Syria Update: April 18 – April 24, 2019

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Syria Update

18 April to 24 April, 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 ongoing fuel crisis in Syria continues to drastically impact the Syrian economy.  Fuel shortages are now nationwide; individuals are largely unable to purchase fuel, transportation of both goods and people is becoming extremely difficult, industry has come to a halt, and even the military has had its fuel cut.  The fuel crisis has its origins in the international sanctions levied against Syria, which prevent Syria from easily purchasing imported fuel. However, ultimately Syrian fuel production has been drastically impacted by the conflict itself, and Syria is now completely reliant on foreign imports.  Considering the lack of financial capital available to the Government of Syria, fuel shortages should no longer be considered a temporary crisis; indeed, even if Syria’s allies are able to bring fuel into the country to temporarily alleviate fuel shortages, the crisis will resume once stockpiles are reduced.  The fuel crisis is now an existential threat to the Government of Syria; indeed, while the Government of Syria remains militarily unchallenged, it is perhaps the weakest it has been since the start of the conflict. This has two broad implications. The first is that the Government of Russia now holds a much greater degree of leverage over the Government of Syria, and can now compel the Government of Syria to acquiesce to Russian political and economic concerns.  The second is that the Government of Syria’s weakness is also a potential point of leverage for the international community and the Syria humanitarian and development response. International governments and institutional donors are in a better position to realistically leverage the Government of Syria than at almost any time previously; however, doing so will require an understanding of the actual situation on the ground, the willingness to enforce red lines, clear strategic priorities, and achievable demands.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Russian and Iranian forces reportedly engaged in direct clashes in both Aleppo city and Deir-ez-Zor governorate; these events are unverified and their origins are unclear, but they nevertheless raise discussion of Russian and Iranian competition in Syria taking place at the local level.  
  • The Government of Russia rented the port of Tartous for a period of 49 years. The Government of Syria is in an increasingly dire economic position, and therefore increasingly compelled to sell its economic and infrastructural assets to regional actors in order to secure funding.
  • An informal neighborhood in Hama was slated for expropriation under the dictates of Law 40; nearly 1,000 vulnerable families will be evicted. Law 40 gives local municipalities the ability to expropriate informal housing areas almost at will, presenting a major HLP risk nationally.
  • The Lebanese Minister of Refugee Affairs announced he would soon present a Syrian refugee ‘return plan’ to cabinet; the plan reportedly intends to target NGO’s serving Syrian refugees, but Lebanese reliance on the NGO sector makes implementation of the plan unlikely for the time being.
  • Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched an attack on the outskirts of Aleppo city, further highlighting the fragility of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement despite Turkish guarantees.
  • The Salvation Government released details of its electricity grid rehabilitation plans;  reportedly the plan to rehabilitate the electrical grid is being coordinated with the Government of Syria to some degree, further indicating that a major offensive is not likely forthcoming in the near term.
  • A group of reconciled individuals were detained in Dhameer, highlighting the continued fragility of reconciled areas; considering the increased leverage of the Government of Russia over the Government of Syria, the Government of Russia may become a more viable advocacy target.
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif met with Syrian President Al-Assad and Turkish President Erdogan; Iran is increasingly becoming a conduit between Turkey and Syria, though a rapprochement between the two countries is unlikely so long as Turkish military forces remain in northern Syria.

Ongoing Fuel Crisis

In Depth Analysis

People queuing for hours and pushing thier cars towards a gas station in Aleppo City. Image courtesy of Reuters.

The ongoing fuel crisis in Syria continues to impact the entire Syrian economy.  Massive lines are forming at gas stations throughout the country, and many Syrians must wait for hours to use government-issued ‘smart cards’ to purchase gasoline and diesel rationed at 20 liters per person every five days. Fuel available for personal use is extremely expensive: 1 liter currently costs up to 600 SYP (~$1.15). If an individual were able to fill the fuel tank of a small vehicle (which is unlikely considering current rationing), it would cost up to ~$52 (based on a 45 liter fuel tank). As a point of reference, a state employee in Damascus generally makes between $65-$100 per month. Taxis and public transportation systems still in operation are now forced to charge exorbitant prices, both to cover the cost of gasoline and the time spent waiting to refuel. According to local sources, taxis are now up to 300% more expensive than prior to the crisis.  Much industrial activity that still takes place has effectively been put on hold. Many industries, such as the ceramics industry and agricultural processing facilities, have already been operating at reduced capacity for months, and now factories requiring diesel fuel, gasoline, or propane have widely ceased operations. Perhaps the most remarkable indication of the scale of the crisis are reports that fuel supplies to military units and governmental bodies have been cut. As noted in last weeks Syria Update, the Syrian Arab Army, Air Force Intelligence, and various other Government of Syria institutions reportedly had their fuel quotas cut by nearly 50%. Only select units such as the Republican Guard and the office of the Minister of Defence have reportedly received full fuel quotas.

The origins of Syria’s fuel crisis are often attributed to international sanctions. The U.S. in particular has leveraged regional states to prevent oil from reaching Syria, and likely leant on Egypt in order to prevent Iranian oil tankers from freely using the Suez Canal. Financial constraints have compounded such logistical issues: European Union restrictive measures and U.S. sanctions have depleted the finances of both the Government of Syria and individual members of the Syrian regime. Indeed, the fuel crisis truly began on October 15, 2018, when the Government of Iran was forced to suspend $3 billion credit line it had offered the Government of Syria in 2013 due to Iran’s own sanctions-related financial constraints.  According to sources, the Government of Syria requires ~$8 million dollars per day in order to meet existing fuel needs. Ultimately however, Syria’s fuel crisis is a consequence of the country’s decimated fuel production infrastructure. Prior to the conflict, Syria produced ~350,000 barrels of crude oil per day, and exported large quantities. Current production levels (24,000 barrels per day) fall far short of demand (~136,000 barrels per day), making unaffordable and politically difficult imports the only viable option.

There are no simple solutions to the fuel crisis. Iran can provide some fuel to the Government of Syria, but likely not enough to represent a sustainable solution to the logistical challenges presented by international sanctions. Theoretically, the Government of Russia and/or its allies can provide Syria with fuel; the President of Crimea has already offered to ship oil to Syria.  However, no pipelines connect Russia and Syria, and there is currently no capacity to transport Russian fuel overland, making Syria reliant on expensive Russian oil imports by sea.  The Government of Syria has attempted numerous mechanisms to facilitate private sector imports from Lebanon, but local sources note that fuel is difficult to source in large quantities in Lebanon, and Lebanese imports have had only a limited impact on actual fuel stockpiles. Moreover, bulk imports from Russia or a neighboring country would only alleviate the crisis for a short time. In the absence of a reliable and affordable supplies, the exhaustion of bulk shipments would only lead to the renewal of the fuel crisis.

Securing a reliable source of fuel has subsequently become an issue of almost existential concern for the Government of Syria. Like any modern economy, fuel is the most important resource in Syria’s economy. Fuel shortages lead to electricity shortages (which are already taking place in the majority of Government-held Syria), price increases across practically all forms of economic activity, and food shortages driven by higher transportation costs and stunted production. If farms and factories are unable to operate and civilians are unable to work, the prolongation of Syria’s fuel crisis should give rise to serious concern over the potential for ‘state collapse’.

Considering the dire prospects now facing the Government of Syria (and the entire civilian population of Government-held Syria), the fuel crisis is likely to alter the trajectory of the Syrian conflict in two fundamental ways. The first is that the Government of Syria is now likely to be more reliant on the Government of Russia, and Russia is likely to exert more influence over Syrian policy. Since its entry into the Syrian conflict in late-2015, the Russian government has demonstrated an ability to ‘stop’ the Government of Syria from taking certain actions. For instance, it has withheld military support to defer or prevent state-led military offensives. Russia has had more difficulty demonstrating positive leverage over the Government of Syria however, as demonstrated by sluggish implementation of the constitutional committee process, respect Russian negotiated reconciliation agreements, and the Syrian government’s slow progress on meaningful political and military reform. Now Russian shipments of fuel – which will only temporarily sustain the Government of Syria – are one of the only solutions to Syria’s fuel crisis. Russia thus holds a critical piece of leverage over the Government of Syria, which it can provide or withhold at will. For this reason, Russian policy and strategic priorities are likely to become a much more dominant force within the Government of Syria.

The second is that the weakness of the Government of Syria may present an opportunity for the international community to engage in Syria in the near to medium term. The Government of Syria faces no obvious challenge, but the rapidly deteriorating economy and the state’s inability to provide basic services is affecting stability in several regions. Indeed, Dar’a governorate has witnessed a growing services-based protest movement for the past several months. The international community may therefore be in a better position to exert influence over the Government of Syria than at almost any time since the beginning of the conflict. If robustly presented, targeted humanitarian and development interventions may be less likely to meet with resistance, especially with populations or sectors that have long been marginalized by de-facto state policy. This will require the international community, institutional donors, and the UN to strongly consider the ways in which they seek to influence Government of Syria behavior, ideally with an understanding of the actual situation on the ground, the willingness to enforce red lines, clear strategic priorities, and achievable demands.

Whole of Syria Review

Map

1. Russian-Iranian Clashes

Al Mayadin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate; Aleppo City, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On April 19, media sources reported that clashes took place between Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces and Russian Military Police in the vicinity of Aleppo airport, in Aleppo governorate, and in Al Mayadin city, in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Sources indicate the clashes in Aleppo erupted after Russian Police requested that Iranian forces evacuate the airport. Information on casualties is unclear. The clashes in Mayadeen reportedly resulted in the death of two Revolutionary Guard combatants, and two injured Russian Military Police. The cause of clashes in this location is unclear. Of note, the Government of Syria General Command of the Army has denied that the Iranian-Russian clashes took place.

Analysis: Reports of confrontations between Iranian armed groups and Russian Military Police are difficult to confirm. However, if confirmed, they are unlikely to reflect top-level Iranian or Russian orders, and are more likely the result of escalated local disputes. This is not to say that tensions between the Russian and Iranian governments in Syria should be ignored: The two are widely believed to be in competition over Syria’s economic resources and the shape and regional orientation of the Government of Syria’s internal structures. However, reports of such clashes mainly question the extent to which the interests of the two parties are aligned in Syria, and highlight the potential of further occasional clashes between Russian and Iranian military forces and their affiliates. It is highly unlikely that contestation between the two states will devolve to a point that it fundamentally affects the trajectory of the Syrian conflict in the near future.

2. Government of Russia Rents Tartous Port

Tartous City, Tartous Governorate, Syria: On April 21, President Bashar Al-Assad met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Yury Borisov, as well as various other Russian officials from the Foreign and Defence ministries, including Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Alexeyevich Ryabkov. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, officials discussed the upcoming summit in Astana, and the formation of Syria’s constitutional committee. Notably, Al-Assad’s meeting with Borisov emphasized the status of Syrian trade and industrial affairs in light of ongoing international sanctions targeting Syria. To that end, Borisov stated that the Government of Russia will sign an agreement with the Government of Syria to rent the entirety Tartous Port for 49 years; notably, the Government of Russia has had military access to the Tartous port since 1971. Borisov added that Tartous will serve a variety of military, economic and logistical purposes for the Government of Russia. Specifics relating to the deal are currently unknown.

Analysis: Economic agreements and cooperation between the Syrian government and its international partners have become a fixed feature of Syria’s economy. Indeed, both the Iranian and Russian governments have secured controlling stakes in many Syrian industrial sectors, infrastructure, and state services. To a great extent, the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure, widespread displacement of the Syrian workforce, heavy toll of sanctions, and the country’s deteriorating currency makes the leasing of assets by the Syrian government to its Russian and Iranian partners unavoidable. Though such deals are likely to cause some discontent among the state’s popular support, it is not expected this will prove sufficient to change the Government of Syria’s needs-based economic strategy. With regards to the Tartous deal, Russia has now secured a key strategic objective which increases its ability to project influence into the Mediterranean.

3. Hama Land Expropriation

Hama City, Hama Governorate, Syria: On April 18, several media sources reported that the Hama municipality notified civilians in the Mashaa Tayyar and Hay Al-Samak neighborhoods of Hama city that they would be evicted from their homes on April 23. This directive was reportedly issued by the municipality via the local police department, and claimed that the homes were located on land belonging to the University of Hama. Local sources note that the directive affects 1,000 vulnerable families (~8,000 individuals), and the eviction notice makes reference to Law 40. This law provides no compensation to evictees, and could result in fines and a prison sentence. Evictions have yet to begin, and residents are reportedly pursuing appeals via the Governor of Hama and local Ba’ath Party officials. However, the eviction order reportedly originates from Damascus, and local officials are believed to be under pressure to accelerate implementation of Law 40 in informal housing settlements.

Analysis: Law 40 empowers local municipal authorities and the Ministry of Local Administration to expropriate or demolish informal housing areas with impunity, but the Masaa Tayyar case is the second high-profile application of the law since it was passed in 2012 (the first was also reportedly in Hama city). The land in Mashaa Tayyar was originally purchased as an agricultural plot by its current owners from a large landowning family in the 1980s. The land was then expropriated by the Government of Syria in 2004, and officially allocated to the University of Hama as unused agricultural land. However, an informal settlement had developed on the land in the intervening period, and the expropriation did not occur. In essence, Law 40 has now been used to expropriate the land that had already been expropriated, but which has been occupied for decades. The use of Law 40, and the ease with which it can be used to clear informal housing areas should be considered a grave HLP risk facing Syria’s most vulnerable populations.

4. Lebanon to Draft a ‘Return Plan’

Beirut, Lebanon: On April 18, Government of Lebanon Minister of Refugee Affairs, Salah Gharib, announced that he will soon submit a plan for Syrian refugees to cabinet. Most notably, Gharib stated added that a main part of his plan would entail discouraging NGOs in Lebanon from providing “incentives” for refugees to remain in Lebanon.  However, Gharib did not discuss the specific details of the plan itself. It is worth noting that there are now several ‘refugee return’ plans proposed by various Lebanese political parties, to include the Lebanese Forces and the Progresive Socialist Party; these plans are largely differentiated by the degree to which the Lebanese government will engage with the Government of Syria.

Analysis: Nearly all political parties in power in Lebanon maintain that Syrian refugees must return but differ on the means by which this policy should be implemented. There is currently a split between whether returns should be pursued by establishing links with Damascus or through UN mechanisms. In the meantime, there is growing hostility of state officials and political figures towards NGOs serving Syrian refugees. NGOs are frequently portrayed as contributing to the continued refugee presence in Lebanon, but the extent to which Lebanon is willing or capable of clamping down on NGO activity is difficult to discern. This is particularly due to the fact that the NGO sector in Lebanon is an important employer of Lebanese youth, and purchases made by NGOs are a significant force in the Lebanese economy. Lower youth employment in this sector, or the withdrawal of NGO funding, could thus represent a destabilizing economic shock that the Government of Lebanon would likely prefer to avoid due to its dire economic situation. While Lebanese governmental policy towards NGOs is likely to become more hostile in the near to medium term, it is therefore unlikely that NGO activity will be significantly curtailed. For Syrian refugees in Lebanon however, state policy is likely to become increasingly harsh.

5. HTS Attack in Aleppo

Al-Rashideen, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On April 20, media sources reported that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham attacked Government of Syria forces in Al-Rashideen, Aleppo. At least 30 Government of Syria-aligned combatants and three Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants were reportedly killed. Reportedly, the atrack was carried out by Katiba Abu Omar Saraqab, considered by local sources to be a hardline unit within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The incident marks the first major Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham attack targeting Al-Rashideen, an important area in the vicinity of Aleppo city, in 2019.

Analysis: The motivations of the attack remain unclear, but was likely undertaken in retaliation for increased Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes on northwestern Syria over the past two months.  Indeed, muich of the shelling that has targeted northwestern Syria has originated from military bases in Rashideen. More importantly, the incident highlights the fragility of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement despite the Government of Turkey’s increased influence in northwestern Syria. Indeed, while the Government of Turkey holds some influence over Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, it is unlikely to wield authority over the group, nor does it have the ability to stop cross-line violence. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is therefore unlikely to adhere to broader Turkish agreements with the Iranian, Russian, and Syrian governments. In fact, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s military action will likely continue so long as Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes persists in northwestern Syria.

6. Salvation Government Electricity Plan

Opposition-Controlled Northwestern Syria: On April 16, the Salvation Government General Directorate of Electricity disclosed details of its plan to rehabilitate electricity networks across northwestern Syria. As per the Directorate’s statement, the plan’s overall cost amounts to $1 million, and will be covered by the Salvation Government. Local sources also noted that the northwestern Syria electrical grid would be rehabilitated in order to reconnect to the Government of Syria’s electrical lines in the vicinity of Aleppo city and Abul Thohur.  Local sources added that this rehabilitation is to some degree being facilitated by the Government of Syria.

Analysis: While the rehabilitation of electrical lines in northwestern Syria is ostensibly taking place in order to power water stations and create electrical usage quotas for residents of northwestern Syria, this is reportedly not the only reason for the rehabilitation. Local sources note that the Salvation Government’s electrical rehabilitation, which is reportedly being done in coordination with the Government of Syria, is also taking place in order to facilitate greater electrical availability to Government-held Aleppo city.  Reportedly, these plans are being encouraged by both Turkish and Russian representatives. As such, the Government of Turkey and Russia’s increased involvement with the Salvation Government likely reflects their intention to maintain the broader stability of northwestern Syria. In light of the joint Turkish-Russian patrols across northwestern Syria, it is becoming apparent that both the Government of Turkey and Russia intend to prevent a Government of Syria offensive in the area, at least for the time being.

7. Detentions in Dhameer

Dhameer,  Eastern Qalamoun, Syria: On April 19, media sources reported that Government of Syria military security forces detained at least 40 reconciled combatants in the past week. Media also reports that Government of Syria forces also detained three women at a checkpoint as the women tried to leave Dhameer for Damascus. The detentions were reportedly justified by allegations that the women are married ISIS affiliates.

Analysis:  The fragility of reconciliation agreements and their inability to secure the protection of reconciled individuals remains a major concern throughout Syria. Indeed, protection concerns, disputes over a lack of services, and the impunity of local security branches are expected to persist for the foreseeable future. Here it is worth recalling elements of the in-depth analysis section of this weekly update, namely, that Russia was a major guarantor of most reconciliation agreements and has often attempted to compel the Government of Syria to respect the terms of these deals. Considering Russia will now likely have greater leverage over the Government of Syria due to the ongoing fuel crisis, international actors may reasonably consider advocating for the Government of Russia to ensure protection concerns in reconciled areas are addressed.

8. Zarif Meeting with Al-Assad and Erdogan

Damascus, Syria; Istanbul, Turkey: On April 18, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif convened a meeting with Turkish President Erdogan ahead of the Astana talks scheduled for April 25-26. The formation of the constitutional committee, the status of northwestern Syria, US. sanctions on Iran, and the return of Syrian refugees were reportedly discussed. Zarif’s visit to Turkey followed an earlier meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad and Walid Muallem in Damascus, Syria, on April 16, during which Astana and the northwest were discussed. Zarif reportedly briefed Erdogan on his meeting with Al-Assad, stressing that whilst the Government of Iran’s understood Turkish concerns, Syrian sovereignty must be respected. Shortly after his meeting with Zarif, Al-Assad received Russian Presidential Envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, in Damascus on April 19. Lavrentiev reportedly relayed positive messages from Saudi Arabia, with media sources claiming he presented Saudia Arabia’s potential interest in restoring diplomatic ties with the Syrian government. Relatedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Saudi Arabia soon, but the date of his visit has not yet been decided.

Analysis: Combined with Lavrentiev’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Zarif’s visits to Damascus and Turkey highlight the efforts of Syrian government allies to aid in the normalization of Syria’s ties with major regional powers. The Government of Syria’s current economic plight is likely a major driver of these efforts, particularly given U.S. sanctions limit the Government of Iran’s capacity to provide support. Rapprochement between the Government of Turkey and Syria remains unlikely for the time being however, especially given the continued Turkish presence in Syria’s northwest. Saudi Arabia represents a more likely candidate for normalized diplomatic ties, and can be expected to pursue opportunities in reconstruction and investment in 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.

Media Anthology: April 09 – April 15, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

April 08 to 15, 2018

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
An agreement ends the dispute between "Tahrir Al-Sham" and "Ahrar Al-Sham" in western HamaArabicEnab BaladiApril 10, 2019Conflict and Military
Idleb: Will Jaysh al-Izza target the Russian patrols?ArabicAl modonApril 11, 2019Conflict and Military
Hezbollah Militia attacks a checkpoint for reconciled opposition fightersin Dar'a Al-BaladArabicOrient NewsApril 12, 2019Conflict and Military
IS claims responsibility on two IEDs in ManbijArabicEnab BaladiApril 11, 2019Conflict and Military
In escalation of violations…intensive raids pound the southern countryside of Idlib along with exchange of shelling in places within the truce areas and the demilitarized zoneEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsApril 14, 2019Conflict and Military
Clashes between Russian and Iranian militia in Aleppo.These are the number of casualties ArabicOrient NewsApril 15, 2019Conflict and Military
A source: An agreement to allow entrance  of Syrian regime trucks to Al-Omar Oil fieldArabicEnab BaladiApril 11, 2019Economic
How does Al-Qatirji smuggle oil across the  Euphrates?ArabicAl modonApril 12, 2019Economic
Smart cards for purchasing bread early next monthArabicEqtsadApril 12, 2019Economic
Testimonies from Duma: The regime is still besieging us and imposing royaltiesArabicDamaski Media AgencyApril 10, 2019Governance and Service Management
Trinidad mother who saved her kids from Syria's al-Hawl camp vows to help othersEnglishMiddle East EyeApril 11, 2019Social Dynamics
300 IDPs left Al-Rukban Camp toward regime-held areasArabicEnab BaladiApril 10, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Turkey's S-400 deal national security decision, not an issue for third countriesEnglishDaily SabahApril 10, 2019International Intervention
A missile attack targeted Ba'ath Party headquarters and the head of police house in Dar'aArabicSyria TVApril 11, 2019Other
A legal expert explains to "Damaski" important information on the leaked documents for confiscating the property of opposition affiliate members from the city of Duma.ArabicDamaski Media AgencyApril 11, 2019Other
Syria Reports: 3 men executed by regime after leaving Rukban CampEnglishEA World View April 13, 2019Other

Syria Update: April 11 – April 17, 2019

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Syria Update

11 April to 17 April, 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:

Reports emerged this week that the negotiations over the composition of the Syrian constitutional committee are nearing their conclusion. Citing sources from both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, media reports from April 12 claimed that all but four names on the civil society committee list have now been finalized after continued efforts by the new UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen. Pedersen was in Damascus over the weekend, where he met with a range of Syrian government officials and held “substantive discussions” on April 14 with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. If talks are as advanced as currently reported, there is a strong possibility that an announcement regarding constitutional reform will be made at the forthcoming Astana summit on April 25-26. Of note, the proposed 150-member constitutional body will be split equally between representatives from the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society; notably, the civil society component had proven an insurmountable obstacle for former UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura. It is likely that progress on the constitutional committee is partially due to the increased pressures now facing the Government of Syria: first, from the Government of Russia, and second, from the severity of Syria’s deteriorating economic situation. Indeed, the formation of a constitutional committee is a major step towards formulating a political settlement that could eventually unlock international reconstruction funding.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • The ongoing fuel crisis in Government-controlled areas prompted the Government of Syria to reach an agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces; this deal was likely reached in an attempt to alleviate mounting economic pressure which could trigger wider forms of state collapse.
  • The Government of Syria intensified its bombardment of communities within the disarmament zone in northwestern Syria; Government of Russia airstrikes targeting Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham weapons storage facilities were also reported.
  • Two men were killed by Government of Syria forces after attempting to leave an IDP reception center for Rukban evacuees in Homs city. With Rukban a test case for returns more broadly, the fate of those that relocate from the camp to government-controlled areas is likely to have a key influence return dynamics across Syria and the region.
  • Syrian Air Force Intelligence detained seven aid workers in southern Damascus; such incidents are likely to remain a feature of the post-reconciliation landscape in the context of heightened Government of Syria scrutiny over those living in areas under its control.
  • A March 22 Government of Syria order to replace the boards of several long standing charities is now being implemented in Homs; these charities have coexisted with the Government of Syria for decades, but international funding has provoked increased scrutiny.
  • The 4th Armored Division has expanded its presence in Dar’a governorate under threat of force and has absorbed several 4th Armored-aligned militia; this contravenes demands of local protest movement and may incite armed insurgents.
  • The funds of numerous individuals that were evacuated from Duma city were frozen by the Government of Syria; the Syrian Finance and Justice ministries have reportedly developed a system which links asset freezes and property confiscations to charges of terrorism issued by the Justice ministry. This could lead to the mass appropriation of property owned by unreconciled individuals.
  • Israeli missiles targeted Hama governorate, reportedly killing several Iranian combatants. This may represent the first instance of formal Israeli-Russian advanced warning procedures, indicating further tacit Russian acceptance of future Israeli attacks.

Constitutional Committee Nears Completion

In Depth Analysis

A political settlement in Syria may have taken a step forward this week with news that parties to the constitutional committee initiative are nearing agreement. Citing sources from both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, media reports from April 12 claimed that all but four names on the civil society committee list have now been finalized after continued efforts by UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen. Pedersen was in Damascus over the weekend, where he met with a range of Syrian government officials and held “substantive discussions” on April 14 with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. If talks are as advanced as currently reported, there is a strong possibility that an announcement regarding constitutional reform will be made at the forthcoming Astana summit on April 25-26. Of note, the proposed 150-member constitutional body will be split equally between representatives from the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society; notably, the civil society component had proven an insurmountable obstacle for former UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

At one point, it appeared that the Government of Syria’s reluctance to commit to the constitutional committee process would lead to its failure, severely dent prospects for the fulfilment of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and ultimately torpedo the Geneva process. In February, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared that the constitutional committee would be finalized “within a few days”, only for a provisional committee member list to be leaked later that week, allegedly by the Government of Syria. Following repeated statements that the selection of the committee was a sovereign affair, the leak suggested that the Government of Syria was trying to halt formation of the committee over fears that a redrawn constitution would dilute its power.

Finalization of the committee list has been a point of contention between the Russian and Syrian governments since Russia injected constitutional matters into the Astana process in January 2017. Preferring an expedient and internationally-endorsed political resolution for Syria to strengthen its role as a regional power broker, Russia has been eager to use constitutional reform to demonstrate continuity between the Astana process and UNSCR 2254. Conversely, the Government of Syria has resisted attempts to move the process forward, frequently claiming it as illegitimate through 2017-18, likely in an effort to preserve its advantage against a fragmented opposition. President Al-Assad may have also been concerned that the violation of constitutional commitments under Russian auspices would negatively affect the support received from his main military and political ally.

There is no guarantee that the list will be finalized, nor should one expect that any subsequent reform process will simultaneously satisfy the Syrian government and appease its numerous detractors. From the outset, the Syrian government has insisted that the committee will not develop a new constitution, but will rewrite the original document. This will likely serve as a poor template for reform given amendments were widely rejected in 2012 amidst a broader climate of violent state repression and allegations of vote manipulation. There are also concerns around the credibility of the committee given reports that the passage of constitutional clauses will require the agreement of 100 members. For example, the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) has supplied 50 names to the opposition list, but cannot claim to be representative of the Syrian opposition having been the target of a campaign entitled ‘the HNC does not represent us’ in opposition-held Idleb in October 2018. The civil society list intends to balance this issue, but there are question marks over the extent to which membership affiliations will affect the committee’s decision-making and, subsequently, the integrity of the reform process.

Steady progress on the formation of the constitutional committee is nevertheless likely for several reasons. Chief among these are Russian demands to move the political process forward in the context of mounting pressure on the last remaining areas outside of Government of Syria control; the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-controlled northwest, and the Kurdish-controlled northeast. Though both areas are subject to their own – often interdependent – complexities given the interests of the Government of Turkey, it appears they are moving into the hands of the Syrian government by means of political and/or military attrition. With Al-Assad’s victory now seemingly inevitable, Russian attention is therefore turning increasingly to the post-war context. Reconstruction funding has subsequently risen on the Russian agenda, but Western finance can only be unlocked with progress on UNSCR 2254, of which the formation of the constitutional committee is an important first step.

In the context of a dire fuel crisis that has the potential to trigger national unrest, reconstruction funding is also likely a key driver of the Government of Syria’s willingness to move ahead with the constitutional committee process. Without external support, the Syrian government is only likely to weaken: fuel shortages are in evidence in Lattakia and Tartous, highlighting the state’s limited capacity to provide services to even its most loyal constituencies. Longer term, the Syrian government may view the formation of the constitutional committee as a confidence-building measure that could lead to an increase in Western funding. It will, however, almost certainly seek to manipulate the influence of any such committee to retain its hard won military gains.

Whole of Syria Review

1.Continuing Fuel Crisis

Damascus and Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: The scale of Syria’s ongoing fuel and gas crisis has been in evidence this week; numerous images show abandoned vehicles and long queues at gas stations in the capital and beyond. According to local sources, the Government of Syria has resorted to drastic measures to manage the crisis, decreasing petroleum supplies to a variety of key institutions, to include military and security forces. Local sources report that the fuel quotas for Air Force Intelligence units, as well as numerous Syrian Arab Army military units have been cut by large percentages. The duration of these cuts is not known. Reportedly, within the army only the Minister of Defense and his officers, the Army Administration, Military Security Unit 205 (responsible mainly for detentions), and the Special Tasks Units of the Republican Guard received full petroleum allocations.

In other news related to the fuel crisis, local sources report that the Government of Syria has reached an agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the supply of gas from the Conoco gas field in northeastern Syria. In addition, the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources has reportedly contracted the Qaterji Fuel Company to rehabilitate facilities at Conoco. On April 15, however, both media and local sources claim that U.S. soldiers in eastern rural Deir-ez-Zor have prevented Qaterji engineers from reaching the Conoco site. Of note, the Qaterji Group’s ownership is known to have close ties to the upper echelons of the Assad regime, namely Rami Makhlouf. Qaterji is also linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the business is a target of the U.S. Caesar sanctions and EU restrictive measures.

Analysis:  The Government of Syria’s agreement with the SDF illustrates the toll that a lack of fuel is having on state institutions, the general population, and the country’s immediate economic prospects. Indeed, it reflects that fact that the Government of Syria is increasingly unable to independently address the severe fuel crisis. Limits on the supply of fuel to military and security forces is particularly alarming given their role in buttressing the Government of Syria and its patronage networks. The prospect of a Syrian state collapse is therefore now beginning to become a concern, and the crisis is only likely to deepen with the expected application of the U.S. Caesar Act sanctions. As this situation increasingly impacts everyday life in Syria, there is a strong possibility that the kind of anti-government activity observed in southern Syria will surface elsewhere, including in historically pro-Government of Syria areas. How any such movements develop is impossible to predict, but local circumstances are likely to dictate their evolution; ultimately, much of Syria is susceptible to serious unrest should the Syrian economy become increasingly nonfunctional. In this context, the Government of Syria can be expected to adopt a more conciliatory tone towards Kurdish authorities given their control over oil and gas resources and, as described in the In-Depth Analysis section, the government may also be more willing to accept certain political concessions to secure foreign support.

2. Northwestern Syria Update

Idleb and Hama Governorates, Northwestern Syria: According to the Response Coordination Unit (RCU), Government of Syria forces shelled 75 locations in opposition-held northwestern Syria between April 9 and 15. On April 14, heavy Government of Russia airstrikes also targeted Ariha and Orm Eljoz, in southern Idleb governorate. Government of Russia-linked media outlets report that the airstrikes targeted Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham weapon storage facilities after reconnaissance aircraft observed weapons and ammunition in transit. Also on April 14, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham reportedly requested civilians in Halban and Sayadi to evacuate. Notably, both towns are located within the disarmament zone, on front lines with Government of Syria forces.

Analysis: As assessed in prior COAR Syria Updates, it is likely heavy Government of Syria shelling on areas within the disarmament zone intends to cause mass displacement from communities in the vicinity of the M4 and M5 highways in Hama and Idleb governorates. The aforementioned RCU report estimates that 186,258 civilians have fled communities in this area since February 2019. Notably, as of March 8, the Government of Turkey has begun military patrols along front lines in northwestern Syria. However, this has only served to prevent shelling during patrol periods. Although brief, the lull likely affords civilians in target locations the opportunity to evacuate to other communities in the northwest, or to the Government of Turkey-controlled Euphrates Shield areas further north. The April 8 meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin resulted in an announcement that joint Russian-Turkish patrols in northwestern Syria will soon begin, however, no date was determined. In the meantime, Government of Syria shelling is likely to intensify in communities along the M4 and M5 highways.

3. Concerns for returning Rukban IDPs

Homs City, Homs governorate, Syria: On April 14, media sources reported that two men were killed by Government of Syria forces after attempting to leave a reception center for Rukban evacuees in the Deir Baalba neighborhood of Homs city. Government of Syria forces subsequently increased their presence in the reception center, enforced tighter restrictions on residents, and detained approximately 20 men. It is unclear if these permissions remain in effect. Meanwhile, the evacuation of Rukban camp continues; Viktor Kupchishin, Head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, was quoted as saying that 1,358 people left Rukban on 14 April alone, adding that this brings the total number of returns from Rukban to 3,642 since February 19. The UN has yet to secure access to reception shelters in Homs despite ongoing advocacy for a greater role and assistance in the returns process.

Analysis: Despite the April 14 incident, reports indicate that  additional departures from Rukban are planned for the coming week. However, the killing of the two former Rukban evacuees highlights the lack of insight into conditions in reception centers, and considerable concern over the extent to which the needs of IDPs fleeing desperate conditions in Rukban are being met by the Government of Syria. Although IDPs and refugees continue to return, the notoriety of Rukban means the fate of its IDPs is likely to represent a significant test case for the future of returns more broadly. Moreover, given that the status of Rukban returnees is likely still under assessment by the Government of Syria, access to the reception centers is unlikely, particularly given the expectation that a number of evacuees will be subject to detailed screening.

4. Syrian NGO staff detained

Southern Damascus, Damascus, Syria: On April 12, media sources reported that Syrian Air Force Intelligence have yet to release seven humanitarian aid workers detained in Yalda, Babella, and Beit Sahm on April 5. Four of those detained work for the Jafra Foundation for Youth and Development, the remaining three at the Palestinian Communal Authority. Media sources further claim that several of the detainees had been summoned to renew their reconciliation status, but were subsequently transferred to Air Force Intelligence custody.

Analysis: As evidenced widely across Syria, reconciliation agreements do not grant an amnesty to former opposition combatants and civil society figures. The detention of aid workers in southern Damascus is by no means unique, and is likely to remain a feature of the post-reconciliation landscape in the context of heightened Government of Syria scrutiny over those living in areas under its control. This is true even of organizations that are registered with the Government of Syria in some capacity; ultimately the fate of humanitarian workers that remained in reconciled areas will be precarious for the foreseeable future.

5. GoS Replaces Notable Charity Boards

Homs and Damascus cities, Syria: On April 14, local sources noted that the governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, began the process of appointing a new board to the Homs-based Al-Berr Association Charity, in accordance with an earlier Government of Syria decision. This decision, issued by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor on March 22, required several long standing national humanitarian organizations to replace their board members. Those affected include the aforementioned Al-Berr Association Charity, and the Damascus-based Al-Afia and ‘Hefzelnema’ organizations. The decision was issued after board members in these organizations were variously charged with sectarianism and communicating with terrorists. Interim administrations will be appointed for six months until new board members are elected. Former board members will not be permitted to run for election.

Analysis: The organizations affected by the decision of the Ministry of Social Affairs have their origins in Syria’s wealthy Sunni population. Despite tight regulation of civil society dating from the very earliest days of the Ba’ath Party, they equally boast a long history of charitable work in Syria. Over the past seven years however, these organizations evolved into NGO-like structures that have become increasingly reliant on international funding in addition to traditional endowments. This likely explains the increased attention they have received from the Syrian government, and highlights that even organizations that have coexisted with the Government of Syria are subject to state efforts to control humanitarian action.

6. Increased 4th Armored Presence in Dar’a

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: On April 12, media and local sources indicated that the Government of Syria’s 4th Armored Division established new checkpoints in western rural Dar’a governorate. These sources explain that the Commander of the 4th Armored Division, Mohamad Al-Issa, threatened to resort to violence, raids, and detentions if communities in the area refused to accept the presence of 4th Armored Division forces. Of note, Mohamad Al-Issa has recently compelled several 4th Armored Division-aligned militia to fall under his command given his reputed links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Maher Al-Assad. Meanwhile, security incidents in southern Syria have continued. On April 13, media sources reported that the Imam of Hrak’s Said Bin Masyab Mosque, Raed Al-Hariri, was killed in a shooting. Al-Hariri was renowned for having closely coordinated with the Government of Syria when Hrak was under opposition control. Also, on April 15, a Government of Syria raid in Abtaa reportedly led to the detention of several reconciled individuals.

Analysis: The Government of Syria displays an alarming lack of control over state-affiliated intelligence, security, and military actors in southern Syria. To a great extent, this provides fertile ground for the current wave of anti-state protests, the ongoing localized insurgency, and increased competition between and within Government of Syria-affiliated armed actors seeking to advance their own interests. Although the 4th Armored is among the most effective Government of Syria military divisions, attempts by the organization to expand its influence in Dar’a governorate are unlikely to stem local instability. Indeed, the Dar’a protest movement often explicitly requests a reduced Government of Syria presence, to include fewer checkpoints. Moreover, elements within the southern armed insurgency are avowedly anti-Iran, and these elements may regard the expansion of the 4th Armored as justification for continued attacks given the reported links of the 4th Division’s leadership to the Iranian government. In this context, protests, killings, IEDs, and the systematic targeting of Government of Syria forces is likely to continue.

7. Potential Mass Property Appropriations

Duma, Rural Damascus, Syria: On April 11, media sources leaked a Ministry of Finance document dated November 11, 2018, ordering an asset freeze against 137 opposition-affiliated actors from Duma accused of links to terrorism by the Ministry of Justice. The leak identifies that those affected were indicted under Ministry of Justice Decree No. 33/2018, of 30 August 2018. Most of those affected are currently residing in Syria’s opposition-controlled north however, and are unlikely to present themselves to court to face terrorism charges. Of important note, local reports received this week indicate that the freezing and confiscation of assets by the Ministry of Finance is implemented by an automated system which is triggered upon the issuance of an indictment by the Ministry of Justice. In such instances, no formal prosecution is reportedly required.

Analysis: The Government of Syria has widely confiscated property by means of security, most commonly actuated upon allegations of terrorism or threats to state security under Syria’s various ‘terrorism laws’. The synchronization of electronic records maintained by the finance and justice ministries is likely to accelerate the rate at which security related property confiscations are issued and could lead to the mass appropriation of properties by the state in reconciled areas. This is particularly troubling given an estimated 400,000 people throughout Syria have refused to reconcile and have subsequently been evacuated from their communities of origin and branded as terrorists. The extent to which assets will be appropriated remains to be seen, but there should be cause for concern that the Government of Syria has developed a system which effectively allows for the mass confiscation of property without due process.

8. Israeli Airstrike in Hama

Masyaf, Hama governorate, Syria: An Israeli missile strike reportedly struck Masyaf, in Hama governorate, on April 13. According to Government of Syria-affiliated media sources, several missiles were intercepted by Syrian air defence systems and buildings at the target location sustained only minor damage. Alternatively, non-state sources claimed that the missile strike killed as many as five Iranian combatants, injured 17 other Government of Syria-linked combatants, and destroyed Iranian missile development and training facilities. Russian S-300 batteries are reportedly stationed in the vicinity of the target location but were unused. The Russian military was reportedly notified by the Israeli Air Force ahead of the attack, which Israeli military analysts claim used a new supersonic missile system.

Analysis: This incident represents another example of tacit Russian acceptance of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. After travelling to Moscow to personally thank President Putin for returning the body of the Israeli soldier, Zachery Baumel, reports emerged on April 7 that Prime Minister Netanyahu had agreed to formalize advance warning procedures between the Israeli and Russian militaries. If these reports are accurate, the attack on Masyaf would be the first Israeli attack based on this understanding, and indicates that Russia remains reticent about handing control of more advanced air defence systems to the Syrian Arab Army despite continued attacks on their common Iranian ally. Such forms of Israeli-Russian military coordination have the potential to exacerbate the broader contestation between Russia and Iran in Syria, but direct confrontations are highly improbable.

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: April 02 – April 08, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

April 02 to 08, 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Israeli F-35 jets targeted Aleppo after flying through 2 Arab countries: reportEnglishAl-Masdar NewsApril 4, 2019Conflict and Military
Ish Al Werwer... clashes between pro-regime militia, without relevance to fighting oppositionArabicAl ModonApril 2, 2019Conflict and Military
Dozens of ISIS fighters escape Baghouz and launch big assault on Syrian Army troops near PalmyraEnglishAl-Masdar NewsApril 2, 2019Conflict and Military
Official report on the first years of the war: Poverty "caught" 63% of the SyriansArabicAl-AkhbarApril 6, 2019Economic
Syrian farmers in Golan Heights fear loss of livelihoods, ‘cultural life’ from Israeli wind farm plansEnglishSyria DirectApril 4, 2019Economic
Lifting all exemptions related to Saudi and Emirati trucks passing through SyriaArabicAl-HalApril 2, 2019Economic
Aleppo: Why Al-Qatirji decided to decrease the price of fuel?ArabicAl ModonApril 1, 2019Economic
Jordan declares declining its exports to Syria by 70%ArabicEnab BaladiApril 2, 2019Economic
The abolition of "Defense and foreign" bodies in "Self-Administration": restructuring or functionality decreasingArabicOmran StudiesApril 5, 2019Governance and Service Management
Corruption raise the doubts about giving the regime the responsibility for Syria reconstruction ArabicStrategy WatchApril 7, 2019Governance and Service Management
Has the Russian initiative for return of displaced people already failedEnglishThe Syria ReportApril 5, 2019Social Dynamics
Meeting between Dar'a 'negotiation committee' and the Minister of Defense and high ranked officers in DamascusArabicSmart News AgencyApril 3, 2019Social Dynamics
The record of parliament foreign affairs committee meeting about refugeesArabicAl-AkhbarApril 3, 2019Social Dynamics
Detention and kidnapping increases in HamaArabicSyrians for Truth and JusticeApril 8, 2019Social Dynamics
In pictures: Floods devastate refugee camps in northern SyriaEnglishMiddle Eye EastApril 2, 2019Humanitarian & Development
France donates one million Euro for north east Syria campsArabicARTA FMApril 2, 2019Humanitarian & Development
UN provides 4.3 million dollar for Hole camp in Al-HasakehArabicEnab BaladiApril 1, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Russia and Iran divide up Syria’s securityEnglishThe Syrian ObserverApril 8, 2019International Intervention
Israeli Commandos and Russian mercenaries returned the body of the soldier Zachary BaumelArabicRozana FMApril 4, 2019International Intervention
A Russian outrage caused by the Iranian port on the MediterraneanArabicAsharq Al AwsatApril 3, 2019International Intervention
Syria denies collaboration with Russia on retrieving the Israeli soldier's bodyEnglishHaaretzApril 6, 2019Other
After about a year of "reconciliation": Where is Horan's opposition groups weapons?ArabicJesr PressApril 6, 2019Other

Syria Update: April 04 – April 10, 2019

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Syria Update

04 April to 10 April, 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 April 3, Head of the National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk, Minister of Defense Ali Abdullah Ayoub, and Head of Military Intelligence Kifah Moulhem received a Dar’a-based delegation of reconciled militia leaders and notable figures to address mounting instability in southern Syria. The past month has witnessed widespread protests across Dar’a governorate after local authorities restored a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Dar’a city on March 10, compounding a rise in security incidents targeting both reconciled figures and Government of Syria-linked military and security actors. Though the meeting sought to address issues of most concern to the current wave of protests in the south, security conditions are unlikely to improve in the near-term.  Indeed, the meeting was more notable for highlighting the dynamics at play within the Government of Syria’s management of the post-reconciliation context, where cleavages between Russian and Iranian-linked elements within the Syrian security establishment are undermining the restoration of stability and state authority in southern Syria.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:

Competition for Syrian State Security Apparatus Compounds Southern Instability

In Depth Analysis

On April 3, Head of the National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk, Minister of Defense Ali Abdullah Ayoub, and Head of Military Intelligence Kifah Moulhem received a Dar’a-based delegation of reconciled militia leaders and notable figures to address mounting instability in southern Syria. The past month has witnessed widespread protests across Dar’a governorate after local authorities restored a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Dar’a city on March 10, compounding a rise in security incidents targeting both reconciled figures and Government of Syria-linked military and security actors. Though the meeting sought to address issues of most concern to the current wave of protests in the south, security conditions are unlikely to improve in the near-term. Indeed, the meeting was more notable for highlighting the dynamics at play within the Government of Syria’s management of the post-reconciliation context, where cleavages within the Syrian security establishment are undermining the restoration of stability and state authority in southern Syria.

In an interview, the Coordinator of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee, Adnan Masalmeh, revealed that the April 3 meeting mainly addressed issues linked to the current civil unrest, noting that the Head of the National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk, confirmed his office would undertake to fulfil its commitments as per the southern Syria reconciliation agreement. This would “need time,” perhaps as much as three months, but there was reportedly agreement that the Government of Syria should explore the release of detainees, reduce the frequency of detentions, adhere to legal conscription practices, and relax restrictions and the use of force by state and state-affiliated security forces. The return to work of civil servants in Dar’a governorate was also discussed, and Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub reportedly added that the Syrian Arab Army would study the feasibility of withdrawing from commercial and industrial areas in Dar’a governorate in line with the demands of protestors. It has since emerged that the participants will reconvene at some point in the next two weeks to set out ways to deliver improvements on the ground.

For the time being however, any such improvement appears unlikely. Government of Syria-linked forces have reportedly been fortifying their positions in eastern Dar’a over the past week owing to repeated attacks, anti-Government of Syria sloganeering has been on the rise, and it is unlikely the south’s most restive communities consider the Dar’a delegation represents their interests. Indeed, the delegation includes several controversial reconciled militia leaders and notables, to include Sheikh Ahmad Bkeirat, and Mahmoud (Abu Murshid) Al-Bardan and Musab Al-Bardan, both of whom served as Commanders of Jaish Al-Thawra. More importantly however, is that the current anti-Government of Syria protests in Dar’a governorate are taking place in a broader climate of competition and contestation between state security forces in the south (and, as reported in last week’s COAR Syria Update, across Syria more broadly). In this context, the demands of protesters are likely to remain of secondary importance until these differences are resolved and/or the Government of Syria wields greater command over the entities acting on its behalf.

Throughout March 2019, protesters in southern Syria have been demonstrating against the reconstruction of a statue of Hafez Al-Assad in Dar’a city. Image courtesy of Hurriya Press.

To date, progress in either regard has been limited, and it appears that the Government of Syria is struggling to balance the divergent strategies and geopolitics driving the actions of its Russian- and Iranian-affiliated militia and constituent intelligence agencies. In the past week alone, a reconciled 4th Armoured Division commander was arrested when travelling to Damascus, members of the Russian-linked 5th Corps attacked checkpoints managed by the Iran-linked Air Force Intelligence in Bisr Elharir, Sahwa, and Mseifra, and there have been a raft of other unattributed attacks, assassination attempts, and arrests targeting members of both Russian- and Iranian-linked Government of Syria security actors.

These incidents exacerbate a rising trend of instability in the south which began with the emergence of the enigmatic Popular Resistance in October 2018, and which in February 2019 triggered the extraordinary intervention of the Government of Syria’s National Security Bureau (NSB). Although the NSB was expected to pursue any practicable means to bring the south to heel, it has been frustrated by Russian and Iranian efforts to infiltrate the Syrian security establishment in support of their own objectives. This is evident in apparent Russian-led moves to restructure elements of the Syrian military and security apparatus, through which it has variously dissolved and merged Government of Syria-aligned militia, replaced and transferred military and intelligence officers, and issued dubious lawsuits against problematic figures for abuses of power and for cooperating with terrorist groups. For its part, the Iranian government is  similarly rumored to have ordered the transfer of staff within state institutions, most notably in the case of its reported role in the ‘promotion’ of former Head of Military Intelligence, Mohamed Mahala, to an advisory position within the presidential palace.

The challenge for the NSB therefore lies in balancing the divergent strategies driving continued Iranian and Russian intervention, both in the south, and across Syria. On one hand, it appears the Government of Russia intends to develop a less sectarian Syrian security establishment, and is supporting Government of Syria-affiliated organizations to ensure that Iranian and Iranian-linked groups do not problematize buy-in for Russian efforts to reach a political settlement to the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, the Iranian government seeks to expand its reach into Syria in support of its economic and political objectives in ways which threaten to destabilize southern Syria’s toxic post-reconciliation context even further, particularly given the proximity of Israel and recent developments regarding the Golan Heights. How the Government of Syria reconciles these two agendas with its own objectives is a question that is likely to dominate the south for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the Government of Syria’s management of differences between Russian and Iranian policy in Syria is swiftly becoming one of the dominant frameworks for understanding Syrian conflict dynamics more broadly.

Whole of Syria Review

2019April 4-10 COAR Syria Update Map

1. Northwestern Syria Update

Idleb and Hama governorates, northwestern Syria: On April 5, Government of Syria forces targeted Kafr Nobol with three cluster bombs. Thirteen civilians were killed and a further 40 were injured. Local sources report the bombing was undertaken in retaliation for an attack launched by unknown actors  reportedly based in Kafr Nobol, and which resulted in the death of 5 Tiger Forces combatants in Sahel Al Ghab. Also on April 5, Government of Russia airstrikes struck Khan Sheykhun, one day after the town commemorated the second anniversary of the chemical attack on the town in April 2017. More generally, the past week has witnessed the intensification of the Government of Syria’s bombardment of northwestern Syria, particularly in Saraqeb, Ma’arrat An Nu’man, and Kafr Nobol in Idleb governorate, and Latmana, Kafr Zeita, Murak, and Tamanaah in northern Hama governorate. On April 8, Russian Battleships positioned in Lattakia targeted Jisr Ash-Shughur with long-range missiles; several civilians were injured.

Analysis: It is likely that continued Government of Syria shelling on areas within the disarmament zone intends to cause mass displacement from communities along the M4 and M5 highways. This strategy appears to have been effective; according to an April 1 statement by the spokesperson for the Secretary General of the UN, Stephen Dugrick, 90,000 people have fled communities in the disarmament zone in the past two months, many of whom have left heavily targeted locations in the vicinity of the M4 and M5 highways. Where there has been Russian involvement in these attacks, the Turkish government has likely been notified in advance. Indeed, the April 8 meeting between Presidents Putin and Erdogan reiterated continued cooperation between the two parties on northwestern Syria, indicating increased military pressure on Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to withdraw from positions near key access routes. Of note, the next round of Astana talks is scheduled for April 25-26.

2. Rumored U.S. Plan to Link SDC to Opposition

Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Syria: On April 5, sources linked to the U.S.-led coalition told media that the coalition is exploring the possibility of linking the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) with the “political opposition” [i.e. the High Negotiations Committee (HNC)] for the purposes of the Geneva and Astana processes. It has been rumored that similar efforts are being made by the Saudi government. To date however, the HNC has denied any such talks are underway. Meanwhile, on April 9, the General Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mathloum A’bdi, stated that the SDF is prepared to negotiate with the Government of Turkey on two conditions: first, that it commands the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Afrin; and second, that it stops threatening Turkish military action against the Kurdish-controlled northeast.

Analysis: Despite threats from the Commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, that the U.S. would halt its support to the SDF if it engaged in substantive talks with the Syrian government, it remains more likely that the Kurdish authorities will be compelled to do so on their own terms rather than via the HNC. Rumors of the coalition plan suggest the U.S. and its partners intend to deter the Kurdish authorities from gravitating towards the Government of Syria on matters pertaining to the future control of northeastern Syria, but ignore the fact that the HNC is a diverse body comprising several Turkish-backed groups. Indeed, it is clear from the red lines established by the Commander of the SDF that the Kurdish authorities will not engage Turkey unless the Turkish government meets its demands, but persistent differences between the two parties on these issues suggest meaningful talks are highly unlikely. Moreover, Turkey has shown limited interest in prior efforts to reach a solution to the Kurdish question through negotiation, having been largely indifferent to an earlier proposal from the former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, to develop an Arab tribal force to monitor a theoretical Turkish safe zone along Syria’s northeastern border.

3. Rukban Camp Update

Rukban Camp, Homs Governorate, Syria: Head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Viktor Kupchishin, stated that 985 IDPs had left Rukban Camp via the ‘Jleib’ humanitarian corridor on April 4. Kupchishin added that the IDPs had been transported to Government of Syria-controlled Homs governorate and now reside in temporary shelters. An additional 400 IDPs travelled from Rukban to Homs on April 7. Of note, on March 22, the Deputy Governor of Homs governorate, Amir Khalil, stated that local authorities had rehabilitated more than 1,300 schools in Homs in preparation for the receipt of IDPs from Rukban camp. Relatedly, on April 7, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, released a joint statement calling for the dismantlement of Rukban Camp. Lavrov expressed that “the most simple and effective solution” to the crisis at the camp “would be to end the illegitimate U.S. occupation” in the nearby Al-Tanf airbase and surrounding 55km deconfliction zone. For his part, Safadi stated that the only solution for Rukban is the return of IDPs to their areas of origin.

Analysis: Since March 24, approximately 1,700 IDPs have left Rukban Camp through the Russian-established ‘Jleib’ humanitarian corridor. Taken in tandem with the joint statement from the Russian and Jordanian Foreign Ministers, it is likely that the Syrian and Russian governments intend to resolve the status of Rukban without linking it to broader developments pertaining to the U.S. presence in Al-Tanf. Markedly increased return numbers have likely been triggered by the preparedness of local authorities to receive IDPs in temporary shelters, and it may be that this has provided an opportunity for many to return to their communities of origin and escape the deteriorating conditions in the camp. That said, it remains unclear where the returnees originate from or whether they have been provided with any protection guarantees upon arrival. Relatively small-scale returns are likely to continue, but it must be recalled that more than 50,000 people still remain in Rukban.

4. Returns to Northern Rural Homs

Northern rural Homs, Syria: On April 4, media sources reported that Adham Rajoub, a member of the Government of Syria Reconciliation Committee, is seeking to facilitate the return of evacuees from northern rural Homs to their communities of origin. Neither the number of returnees nor the date of their return has been decided; however, Rajoub is understood to have had a list of names approved by the Government of Syria for travel from northern Aleppo, and has identified that returnees will travel via Menbij. In 2017, Rajoub arranged the return of evacuees from northern Syria to Waer, in Homs governorate.

Analysis: Despite Russian guarantees, reconciled figures in northern rural Homs are subject to systematic targeting, kidnapping, and detention by Government of Syria security forces. IDPs returning to the area are likely to be subject to similar treatment, and efforts may be underway to obstruct the return process as means to prevent the potential influence of former opposition armed groups and entities. In this case however, Rajoub is known to be closely linked with Government of Syria intelligence services, and it is unlikely that such an initiative would be underway unless there were a realistic chance of success.

5. Road Rehabilitation in Northwestern Syria

Northwestern Syria, Syria: On April 3, the Bab El Hawa administration announced on its official website that it had initiated a road rehabilitation project in Idleb governorate. Project implementation will be undertaken in several stages, the first of which will focus on road networks in Sarmada, in northern rural Idleb governorate. Subsequently, on April 5, the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government released a statement noting that it had conducted topographic surveys of the main roads linking Bab El Hawa to Murak, and the Aleppo-Saraqeb highway. Relatedly, local sources report that the Salvation Government has lowered the cost of car registration fees in northwestern Syria in an attempt to encourage more registrations. Local sources report this initiative has already yielded increased revenues. It is expected that funds will be used to partially finance the road rehabilitation project.

Analysis: After Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham secured control over practically all communities in northwestern Syria in January 2018, the Salvation Government was installed as the dominant governance body in the area. Since this time, it has attempted to consolidate its influence, particularly in communities where the Turkish-supported National Liberation Front had previously been in control. It is therefore likely that the road rehabilitation project is at least partially linked to Salvation Government attempts to increase popular support in northwestern Syria. It must also be recalled that the restoration and reopening of the M5 and M4 highways was among the provisions of the September 2018 disarmament zone agreement between Russia and Turkey. At this stage however, it is unclear whether the current rehabilitation project is linked to this wider framework, or whether the Salvation Government is acting in the interests of parties to the disarmament zone arrangement, most likely the Government of Turkey.

6. IRGC Designated as Terrorist Group

Washington D.C., U.S.: On April 8, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. had designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. The decision will be effective as of April 15. Notably, this marks the first time the U.S. has designated units within the armed forces of another nation as a terrorist group. The move will lead to the imposition of economic and travel sanctions on both IRGC members and its affiliates. The Government of Iran responded in kind by designating the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism and U.S. soldiers as terrorists.

Analysis: The U.S. designation is unlikely to have significant operational consequences for dynamics within Syria and does not mean that confrontation between the two parties in Syria is any more likely.  Indeed, in the security domain, its repercussions are likely to be limited to providing an additional layer of justification for Israeli attacks on Iranian and Iranian-linked targets inside Syria. There has been some concern that U.S. troops and diplomats could be barred from contact with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who interact with IRGC officials and its affiliates, but U.S. officials have been quick to assert that its diplomacy will be unaffected. Moreover, many IRGC members and affiliates are already subject to sanctions given they either fall under the Iranian government or are linked to blacklisted organizations like Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

7. Nitrogen Plant Demonstrations

Homs city, Homs Governorate, Syria: On April 7, media sources reported that workers at a nitrogen plant in Homs demonstrated against the plant’s Russian owners. Workers reportedly demanded fewer working hours and that their wages be paid in USD rather than SYP. Russian Military Police quashed the protests with force, detained protestors, and sent several to Hmeimim Airbase. Of note, in 2018, the Government of Syria signed a 40-year memorandum of understanding with the Russian fuel and gas company, Stroytransgaz, to rehabilitate the General Company for Fertilizers in Homs governorate. The General Company for Fertilizers’s portfolio includes several factories in the area, of which the nitrogen plant in Homs city is the largest.

Analysis: The Government of Russia’s economic role in Syria is buttressed by its military presence. However, the use of force to protect Russian economic interests and the entry of its business people into Syria’s business class demonstrates that Russian enterprise prioritizes production and large-scale investment at the expense of worker’s rights and interests. Inevitably, this raises the possibility that civilians will come to view Russian presence on the ground less favorably. Given the length of contracts signed between Russian companies and the Syrian state, this could represent a longstanding source of tension between local communities and Russian actors in a variety of domains in Syria, to include the social, political and cultural spheres.

8. Living Standards in GoS-controlled areas

Damascus governorate, Syria: Local sources report an increase in the price of staple foods in Damascus, particularly vegetables, and note that price reductions for other items are often too modest to fall within the reach of middle and low income families. Markets in the capital also reportedly suffer from a shortage of baby milk despite earlier promises from the Government of Syria that it could guarantee adequate market supply. Costs across all commodities have been exacerbated by high fuel prices and poor fuel availability in the city, which is having knock-on effects on the reliability of public services. This has reportedly prompted Prime Minister Imad Khamis to explore the possibility of removing fuel subsidies. The challenges of daily living in Syria were highlighted in February’s National Report for Sustainable Development, which reflects upon findings elsewhere that the average cost of living for a family of 5 members in Damascus has increased by 5% in the past three months. The reports note that much of this increase has resulted from a drastic increase in food costs.

Analysis: Much of the humanitarian and development response has focused on opposition-held and formerly opposition-held areas, largely owing to higher needs and more challenging access restrictions. However, food shortages and price hikes in electricity, fuel, gasoline, and other staple goods have been a feature across Government of Syria-controlled areas for much of the conflict, and have in fact worsened in recent months. Having now made decisive territorial gains against the opposition, the Government of Syria’s ability to restore services and increase production and employment has become increasingly strained however, including in the capital. This is variously the result of the toll of sanctions and restrictive measures, the destruction of economic hubs, damage to vital infrastructure, and the widespread displacement of the Syrian workforce. In this context, the economic outlook for civilians living in government-controlled areas therefore remains bleak, particularly given the expectation that future investment in the country is – at least in the first instance – likely to profit business elites aligned with the Assad regime over the general population.

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 26 – April 01, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

March 26 to April , 2019

titlelanguagesourceDateCategory
Seven SDF combatants were killed during the first assault carried out by ISIS since their defeat declarationArabicAl HayatMarch 26, 2019Conflict and Military
A group of the Fifth Corps combatants targeted a checkpoint of the Air Force Intelligence in rural Dar'aArabicHoran Free LeagueMarch 26, 2019Conflict and Military
Fighting in Aleppo between Liwa al-Quds militia and the Fourth Division escalatesEnglishThe Syrian ObserverMarch 26, 2019Conflict and Military
For the first time: Tahrir Al-Sham declares an assault again Assad forces in Deir-ez-ZorArabicEnab BaladiMarch 28, 2019Conflict and Military
Assad loyalists are turning on Syria’s government as life conditions deteriorateEnglishThe Washington PostMarch 25, 2019Economic
Establishing a holding company in Aleppo.. Aiming to steal displaced people's propertiesArabicEqtsadMarch 30, 2019Economic
Afrin's olive tragedy at the wake of "Olive Branch"ArabicRozana RadioMarch 31, 2019Economic
China eyes Lebanese port to launch investments in Syria and the regionEnglishAl-MonitorMarch 29, 2019Economic
Assad appoints new head of Military IntelligenceEnglishThe Syrian ObserverMarch 26, 2019Governance and Service Management
A Suspicious project... Sarmada local council refuses the Salvation Government's attempt to create Shura council claiming the representation of the northwestern SyriaArabicShaam NetworkMarch 27, 2019Governance and Service Management
"Salvation Government" forms committees to control rural Aleppo's mosquesArabicEnab BaladiMarch 29, 2019Governance and Service Management
Russia burns down the "Russian initiative" to repatriate Syrian refugeesArabicAl modonMarch 29, 2019Social Dynamics
Syria's Kurds increasingly isolated as Arab tribes draw deals with regimeEnglishAl-MonitorMarch 29, 2019Social Dynamics
Localism, war, and the fragmentation of Sunni Islam in SyriaEnglishCarnegie Middle East CenterMarch 28, 2019Social Dynamics
Fifth regional survey on Syrian refugees’ perceptions and intentions on return to SyriaEnglishUnited Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesMarch 28, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Trump's decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan: Backgrounds and driversArabicArab Center for Research and Policy StudiesMarch 28, 2019International Intervention
Syria: Unlawful attacks by government forces hit civilians and medical facilities in IdlibEnglishAmnesty InternationalMarch 28, 2019Other
Islamic State group: Syria's Kurds call for international tribunalEnglishBBCMarch 26, 2019Other
The regime recruits a former opposition leader to form faction south of SyriaArabicArabi 21March 29, 2019Other
As displaced East Ghoutans mark one year in exile, tales of arrests and forced conscriptions reverberate from back homeEnglishSyria DirectMarch 28, 2019Other
The forgotten Golan: Attempts to change its identity are not only IsraeliArabicAl Quds Al ArabiMarch 30, 2019Other

Syria Update: March 28 – April 03, 2019

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Syria Update

28 March to 03 April, 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:

Throughout the reporting period, heavy clashes have taken place between different Government of Syria military units in at least five different governorates. The cause of these conflicts differ across areas and range from localized tensions, to competition over economic resources, to personal disputes. However, the scale and frequency of inter-Government of Syria clashes highlights the major challenges the state faces in commanding the allegiance of its increasingly independent constituent militias and army units. To an extent, these difficulties can be attributed to the way in which these militias were formed, and as a function of the Government of Syria’s lack of manpower and financial resources. However, they can also be attributed to recent Government of Russia efforts to restructure and formalize Syrian armed groups and military units. Indeed, by attempting to restructure the Syrian military, the Government of Russia has simultaneously created a highly competitive and conflict-ridden environment which, at least temporarily, will likely drive Government of Syria military units into further internal competition.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • The selection of electoral committee to form a new Shoura Council in northwestern Syria began; while the election of a new Shoura council presents a major opportunity for northwestern Syria governance bodies to distance themselves from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, it is likely that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham will dominate the election process.
  • Homes in the Yarmouk basin, in southwestern Dar’a were reportedly confiscated by members of the 7th Division, highlighting the continued HLP challenges facing Syrian IDPs.
  • A reconciled armed opposition commander in northern Homs was released within a week of his detention following Russian intervention; the speed with which he was released indicates strong Russian support for Russian-linked commanders and armed groups.
  • The formation of a new holding company was announced in Aleppo; the holding company will likely resemble the Sham Holding Company in Damascus which is responsible for the Marota City reconstruction project, and indicates the means by which the Government of Syria intends to reconstruct Syria’s major cities.
  • President Aoun met with President Putin regarding a range of issues, including refugee returns; statements emerging from the meeting suggest that Russia will moderate its rhetoric regarding returns, but this is unlikely to result in a change to the status quo for refugees in Lebanon and neighboring states more broadly.
  • Fuel imports to Government of Syria-held areas resumed; however, it is highly likely that future fuel imports will significantly benefit the Damascus Chamber of Commerce over other economic actors.
  • Russian representatives met with Christian militia leaders in northern Hama; it appears likely that the Government of Russia intends to build stronger linkages with the Syrian Christian community as a potential source of influence.
  • The Lattakia – Homs – Nasriyeh line of Syrian railways entered service for the first time in years; considering the role Iran plays in both the Lattakia port and the Nasriyeh military airbase, as well as Iranian plans to expand Syrian railway networks, it is likely that the Government of Iran intends to continue to focus on expanding its influence over Syrian transportation networks for the foreseeable future.

Internal Government of Syria Conflict

In Depth Analysis

Pro-government militia members walk the streets of Aleppo City. Image courtesy of “Halab Today”

Throughout the past week, several different Government of Syria-affiliated armed groups have clashed with one another in numerous locations across Syria.

  • On March 25, the Syrian Arab Army 4th Division, alongside members of the Al-Baqir brigades and other NDF units, engaged in heavy clashes with Liwa Al-Quds in the Hamdaniyeh neighborhood of Aleppo city. As of April 1, these clashes are ongoing and have in fact expanded.
  • Between March 22-25, elements of the 5th Division and the ‘Mubarak brigade’ (a local NDF unit) engaged the Abu Fadl Abbas Brigades and the Syrian Araby Army 4th Division in the vicinity of Salhab and Abu Dali, in northern Hama. Clashes  between different Government of Syria armed groups have become a regular occurence in northern Hama over the past month.
  • On March 28, clashes broke out in Qardaha (the ancestral home of the Al-Assad family), in Lattakia governorate, between the 4th Division and Al-Areen Force 313, a prominent local NDF unit led by Bashar Al-Assad (the eponymous cousin of President Bashar Al-Assad); as of April 1 these clashes have temporarily ceased, although Qardaha has now been declared a closed military zone and is now surrounded by the 4th Division.   
  • On March 26, clashes took place in Al-Sahwa village, in eastern Dar’a, between elements of the 5th Division and the Airforce Intelligence; clashes between different Government of Syria brigade have become an almost weekly occurrence in Dar’a governorate since at least the start of 2019.  
  • Finally, on March 30, the 4th Division engaged a group of local Iranian-backed militias (believed to be Liwa Fatimiyoun and Liwa Zeinabiyoun) in Mayadeen, in eastern Deir-ez-Zor. Confrontations between these parties have since ceased.

These clashes all have diverse, and highly local origins. The clashes in Aleppo city stem largely from disputes over the control of valuable real estate and lucrative checkpoints; the clashes in Hama originate in disputes over looting opportunities and control over key smuggling routes; the clashes in Lattakia are reportedly due to the fact that Bashar Al-Assad (the cousin of the President) was to be detained for killing a member of the Lattakia Criminal Security Branch; the clashes in Dar’a are largely related to tensions between different formerly reconciled combatants and internal competition between security services; and the clashes in Deir-ez-Zor reportedly stemmed from a personal dispute between two different armed group combatants.  Though their causes may be various, the sheer scale of the inter-Government of Syria clashes and the fact that they are now taking place in five governorates highlights a major dynamic which is increasingly defining the future of the Syrian conflict: the Government of Syria now faces extreme difficulty commanding its constituent and affiliated armed groups.

Certainly, a large component of the Government of Syria’s significant command and control problems are based in a lack of manpower and funding. The Government of Syria’s lack of manpower was a major component of its initial strategy to support the creation of numerous local militias throughout Syria, and to invite foreign militias into the country.  The Government of Syria’s inability to fund these militias was a major contributing factor to prominent businessmen creating their own militias, and enabled militias to seek out their own funding streams through checkpoint control, looting, or real estate speculation.  However, as the conflict winds down, incorporating this patchwork system into a coherent national structure is extremely difficult given many militias are reliant on shrinking conflict-related revenue streams, thereby forcing these groups into competition (as in Aleppo or Hama. It is also worth noting that Syria’s dire and deteriorating economic conditions have compounded the degree to which pro-Government militias are inclined to compete with one another. A Syrian Arab Army Soldier earns approximately $40 per month, with a Government-aligned militia combatant making on average $140-$200 per month; both sums are certainly insufficient to support a family. The financial drivers of internal conflict have also been compounded in many areas by the incorporation of reconciled armed opposition combatants, who often have their own unique tensions with both their communities or origin, and one another.

The Government of Russia is also of key importance to the current shape of Government of Syria-linked militia and army units, specifically given the role its has assumed in altering existing Syrian political-military structures. Over the past three months (indeed, likely longer), the Government of Russia has clearly embarked on a policy of restructuring the Syrian military.  According to local sources, the clearest manifestation of this policy is in the creation of a new office in the Syrian Arab Army, the Office of Human Resources, which was created at some point over the past three months as part of a merger between the Office of Officer Affairs and the Office of Human Security. Reportedly, the new head of the Office of Human Resources, Amjad Issa, was personally selected by Russian representatives at the Hmeimim Airbase, and has a direct connection to Russian military representatives. Through Issa’s office, numerous Syrian military officers have been pushed into retirement, moved to new military brigades, and it has been rumored that numerous military officers have also been detained as part of this reshuffle. Certainly, none of the current inter-Government of Syria clashes can be directly attributed to this restructuring policy, but its emergence highlights the current political environment facing both Syrian Arab Army and pro-Government militia office. Though Russian attempts to restructure and potentially formalize the Syrian military are badly needed, they are also likely to contribute to an environment of paranoia, internal competition, and divided loyalties which will manifest in continued internal conflict for the foreseeable future.

Whole of Syria Review

2019APR03 Syria Update

1. NWS Shoura Council Elections

Northwestern Syria, Syria:  On March 27 and 28, the electoral process to elect a new Shoura Council in northwestern Syria reportedly began. The creation of a Shoura Council is a key outcome of the ‘General Conference of the Syrian Revolution’, which began in February 2019 and was organized by local activists known for their affiliation to the Salvation Government.  Following the election process, the Shoura Council will become the primary political leadership of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria and will select the composition of a new governance body to potentially replace the Salvation Government. The Shoura Council will be elected by the General Conference High Directorate of Elections, which is comprised of a set of electoral committees representing each administrative area in opposition-controlled northwestern Syria. Electoral committees are comprised of representatives from each community in northwestern Syria, as well as various local notables and technocrats. Notably, northwestern Syria’s Salvation Government-affiliated local councils are responsible for selecting these electoral committees, albeit under the nominal supervision of the General Conference High Directorate of Elections. Of note, local sources indicate that various activists and local notables have accused the Salvation Government or Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham of deliberately marginalizing key ‘revolutionary figures’ from participating in the electoral committees.

Analysis: The significance of the Shoura Council elections hinges upon the degree to which its members are overwhelmingly hardline Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham supporters. This will determine the extent to which the body will act as a vehicle for a political restructuring of northwestern Syria in the future. Despite the fact that local sources report that the Salvation Government is heavily involved in the local electoral committee selection process, the election of the General Conference Shoura Council presents an opportunity for the northwest. If the General Conference succeeds in electing a generally representative Shoura Council that is perceived as legitimate and generally ‘moderate’ (i.e. not overly linked to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham hardliners), the new governance body it establishes may be in a position to engage with international actors in the diplomatic domain. This would in turn rehabilitate the image of northwestern Syria’s governance bodies, and counter narratives that northwestern Syria is entirely dominated by extremist groups. This is an optimistic interpretation of likely events however, with the most likely outcome of the Shoura Council elections being the election of a Shoura Council which is largely selected by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, and which will more or less restructure northwestern Syria’s governance bodies to resemble the Salvation Government.

2. Home Confiscation in Yarmouk

Ash-Shajara subdistrict, Dar’a Governorate, Syria: On March 31, media sources reported that the Syrian Arab Army’s 7th Division confiscated numerous civilian homes in Koya, Ash-Shajara subdistrict, in the Yarmouk Basin. 7th Division soldiers reportedly denied returnees access to their homes, citing a threat from ISIS sleeper cells. Returnees to the area have reportedly sought the intervention of Louay Al-Ali, Head of the Military Security Branch in southern Syria, as well as Russian representatives, but their requests have been unmet. Separately, local sources report that Military Intelligence and reconciled combatants acting on behalf of the 7th Division have prevented Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from entering the Yarmouk basin at the orders of Dar’a’s Air Intelligence Branch.

Analysis: Civilians in reconciled areas across Syria must already contend with onerous administrative, legal and judicial processes to secure property, tenure and ownership. However, in addition to the instability surrounding the competing interests of Government of Syria-affiliated militia in southern Syria, returns to the Yarmouk Basin are further complicated by the proximity of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Clearly, efforts to prevent the entry of Iranian and Iranian-affiliated groups to the area are concerned with decreasing the potential for triggering an Israeli response in Syrian territory, and point to a highly securitized local environment. Given these geopolitical dynamics enable additional security-based rationale for the denial and/or dilution of HLP rights, they present a further barrier to returns to communities in the Yarmouk Basin, and will likely limit return numbers and increase protection concerns for existing and near- to medium-term returnees.

3. Release of Reconciled Commander

Talbiseh City, Northern Rural Homs, Syria: On March 30, media sources reported that Russia’s  Hmeimim Reconciliation Center has facilitated the release of the former commander of Jaish Al-Tawheed, Manhal ‘Al-Salouh’ Dahiq.  Dahiq was reportedly detained by Air Force Intelligence on March 23 for unknown reasons, but it is notable that shortly after his reconciliation, Dahiq joined the Military Security Branch in northern Homs and was responsible for reconciling and subsequently recruiting many of his former comrades in Jaish Al-Tawhid to the Military Security Branch. According to local sources, Dahiq was responsible for conducting regular conscription campaigns in northern Homs, and was unpopular in many communities in northern Homs.

Analysis: The detention and swift release of Dahiq further evidences the lack of clear command and control structures within Government of Syria forces and affiliated militias. As noted in the in-depth analysis section, this lack of control is increasingly evident across Government of Syria-controlled areas through the confrontation, competition and tensions between its various divisions. It is likely that such disputes and divergent decision-making streams are the product of efforts by the Government of Russia to assert its influence within the Syrian military; thus, when a commander close to the Government of Russia such as Dahiq is detained, it is incumbent on Russian representatives to secure his release in order to assert their role as guarantors of many reconciled areas. Of note, though Russian representatives may be able to secure the release of aligned commanders and militia leaders, their ability to contain security and military-related conflicts and criminality within reconciled areas remains questionable.

4. New Holding Company in Aleppo

Aleppo City, Syria: On March 31, media sources indicated that the Aleppo City Council issued a directive for the creation of a new – as yet unnamed – holding company in the city. The new holding company is likely to adopt a similar role to that of the Sham Holding Company in the Marota City reconstruction project in Damascus city. As per a statement from the head of Aleppo City Council, Maad Al-Madlaji, the establishment of a holding company intends to attract investment to the city to initiate reconstruction. Al-Madlaji also indicated that the Aleppo City Council will soon start the necessary legal processes for the establishment of the new holding company.

Analysis: Details regarding the ultimate trajectory of Aleppo city’s reconstruction have yet to emerge. However, the decision to establish a holding company similar to the Sham Holding Company Damascus indicates that Government of Syria reconstruction efforts are likely to be implemented within similar frameworks i.e. through contracting private Syrian companies commissioned to build housing and infrastructure. As such, the kind of HLP concerns reported frequently in Damascus are likely to also arise in Aleppo. Evacuees from Aleppo are likely to face serious challenges in claiming property ownership and tenure, particularly those evacuated following the Government of Syria offensive on the city in late 2016. It is also worth recalling that holding companies of this kind are likely to benefit business elites closely aligned with the upper echelons of the Assad regime.

5. Lebanese President Visits Moscow

Moscow, Russia: On March 26, and concurrent with the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beirut and Moscow, Lebanese President Michel Aoun met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Presidents Aoun and Putin reportedly discussed regional issues including the situation in Syria and Iraq, the Golan Heights, Iran, and the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon. Notably, the Government of Russia insisted that the safe return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon cannot be accomplished without a political solution in Syria. Media sources noted that Aoun asked the Government of Russia to apply pressure to the Government of Syria to accelerate the return process however, Putin reportedly advised Aoun and Lebanese Prime Minister Gebran Bassil to conduct an official visit to Damascus to discuss the issue.

Analysis: Putin’s statement regarding the ‘safe return’ of Syrian refugees from Lebanon is highly noteworthy given it indicates that Russian pressure to trigger refugee returns has been put on hold for the time being. It is likely this position has been taken in an attempt to balance the interests of Russia’s regional partners and those of the Government of Syria, which continues to resist refugee returns prior to a political situation for two reasons. First, the Government of Syria will likely use the refugee issue in order to unlock funds for reconstruction given the UN-led Geneva process demands solid infrastructure to support returns. Second, President Bashar Al-Assad likely recognizes that refugee returns will affect the results of the 2021 Syrian elections, and is likely to keep refugees outside of the country until the elections are held. For the time being, the meeting between Putin and Auon is unlikely to produce any concrete outcomes for refugees in neighboring states. Though the Government of Russia has committed to the return of Syrian refugees, the stance expressed to Aoun is one which balances Government of Syria, neighboring country and Western interests without definitively altering the status quo.

6. Fuel Imports to GoS Areas

Damascus City, Syria: On March 30, the Damascus Chamber of Commerce issued a statement to the Syrian industrial sector, noting that fuel is now available for purchase at the price of SYP 475 per liter. On the same date, Samer Debes, Head of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, stated that the first fuel shipment had arrived in Damascus and that the beginning of the end of the fuel crisis was underway. Shortly afterwards, the Damascus Chamber of Commerce issued a second statement noting that the increased price of fuel includes shipping costs, and that the importing company is responsible for setting the price. Thus, it is subject to change. Notably, as mentioned in a recent COAR Syria Update, on March 4, Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, issued a decision allowing Syrian businessmen to import fuel and gasoline by land or sea for a period of three months. It is worth noting that prior to the Government of Syria’s March 4 decision, the Chamber of Commerce primarily bought fuel from Qaterji Fuel Company, which had extremely high prices and only provided a limited amount.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s decision to allow the Chamber of Commerce to purchase fuel from neighboring countries was likely partially aimed at strengthening the role of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce. Samer Debes, the Head of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, is known to have close ties with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. That said, it is also likely that the decision was also partially aimed at breaking the Qaterji Fuel Company’s monopoly over fuel imports. It is highly noteworthy that Debes’s statement seems to indicate that the Damascus Chamber of Commerce will import fuel and subsequently sell it to Syrian businesses, which is not in accordance with the March 4 decision. The importance of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce in Syria’s economic landscape is therefore only likely to increase, especially considering the country’s continued fuel crisis.

7. Meeting between Russians and NDF in Hama

As-Suqaylabiyah and Muhradah, Hama Governorate, Syria: On March 29 and 30, a Russian military delegation visited the predominantely-Christian towns of Muhardah and As-Suqaylabiyah in Hama governorate. During the visit, the delegation met with National Defense Forces (NDF) commanders, namely Simon al-Wakil and Nabil Abdallah. The delegation was accompanied by members of the Russian orthodox church and Suheil Al-Hassan, Commander of the Government of Russia-supported Tiger Forces. Hassan also reportedly convened a separate meeting with al-Wakil and Abdallah, and was seen holding and kissing a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Analysis: It is worth noting that previously the predominantly Christian NDF units in As-Suqaylabiyah and Muhradah were largely supported and funded by the Government of Iran. The Russian delegation’s visit to the predominantly Christian towns is therefore extremely significant. The fact that Suheil Al-Hassan and the Russian delegation met with the commanders of the NDF likely indicates that the Government of Russia intends to increasingly develop its influence within Syria’s Christian communities and that it seeks to counter Iranian influence over armed groups and minority communities in Syria. Additionally, the Government of Russia is also reportedly attempting to influence popular opinion in both communities by providing monetary support to local Christian charities. Of note, following the clashes between the 4th Armoured division and the 5th Corps  in western rural Hama governorate in February 2019, al-Wakil and Abdalla reportedly visited Hmeimim airbase and were given medals by Russian officials.

8. Iranian Role in Syrian Railways

Lattakia city, Lattakia Governorate, Syria: On March 26, media sources reported that railways linking the port of Lattakia to Nasriyeh, in the Eastern Qalamoun (via Homs city) were used recently to transfer wheat shipments. The General Administration of Railways completed the rehabilitation of the railway in February 2019, but notably repairs on this section of the Syrian rail network were undertaken only after the Government of Iran took control over both the Nasriyeh military airbase and the Lattakia port authority. Indeed, Iranian representatives reportedly oversee transportation along this stretch of the Syrian railway network.

Analysis: An increased Iranian role in Syria’s economy and transportation networks is likely to become a major factor in Syria’s post-conflict economic landscape. The Government of Iran has been engaging in various joint economic projects in Syria, with land transport considered a major priority. The potential rehabilitation of transport lines within Syria, and the subsequent linkage of transport lines with Iraq and Iran, was in fact raised in tripartite meetings between representatives of the three governments on March 17, 2019. This also aligns with previous statements made by the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Transportation announcing a joint Iranian-Syrian plan to extend the Syria railway lines from the ports of Lattakia and Tartous into eastern Syria. Though the rehabilitation of Syrian railway lines is still largely in the inception phase, it remains likely that similar plans may trigger Russian concern over Iran’s growing economic influence in 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.