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Syria Update

27 June to 03 July, 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 June 27, Government of Syria military forces heavily shelled Turkish Observation Point 10, in western Idleb Governorate and killed a Turkish soldier. In response, Turkish military forces began to directly shell Government of Syria military positions on front lines in northwestern Syria, sent new reinforcements into northwestern Syria, and stated that Turkey had completed preparations to “give the necessary response” if the attacks continued. The incident was not the first time that Turkish observation points have been shelled, nor was it the first time a Turkish soldier was killed in northwestern Syria; however, it was the first time that a Turkish soldier was directly and intentionally killed by Government of Syria military forces, and it may usher in a new phase in the Turkish intervention in northwestern Syria. To that end, on July 1, a Russian spokesman confirmed that the Governments of Turkey, Iran, and Russia will hold a new trilateral summit on Syria “in the near future,” which will reportedly be held in Turkey in July 2019. The conflict in northwestern Syria is now effectively a war of attrition where few territorial advances have taken place. This is partially due to the fact that the Government of Turkey has more openly supported Turkish-backed armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria, and Turkey has adamantly and repeatedly emphasized its opposition to further Government of Syria military advances in northwestern Syria. It is therefore likely that the trilateral summit in July will focus primarily on Turkey’s demands to end the northwestern Syria offensive. It is also likely that Russia will be compelled to accede to Turkish demands, considering that Turkey is now directly militarily confronting the Government of Syria.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  1. The Head of Air Force Intelligence, General Jamil Al-Hasan, held meetings in Dar’a at which he reportedly stated “with respect to the detainees, forget about them”; his statement will likely have serious repercussions and may spark even greater unrest in southern Syria.
  2. A group of NDF and Hezbollah combatants engaged in clashes in the Qalamoun region due to disputes over profits from jointly controlled smuggling routes; this highlights the continued command and control problem facing the Government of Syria and its allies.
  3. A new anti-Government of Syria armed group announced its formation in northern Homs, potentially ushering in a new wave of instability in the northern Homs reconciled areas.
  4. The Government of Israel launched numerous missile strikes across Syria; the recent missile strikes reportedly killed several civilians and are a major indication that Israel intends to increase its targeting of Iranian interests in Syria.
  5. Ali Mamlouk, Head of the National Security Office, met with local notables in Madamiyet El-Sham and ‘encouraged’ them to contain pro-opposition sentiment in their community; he also emphasized that the deatinees issue in Madamiyet El-Sham would likely remain unresolved. As in southern Syria, this announcement will likely inflame anti-Government of Syria sentiment.
  6. A series of clashes took place in the Shouf region of Lebanon between rival Druze political parties; while reflective of internal tensions in Lebanon, one source of the tensions is the relationship of both parties to the Government of Syria and its allies.
  7. Anti-Syrian refugee protests took place in Istanbul, indicating both growing tensions with respect to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the fact that the status of refugees is becoming an important political issue in Turkey.
  8. The Bab Amr and Al-Sultaniyah neighborhoods of Homs city will reportedly be placed under the dictates of Law 10; both neighborhoods were hotbeds of opposition in the earlier stages of the conflict, and now present potentially lucrative real estate opportunities for Government of Syria business interests.

Turkish Soldier Killed in Northwestern Syria

In Depth Analysis

A Turkish Army patrol in the area around a Turkish monitoring post in northwestern Syria. Image courtesy of Syria TV.

On June 27, Government of Syria military forces heavily shelled Turkish Observation Point 10, in western Idleb Governorate. During the shelling, one Turkish soldier was killed, and three were injured. In response,vTurkish military forces began to directly shell Government of Syria military positions on front lines in northwestern Syria. Also on June 27, Turkish warplanes entered northwestern Syria. The warplanes did not launch any airstrikes, and were reportedly escorting medical helicopters sent to retrieve wounded Turkish soldiers. Turkish military officials have stated that they have sent new reinforcements into northwestern Syria, and added that Turkey had completed preparations to “give the necessary response” if the attacks continued.

The incident on June 27 was not the first time that Turkish observation points have been shelled since the northwestern Syria offensive began in April 2019. Turkish observation points have been shelled on at least six different occasions in the past four months. The incident was also not the first time a Turkish soldier was killed in northwestern Syria; three other Turkish soldiers have been killed in accidental or ‘unattributed’ incidents since the Turkish observation points were established in February 2018.  However, the incident on June 27 does mark the first time that a Turkish soldier was directly and intentionally killed by Government of Syria military forces. It therefore represents an important moment in the ongoing Idleb offensive, and will certainly influence any negotiations between Turkey and Russia regarding northwestern Syria. To that end, on July 1, a Russian spokesman confirmed that the Governments of Turkey, Iran, and Russia will hold a new trilateral summit on Syria “in the near future,” and that preparations for the summit were already ongoing. Reportedly, the summit will be held in July 2019, and will likely be held in Turkey. 

The Government of Syria’s offensive in northwestern Syria has now been ongoing for almost four months. While Government of Syria military forces initially secured parts of western Hama governorate, there have been relatively few territorial changes since early June. The Government of Syria’s inability to advance in northwestern Syria has been largely attributed to the fact that the Government of Turkey has much more openly supported Turkish-backed armed opposition groups: Turkey has allowed several National Army-affiliated armed groups in northern Aleppo and Afrin to join front lines in northwestern Idleb; Turkish-backed armed groups are now using much more advanced weaponry, such as TOW missiles and Grad rockets; and there are certainly more Turkish military forces in northwestern Syria than at any time previously. To that end, the conflict in northwestern Syria is now effectively a ‘frozen’ war of attrition. Significant shelling and aerial bombardment in northwestern Syria has become the norm, and casualties for Government of Syria and armed opposition combatants, as well as civilians, are reportedly extremely high.

Turkey has repeatedly emphasized its opposition to further Government of Syria military advances in northwestern Syria, and has demanded a return to the pre-offensive zones of control as per the northwestern Syria disarmament agreement. Indeed, Turkey has critical strategic interests in northwestern Syria, perhaps the most important of which is its interest in preventing a mass displacement of Syrians into Turkey. This is especially prescient for Ankara given the serious domestic tensions regarding Syrian refugees in Turkey (covered in more detail in point eight of this week’s Syria Update). It is therefore highly likely that the trilateral summit in July will focus primarily on Turkey’s demands that the Government of Russia end its support for the northwestern Syria offensive, and restore the pre-conflict front lines. It is also likely that – at least in part – Russia will be compelled to accede to Turkish demands given Turkey is now directly confronting the Government of Syria militarily.

Whole of Syria Review

2019JUL03 COAR Syria Update page

1. Jamil Al-Hasan Visits Dar’a

Dar’a Governorate, Syria:  On  June 30, the head the Government of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence, General Jamil Al-Hasan, conducted a visit to Dar’a governorate, where he met numerous prominent Government of Syria reconciliaition officials in Da’el and Ibtaa, and visited various checkpoints in Busra El harir, Kerk, and Da’el. Local and media sources indicated that Al-Hasan discussed the security situation in southern Syria, primarily focusing on the frequent targeting of Government of Syria forces. More importantly, General Al-Hasan reportedly reiterated the Government of Syria’s position with respect to the issue of Dara’s detainees: namely, General Al-Hasan stated that “with respect to the detainees, forget about them.” Notably, it was reported that Al-Hasan did not meet with many local notables in Dar’a, nor did he meet with reconciled armed opposition commanders. Instead, he is understood to have limited his attention to members of the Baath Party. Local sources attributed this to the growing distrust on the part of the Government of Syria towards local Dar’a notables.  

Analysis: Jamil Al-Hasan’s statement with respect to Dar’a governorate’s detainees is extremely provocative. In essence, General Al-Hasan has stated that the detainees are either dead, or that the Government of Syria is entirely unwilling to release them. This is a potentially explosive issue in southern Syria, as the release of detainees (alongside conscription policies) has been among the most important issues in the governorate since the reconciliation agreement in July 2018. General Al-Hasan’s statement is likely to inflame anti-Government of Syria armed activity throughout southern Syria. This is deeply concerning, considering the fact that southern Syria is already deeply unstable and asymmetric attacks against Government of Syria forces are a regular occurrence. Indeed, some analysts have already posited that General Al-Hasan’s statement may inspire an open revolt in southern Syria. Though this is unlikely for the time being, it is now a distinct possibility. It should be noted that similar waves of anti-Government of Syria activity are now forming in other regions of the country, such northern rural Homs (for more information see point three of this week’s Syria Update).

2. NDF-Hezbollah Clashes

Western Qalamoun, Rural Damascus governorate: On June 30, media sources reported that clashes have taken place between Hezbollah and NDF combatants in Flita and At-Tall over the past week. Clashes reportedly began as a result of a dispute between two NDF and Hezbollah commanders over the distribution of profits from jointly managed smuggling routes. A Hezbollah commander was killed. It is important to note that since 2013 Hezbollah has maintained a strong presence in the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese-Syrian border, and both Hezbollah and the NDF reportedly have major interests in the cross-line smuggling routes between both countries. 

Analysis:  Tensions and confrontations between various Government of Syria military divisions and allied armed groups are not uncommon. Indeed, inter-government clashes have been one of the main hurdles preventing the Government of Syria from maintaining security and order in many areas. This can partially be attributed to the Government of Syria’s limited capacity to ensure command and control between various armed groups. The Government of Syria does not exert direct control over Hezbollah, and local NDF units also rarely fit into clearly defined control structures. However, another contributing factor is the fact that many armed groups are now largely dependent on extracting economic resources to pay their combatants. In some cases (such as this incident), resources are secured through control over smuggling routes, whilst in others, it may concern control over lucrative checkpoints or real estate. In the meantime, clashes are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, across nearly every part of Government of Syria-held territory.

3. ‘Saray Al-Moqawama’ in Northern Homs

Ar-Rastan, Homs governorate: On June 27, media sources reported on the creation of a new anti-Government of Syria armed group in Homs governorate named ‘Saray Al-Moqawama’ (Palace of Resistance). Saray Al-Moqawama states that it intends to respond to the Government of Syria’s failure to adhere to the terms of Russian-mediated reconciliation agreement in northern Homs, and its subsequent deployment of reconciled combatants from Homs in military offensives elsewhere. Graffiti promoting Saray Al-Moqawama has since been found in Ar-Rastan, in northern rural Homs. Meanwhile, the Government of Syria has continued with its crackdown on reconciled commanders and figures in northern rural Homs. On June 29, Government of Syria Air Intelligence and Military Security forces reportedly detained several former members of the ‘Ar-Rastan Revolutionary Command’ and the Ar-Rastan Families Council, several of whom are known advocates for the Russian-brokered reconciliation agreement. 

Analysis:  The reconciliation agreement in northern rural Homs was initially brokered in May 2018 and featured heavy Russian involvement. One of the major challenges in the post-reconciliation period has been the fact that the Government of Syria has not fully adhered to the terms of the reconciliation agreement by conducting regular conscription and detention campaigns. Russian representatives have intervened on the behalf of reconciled individuals in the past, but have not done so consistently. Isolated anti-Government of Syria activity in northern Homs has therefore emerged at times, but the formation of Saray Al-Moqawama is the most dramatic manifestation of anti-Government of Syria sentiment in the area since reconciliation. It is still unclear whether the newly announced ‘Saray Al-Moqawama’ will be an effective insurgent group, or if it has any popular support. However, it must be recalled that the expanding unrest in Dar’a governorate initially began with the creation of similar groups, and that security conditions in northern Homs are likely to deteriorate in the near to medium term.  

4. Israeli Missile Strikes

Rural Damascus, Homs Governorates, Syria: Between June 30 and July 1, Israeli  Defense Forces (IDF) conducted several missile attacks in Homs and Rural Damascus governorates from Lebanese airspace. Among other targets, media sources indicated that the missle attacks targeted several areas in southern Damascus including in Al-Kisweh, an IRGC base south of Damascus, and Hezbollah bases in Qarra and Flita, in the Qalamoun. Notably, the attacks reportedly resulted in the death of at least six civilians. The IDF also reportedly targeted Um Haraytan located in western rural areas Homs, and another military base south of Homs city. The Government of Israel has yet to officially comment on the attacks, though it should be noted that the Chief of the Mossad Intelligence Agency, Yossi Cohen, stated on July 1 that Iran and Hezbollah is trying to deploy transfer assets further north in light of increased Israeli attacks. 

Analysis: While the Israeli airstrikes and missile attacks are not uncommon, the death of civilians in Israeli missile attacks is highly unusual. What is also unusual is the frequency of Israeli attacks over the past several weeks; in the recent round of missile strikes Israel targeted at least six separate locations. Considering the heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran, Israel is likely taking advantage of the current geo-political climate to escalate airstrikes and missile attacks against Iranain targets in Syria, knowing that an Iranian response could provoke a wider conflict. For that reason, whilst Israeli airstrikes alone will not fundamentally affect the broader trajectory of the Syrian conflict, they do have the potential to spark a much wider regional conflict.

5. Meeting in Madamiyet Elsham

Madamiyet Elsham, Rural Damascus, Syria: On July 1, media sources reported that the head of the National Security Office, Ali Mamlouk, convened a meeting with the reconciliation committee from Madamiyet Elsham and Jdeidet Artouz. Reportedly, Mamlouk threatened the members of the reconciliation committee, alleging that there had been a resurgence in opposition rhetoric in both areas. He further insisted that the reconciliation agreement should compel people to “disregard the status of the detainees”, adding that most have already died in prison. Concurrent with the meeting, Government of Syria forces have reportedly increased their military presence in the vicinity of Madamiyet Elsham, and enforced strict screening measures and mobility restrictions, thereby isolating Madamiyet Elsham from other nearby neighborhoods.

Analysis: Ali Mamlouk’s visit to Madamiyet Elsham is concerned with preventing the kind of growing pro-opposition movements observed in southern Syria and northern Homs. However, similar to General Jamil Al-Hasan’s meeting in Dar’a, Mamlouk’s message regarding the status of the detainees will be considered as extremely provocative by the local population. It is unclear to what extent Mamlouk’s meeting will actually defuse the manifestation of anti-Government of Syria sentiment and activity in Madamiyet Elsham, but it is notable that the Government of Syria’s capacity to control communities in the vicinity of  Damascus city is considerably greater than in rural areas, primarily due to the concentration of its security forces in Damascus and the Government of Syria’s prioritization of order near the capital. 

6. Inter-Druze Politics in Lebanon

Shouf District, Lebanon: On June 30, clashes between supporters of Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), and bodyguards of the Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib, took place in Qabr Shmoun, in the Shouf district of Mount Lebanon. The clashes resulted in the death of two of Gharib’s bodyguards and injuries to at least two supporters of the PSP. Of note, the PSP (led by prominent Druze politician Walid Jumblat), and the Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP), the political party of Minister Gharib, are both rival Druze political parties in Lebanon. Also of note, the LDP is also closely aligned with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hezbollah. The clashes initially began after the leader of FPM, Jibran Bassil, gave a speech in the predominantly Druze/Christian Shouf district of Lebanon, in which he praised the role current Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, in the Druze/Christian battles witnessed in Mount Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. This speech proved inflammatory for many Druze in the Shouf region, and prompted locals from the PSP-supporting villages of Kfarmatta and Shahhar to block Bassil and Gharib from entering deeper into the Shouf. Clashes subsequently took place, but stories as to which party initiated fire are contradictory. The incident led to numerous further roadblocks throughout Mount Lebanon and the Shouf, and the Lebanese Army was deployed to numerous areas. In an attempt to mitigate further inter-Druze or Druze-Christian conflict in the Shouf and Mount Lebanon, various political figures in Lebanon called for national unity.

Analysis: Tensions between competing Druze parties in Mount Lebanon have increased over the past year. Ultimately, these tensions stem from the fact that the PSP has long been considered the ‘primary’ Druze political party in Lebanon, and it is now being challenged by the LDP. There is naturally an ‘international’ element to these tensions. Walid Jumblat has been notably-if not openly-opposed to the Government of Syria, while the LDP draws much of its support from its alliance with FPM, and thus, Hezbollah (and indirectly, the Government of Syria). Therefore, the recent clashes in the Shouf should not be taken lightly: A growing inter-Druze and Druze-Christian rivalry in Mount Lebanon is clearly an outright challenge to the PSP’s long standing political monopoly in the Shouf district, and is considered locally as an attempt to change the balance of power in Lebanon more broadly. The fact that one of the Druze factions is much more closely tied to the Government of Syria certainly increases fears that the Government of Syria may play a role in what appears to be an internal Lebanese political issue.

7. Turkey Protests

Istanbul, Turkey: On June 30, groups of Turkish citizens in Istanbul reportedly attacked a group of Syrian refugees, looted their shops, and attempted to lynch several individuals following a (reportedly false) accusation sexual assault against a Syrian refugee. Small-scale riots and protests were accompanied by anti-refugee campaigns on social media. Notably, the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the CHP party, has increasingly deployed anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric. For example, in a statement made on June 24, Imamoglu blamed Syrians for Turkey’s poor economic situation and for “recklessly changing “Istanbul’s color.” Relatedly, on June 23, the Head of the Turkish Interior Ministry’s Migration Management Department, Abdullah Ayaz, stated that the Government of Turkey is incapable of hosting more Syrian refugees in the event of a major battle in Idleb. Ayaz stressed that finding a resolution to the ongoing battle in northwestern Syria is indispensable if Turkey is to avoid a new wave of refugees. 

Analysis:  It is important to view the recent anti-Syrian refugee incident in Istanbul in the context of internal Turkish politics. The newly elected CHP-affiliated mayor of Istanbul won in an upset for the ruling AKP party, and, like the wider CHP party, has argued against AKP policies on Syrian refugees. There are also some concerns amongst Turkey’s opposition parties that the AKP has adopted policies favoring Syrian refugees and which have facilitated Syrian attainment of Turkish citizenship as a means of building a new pro-AKP voting bloc. As the military offensive in northwestern Syria continues and more waves of refugees are anticipated in Turkey, further rhetoric on the status of Syrian refugees can be expected in Turkish domestic politics. This may instigate even greater tensions between Turks and Syrians in Turkey. 

8. Bab Amr and Al-Sultaniya Under law 10

Homs City, Homs Governorate, Syria: On July 1, media sources reported that the Governorate of Homs announced that urban plans for Bab Amr and Al-Sultaniyah neighborhoods in Homs city are currently under review.  An official in the governorate reportedly indicated that the reconstruction of both neighborhoods will be conducted under the authority of Law 10. Relatedly, Director of the General Company for Engineering Studies in the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, Dr. Yasar A’bideen, stated in an interview with a Government of Syria-affiliated media outlet that the company has been commissioned to create new urban plans for various areas in Rural Damascus governorate, including: Qaboun, Yarmouk, Basima Ein El Khadra, and Ein El Fijeh (both in Wadi Barada).  Reportedly, these plans are also likely to implemented under the dictates of Law 10. 

Analysis: Law 10 is the most well known of the Government of Syria’s urban development laws, and give broad powers to government officials to confiscate the property for redevelopment.  However, it is important to emphasize that Law 10 is not the only law used to confiscate property, nor is it the most frequently used. Numerous other laws can be used to seize property ranging from the application of terrorism laws, security decrees, ‘public safety’ ordinance, and damage regulations. More important than the laws used to confiscate property are the reasons for doing so. Ultimately, in the case of Bab Amr and Al-Sultaniyah neighborhoods, the Government of Syria and Syrian businessmen likely aims to profit from real estate opportunities likely to emerge from the tabula rasa redevelopment of both neighborhoods. Indeed, both are located at the entrance of Homs city and are potentially highly lucrative. Additionally, it is likely that the Government of Syria aims to drastically alter the ‘political demographics’ of both neighborhoods, and subsequently prevent the return of their original population. Of note, both Bab Amr and Al-Sultaniya were notably pro-opposition areas.

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.