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Syria Update

30 May to 12 June, 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:

Over the past two weeks a series of political demonstrations held by the Free Patriotic Movement, a prominent Lebanese political party, have highlighted the increasing tensions between many Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees.  However, it is important to note that the Free Patriotic Movement is not uniquely opposed to Syrian refugees. Every political party currently represented in the Lebanese cabinet is unified in their stance that Syrian refugees must return to Syria; disagreements center around the means through which this return could be facilitated, either through negotiations with UNHCR, or directly with the Government of Syria.  However, due to the fact that the that the Lebanese Government has not yet agreed to a clearly defined policy, different Lebanese ministries or local governance bodies have resorted to a series of more decentralized policies which aim to impact refugees’ residency statuses, employment opportunities, housing access, and access to health and education services; these efforts are most prevalent in the informal camps in the Beqaa valley, where several incidents have recently taken place.  Ultimately, the recent intensification of pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon is likely tied to deeper economic concerns, as Lebanon’s economy continues to deteriorate and the Lebanese government is likely to pass new austerity measures; Lebanon is certainly not the only country in the world to attribute poor economic conditions to refugees or immigrants. However, amidst growing pressures facing Syrian refugees, humanitarian and economic conditions for refugees may deteriorate. Considering Lebanon’s political gridlock, the decision to deport Syrian refugees will likely never be taken; however, considering the pressures facing Syrian refugees, deportation may not be the primary driver of returns to Syria.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Conflict continued in northwestern Syria, although neither the Government of Syria or the armed opposition made significant territorial advances; ultimately, the trajectory of the offensive is dependant on a potential Russian-Turkish agreement, which does not appear forthcoming in the near term.
  • The six month reconciliation ‘grace period’ is set to expire in Dar’a governorate as security conditions continued to deteriorate; while southern Syria is not yet in open revolt, the distinction is becoming one of semantics.
  • A series of major fires ravaged agricultural land across northeastern Syria, and will seriously impact Syria’s 2019 wheat crop.  Numerous actors have been blamed, and although other factors should be considered it is likely that the fires will deepen already serious social tensions throughout northeastern Syria.
  • A series of IEDs targeted several locations in Turkish-held northern Syria; IEDs are now a weekly occurrence in northern Syria, speaking to the inability of the National Army to enforce local security.
  • A series of incidents took place in As-Sweida between local armed groups and the Government of Syria; it is likely these clashes are more related to general lawlessness in As-Sweida, as opposed to a more serious anti-Government of Syria movement.
  • Media sources reported on a notable decrease in the number of Iranian or Iraqi combatants in Damascus; some observers point to this being a sign of a Russian ‘victory’ in Syria, although Iranian economic constraints should also be considered  
  • The Government of Syria is reportedly exploring the possibility of purchasing electricity from the Government of Russia. Electricity purchases will not solve Syria’s long term electrical issues; however, considering the fact that the majority of the country faces multiple hours of electrical cuts, electricity purchases may have some impact.
  • The Government of Israel launched several airstrikes, reportedly targeting Iranian or Hezbollah military positions.  Israeli airstrikes are not unusual, however they are particularly concerning in the current regional political climate.

Northwestern Syria Negotiations

In Depth Analysis

Two flyers, designed and distributed both physically and via social media by the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement. The first reads: “Do you know that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is now 40% of the Lebanese opulation.” The second reads: “Protect Lebanese workers and report violations, send an image or video to this number…”

On June 8, in an incident widely covered on Lebanese social media, flyers were distributed by the Youth and Sports Department of the Free Patriotic Movement, the political party of Lebanese President Aoun.  The flyers read: “Protect the Lebanese Workers and Report Violations….Syria is safe for return and Lebanon has had enough.” The flyer also contained a hotline number, which Lebanese citizens can call to report Syrians working illegally in Lebanon.   Free Patriotic Movement supporters have also demonstrated in several locations in Lebanon, wearing vests that read, “If you love Lebanon, hire a Lebanese.”  In response to criticism that the demonstration campaign was racist, on June 8, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and the current Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil, tweeted that “Some accuse me of being racist, and I understand that the Lebanese identity of these people is not strong enough to feel what we feel, because they consider a ‘second affiliation’ that may be more important to them…it is normal for the Lebanese Government to differentiate its citizens from others citizen, i.e. foreigners, and that is not racist…”

Bassil’s statements triggered various anti-hate speech campaigns and calls for protests in Beirut. However, while Bassil’s statements and the recent Free Patriotic Movement demonstrations are certainly provocative, they are also generally reflective of the consensus of Lebanon’s prominent political parties with respect to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  Every political party currently represented in the Lebanese cabinet is unified on the necessity of the return of Syrian refugees to Syria; disagreements center on the means through which this return could be facilitated, either through negotiations with UNHCR, or directly with the Government of Syria. However, despite the formation of the new Lebanese Government in January 2019, and ongoing discussions on possible Syrian refugee return policy options, Lebanon still does not yet have a clear stance towards its Syrian refugees.

Due to the fact that the Government has not yet set a clearly defined refugee policy, various Lebanese ministries and the Lebanese cabinet have resorted to a series of more decentralized policies, which aim to impact refugees’ residency statuses, employment opportunities, housing access, and access to health and education services.  Additionally, due to continuous political deadlock, Lebanese local authorities have expanded the powers of local governance bodies, and many Lebanese municipalities now regularly conduct surveillance on Syrian refugee communities, while many municipalities have set curfews on refugees or forced the closure of small businesses created by refugees. Highlighting these tensions, on June 7 UNHCR issued a warning to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, stating that Lebanese authorities have decided to deport any refugees smuggled into the country after September 24, 2019, as well as temporarily halt the registration of refugees at UNHCR.

Municipal and ministerial pressures on Syrian refugees are certainly a major concern; however, the most open manifestations of tension between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees take place in the informal camps in the Beqqa Valley, such as in Aarsal and Deir El-Ahmar. For example, on June 5, a local dispute between a member of the Lebanese Civil Defense and Syrian refugees residing in a settlement in Deir El-Ahmar escalated to the point that three civil defense members were injured, numerous refugee tents were destroyed and hundreds of inhabitants displaced, according to  UNHCR. Accounts of the incident are conflicting, but local media sources indicate that the Baalbak-Hermel governor has enforced a ban on refugee movement, and likely attempt to deport at least some refugees. Similarly, on June 4, media outlets expressed growing concerns regarding a previously announced decision to demolish concrete structures made by refugees in Arsal, which would reportedly render up to 1,400 families homeless.

The Lebanese government is unlikely to develop a clearly defined policy toward Syrian refugees in the near term.  The Syrian refugee issue is important to the Lebanese government; however, what is more important are the increasing fears of an economic collapse in Lebanon, which have exacerbated as Lebanon is expected to endorse new austerity measures in the 2019 budget draft. These economic concerns have in turn led to fears of a Lebanese Lira devaluation due to foreign currency inavailability, and have led to numerous strikes and demonstrations over the past month.  Indeed, one could clearly link the recent intensification of pressure on Lebanon’s Syrian refugees to these deeper economic concerns. Lebanon is certainly not the only country in the world to attribute poor economic conditions to refugees or immigrants; a cursory glance at international media outlets would highlight numerous similar policies and incidents taking place in the U.S. and European countries.   However, amidst growing political, legal, social, and economic pressures facing Syrian refugees, especially those living in informal camps, humanitarian and economic conditions will necessarily deteriorate. Considering Lebanon’s political gridlock, the decision to decisively deport Syrian refugees will likely never be taken; however, considering the pressures facing Syrian refugees, deportation may not be the primary driver of returns to Syria.

Whole of Syria Review

COAR Syria Update May 30-June 12 Map

1. Northwestern Syria Update

Idleb, Hama and Aleppo Governorates, Syria:  Throughout the reporting period, Government of Syria airstrikes continued to target numerous communities in northern rural Hama and southern rural Idleb governorate; cities and towns located towards the center of Idleb governorate, such as Maaret An-Numan, Idleb and Ariha, were also heavily targeted. Indeed, according to local sources, an estimated 450 airstrikes have targeted opposition-held northwestern Syria throughout the past month.  Additionally, as of June 5, heavy airstrikes have begun to target front lines in the vicinity of Jisr Al-Shughour. As of June 11, media sources reported that Government of Syria forces launched at least five small-scale offensives in Kbana, located on the frontlines in northwestern Lattakia; no advances were reported.  Clashes in northern Hama have been constant for the past two weeks, and reportedly both Government of Syria and armed opposition groups have suffered heavy casualties; again, no significant advances were reported.

Analysis:  Heavy  clashes between armed opposition groups and Government of Syria forces are likely to continue at a similar level intensity until the Governments of Russia and Turkey reach a broader agreement in northwestern Syria. Until then, a major advance by either the Government of Syria or the armed opposition remains unlikely. Both the Government of Turkey  and the Government of Russia appear to be determined to secure some objectives in northwestern Syria; for its part, Russia appears to favor a ceasefire on the current front lines, which Turkey appears to favor a return to the pre-offensive front lines. However, until an agreement is struck, the ongoing ‘war of attrition’ will continue in northwestern Syria, perpetuating the current status quo of dire humanitarian conditions.

2. Southern Syria Update

Dar’a governorate, Syria: Throughout the reporting period, local sources reported that there is a general state of alert and concern among the population of Dar’a governorate ahead of the upcoming expiration of the Government of Syria’s six month ‘grace period’ to finalize reconciliation in southern Syria; notably, after the six month grace period, all eligible military aged males will be subject to military conscription. The original ‘grace period’ expired in December 2018; however, the Negotiation Committee of Dar’a, a local body consisting of several of Dar’a governorate’s prominent local elites, negotiated a six month extension in early 2019. Concurrent with these concerns, the security situation in Dar’a governorate remains in turmoil.  Between May 30 and 31, Government of Syria security forces reportedly shot two local reconciled fighters in As-Sanamayn; this eventually escalated into open clashes with local armed individuals, and two Government of Syria-affiliated security personnel were reportedly injured. Additionally, two VBIED attacks reportedly took place in Bursra El-Harir on June 4. Of critical note, local sources reported that a large number of reconciled combatants from various communities in Dar’a governorate have defected from Government of Syria forces in order to avoid deployment to front lines in northwestern Syria.

Analysis:  The security situation in southern Syria, specifically in western rural Dar’a, has been in constant turmoil since the extension of the reconciliation agreement in January 2019. The turmoil most recently manifested as a temporary ‘besiegement’ of As-Sanamayn by the Government of Syria in May 2019; however violence is now a regular occurrence throughout many communities in western Dar’a. Given the spike in tensions and the prevalence of anti-Government of Syria sentiments, the fate of the reconciliation agreement is increasingly uncertain; if the ‘grace period’ is not renewed, security conditions will likely further deteriorate. While an open, unified, and cohesive armed opposition resurgence is unlikely, the future implementation of the southern Syria reconciliation will likely continue to be characterized as decentralized, chaotic, and violent.

3. Northeast Fires

Al-Hasakeh and Ar-Raqqa Governorates, Syria:  Local and media sources reported on massive fires taking place in agricultural land across northeastern Syria. Local sources reported that at least 30,000 acres of cultivated land were destroyed in Al-Hasakeh governorate after a fire broke out and expanded due to the wind. Another 5,000 acres were destroyed in Tal Abiad, in northern rural Ar-Raqqa governorate. Fires in agricultural areas have been increasingly frequent for the past month.   On June 7, media sources cited various local farmers who claim that the fires have been erupting at night during lower temperatures, indicating that these fires are intentional. In fact, ISIS did claim responsibility for starting one fire on May 23, however it remains difficult to discern the causes or potential actors involved in most of the fires. Local rhetoric generally accuses a range of actors, to include: ISIS sleeper cells, Government of Syria agents, SDF combatants attempting to punish Arab tribes, Arab tribal groups attempting to punish the SDF, or Turkish military forces.

Analysis: The frequency and size of the fires in northeastern Syria certainly raises the possibility that they deliberate, though the precise motive remains unclear. However, it is important to note that, despite the likelihood of this scenario, there are other contributing factors that could also be considered, to include: continuing climate change and generally high temperatures; the lack of proper agricultural infrastructure; general water shortages; and the absence of sufficient means to mitigate the threat of fire. According to local sources, the Self Administration does indeed generally disregard agricultural conditions, and its scrutiny on agricultural sectors is often limited to the administration of relevant institutions and crop pricing.   Many farmers are thus not adequately supported by any governance institutions and must deal with increased production costs, low quality fuel, and poor irrigation. The considerable amount of the 2019 wheat harvest that was destroyed will therefore have a massive impact on both the livelihoods of northeastern Syria’s wheat farmers, and potentially food availability throughout Syria. The impact of the loss in agricultural output will likely affect community perceptions of the Self Administration in northeastern Syria, and will likely vary according to the local context; perceptions will likely range between an increased distrust and scepticism of the Self Administration, or an accentuation of perceived threats posed by ISIS, the Government of Turkey, and the Government of Syria.

4. Security Situation in Euphrates Shield

Northern Aleppo, Syria: On June 2, media sources reported that a VBIED targeted a market in A’zaz city, in northern Aleppo. The explosion reportedly resulted in 14 deaths and at least 30 injuries. On the same date, additional media sources reported that one IED was detonated in Jandeiris, in Afrin district, and two IEDs detonated in Al-Bab city.

Analysis: Security incidents across Euphrates Shield areas have become an extremely common occurrence; their persistence and increasing frequency is regularly cited as evidence that the Turkish-supported National Army is unable to provide security in northwestern Syria.  Notably, explosions in A’zaz generally target civilians, whereas security incidents in Al-Bab and Afrin and their vicinity are more likely to target specific individuals. This does provide a hint to their origins: incidents in Azaz may indeed by ISIS sleeper cells, while those in Al-Bab or Afrin may be YPG insurgents or even other National Army groups.  The security situation in northwestern Syria will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.

5. Clashes in As-Sweida Governorate

Sweida city, Southern Syria: On June 9, media sources reported that an artillery shell targeted the headquarters of the Government of Syria Political Security Branch in As-Sweida city; within the same week a similar attack targeted the Military Security Branch headquarters in As-Sweida city. Additionally, Government of Syria National Defense Forces checkpoint was targeted in early May 2019, resulting in the death of two NDF combatants.

Analysis: Tensions between the local Druze community and Government of Syria forces are not uncommon; however, while security incidents have escalated in As-Sweida, it is unlikely that serious anti-Government of Syria violence will reach the level of neighboring Dar’a governorate. Indeed, many of these incidents could very well be attributed to the general dire security situation, and the proliferation of kidnapping, killing, and looting that takes place throughout As-Sweida on a semi-regular basis.  This is compounded by the fact that the National Defense Forces, and various other Government of Syria divisions in the area, are known for their involvement in illicit drug trade and arms smuggling.

6. Iranian and Iraqi Combatants in Damascus

Damascus City, Syria:  On June 2, media sources reported on a noticeable decrease in the number of foreign combatants, specifically Iranian and Iraqi combatants, in Damascus city throughout the past year. The source indicated that several checkpoints controlled by these foriegn combatants have been removed. Furthermore, as per the same source, barricades at the perimeter of major hotels frequently used by Iraqi and Iranian combatants, as well as posters for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, were also removed. Notably, the allegedly considerable decrease in the presence of these foreign combatants in public spaces in Damascus have reportedly been accompanied by an increased visibility and presence of Russian police across the city.

Analysis: Externally, the decrease of the presence of Iranian and Iraqi combatants in Damascus and the parallel increase in Russian presence may indicate that Russia is incrementally curbing Iranian influence in Damascus; however, the Iranian and Iraqi drawdown equally likely to be reflective of domestic issues in Iran.  Indeed, it is premature to state that Russian pressure has compelled Iran to reduce its presence in Damascus and could be equally indicative of the toll of U.S. sanctions on Iran. It is also important to note that a reduction in visibility does not necessarily reflect an actual attenuation of the role and power of Iranian militias within the Government of Syria’s military divisions and administrative structures. For instance, previous decisions to integrate Iranian-backed militias within the Syrian military may have deepened Iran’s role, rather than weakened it.

7. Purchase of Russian Electricity

Damascus City, Syria: On June 10, media sources reported that the Government of Syria Minister of Electricity, Mohamd Zouheir Kharbotli, made a statement indicating that the Government of Syria is currently considering the possibility of purchasing electricity from Russia, while stating that funding is the main impediment with regards to the purchase of electricity and associated infrastructure from Russia. Furthermore, Kharbotli also stated that both governments have signed several agreements for the rehabilitation of Aleppo Electricity Station.  Relatedly, earlier on May 26, Kharbotli stated that the Government of Syria has allocated a total of 46 billion SYP (~$89 million USD), for the rehabilitation of the electricity grid in eastern rural Aleppo governorate. Kharbotli also announced that the General Directorate of Electricity Distribution will also attempt to purchase new electrical convertors, claiming that 500 new converters are needed across Syria.

Analysis: The purchase of electricity and/or infrastructure support from Russia is unlikely to be a sustainable solution for the current supply shortage of electricity. The Government of Syria’s capacity to produce fuel and electricity has suffered significantly throughout the conflict, largely due to the destruction of infrastructure, the financial toll of sanctions, and the fact that major fuel and oil fields in northeastern Syria are either destroyed or outside of the Government’s control. Given the sanctions that Syria and its major allies, Iran and Russian, are currently facing, restoring sustainable electrical production is unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, short-term electricity purchases will certainly have an impact on the provision of electricity in Government-held areas, as nearly the entire country faces multiple hours of blackouts.

8. Israeli Airstrikes

Quneitra and Homs Governorates, Syria: Several consecutive Israeli aerial attacks targeted various military bases between June 1 and 2. The Israeli attacks reportedly targeted south and southwest Damascus city, namely Kisweh and Husseiniyeh in Rural Damascus governorate; Tal Al-Shaar, in Quneitra governorate; and the T4 military airbase in Homs governorate. As per media sources, the Israeli missiles reportedly targeted Iranian and Hezbollah military targets. The same source further indicated that the Israeli attacks on Quneitra were in response to two artillery shells launched into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Analysis:  The Israeli attacks came shortly after recent attacks earlier in May, 2019. Though Israeli attacks on Syria are not uncommon, they are currently of higher significance given heightened regional tensions. These attacks generally target armed groups or military facilities reportedly linked to the Iranian government. As such, and in light of the recent alleged attack on the petroleum tankers in Fujeirah, UAE, anti-Iran rhetoric from regional actors, and U.S.’ pressure on Iran, any attack on Iranian-affiliated forces presents the threat of a major conflict between Iran and its proxies, Israel, the U.S., or the Arab Gulf states.

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.