Syria Update: May 23 – May 29, 2019

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Syria Update

23 May to 29 Mayy, 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 May 21, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivered a speech to a group of Syrian religious figures, members of the Endowments (Awqaf) Ministry, and prominent religious scholars, during the inaguration of the newly created ‘Damascus International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism’ (DIICCTE).  President Al-Assad’s speech speaks to the increased role that the Syrian state intends to take in Sunni religious institutions across Syria, and like many of President Al-Assad’s speeches, it will likely set the tone for Syrian policy with respect to the state’s involvement in religious institutions.  President Al-Assad noted that sectarianism and extremism had become a defining feature of the conflict; he also noted that even the Government of Syria had used ‘sectarianism’ against the armed opposition. President Al-Assad went on to imply that part of this ‘extremism’ problem came from pre-war Syrian state policies, and essentially argued that in the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s, the secular Syrian state had come to be perceived as against the Sunni religion as a whole.  To that end, the creation of the DIICCTE, as well as previous Government of Syria decisions such as Edict 16, is a means of allowing the Syrian state to exert much greater influence over religious discourse in Syria, and to entwine religious institutions into the state itself. Indeed, what is implied in President Al-Assad’s speech is an abandonment of the agressively secular stance of the Baath party, and the creation of a new ‘Syrian’ Sunni Islam (as opposed to a ‘Gulf’ or ‘Al-Azhar’ Islam), which is in alignment with the priorities of the Syrian state.

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

President Al-Assad Speech to Endowments Ministry

In Depth Analysis

On May 21, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivered a speech to a group of Syrian religious figures, members of the Endowments (Awqaf) Ministry, and prominent religious scholars in order to inagurate the newly created ‘Damascus International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism’ (DIICCTE).  The DIICCTE will sit under the authority of the Endowments Ministry, and will have four departments: The National Institution for the Preparation of Imams; The International Institution for Arabic and Sharia Sciences; The Special Department for Monitoring Extremist Ideas and Takfiri Fatwas; and The Department Against Extremist Ideologies.  The importance of the newly created DIICCTE is unclear; certainly, the organization will have a large role in the selection and training of religious figures, and in dictating what is ‘acceptable’ religious discourse. However, its creation, and President Al-Assad’s speech, speaks to the increased role that the Syrian state intends to take in Sunni religious institutions across Syria.

President Al-Assad’s speech was nearly 45 minutes long.  Like many of President Al-Assad’s speeches, it touched on numerous topics and was often internally contradictory; also like many of President Al-Assad’s speeches, it will likely set the tone for Syrian state policy.  In the speech, President Al-Assad addressed how sectarianism had become a dominant feature of the Syrian conflict, and stated that religious extremism “led to [this] situation…this extremism has led to an increase in sectarianism in Syria to an unprecedented degree.  He even explicitly noted that the Syrian state had used sectarianism against the armed opposition, noting that: “when there is a sectarian argument used as a tool at the beginning of the war, there is also a sectarian reaction [from the Government side].”

President Al-Assad further elaborated on the origins of this sectarianism and extremism.  He noted that “most of the Syrian people are religious, but religious to a [lesser] degree…but they cannot differentiate between religion and extremism…for many of these, anyone wearing an A’mama (Sunni religious garb) is either a Muslim Brother or has Muslim Brother tendecies.” He added that “of course this is a repercussion of the time of the ‘Brotherhood Devils’ in the late 1970s and the early 1980s…the crisis is that many of these [religious Syrians] cannot distinguish between a religious citizen and fanatic citizen and between the religious world and the extremist world.”

President Al-Assad went on to note that part of this problem came in pre-war Syrian state policies.  He essentially makes the argument that in the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s, the secular Syrian state had come to be perceived as against the Sunni  religion as a whole, noting that “We see the results of this misunderstanding as being that the state is percieved as either atheist….or at least against religion.” He added that: “Before the war we [the Government of Syria] did not distinguish between ‘atheist’ secularism and ‘secular’ secularism…this relationship that has been established by some of the religious…is thus to say ‘this is religious and this is secular’…this is a mistake.”

Essentially, President Al-Assad is laying the framework for a much greater role for the Syrian state in religion and religious institutions in Syria.  In a (very roundabout) way, he is claiming that the problem of ‘extremism’ is Syria came from the fact that the Syrian state had presented itself as explicitly against, or at least not involved with, religious institutions, and thus allowed many religious figures to claim that any religious person must thus be also against the state.  To that end, the creation of the DIICCTE is a means of allowing the Syrian state to exert much greater influence over religious discourse in Syria; it is also a clear indication that the Government of Syria intends to more closely associate it image with (approved) Sunni religious institutions. Notably, this is not the first indication that the Government of Syria intends to more closely involve itself in religious affairs: in October 2018, a bill known as ‘Edict 16’ was passed by Syrian parliament.  Edict 16 stipulated a restructuring of the Endowments Ministry, which also oversees regulation for and maintenance of religious institutions, charities, administrative bodies, and buildings (such as mosques). Edict 16 empowered and expanded the Endowments Ministry, the point that the Endowments Ministry has much more direct oversight over Sunni religious youth engagement, education, sermons, and religious publications; the Waqf Ministry would also be able to directly appoint new Muftis, and assign Muftis to each administrative level of Syria.

Greater state involvement in Sunni religious institutions will certainly have far reaching effects.  Indeed, one area of Syrian civil society which receives relatively little attention is the role that local religious institutions play in local civic life.  Small-scale local Sunni charity organizations are important local stakeholders; religious officials play an important role in dispute mediation; Syrian personal status laws, marriages, and inheritances are all based on interpretations of Sharia law.  Thus, by exerting greater influence over Sunni religious institutions, and entwining these institutions into the structure of the Syrian state, the Government of Syria likely intends to create a new framework which will eventually make the Sunni religion an increasingly prominent arm of state policy and state identity.  Indeed, what is implied in President Al-Assad’s speech is the creation of a new ‘Syrian’ Sunni Islam (as opposed to a ‘Gulf’ or ‘Al-Azhar’ Islam), which is in alignment with the priorities of the Syrian state.

Whole of Syria Review

2019May 23-29 COAR Syria Update Map

1. Northwestern Syria Update

Idleb, Hama and Aleppo Governorates, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, Government of Syria forces re-established control over Kafr Nabutha and its vicinity, reversing the armed opposition group counter-offensive which took place in the area last week. Government of Syria military advances were accompanied by airstrikes that reportedly targeted locations throughout northwestern Syria, to include southern rural Idleb governorate, southwestern rural Aleppo, and northern rural Hama. Notably, on May 22, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Government of Syria would open two humanitarian corridors for civilian evacuations in Suran and Abul Thuhour. Relatedly, on May 25, media sources cited an unnamed armed opposition combatant, who stated that Turkish military was now providing weapons to Turkish-backed armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria; a commander in National Liberation Front (NLF), General Naji Mostafa, denied that Turkey was providing any new weaponry. However, according to Yousef Hammoud, a spokesperson for the Turkish-backed National Army based in northern Aleppo and Afrin, combatants from the National Army have now been deployed to the frontlines in Idleb and Hama to support against the Government of Syria. To that end, on May 27 media sources reported that a meeting took place between many of the armed groups in northernwestern Syria, to include Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the NLF, during which they discussed greater logistical coordination.

Analysis: There are indications that the Government of Russia and the Government of Turkey are increasingly misaligned with respect to their policy in northwestern Syria.  Previously, COAR had assessed that the Government of Syria’s northwestern Syria offensive would be limited, and was being done in coordination with the Government of Turkey, likely in exchange for concessions in SDF Tel Rifaat, in Afrin. However, Government of Syria’s intensive aerial attacks throughout northwestern Syria, the intensity of the current conflict in northern Hama, and the fact that Turkey has now deployed National Army groups to northwestern Syria are indications that Turkey is effectively trying to impede Government of Syria advances in the area, at least temporarily. It is likely that the conflict in northwestern Syria will continue for at least the near term. However, the likelihood that the offensive will expand as far as the Turkish-border remains unlikely; this is due to the likelihood that the Government of Russia will press for further negotiations with the Government of Turkey given its considerable interest in northern and northwestern Syria.

2. Reduced Movement Restrictions in Duma

Duma City, Rural Damascus Governorate, Syria: On May 26, media and local sources reported that the Government of Syria forces have reduced existing movement restrictions to and from Duma city. Notably, civilians in Eastern Ghouta were previously required to obtain a security permit issued by the National Security Office with a justification for them to enter Damascus. As per this source, civilians currently living in Duma city no longer need to obtain specific permission from the Government of Syria in order to enter or leave Duma city. This decision was reportedly taken by the Governor of Rural Damascus Alaa Mounir Ibrahim, in partnership with a Member of Parliament, Mohamad Khayr Saryoul. Notably, local sources indicated that the decision to alleviate movement restrictions was due in part to the efforts of several local businessmen originally from Duma city who are currently working with Saryoul, who is also from Duma city, to pressure the governor to prioritize greater rehabilitation and development in Duma city.

Analysis:  Assessed on its own, the alleviation of security-related movement restrictions will likely have a positive impact on local market conditions and economic activity in Duma city.  Notably, the alleviation of movement restrictions for Duma city are specific to those who are currently residing in Duma; there is no indication that the directive extends to the thousands of IDPs originally from Duma city that are still located in Damascus city or in camps in Rural Damascus.  However, the alleviation of these movement restrictions speaks to a much broader and more interesting dynamic: the ability of local economic stakeholders to affect state policy. The local Duma city economic stakeholders, currently lobbying MP Saryoul, are broadly aligned with the Government of Syria; these individuals are collectively acting in their own business interests, as they have obvious interests in an economically functional Duma city.  However, a secondary impact of this business lobby is a tangible improvement in the lives of many of Duma city residents. This could be portrayed as yet another example of the Syrian business community using its political leverage to influence the trajectory of Syria’s eventual reconstruction; however, this could (and should) also be understood as an example of a specific portion of Syrian civil society that has successfully influenced the overarching state policy in their communities.

3. Southern Syria Tensions

Dar’a Governorate, Southern Syria: On May 23, media and local sources indicated that the Government of Syria forces have lifted its intense movement restrictions (frequently referred to as a ‘siege’) on As-Sanaman city; sources reported that Russian representatives pressured Government of Syria’s 9th Division to remove the movement restrictions, despite the fact that no agreement was reached between Government of Syria forces and the armed groups in As-Sanamayn. Notably, Government of Syria forces surrounded As-Sanamayn on May 21 following a failed operation which intended to detain a prominent reconciled former armed opposition commander, Walid Zahra.  His supporters, many of whom were armed, expelled Government of Syria forces, and for a total of eight days the Government of Syria prevented commercial goods from entering the city and only allowed the exit and entry of students and public employees to and from the area. Similar to the unfolding situation in As-Sanamayn, on May 22, local sources reported that a group of reconciled combatants that were formerly with Jaish Mo’tazbillah took control of several Government of Syria checkpoints in Jlein, Mazare Jlein, and Mzerea, and confiscated light weapons from Government of Syria forces deployed at the checkpoints.  Reportedly, the reconciled combatants took control of the checkpoints due to the Government of Syria forces’ detainment of a former Jaish Mo’tazbillah commander, Haithan Harir, in Jlein on May 21.

Analysis: The security situation in Dar’a governorate, especially in western rural Dar’a, is deteriorating at an increasing pace to the point of open conflict.  Indeed, as indicated by the events that have taken place in As-Sanamayn and Jlein over the past two weeks, the Government of Syria in increasingly incapable of enforcing its control over a substantial number of reconciled armed opposition combatants. However, despite the increased confrontation and the seemingly increased fragility of the Government of Syria control over western rural parts of Dar’a governorate, it is unlikely that the current wave of destabilization will lead to the creation of new armed opposition.  What is more likely is that reconciled former combatants will use their increasingly de-facto control over much of rural Dar’a to negotiate a degree of local independence from Government of Syria security services, while remaining nominally under the overarching umbrella of existing Government of Syria forces. As indicated in previous Syria Update reports, the deterioration of the security situation in southern Syria will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

4. SDF Combatants Announce Defection

Tal Brak, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On May 23, media and local sources indicated that a total of 300 Arab combatants within the SDF publicly announced their outright refusal to follow their commanders. Local sources reported that these combatants demanded to be released from military service, claiming that they are no longer eligible for conscription according to the latest amendments to SDF conscription policies (covered in a previous Syria Update).  At least 40 of these combatants defected from their military units and fled.  In response, SDF forces have reportedly raided their families’ homes; media and local sources have given contradictory accounts of these raids, and it remains unclear whether they resulted in any deaths or injuries.  Relatedly, throughout the reporting period the SDF intensified its ongoing conscription campaign: reportedly, nearly 200 individuals were detained for conscription in Quamishli, Ras Al-Ein, Al-Yaarib, Al-Shaddadeh, Al-Malikkiyeh and Tal Brak.

Analysis: It is important to note that the aforementioned amendments to the SDF’s conscription policies have not yet taken effect; thus far, they have been openly discussed and leaked to local media, but have not actually been officially approved or implemented.  Nevertheless, the recent refusal of these Arab combatants to serve in the SDF is in line with anti-SDF and anti-Self Administration sentiments among Arab tribal communities across northeastern Syria. There are growing public manifestations of Arab discontent with the SDF and the Self Administration, throughout nearly all of northeastern Syria; indeed, as noted in point 6 of this Syria Update, the SDF is attempting to take steps to address some of these grievances.  However, by granting piecemeal concessions to specific tribes it is unlikely that the SDF or the Self Administration will fundamentally curb these sentiments in the absence of actual reforms: SDF conscription is deeply unpopular; Kurds remain the most important commanders in the SDF; Kurds are highly prominent in governance institutions throughout the Self Administration, even in predominantly Arab areas; and SDF and Asayish crackdowns, either on ISIS or on SDF defectors, look indistinct to a blanket Arab crackdown in many communities.  Naturally, these tensions are also being exacerbated by Turkish, Iranian, and Government of Syria interactions with prominent tribal leaders. The increasing intensity of anti-SDF and anti-Self Administration sentiment amongst northeastern Syria’s Arabs tribal must be taken seriously – this is especially true for international organizations working in northeastern Syria, which closely coordinate with the Self Administration.

5. Fuel Shipments to Syria

Damascus, Syria: Citing an official source within the Ministry of Fuel and Mineral Resources, on May 27 media sources indicated that two crude oil shipments arrived to Syria and are likely to sustain the Syrian fuel market for approximately one month. The Ministry of Fuel and Mineral Resources source further stated that the ongoing fuel shortages in Syria would be entirely mitigated in the event that an Iranian credit line was restored.  Notably, Iran had given Syria a $2 billion credit line for fuel at the outset of the conflict, but cancelled this credit line in October 2018 due to the intensified U.S. sanctions. The Ministry of Fuel and Mineral Resources source thus highly doubted the credit line would be restored in the near future.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s capacity to ensure the continuous provision of fuel and gas to its population is now almost entirely contingent on Iranian and Russia support. While Syria was once a net fuel exporter, the massive destruction to the Syrian economy and Syrian infrastructure has made Syria completely dependant on fuel imports. Indeed, even if northeastern Syria’s remaining oil and fuel production were to come under the control of the Government of Syria, this would still be insufficient to address Syria’s fuel consumption needs.  It is also important to note that importing fuel to Syria is also extremely difficult due to international sanctions; Iran has serious logistical difficulties in exporting fuel to Syria, leaving the Government of Russia as Syria’s only reliable fuel exporter. To that end, the state of the Syrian economy is increasingly in the hands of the Government of Russia, which can now withhold or provide fuel at will and as needed, naturally giving Russia a much broader (and contingent) degree of leverage over the Government of Syria.

6. IDP returns from Al-Hol Camp

Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Northeastern Syria: Local sources reported that the Self Administration reached an agreement with local notables in the Al-Hol camp that will allow IDPs in the camp to return to their areas of origin, so long as they do not have ties with ISIS and their areas of origin are safe to return to; the agreement has reportedly been in effect since May 25. As per these sources, the negotiations for this agreement took place at the Self Administration’s  tribal conference, which convened on April 3 in Ein Issa, in Ar-Raqqa governorate. Representatives of the Self Administration, alongside several representatives of the Al-Hol camp, have reportedly discussed mechanisms to return women and children to communities in Deir-ez-Zor, Menbij, Ar-Raqqa, and Tabqa; of note, there are an estimated 73,000 IDPs currently in Al-Hol camp. However, mechanisms to ‘vet’ IDPs for ISIS affiliation remain unclear.

Analysis:  A common point of contention between Arab tribes in northeastern Syria and the Self Administration is the widespread detention of Arabs, many of whom are detained for real or perceived ties to ISIS. The Al-Hol camp is an IDP camp, and not a detention camp; however, considering the fact that large numbers of IDPs in the camp are suspected of ISIS affiliation, as well as the fact that IDPs in Al-Hol are subject to continuous surveillance and strict mobility restrictions, the distinction is negligible, particularly Arab communities.  As such, the agreement to facilitate the return IDPs from the Al-Hol camp is part and parcel of Self Administration attempts to placate Arab tribal leaders. What will be extremely challenging is how the Self Administration intends to define ‘ties with ISIS’ as a criterion for preventing return; nearly all of the IDPs in the Al-Hol camp lived under ISIS at some point, and they likely were forced to interact with ISIS in some capacity while ISIS governed large parts of northeastern Syria.

7. Wheat Harvest 2019

Whole of Syria: Throughout the reporting period, the Government of Syria, the Self Administration, and the Salvation Government all set prices at which they will purchase this year’s upcoming wheat harvest from Syrian wheat farmers. The price set by the Government of Syria is the highest, at 185 SYP per kilogram; the Self Administration set their price at 160 SYP per kilogram; and the price set by the Salvation Government is the lowest, at 133 SYP per kilogram. Notably, media sources reported that the current wheat harvest in northwestern Syria is expected to cover only a third of the local market’s demand, and that locally produced flour will be mixed with imported flour to cover local needs. In northeastern Syria, local sources reported growing concerns for the region’s wheat harvest, which was heavily impacted by fires in agricultural areas of Al-Hasakeh and Ar-Raqqa governorates. It is important to note that the 2018 wheat harvest in Syria was the lowest in 20 years.

Analysis:  Syria’s wheat production has been drastically impacted by the Syrian conflict, as well as by decades of structural problems within the Syrian agricultural economy and the impact of climate change.  However, the price discrepancies between three of Syria’s most important ‘governance’ actors presents a further challenge: the growth of war economy dynamics. Naturally, Syrian wheat farmers in both northwestern Syria and northeastern Syria will attempt to sell their wheat in Government of Syria-held areas in order to capitalize on higher prices being offered by the Government of Syria.  This dynamic will certainly fuel an (already existing) cross-line smuggling economy, and may cause these governance actors, to include the Salvation Government and the Self Administration, to threaten or forcibly compel Syrian wheat farmers to sell their wheat directly to them. Of course, these war economy dynamics will be compounded by the fact that Syria is no longer producing enough wheat to support its population; this will make Syrian reliant on foreign exports which may be difficult to obtain, especially for those in Government of Syria-held areas, due to both international sanctions and financial restrictions.

8. New Syrian-Iraqi Border Crossing

Deir-ez-Zor governorate, Syria:  On May 23, media sources cited images taken by Imagesat International  company, an Israeli satellite imagery company, of a potential new border crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border in southern Deir-ez-Zor governorate, south of the existing Abukamal/Al-Qaim border crossing.  As per these images, the official Abukamal border crossing appears to be no longer functional, and a new crossing appears to be fully under construction. The Imagesat International implied that Iran was responsible for the construction of the new crossing.  In a separate but related note: on May 24, media sources reported that at least 5,000 Iraqi supporters of Muqtada Sadr, an important Iraqi Shiite political and religious figure, protested in Baghdad and Basra, and calling for emphasizing Iraqi neutrality from both the U.S. and Iran. Muqtada Sadr has recently begun to regular emphasise his position that Iraq must remain neutral, must not closely affiliate with either Iraq or the U.S. in order to avoid any potential military confrontation.

Analysis: The potential creation of this border crossing is highly noteworthy in the context of the increasingly confrontational stance between the U.S. and Iran.  The U.S. has long been concerned with the creation of an Iranian ‘land route’ linking Tehran to Beirut. The degree to which this land route actually matters is questionable; Iran already has access to the Damascus International Airport.  Nevertheless, in the current regional political climate any developments indicating that Iran is increasing its role in Syria or Iraq has the potential to create a major international incident. Indeed, this is precisely what Iraqi political actors such as Muqtada Sadr fear: that Iranian or U.S. actions have to potential to spark a wider regional conflict that could involve Iraq, Syria, Israel, or the Arab Gulf.

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.

Syria Update: May 16 – May 22, 2019

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Syria Update

16 May to 22 May, 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 May 20, the Russian Defence Ministry Reconciliation Center announced a “unilateral” ceasefire in northwestern Syria. The ceasefire came shortly after a phone call between the Turkish and Russian Defence Ministers, as well as the deployment of several Turkish-backed National Army-affiliated armed opposition groups based in northern Aleppo to front lines in Idleb and northern Hama. Both groups have utilized TOW missiles against Government of Syria forces, and have reportedly inflicted heavy casualties. The arrival of these groups is extremely important, and indicates that the Government of Turkey intends to take a more active role in northwestern Syria’s political and military dynamics in ways which could change the balance of power in the area. Two interpretations in relation to these events arise: The first being that the Government of Turkey is dissatisfied with its negotiations with the Government of Russia and the trajectory of the Government of Syria’s offensive, and is simply asserting its interests in northwestern Syria. The second is that Turkey is using the National Army to actually implement some of the terms of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement through the deployment of ‘moderate’ National Army groups in place of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants. The ultimate impact of the National Army’s deployment is difficult to predict, but alongside Turkish diplomatic pressure, it is likely to significantly impede the Government of Syria’s northwestern Syria offensive, at least temporarily.

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

Northwestern Syria Ceasefire

In Depth Analysis

On May 20, the Russian Defence Ministry Reconciliation Center announced a “unilateral” ceasefire in northwestern Syria. The ceasefire was announced on the same day as a phone call between Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoygu.  However, while the intensity of conflict in northwestern Syria did temporarily decrease, airstrikes and shelling continued to target several communities in southern Idleb and northern Hama. The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (the second largest armed opposition umbrella group in northwestern Syria after Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham) announced that it rejected the ceasefire, and demanded that Government of Syria forces withdraw from the areas captured to date. For its part, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has not commented on the ceasefire.

The timing of the attempted ceasefire is noteworthy, as it came days after a dramatic new development in northwestern Idleb, namely, the arrival of several Turkish-backed armed opposition groups in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch-based National Army. On March 19, combatants from Ahrar Sharqiya and the 1st Corps, which are among the largest armed groups in the National Army, reinforced front lines in northwestern Syria and northern Hama, and have been actively taking part in the ongoing conflict. Most notably, both groups have utilized TOW missiles against Government of Syria forces, and have reportedly inflicted heavy casualties. The arrival of these groups is extremely important as it indicates that the Government of Turkey will take a much more active role in political and military dynamics in northwestern Syria.

Indeed, the deployment of National Army combatants into Idleb is unprecedented. In January 2019, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched a large scale offensive across northwestern Syria against several groups within the National Liberation Front, including Noureddine Al-Zinki and Suquor Al-Sham. During this conflict, there was considerable speculation that Turkey would deploy the National Army in support of the National Liberation Front. Ultimately, however, National Army groups did not deploy to northwestern Syria, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham secured nearly all of northwestern Syria and the Salvation Government became the primary administrative body for every community in the area.

Turkey’s newfound willingness to deploy National Army forces to Idleb could change the balance of power in northwestern Syria. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham cannot refuse these reinforcements, especially considering the speed of the Government of Syria’s offensive to date. However, there are now numerous well-armed opposition groups on key front lines, answering directly to the Government of Turkey, which may reduce the dominance of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Syria’s northwest. That said, it must be recalled that some elements of the National Army are not necessarily opposed to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham; for example, Ahrar Sharqiya is comprised largely of combatants from Deir-ez-Zor, many of whom were once members of Jabhat Al-Nusra.

It is unclear what the deployment of the National Army means for the current offensive, but two interpretations immediately arise. The first is that the Government of Turkey is dissatisfied both with its negotiations with the Government of Russia and the trajectory of the Government of Syria’s offensive, and is simply asserting its interests in northwestern Syria. This is certainly possible, Turkey has real concerns surrounding the displacement of more than 150,000 IDPs to the Turkish border, and Turkish officials have recently begun to protest the ongoing offensive.  The second interpretation is that Turkey is using the National Army to actually implement some of the terms of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement, which was reached in September 2018. Indeed, by deploying National Army units to front lines in northwestern Syria, one could make the argument that Turkey intends to replace Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants with ‘moderate’ National Army groups in a 15-20km buffer zone. It is difficult to predict what impact the deployment of National Army will mean for internal politics in northwestern Syria, however, alongside Turkish diplomatic pressure, it is likely to impede the Government of Syria’s northwestern Syria offensive, at least temporarily.  Indeed, as of writing on May 22, armed opposition groups reportedly launched a large scale counter-offensive in northern Hama, and have recaptured several communities, to include Kafr Nabutha.

Whole of Syria Review

1. As-Sanamayn ‘Besieged’

As-Sanamayn, Dar’a governorate, Syria: On May 15, local sources reported that clashes took place between Government of Syria-affiliated Criminal Security Branch forces and a group of armed individuals in the northeastern neighborhoods of As-Sanamayn. Several Criminal Security Branch members were reportedly killed, and several were injured. Clashes erupted after the Criminal Security Branch attempted to detain a former armed opposition leader in Ahrar Al-Sham, Walid Zahra, who is reportedly located in the area, and is known to have considerable popular local support. Following the clashes, the Criminal Security Branch reportedly detained three relatives of Zahra, surrounded As-Sanamyan city, and have enforced mobility restrictions on civilians and commercial goods. Four days later, on May 19, Dar’a Governorate Council issued a statement condemning the “siege” and called for its revocation. However, extreme access restrictions remain in place as of May 21, intermittent clashes are still ongoing, and Government of Syria military reinforcements will reportedly be deployed in the near-term. Media reports also indicate that a meeting was held on the matter between local representatives, the head of the local Military Security Branch, Louay Al Ali, and Russian representatives in Tafas, on May 20. This meeting is not believed to have reached a resolution to the situation.

Analysis: Tensions between Government of Syria security branches and local communities, paired with regular security incidents and clashes, have been common since the Government of Syria took control of Dar’a governorate in June 2018. The current situation in As-Sanamayn is certainly the most dramatic manifestation of these dynamics to date. Indeed, in some ways events in As-Sanamayn resemble the siege tactics that were a key feature of the Syrian conflict throughout 2015-2017, albeit on a much smaller scale. In this case however, it is important to note that Walid Zahra appears to be drawing upon local support from the community, suggesting this is not ‘structured’ armed opposition resistance, but a local dispute which has devolved into sustained clashes. While the situation in As-Sanamayn will likely be resolved in the coming days, the incident speaks to the poor security conditions in southern Syria, and that these conditions are deteriorating rapidly.

2. Israeli Airstrikes in Quneitra

Quneitra, southern Syria:  On May 18, Government of Syria-affiliated media outlets indicated that Syrian air defence systems intercepted a missile originating from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. This was reportedly followed by second attack in Quneitra governorate, which reportedly targeted ‘Brigade 90’, a pro-Government armed group with reputed links to Hezbollah. As per Government of Syria media sources, Syrian Air Defense services intercepted two of these missiles.

Analysis: Government of Israel attacks on Syria have been common throughout the Syrian conflict, and generally target armed groups or military facilities reportedly linked to the Iranian government. Normally, these incidents not particularly noteworthy, and have no significant impact on the Syrian humanitarian or development response. However, given the current regional context, Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian or Hezbollah linked targets are extremely concerning. As noted in last week’s In-Depth Analysis section, there is a real risk that major conflict involving Iran and its proxies, Israel, the U.S., or Arab Gulf states could be sparked by a seemingly minor security incident. Additionally, parts of Syria hosting Iranian military forces or Iranian proxies in close proximity to U.S. or Israeli interests, such as southwestern Syria, Deir-ez-Zor governorate, or the Al-Tanf crossing point, are potential sources of significant regional tension.

3. Afrin Council

Afrin, Aleppo governorate, Syria: On May 18, media sources indicated that the Afrin local council has ordered the closure of all ‘displaced councils’ in Afrin, under the pretext of adopting new methods for identifying and categorizing displaced individuals. The aforementioned ‘displaced councils’ were often spontaneously established and functioned as local councils representing displaced populations from cities in other parts of Syria. In some cases, these displaced councils were the same councils that were forcibly evacuated subsequent to reconciliation agreements in south and central Syria. The primary function of these ‘displaced councils’ was to survey and track individuals who had been displaced and lost their identification documents. They later expanded their role to include issuing alternative IDs for IDPs according to their areas of origin. The new decision to dissolve these councils in Afrin has therefore triggered widespread discontent among IDP communities, and has been regarded locally as an attempt to erase the identity of the displaced population and their linkages to communities of origin through the issuance of IDs linking them to their new residence in Afrin.

Analysis: The dissolution of the ‘displaced councils’ is likely an attempt by the Government of Turkey to further consolidate governance structures in Afrin in a manner similar to policies pursued in Euphrates Shield-held areas of northern Aleppo. Ultimately, the Afrin local council directive is one which makes sense administratively; having multiple local councils, representing multiple communities in the same geographic location is confusing, and leads to serious duplication challenges. However, the fact that this decision sparked widespread discontent is extremely telling, and speaks to the fact that, for many IDPs, ‘displaced councils’ and the IDs they issued were considered an important link to their areas of origin. Essentially, these IDPs want to maintain some form of documentation that ties them to their homes, in the hope that they will be permitted to return (and, potentially, claim their property rights). Therefore, whilst the dissolution of ‘displaced councils’ is expected, tensions between different IDP communities and formal governance structures may certainly increase in the coming weeks.

4. Russian Involvement in Tartous Port

Tartous, Syria: On May 20, media sources stated that the Government of Syria Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Samer El-Khalil, approved the establishment of a branch of  ‘Sirus Line’, a Russian company, in Tartous city. Sirus Line is reportedly a maritime company which specializes in the transportation of goods. Reportedly, Siros Line is expected to become a key goods transporter at Tartous port, to include in food and fuel transportation. Ayman Ali Mahmoud, the Government of Syria Minister of Transportation, will reportedly assume the role of the general director of the Sirus Line branch. Of note, the Russian company, Stroytransgaz, recently signed a 49 year contract to manage, operate, and expand Tartous port under Private Public Partnership (PPP) legal frameworks.

Analysis: The Government of Russia’s investment in Syria is noteworthy. Russia has invested heavily in numerous sectors of the Syrian economy, and Russian companies likely intend to be major stakeholders in Syria’s eventual reconstruction. Additionally, Syria’s elite business class will certainly benefit from their involvement with Russian companies; not only are they expected to deepen ties with the Government of Russia, they are also likely to increase their growing prominence in Syria’s governance structures. Russian private sector involvement in Tartous port is highly noteworthy for another reason: the Russian private sector will almost certainly play a major role in any fuel Russian fuel exports to Syria.  Indeed, as noted in past Syria Updates, the Government of Russia is likely to be the only country capable of exporting fuel to Syria at any scale, making Syria heavily dependant on the Government of Russia. Thus, Russian business interests at Tartous port will likely become increasingly prominent stakeholders in the Syrian political economy.

5. Manfoush Rubble Removal

Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus, Syria: On May 19, media sources reported that Moheiddine Manfoush, a prominent Eastern Ghouta-based businessman, recently signed a major contract with the Government of Syria Military Residence Institute to remove rubble in the Eastern Ghouta neighborhoods of Madyara, Beit Sawa and Misraba. Of note, Manfoush is originally from Misraba, is the owner of the Damascene Pasture Company, and is notorious for having dominated numerous sectors of Eastern Ghouta’s former siege economy. The Government of Syria Military Residence Institute has reportedly rejected the expansion of Manfoush’s service contract to include other communities in Eastern Ghouta. Local sources state that civilians in Eastern Ghouta tend to prefer removing rubble independently, as Government of Syria rubble clearance efforts have thus far remained limited to major roads and seldom addresses residential neighborhoods.

Analysis:  Rubble removal is considered to be among one of the most lucrative businesses in heavily damaged areas due to the fact that money is received for clearing rubble, and for selling scrap materials found in the rubble. Rubble collection is also noteworthy in that it is very labor intensive.  Rubble collection businesses are thus frequently created by both prominent local businessmen as well as former militia commanders in post-conflict communities using funds gathered during the active conflict; they are both profitable, and they allow the business owner to create new patronage networks and build popular support by employing large numbers of individuals.  Manfoush is a good example of these ‘new’ economic actors that hold considerable influence on the local level; indeed, although Manfoush is often depicted as a major businessman in Syria, he is in reality still a ‘local’ businessman that only became relevant in Eastern Ghouta due to his monopolization of cross-line trade during the siege. Tn Manfoush, similar to other businessmen in post-conflict areas, will likely continue to build upon his newfound economic and political power locally, despite the end of the ‘economies of access.’

6. SDF Reconciliatory Measures

Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: On May 15, several media and local sources indicated that the SDF had taken several actions intended to reduce tensions with the predominantly Arab tribal communities east of the Euphrates River in Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Local sources report these actions were an outcome of the SDF’s negotiations with Al-Ekeidat tribal leaders in Kasra last week. Among these actions, media sources indicate that the Kurdish Self Administration has distributed fuel to stations in eastern Deir-ez-Zor, and has set a price of 55 SYP per liter.  According to local sources, the communities of Shheil, Thebian, and Moheimidiyeh have each received fuel from the Self Administration (30l per vehicle limit). Additionally, local sources in Al-Hasakeh reported that the Self Administration has forced fuel and gas traders in Al-Hasakeh to lower the price of fuel and gas transportation from Al-Hasakeh to Deir-ez-Zor. Local sources added that the SDF is reportedly assessing the status of prisoners as part of a potential agreement to release individuals arbitrarily detained under allegations of relations to ISIS (largely Arab tribesmen). Notably, at least 40 prisoners were reportedly released on May 14.

Analysis: The containment of Arab tribal mobilizations against the Self Administration and the SDF in Deir-ez-Zor governorate through temporarily increasing services or through U.S.-mediated negotiations with local tribes is unlikely to be a sustainable strategy over the long term. First, the flourishing crossline fuel trade between the Self Administration/SDF and the Government of Syria is likely to limit the SDF’s capacity to funnel fuel into local markets in eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate. And second, and more importantly, the SDF and the Self Administration are unlikely to be able or willing to accommodate the demands of local Arab tribes, which are only likely to increase over time. Indeed, many Arab tribes and tribal leaders are increasingly emboldened by the apparent fragility of SDF in northeastern Syria, and are frequently drawing support from either the Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian governments.  Therefore, though tribal tensions may be temporarily addressed at the local level, they will remain the dominant trend in northeastern Syria for the foreseeable future. For more information on these dynamics see the recent COAR paper, Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria.

7. National-Scale Regional Plan

Damascus, Syria : Local sources reported that the Government of Syria’s National Directorate of Regional Planning agreed to create national-scale ‘Executive Plans’ for regional planning. The plan will reportedly have a six months preparatory period, followed by another six month period for the finalization of the draft of the new national plan and its subsequent implementation. Overall, these regional ‘Executive Plans’ will function as Urban Plans on a regional level. They will focus on housing and construction regulations, local and regional economic chains, governance bodies, urbanization challenges, setting potential reconstruction plans in highly damaged areas, and resolving residency issues, thereby eventually facilitating returns.

Analysis: Ultimately, these plans will set the tone for development and reconstruction in Syria going forward. Of critical importance will be the degree to which these plans take into account the status of areas under the control of non-state actors, the status of development plans for informal housing areas, and the degree to which prominent economic stakeholders influence redevelopment plans to their own ends. Whilst it is therefore difficult to speculate on the actual content of the regional Executive Plans given they are likely a year from completion, they will be extremely important for any development actors working in Syria, as well as for any actors engaged in Syria’s reconstruction.

8. EU renews restrictive measures

Brussels, Belgium: On May 20, the Council of the European Union reportedly decided to extend its restrictive measures on the Government of Syria until June 1, 2020. According to the Council statement, the decision aligns with EU strategy on Syria, as “the EU decided to maintain its restrictive measures against the Syrian regime and its supporters as the repression of the civilian population continues.” The list of individuals and entities subject to these restrictions now includes 270 people and 70 entities subject to travel bans and asset freezes for “being responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population in Syria, benefiting from or supporting the regime, and/or being associated with such persons or entities.”

Analysis:  EU restrictive measures generally target individuals or entities proven to have close linkages with the Al-Assad regime. Anecdotally, they have reportedly had a serious impact on the finances of many of these individuals and entities. Additionally, as the EU sanctions target specific individuals and entities, they are considered to have a more limited impact on the general Syrian population. This should be contrasted with the latest unilateral U.S. sanctions, such as the Caesar sanctions, which are much more broad ranging and target entire sectors of the Syrian economy. Indeed, the ongoing fuel crisis in Syria could be partially attributed to recently intensified U.S. sanctions. However, it is always important to note that the current economic devastation in Syria cannot be entirely attributed to sanctions. Other contributing factors are important, such as damage to major economic hubs and key infrastrastructure, as well as a diminished labor force.

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: May 14 – May 20, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

May 14 to 20, 2019

linklanguagesourceDateCategory
Opposition factions launched a large-scale offensive against the regime in rural HamaArabicEnab BaladiMay 13, 2019Conflict and Military
The military map of Idleb frontsArabicAl modonMay 15, 2019Conflict and Military
No more Turkish veto on Idlib offensive?EnglishThe Washington PostMay 4, 2019Conflict and Military
Former opposition members clashed with the regime forces in Dar'a and killed a number of themArabicStep News AgencyMay 15, 2019Conflict and Military
The biggest security operation of SDF continues its second day in the framework of attempts to reduce chaos and control security in Deir EzzorEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMay 16, 2019Conflict and Military
The opposition refuses the ceasefire and targets locations for the regime in rural HamaArabicEnab BaladiMay 18, 2019Conflict and Military
Ar-Raqqa: explosions hit SDF military and security headquartersArabicAl modonMay 18, 2019Conflict and Military
A large-scale detention campaign targets money exchange employees in Rural DamascusArabicAl-7alMay 15, 2019Conflict and Military
Aleppo crippled by fuel crisisEnglishAl-MonitorMay 14, 2019Economic
Smuggling from and to Syria cripples the Lebanese economyArabicAsharq Al AwsatMay 20, 2019Economic
This is how Assad is targeting the food sources in IdlebArabicQasiounMay 20, 2019Economic
Five years following the displacement of the Old Homs population: Where are they now?ArabicSyria InsideMay 16, 2019Governance and Service Management
Afrin local council suspends the IDP affairs officesArabicAl modonMay 18, 2019Governance and Service Management
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Fear ReturnEnglishAsharq Al AwsatMay 13, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in northwest Syria - New York, 17 May 2019EnglishUN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsMay 17, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Turkish Red Crescent: 80% of hospitals in the north are not operational ArabicEnab BaladiMay 18, 2019Humanitarian & Development
We lost faith in joint efforts to halt wars. Result? Ask Syria...EnglishThe GuardianMay 11, 2019International Intervention
Assad says direct meeting taking place between Turkish, Syrian officersEnglishAhvalMay 12, 2019International Intervention
Devolution of power or decentralisation of oppression in Syria?EnglishLondon School of Economics and Political ScienceMay 15, 2019Other
Can Assad win the peace?EnglishEuropean Council on Foreign RelationsMay 15, 2019Other
Trump’s sanctions on Iran are hitting Hezbollah, and it hurtsEnglishThe Washington PostMay 18, 2019Other
The local council in Dar'a calls for lifting the siege over As-Sanamayn... The area directorate was attacked by anonymous ArabicNedaa SyriaMay 19, 2019Other

Media Anthology: May 07 – May 13, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

May 07 to 13, 2018

linklanguagesourceDateCategory
Syria: Flash update: Recent developments in North-western Syria (As of 07 May 2019)EnglishUN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsMay 7, 2019Conflict and Military
A Turkish-backed faction operating under “Euphrates Shield” targets the government-controlled Nubl and Al-Zahraa towns in Northwestern Aleppo by Grad rocketsEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMay 7, 2019Conflict and Military
Northern Aleppo: Why did the Turkish-backed National Army withdraw from Maraanaz ArabicAl modonMay 6, 2019Conflict and Military
Idleb: The battle hasn't started yetArabicAl modonMay 8, 2019Conflict and Military
Numbers from the regime military operation on Northwestern Syria: 270 hours of intense escalation, 7750 air and ground strikes, more than 300 thousand displaced civilians, about 265 people killed, and regime forces taking over 7 towns and a strategic hill.EnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMay 11, 2019Conflict and Military
ISIS attacks regime forces and allied militias in al-Mayadin Desert as part of its continuous activity in the central Deir-ez-Zor Governorate.EnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMay 10, 2019Conflict and Military
Al-Julani urges his followers to carry weapons to defend Idleb against the Syrian government and Russian shellingArabicFrance 24May 13, 2019Conflict and Military
Salim Alton: The octopus of the Syrian economy who stayed in the shadowArabicEnab BaladiMay 5, 2019Economic
Iran appears to have restarted oil shipments to Syria as Trump increases  pressureEnglishCNBCMay 9, 2019Economic
Russia’s energy sector interests in SyriaEnglishInternational Policy DigestMay 12, 2019Economic
Russia strongly condamines the SDC’s tribal forum in Syria’s Ain IssaEnglishKurdistan 24May 5, 2019Social Dynamics
Violence caused  nine casualties in As-Sweida during AprilArabicSuwayda 24May 7, 2019Social Dynamics
After the death of civilians... some SDF military bases have been burned in rural Deir-Ez-ZorArabicEnab BaladiMay 9, 2019Social Dynamics
After one year of reconciliation in southern Damascus: "no amnesty,no settlements, and the wanted ones are still wanted”ArabicSyria DirectMay 12, 2019Social Dynamics
Deir-ez-Zor: An American mediation between Arabs and KurdsArabicAl modonMay 8, 2019Social Dynamics
Jihadists frustrate aid effort in northwest SyriaEnglishFrance 24May 7, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Turkish authorities to close Syrian refugee camp of Urfa stateEnglishNedaa SyriaMay 7, 2019Humanitarian & Development
150,000 flee as Syria ‘buffer zone’ collapsesEnglishThe New Humanitarian May 8, 2019Humanitarian & Development
East Syria is the "messenger" of the U.S. Navy forces to  Iran and its proxiesArabicAsharq Al AwsatMay 8, 2019International Intervention
Regime preservation: How US policy facilitated Assad’s victoryEnglishAl JumhuriyaMay 8, 2019International Intervention
Jeffrey: We are not seeking a regime change, but a new government with new behavior. Moscow has told us that the Idleb offensive is limitedArabicAsharq Al AwsatMay 10, 2019International Intervention
Turkey held talks with PKK leader Ocalan in bid to resolve Syria issuesEnglishMiddle East EyeMay 10, 2019International Intervention
Russia and Turkey landgrab 'behind fresh Syria bombardment'EnglishThe GuardianMay 8, 2019Other
Inside Syria’s secret torture prisons: How Bashar al-Assad crushed dissentEnglishThe New York TimesMay 11, 2019Other

Syria Update: May 09 – May 15, 2019

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Syria Update

09 May to 15 May, 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 May 12, four oil tankers were reportedly sabotaged in the vicinity of Fujairah, in the UAE. No actor has claimed responsibility, and investigations are still ongoing, but unnamed U.S. officials have stated to U.S. media that early indications suggest Iran is responsible. Ultimately, Iran’s culpability is irrelevant; recent U.S. actions have already made conflict with Iran an increasingly realistic possibility. Renewed sanctions are devastating to the Iranian economy, and the U.S. has deployed numerous new military assets to the Middle East for the express purpose of countering Iran. More troubling is that Iran has few options to de-escalate the situation; it is almost impossible for Iran to meet U.S. demands, and the country’s leaders are now forced to choose between aggressively challenging the U.S. and its allies in the region, or the passive acceptance of a new round of sanctions and hope that the U.S. leadership changes in 2020. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel (as well as hardline political blocs in both the U.S. and Iran) appear to be willing to escalate tensions, increasing the risk that an unintended conflict metastasizes beyond the control of any individual actor. Naturally, the potential for a major U.S.-Iran confrontation will have severe repercussions for both Syria and the entire region.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Government of Syria forces continued to advance in northwestern Syria, and have now secured much of the Sahel Ghab; these forces are likely to advance on Khan Sheikun, but are not expected to seek the capture of all of the opposition-controlled northwest.
  • An Iranian oil tanker arrived in Banyas and delivered an estimated 1,000,000 barrels of fuel; while the fuel delivery will certainly contribute to alleviating Syria’s ongoing fuel crisis, it will have only a short-term impact.
  • Tensions continued between Arab tribal communities and the SDF in Deir-ez-Zor; many such tensions have their origins in fuel trade arrangements between the Government of Syria and the SDF, crackdowns on fuel smuggling, and the fact that profit sharing formats have not been distributed to the satisfaction of communities in Deir-ez-Zor.
  • Local unrest and ongoing security incidents remain a constant factor in southern Syria; considering the Government of Syria’s focus on northwestern Syria, it is unlikely these tensions will be addressed in the near term.
  • An IED was detonated in Damascus, the fourth this year. While Damascus remains stable and highly securitized, continued security incidents in the capital are expected to remain an enduring risk.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping indicated that China may be willing to participate in Syria’s reconstruction as part of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Chinese involvement in Syria’s reconstruction, likely led by private companies, will have a massive impact on Russian and Iranian reconstruction efforts.
  • The UAE Red Crescent delivered humanitarian aid in Damascus, marking the first UAE humanitarian aid delivery in Government of Syria-controlled areas. The UAE’s rapprochement with the Government of Syria continues, though these efforts may be complicated by ongoing Gulf state tensions with Iran.
  • The SDF is reportedly exploring changing its existing conscription policies.  Though reform intends to address the unpopularity of current policy, local tension is nevertheless expected to increase given the cost of avoiding conscription is prohibitively high for impoverished individuals to afford exemption.

U.S.-Iran Confrontation

In Depth Analysis

Iranian forces take part in National Persian Gulf Day in the Strait of Hormuz on April 30. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the crucial waterway as a riposte to U.S. pressure. ATTA KENARE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

On May 12, four oil tankers were reportedly sabotaged in the vicinity of Fujairah, in the UAE. Saudi Arabia has claimed two of the tankers, a Norwegian company has claimed one, and one was reportedly flagged in the UAE. Though no actor has claimed responsibility, and investigations are still ongoing, unnamed U.S. officials have stated to U.S. media that early indications suggest that Iran is responsible. This comes only days after the U.S. Maritime Administration issued an advisory warning that “there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure…Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf.”

Iran’s responsibility is certainly debatable. Indeed, numerous analysts have questioned the timing and impact of the incident, and there is speculation as to whether the incident was a ‘false flag’ attack undertaken in an attempt to increase tensions between the U.S. and Iran.  This, ultimately, is irrelevant however; recent U.S. actions have already made conflict with Iran an increasingly realistic possibility. On May 2, the U.S. refused to renew all existing waivers for countries still importing Iranian oil which, although has not entirely stopped Iranian oil exports, has nearly destroyed the Iranian economy in tandem with the new sanctions. Moreover, the U.S. has deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, has reinforced the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Qatar, and has deployed B-52s from the 20th Bomber Squadron (which are already conducting their first ‘deterrence’ missions). U.S. media has furthermore reported that acting U.S. Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan on May 9 which envisioned the deployment of up to 120,000 U.S. military personnel to the Middle East in the event that Iran “attacks American forces or accelerates work on nuclear weapons”. Of note, the U.S. deployed approximately 177,000 troops to the Middle East prior to the Iraq invasion.

Equally concerning is that is that it will be extremely difficult – if not impossible – for Iran to de-escalate the situation. In order to remove the sanctions, the U.S. is demanding numerous terms that Iran cannot abide, to include a complete withdrawal from Syria and the withdrawal of support for Hezbollah. Realistically, Iran therefore has only two options: aggressively challenge the U.S. and its allies in the region in the hope this will force the U.S. to reconsider its regional policy, or passively accept the destructive impact of the new sanctions and hope for a change of U.S. leadership in 2020. The latter is no guarantee that conflict will be avoided however; even if Iran chooses this more passive policy of de-escalation, the current climate means that even a small incident could grow into a much larger conflict.  The fact that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel (as well as hardline political blocs in both the U.S. and Iran) all appear to be willing to escalate the situation increases the risk that an unintended conflict metastasizes beyond the control of any individual actor.

The impact of a major U.S.-Iran confrontation would be so large it is difficult to conceptualize, both in Syria, and in the region itself. Even if an all out war between the U.S. and Iran is avoided, the risk of instability and conflict in areas where Iranian-backed groups are in close proximity to the U.S. and its allies is extreme. This would certainly include Deir-ez-Zor and Abukamal in northeastern Syria, where Iranian-backed groups are within kilometers of U.S. military forces, and southern Syria, where Iranian-backed groups and Hezbollah are located in the vicinity of the Israeli border. Moreover, both the Syrian and Iraqi economies and military establishments are closely linked to Iran, whilst Lebanon risks being drawn into open conflict with Israel due to Hezbollah’s role in the Lebanese government. The latter would necessarily have an impact in Syria given the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and the fact that much of the Syria response is based in Beirut. Conflict between the U.S. and Iran is by no means unavoidable, cooler heads may yet prevail, and indeed, U.S. President Trump appears to be opposed to U.S. military intervention as a general policy. However, a quote attributed to Barbara Tuchman (the author of The Guns of August, the seminal history of the start of WWI) comes to mind: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

Whole of Syria Review

1. ‘Dawn of Idleb’ Offensive

Hama Governorate, Northwestern Syria: Government of Syria forces continue to advance in northwestern Hama governorate. Since taking Qalaat Al-Madiq on May 9, Government of Syria forces captured Al-Hawash, Al-Tawbah, Hardana, and Sheikh Idris on May 13, and Kafr Nabutha on May 14, all under cover of strong Syrian and Russian air support. Meanwhile, armed opposition groups, primarily Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, have reportedly repelled Government of Syria attempts to infiltrate frontlines in Latakia governorate, killing as many as 30 Government of Syria combatants in the process. Relatedly, on May 14,  Turkish President Erdogan, reportedly expressed concern over the military operations in northwestern Syria in a phone call with Russian President Putin.

Analysis: The military campaign in northwestern Syria is expected to adhere to broader Russian-Turkish agreements pertaining to northern Syria, likely that the Government of Syria will not go so far as to seek the capture of all of opposition controlled northwestern Syria. This means that Government of Syria forces are therefore expected to advance into and secure all of northern rural Hama, to include Khan Shiekun. Jisr Ash-Shughur, in southwestern Idleb governorate, may also be targeted as part of this offensive. Meanwhile, the Government of Turkey and the Turkish-backed National Army are expected to continue their own offensive on Tal Rifaat, which was announced on the same day as the Government of Syria’s offensive on northwestern Syria. As noted in last week’s Syria Update however, it is unclear when the National Army’s offensive will commence in earnest. Of note, recent official statements from Turkish officials indicate that the final status of control in northwestern Syria has yet to be finalized, and that discussions with Russian counterparts are ongoing.

2. Iran Fuel Shipment

Banyas, Syria: In the first week of May, several sources tracked an Iranian oil tanker to the Syrian port of Banyas. The tanker reportedly delivered 1 million barrels of crude, which is believed to be the first such Iranian delivery to Syria in 2019. Notably, current fuel production levels in Syria, to include SDF-controlled fields in the northeast, is estimated at 24,000 barrels per day, which is some 325,000 barrels down on pre-war production. Domestic production falls far short of current demand, which local sources estimate at approximately 136,000 barrels per day.

Analysis: At current rates of consumption, the May import of Iranian crude is only likely to satisfy local demand for a maximum of two weeks. In reality, this period will be much shorter given significant amounts are likely to be stockpiled by opportunistic traders seeking to manipulate fuel prices, meaning much will be unavailable for private consumption. As a result, Syria’s fuel crisis will persist, particularly given prospects for sustained Iranian imports are bleak in the context of heightened U.S. sanctions. An increase in Syria’s national production is also currently improbable in the near to medium term, largely due to the impact of international sanctions, a related lack of capital, and the attention required to rehabilitate Syria’s extensively damaged oil infrastructure.

3. Deir-ez-Zor Tensions

Shheil, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, Syria: Tensions between local communities and the SDF in Deir-ez-Zor governorate have persisted. After clashes lasting several hours, several media sources report that the SDF conducted a raid in Shheil with support from U.S.-led coalition forces which resulted in at least 6 deaths and two detentions. The SDF claimed that the detainees were secretly supporting ISIS. Notably, the SDF raided Shheil in early April 2019 as part of a general crackdown on fuel smugglers across Deir-ez-Zor. Additionally, media sources report that U.S.-led coalition representatives continue to mediate a potential fuel profit sharing agreement between Arab tribes in Deir-ez-Zor and the SDF. These sources claim the deal pertains to the Tank and Seijan oil fields. On May 13 however, members of the Ageidat tribe also reportedly held a meeting in Shheil, at which they condemned the SDF’s role in monopolizing local hydrocarbon revenues and “demanded their economic rights.”

Analysis: While there is no evidence linking the SDF’s recent raid on Shheil and fuel smuggling, it indicates increasing tensions between Arab tribal communities in Deir-ez-Zor governorate and the SDF. Indeed, the frequency of confrontations in Deir-ez-Zor demonstrate the SDF’s continued failure to secure the support of Arab communities in the governorate. The well-publicized fuel deal under discussion is likely an attempt to reconcile the SDF with local tribal figures, but its impact will likely be questionable. The economic prospects of Deir-ez-Zor’s predominantly Arab tribal communities will likely remain bleak, and the deal with do little to ensure the representation of Arab tribal figures in SDF governance structures. SDF efforts to maximize oil revenues will also continue to fuel local tension. While the SDF appears compliant with U.S. efforts to curb the cross-line fuel trade with the Government of Syria, it is simultaneously attempting to monopolize the profits from this trade through agreements with Government of Syria business elites, such as Hossam Qaterji. This policy manifests itself on the ground in the form of crackdowns on (predominantly Arab tribal) fuel smugglers, whilst avoiding fully sharing the profits generated from broader fuel trading agreements with entities such as the Qaterji Group.

4. Dar’a Unrest

Dar’a governorate, southern Syria: As of May 14, security incidents in western Dar’a governorate appear to have escalated. Local sources indicate that flyers have been distributed in Da’el, rural Dar’a governorate, calling for solidarity with Idleb and “continued opposition to the Al-Assad regime.” Flyers condemning Hezbollah’s presence were also reported. Meanwhile, two VBIED attacks have taken place in Dar’a governorate this week. The first took place on May 5, on the road between Bisr Elharir and Izra’, resulting in the death of six Government of Syria 5th Division combatants. The second took place in Dar’a city on May 6, and killed a former commander of the Dar’a Free Police, Ahmad Rodwan Falouji, and a former member of Dar’a local council, Mazid Ibrahim Al-Abazid.

Analysis: Security incidents in Dar’a remain concentrated in formerly opposition-controlled parts of Dar’a, such as southern Dar’a city and western and eastern rural Dar’a governorate.  As frequently noted, these incidents are a result of the failure of reconciliation to deliver satisfactory solutions to the most pressing concerns of residents in formerly opposition-held areas, specifically those pertaining to conscription and the presence of Government of Syria forces. Tensions between the population and the Government of Syria have been exacerbated by continued conflict between a variety of nominally pro-Government of Syria military and security branches, and are expected to continue without serious redress in the near term given the current preoccupation of the Government of Syria and its allies with the northwest. Southern Syria is therefore expected to remain deeply unstable for the foreseeable future.

5. IED in Damascus

Damascus city, Syria: On May 11, media sources reported that a VBIED detonated in the vicinity of Zahera and Tadamon neighborhoods in Damascus city. These sources state the explosion resulted in 11 deaths. The attack has yet to be claimed. Notably, this VBIED is the fourth IED to target Damascus city this year. Prior to this incide, the most recent IED was detonated in the Nahr A’eisha neighborhood, on April 24.

Analysis: Despite the general stability of Damascus city, especially since the Government of Syria took control on Eastern Ghouta and southern Damascus in mid-2018, security incidents nevertheless remain likely. Competition among various Government of Syria forces and divisions, the continued presence of sleeper cells, and challenging economic conditions in the city and its vicinity each represent real and potential sources of instability. Syria remains profoundly unstable, and occasional asymmetric attacks from a variety of sources can therefore be expected in the capital.

6. Chinese Involvement in Syria

Beijing, China: During the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum, held in Beijing on April 26 and 27, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that China aims to participate in the reconstruction of Syria. Xi highlighted the natural partnership between both countries which he stated was rooted in the ancient silk road, and added that communications between both governments are gradually increasing. In this regard,  on May 13, Government of Syria media outlets reported on a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Sochi. Both officials reportedly reiterated their government’s support for UNSC 2254 as means to restore nation-wide stability and pave the way for the reconstruction.

Analysis: China has had a general policy of non-interference in Syria. Despite having vetoed resolutions in the UNSC, China’s stance on the war has been generally limited to assertions of sovereignty and Syria’s territorial integrity. However, speculation on Chinese participation in Syria’s reconstruction and post war development has increased following the Chinese-Arab cooperation forum held in July 2018, at which China announced a loan package of $23 billion for Arab countries, including Syria. Similar to other countries on the Mediterranian’s eastern periphery, Syria represents a key node in the global Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. This is especially true considering the fact that the Government of China now is already an important partner for both of Syria’s main allies, Russia and Iran. Indeed, it is increasingly likely that Chinese private companies will take part in Syria’s reconstruction, and will act not only as vehicles for post-conflict Chinese-Syrian collaboration, but also as effective implementers of Syria’s economic agreements with its allies.

7. UAE Humanitarian Aid

Damascus City, Syria: On May 12, media reported that the UAE Red Crescent had distributed humanitarian aid in Marjeh, in Damascus city. The project, entitled ‘Iftar’, reportedly distributed food baskets to an unknown number of people. This marks the first time the UAE has provided aid in Government of Syria-controlled areas. Of note, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018.

Analysis: The UAE’s rapprochement with the Government of Syria is likely concerned with securing a role in Syria’s reconstruction. This, in turn, is expected to influence the outlook of other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia. That said, the UAE’s move into Syria could be slowed by heightened tensions between Gulf countries and Iran over maritime transit in the Strait of Hormuz.

8. SDF Conscription Criteria

Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Northeastern Syria: On May 12, several media and local sources reported that the Kurdish Self Administration (KSA) had proposed to amend criteria pertaining to military conscription. The amendments reportedly stipulate that individuals can avoid conscription by paying $6,000, that the maximum age for conscripts will be increased from 30 to 33, and that students and males in one male families will be exempted. The amendments also specify that the new policy will apply to foreigners in possession of residency permits in SDF-controlled areas in addition to Syrian citizens. To postpone service, non-Syrians holding residency permits, with the exception of Turkish and Iraqi citizens, may be required to pay a monthly fee of $400.

Analysis: Despite the amendments, the KSA’s conscription policies will most likely be poorly received. Indeed, taxation and conscription have been a point of contention between the KSA and local communities, often manifesting in public demonstrations and devolving into direct confrontations. Though new exemptions present some conscription-aged males to avoid military service (as well as generate revenue for the KSA), many individuals will be unable to pay $6000 for the privilege. Even those able to pay may be unwilling to do so considering the long-term viability of the KSA is uncertain, and may mean that they will be subject to subsequent exemption fees requested by the Government of 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 30 – May 06, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

April 30 to May 06, 2018

linklanguagesourceDateCategory
The Assad overturns on Russia to appease IranArabicMENA Monitor May 1, 2019Conflict and Military
The Russian forces raided headquarters for Hezbollah in Syria and shut them downArabicNew LebanonMay 2, 2019Conflict and Military
“A true disaster” … Continuous escalation in North Western Syria displaces tens of thousandsEnglishSyria DirectMay 5, 2019Conflict and Military
Idleb: When the land battle will begin? ArabicAl modonMay 6, 2019Conflict and Military
The Turkish-controlled "Euphrates Shield" areas witness a continues security chaos with a new explosion hits Qabasin city and causes casualtiesArabicSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMay 6, 2019Conflict and Military
What are the new fees imposed by Iranian militias on Aleppo peopleArabicOrient NewsApril 30, 2019Economic
In five main categories.. The Syrian oil ministry determines the amount of subsidized fuelArabicEnab BaladiApril 30, 2019Economic
Aiming to "pull every single wheat grain". Assad increases the purchasing price from peasantsArabicAl-7alMay 1, 2019Economic
Renewal of protests against SDF and Assad in east Deir-ez-ZorArabicOrient NewsMay 3, 2019Social Dynamics
Escalated bombing in Syria’s Idlib displaces nearly 140,000, UN saysEnglishFrance 24 May 2, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Syrian Arab Republic: Rukban departures (As of 3 May 2019)EnglishUN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsMay 3, 2009Humanitarian & Development
UN quietly plans to move all humanitarian aid operations for Syria to DamascusEnglishFox NewsMay 3, 2019Humanitarian & Development
New name, same old problems: Syria talks kick off in Kazakh capital EnglishAl-MonitorApril 30, 2019International Intervention
Syrian Democratic Forces: We are engaging in indirect negotiations with Turkey through mediators ArabicRudaw Media NetworkMay 3, 2019Other
Grave concern over escalating humanitarian crisis, casualties, displacement across northwest Syria: UNEnglishUN News ServiceMay 2, 2019Other
459 arbitrary arrests documented in April 2019EnglishThe Syrian ObserverMay 6, 2019Other
In the wake of the security chaos and disorder within the SDF-controlled areas in Deir Ezzor…a new assassination targets one of their fighters in Abu HardoubEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsMay 6, 2016Other

Media Anthology: April 23 – April 29, 2019


ALEXANDRINA

Media Anthology

April 23 to 29, 2019

linklanguagesourceDateCategory
Within ten days, the Assad regime and its militias lost around 160 members throughout SyriaArabicNedaa SyriaApril 24, 2019Conflict and Military
From Aleppo to Latakia, Tahrir Al-Sham and jihadi groups continue to escalate their attacks for the 9th consecutive day targeting the regime forces and militiamen loyal to them; 95 of both parties have been killed in the 9 daysEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsApril 29, 2019Conflict and Military
About 20 days after the statement of its General Commander, Jaysh Al-Izza raises dirt barricades at the International Highway north of Khan Shaykhun EnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsApril 28, 2019Conflict and Military
Syria opposition receives military training from Turkey ahead of potential battle against SDFEnglishAl-MonitorApril 28, 2019Conflict and Military
Jordanian decision to ban imports of 194 products from SyriaArabicJesr PressApril 24, 2019Economic
Russia stands to gain amid Syria energy crisisEnglishAsia TImesApril 24, 2019Economic
Jordan applies Caesar sanctions on SyriaArabicRussia TodayApril 29, 2019Economic
Waiting 19 hours for gas in a lifeless cityEnglishBloombergApril 26, 2019Economic
The geopolitics of Syria's reconstruction: a case of matryoshka EnglishClingendaelApril 23, 2019Economic
Three reasons behind the Assad Regime’s crisisEnglishThe Syrian ObserverApril 26, 2019Economic
Syrian fuel shortage squeezes Assad’s loyalistsEnglishThe Wall Street JournalApril 23, 2019Governance and Service Management
HTS attempts state-building as a survival strategy in IdlibEnglishArab NewsApril 24, 2019Governance and Service Management
The Etilaf opens a headquarters in rural Aleppo ArabicAl modonApril 24, 2019Governance and Service Management
Who is distorting the image of Suhail Al-Hasan?ArabicAl modonApril 23, 2019Governance and Service Management
Arabs in Syria's Deir al-Zor protest against ruling Kurdish militia: residentsEnglishEuro NewsApril 28, 2019Social Dynamics
Outcry at UN plans to consolidate Syria aid operations in DamascusEnglishThe New HumanitarianApril 23, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Briefing: Just how ‘smart’ are sanctions on Syria?EnglishThe New HumanitarianApril 25, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Initiatives to return Syrian refugees: What have they achieved in nine months?EnglishJusoor for StudiesApril 23, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The Irani-linked associations that are operating under a humanitarian cover in southern Syria... know themArabicSY 24April 28, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Putin says Russia and Syria are not planning assault on Idlib for nowEnglishThe Arab Weekly April 27, 2019International Intervention
Rhetoric versus Reality: War in RaqqaEnglishAmnesty InternationalApril 27, 2019Other
Syrian opposition struggles for relevance as Assad tightens gripEnglishThe Wall Street JournalApril 26, 2019Other
ISIS leader al-Baghdadi pictured for first time since 2014, intel group saysEnglishFox NewsApril 29, 2019Other

Syria Update: April 25 – May 08, 2019

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Syria Update

25 April to 08 May, 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 May 3, two major offensives were launched within hours of one another in northern and northwestern Syria. The first is a major Russian-supported Government of Syria offensive targeting the Sahel Ghab region; the second is a Turkish-backed National Army offensive targeting the SDF in Tel Rifaat, in Afrin District. The timing of these attacks are not a coincidence: both Turkey and Russia have a long history of reaching territorial ‘swap’ agreements throughout the Syrian conflict.  Indeed, both Turkey and Russia also have specific, and likely achievable goals in both areas. The Government of Russia likely seeks to retake Sahel Ghab in order to secure the Hmeimim Airbase in Lattakia governorate, and the Government of Turkey seeks to end the presence of the SDF in northwestern Aleppo. Both offensives are therefore likely to proceed at pace, and are expected to overpower any temporary tactical setbacks. It is likely the offensives will be limited in scope; when it begins in earnest, the Turkish offensive is unlikely to extend to other SDF-held areas, whilst the Government of Syria’s offensive is unlikely to encompass all of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria. Although limited, the humanitarian impact may be great. Up to 150,000 people have already been displaced in northwestern Syria, and displacement from Tel Rifaat will certainly put considerable strain on severely challenging living conditions in Aleppo city.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • The Government of Syria announced the dissolution of numerous pro-Government militias, and their incorporation into formal Syrian Arab Army units. The majority have strong linkages to the Government of Iran, but the move could either be attributed to Russian efforts to reform the Syrian military, or Iranian efforts to build influence within the military establishment.
  • The Government of Jordan announced it would prohibit the import of 194 Syrian commodities; the reasoning behind this ban is multifaceted, but will likely have a serious effect on both the Syrian and Jordanian economies.
  • A bread crisis has surfaced in Duma city after local bakeries failed to receive any subsidized fuel for at least the past ten days. The crisis partially reflects national fuel shortages, but it is also a factor of the Government of Syria’s clear marginalization of the formerly opposition-held city.
  • The 12th round of the Nur Sultan (formerly Astana) talks took place; the talks were largely inconclusive, and a national constitutional committee was not formed despite indications that the formation of the committee was close to agreement.
  • Muqtada Sadr called on Iraqi Hashd Shaabi groups to withdraw from Syria in order to mitigate Iraq’s involvement in any U.S.-Iranian confrontation; however, the Hashd Shaabi is a diverse umbrella term, and Sadr alone is incapable of unilaterally controlling the status of Iraqi combatants in Syria.
  • Two new tribal conferences, one hosted by the SDF and one by the Government of Syria, took place in northeastern Syria amidst a growing tribal protest movement in eastern SDF-held Deir-ez-Zor. Tribal dynamics, and tribal engagement with different parties to the conflict, will continue to dominate northeastern Syria’s internal security and stability.
  • A series of IEDs struck opposition-held northern Aleppo, further highlighting the deteriorating security situation throughout the Euphrates Shield region.
  • A prominent Druze armed group leader was assassinated in As-Sweida governorate; the security situation in As-Sweida is deteriorating as tensions mount between the Government of Syria and the Druze community.

Northwestern Syria Offensives

In Depth Analysis

On May 3, two major offensives were launched within hours of one another in northern and northwestern Syria. The first, named ‘The Dawn of Idleb Offensive’, was launched by the Government of Syria in northwestern Hama governorate, specifically in the Sahel Ghab (Al-Ghab Plains) region. The primary target of the assault is the city of Qalaat Madiq (Madiq Castle), but nearly every community in northern Hama has been heavily targeted by shelling and airstrikes from Syrian and Russian government forces. As of May 7, Government of Syria forces, primarily the 4th Division and the Tiger Forces, have secured of Tell Othman, Al-Banah, and Janabriyah towns. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched several counter-offensives, and briefly retook Tell Othman; however, all of these communities are now firmly under the control of the Government of Syria. The second (as yet unnamed) offensive was launched by the Turkish-backed National Army in northern Aleppo, and is focused on the remaining SDF-held parts of Afrin District, primarily the city of Tell Rifaat. The offensive has been temporarily suspended owing to a large number of landmines in the area, but heavy shelling and clashes continue on front lines in the vicinity of Mare’a and Menigh. The National Army is expected to move on Tell Rifaat in the near term.

Clearly, that the Tel Rifaat and Sahel Ghab offensives began within hours of each other is not coincidental. The Governments of Turkey and Russia have a long history of arranging territorial ‘swaps’ throughout the Syrian conflict, for instance, when the Government of Turkey essentially withdrew support for the armed opposition in Aleppo city in return for military support from the Syrian and Russian governments in the anti-ISIS Euphrates Shield Al-Bab offensive in 2016.  A second example is that of the Afrin and Eastern Ghouta offensives, which both began in March 2018. In this case, the Government of Turkey ceased its political or financial support to the primary armed opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta, whilst the Syrian military units were withdrawn from YPG front lines in Afrin. Analysis claiming that Turkey or Russia are somehow ‘concerned’ by these offensives is therefore a simplistic reading of the situation; the goals, and the eventual outcomes, of both offensives has likely already been determined in the course of Turkish and Russian discussions.

Indeed, both Turkey and Russia have specific, limited, and likely achievable objectives in undertaking the offensives. The Government of Turkey frequently emphasizes that it views the capture of Tel Rifaat and the removal of remaining SDF-held areas of northwestern Syria as a major priority. YPG groups operating in Tel Rifaat have regularly shelled Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch-held areas, much of the growing YPG insurgency in northern Syria is believed to originate in the city, and many of the armed opposition groups in the Turkish-backed National Army demand the freedom to return to their home communities in and around Tel Rifaat. For its part, the Government of Russia likely seeks to remove the armed opposition from the entire Sahel Ghab, as well as potentially Jisr Ash-Shughour. Both locations have been a constant source of irritation to the Government of Russia, largely because they have been a source of regular indirect attacks on the Hmeimim Airbase in Lattakia. Indeed, armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria have repeatedly launched rockets and drones at the Hmeimim airbase over the past several months.

Both offensives will therefore continue at pace over the near-term and are expected to overcome any temporary tactical setbacks. That said, the offensives will likely be limited in scope: when it begins in earnest, the Turkish offensive is unlikely to extend to other SDF-held areas (such as Menbij or northern Ar-Raqqa), whilst the Government of Syria’s offensive is expected to focus only on Sahel Ghab and potentially Jisr Ash-Shughour. Though they may be limited in scope, their impact on civilians could be great. According to UOSSM, over 150,000 people have been displaced from northern Hama in the past seven days. Hospitals across northern Hama have been heavily targeted by airstrikes and shelling, and many hospital services are now unavailable. Naturally, massive displacement will put considerable pressure on the Salvation Government to coordinate with northwestern Syria’s local councils and relief committees, as well as northwestern Syria’s existing refugee camps, and the northwestern Syria humanitarian response. While the Tel Rifaat offensive has been temporarily suspended, it will also likely cause mass displacement, likely to Aleppo city, which plays host to a deeply unstable security environment and a large numbers of displaced and people in need.

Whole of Syria Review

COAR Syria Update April 25 - May 8 Map

1. GoS Militia Incorporation

Damascus, Syria:  On May 1, media reports indicated that the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Defense issued a decision to dissolve 14 different pro-Government of Syria militia groups and subsequently incorporate their combatants and commanders into the Syrina Arab Army. This decision was reportedly made upon the directives of President Bashar Al-Assad. The most important groups affected by the decision include: Liwaa Al-Baqir, the National Defense Forces in Aleppo, Al-Baath Brigade, various local National Defense Forces (NDF) groups in Foah and Kefraya, and Hezbollah-affiliated battalions in Nubul and Foah. Although not all combatants in these groups are expected to be incorporated into the Syrian military structure, reports indicate the large majority will be reassigned to formal military units. Upon reassignment, combatants will be handed a rank in the Syrian military which corresponds to their experience and time served in pro-Government militias, and will in most cases join units closely linked to their former militias.  Importantly, the large majority – if not the entirety – of the militias affected by the decision are closely linked to the Government of Iran.

Analysis: Efforts to restructure the Syrian military have become a dominant feature of the Syrian conflict for much of 2019. Indeed, throughout the Syrian conflict, much of the actual fighting has been undertaken by different pro-Government militia groups, with the formal Syrian military providing logistical support. This has led to a decentralized military and security system, which has led to considerable command and control challenges for the Government of Syria.  Indeed, the Government of Russia has engaged in a major campaign to restructure the Syrian military and incorporate Syrian militia groups into a more formal structure. However, attributing the dissolution and incorporation of these militias to a Russian directive is premature. Indeed, while the Government of Syria’s decision to incorporate these militias into the Syrian Arab Army could be seen as part of broader Russian efforts to restructure the Syrian military, it could also be viewed as a means of deepening the Government of Iran’s leverage within the Syrian military establishment by formally incorporating batches of Iranian-linked combatants into the Syrian military. It is also important to note that both scenarios are by no means mutually exclusive; Russian attempts to restore command and control and incorporate pro-Government militias may also formalize the influence of Iranian-linked commanders and combatants. The ultimate impact of this decision cannot yet be determined. More time is needed to discern the extent to which these battalions and brigades will function as part of the state military establishment, or whether they will remain as de-facto separate local groups. Notably, if these militias are effectively incorporated into the Government of Syria’s formal military structure, U.S. demands that Iran withdraw its influence from Syria will become practically impossible, subsequently exposing both Syria and Iran to continued U.S. sanctions for the indefinite future.

2. Jordanian Import Prohibition

Amman, Jordan: On April 24, the Jordanian Ministry of Industry issued a decree prohibiting the import of 194 commodities from Syria, to include: coffee, olives, tea, meat, foodstuffs, clothing items, as well as other basic commodities. The decree came to effect on May 1. The Jordanian Chambers of Commerce has reportedly argued against the decision, but the Jordanian government has yet to show any signs of reversing the directive. The Head of the Government of Syria’s Exporters Union, Iyad Mohamad, has stated that the Jordanian decision will not impact Syrian markets because most banned goods transiting from Syria into Jordan are not Syrian in origin. This statement is likely misleading however, particularly given the importance of the Nasib border crossing to the entire Syrian and Jordanian economy. Indeed, local sources indicate that the decree is expected to result a cross-border trade decrease which is levels lower than those observed when Nasib was under the control of the armed opposition.

Analysis: The Government of Jordan’s decision to prohibit imports from Syria is likely driven by three factors. The first is that the Government of Jordan is reportedly under considerable pressure from the U.S. to limit economic engagement with Syria, especially considering the forthcoming Caesar sanctions. The second is that the Government of Jordan’s decision reflects Jordanian discontent with the general security situation in southern Syria, which deteriorates on a weekly basis. The third is that Jordan is reportedly unhappy with Syrian restrictions on Jordanian exports, and that the ban is an attempt to secure a more favorable import-export agreement. No matter the reason, Jordanian import bans are likely to have a significant impact on the already dire state of the Syrian economy. Indeed, both the Syrian and Jordanian economies are heavily dependent on trade though Nasib, and both have suffered severe economic consequences as a result of its closure. While the specific political motivations behind the Jordanian decision are therefore difficult to discern, its impact will certainly be felt in both countries.

3. Duma Bread Crisis

Duma city, Rural Damascus, Syria: On May 5, media sources reported that nearly all bakeries in Duma city and its vicinity have been non-functional ceased production since at least April 25. The closures reportedly follow an advisory from the Government of Syria that it is no longer in a position to provide subsidized fuel. Civilians have subsequently resorted to purchasing available unsubsidized bread at a price of 400 SYP per pack. Of note, the price of subsidized packs of bread in Damascus is 50 SYP. Other civilians have reportedly resorted to preparing bread themselves, using makeshift ovens and open fires. According to local sources, there are no indications that fuel will be made available to Duma city’s bakeries for the foreseeable future.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s fuel crisis has gravely affected the ability of civilians to purchase basic items, and has caused shortages and price increases across the board. The Government of Syria has therefore resorted to strict subsidy cuts, has issued fuel and gas quotas, and has introduced rationing for households, markets, businesses, and state institutions, to include the military. However, the Government of Syria fuel cuts in Duma appear excessive. Indeed, having failed to supply Duma with fuel for over ten days suggests the city is being deliberately excluded. This is perhaps unsurprising; Syria’s current economic crisis is likely to impact populations in former opposition-controlled areas far more than those elsewhere given the state is unlikely to prioritize service provision in these communities. As such, living conditions in former opposition areas can be expected to deteriorate long after the cessation of violence.

4. Nur Sultan (Astana) Talks

Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan: On April 24 and 25, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, as well as representatives of the Government of Syria and the Syrian opposition, held the 12th round of the Nur Sultan talks (formerly known as the Astana talks). The conference reportedly discussed refugee returns, the situation in northwestern Syria, the  finalization of the constitutional committee, and post-war reconstruction. A decision on constitutional committee for Syria was expected following earlier comments by UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, but no statements to this effect have been issued. The Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, stated that the creation of the committee will be postponed until the upcoming Geneva talks. Of note, these talks have yet to be scheduled. Additionally, as per the joint Turkish, Iranian, and Russian statement that concluded the negotiations, the guarantors agreed to include Lebanon and Iraq in the future rounds of Nur Sultan talks as observers. In turn, the High Negotiation Committee of Syrian Opposition reportedly indicated its willingness to increase reproachment with Russian representatives.

Analysis: The formation of the constitutional committee, albeit a necessary step for political transition, is unlikely to be concluded in the near term.  Indeed, the committee is now unlikely to be formed until after the termination of the two offensives described in the In-Depth Analysis section, and further Turkish-Russian agreement on the final status of northwestern Syria. Significant progress toward the formation of a constitutional committee was reported by UN  Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson, following a visit to Damascus on April 12. But it appears these negotiations are unlikely to yield to results without a prior Russian-Turkish agreement. As such, the broader political process in Syria is likely to remain on hold for the time being.

5. Hashd Shaabi in Syria

Baghdad, Iraq: On April 27, Muqtada Sadr, a prominent Shiite leader in Iraq, released a statement listing terms he deemed necessary to prevent Iraq from facing the repercussions of any confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. These terms include demands for the immediate withdrawal of Hashd Shaabi forces from Syria, but on May 4, the Syrian Arab Army announced another successful joint SAA-Hashd Shaabi anti-ISIS operation on the Syria-Iraq border, reportedly north of the Al-Tanf border crossing. Sadr also noted that, with the closure of the U.S. embassy in Iraq, Iraq will now be forced to deal with the implications of U.S.-Iranian tensions.  

Analysis: Despite Muqtada Sadr‘s significant political power in Iraq, he is incapable of unilaterally commanding Hashd Shaabi forces or dictating the group’s general strategy. This is largely because the Hashd Shaabi is not a unified body, and is rather an umbrella terminology used to describe various Iraqi armed groups of divergent political allegiances. Indeed, different Hashd Shaabi units have been linked to Sadr himself, as well as Iran, the Government of Syria, the U.S., and other Iraqi political factions. Sadr’s statement is nevertheless reflective of general concern in Iraq regarding the increasing confrontation between Iran and the U.S., as well as the ways in which this confrontation might manifest in areas of concern which host a considerable Iranian presence, namely, southern Deir-ez-Zor, along the Syria-Iraq borders, and within Iraq itself. Ultimately, while some political factions in Iraq, to include Sadr’s, would prefer to disassociate themselves from both Syria and U.S.-Iranian confrontations, Iran will retain considerable influence over many Iraqi armed and political groups.

6. SDF and GoS Tribal Conferences

Ar-Raqqa, Al-Hasakeh, and Deir-ez-Zor Governorates, Northeastern Syria: Media sources reported that both the SDF and the Government of Syria convened two separate tribal conferences. The Government of Syria’s conference was held in Al-Hasakeh city, on May 1, with the SDF’s tribal conference being held in Ein Issa, in northern Ar-Raqqa, on May 3. The conference arranged by the Government of Syria reportedly called for the U.S.-led coalition to withdraw from northeastern Syria, and local sources reported that the conference was followed by protests in the city. Local sources also indicated that Government of Syria representatives at the Al-Hasakeh event warned against attendees travelling to the SDF’s conference in Ein Issa.  For their part, nearly 5,000 tribal representatives attended the SDF conference in Ein Issa and reportedly called for the unity of Syrian territory, and a Turkish withdrawal from Syria, specifically from Afrin. Concurrent with the tribal conferences, local sources noted that numerous tribal protests took place in SDF-held communities in eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Protestors were demonstrating against the SDF, and demanded that the SDF allow greater civilian mobility in Deir-ez-Zor, an increased role for local municipalities (as opposed to the Deir-ez-Zor civil council), an end to SDF military conscription, and greater access to local service provision. Reportedly, Hajem Bashir, of the Bakkara tribe, threatened the SDF with a general strike and road blockages if the SDF failed to meet the demands of protestors. To that end, on May 2, the SDF reportedly handed control of Tanal oil field in Deir-ez-Zor governorate over to the Sheitat tribe in an attempt to improve living conditions in the area. It is understood the Sheitat tribe will now receive 30% of Tanal oil field revenues, with the SDF receiving the remaining 70%.

Analysis: Although many Arab tribes in northeastern Syria are nominally affiliated with the SDF, relations between tribes and the SDF are extremely tense. Indeed, these tensions are exacerbated by the fact that the Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian governments are pursuing a strategy of building influence with tribal leaders to destabilize the Kurdish Self Administration.  Tribal conferences are one of the most powerful means of demonstrating this influence, and the coincidence of competing tribal conferences over a several day period is extremely noteworthy. Influence building is not limited to holding conferences however; local sources indicate that demonstrations in Deir-ez-Zor governorate have been encouraged by the Government of Syria.  For more information on tribal dynamics in northeastern Syria please see COAR’s recent paper, linked here.

7. IEDs in Northern Aleppo

Northern Aleppo, Syria: In a continuation of recent events, a series of IED attacks were reported in numerous locations throughout Euphrates Shield-held northern Aleppo governorate. Media reports indicate that two VBIED struck Jarablus on May 1, and another detonated in Qabasin, in Al-Bab district on May 6. Eight civilians were reportedly injured in the latter attack. Notably, similar incidents took place in Al-Bab city and Qabasin on April 24 and 15 respectively.

Analysis: Security incidents of this kind in Euphrates Shield areas are common, and have become one of the main concerns of the local population. Unlike in Afrin, attacks in Euphrates Shield-held areas largely target civilians and civilian infrastructure rather than armed opposition figures. Most attacks in the area center in Jarablus and Al-Bab, as well as smaller nearby rural communities. Turkish-backed National Army groups and local police forces have recently increased efforts to clear the area of VBIEDs, but they have been unable to decrease the frequency of security incidents. ISIS, the YPG, different Turkish-backed armed groups, and the Government of Syria are variously accused of IED attacks in the area, but those responsible are often difficult to determine. In all likelihood, each actor has likely undertaken attacks of this kind in recent months, and this level of contestation means the security situation in northern Aleppo is only likely to deteriorate further, particularly in light of the National Army’s expected assault on Tel Rifaat.

8. As-Sweida Assassination

Salkhad, As-Sweida, Southern Syria: On May 2, local media outlets in As-Sweida governorate reported that prominent local armed commander, Wasim Eid was assassinated. Eid was a leader in the Sheikh Al-Karama Forces, in Salkhad, southern As-Sweida governorate. His killing was reportedly followed by clashes in Salkhad between Government of Syria Military Security Branch forces and Sheikh Al-Karama combatants. Other media sources reported that the locally prominent Masha’rani family had previously accused Eid of killing one of its members. Given the alleged links of the Masha’rani to the local Military Security Branch, local sources suggest the Masha’rani family may be responsible for Eid’s assassination. Of note, Wasim Eid established Sheikh Al-Karama in late 2018 despite his affinity for the Government of Syria. Sheikh Al-Karama forces have subsequently developed a poor relationship with Government of Syria intelligence services.

Analysis: Local tensions and inter-group confrontations in As-Sweida governorate are likely to continue, especially as they are fueled by local Druze community family dynamics, the proliferation of weapons in As-Sweida, and the continued hostility of much of the Druze community to Government of Syria military presence in the area. Indeed, Government of Syria attempts to dissolve Druze armed groups in As-Sweida and conscript locals have largely failed, which has in turn contributed to emboldening Druze armed groups. The Government of Syria will likely seek to reach a negotiated settlement with Druze community leaders to avoid a local escalation, but these events must be viewed in the context of the broader economic and security challenges facing Syria and its people. As such, it is likely that any such agreement will have only a temporary effect on alleviating potential and existing local grievances.

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.

Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria

Tribal Tribulations​​

Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria​

06 May, 2019

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Executive Summary

Tribes, specifically Sunni Arab tribes, are an increasingly prominent and influential political force in northeastern Syria. The relative power of tribes is in many ways a function of demographics; despite popular misconceptions, Arab tribesmen remain the majority of the population in most major communities in Kurdish Self Administration-controlled northeastern Syria, and an important plurality or potent minority in many nominally Kurdish communities.  States party to the Syrian conflict, primarily the Governments of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, are aware of this dynamic and have been courting tribes for years, in many ways as part of a formal foreign policy instrument; this outreach has only increased in scope and scale following the military defeat of ISIS. Yet tribes are also often misunderstood, particularly in the west: while Arab tribes are indeed important socio-political entities, they are not monolithic; thus, it is difficult in most cases to determine a single tribe’s ‘affiliation’ with a specific political or state actor due to diffuse structures and decision-making.  At present, states conducting tribal outreach do so through forging relationships with individual tribal leaders as a means of securing local influence. While the term ‘tribal leader’ is open to debate, in practice states have identified popular or influential individuals capable of mobilizing significant support within a kinship-based solidarity network.

By means of mapping Arab tribes in northeastern Syria and overlaying reported political affiliation, it becomes clear exactly which, and where, states are building and leveraging influence with Arab tribes in northeastern Syria as a means of achieving geopolitical objectives.  This research is especially interesting and predictive when taken in the context of current socio-political realities, specifically that the Kurdish Self Administration is unlikely to exist in its present form indefinitely. When the Kurdish Self Administration eventually concedes territory – either through a broad arrangement with the Government of Syria or as a result of a Turkish-led military intervention – the precise locations of state-tribal influence not only indicates political and geographic areas of interests, but also hints at potential fissures and future areas of likely violence in northeastern Syria.

Data collection supporting the conclusions presented in this paper occurred over a period of two months, and relied on key informant interviews throughout northeastern Syria.   In addition to mapping the locations of specific tribes in northeastern Syria, field researchers also examined the socio-political structures of Arab tribes in northeastern Syria, as well as identifying those essential qualities necessary for tribal leadership.  A series of tribal maps, detailing the geographic distribution of the most prominent twenty-five tribes in northeastern Syria and Menbij, and which regional actors have courted these tribes, are also presented alongside methodological explanations concerning how data contained in these maps was compiled.  Please note that the emphasis of this research is on socio-political relationships, geopolitical interests, and foreign interventions in Syria, rather than a study of tribal demographics or tribal political ‘affiliations’. A set of findings and recommendations for institutional donors and INGOs is also presented in this paper.

Tribal Outreach

Influence Building as a Destabilizing Force

Over the past year, it is increasingly clear that the Governments of Syria, Turkey, and Iran have embarked on a policy of ‘tribal’ outreach in northeastern Syria.  Ultimately, the purpose of this policy is to secure relationships with northeastern Syria’s Arab tribesmen to create spheres of political influence within territory presently controlled by the Kurdish Self Administration and the SDF, to which the Governments of Syria, Turkey, and Iran are all opposed, albeit each for specific reasons.

The Governments of Syria, Turkey, and Iran have different mechanisms for tribal outreach and relationship building with northeastern Syria’s tribes.  In general, the Government of Syria has used its pre-existing personality-based relationships with tribal leaders and representatives1, whereas the Government of Turkey has leveraged relationships with Arab tribal combatants and leaders from northeastern Syria that subsequently relocated to northern Aleppo and are now a major component of the Turkish-supported National Army initiative.2  For its part, Iran often builds relationships with Syrian tribes by funding militias that have a heavy tribal component, or by leveraging the cross-border socio-political linkages shared between Syrian tribes and the Iraqi tribes that form an important component of the Iraqi Hashid Shaabi.3  This strategy of tribal outreach and influence is fundamentally predicated upon the identification of real or ‘created’ tribal leaders, and then the mobilization of financial and military support with the intention of leveraging patronage for local influence.   Tribes themselves are selected based on geographic areas of demographic prominence.

It is important to note that the purpose of building relationships with Syrian tribal leaders and tribes extends beyond the objective of securing local support; Arab tribes are also instrumentalized as a means of undermining political foes.  For example, tribal leaders with local support can call upon fellow tribesmen to foment domestic protest movements4, form local armed groups5, or create new political parties and blocs.  By cultivating relationships with tribal leaders, regional states party to the Syrian conflict are essentially building local constituencies and intermediaries willing to support their respective strategic policies.  Thus, state outreach to Arab tribes in northeastern Syria should not necessarily be viewed as a purely stabilizing or destabilizing force; it should instead be viewed as a form of community outreach. For those who understand its merits, tribal outreach has become an essential component of foreign policy in tribally prominent regions, and the cultivation of tribal leadership figures should be viewed through precisely this lens: a clear indication that a neighboring state has a specific strategic interest in the particular geographic area where tribal allies are most prominent.  This, in turn, helps to illustrate, map, and forecast not just interests and alliances, but also potential areas of friction and groups most likely to be instrumentalized as local proxies.

What is a Tribe?

Despite the critical political importance of tribalism throughout Syria, the ‘tribe’ remains a concept that poorly understood.6  Definitions and understandings of a ‘tribe’ vary, especially in the Middle East where the concept has been shaped by both historical practices and more recent social, economic, and political changes associated with modern state formation.  Indeed, academics and practitioners regularly debate the importance of the ‘tribe’ in the modern Middle East, and entire books have been written on the topic of tribalism and tribal boundaries.7  However, most practitioners do agree on two key characteristics of the tribe in the Middle East: the tribe is an socio-political identity and solidarity network; and a tribe is informed by shared kinship networks based on common paternal descent.8  Mohammad Jamal Baroud, a prominent Arab social scientist, refers to the tribe using the concept of muhit hayawi ijtima’i, which is best translated as a person’s ‘essential social environment.9  Fundamentally, tribal affiliation is an immutable characteristic; i.e. a member of the Jabour tribe cannot convert and become a member of another tribe, and that status will also inform behavior patterns within the broader socio-political environment.10

While the tribe is perhaps a person’s ‘essential social environment’, it is worth noting that the tribe, at least in Syria, is not a cohesive socio-political unit.  Prior to the implementation of the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms, the tribe was (in many cases) more politically unified and led by a single, often hereditary, Sheikh.  In modern Syria, the socio-political significance of tribal identity varies wildly, differs by individual and community, and in many cases is informed by socio-economic and geographic backgrounds.  Anecdotally, individuals who have migrated to urban centers, work as urban professionals, or who no longer reside within kinship or tribally-based communities are less influenced by their tribal identity.  However, this does not mean that a northeastern Syrian tribesman who is now an engineer in Damascus does not feel strongly about his tribal identity; conversely, it would be wrong to assume that a farmer in Raqqa’s decision-making is solely informed by tribal relationships. For many, tribal affiliation is just one of a plurality of social identities, to include for example ‘Muslim,’ ‘Syrian,’ ‘Arab,’ or ‘Raqqawi.’

That said, tribes throughout northeastern Syria remain an important component of social identity; tribal affiliation informs the composition of many communities, and tribal leadership figures often perform important governance functions such as dispute mediation, economic welfare and patronage, and the provision of basic safety and security.  Indeed, while in most cases the tribe has ceased to be a ‘unified’ socio-political entity, it nonetheless remains a strong social identity that can and is politicized when formal governance structures recede. In the context of the Syrian conflict, shared ‘tribal’ identity is often a critical component of armed group membership, the formation of political blocs, and the basis of popular mobilization.  Consequently, ‘tribal’ leaders are often viewed as powerful political brokers, though as noted the ‘tribe’ as a socio-political construct is far less relevant and more fragmented today than in the past.

Government of Syria backed meeting of tribe leaders in Athriya, Aleppo, in January 2019. Photo courtesy of Syria Clans.

What is a ‘Tribal Leader’

It is important to examine the profiles of individuals that are considered to be tribal leaders, as these individuals are key nodes within the broader policy/strategy of leveraging tribes as a means of achieving local political influence.  Here it must be noted that Syrian tribes rarely (if ever) have an undisputed single leadership; rather, each tribe often has multiple and sometimes competing leadership figures. Additionally, leadership is more diffuse in the case of extremely large tribes, such as the Jabour, with constituent membership spread across throughout northeastern Syria and numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and is more concentrated in smaller tribes such as the Jiss, which are located in the vicinity of Tel Abiad and number in the low thousands.  Naturally, a larger tribe will have numerous leaders, different leadership figures will hold multiple socio-political and economic relationships, and leaders may be engaged in some form of competition with one another. This leads some analysts to contend that – in the case of large tribes with diffuse leadership – the tribe is politically insignificant. Paradoxically, larger tribes with numerous tribal leaders, each pursuing different political strategies, actually can make the tribe more relevant and potent politically, especially in that this strategy ensures that some component of the tribe is always aligned with the ‘winning’ actor.

Ultimately, there are four essential components that define tribal leadership in present-day northeastern Syria: family, funding, friendships, and fighters.   Tribal leaders must have some or all of these components to remain influential and thereby gather popular support amongst fellow tribesmen; tribal leaders that lose some or all of these components will consequently diminish in relevance and prominence.

Family

Tribal leaders must, obviously, be members of the tribe.  Ideally, leaders hail from the more prominent families within that tribe that have traditionally and historically held leadership positions.  As the tribe is fundamentally based on the idea of a shared kinship, the ability to call upon hereditary history to justify leadership claims is an important component of a tribal leader’s legitimacy.  Of course this is not always the case; a tribal leader whose father was an effective leader will not retain a following if he is ineffective or lacking in other key leadership qualities. However, an overwhelmingly large number of northeastern Syria’s tribal leaders claim a familial history of leadership within the tribe.  It is indeed rare to find a leader without a hereditary pedigree.11

Funding

Tribal leaders in northeastern Syria must secure economic resources, and subsequently distribute those resources to tribesmen as part of securing patronage.  Indeed, this is perhaps one of the primary reasons that tribal identity has survived as an institution; the ability to draw upon fellow tribesmen or tribal leaders for economic support is an important part of maintaining tribal affiliation as a component of one’s identity.  This could account for the geographic and economic linkages to tribal identity as a part of social identity; the aforementioned tribesman-engineer living in Damascus no longer relies as heavily on tribal leaders for economic security. Therefore, access to cash, jobs, or land to reliably (and ideally, equitably) distribute to fellow tribesmen is an essential component of a tribal leader’s legitimacy.12

Tribal leaders attending a Turkish held meeting in Urfa in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Daily Sabah.

Friendships

Successful tribal leaders in northeastern Syria must draw upon a network of allies, both inside and outside the tribe, to facilitate dispute mediation, external representation, and guarantee funding and internal patronage. Tribal leaders first and foremost are mediators of local disputes within the tribe: relationships with prominent tribal members is essential to building consensus and maintaining legitimacy.13  Tribal leaders must also hold relationships with other tribal leaders, both as a critical component of dispute and conflict mitigation, as well as developing broad-based political and social alliances.  Tribal leaders must also hold relationships with non-tribal actors, such as with officials within their respective state, neighboring states, and local governance bodies; tribal leaders often derive considerable legitimacy from these relationships, as they are often a means of securing greater funding and patronage opportunities.  Indeed, these extra-tribal relationships are often a critical component of why one tribal leader gains prominence over a competitor within the same tribe. The Syrian Government, the Kurdish Self Administration, and regional governments often select to engage and empower tribal leaders perceived as most relevant locally; thus, perceived internal support leads to additional external support, which in turn facilitates greater internal support and prominence.

Fighters

Tribal leaders in northeastern Syria must be able to call upon a large number of supporters to help pursue local and regional political objectives.  Yet supporters are not necessarily armed combatants to be armed combatants, but can also be protestors or voters in local elections. Ultimately however, a tribal leader must be able to gather large numbers of fellow tribesmen behind a common cause or in support of a more powerful actor whose interests align with those of the tribe.  The capacity to rally supporters not only influences the perception of a tribal leader’s potency vis-a-vis states -both internal and external- but also influences internal legitimacy vis-a-vis. The ability to mobilize supporters will heavily influence which tribal leader local or national actors support, and yet the associated patronage allows a broader powerbase, more local support, and greater legitimacy. Thus, local support and mobilization is both a cause and a result of funding and friendships.

Sha’ytat tribal leaders surrender and hand in their weapon to ISIS after ISIS killed over 1500 Sha’ytat tribesmen in Deir-ez-Zor in 2015. Photo courtesy of Ana Press.

Tribal Mapping and Geographies of Influence

As noted, regional actors and the Government of Syria are engaged in a strategy of building influence in northeastern Syria, primarily as a means of opposing or destabilizing the Kurdish Self Administration; tribal outreach, through engagement with tribal leaders, is a key component of that strategy.  The degree to which this strategy has been successful is debatable, as it remains difficult to identify whether popular discontent is the product of poor governance on the part of the Self Administration, or the product of a calculated ‘tribal’ policy by the Kurdish Self Administration’s adversaries. Furthermore, the degree to which a tribe can be ‘aligned’ with a regional actor also remains unclear, especially considering the fact that most of northeastern Syria’s tribes are not monoliths and many boast fragmented leadership.  Nonetheless, by overlaying patterns of tribal outreach or engagement upon rough areas of tribal influence, we can begin to understand the specific geographic interests and objectives of these external actors in the context of northeastern Syria. Mapping the potential political faultlines and external interests within northeastern Syria is especially relevant were we to assume that the Kurdish Self Administration is unlikely to exist in its current form indefinitely. Indeed, most analysis on the trajectory of the Kurdish Self Administration identifies a high likelihood that its territory will eventually be administered by either the Government of Syria or Turkish-backed groups.  Therefore, by understanding where regional actors are building influence, we can gain some insight into the eventual geographic contours of control in northeastern Syria; we can also see where multiple regional actors are simultaneously building influence, which may contribute to longer term instability.

Methodology: Tribal Mapping

To map the distribution of northeastern Syria’s tribes is difficult under any context, all the more so in the midst of a violent conflict; furthermore, COAR lacks the resources to deploy survey and polling teams to work for months to collect tribal demographic data at the field level.  In the interest of simplicity and speed – and in recognition of the fact that the objective is to identify regional objectives not local demography – COAR local researchers, from different ethnic backgrounds and based in northeastern Syria, collected tribal distribution data over the course of two months.   Researchers identified the three most politically influential Arab tribes in each community (as per the UN gazetteer) within Ar-Raqqa, Deir-Ez-Zor, and Al-Hasakeh governorates, as well as SDF-controlled Menbij district in Aleppo governorate. COAR erred on the side of overrepresentation and in the case of discrepancies, both responses were noted.  Ultimately, twenty-five different tribes were listed as influential across all of northeastern Syria’s communities. It is of course worth noting that there are hundreds of tribes and sub-branches of tribes throughout northeastern Syria; therefore, the findings presented below should not be taken as an accurate representation of tribal demographic distribution in northeastern Syria. Rather, findings should provide a snapshot with respect to the location of northeastern Syria’s most politically significant tribes at the community level.14  Findings were subsequently cross-referenced with existing social media information, previous tribal mapping projects in northeastern Syria, and findings of analysts focused on northeastern Syria.15

Note that each community assessed is represented by one point on the map above.  Points with only a single color are communities with only one tribe considered to be the most influential.  Points divided into two, three, or four colors show communities with multiple tribes listed as influential.

Methodology: Geographies of Influence

Researchers subsequently were asked to collect data with respect to the various national and regional actors conducting outreach to those representing or leading the most twenty-five influential tribes in northeastern.  As noted, the most prominent external actors currently conducting outreach to northeastern Syria’s tribal leadership figures are the Governments of Iran, Russian and Syria; thus, individual tribes were coded based on a determination as to whether key tribal leadership regularly interacted with or received direct support from the Governments of Syria, Turkey, Iran or their representatives.  Data from researchers was subsequently triangulated using methods similar to those listed above, and cross-referenced with COAR’s past research and the work of other researchers and academics.

It must be emphasized that this map is not attempting to display the political ‘affiliation’ of northeastern Syria’s tribes.  As noted repeatedly, tribes are highly complex socio-political entities, some numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and many with multiple leadership figures.  Thus, this map is not intended to represent tribal affiliation but rather state engagement with corresponding areas of tribal socio-political prominence. Essentially, this map shows where regional actors are attempting to build influence, and not necessarily what political direction tribes are taking.16  That being said: many tribes are certainly openly aligning with different national and regional actors, and some are doing some as fairly unified socio-political entities.  Ultimately, the way in which tribal engagement was categorized was a perceptional ‘gut check’, albeit one based on considerable research and guided by local sources; specific details on each tribe, including information on how the tribe was categorized, is included in Annex 1.

Findings/Conclusions

This map shows communities as points, with tribes recategorized based on which regional actors have engaged prominent tribal leaders.  Tribes and tribal leaders are either categorized as: exclusively engaging with Turkey; exclusively engaging with the Government of Syria; engaging with both Turkey and the Government of Syria; or engaging with both the Government of Syria and Iran.  Note that a circle colored half ‘Turkey’ and half ‘Government of Syria’ indicates that there are two prominent tribes in that community, one which is engaging exclusively with the Government of Turkey, and one which is engaging exclusively with the Government of Syria.  There were no tribes whose leadership figures were exclusively engaging with Iran, there were no tribes with leadership figures that were engaging with both Turkey and Iran, and there were no tribes with leadership figures engaging with all three actors

This map displays the same data as above, but instead as an aggregate heat map.  It is an attempt to give a more clear picture of the ‘contours’ of influence in northeastern Syria.

As seen on the map above, there are several points are of immediate interest.  Regional actors are already defining zones of influence in northeastern Syria, and clearly view the tribe as a key component of that influence strategy.  Considering the precarious political position of the SDF and likelihood that Kurdish Self Administration territory will be handed over to regional actors or be politically divided, it is worth examining the geographic contours where these actors are attempting to build influence. These contours may come to represent informal zones of influence or political division of NES, as well as potential flashpoints of tensions between various proxy groups. Below is a list of key findings:

The Government of Turkey is clearly building influence in the immediate Syrian border region, as well as Menbij; Turkey areas of influence line up closely to the dimensions of a proposed Turkish ‘safe zone’ in northeastern Syria.  Indeed, the Government of Turkey is exclusively engaging with tribal leaders in the Jiss and Adwan tribes, the most influential tribes in both Ras El-Ain and Tell Abiad.17  In fact, Turkey is building influence with tribes throughout northeastern Syria, although this is most notable in northeastern Syria’s major communities.  Considering Turkey’s overtly hostile stance to the Kurdish Self Administration, Turkish influence-building with Arab tribes should be considered to be not only based on projected political outcomes but also with the intention to use these relationships to destabilize the Kurdish Self Administration.

The Government of Iran is clearly interested in building influence in northeastern Syria’s commercial corridors.  This includes the Abukamal and Fishkabour border crossings, as well as Deir-ez-Zor city.  This pattern is logical, especially given Iran’s well-documented interest in building commercial connections between Tehran and Syria, as well as its interests in Syria’s natural resources (such as Deir-ez-Zor’s oil fields).  Indeed, Iran has already taken a major role in the port of Lattakia, and has also become a major stakeholder in Syrian Railways, and there are reportedly plans to expand the Syrian railway network to eastern Syria. Iran’s influence with northeastern Syria’s tribes has also caused some degree of internal friction within many tribes; for example, the Bakkara, one of northeastern Syria’s largest tribes, has already reportedly experienced some internal division between pro- and anti-Iranian camps.18

The Government of Syria is attempting to build influence with northeastern Syria’s tribes throughout nearly all of northeastern Syria.  It should not be surprising that the Government of Syria’s tribal approach is as widespread as it is; the Government of Syria has maintained relationships with Syria’s tribal community for decades, and has existing tribal leaders with which it prefers to work.  Additionally, and as explored in Annex 1, many tribal leaders in northeastern Syria are also current or former members of Syrian Parliament, or are otherwise important local political officials and Baath party members. This pattern of influence whereby informal power brokers take on formal roles also fits within the Government of Syria’s overarching strategy.19

There are several major potential points of conflict, identified as locations at which regional actors are simultaneously building multiple influence groups; this approach could lead to internal tribal conflict, armed group confrontation, and local instability. As seen on the holistic map above, this dynamic is especially prevalent in Ar-Raqqa city, Deir-ez-Zor city, and central Al-Hasakeh.   Essentially, the fact that tribal leaders from tribal groups in these areas have been engaging with, and drawing support from, multiple regional actors is an indication that multiple separate patronage structures and influence bases exist.  Indeed, Deir-ez-Zor city and Ar-Raqqa especially have already witnessed considerable internal tensions between tribal actors.

It is worth noting most tribes are also engaging with the SDF and the Kurdish Self Administration; however, this is due to the Kurdish Self Administration’s current role as governing body in northeastern Syria, and not due to any inherent loyalty (at least in most cases).  As noted, tribes are inherently decentralized; however, they are also inherently self-interested.  Tribes are also notoriously reactive to prevailing power dynamics; they do not often drive political or military dynamics, but they certainly react to the impact of these dynamics.  So long as the longevity of the SDF and the Kurdish Self Administration is in question – and their longevity will always be in question due to the potential U.S. withdrawal and threats of Turkish intervention – many Arab tribal leaders will continue to pursue independent policies, and regional actors will use tribal leaders to build a power base with which to destabilize the Kurdish Self Administration, or to solidify their own eventual control over an area.

Recommendations

  • The major national and regional parties to the conflict obviously consider tribal influence-building to be a fundamental component of their strategy in northeastern Syria, yet humanitarian and development actors more often than not do not take the same approach. They should. INGOs working throughout northeastern Syria must identify which tribes are locally relevant in communities in which they are working, and should seek to build relationships with tribal leaders in these communities.  Thus far, the northeastern Syria response has been fundamentally based on interaction with the Kurdish Self Administration; tribesmen are perhaps beneficiaries, but are not considered to be key stakeholders. Anecdotally, Arab tribes are rarely engaged without the facilitation of the Kurdish Self Administration, and little attempt is made to understand local tribal politics in a meaningful way.  Tribal engagement must become a major component of the northeastern Syria humanitarian response, or risk jeopardizing longer-term interventions through the broad perception that humanitarian actors are aligned with and indistinguishable from the Kurdish Self Administration (and their shared donors).
  • Institutional donors and INGOs should consider the potential longevity of their ongoing programs in northeastern Syria, especially in areas where regional actors, such as Turkey, clearly intend to build influence locally.  This is especially true in the case of border communities such as Ras El-Ain, Tell Abiad, and Menbij, and is also especially true when these programs require close coordination with the Kurdish Self Administration.
  • Organizations working in northeastern Syria must examine their security SOPs, contingency planning, and strategy, and prepare for a more unstable and unpredictable operating environment. Regional actors are building influence with Arab tribes partially in order to destabilize the Kurdish Self Administration; therefore, increased protests, targeted assassinations, and politically-motivated violence are likely to become more prominent feature of northeastern Syria’s landscape.
  • Care must be taken with regard to attributions of a resurgent ISIS; violence perpetrated by discontented Arab tribes and violence committed by ISIS are very different.  Fears of a resurgent ISIS are naturally in the minds of many government and non-governmental organizations working in Syria’s northeast.  Northeastern Syria’s Arab tribes, incentivized by local and regional governments are likely to seek to destabilize northeastern Syria; at the same time, many Arab tribes have legitimate grievances against the Kurdish Self Administration.  It is thus important to distinguish drivers of violence and instability to ensure an appropriate response. There is a real risk that all Arab violence will be presented as a ‘resurgent ISIS,’ and that this would lead to an international response that may ultimately empower extremist groups and ideologies in northeastern Syria.