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Syria Update

18 July to 24 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 22, the governor of Istanbul ordered Syrians residing in Istanbul without official authorization from the Ministry of Interior to leave the city by August 20; those who fail to do so “will be relocated” to the province where they were registered for “temporary protection” status, while unregistered Syrians will face detention, relocation to other provinces, or possible deportation. The order follows the suspension, on July 8, of the registration of Syrians in Istanbul; in the weeks following the decision, Turkish authorities engaged in a widespread crackdown on Syrians in Istanbul. On July 20, the Istanbul Immigration Directorate halted the sweeping arrest campaign; nonetheless, many refugees detained by Turkish authorities were reportedly pressured to sign documents stating their willingness to ‘voluntarily’ return to Syria, and activists indicate that as many as several hundred Syrians refugees were returned to northwest Syria through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing under the auspices of the campaign. No single trigger for the crackdown is apparent, but the campaign signals a general fatigue in Turkey, especially Istanbul, over the Syrian refugee issue, and it mirrors the trajectory of refugee affairs in Lebanon. Most worryingly, the punitive policies enforced in host communities in both countries have few evident ramifications for domestic political actors; on the contrary, harsh anti-Syrian refugee policies are no longer a niche concern but a matter of increasingly universal political consensus, and political actors across the Lebanese and Turkish political spectrums now view increased enforcement of labor and immigration laws as a virtual necessity for their own domestic political survival.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  1. On July 22, at least 23 civilians were reportedly killed in a massive air raid on the Maaret An Nu’man market; meanwhile, on July 19, ground and aerial bombardments by the Governments of Syria and Russia reportedly displaced 35,000 individuals from Jisr Ash Shugur. Despite massive destruction, the protracted offensive in northwestern Syria is unlikely to end without a breakthrough in Russian-Turkish negotiations.
  2. All crossings between SDF- and Government-held areas in Syria have been closed to commercial traffic, reportedly as a result of a disagreement over cross-line commercial trade. The SDF is now faced with conflicting priorities: to meet its own commercial needs, or to bow to American-led efforts to economically isolate the Government of Syria.
  3. The upcoming Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) summit will convene on August 1 and 2. The inclusion, for the first time, of Lebanon and Iraq as observer states reflects a broader effort to supplant the Geneva negotiations track. Progress on a Syrian constitutional committee is expected.
  4. Prominent fuel trader Hossam Qaterji has created a militia to protect oil shipments in rural Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. The fuel trade is increasingly lucrative and entails significant security risk; the formation of the militia reflects both the increasingly lawless nature of Deir-ez-Zor as well as the outsize role of private individuals in ostensibly state functions.
  5. The Government of Iraq has frozen the opening of a border crossing between Iraq and Syria in the Sinjar Mountain area. The decision reportedly came as a result of the SDF’s refusal to raise the Government of Syria’s national flag at the crossing site, calling attention to Iraq’s inability to jeopardize its relationship with Damascus. 
  6. On July 18, media sources reported that Hezbollah had closed its main Damascus office; the closure is likely the latest initiative in a wider Hezbollah push to reshuffle its forces in Syria. 
  7. On July 21, a spokesperson for the Ahmad Abdo Brigade, an armed opposition group in the Rukban camp, publicly denied reports that negotiations were underway for the en masse reconciliation of Rukban residents. For now, the wholesale reconciliation of Rukban remains unlikely, as many camp residents are ideologically and logistically incapable of reconciling with the Government. 
  8. During the reporting period, a campaign targeting ‘illegal’ labor in Lebanon led to widespread unrest in Palestinian camps, demonstrations, and significant public outcry. Although the Ministry of Labor has scaled back the harshest measures, the Government of Lebanon will almost certainly revisit measures designed to pressure Syrian laborers.

Istanbul Syrian Refugee Deportations

In Depth Analysis

Syrian workers in Turkey. Image Courtsey of Brookings.edu.

On July 22, the governor of Istanbul ordered Syrians who are not registered with the Interior Ministry in Istanbul to leave the city by August 20; those who fail to do so “will be relocated” to the province in which they are registered for “temporary protection” status, while unregistered Syrians will face detention, relocation to other provinces, or possible deportation. The order follows the suspension, on July 8, of the registration of Syrians in Istanbul, at which time Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu stated that apart from “exceptional cases” the city is “now closed to Syrians.” In the weeks following the order, local media reported widespread police raids targeting Syrians in Istanbul, forcing many Syrians to avoid public spaces or risk detention and deportation. Refugees detained by Turkish authorities were reportedly pressured to sign documents stating their willingness to ‘voluntarily’ return to Syria. On July 20, the Istanbul Immigration Directorate halted the sweeping arrests; it is impossible to verify the exact number of Syrians removed from Istanbul under the auspices of the campaign, but Syrian activists claim that in recent weeks Turkish authorities bussed several hundred, and as many as six thousand Syrian refugees to northwest Syria, primarily through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing. Local sources indicate that upon arrival in Syria, returnees have been allowed to choose between remaining in Idleb Governorate or proceeding onward to Euphrates Shield areas in northern Aleppo.

Policies singling out Syrian refugees in Turkey, especially Istanbul, are now pervasive and largely transcend party politics. Several factors have contributed to Turkey’s advance toward the systematic targeting of Syrian refugees. During local elections in March, President Erdogan’s AKP was widely criticized as being lenient toward Syrian refugees; it is now clear that the victories of political challengers to AKP in several key provinces, and in Istanbul city itself, signaled an inflection point in the escalation of anti-refugee rhetoric. Moreover, many working- and middle-class Turks increasingly view Syrians as low-wage competitors in the local labor market. Istanbul, in particular, is a destination for large numbers of Syrians precisely because it offers greater economic prospects than the outlying provinces in which many Syrians are officially registered for official “temporary protection” status with the Turkish Interior Ministry. In this context, the dramatic devaluation of the Turkish Lira since mid-2018 has markedly compounded the effects of perceived economic competition with Syrian refugees.

In early July, as a result of these pressures, President Erdogan announced that the Turkish government was undertaking a three-pronged approach to reduce the number of refugees— particularly Syrian refugees—in Turkey. On July 13, Erdogan stated: “We are going to encourage them to return to their countries. We are going to deport those who have committed crimes. Furthermore, we foresee a contribution payment from them in exchange for the health services provided to them.” It is important to note that the European Commission agreed, on July 19, to release 1.41 billion euros in support of health, socio-economic, and protection programming for Syrian refugees, and to provide municipal support for host communities in Turkey. However, the country’s current campaign to ‘encourage’ refugees to return to Syria is not only economic; rather, it reflects the fatigue that many Turkish citizens feel toward the refugee crisis and the Syrian conflict more widely. It is not clear financial support alone can address these concerns.

The recent trajectory of Turkish policy on Syrian refugees bears worrying similarities to dynamics in Lebanon. Both legal systems increasingly present structural impediments that make it difficult, if not impossible, for many Syrians to find employment, housing, and legal status in the long term. As a result, many Syrian refugees are caught in a legal cul-de-sac, and are vulnerable to detention and deportation because of legal systems that are increasingly designed to prevent them from residing or working legally. Worryingly, the punitive policies enforced by host governments have few clear ramifications for domestic political actors in either Lebanon or Turkey; on the contrary, harsh anti-Syrian refugee policies are no longer a niche concern but a universal political priority. Political actors across the Lebanese and Turkish political spectrums now view increased enforcement of labor and immigration laws as a virtual necessity for their own domestic political survival. The consequences of these policies for Syrian refugees are clear: host communities are increasingly hostile, and Syrian refugees are left with few ways to navigate labor and legal systems that are restrictive by design.

Whole of Syria Review

Weekly Report July 18 - July 24 - correct-map

1. Northwestern Syria Update

Idleb and Hama governorates: On July 22, media sources reported that at least 23 civilians were killed as a result of a massive air raid on the Maaret An Nu’man market. The attack marked this reporting period’s most deadly incident in the heightened aerial bombardment by the Government of Syria and Russian forces on communities across southern rural Idleb and northern rural Hama governorates. Moreover, the Jisr Ash Shugur local council stated that 35,000 individuals had been displaced from the area by the ground and aerial attacks launched by Russia and the Government of Syria on July 19. In response, on July 22, the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) reportedly shelled several military bases and outposts held by Government of Syria and Russian forces in Hama Governorate; a member of the NLF reportedly indicated that the group’s response would expand to other governorates. Also on July 22, media sources reported that Ansar Al-Tawheed had shelled a Russian S-300 air defense base in Masyaf, western rural Hama. Nonetheless, frontlines in the northwest remain static, with limited direct clashes and no changes in zones of control. Media reports quoting NLF commanders indicated that Russia had deployed ground forces to these frontlines; Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu quickly denied that claim.

Analysis: The ongoing offensive on northwestern Syria has thus far inflicted massive damage on civil infrastructure and services, and it has resulted in considerable displacement. With the ongoing intensification of aerial attacks, the humanitarian situation in the area is expected to further deteriorate; the fate of the many displaced from Jisr Ash Shughur is particularly troubling. The protracted offensive in northwestern Syria is unlikely to end before a resolution is reached in Russian-Turkish negotiations, and any breakthrough in these negotiations will likely occur only as part of the upcoming summit in Nur-Sultan, on August 1 and 2 (See point 3, below). Until that time, it is likely that frontlines in northwestern Syria will remain static (albeit with heavy conflict), aerial attacks will continue and expand throughout northwestern Syria, and displacement will continue.

2. Closure of SDF-GOS Crossings

Al-Tabqa, Ar-Raqqa Governorate: On July 20, local sources reported that the Al-Tabqa commercial crossing linking SDF and Government of Syria–controlled areas in Ar-Raqqa Governorate was closed to commercial goods, including wheat and fuel. All trade through the crossing is now frozen and only civilian movement is permitted. Shortly after the closure of the Al-Tabqa crossing, local sources reported that all crossings between SDF- and Government-held areas throughout Syria (in Deir-ez-Zor, Aleppo, and Ar-Raqqa governorates) had also been closed to commercial goods. Local sources could not confirm which party first closed the Al-Tabqa crossing, and media sources also remain noncommittal on this point. The official cause of the crossing closures is also unclear; some media sources suggested that the Government of Syria closed its crossings in Deir-ez-Zor due to several recent explosions in Al Bougailia, in the vicinity of Deir-ez-Zor city; however, local sources speculated that the Government of Syria and SDF were disputing the terms of commercial agreements governing the trade of fuel and wheat.

Analysis: The SDF and the Government of Syria have generally maintained a cooperative  relationship, especially with respect to economic ties—in particular, the cross-line trade of fuel and wheat. However, it is important to note that this long-standing cooperation is subject to the ebbs and flows of both parties’ political relationships, which are in turn shackled to the broader geopolitical dynamics of the Jazeera region. The SDF is to some degree dependent on trade with the Government of Syria, as this exchange is a major source of revenue in the northeast. However, the SDF is also heavily dependent on the U.S.-led coalition’s support at a time when the coalition is increasingly fixated on economically isolating the governments of Iran and Syria.  It is important to note that the closure of the crossings between SDF and Government territory was concurrent with an unprecedented statement made by the head of the SDF-linked Deir-ez-Zor military council, Abou Khawla Al-Khabil, in which he called Iranian militias “hostile forces”, as well as with a recent incident in which U.S.-led coalition forces shelled Iranian militias in Abu Kamal, in southeast Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. The SDF is now faced with conflicting priorities: to respond to growing U.S. pressure against the governments of Iran and Syria, on the one hand, and to ensure economic stability through cooperation with the Government of Syria, on the other. Considering that the wheat and fuel trade between the Government of Syria and the SDF is critical for both parties, their economic cooperation is expected to resume in the near term; however, this trade will likely be subject to future challenges given the broader geopolitical political landscape.

3. Upcoming Nur-Sultan Summit

Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan: On July 19, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry stated that the next round of talks in Nur-Sultan (previously known as Astana) will convene on August 1 and 2. Notably, both Lebanon and Iraq will participate for the first time as observer states, alongside delegations from the governments of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and representatives of the Syrian opposition. Media sources suggested that Russian diplomats are looking forward to the finalization of the Syrian constitutional committee during this round of talks. The same reports cited sources closely affiliated to the Government of Syria who allegedly expressed the Government’s willingness to abide by the Turkish-Russian agreement on northern Syria struck at Sochi earlier this year.

Analysis: The inclusion of Lebanon and Iraq as observer states in the upcoming meeting in Nur-Sultan is a further indication of efforts made by the ‘guarantor states’ (namely, Russia, Turkey, and Iran) to make the Nur-Sultan/Astana process the primary platform for international negotiations on Syria. Naturally, this comes at the expense of the UN-led Geneva process. As previously noted, this round of the Nur-Sultan talks will focus on the finalization of the constitutional committee, as well as on the Turkish-Russian agreement on northwestern Syria. Recent developments and primary sources indicate that the announcement of the members of the constitutional committee is expected in the near future (see Syria Update July 11–17); however, the fate of the Russian-Turkish agreement on northwestern Syria is difficult to predict, as Turkey remains adamant that the Government of Syria must withdraw from the areas it has captured in Syria over the past three months. However, considering that the Government of Syria has made only limited progress in northwestern Syria (largely due to significant pressure from the Government of Turkey), there is some likelihood that Russia and the Government of Syria will acquiesce to Turkish demands (for more information, see point 1, above).

4. Hussam Qaterji Militia in Deir-ez-Zor

Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On July 19, media sources indicated that prominent Government of Syria–affiliated businessman Hossam Qaterji had formed a militia in Al-Abbas, a village in the vicinity of Abu Kamal, eastern Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. This militia is reportedly under the direct supervision of the Government of Syria Military Security Branch and exists exclusively to protect Qaterji’s investments in the fuel trade across the Euphrates River. Local sources indicate that the militia was established on July 11 and note that the Qaterji Group has also resorted to using plastic pipelines to transport fuel, as opposed to trucks or boats, in order to avoid being targeted by U.S.-led coalition forces. Notably, SDF officials and the Qaterji Group reportedly brokered a fuel transportation agreement in April 2019; this agreement has naturally been affected by the closure of crossings between SDF- and Government-held territories (see point 2, above).

Analysis: Hossam Qaterji, through the Qaterji Group, has maintained an effective monopoly on the northeastern Syria fuel trade thanks to his role in facilitating cross-line fuel trade between the SDF and the Government of Syria. The formation of a Qaterji-linked militia is an indication of the increasing importance of this fuel trade and the serious risks it entails. Cross-line commercial trade is increasingly politically sensitive, and fuel traders and smugglers have reportedly been attacked by U.S.-led coalition forces in the past in an effort to economically isolate the Government of Syria. Additionally, Deir-ez-Zor is an increasingly lawless region; robbery and sabotage are common, and fuel is an increasingly lucrative commercial good, given Syria’s fuel shortages. Qaterji’s new militia is likely an attempt to mitigate these security risks. However, the creation of this militia also reflects the intertwined relationship between economic and military actors in the Syrian conflict; Government-linked businessmen regularly form militias with the tacit approval of the Syrian state, and these economic actors, including Qaterji, are likely to remain key political and military stakeholders in post-war Syria. This will naturally create structural challenges that will impinge on Syria’s future economic development.

5. Opening of New Iraq-Syria Border Crossing ‘Frozen’

Sinjar, Iraq: On July 19, media sources reported that the governor of Iraq’s Nineveh Province, Khdeeda Joki, stated that Iraq had frozen the opening of a border crossing between Iraq and Syria in the Sinjar Mountain area. The Iraqi government reportedly halted the planned opening because the SDF refused to accede to Iraq’s request that the Government of Syria’s flag be raised over the new crossing. According to the reports, the crossing is intended to facilitate the evacuation of Iraqi Yazidis from the Al-Hol camp (as well as other camps in Syria) to Iraq; however, Joki said that the border crossing was also expected to improve trade between Syria and Iraq and that the delay would have negative economic consequences. On July 20, media reports indicated that Kurdish officials were negotiating possibly opening the crossing under the supervision of the U.S-led coalition and the UN.

Analysis: Iraq’s request that Syria’s national flag be raised at the border crossing is largely symbolic, but it calls attention to a pragmatic reality: the Government of Iraq cannot jeopardize its relationship with the Government of Syria, even for the sake of its own immediate economic or political interests in border areas under the control of the SDF. Indeed, the governments of Syria and Iraq have engaged in multiple cross-border economic projects, at times in cooperation with the Government of Iran, mostly centered on restoring regional trade, transportation infrastructure, and railroads. Given the high degree of regional cooperation, the Government of Iraq remains unlikely to engage in northeast Syria in ways that might threaten its far more consequential economic and political relations with Damascus. In several consequential aspects, northeast Syria remains isolated despite redoubled Western military and political support for the SDF. 

6. Hezbollah Closes Damascus Office

Damascus: On July 18, media sources reported that Hezbollah had closed its main Damascus office, located on the airport road south of Damascus city. According to the reports, the closure came in response to a Russian request that Hezbollah reduce its presence in Syria, particularly in the vicinity of Damascus city. Hezbollah’s decision to close its Damascus office has also been linked to the increased threat of Israeli airstrikes.

Analysis: Hezbollah is in the midst of a significant reorganization of its military forces in Syria. The most recent public remarks by Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah explained the reshuffle as a natural result of the group’s dramatically reduced military and operational needs in Syria. Nonetheless, as indicated in Syria Update July 11–17, the drawdown of Hezbollah forces is most likely a reflection of the toll of international sanctions on Iran, the group’s primary financial backer, as well as the changing dynamics of the Syria conflict. Notably, the closure of Hezbollah’s Damascus office testifies to the Government of Syria’s willingness to countenance Russian-led measures to contain Iran’s influence in Syria. However, it is important to note that despite recent military and administrative measures to reduce Iran’s influence in Syrian military and intelligence services, Iran and its affiliated militias, including Hezbollah, are expected to remain essential actors in Syria for the foreseeable future. The influence wielded by these groups takes economic, religious, and social forms that are not dependent on a direct military presence. Ultimately, given the likely durability of this influence, it is doubtful that Hezbollah’s nominal drawdown will be sufficient to deter future Israeli airstrikes on Syria, or to fully satisfy Russian aspirations to contain Iran.

7. Status of Rukban Camp

Rukban, Badiya, Homs Governorate:  On  July 21, a spokesperson for the Ahmad Abdo Brigade, an armed opposition group in the Rukban camp, reportedly denied the group’s intention to reconcile with the Government of Syria. Rumors of the willingness of armed opposition groups to reconcile with the Government of Syria have increased following a recent meeting reportedly held in Jordan. However, the Ahmed Abdo spokesman claimed that the meeting only included the Rukban camp’s civil administration and representatives of various organizations working in the camp, and pertained only to the humanitarian situation of the camp’s residents. On July 10, media sources reported that approximately 500 residents of Rukban had been evacuated to Homs city; according to UNOCHA, a total of 16,624 individuals evacuated the camp between March 24 and July 10. Upon their arrival in shelters in Homs, individuals are reportedly reconciled and then allowed to either remain in shelters or leave shelters to return to their areas of origin or other Government-held areas.

Analysis: The status of the individuals in the Rukban camp, and their willingness to reconcile, is a complex issue. The Rukban residents come from areas across Syria and include individuals who fled from the Government of Syria, the armed opposition, the YPG, and ISIS. For that reason, the reconciliation of Rukban camp has been an extremely contentious issue; many individuals in the camp are reported to be adamantly opposed to reconciliation, while others are reportedly open to reconciliation and return. These dynamics are compounded by the dire humanitarian conditions in the camp, which certainly encourage camp residents to consider reconciling despite their misgivings about doing so. However, the prominent armed opposition groups in Rukban, including Ahmed Abdo and Ousoud Sharqiya, are reported to be against reconciliation. This is partly due to the fact that large portions of the camp population are unlikely to be allowed to reconcile by the Government of Syria. More fundamentally, these armed groups derive considerable power from their control over the camp and its residents. Thus, while individuals in Rukban will likely to continue to reconcile in small numbers, the camp’s wholesale evacuation is a distant prospect.

8. Lebanese Ministry of Labor Campaign

Beirut, Lebanon: Throughout the reporting period, a Lebanese Ministry of Labor campaign against ‘illegal’ labor fueled massive demonstrations and upheaval in Palestenian camps across Lebanon. The campaign went into effect on July 10, when the Ministry of Labor began to close down shops, issue fines against businesses employing ‘illegal’ foreign workers, and detain workers without work permits. The campaign is widely understood to be targeting Syrian refugees working in Lebanon; however, due to the blanket enforcement of Labense labor law and the precarious legal status of Palestinians in Lebanon, numerous Palestinians were also detained and many Palestinian businesses were closed. In retaliation for the capaign, starting on July 17, Palestinian refugees in Sidon’s Ain El Helwe camp, Tyre’s Mieh Mieh and Rashidieh camps, and Beirut’s Burj El Barajneh and Mar Elias camps conducted demonstrations, burned tires, held strikes, and closed down the entrances of the camps. In response to the Palestinian protests, various Lebanese officials from across Lebanon’s political spectrum called for a revision of the Ministry of Labor campaign to ensure that it takes into consideration the specific conditions of Palestinian laborers in Lebanon. To that end, the speaker of Parliament and leader of the Amal Movement, Nabih Berri, stated that the recent measures taken against Palestinian labor in Lebanon had effecitvely been rescinded and would not be reimplemented. Prime Minister Saad Hariri reportedly relayed a similar message to a delegation from Hamas, on July 23, asserting that the matter would be discussed in the first meeting of the Lebanese cabinet. Hariri reportedly blamed the excesses of the campaign on Minister of Labor Kamil Abou Sleiman, whom he referred to as “inexperienced.” 

Analysis: The Government of Lebanon, in particular the Ministry of Labor, is expected to temporarily walk back—if not altogether halt—its campaign, in a bid to contain the widespread Palestinian backlash. In marked contrast to the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon, the Palestinian community in Lebanon is highly organized; Palestinians maintain both a military and political presence in  camps across Lebanon, as per the terms of the 1969 Cairo Accord. The accord stipulates that the Palestinian camps are effectively beyond the jurisdiction of the Lebanese Army and remain under the nominal control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Due to the organized nature of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, the recent mobilizations threatened grave political consequences that the Government of Lebanon would likely be incapable of effectively managing. The security threat raised by the recent unrest is likely to dominate the political rhetoric and decelerate the ongoing campaign. If a temporary reprieve is given, other informal workers, namely Syria refugees, will likely benefit from the greater leeway—at least in the short term. However, in the long term the Government of Lebanon will almost certainly pursue measures designed to pressure Syrian refugees, who remain the primary target of its initiatives. Ultimately, the growing sentiment against Syrian refugees across the Lebanese political spectrum is unlikely to abate. 

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.