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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.