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Syria Update

11 July to 17 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 July 13, the Response Coordination Group issued a statement declaring that “donors announced that their support for the Health Directorates of Idleb, Hama, and Aleppo will be discontinued.” More than 160 hospitals and other medical facilities will reportedly cease operation, forcing an estimated 4.7 million people to rely exclusively on volunteer medical centers. The timing of this withdrawal is particularly impactful. The governments of Syria and Russia are in the midst of an intense campaign of aerial bombardment in northwest Syria. More than 550 people have been killed in airstrikes there since late April, and hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced. Most worryingly, medical infrastructure has been a frequent target of this bombardment. By far the entity most significantly impacted by the withdrawal of funding is the Idleb Health Directorate, which is the central coordinating body for health services across northwestern Syria; in many communities, it administers the only functional medical facilities. In effect, the withdrawal of external funding for the health sector in northwest Syria is the culmination of donor risk-mitigation strategies, which (justifiably) became increasingly restrictive when, in January 2019, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham asserted military dominance over northern Hama, Idleb, and western Aleppo Governorates, making the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government the primary administrative and governance body in every community across opposition-controlled northwestern Syria. Nonetheless, according to local sources, interference by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or the Salvation Government in the Idleb Health Directorate has been generally limited, carried out primarily by local actors in opposition to the general practices of the Salvation Government, and almost always resolved in favor of the Idleb Health Directorate. In an important sense, the withdrawal of funding may prove counterproductive. The Salvation Government has thus far been reluctant to interfere in the Idleb Health Directorate due to fears that doing so would prompt the withdrawal of external funding. The removal of that funding may actually compel the Salvation Government to take a much greater role in the health sector in order to meet the extreme health needs in northwestern Syria.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  1. A large number of imams in Dar‘a Governorate were fired by the Regliious Endowments Ministry; the firing of the imams reflects the Government of Syria’s increased influence over religious discourse, as well as its inability to politically stabilize reconciled communities in southern Syria. 
  2. A Russian Military Police patrol was targeted by an IED in Dar‘a, and local rumors attribute the attack to Iran-backed armed groups; geopolitical tensions will only further complicate the already deteriorating security situation in southern Syria.
  3. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs touted “considerable progress” on the formation of a constitutional committee, following a visit by UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pederson to Damascus. A break in the deadlock on the constitutional committee is possible in the near term; however, the parties remain at odds on the exact role of the prospective committee.
  4. A string of bombings was reported in northeast Syria, including several targeting both Christian and government-linked sites. Although responsibility and motivation for the attacks is difficult to ascertain, they come during a period of worryingly high tensions in the northeast, involving nearly all actors on the ground.
  5. An IED blast killed 11 civilians in Afrin and injured 12 others. Notably, the most significant factor driving instability in Afrin is the lasting displacement of Kurdish residents as a result of Operation Olive Branch.  
  6. The Government of Syria Military Conscription Division has circulated a list of 750 individuals wanted for military service in Eastern Ghouta. It is unclear if the list signals a new nationwide conscription campaign, but its composition suggests a significant lack of coordination among government and security agencies. 
  7. Russia will invest in tourist resorts in Lattakia and Tartous governorates. Investments in tourism diverge markedly from the pattern of Russian investment in Syria, yet are unlikely to augur a wider investment in the productive sectors of Syria’s economy. 
  8. On July 10, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made a major televised address in which he acknowledged Hezbollah’s partial withdrawal from Syria. The speech coincided with new U.S. Treasury sanctions against three prominent Hezbollah members in Lebanon, and it clarified that, although Hezbollah’s regional position is in flux, its fundamental priorities remain largely unchanged.

Suspension of Health Directorate Support in Northwest Syria

In Depth Analysis

A group of northwestern Syria stakeholders announce the General Conference of the Syrian Revolution on February 3rd. Image courtesy of Eldorar.

On July 13, the Response Coordination Group issued a statement declaring that “donors announced that their support for the Health Directorates of Idleb, Hama, and Aleppo will be discontinued.” According to the statement, in the absence of external support, more than 160 hospitals, clinics, blood banks, and other medical facilities will cease operation, forcing the reported 4.7 million people in northwestern Syria to rely exclusively on volunteer medical centers. The independent health directorates affected by the funding freeze are the primary providers of health services in northwest Syria; by far the most significant of these is the Idleb Health Directorate, which is the central coordinating body for healthcare across northwestern Syria—in many communities, it administers the only functional medical facilities. While the withdrawal of funding for the health sector in northwest Syria would entail significant consequences under any circumstances, the timing of this withdrawal makes it particularly impactful. The governments of Syria and Russia are in the midst of an intensifying campaign of aerial bombardment in northwest Syria. More than 550 people have been killed in airstrikes there since late April, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human RIghts, and hundreds of thousands of individuals have been internally displaced within northwestern Syria. Most worryingly, medical infrastructure has been a frequent target of these attacks. On July 10 alone, three medical facilities in Jisr Ash-Shughur and Saraqeb were targeted, as was the Ma’arrat An Nu’man hospital, one of the largest in northwest Syria and a hub for regional referrals.

In effect, the withdrawal of external funding for the health sector in northwest Syria is the culmination of donor risk-mitigation strategies, which (justifiably) became increasingly restrictive when, in January 2019, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham asserted military dominance over Idleb Governorate and neighboring areas of northern Hama and western Aleppo, making the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government the primary administrative and governance body in every community across opposition-controlled northwestern Syria. In the period since this consolidation, avoiding programming which could be construed as directly or indirectly benefiting Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government has been a defining dynamic of the humanitarian response in northwest Syria.

In terms of the health sector, the most pressing concerns relate to the potential influence of the Salvation Government Ministry of Health over the Idleb Health Directorate. In mid-January, European donors temporarily suspended funding for health directorates in northwest Syria in response to the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham takeover. At that time, the health directorates withheld salaries and retained employees on a voluntary basis; however, the suspension was eventually reversed. In practice, the Salvation Government and the Idleb Health Directorate are relatively disaggregated, intentionally so. The Salvation Government Ministry of Health is poorly resourced, reportedly ineffective, and conducts little programming. Although the Idleb Health Directorate operates in areas that are now under the military and administrative control of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government, it is nominally affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government and provides life-saving health services to civilian populations; in many communities no other healthcare provider exists. According to local sources, interference by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or the Salvation Government in the Idleb Health Directorate has been generally limited; reportedly, what interference does take place is usually related to local actors pressuring the directorate to hire specific staff members (a common occurrence across Syria), and complaints of interference are frequently resolved in favor of the Idleb Health Directorate.

Withdrawing support for the health sector will have serious consequences. External funding streams are absolutely essential to supporting health directorates serving the civilian population of the northwest. Additionally, the contingent nature of this funding has likely been the most effective deterrent against interference by the Salvation Government or Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham; essentially, the Salvation Government has been reluctant to interfere in the Idleb Health Directorate for fear of prompting the withdrawal of external funding. The withdrawal of support removes this deterrent and may actually compel the Salvation Government to take a much greater role in the health sector, in order to meet the extreme health needs in northwestern Syria. Moreover, the halt in funding may establish a potentially counterproductive precedent. In effect, it suggests that the Salvation Government’s attempts to maintain the independence of the Idleb Health Directorate were insufficient to prevent the cut; there is thus no reason for Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to refrain from interference in the future. It is unclear if this decision will further alienate Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Salvation Government; however, it is certain to have immediate consequences for the civilian population.

Whole of Syria Review

Weekly Report July 11-July 17-map

1. Imams Fired in Southern Syria

Dar‘a Governorate: On July 12, media sources reported that the Government of Syria Religious Endowments Ministry (Wizarat Al-Awqaf) had fired at least 34 imams in Dar‘a Governorate. These firings occurred gradually over the past two months in numerous communities in Dar’a Governorate. Local sources reported that the Religious Endowments Ministry took action because the imams had not attended a training in Damascus city, as per the Ministry’s request; the imams had also reportedly refrained from openly supporting the Government of Syria in Dar’a and had not urged young men to join the Syrian military. Reportedly, all of the imams who were fired have now effectively stopped working, with the exception of two, one in Dar’a city and another Tafas. While media sources attributed the exceptional case of the imams in Dar’a city and Tafas to the Russian military presence in those communities, local sources clarified that the imams in these two communities had not been receiving government salaries, and thus did not stop working at their respective mosques. 

Analysis: The Religious Endowments Ministry’s decision to end the service of almost all imams in Dar’a Governorate reflects two major trends: first, the Government of Syria’s increasing intervention in religious affairs; and second, the persistent political deadlock and growing instability throughout southern Syria. The Government of Syria has made it clear that it intends to exert much greater influence over Sunni religious matters throughout Syria; the most notable development in that direction took place on May 21, when President Bashar Assad anounced the establishment of DIICCTE (Damascus International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism) and issued Edict 16, both of which grant considerable power to the Religious Endowments Ministry to dictate Sunni religious rhetoric and hiring decisions. However, the Government of Syria’s inability to contain growing anti-government sentiment in southern Syria is certainly a contributing factor to the crackdown on imams in Dar‘a. The Ministry of Religious Endowment’s decision is yet another means by which the Government of Syria is attempting to exercise greater control over southern Syria. As mentioned in previous Syria Update reports, the Government of Syria is using military, governance, economic, and religious mechanisms to attempt to quell unrest in southern Syria; ultimately, these efforts to exert greater control over southern Syria will likely remain unsuccessful unless the government is willing to grant concessions to southern Syria’s local notables—for instance, by postponing conscription and addressing the status of southern Syria’s detainees.

2. Attack on Russian Military Police

Sahwa, Dar‘a Governorate: On July 13, media sources reported that a VBIED had targeted a Russian patrol in Sahwa, in eastern rural Dar‘a Governorate. No actor has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement on the incident, the head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Major General Alexei Bakin, stated that no members of the Russian Military Police patrol were wounded, nor were any vehicles damaged. Bakin called the attack an “act of sabotage and terror,” and said the perpetrators had been “members of illegal armed groups that operate separately in south Syria with the aim to escalate the situation in that region.” Meanwhile, systematic attacks on Government of Syria checkpoints continued throughout southern Syria. For example, on July 12 and 13, local sources reported at least three IED attacks targeting Government of Syria forces and checkpoints in the vicinity of Bisr Elharir, which killed several individuals.

Analysis: While the actor responsible for the attacks on the Russian Military Police patrol remains unknown, locally, the event has largely been attributed to Iran-affiliated militias in southern Syria. The attacks are likely to further exacerbate existing tensions between local armed groups affiliated with Russia and Iran in southern Syria. Indeed, Russian-Iranian dynamics—both on the ground and within the Government of Syria itself—have become increasingly tense, most visibly in the reshuffling of top intelligence officers on July 7 and 8 (See Syria Update July 4 to July 10, 2019). Thus far, Russia’s capacity to unilaterally erode the on-the-ground influence of Iran and Iran-backed armed groups remains in doubt; to that end, other actors, including the Israeli government, are also fixated on reducing Iran’s influence in southern Syria. For example, a tripartite meeting between Russian, Syrian, and Israeli military and intelligence services was held on June 30 regarding a proposal to force Iran-backed armed groups to withdraw from much of southern Syria. The localized security situation in southern Syria, especially in Dar‘a Governorate, is likely to further deteriorate as it becomes increasingly entangled with broader regional geopolitical dynamics.

3. Constitutional Committee Progress

Damascus: On July 10, the Government of Syria’s Ministry of Foregin Affairs released a statement declaring that “considerable progress” had been made in the formation of the constitutional committee. The statement followed a meeting between UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pederson and Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Mu’allem, in Damascus. Pederson’s visit to Damascus follows his meeting with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergie Lavrov on July 5, during which he declared his optimism that the deadlock over the list of civil society representatives to the constitutional committee would be resolved in the near term. Additionally, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated in a recent television interview that an agreement had been reached regarding the civil society representatives on the committee.

Analysis: The convergence of statements by the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish foreign ministries suggests that an agreement on the constitutional committee’s civil society list is possible in the near future—perhaps as early as the upcoming meeting between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, to be held in Turkey. Nonetheless, new points of divergence and deadlock are likely. One candidate for membership to the committee indicated that the current dispute centers on the means of decision-making within the constitutional committee; this source claimed that supporters of the Government of Syria demand a threshold of 50 percent of the vote as a condition for adopting the terms of the new constitution, whereas members affiliated with the opposition advocate for a 75 percent threshold. More fundamentally, the parties remain at odds over the extent of the committee’s mandate to bring wholesale change to the Syrian constitution. Notably, although the present deadlock concerns the authority to select members to six remaining civil society seats, the most consequential dimension of the civil list is not its members’ affiliations, but their technical expertise in legal and constitutional affairs. Ultimately, while the committee may be composed in the near term, the actual approval of a new Syrian constitution remains a decidedly long-term process.

4. VBIED Attacks in Al-Hasakeh and Quamishli

Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On July 11, media and local sources reported a VBIED attack on the Government of Syria–controlled ‘security square’ in Quamishli city. The attack took place near Al-Adhra’ Church, in Al-Wosta neighborhood, and reportedly injured 15 people. Local sources also reported three VBIED attacks in Al-Hasakeh city, two of which occurred in Salhiyeh neighborhood, targeting sites associated with the SDF. The third attack struck the nearby community of Tal Hajar, reportedly in the vicinity of Sotoro forces, a Kurdish Self Administration security agency specifically formed to provide security to Christian communities in Al-Hasakeh Governorate. Another VBIED killed six SDF combatants in Ghazawi, Shadadeh Subdistrict, in southern rural Al-Hasakeh Governorate. 

Analysis: Attacks targeting SDF-affiliated forces in the southern stretches of the Kurdish Self-Administration are common; however, the attacks targeting Christian and Government of Syria–linked locations further north in Al-Hasakeh and Quamishli cities are a new and potentially significant development. Since the defeat of the final ISIS enclave in Baghouz in March, attacks against the SDF, Asayish, and notable local figures affiliated with the Kurdish Self Administration have been most frequently witnessed in Ar-Raqqa Governorate and in rural, predominantly Arab tribal communities along the Euphrates River in Deir-ez-Zor. With the exception of the attack in Ghazawi, all of the incidents in the recent string of attacks break this pattern. ISIS has claimed responsibility for these attacks; although this claim may be an attempt on the part of the group to inflate its apparent reach and relevance, its involvement cannot be discounted. It is premature to forecast the possibility of widening violence in the northeast, but this string of attacks comes at a critical moment. Tensions involving virtually all actors present on the ground in northeast Syria are notably high. Indeed, Kurdish authorities recently arrested several Government of Syria security agents; the SDF has been forced to make significant concessions to placate Arab tribes alienated by Kurdish Self Administration policies, conscription practices, and service shortfalls; and ISIS continues to claim attacks across the northeast. Given the tinder-box conditions, the likelihood that any individual action will further inflame tensions between the myriad actors in northeastern Syria is worryingly high. 

5. Major VBIED in Afrin

Afrin City, Aleppo Governorate: On July 11, media sources reported on a major VBIED attack in Afrin city. The explosion reportedly occurred in the Tarif Al-Basouta neighborhood, killing 11 civilians and wounding at least 12. UNICEF issued a statement condemning the attack, claiming that several children had been killed. Shortly after the incident, media reports indicated that Turkey-supported armed groups had conducted various campaigns in the area, and had reportedly detained 10 individuals.

Analysis: In general, the security situation in Afrin is likely to remain compromised for the foreseeable future. Although Turkey-supported armed groups have limited capacity to contain security threats in Afrin, the single most important destabilizing factor in Afrin is the ethnic dimension of the Turkish influence there. Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch resulted in massive displacement of the predominantly Kurdish population of Afrin, the impact of which is likely to continue to mar the security situation in the area. Sleeper cells, IEDs, and other security threats are likely to remain a concern in Afrin.

6. Conscription Lists in Eastern Ghouta

Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus Governorate: On July 11, media reports indicated that the Government of Syria’s Military Conscription Division had circulated a list of 750 names of individuals wanted for military service in Eastern Ghouta, amidst increased security measures and restrictions throughout the area. According to one of these sources, the list of names was communicated to mukhtars in Kafr Batna, Hammoura, Arbin, and Jebrein, as well as to the Kafr Batna Police Station, which informed the individuals named on these lists. Government of Syria police forces and Republican Guards have established several new checkpoints in various communities in Eastern Ghouta, in search of military conscripts. Notably, as with conscription lists circulated in other parts of the country, the list included the names of deceased individuals, as well as individuals known to be imprisoned by the Government of Syria.

Analysis: The circulation of the new conscription lists in Eastern Ghouta is likely part of a broader national-scale administrative process, as it comes shortly after the circulation of a conscription list in Dar‘a Governorate. As in the list recently circulated in Dar‘a, the conscription register includes the names of individuals already detained by the Government of Syria, and others who died earlier in the conflict, emphasizing a serious lack of coordination between various Government of Syria administrative institutions and security branches. Military conscription remains among the primary concerns of the population in reconciled areas, as the terms of reconciliation agreements and their associated guarantees have either expired or been flagrantly revoked. Considering the obvious lack of coordination between different Government of Syria institutions, it is important to question the degree to which conscription policies in reconciled areas are aimed at containing local dissent, are part of a broader policy aimed at increasing manpower, or are entirely arbitrary.

7. Russian Investment in Syrian Tourism

Lattakia and Tartous Cities: On July 12, the Government of Syria’s minister of tourism, Mohamad Martini, announced two Russian touristic projects in Lattakia and Tartous governorates. In Lattakia, Martini announced a contract between the Government  of Syria and the Olympic Tour Service Company to build a four-star tourist resort. The project in Tartous Governorate concerns the restoration and redevelopment of the existing Al-Manara Al-Siyahiya resort.

Analysis: Investment in tourism is a notable departure from the pattern of Russian economic interests in Syria. Thus far, Russian investment in Syria has been primarily concentrated in natural resource extraction, including oil, gas, and phosphates, as well as hard infrastructure. Investments in non-extractive sectors, such as tourism, have been fairly uncommon. Indeed, a common denominator of Russia’s investment portfolio in Syria is the limited positive impact these investments will have for the productive capacity of the Syrian economy or the Syrian labor force. Syria’s national economy has suffered major setbacks during the conflict, due, among other factors, to the large-scale destruction of economic institutions and infrastructure, and to the diminished economic opportunities for Syrian workers. Additionally, the economic and legal frameworks adopted during the presidency of Bashar Al-Assad have laid the groundwork for the deprioritization of productive economic sectors in favor of real estate and services. However, while Russian involvement in the tourism sector is certainly a noteworthy development, it does not necessarily signal wider interest on the part of Russia to rehabilitate the Syrian economy.

8. U.S. Sanctions Hezbollah Members

Beirut, Lebanon: On July 10, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on three members of Hezbollah, including members of Lebanese parliament Mohamad Raad and Amin Sharri, as well as Hezbollah security chief Wafik Safa. Lebanese officials of various parties, including President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned the sanctions. Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah stated in a televised speech on July 10 that the party had decreased its forces in Syria; Nasrallah asserted that the drawdown was a result of “practical necessities” and had nothing to do with austerity measures or sanctions. Notably, Nasrallah stated that the Russian government is seeking a regional posture that would avoid a direct confrontation with Israel. Nonetheless, in the context of an increasingly likely limited confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, Nasrallah said that any military escalation would necessarily involve Israel, and that Hezbollah remains prepared for such a confrontation. Finally, Nasrallah indicated that the U.S. is seeking to open “channels of communication” with the party.

Analysis: In effect, Nasrallah’s speech comes as a direct response to multiple recent developments regarding Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, the party’s relationship with Iran, and its broader future as a Lebanese political movement. On June 30, the Russian government facilitated a tripartite meeting with Israel and the Government of Syria in a bid to strike an unlikely agreement to contain Iran’s influence in southern Syria (see Syria Update July 4 to July 10, 2019). As per Nasrallah’s speech, such an agreement is unlikely to happen, and the capacity of Israel or Russia to limit Hezbollah’s direct influence on the ground in Syria is limited. Nasrallah’s assertion that Hezbollah’s drawdown in Syria is a consequence of logistical and strategic priorities rather than sanctions or international pressure is thus likely to be largely true. Although Hezbollah does face serious financial constraints, at least in part due to sanctions targeting its leadership and operations, as well as Iran, its forces are no longer essential to ensuring the Government of Syria’s ability to control large portions of Syrian territory. Hezbollah forces have therefore been free to remobilize in areas according to their own strategic priorities—namely, the Qalamoun mountains and the Lebanese border. Finally, it is unsurprising that Nasrallah cautioned against the drawdown being seen as acquiescence to American or Israeli demands. Hezbollah’s direct affiliation with Iran is likely to ensure it will remain a target of U.S. sanctions, regardless of the group’s operations in Syria or potential lines of communication with the U.S.

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.