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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.