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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.