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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.