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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.