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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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