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Syria Update

04 July to 10 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:

As of July 8 the Government of Syria has completely reshuffled the highest levels of the Syrian security-intelligence apparatus. In by far the most significant change, Director of the National Security Office Ali Mamlouk has been moved to the mostly ceremonial office of vice president for security affairs. However, Mamlouk was not the only high-profile official to be reshuffled; the heads of four other Syrian security agencies were also replaced on July 7. Most notably, Jamil Al-Hassan, the long standing head of Air Force Intelligence, was ‘retired’, as were the heads of the Criminal Security Branch, the Political Security Branch, and the General Intelligence Branch. To a large extent, the security-intelligence apparatus is the central pillar of the Syrian state, and the replacement of the heads of these agencies marks a major transition in the highest levels of the Government of Syria. This reshuffling is likely a product of Russia’s coordinated efforts to reshape Syria’s military-security apparatus by disrupting client networks, reducing infighting, and increasing sectarian and regional diversity. Intelligence services are an important mechanism of direct Russian influence in Syria, and bringing greater order to their operations is a clear Russian priority. Additionally, the reshuffling is likely calculated to reduce the Alawi hold on the intelligence services, and, consequently, Iran’s lever of direct influence. It remains too early to know what impact these changes will have on the operation of state security services. However, a major change in Syrian security and intelligence practices is unlikely.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  1. Russia reportedly convened a meeting between Syrian Air Force Intelligence, the 5th Corps, and Israeli intelligence to discuss a tripartite plan to expel Iran-backed armed groups from southern Syria. The proposal is unprecedented; however, it is unlikely to be agreed to and almost certainly impossible to implement.
  2. Private Iranian charitable groups have reportedly settled 50 Shia IDP families from Foua and Kefraya in eastern Aleppo city. The resettlement of these IDPs overtly challenges the administrative prerogative of the Government of Syria and is likely to stoke sectarian tensions.
  3. The Government of Syria launched a new offensive to break a three-week stalemate in the northwest. The inability of government forces to advance into southern Idleb Governorate has many causes; however, the most important impediment is a breakdown in Russian-Turkish negotiations over northwest Syria.
  4. One thousand IDPs have been permitted to return to Al-Qusayr city. Though notable, the event is unlikely to herald a wider return to the city, as the returnees were all public sector employees without ties to the opposition, and the area remains under significant Hezbollah influence.
  5. The heads of Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian railway authorities met in Tehran to discuss rail links between the countries. Restoring rail connectivity would reduce Syria’s economic isolation, but for Iran the initiative is also key to securing the export of its own oil through the Mediterranean seaport of Lattakia.
  6. British Royal Marines at Gibraltar impounded an oil tanker reportedly shipping Iranian oil to Syria. The seizure is a major escalation that will likely deepen the Syrian fuel crisis and may prompt an Iranian response.
  7. A letter written from the Syrian minister of local administration and environment to the governor of Homs, which was leaked by media sources, granted 193 IDPs from Taldu (Houla) permission to return, while 119 IDPs were rejected. Significant uncertainty surrounds conditions for return, but the letter highlights the clear facilitating role played by local intermediaries.
  8. The Turkish Ministry of Interior has ordered that all retail store signage in Turkey be printed in Turkish, with Arabic permitted only in small typeface. The order is the latest in a series of events highlighting the increasing politicization of the Syrian refugee issue in Turkey, as well as the increasingly systematic response of the Turkish state.

Reshuffling of Syrian Intelligence Services

In Depth Analysis

Ali Mamlouk (left) and Jamil Al-Hassan (right). Images courtesy of SANA and Enab Baladi.

As of July 8 the Government of Syria has completely reshuffled the highest levels of the Syrian security-intelligence apparatus. By far the most significant change is the removal of Ali Mamlouk as Director of the National Security Office, the overarching agency which coordinates all of Syria’s intelligence services. Mamlouk has been a fixture of Syrian state security services for two decades, and has been re-appointed to the mostly ceremonial office of vice president for security affairs. Muhamad Dib Zeitoun has been appointed to take Mamlouk’s place as Director of the National Security Office. However, Mamlouk was not the only high-profile official to be reshuffled; the heads of four other Syrian security agencies were also replaced on July 7. Most notably, Jamil Al-Hassan, the long standing head of Air Force Intelligence, was ‘retired’, as were the heads of the Criminal Security Branch, the Political Security Branch, and the General Intelligence Branch.

The significance of the coordinated restructuring of Syria’s five most prominent intelligence agencies cannot be overstated. To a large extent, the security-intelligence apparatus is the central pillar of the Syrian state, and the chiefs now being ousted have long-standing military, sectarian, and personal ties to the upper echelons of the Syrian regime. That said, this is also true of their replacements; ultimately, no one is considered for a role at the highest levels of the security apparatus without having demonstrated loyalty to the Syrian regime itself. The reshuffling of the heads of these agencies nevertheless marks a major transition in the highest levels of the Government of Syria.

The direct cause of the reshuffling is disputed. Some analysts have pointed to the fact that in recent weeks both Al-Hassan and Mamlouk had conducted highly contentious meetings with local reconciliation officials regarding the status of detainees, stoking tensions in communities in which the government is already deeply unpopular. Jamil Al-Hassan’s seriously compromised health and reported hospitalization has also been cited as an impetus for his resignation. However, while these factors may have affected the timing of the reshuffling, neither adequately accounts for the far-reaching and unprecedented initiative now being implemented.

In fact, the reshuffling of intelligence heads is likely the latest in a series of coordinated efforts by the Government of Russia to restructure the existing Syrian military-security apparatus. Over the past six months Russia has undertaken clear efforts to systematically restructure the Syrian military and replace its leadership with individuals who are closely coordinating with Russian representatives. The most notable manifestation of this policy is the creation of the Syrian Arab Army Office of Human Resources, which was formed earlier this year through a merger between the Office of Officer Affairs and the Office of Human Security. The head of the office was reportedly personally selected by Russian representatives at the Hmeimim Airbase and has a direct connection to Russian military representatives. Through the office, numerous Syrian military officers have been forced into retirement, transferred to marginal military positions, and, in some cases, detained. Additionally, the Government of Russia has increasingly attempted to merge or formalize paramilitary pro–Syrian government armed groups; for example, on May 1, reportedly at the behest of the Government of Russia, the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Defense dissolved 14 pro–Government of Syria militia groups and subsequently incorporated their combatants and commanders into the Syrian Arab Army. 

To a large extent, the Government of Syria has depended on paramilitary groups to overcome deficiencies in manpower and funding. However, as the conflict winds down, the Government of Syria’s combat needs are now significantly diminished. As a result, the infighting and frequent clashes among nominally government-affiliated military units, security branches, and militias is an impediment to effective command and control. Friction among these groups has hampered Russia’s ability to effectively implement a coherent strategy in Syria, and to de-escalate tensions in communities in which the Government of Syria exercises nominal control, but remains incapable of administering services or security.

Effectively, the reshuffling of the intelligence services is likely a second front in Russia’s coordinated efforts to reshape Syria’s military-security apparatus by disrupting client networks, reducing infighting, and increasing sectarian and regional diversity. Intelligence services are an important mechanism of direct Russian influence in Syria, and bringing greater order to their operations is a clear Russian priority. Additionally, Russia has emphasized initiatives to solidify its influence within the security apparatus, both to implement its own policies more effectively and to limit Iranian influence, which pervades the lower ranks. To that end, the reshuffling has a sectarian and geographic dimension. Syria’s intelligence apparatus is historically reliant on leadership drawn from the Syrian coast and the Alawi sect, with only a modest number of Sunnis (the majority of the population) rising to the higher ranks. Indeed, several of the heads appointed in the latest reshuffling are from areas outside the predominantly Alawi coastal areas, or are Sunnis. This is likely calculated to reduce the Alawi hold on the intelligence services, and, consequently, Iran’s lever of direct influence.

It remains too early to know what impact these changes will have on the operation of state security services. Intelligence heads are understood to have some measure of independence in setting procedures and mechanisms within their respective agencies. However, a major change in Syrian security and intelligence practices is unlikely. As noted, all of the reshuffled intelligence officials are close to the Syrian regime, and the newly appointed heads of Air Force Intelligence and General Intelligence, Ghassan Ismail and Hussam Luqa, are already under EU restrictive measures for repressing political opponents of the Syrian regime and torturing detainees, respectively. What is clear is that Russian initiatives to reshape the most important pillar of the Syrian state to meet Russia’s own long-term objectives may be well underway. 

Whole of Syria Review

1. Russia-Israel-Syria Border Meeting

Quneitra Governorate, Syria: On June 30, local rumors and media sources indicated that Russia had facilitated a meeting between Israeli intelligence officers, Government of Syria Air Force Intelligence, and commanders of the 5th Corps. The meeting was reportedly convened at a Russian observation point along the border of the Golan Heights. Israeli officers reportedly presented Syrian Air Force Intelligence with an offer for unprecedented military and security cooperation in southern Syria. The offer reportedly stipulated: the withdrawal of Iranian militias from areas within 55 km of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights; the formal incorporation of the 5th Corps within Government of Syria forces; and Israeli funding for a Russia-supported operation to drive out Iran-backed militias unwilling to withdraw from the area voluntarily.  Relatedly, rumors and media sources have indicated that Hezbollah forces have withdrawn from the vicinity of Damascus city to Qalamoun and Az-Zabadani. Reportedly, the repositioning comes as a part of a broader plan on the part of Hezbollah to reduce its presence inside Syria. 

Analysis: The proposal of direct coordination between the governments of Russia, Israel, and Syria to counter Iranian influence in Syria is significant and unprecedented. More importantly, however, an agreement to drive Iran-backed groups from southern Syria will almost certainly be impossible to implement. Notably, Russian coordination with Israel vis-a-vis Iran’s military influence in Syria is not new. Indeed, in its substance, the tripartite meeting merely reprises the guarantees to limit Iran’s military reach in southern Syria that Russia made during the southern offensive in June 2018. Despite strong Russian antipathy toward Iran’s presence inside Syria, however, those guarantees have been impossible to enforce. In reality, it is not clear that the Government of Russia has the capacity to drive Iran-backed forces from southern Syria. For its part, the Government of Syria has little incentive to alienate, let alone expel, the Iran-backed forces whose military support has enabled it to weather the conflict. Finally, any line defining the areas where Iran-backed armed groups can and cannot operate inside Syria is inherently arbitrary and subject to challenge. To proscribe Iran-backed armed groups from an area stretching 55 km from the border at the Golan Heights will only legitimize their presence immediately beyond that line.

2. Foah and Kefraya IDPs Resettled in Aleppo

Aleppo city, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On July 7, media sources reported that Iran-affiliated militias Liwa Al-Baqir and Faylaq Al-Mudaf‘in ‘An Halab had resettled 50 IDP families from Foua and Kefraya in the Al-Marjeh neighborhood in eastern Aleppo city. The families were reportedly resettled in houses rehabilitated by private Iranian charitable organizations that have been engaged in a campaign to rehabilitate homes damaged by the Government of Syria’s 2016 aerial bombardment. According to one source, Liwaa Al-Baqir and the Faylaq Al-Mudaf‘in ‘An Halab maintain firm control over services and housing in parts of eastern Aleppo, and they have been settling Foua and Kefraya IDPs in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo city since July 2018.  

Analysis: Iran-supported militias exercise strong influence in Aleppo city despite efforts by the governments of Syria and Russia to bring these groups under greater Syrian state control and to lessen their independent influence. The resettlement of IDPs by externally supported armed groups overtly challenges Government of Syria administrative bodies. Indeed, the resettlement reportedly circumvented the wishes of the governor of Aleppo and is likely to exacerbate the significant hurdles to the city’s rehabilitation. Of greatest concern is the effect on housing, land, and property issues and the possibility that the former residents of these areas (as well as the IDPs from Foah and Kefraya) will find return to their homes impossible. Additionally, the settlement of IDPs from the predominantly Shia communities of Foua and Kefraya is expected to fuel the increasing sectarian tensions in Aleppo. Above all, the resettlements highlight the Government of Syria’s limited capacity to control the activities of partially independent militias, and they demonstrate the practical limitations of Russian initiatives to curb the influence of pro-government armed groups and initiatives backed by Iran.  

3. Northwest Syria Stalemate

Idleb and Hama governorates: On July 8, heavy clashes were reported on the frontlines of Tal Meleh and Jebin, in northwestern rural Hama Governorate, as Government of Syria forces launched a new offensive to establish control over Tal-Meleh and Al-Jabin and break the three-week impasse in northwestern Syria. However, as of July 10, frontlines in northwestern Syria remain unchanged. Government of Syria forces also clashed with armed opposition elements in Qaasabiyeh, in southern rural Idleb Governorate. Meanwhile, throughout the reporting period, the Government of Syria launched intense airstrikes and continued its aerial bombardment of numerous communities throughout northern Hama Governorate and southern rural Idleb Governorate.

Analysis: Despite the intense airstrike campaign, the Government of Syria’s offensive in the northwest has ground to a halt over the past three weeks, and it has yet to yield any significant changes in zones of control during that period. The reasons for this impasse are manifold. In part, the inability of Government of Syria forces to make substantive advances in northwestern Syria reflects a lack of sufficient manpower and poor command and control between different Syrian government military units. However, more importantly, the frozen frontlines reflect the breakdown in Russian-Turkish negotiations on northwest Syria. Since the offensive began, Turkey has regularly stated its opposition to the campaign and has demanded a return to pre-offensive front lines; Turkey has allowed National Army groups to deploy into northwestern Syria and has increased its support for armed opposition groups there, and Turkish military forces have directly shelled Government of Syria military positions. Indeed, direct military confrontation between the governments of Syria and Turkey led to the death of a Turkish soldier, on June 27; this incident in particular seems to have instigated a new round of negotiations. To that end, the ultimate trajectory of northwestern Syria is now closely linked to the outcome of the upcoming trilateral summit between Russian, Turkey, and Iran, reportedly to be held in Istanbul in August.

4. Returns to Al-Qusayr

Al-Qusayr, western Homs Governorate, Syria: On July 8, media sources reported that 1,000 IDPs had returned to Al-Qusayr city after receiving official return approvals from the Government of Syria’s Military Security Branch. The returnees are reported to be public sector employees and their families, and none have had previous connections to opposition groups. The returnees reportedly fled to nearby communities in rural Homs Governorate—primarily Hasyaa, Shenshar, and Jandar—as well as to Homs city when Hezbollah took control of Al-Qusayr, in 2013.

Analysis: This approval by the Government of Syria and Hezbollah for the return of 1,000 IDPs to Al-Qusayr is unlikely to mark the start of a broader wave of returns to the area. Despite reports that Hezbollah is reducing its military role in the conflict, a reduction in forces does not signal the group’s disengagement from Syria altogether. As such, Hezbollah’s continuing presence can be expected in areas that it has prioritized, including western Qalamoun, the Syrian-Lebanese border, and Al-Qusayr. Indeed, on July 8 Hezbollah reportedly deployed reinforcements to several new locations in the western Qalamoun and along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Given Hezbollah’s strategic interest in maintaining control over these areas, the return of the majority of Al-Qusayr’s displaced residents remains unlikely in the near term. Thus far, only a small number of residents, primarily IDPs, have been allowed to return to Al-Qusayr. For the large numbers of Al-Qusayr residents who sought refuge in Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled and Akkar, securing approvals for return remains effectively impossible.

5. Iran-Iraq-Syria Railroad

Tehran, Iran: On July 7, the head of the Syrian Directorate of Railroads met his Iraqi and Iranian counterparts in Tehran. They reportedly discussed tripartite cooperation on the construction of a railroad network running from Shalamcheh, Iran, through Iraq to the port of Lattakia. Iranian Director of Railroads Said Rasouli reportedly stated that the first stage of the project, linking Shalamcheh, in western Iran, to Basra, would begin within three months, with a second stage, linking Basra to the Lattakia port, to follow at an undisclosed time. Also on July 7, Kiwan Kashfi, a member of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, stated that Iran would deploy an economic team to study Syria’s infrastructural needs to facilitate Iranian reconstruction efforts. Notably, Kashfi stated that land routes would be vital for the movement of building material needed for the rehabilitation of Syria’s infrastructure.

Analysis: Major railways and roads have been a key target of Government of Syria military campaigns throughout the Syria conflict. As the conflict winds down, the wholesale destruction of much of Syria’s vital infrastructure, major industrial hubs, and transportation networks is now a major factor in its continuing economic devastation. Iranian efforts to build a rail network stretching across Iraq to the Syrian coast can be expected to reduce Syria’s economic isolation in the long term—potentially at lower cost and with fewer risks than maritime transit. However, Iran has other reasons to support transportation routes to Lattakia: the Lattakia port is a potentially important location for the export of Iranian oil, and Iranian companies have already claimed a controlling stake in the Lattakia port administration. To that end, the Iranian government is expected to continue to play a vital role in Syria’s post-conflict economy and transportation networks.

6. UK Seizes Iranian Oil Tanker

Gibraltar: On July 4, media sources reported that British Royal Marines stationed in Gibraltar had stopped and impounded the Panama-flagged oil tanker Grace 1, which was en route to Syria’s Banyas port. Shipping data reportedly indicated that the oil carried by Grace 1 was sourced from Iran, although the ship’s documentation registered the oil as Iraqi. In response, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami declared the seizure of the tanker an act of “piracy” that the Government of Iran would not tolerate. In turn, Secretary of the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council (an administrative council appointed by the supreme leader) Mohsen Rezaee threatened to “reciprocate and seize a British oil tanker.”

Analysis: The oil tanker’s seizure will naturally contribute to Syria’s nationwide fuel shortages, which will continue to have a massive impact across all sectors of the Syrian economy. Iran remains one of the two primary suppliers of fuel to Syria (the other being Russia), and the tanker seizure highlights that Syria’s ability to withstand the fuel crisis is intertwined with broader geopolitical dynamics; these include the latest U.S. sanctions on Iran and heightened regional tensions over the Iran nuclear deal. Notably, the seizure of an oil tanker marks an unprecedented escalation in the U.K.’s enforcement of U.S. sanctions and EU restrictive measures, and it increases the likelihood of a commensurate Iranian response to heightened international pressures.

7. Denied Returns in Taldu (Houla)

Taldu, northern rural Homs: On July 5, several media outlets leaked a letter from Hussein Makhlouf, the Syrian minister of local administration and environment, addressed to Governor of Homs Talal Al-Barazi. The leaked letter was a response from Makhouf to an official request made by Al-Barazi regarding the return of IDPs to Taldu (Houla), in reconciled northern Homs. According to the reports, Makhlouf granted 193 IDPs permission to return, while a further 119 named individuals were denied return permissions, without a stated cause.

Analysis: Various initiatives to facilitate the return of IDPs to northern rural Homs since their evacuation to northern Aleppo in May 2018 have failed. In general, a critical factor enabling such returns is the role played by key intermediaries who are negotiating returns policies in their areas of influence. In the case of Taldu, this is clearly visible in the role played by the Homs governor, who had requested returns permissions on behalf of the Taldu IDPs. Nonetheless, the Government of Syria’s approvals process demonstrates its continued willingness to apply selective returns policies and opaque vetting practices when facilitating local returns. An important factor in northern rural Homs is the tension between Russian Military Police and reconciled former fighters on the one hand, and the Government of Syria’s forces and its affiliated militias on the other. Competition between these two blocs has reportedly prevented a broader agreement on the return of IDPs to northern rural Homs.

8. Anti-Syrian Refugee Measures in Turkey

Esenyurt and Kilis, Turkey: On July 3, the Turkish Ministry of Interior ordered that all signage for retail shops should be printed in Turkish, with Arabic script permitted only in small typeface beneath the Turkish lettering. The implementation of the policy began in Kilis and is expected to spread across the entire country within six months. Meanwhile, on July 6 media reports indicated that Turkish police conducted a campaign against undocumented foreigners in Esenyurt, in Istanbul Province. The police reportedly detained at least 93 individuals, including an indeterminate number of Syrians who lacked legal status in the country. As part of this campaign, several shops owned by Syrians were forcibly closed. Turkish authorities will reportedly investigate individual cases of those targeted by the campaign and will decide whether to forcibly return refugees to Syria.

Analysis: The recent politicization of the Syrian refugee file in Turkey suggests that policies targeting Syrian refugees are likely to be become increasingly systematized and pervasive. Some Turkish political parties have recently heightened their rhetoric against Syrian refugees and accused President Erdogan’s AKP of leniency toward Syrians in Turkey. However, the implementation of measures targeting refugees is likely to transcend inter-party dynamics and find expression in government policy and the practices of state institutions. The growing tensions between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees are thus expected to escalate as Turkey’s Syrian refugee policy is further politicized.

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.