that Turkey intends to establish up to six more monitoring points in northwestern Syria, and Turkey has recently deployed more Turkish troops to the existing monitoring points in northwestern Syria.  At the same time, the Government of Turkey has also reportedly informed the National Liberation Front to prepare for more intense bombardments in the near future. Additionally, due to the escalation of conflict, sources also indicated that the Government of Turkey has issued a warning to both the Government of Russia and Iran, in which it threatened to withdraw from the Astana agreement if the Idleb demilitarization agreement were not to be upheld.   For his part, in an interview on March 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the terms of the original September 2018 northwestern Syria demilitarization agreement between Turkey and Russia have still not yet been met, stating that “we encourage our Turkish partners to meet their commitments;” however, Lavrov added that continued dialogue with Turkey is ongoing.

If there is no major offensive forthcoming, then why is northwestern Syria being bombarded with such regularity and intensity?  There are two possibilities. The first is that the Government of Syria seeks to provoke the armed opposition into launching its own offensive, and thus justifying the breakdown of the northwestern Syria demilitarization agreement.  The second, and perhaps more likely possibility is that the shelling and airstrikes are an attempt to ‘force’ certain terms of the initial September 2018 memorandum, especially as they relate to the status of the M5 highway.

It is certainly possible that the Government of Syria shelling is an attempt to force the armed opposition to respond.  If this is, in fact, the Government of Syria’s strategy, it has already been successful to some degree. On March 4, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a series of raids into Jabal Turkman, in northeastern Lattakia, as well as against Government of Syria military positions in northern Hama; reportedly, the raids killed numerous Government of Syria combatants and one Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer, and were done in order to “calm [Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham] supporters that were angry at the absence of an appropriate response” to the shelling and airstrikes in northwestern Syria.  However, small scale raids against Government of Syria military positions are unlikely to provoke a larger-scale ground offensive. Ultimately, short of a major armed opposition offensive on northern Hama or western Aleppo city (which Turkey is unlikely to permit), the Government of Russia is unlikely to countenance a Government of Syria ground offensive.

Rather, what is more likely is that the Government of Syria, with tacit Russian support, is attempting to set the groundwork for the implementation of some of the terms of the initial 2018 northwestern Syria demilitarization agreement.  In the initial agreement, the Governments of Turkey and Russia agreed to create a 15-20km demilitarization zone within which armed opposition groups would either leave or disarm, and to open the M4 and M5 highways by the end of 2018. Of course, this has not happened; Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham remains within the demilitarization zone in northwestern Syria, and the M4 and M5 highways remain solidly under the control of the armed opposition (although cross-line commercial trade into northwestern Syria  continues to thrive).  Therefore, the shelling and airstrikes, which are largely targeting communities along and east of the M5 highway, should be viewed as a means of displacing both the civilian population and armed actors from the demilitarization zone as a prelude to negotiations over the M5 highway.  Indeed, the extreme shelling has already caused significant displacement; as of March 2 nearly 65,412 individuals have already been displaced from communities in northwestern Syria due to shelling, according to the Response Coordination Group.  If the shelling and airstrikes continue to take place at the same degree of intensity, it is foreseeable that the demilitarization zone and the M5 corridor will be nearly entirely depopulated; in a perverse sense, the shelling seeks to accomplish that which the guarantors of the demilitarization agreement failed to achieve.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Rukban Camp Status

Rukban Camp, Eastern Homs Governorate, Syria: On March 1, U.S. State Department spokesperson, Robert Palladino released a statement noting that the U.S. will only support a durable solution for Rukban camp that is “coordinated with all parties,” and that “unilateral Russian initiatives, not coordinated with the UN and regional parties, do not meet these standards.” Subsequently, on March 2, the Russian Reconciliation Center in Hmeimim accused the U.S. of refusing a joint request by the Russian-Syrian operation room responsible for the return of Syrian refugees to allow transport busses to enter the Al-Tanf de-escalation area. On the same date, the local administration of the Rukban camp released a statement, directed to the UN and Human Rights Watch, stating that the Government of Russia is prohibiting the entry of food and fuel to the Rukban camp, in an attempt to pressure the residents to return to Government of Syria-held areas. Additionally, local sources noted that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Government of Syria are currently preparing spaces for potential Rukban camp evacuees at Masaken Al Dweir, an IDP camp in the vicinity of Adra, in Rural Damascus.

Analysis: Given the recent U.S. decision to keep 200 U.S. soldiers at the Al-Tanf military base, it is unlikely that the status of Rukban camp will be resolved in the near-term, particularly due to the fact that Rukban exists within the 55km U.S. deconfliction zone at Al-Tanf. Indeed, it is unlikely that the U.S. will allow the entry of transport busses to Rukban camp unless the joint Russian-Syrian initiative is coordinated with them, as evident by the U.S. State Department statement. Additionally, given the fact that the Governments of Russia and Syria have established ‘humanitarian corridors’ to Rukban camp without coordinating with the U.S., it seems that both intend to continue to attempt to resolve the issue of Rukban without linking it to broader developments related to the presence of the U.S. base in Al-Tanf. It is thus likely that the Government of Syria will continue to negotiate with locals in Rukban in the foreseeable future, and indeed, some of the IDPs in the Rukban camp may ultimately use the ‘humanitarian corridors’ established by Russia due to deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the camp itself.

2. ISIS in Hole Camp

Hole Camp, Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Eastern Syria: On February 28, according to unconfirmed media reports, Syrian Democratic Forces combatants have reportedly facilitated the evacuation of ISIS combatants and commanders from Baghuz to Hole Camp, in Al-Hasakeh governorate (as opposed to detention facilities), in exchange for money. Reportedly, the primary means for an ISIS combatant to escape from Syria is to be transported to Hole camp, at which point they contact smugglers to facilitate travel over the Syrian-Turkish border; according to these same unconfirmed reports, several foreign ISIS combatants have escaped using this route. Relatedly, on March 2, the Kurdish Self Administration released 283 individuals previously suspected of being affiliated with ISIS from SDF prisons. Subsequently, the Kurdish Self Administration released a statement indicating that these individuals had been released following pressure from tribal leaders and notables, adding that those released “have not stained their hands with the blood of Syrians” and that the release came from “a policy of forgiveness and pardon.”

Analysis: It should first be noted that reports concerning international ISIS fighters escaping from Hole camp are unconfirmed.  That said, these reports are concerning, and when taken in tandem with the recent SDF release of suspected ISIS combatants, highlight the extreme security concerns associated with Hole camp as well as the fate of remaining ISIS combatants in Baghuz and in SDF detention. Holding ISIS combatants and their families in Hole camp reflected the temporary necessity based on ongoing military operations in Baghuz.  However, in order to resolve the status of the Hole camp, former local and international ISIS combatants and their families must be released or repatriated; repatriation has already been rejected by several European countries, and the release of Syrian combatants risks empowering a longer-term ISIS insurgency. That said, the status of ISIS combatants, and the status of Hole camp, must be resolved in the medium-term; should the Kurdish Self Administration reach a broader agreement with the Government of Syria, ISIS combatants in Hole camp and in Kurdish Self Administration prisons would likely be transferred to Government of Syria prisons. The question of the status of foreign ISIS combatants and their families remains unresolved and will likely remain an inconvenient matter of international concern.

3. SIG Prime Minister Resignation

Northwestern Syria, Syria: On March 1, Syrian Interim Government Prime Minister Jawad Abu Hatab announced his resignation. Media sources reported that Hatab tendered his resignation several weeks ago, but that it was only officially accepted on March 1. On March 3, the names of two potential replacements for Abu Hatab began to circulate; the former president and spokesperson of the Syrian Coalition, Anas al-Abdah, and the former President of the Interim Government and the Chairman of the Delegation to Astana, Ahmad Tu’mah.  It is important to note that in addition to his position as the Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government, Abu Hatab was also the Minister of Defence for the Syrian Interim Government National Army, which includes nearly every armed group in Turkish-held northern Syria.

Analysis: According to local analysts, it is highly likely that the resignation of Abu Hatab is due to significant pressure from leaders of different National Army armed groups.  Reportedly, the leaders of several National Army groups intended to appoint an individual with more linkages to these armed groups as the Minister of Defence. Abu Hatab, a former surgeon, has no military background, and no major ties to armed actors; thus, reportedly he was viewed as a poor choice for the Minister of Defense.  It is also worth noting that the Syrian Interim Government National Army is notoriously fragmented; thus a unifying figure capable of enforcing command and control, and mediating local disputes in northern Syria would indeed be important for any potential new candidate. The new Prime Minister and Defense Minister will thus likely hold greater influence over military factions in the National Army, and greater power within the Syrian Interim Government.

4. President Al-Assad in Iran

Tehran, Iran: On February 26, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made an unannounced trip to Iran, his first trip to Iran since the start of the Syrian conflict.  While there, he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the head of Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Souleimani. On the same day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif suddenly announced his resignation from his position via Instagram; however, Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, subsequently rejected Zarif’s resignation. Local and international media has attributed Zarif’s resignation to the Syrian President’s surprise visit and uncoordinated visit to Iran; reportedly, Zarif had expressed his objection to state visits without prior coordination through the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Analysis: The visit by President Al-Assad to Iran is noteworthy; indeed, this is only President Al-Assad’s third time leaving Syria since the start of the conflict.  In many ways, it is reflective of the strength of the President’s current position. However, the attempted resignation of Foreign Minister Zarif is also highly noteworthy.  Foreign Minister Zarif, and President Rouhani, are noted moderates in Iran; both reportedly favor attempts at closer relations with the international community in order to mitigate international sanctions.  By contrast, Qassem Souleimani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are noted hardliners; Souleimani in particular is believed to be the architect of Iran’s policy in Syria. The fact that Zarif was not consulted regarding President Bashar Al-Assad’s visit was viewed by many as an indication of the internal divisions within Iranian politics.  In a sense, it was viewed as a recognition that there are factions in Iranian politics that recognize that a close relationship with the Government of Syria will prevent any normalization of Iranian relations with much of the international community. However, shortly after Zarif’s resignation, he was openly supported by Qassem Souleimani; Souleimani went on to state that Zarif was “the main official responsible for foreign policy.”  Indeed, some analysis has actually indicated that Zarif, and the moderate wing of Iranian policymakers, may actually have been strengthened by Zarif’s resignation rejection.  Thus, it is important to keep in mind that while Iran is strongly in support of the Government of Syria as a matter of policy, it is by no means politically monolithic.

5. 6th Corps in Dar’a

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, rumors circulated that the Government of Russia intends to establish the ‘6th Corps’ in Dar’a governorate; the 6th Corps will reportedly be similar to the 5th Corps in that it includes reconciled armed opposition commanders and combatants. Local sources noted that the reconciled former commander of Jaysh Al-Thawra, Imad Abou Zreik, recently returned to Dar’a from Jordan with several other reconciled armed opposition commanders, and that Zreik reportedly will be leading the 6th Corps. Local sources further noted that Zreik is rumoured to be collecting names of individuals willing to join the 6th Corps, for a monthly salary of $150. Notably, these rumors come alongside National Security Branch raids of several houses in Nawa, in western rural Dar’a; reportedly, several former armed opposition commanders were detained in these raids. As noted in the February 7-13 COAR Syria Update, the involvement of the National Security Branch is highly significant, as the National Security Branch in theory is responsible for coordinating with all other Syrian security branches, and their direct participation in raids therefore is an indication that local instability in Dar’a is now a major priority for the Government of Syria.

Analysis: Throughout the past several months, southern Syria has become increasingly unstable due to both competition between Government of Syria security actors, and the dissatisfaction of much of the local population with the terms of the southern Syria reconciliation agreement. Considerable analysis attributes recent developments in southern Syria to regional actor competition between the Governments of Russia and Iran, with both actors seeking to secure control over southern Syria through the use of local proxy groups. However, it seems far more likely that the potential creation of the 6th Corps is instead an attempt by the Government of Russia to attempt to bring some semblance of order to southern Syria’s increasingly fragmented security landscape. Indeed, the deployment of the National Security Branch to southern Syria is also an indication that the Governments of Syria and Russia are attempting to solidify control over southern Syria, and reinforce accountability over Government of Syria security branches. That said, the rumoured formation of the 6th Corps will likely have a destabilizing effect on southern Syria in the short-term, at least temporarily, largely due to the fact that it is effectively adding another armed actor into an already complicated, crowded, and critical region.

6. Gas and Fuel Import

Damascus, Syria: On March 4, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis, issued a decision  allowing the Chambers of Commerce and Industry to import fuel and gasoline by land and sea for a period of three months. The Economic Committee of the Syrian Parliament had previously recommended the approval of import permits in accordance with conditions set by the Ministry of Oil. Khamis further stated that the decision was issued in order to secure additional quantities of oil and gas in order to “enhance the continuation of the production process” and to support the supply of oil products to meet the needs of Syrian citizens.

Analysis: It is likely that the decision to allow gas and fuel import is directly linked to international sanctions and restrictive measures imposed on the Government of Syria. Indeed, as a result of these sanctions, imports of gas, fuel, and propane are extremely difficult to secure. The lack of gas and fuel in Syria has directly impacted the prices of many goods, electricity availability, and the functionality of much of Syria’s existing industrial production; as a result, service provision has deteriorated throughout Government of Syria-controlled areas. However, this decision will likely be at best a temporary solution for existing gas and fuel shortages; indeed, while the Government of Syria has made allowances for local traders to import these commodities, it will be difficult to secure suppliers considering the fact that exporting countries will likely be concerned with the repercussions of international sanctions.

7. Iranian Construction Project

Damascus, Syria: On February 25, the Governments of Iran and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding that allows the Government of Iran to construct 200,000 residential units in Damascus governorate, in a project titled the “Damascus Belt.” Local sources are now reportedly referring to this project as the ‘Dahiyeh’ project, likely in reference to the Shia-dominated southern neighborhoods in Beirut. The Vice President of the Tehran Contractors Association, Erj Rahbar, stated that the project will begin within the coming three months, and that it will be focused on different areas of Damascus city. Rahbar further stated that there is a possibility that the Government of Syria will obtain an Iranian credit line of $2 billion in the foreseeable future.  Notably, the Government of Syria and Iran had previously 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.

Analysis: In light of the recently imposed European and U.S. restrictive measures and sanctions on the Government of Syria, foreign and local investment in Syria will face serious challenges. As such, the Government of Iran’s contribution to the rehabilitation of Syria is increasingly necessary. Indeed, it is not surprising that the Government of Iran would heavily invest in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, rehabilitation and development. However, it is important to note that the Government of Iran has concentrated a portion of its investment in real estate; thus the ‘Damascus Belt’ project is extremely likely to continue to increase Iran’s geographic influence in Damascus city.

8. Return Detentions

Damascus and Rural Damascus, Syria: On March 4, Government of Syria forces reportedly detained two men who had returned from Turkey to Harasta, Eastern Ghouta. Of note, in order to return from Turkey to Syria, an individual must go to the Syrian Embassy in Istanbul, where one can resolve their status (to include conscription status) with the Government of Syria, and apply for and receive necessary reconciliation documentation. After receiving reconciliation documentation, a Syrian refugee is referred to a ‘national reconciliation committee’, which is a Government of Syria-affiliated reconciliation body based in the Syrian embassy in Turkey, which facilitates the return of individuals wishing to go back to Syria.

Analysis: The detention of individuals returning to Syria, even after the completion of reconciliation paperwork, is extremely concerning, especially considering the degree to which the Governments of Syria and Russia are continuously urging refugees to return.  The exact reason for the detention of the two individuals above is unclear. However, this lack of clarity is a concern in and of itself. More widely, there are numerous reports of detentions of returnees, though whether for conscription, political purposes, or legitimate security concerns remains unclear.  Indeed, considering the degree to which the Government of Syria lacks clear command and control structures, it is certainly likely that many individuals who correctly followed formal procedure are detained due to the fact that their reconciliation paperwork has not been filed with every relevant security branch. Continued uncertainty regarding the protection concerns of Syrian refugees will likely continue to impact the degree to which Syrian refugees are willing to attempt to return to Syria.

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.