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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.