Media Anthology: August 20 – August 26, 2019


Media Anthology

August 20 to 26, 2019

The West is sitting on its hands as Assad destroys Idlib - and we will come to regret our cowardiceEnglishThe TelegraphAugust 20, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey questions why Russia didn't prevent Idlib attackEnglishAl-MonitorAugust 22, 2019Conflict and Military
'A publicity stunt': Syrians in Idlib baffled by offer of humanitarian corridor exitEnglishMiddle East EyeAugust 22, 2019Conflict and Military
The regime forces entered Murak and Latmana the main stronghold of Jaysh Al-Ezza and encircled the Turkish observation pointArabicStep News AgencyAugust 23, 2019Conflict and Military
SDF arrest humanitarian workers in Raqqa, raising questions and concernsEnglishSyria DirectAugust 19, 2019Conflict and Military
Drugs are the largest exports from the regime areasArabicSyria TVAugust 20, 2019Economic
Fawwaz Fawwaz is the partner of Samer Foz, Bashar Al-Assad-lined businessmanArabicAl modonAugust 26, 2019Economic
Turkey extends deadline for unregistered refugees in IstanbulEnglishHurriyet Daily NewsAugust 21, 2019Governance and Service Management
The Salvation Government bans leasing IDPs from Hama and Idleb without official contractsArabicEnab BaladiAugust 23, 2019Governance and Service Management
The Assad regime launched a rehabilitation campaign in Khan Shaykun; is it an attempt to make it the administrative center of the governorate?ArabicJesr PressAugust 26, 2019Governance and Service Management
As warm welcome chills, Turkey clamps down on SyriansEnglishAssociated Press NewsAugust 21, 2019Social Dynamics
For Istanbul’s Syrians, a time of hoping and hidingEnglishThe New HumanitarianAugust 20, 2019Social Dynamics
Response Coordination Group denies recording any returning case through Suran crossingArabicEnab BaladiAugust 23, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The U.N. helps Syria bomb the oppositionEnglishForeign PolicyAugust 19, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Turkey recalibrates refugee policy as Idlib fighting displaces more SyriansEnglishAl-MonitorAugust 22, 2019Humanitarian & Development
International politics of Syrian refugee return: The case of LebanonEnglishMiddle East InstituteAugust 20, 2019International Intervention
A British mediation to settle the dispute between the Self Administration and the Kurdish National CouncilArabicSyria TVAugust 22, 2019International Intervention
Khan Sheikhoun exposes the limitations of the Turkish guarantor roleEnglishSyria DirectAugust 21, 2019International Intervention
Jawish Oglo in Beirut: Oil and refugeesArabicAl-AkhbarAugust 24, 2019International Intervention
What ‘victory’ looks like: A journey through shattered SyriaEnglishThe New York timesAugust 20, 2019Other

Syria Update: August 22 – August 28, 2019

Syria Update

August 22 to August 28, 2019

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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.

HTS Lies at the Crux of Likely Northwest Syria Scenarios

In Depth Analysis

As of August 23, following several weeks of intense aerial bombardment and heavy clashes, Government of Syria forces succeeded in recapturing every community in northeast Hama Governorate from Turkish-backed armed opposition groups. Despite heavy military support to National Liberation Front (NLF) factions in southern Idleb Governorate, Turkey’s efforts to repel the Government of Syria assault failed, and a lone Turkish observation post at Morek, in northern Hama, is now completely encircled by Syrian Government forces (although Russian military forces are reportedly positioned nearby). To a large extent, the immediate trajectory of northwest Syria is now dependent upon ongoing negotiations between Russia and Turkey; to this end, following a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan in Moscow on August 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia and Turkey have agreed to “additional joint steps” to definitively resolve the status of northwest Syria, and “the whole of Syria as a result.” Although details regarding this agreement have not been announced as of this writing, it is clear that the focus of these initiatives will be efforts to address the primary political and military impediment in northwestern Syria: the presence of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.

In effect, the large-scale military offensive (‘Idleb Dawn’) launched by the Government of Syria in May 2019 is a direct result of mounting impatience on the part of the Syrian Government and Russia over Turkey’s inability to force the withdrawal of HTS from a disarmament zone established at frontlines with Syrian Government forces, in accordance with an agreement reached by the Astana powers (Russia, Iran, and Turkey) in September 2018. To the contrary, as a result of infighting among armed opposition groups in northwest Syria, on January 10, HTS became the unquestioned preeminent military actor in northwest Syria, and the Salvation Government was installed as the primary administrative entity in nearly every community in northwest Syria accordingly. Together, these developments have dramatically complicated ongoing efforts to force HTS to retrench deeper inside the Idleb disarmament zone, or to disband. Consequently, HTS will be the crux of likely trajectories for northwest Syria.

Effectively, three scenarios are now likely over the coming three months.

1. Russia and Turkey Agree to Freeze Frontlines

The basis of an agreement to freeze current frontlines in northwest Syria will likely require Turkey to again reiterate guarantees that it will force HTS to withdraw from the disarmament zone, and likely from all frontlines with the Government of Syria. Moreover, in the long-term, it will be impractical, if not altogether impossible, for Turkey to sustain the Turkish observation post at Morek. As such, any negotiated agreement between Turkey and Russia is likely conditional upon Turkey’s eventual withdrawal from Morek. It is important to note that the northwest Syria observation posts are an integral component of the northwest Syria de-escalation agreement reached by the Astana powers in September 2018; as such, Turkey is likely to move its encircled observation post from Morek to a new location deeper inside the newly agreed frontlines. To that end, local sources indicate that several elevated areas located adjacent to the M5 between midway between Khan Sheikoun and Ma’rrat An-Nu’man are likely relocation points. Finally, it is important to note that Turkey’s theoretical willingness to concede to these concessions (which would dramatically undermine its position in Syria and, as a result, its leverage over the Syrian Government) is largely a function of its concerns that a renewed large-scale military offensive in northwest Syria by the Government of Syria, supported by Russia, would unleash a massive influx of refugees into Euphrates Shield areas, and toward Turkey itself.

Khan Sheikhoun, in northern Hama Governorate. Image courtesy of Gulf365.

2. Resumed Government of Syria Offensive

Given Turkey’s lack of direct command and control over armed groups in northwest Syria, especially HTS, it remains a distinct possibility that no Turkish guarantees vis-à-vis HTS will be seen by Russia as enforceable. As such, a resumed Government of Syria offensive would present one of the few means of realistically marginalizing, defeating, or disbanding HTS. However, it is critical to note that a resumed Government offensive would require the Turkish-backed NLF factions to withdraw deeper within the Idleb demilitarized zone, and perhaps ultimately as far as Euphrates Shield areas. Nonetheless, a renewed Government offensive would likely prompt some NLF factions to align with HTS to continue clashing with Government forces, or reconcile. Finally, it is worth noting that restored access to the M4 and M5 highways remains the greatest immediate interest for the Syrian Government in northwest Syria. As such, any Government offensive is likely, ultimately, to prioritize access to these commercial arteries, particularly at Jish-Ash-Shugur from the west, and toward Ma’rrat An-Nu’man from the south.

3. Armed Opposition Groups Infighting to Disband HTS

As noted above, the nominal driver of the Government of Syria’s recent military offensives in northwest Syria is the presence of HTS. As such, from the perspective of Turkey, promoting (or tolerating) infighting among armed opposition groups in the northwest would offer a means of sidelining HTS without sacrificing one of its most important bargaining chips in Syria: influence over the political trajectory of Idleb. However, several factors complicate the unfolding of any scenario of armed group infighting in northwest Syria. First, despite the deep internal cleavages that exist within HTS, it remains the most cohesive and militarily capable entity in northwest Syria, and it is therefore unlikely that any efforts to defeat the group would succeed without significant defections from HTS and increased coordination between the Turkish-backed NLF factions and the National Army. (Notably, the NLF and National Army began active coordination at Turkey’s request in mid-August, ostensibly to defend against the heightened Government of Syria offensive.) Second, militarily disbanding HTS is likely possible only if the Syrian Government refrains from attempting to capitalize on armed group infighting to make further territorial advances northward into Idleb. Third, to ‘force’ infighting among armed opposition groups in northwest Syria would require a high level of direct command and control on the part of Turkey; however, it is not clear that Turkey actually wields this level of direct authority.

Ultimately, the trajectory of northwest Syria is now likely to be shaped by the decisions taken by Russia and Turkey. In this context, although both Russia and Turkey perceive their respective (and in some sense, irreconcilable) interests in Syria as pressing national interests, it is important to note that the Turkish-Russian partnership is global in character. Despite the fact that Syria is a defining aspect of this partnership, it is far from being the determinant aspect. With respect to northwest Syria, and HTS in particular, a shared Russian-Turkish vision is evidently taking shape. However, as with past efforts to resolve the status of northwest Syria, the ability of Russian and Turkey to achieve this vision will depend largely upon their ability to compel armed actors to implement it on the ground. That ability remains in question.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Turkey U.S. Begin Implementing Northeast Syria ‘Safe Zone’, Contentious Issues Remain

Ras Al-Ain, Al-Hasakeh Governorate and Tal Abiad, Ar-Raqqa Governorate: Local and media sources indicate that, as of August 27, SDF combatants have withdrawn from limited portions of the Turkey-Syria border in accordance with a ‘safe zone’ agreement brokered between the U.S. and Turkey on August 7. Local and media sources reported that the SDF has withdrawn heavy weapons from the border at Ras Al-Ain in northern Al-Hasakeh, and from areas in the vicinity of Tal Abiad in northern Ar-Raqqa. Defensive tunnel networks and battlements erected by the SDF have also been demolished. In public remarks following the establishment of a Turkish-American joint operation room, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkish “UAVs and helicopters have entered the region [i.e. the ‘safe zone’]. Very soon, our ground troops will also enter the region.” However, the SDF has reiterated that under the scope of the agreement, Turkish forces will be permitted access to the area for intermittent patrols, but will not be allowed to establish a permanent military presence. Meanwhile, SDF commander Mazlum Abdi called for negotiations with the Government of Syria, urging the Government to “prioritize a political solution and recognize the Self Administration.”

Analysis: The rapid SDF withdrawal from border areas is highly significant in its own right; however, it remains to be seen when (or whether) the U.S. and Turkey will be capable of bridging a wide divide over the most contentions aspects of the northeast Syria ‘safe zone’. Indeed, implementation of the ‘safe zone’ agreement has thus far been limited to topics on which there is broad agreement among the U.S., Turkey, and the SDF. To that end, the SDF’s withdrawal from a sparsely populated expanse stretching between Tal Abiad and Ras Al-Ain delays, but does little to resolve, the need to confront the most challenging issues that impede negotiations over the ‘safe zone’. The most challenging issue, and the one which is the least resolvable, is the depth of the ‘safe zone’; the extent of the safe zone that is currently demanded by Turkey encompasses areas that constitute what is often considered to be the Syrian Kurdsh heartland. In this context, it is notable that the long-term American, Turkish, and SDF objectives vis-a-vis northeast Syria are to a considerable degree incompatible. While the U.S. seeks to maintain a foothold in northeast Syria primarily as leverage over Iran, U.S. access is dependent upon the functional autonomy of the same Kurdish polity that Turkey views as an existential threat and seeks to dismantle. As for the SDF, the latest overture aimed at reconciliation with Damascus is nothing new, although its timing is provocative. Given the ongoing implementation of the northeast Syria ‘safe zone’, rapprochement between Kurdish Self Administration officials and the Government of Syria is an increasingly distant prospect.

2. Israeli Attacks on Iran-Linked Sites Reach Beirut for First Time Since 2006 War

Beirut, Lebanon: On August 25 and 26, Israeli forces launched two separate attacks inside Lebanon, a significant escalation that capped a series of coordinated Israeli strikes in Syria and Iraq. On August 25, two Israeli drones, reportedly bearing small explosive charges, crashed in the southern suburbs of Beirut, one of which exploded and caused material damage to a Hezbollah media office. On August 26, Israeli airstrikes also reportedly targeted a site linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command in the Bekaa region in eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border. The incidents followed strikes inside Syria and Iraq, also targeting armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran. On August 24, Israeli airstrikes targeted Aqraba, south of Damascus city, reportedly killing two Hezbollah combatants. (In a public statement, Israel described the assault as a preemptive strike targeting Iranian-linked Faylaq Al-Quds). Moreover, on August 25, an Israeli airstrike also reportedly targeted a Hashad Sha‘bi convoy in Al-Qaim, in southwest Iraq, killing one commander and injuring a combatant. In a televised speech delivered in response to the attacks in Beirut, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah announced Hezbollah’s willingness to retaliate from Lebanon or Syria to future Israeli attacks targeting Lebanon; moreover, Nasrallah stated the group is prepared to broaden its response inside Israeli-controlled territory.

Analysis: Israeli airstrikes targeting Iran-linked sites in Syria are routine, but in general, they have had little impact on the overall course of the Syria conflict. However, the latest series of Israeli strikes is a worrying indicator of potential escalation, especially in the context of dramatically heightened international pressure to isolate Iran and contain its presence in Syria. To a large extent, the immediate trajectory of any potential confrontation between Israel and Iran is highly uncertain, but it will likely be determined by the response to this latest round of widening Israeli strikes. Notably, the attacks in Beirut are the first undertaken by Israel in the Lebanese capital since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israeli forces agreed to a ceasefire to end the 2006 war. Although Hezbollah is likely to avoid retaliation that would risk provoking a wide-reaching Israeli offensive in Lebanon, Hezbollah is also unlikely to de-escalate unilaterally, or to concede to ongoing Israeli efforts to force the group and Iran out of Syria (see Syria Update July 4-10). To that end, on August 25, Nasrallah reaffirmed that Hezbollah’s presence in Syria is non-negotiable, and its operations in Lebanon and Syria are effectively linked. As such, any escalation would likely have dramatic consequences both for the direction of the Syria conflict and for the Beirut-based international Syria response.

3. Labor Demonstration at Homs General Fertilizers Factory Highlights Changing Shape of Civic Engagement in Syria

Homs, Homs Governorate, Syria: On August 22, social media sources reported that workers in the  Homs General Fertilizers Factory staged a demonstration to demand the release of several workers that were allegedly detained by the Russian administrators of the facility. The workers were reportedly being held inside the factory, after other workmen refused to return to the facility following the discovery of a noxious gas leak. Further social media posts have indicated that ‘sulfur gas’ has been detected in the nearby communities of Qatinah and Jober, where gas reportedly linked to several cases of asphyxia among civilians. As of March 2019, the Russian company Stroytransgaz assumed long-term management of the Homs General Fertilizers Factory, as per a contract reached in November 2018 through a subsidiary, STG Engineering.

Analysis: As of August 27, the status of the labor standoff in the Homs General Fertilizers Factory is unknown; however, the demonstration there highlights the adverse working conditions and livelihood concerns that are almost certain to create flashpoints throughout Syria in the post-conflict. Despite the fact that overtly political civic action remains largely stifled, particularly in Government-held areas, labor conditions, basic services, and local administrative or environmental issues are increasingly among the key drivers of grassroots civic engagement (including protests). In this context, the poor working conditions of the Homs General Fertilizers Factory are by no means an exception. Indeed, it is notable that although Russian and Iranian industrial investment in Syria has been a key area of interest among analysts, little attention has been paid to industrial communities themselves. Notably, Syria’s industrial infrastructure has been badly damaged (and often intentionally targeted) during the conflict; moreover, international sanctions have prevented factories in various sectors, including medicine and food production, from acquiring the machinery and spare parts needed for repairs or maintenance. As a result, it is likely that the rapid industrialization and rehabilitation that the Government of Syria is now seeking to attract are likely to further entrench adverse working conditions, increasing the likelihood of further civic organization over basic labor and service concerns.

4. Loyalists To Be Likely Beneficiaries in Reshuffling of GoS Central Authority for Monitoring and Inspection

Damascus, Syria: On August 25, media sources reported that the Government of Syria has undertaken a high-level staff reshuffling within the Central Authority for Monitoring and Inspection, under the auspices of a wide-ranging investigation into corruption and embezzlement. Investigations were reportedly opened after numerous corruption complaints were filed against the authority, which is charged with overseeing internal trade and consumer protection. According to the same sources, former trade minister Abdullah Gharbi was among those questioned, and later released, during the probe. Notably, the reshuffling follows a number of recent appointments made in the Ministry of Trade and Consumer Protection.

Analysis: In recent months, the Government of Syria has undertaken fairly sweeping ‘good governance’ initiatives under the explicit pretext of consumer protection; included among its efforts are raids to crack down on the sale of adulterated goods, as well as campaigns to ban products smuggled from Turkey. However, according to local sources, the recent reshuffling inside consumer protection authorities likely serves a double purpose. First, discharging officials suspected of corruption or embezzlement is likely to further the Government’s efforts to restore public confidence in state institutions that are widely viewed as inept or corrupt. Second, reshuffling the entities will allow the Government to ensure loyalist figures remain (or attain) positions in the highest echelons of Syrian state apparatuses. To this end, the removal of suspected individuals is likely to be a superficial gesture with little impact on corrupt practices. Indeed, it is likely that many officials holding high-level office in Syrian state entities condone, ignore, or actively participate in the black market or corrupt practices that have proliferated throughout the conflict. Nonetheless, the anti-corruption campaign is a sign that although the Government’s legitimacy is now largely beyond challenge, it remains, to a certain extent, answerable to the Syrian public.

5. Farmers’ Union Challenges Government Decision Over Closure of Sugar Beet Factory in Hama

Tal Salhab, Hama Governorate, Syria: On August 22, a representative of Syria’s General Farmers’ Union, Mohamad Khaleef, stated that the sugar factory in Tal Salhab remains out of operation and has not received sugar beets from local producers. As per Khaleef’s statement, the General Farmers’ Union has proposed that the Ministry of Finance pay sugar beet farmers directly, rather than funding the factory’s operation. As reported in the Syria Update for August 1-7, the Tal Salhab sugar factory was closed by government edict, ostensibly due to the reduced sugar beet crop. However, local producers plant sugar beets under contract with the local authorities, rather than selling their crops on the open market after harvest; thus, if the factory is not operational, then the contracts with the farmers are voided. Notably, the Tal Salhab plant had previously offered to purchase the sugar beet harvest, at a drastically reduced price, to grind it into livestock feed rather than undertaking sugar production. Relatedly, in June, Syrian Prime Minister Ibrahim Khalil stated that the Government would conduct a feasibility assessment for sugar production within three months, after which it will decide whether to transition to other more profitable crops.

Analysis: The General Farmers’ Union proposal that the Ministry of Finance compensate Syrian sugar beet farmers is highly significant; the Farmer’s Union, which is nominally controlled by the Syrian state, is essentially demanding direct state compensation for its members due to damages they have suffered as a result of arbitrary changes to state policy. As such, the initiative demonstrates that even entities linked to the Government of Syria are still to some degree beholden to their constituents (in this case, Syrian sugar beet farmers). Moreover, the proposal highlights the role that professional and trade unions often play as representatives of their constituent members, despite their linkages to the Government. Finally, the status of the Tal Salhab sugar factory calls attention to the Government’s diminished capacity (or willingness) to uphold its role as the essential economic actor and service provider in agricultural communities. In this context, it is worth noting that the Government is often the lone entity that subsidizes key agricultural industries and inputs. To this end, in the present case, media sources estimate that 1,500 local jobs are indirectly linked to the Tal Salhab sugar factory.

6. Members of Dar‘a Municipalities New Targets of Asassination

Mzeireb, Dar’a Governorate, Syria: On  August 24, local and media sources reported that the head of the Mzeireb municipality, Ahmad Abdallah Nabulsi, was assassinated. According to local sources, Nabulsi was previously targeted in four failed assasination attempts, and was well known throughout the conflict for his support of the Government of Syria. This incident followed the assasination of the head of the Yadudeh municipality, Mohamad Al-Manjar, last week, and the January 17 assasination of the head of Mseifra municipality, Abdallah Al-Zoughbi. Notably, local sources indicate that apart from nominal ties to the Government (shared to some degree by all actors in municipalities in Government-held areas), these individuals have no particular military or political backgrounds that are likely causes for their targeting. Rather, local sources report that the municipality figures have been targeted strictly by virtue of their position, which is widely perceived locally to constitute a direct affiliation with the Syrian regime.

Analysis: Although assassinations are a common occurrence in Dar‘a Governorate, the overt targeting of leaders of local municipalities represents a step change, with a potentially significant impact on the already unstable local environment in southern Syria. Indeed, the assasination of municipal leaders increasingly resembles a purely anti-government insurgency; while it is unlikely that an actual movement that can oppose the Government will develop, a long-term asymmetrical conflict is likely to become the norm in Dar’a. To that end, individuals in public sector posts or with known linkages to the Government of Syria are likely becoming common targets of assasination. Assassinations of local municipal figures will certainly impact UN and INGO project implementation in southern Syria, considering that these individuals are often integral to the current humanitarian and development response.

7. A Reflection of Syria’s Growing Drug Trade, Anti-Narcotics Head Dismissed for Drug Trafficking

Damascus, Syria: On August 21, media sources reported that the former head of the Syrian Anti-Narcotics Department, Major General Raed Hazem, was summoned for interrogation over accusations of his involvement in the illegal drug trade and drug manufacturing. Hazem was reportedly summoned following a month-long investigation, with other members and commanders in the department targeted by similar allegations. Further sources indicated that the Ministry of Interior appointed Brigadier General Hsein Joma’, head of the Criminal Security Branch in Latakia Governorate, to replace Hazem as the head of the Anti-Narcotics Department.

Analysis: Illicit drug production and trafficking have increasingly become a lucrative business for various actors throughout the conflict, including the Government of Syria. Previous COAR reports have primarily focused on the role of non-state actors in the Syrian drug trade, which has depended to a large extent upon the Government’s severely limited capacity to exercise effective administrative and security control. However, as is evident in the case above, Government of Syria personnel and administrators are also evidently deeply involved in this trade. It is increasingly becoming apparent that these drug networks are deeply embedded in the functions (and dysfunctions) of the Syrian state itself, and it highlights the difficulty (and possible futility) of efforts to combat this trade. Considering the myriad actors involved in the business of drug production, it is likely that the drug trade will remain a key point of contention and economic competition among various groups with a nominally pro-Government alignment. As such, the illicit drug industry is likely to remain a major challenge to restoring the Government of Syria’s ability to actually enforce command and control.

8. Turkey Extends Deadline for Syrian Refugees In Istanbul Until End of October

Istanbul, Turkey: On August 21, media sources reported that Turkey has extended the deadline for unregistered Syrian refugees living in Istanbul to leave the city until October 30. As per the extension, unregistered refugees leaving Istanbul will be allowed to settle in other governorates, with the exception of southern Antalya; students and families with registered work contracts in Istanbul will be exempt from the requirement to resettle elsewhere. The Government of Turkey’s previously announced deadline was August 20, as per a statement from the Governor of Istanbul, Akram Imamoglu. Notably, prior to the extension of the deadline, throughout the past month, Turkish authorities arrested at least 6,000 unregistered Syrian refugees in the city. Media reports estimate that at least 1 million refugees reside in Istanbul, of whom only 547,479 are registered.

Analysis:  The Government of Turkey’s recent extension of the deadline for Syrian refugees to settle their legal status, albeit important to the refugees themselves, indicates no change in overall Turkish refugee policy. Turkey’s policies on Syrian refugees have put in place various structural and legal impediments that obstruct most prospects for Syrian refugees to attain housing and working permits, and subsequently a long-term status in Turkey. Most importantly, as noted in Syria Update July 18-24, anti-refugee measures in Turkey, similar to other refugee host countries, have become a national priority common among domestic actors and are increasingly regarded as a means of domestic political approval. These punitive policies are concurrent to general anti-refugee sentiments amongst the Turkish population, which will necessarily embolden anti-refugee measures. A similar fixation on labor and immigration laws is overt in countries like Lebanon, where illegal deportations and detentions have escalated dramatically. Refugees in Germany are also at risk of deportation and losing refugee status if they regularly travel to Syria. Thus, growing global political pressures are forming around the need for Syrian refugees to return to Syria, and will consequently threaten refugees’ personal security and jeopardize any prospects for their safe, voluntary, and dignified return.

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.

Sons of the Brothers: Emergent Islamic Networks in Syrian Civil Society

Sons of the Brothers: Emergent Islamic Networks in Syrian Civil Society

27 August, 2019

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Executive Summary​

At the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was widely considered one of the largest and best-organized movements in the political opposition to the Government of Syria. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was at the very center of internationally backed opposition platforms, including the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces. However, contrary to the expectations of many analysts and policymakers, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to convert its expansive international networks, fundraising, and deep engagement in the political opposition into relevance on the local level inside Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ineffectiveness in becoming locally relevant in many Syrian communities is symptomatic of a paradigm shift in which the Muslim Broterhood has been eclipsed as a relevant local actor by newly formed conservative Islamic initiatives which are ostensibly independent and often highly localized. Despite the substantial influence of conservative Islamic values in Syria, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the identity and affiliations of the emergent Islamic actors that have participated widely in the local humanitarian response to the Syria crisis.

In many Syrian communities, individuals, organizations, and social initiatives emerged from these conservative Islamic networks to fill gaps created by the conflict, often through grassroots self-organizing. Many of these actors have been considered ‘affiliated’ to some degree with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, attributions of ‘affiliation’ are overly simplistic, and the relationships between these entities and the Muslim Broterhood are highly complex. In most cases, these new entities are not formally affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Nonetheless, individual emergent actors often do retain familial, personal, or business relations to current and former Muslim Brotherhood members; this is to be expected, as much of Syria retains a conservative, predominantly Sunni Islamic, social character, and emergent actors are generally reflective of the communities in which they operate. Moreover, these emergent actors often enjoy a high degree of community acceptance, and are therefore often highly effective service providers and NGOs. Finally, in many cases these entities have served as important local partners for international humanitarian, developmental, and aid actors inside Syria.

This paper provides a preliminary framework for assessing these actors, their relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood itself, and the means by which these actors may have a role in a post-conflict Syria. It is important to note that this paper is limited in scope to an assessment of grassroots civil society initiatives; it does not assess the role of armed groups with an ostensible Islamic identity, including those which were nominally affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, this paper does not address questions of political Islam which, though valuable in their own right, are beyond the scope of the international Syria response. Finally, it bears note that although this paper is informed by academic research and interviews with members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and emergent Islamic actors themselves, the definitions employed in this paper are ‘functional’ and were thus designed to meet the needs of devleopmental and humanitarian practitioners.

This paper was compiled over the course of three months, relying primarily on publicly available data, academic studies, and key informant interviews with local stakeholders, policymakers, and figures within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and emergent Islamic networks.

What is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood?

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (hereafter, SMB) was founded in 1945 by Mustafa Al-Sibai, a protege of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna. The SMB swiftly gained traction as a social and religious movement primarily involved in welfare projects, education, and service provision, and it established itself through wide appeal to the largest constituency in Syria: the predominantly Sunni, generally conservative Syrian middle and lower classes.1 Indeed, the SMB was formed through the unification of three welfare associations that provided robust social and material support to this constituency: Dar Al-Arqam in Aleppo, Jamiyaat Al-Ghara’ in Damascus, and Jamiyaat Al-Hydaia in Homs. Like many Muslim communities throughout history, the SMB viewed Islam as a source of comprehensive guidance, if not a complete roadmap, for all aspects of life.2 Consequently, its outreach frequently involved conventional philanthropic and charitable activities, religious education, and political advocacy, generally in the interest of small-holders, disaffected rural laborers, peasants, and urban craftsmen.3

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a Political Force

Due to its large following, the SMB swiftly established itself as a potent political force, and from the time of its founding, the SMB was widely viewed as one of the best-organized challengers to Syria’s military-political establishment.4 As such, following the 1963 Syrian coup, successive Baathist regimes enacted ostensibly secular policies and tightened restrictions that effectively barred the SMB and its membership from participation in Syrian politics.5 In turn, mutual political hostility and a crackdown on the SMB’s organized activities drew it into a desultory armed struggle against Baathist security and party apparatuses, and in 1979 a faction known as the ‘Fighting Vanguard’ splintered from the SMB to embark on an insurgent campaign to destabilize and unseat the predominantly Alawite military regime.6 Anti-SMB state policy came to a head in 1980, when Law 49 made membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offense; two years later, in 1982, Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, commander of the Syrian Defense Companies, launched a brutal assault on Hama city, considered the SMB’s main stronghold in Syria, to crush the SMB once and for all. Tens of thousands were killed, detained, or displaced by the campaign. As a result, the SMB effectively lost its foothold in Syria; its activities were driven underground, and its leadership and active members were forced into exile.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Pivots Toward Liberal Coalitions

After Hama, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in exile underwent a phase shift. First, the organization lost its cohesive political orientation as many of its members refocused on commercial activities, primarily in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In exile, expansive informal networks predicated on business, family, and ideological affinities increasingly became the primary vehicle of SMB activity. Second, over time the SMB disavowed violence and sought to integrate into wide-spectrum opposition coalitions. In exile, the SMB spearheaded or joined a series of initiatives aimed at implementing liberal democratic reform in Syria, increasingly in coordination with secular and progressive dissident groups.7 However, even as a central pillar of the Syrian opposition abroad, the SMB structured its antagonism toward Syria’s political and military establishment in a way that left the door open to eventual return to Syria. For example, in 2001, the National Honor Pact placed the SMB’s adherence to democratic principles at the core of its advocacy; however, it narrowed the SMB’s opposition to the then-new regime of Bashar Al-Assad to matters of political disagreement, while tacitly recognizing the Government’s basic governing legitimacy. In 2005, the SMB chartered the short-lived Damascus Declaration for National Democrate Change, which cobbled together a coalition that included Kurdish, Assyrian, secular, and conservative opposition factions, both domestic and in exile, as a cohesive political bloc aimed at transforming Syria from a “security state… to a political state.8

Indeed, by 2009 the SMB had ceased all overt opposition activities,9 and its leadership instead pursued a return to Syria through conditional reconciliation with the Syrian regime.10 Over time, the SMB’s meandering, seemingly non-ideological approach to coalition-building made it appear opportunistic to many of its partners and former members. Nonetheless, this criticism did not change the fact the SMB’s large constituency in Syria marked it as a political force that neither the Government nor the opposition could ignore.

Thus, when the Syrian protest movement erupted in March 2011, the SMB, though formally in exile, was widely understood to be among Syria’s best-organized political actors, and it appeared well-placed to capitalize on the incipient uprising to stage a return to Syria.11 To that end, in April 2011 the SMB officially endorsed the Syrian revolution.12 Given the wide networking and substantial fundraising capacity of its members, the SMB found itself at the very center of international opposition political platforms, most notably the Syrian National Coalition, and to a lesser degree, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.13 Crucially, however, the SMB’s adeptness at organizing abroad was not matched by success mobilizing in the civil space that opened in opposition-held areas inside Syria, nor was the SMB itself active or effective in early protest movements, for example in Dar‘a or Homs cities.14 Consequently, the SMB initially played a limited direct role in local, community-driven initiatives inside Syria. To a large extent, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood failed to mobilize on the local level to provide services, humanitarian relief, or local political representation in areas that fell out of Government control. This failure, and the SMB’s overall trajectory throughout the Syrian crisis, reveals a deeper fracture within Syria’s conservative Islamic networks.

The Brotherhood ‘Core’ and ‘Emergent Islamic Networks’

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, image courtesy of

In effect, a paradigm shift has taken place among Syria’s conservative Islamic actors, both domestically and internationally, since the expulsion of the SMB in the 1980s. As a consequence of its exile, the SMB has ceased to be the preeminent political movement and civil society actor within Syria’s conservative Islamic civil and social landscape, especially on the local level. This shift has been accelerated during the ongoing Syria conflict by the SMB’s failure to uphold its basic covenant with supporters: providing welfare and services to meet the substantial local needs, implicitly in exchange for political support, or political sympathy.  This has further reduced its relevance as a cohesive organization inside Syria. Effectively, the formal SMB is now merely one network—albeit a large and influential one—within an ecosystem of effective grassroots Islamic actors and entities with varying degrees of connectedness to the SMB itself.

As such, the milieu in which the SMB exists can be said to consist of two distinct spheres. One sphere contains the organizational ‘core’ of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, primarily in exile.15 The second sphere consists of numerous conservative Islamic networks, primarily centered around local, community-based actors in Syria and their diaspora supporters; for the purpose of this paper, these can be characterized as ‘emergent Islamic networks’ (hereafter referred to as EINs).16 Effectively, these are social networks that have grown organically, partially because of the ineffectiveness of the SMB’s own civil initiatives and activities inside Syria itself. The diminished relevance of the SMB has thus compelled community-based actors to self-organize to meet local service provision, humanitarian, and political needs. As a result, the grassroots civil society initiatives, service providers, and local NGOs that formed on the basis of EINs both complement the SMB’s own limited initiatives, and compete with it over the same constituency.

The ‘Core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

The center of power within the ‘core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is the diaspora ‘old guard’. Currently, the ‘core’ SMB is centered in Istanbul and operates on two fronts. First, it provides services through a network of charity organizations and education centers based in Turkey, and it offers religious instruction and Arabic lessons, primarily targeting Syrian diaspora youth. Second, the ‘core’ group engages in opposition-in-exile political bodies, such as the Syrian National Council, a role which has been monopolized by the group’s elder leadership. The ‘core’ SMB has no formal presence inside Syria.

A defining feature of the ‘core’ SMB is its limited effectiveness in recruiting membership among generations of nominally Brotherhood-linked youth in exile; indeed, when the Syria uprising occurred, it was estimated that less than one-fifth of SMB members were younger than 45 years old.17 To a large extent, the SMB’s failure to recruit youth is due to the organization’s rigid hierarchical structure and its failure to accommodate youth actors in meaningful capacities. Notably, in 2012 the SMB created new ‘youth’ and ‘media’ offices with the explicit purpose of enticing a new generation of membership, and young SMB members were deliberately chosen to head these initiatives (Hussam Ghadban, the Vice General Observer, and Omar Mushawah, respectively). Nonetheless, several factors have impeded the SMB’s youth outreach strategy. To a significant degree, the organization remains defined by the internal and ideological schisms of its past.18 Moreover, despite (or because of) its decline as a relevant, cohesive organization, the SMB in exile remains hierarchical, and meaningful decision-making power is reportedly siloed among its traditional leadership. Finally, the organization has simply failed to appeal to new generations of conservative Syrian Muslims who grew up in comparatively liberal climates with greater access to education, employment, and political expression. It is important to note that a small number of youth actors have joined the ‘core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, including Mulham Daroubi, who was its official spokesman until 2016, but in general younger members occupy junior positions, and their numbers are limited.

Figure 1: Theoretical Sociogram of Emergent Islamic Networks and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

Emergent Islamic Networks

As noted, the diminished relevance of the SMB inside Syria left unfilled gaps in the civil space of Syria’s conservative Islamic milieu; throughout the prolonged Syria crisis, this space has largely been filled by grassroots actors operating through EINs. In effect, EINs are a subset of civil space, specifically, a conservative Islamic space. As such, EINs consist of conservative Muslim families and individuals, their collective social, professional, and personal connections, and their affiliated social groups and organizations. In the context of the Syria crisis, these networks have often coalesced organically on the basis of shared identity within a physical community; in many cases, community members in exile and those displaced by the conflict remain connected via coordination and fundraising. Frequently, actors within EINs have mobilized to create formal and informal entities to provide services and political representation, and in some cases to govern. Often, these entities are grassroots initiatives that are highly reflective of the interests of their local constituencies. However, in some cases, these emergent entities have acquired external support, become formal NGOs, and expanded to wider contexts (for example, see the Hawran People’s Association and Watan case studies below).

Connections With The SMB

In effect, EINs interact with the SMB in two distinct ways. In limited cases, they are directly connected to the ‘core’ SMB by formal affiliation, as is the case for small numbers of local Syrian NGOs. However, the vast majority of EINs have no formal connections to the SMB ‘core’; importantly, however, they remain loosely ‘linked’ to the Muslim Brotherhood through the personal relationships of EIN constituent members. Three dynamics are crucial to understanding the way EINs operate vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood: the linkages between EINs and the SMB based on family, funding, and faith; the diverse ideological streams within EINs; and the wide generational divide within Syria’s conservative milieu.

Family, Funding, and Faith

To a large extent EINs were founded by or are comprised of former members of the SMB, their relatives and children, or their personal connections or business partners. The crucial factor distinguishing these networks from the SMB itself is the fact these actors no longer have, or never had, a formal relationship with the SMB. However, many actors within EINs have relatives who remain members of the ‘core’ SMB, and many operate in business networks with individuals who have some personal relationship to the SMB. Additionally, EINs and the SMB often share social constituencies and, in many cases, external financial and political supporters with the ‘core’; this often includes linkages to Qatari and Turkish state institutions and wealthy private donors. Finally, to a significant degree, actors within EINs and the ‘core’ SMB share a fundamentally conservative social and religious identity, specifically, a Sunni Arab identity. However, there is a broad ideological spectrum within this space, and it is important to note that although these groups coexist within the same generally conservative Islamic milieu and share socio-religious values, they do not necessarily converge on political or social objectives.

Diverse Ideological Streams

As noted above, in terms of religious, social, and political ideology, EINs are not monolithic. In fact, these networks encompass numerous distinct religious and ideological streams, for example the Sufi and Sururi streams.19 Although each of these streams is to some degree conservative, some (i.e. the Sufi) are markedly liberal in comparison to the ‘core’ Muslim Brotherood, while others (i.e. the Sururi) are significantly more conservative. However, distinguishing between these streams is a fraught and exceptionally complicated exercise, and in many cases, the members or leaders of these initiatives do not formally belong to any stream. Often, multiple ideological streams are represented within a single community and its organic networks. Moreover, community initiatives regularly emphasize their independence from any formal ideology. Finally, given the competition introduced by different funding streams (among both institutional and private donors), actors’ ideologies are routinely mischaracterized by rival organizations.

Sons (and Daughters) of the Brothers

The greater capacity and more liberal social values of diaspora youth, or so-called ‘sons and daughters of the Brothers’, has significant impact on their efficacy as service implementers. In exile, a new generation of Muslim Brotherhood-adjacent youth has benefited both from wider lattitude to organize as well as greater access to education and technology; in turn, this has been reflected in their ideology and engagement in the Syria conflict. As noted above, many sons of SMB members in exile have been reluctant to join the classical streams of the SMB as a result of its rigid organizational structure and opaque, restrictive hierarchies. Instead, many in the youth diaspora, including women who have been effectively shut out of the formal SMB, have formed new entities more representative of their comparatively liberal values and capable of capitalizing on their skill sets.20 For example, in 2011, the SMB-linked youth in diaspora engaged heavily in online activism, which proved critical in the early stages of the uprising and benefited considerably from diaspora participation due to the ban on Facebook and Youtube in Syria which remained in place until February 2011, significantly limiting social media penetration inside Syria.21 Indeed, the “Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Al-Assad” Facebook page was decisive in mobilizing popular support for massive Friday protests and shaping the discourse of the early uprising movement22; among the co-founders of the page in 2011 was Fida Al-Sayed, who, though not a member of the SMB himself, is the son of an exiled former leader of the SMB. Finally, it is crucial to note that without the legacy and rigid ideology of the ‘core’ SMB groups, young and independent initiatives have had greater latitude to establish partnerships with other initiatives on the ground.23

Case Studies

Image courtesy of Hawran People’s Association.

Below are three case studies that show the role played by actors within specific emergent Islamic networks in the Syria crisis. These case studies involve: the Hawran People’s Association, a grassroots NGO that emerged to meet local service needs in Dar‘a; the Syrian Business Forum, an international platform that engaged in high-level leadership within Syria’s political opposition; and Watan Foundation, an NGO founded by technocratic members of the Syrian diaspora. To a degree, each case study shows the organizational capacity of Emergent Islamic Networks in building effective grassroots entities and mobilizing funding and political support along personal, business, and families ties. Importantly, they also illustrate the engagement that international donors, development actors, and INGOs have already had with emergent Islamic networks.

Two further points are worth noting: first, many emergent Islamic actors face access and funding challenges due to their informal, personal relations to SMB members; notably, this reputational risk exists even when no formal connections to the SMB exist. Second, and most critically, these case studies show that emergent Islamic actors are important within Syrian civil space; ultimately, EINs effectively represent or serve large portions of Syrian society as a whole. In many cases, local communities, international development agencies, and INGOs, have relied on these actors to deliver humanitarian programming and fill vital service gaps created by the Syria conflict.

Hawran People’s Association (Rabitat Ahel Hawran) - Local Actors Formalize Operations

The Hawran People’s Association (Rabitat Ahel Hawran) is a Syrian ‘international’ NGO that was founded as a social association in Istanbul in 2011.24 The founders of the Hawran People’s Association were religious figures and businessmen who collaborated on the basis of two shared traits: personal and familial connections to the Hawran region (which spans rural Dar‘a Governorate); and a conservative Islamic identity. Initially, the organization was run by local staff in Dar’a with relatively limited technically experience, and it concentrated on basic humanitarian aid and religious education. Although conservative Islamic identity was reportedly a de facto requirement for staff hiring, beneficiary selection reportedly remained impartial, and programming decisions were also reportedly made without respect to religion. Until approximately 2015, the considerable fundraising of the Hawran People’s Association was based primarily on the outreach of Hawrani clerics, including an ex-member of the SMB who enjoyed significant reach among wealthy private donors, primarily in Kuwait and Qatar. However, as this shifted to institutional and grant-based funding, the organization formalized and redirected its programming into six specific sectors: health, education, food, water, shelter, and security. Nonetheless, this shift also entailed a risk: rival NGOs publicized the perceived closeness between the SMB and the Hawran People’s Association in an attempt to discredit it. When the Government restored control over southern Syria in 2018, many members of the Hawran Peoples Association were forcibly evacuated to northern Syria, and the organization ceased its operations in southern Syria; it now solely operates from Turkey, primarily implementing programming in northwest Syria, especially in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas.

Why it matters: Two key dynamics that are critical to understanding the role of Emergent Islamic Networks in the Syria conflict are visible the trajectory of the Hawran People’s Association: its early professionalization and the persistent accusations that it had linkages to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. First, the shift in funding from an individual donor basis to an institutional, grant basis reportedly catalyzed a more formalized institutional ‘reform’ within Hawran People’s Association. Notably, the Hawran People’s Association began as a bottom-up, grassroots organization of local actors with limited technical experience and capacity; however, through the family and tribal ties of its members, it enjoyed a high degree of community acceptance. As the conflict wore on and individual donor fatigue set in, the Hawran People’s Association transitioned to a formalized NGO structure, with clear programmatic priorities and procedures. This shift was also driven by the organization’s desire to enter formal partnerships with other grassroots organizations, NGOs, and civil society actors in southern Syria. Second, the Hawran People’s Association experienced reputational damage as a result of accusations that it was an arm of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. These accusations deterred potential donors and resulted in heavy monitoring of and restrictions on its activities, particularly in Jordan; however, the primary leadership figures within the Hawran People’s Association deny having formal relationships with the SMB.

Syrian Business Forum - Diaspora Community Leads Political Opposition

Image courtesy of Syrian Forum.

The Syrian Business Forum began in 2012 as a platform for conservative Syrian businessmen willing to engage politically in the Syria uprising. Its principal objective was to mobilize resources for projects to improve the quality of life in Syria as the Government responded to the protest movement with increasing military force. The Syrian Business Forum was primarily comprised of conservative, religious businessmen who had ties to SMB-linked business networks; however, few of its members were known to be close to the SMB. However, reportedly most members of the Syrian Business Forum were outside the SMB ‘core’ group, and several of its members had an overtly hostile relationship with the SMB; indeed, according to some sources the SMB actively resisted the formation of the Syrian Business Forum. The Syrian Business Forum primarily supported local actors undertaking humanitarian work and local governance, and to a large extent it competed with the SMB over the same constituency. To this end, the Syrian Business Forum was an early supporter of the Local Administration Councils Unit, prior to establishment of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the Syrian Interim Government. In time, the Syrian Business Forum and its later offshoot, the Syrian Forum, became deeply involved in Syrian opposition governance projects that were based in Turkey and widely supported by the international donor community. Indeed, the head of the Syrian Forum, Ghassan Hito, eventually served as the first Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government. Moreover, Mustafa Al-Sabbagh, a Syrian businessman and a leader in the Syrian Business Forum, served as General Secretary of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Like most members of the Syrian Business Forum, both Sabagh and Hito are from families linked to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but have never themselves been open members.

Why it matters: The Syrian Business Forum’s involvement in the Syria crisis demonstrates three key dynamics. First, the group’s activities call attention to the essential role that conservative Syrian business networks play in socio-political organization at the highest levels in the Syrian response. Businessmen, especially conservative businessmen who have some professional links to the SMB in exile, have been highly successful in establishing and supporting social, economic, religious, and political initiatives in Syria, and many of these actors remain involved in some form of civil society or grassroots organization. Second, the forum faced routine accusations that it was a branch of the ‘core’ SMB itself. However, the Syrian Business Forum publicly adopted and advocated progressive political and social values; moreover, the ‘core’ SMB resisted its formation, likely fearing rivalry over a shared constituency. Nonetheless, the family, personal, or economic ties that linked many members of the Syrian Business Forum to the SMB led to the perception that it was in fact an appendage of the SMB. Third, and most crucially, international support to entities linked to the Syrian Business Forum and sharing membership with it, to include the Local Administration Councils Unit, Etilaf, and the Syrian Interim Government, demonstrates that Emergent Islamic Networks are crucial actors within broad initiatives which international actors already support to a considerable degree.

Watan Foundation - Diaspora ‘Sons’ Bring Technical Capacity to the Syria Response

Image courtesy of Watan Foundation.

Watan Foundation was established in June 2012 in Istanbul as an umbrella entity unifying multiple technical, civil society, media, capacity-building, and humanitarian initiatives; its explicit goal is to serve as the preferred local implementing partner for international donors and aid agencies in Syria. Overwhelmingly, Watan’s founders were Syrian diaspora technical professionals with experience in Turkey, Jordan, and Gulf states (primarily Saudi Arabia). Notably, many of these founding members belong to families that are historically highly influential within the SMB, including Al-Sibai, Sayyed Omar, Zain Al-Abdien, Bakkar, and Hamdo families.25 Like the Hawran People’s Association, Watan initially drew much of its funding from private donors in Gulf states, while Turkey continues to host most of its activities, including its large annual conferences. Nonetheless, these funding streams institutionalized over time. Thus, Watan is now often considered one of the most technically capable Syrian ‘international’ NGOs, it receives significant support from foreign donors and development agencies, and it is a primary local partner for numerous INGO, developmental, and humanitarian projects, primarily in northwest Syria.

Why it matters: Watan is widely viewed as one of the most successful Syrian-run civil initiatives, in terms of access, local effectiveness, and viability as a long-term partner. To a considerable degree, Watan’s organizational success has been the result of its place within diaspora and youth Emergent Islamic Networks. In particular, Watan has drawn on the technical expertise of its Syrian diaspora founders and early membership; this includes staff with subject matter expertise in technical fields as well as often overlooked areas critical to building viable partner institutions, such as finance and business. Nonetheless, the participation of emergent Islamic actors also entailed reputational vulnerability, and rivals to Watan have routinely characterized it as a front for the SMB. The ‘starting point’ for Watan’s founding membership was a network of trusted families from Hama, Homs, Dar‘a, and Aleppo with traditional or historical ties to the SMB, although no Watan members are known to be active or open members in the SMB. Nonetheless, conservative social values, family ties, and political orientation provided a successful module for building an effective service-oriented organization, without necessarily sacrificing humanitarian principles such as impartiality.


As one of Syria’s best-organized civil society actors, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a leading role in the political opposition during the early stages of the Syria uprising, where its core leadership participated at the highest levels in Western-backed opposition initiatives. However, its role in the humanitarian response, local service provision, and emergent civil space inside Syria was comparatively modest. Indeed, in many communities in Syria, the formal Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, in exile since the early 1980s, was absent, ineffective, or functionally irrelevant. However, on a local level, individuals, organizations, and social initiatives that emerged from the same conservative Islamic milieu as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood filled these gaps, often through bottom-up, grassroots self-organizing. These actors often have familial, personal, and business relations to communities of current and former Muslim Brotherhood members in exile; in many cases, they draw funding and support from the same international networks used by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. It is important to reiterate that the SMB is, by its nature, a secretive organization; as such, confirming the precise affiliations of an organization or an individual to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is all but impossible. However, many, if not most, of these actors are functionally and formally independent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their activities have on some occassions been perceived as hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

Concern on the part of development actors, international donors, and INGOs over the linkage between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and local humanitarian organizations and social initiatives in Syria is warranted. This is both a political consideration and—potentially—a legal risk; in April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his administration would seek to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated a Foreign Terror Organization by the U.S. State Department, an initiative that has not yet occurred as of this writing. It is important to note, however, that the reach and effectiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria has been exaggerated, both by the organization itself (to increase its own profile), and by its detractors (in an attempt to discredit competitors for funding, or the political opposition more generally). Ultimately, it is crucial that actors intervening in Syria recognize that much of the Syrian population remains fundamentally conservative, and Sunni Muslims of the lower and middle classes are the largest constituency in Syria. As a result, in many communities self-organized initiatives that reflect local dynamics are likely to have a conservative character, if not an overtly Islamic one, which will to some degree intersect with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood itself.

However, opportunities for principled engagement in this space do exist.  Many emergent actors with a fundamentally conservative character are committed, at least nominally, to liberal principles, democratic values, and religious and ethnic pluralism. Most importantly, supporting these actors offers a potential lever of influence over wider networks; support to these actors can strengthen their relative position, and they are likely to transmit their values to other actors within their constituent networks of personal, familial, and business connections. Finally, many of these actors have already received, and continue to receive, considerable support from Western aid agencies, and they are often among the most effective local partners for developmental and humanitarian actors on the local level.

The future role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria is an open question. Whether it will seek to collaborate with, or to co-opt, effective actors with community acceptance, access, and effectiveness it lacks itself is unclear. Emergent actors, however, are likely to exist in some form in Syria both locally and among the Syrian diaspora for the foreseeable future. Currently, these entities are crucial actors in northwest Syria, and they remain important partners in refugee host nations, especially Turkey. A conservative Islamic constituency is deeply entrenched inside Syria, and the Government of Syria itself is keenly interested in asserting greater influence over the way a distinctly ‘Syrian’ Sunni Islam manifests itself. This is likely to have a considerable impact on the way civil society actors, religious charities, and faith-based initiatives are allowed to operate in Government-controlled areas in the future. It is possible that emergent Islamic entities will operate under the auspices of state institutions (including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Endowments Ministry); other actors, however, may continue to operate underground, grow and evolve along liberal or conservative lines, or work from exile, just as previous generations of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood operated. How emergent actors navigate this space and respond to or resist new constraints will thus be determined by the degree of control the Government is able to impose, and the degree to which emergent Islamic networks are able to access new support structures.

Key Takeaways

  1. Conservative Islamic identity is a fundamental aspect of Syrian civil society; international humanitarian and developmental actors should consider emergent Islamic actors to be viable potential partners. Notably, throughout the Syria conflict, actors with a conservative Islamic identity emerged in a grassroots, bottom-up manner in communities across Syria. As such, they are broadly representative of local community dynamics; in many cases they are the most effective actors present; and they have had substantial influence and high degree of community acceptance. Especially in Euphrates Shield and Olives Branch areas, these entities play a crucial role in stabilization and governance; crucially, many are already directly and indirectly supported by numerous developmental and humanitarian actors.

  2. When working with conservative or religious organizations, donors and INGOs must recognize that the label “Islamic” is highly nuanced. Throughout the Syria conflict, local community actors have relied on personal, familial, and business relationships to support grassroots initiatives to meet their needs. These entities share a generally conservative Islamic identity, but their members embrace a wide range of ideological views, and most of these entities are explicitly supportive of secular, democratic, and humanistic values. In fact, the desire to break away from the ineffective and ideolgoically rigid formal ‘core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood directly contributed to the growth of many emergent Islamic entities. Developmental actors intervening in this complex environment must recognize that a wide spectrum of views and ideologies exists.

  3. Critically, not all emergent Islamic entities that have filled the gaps created by the conflict can or should be funded. Some emergent Islamic actors cannot be engaged by Western developmental and humanitarian actors due to ethical, political, or potential legal concerns. However, many actors in this space are effective and viable partners, and programmers must recognize that personal relationships are not determinant, and they do not define the activities of these actors or their coordinate entities. 

  4. Supporting emergent actors is one means of shaping their trajectory and values, both internally and within the wider conservative networks. Emergent Islamic actors both receive ideas from other actors, and share their own values with other entities in their networks. Entities that receive support grow stronger and transmit their values, ideology, and ideals throughout the broader emergent Islamic network; those that are not supported dissolve, or are co-opted by other actors. Thus, programmatic decisions to engage emergent Islamic actors can have a multiplier effect. Importantly, support is not only monetary; political and logistical support, education, and trainings are also valuable, and can be vehicles to impart or strengthen specific values. Finally, funding streams should be structured in a way that promotes collaboration within these networks, rather than competition. Indeed, competition over funding has been a key driver of internal competition and spurious accusations of linkage to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the part of ‘rival’ actors.

  5. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a stigmatized, secretive organization; its membership is essentially unknown; and accusations of affiliation are both unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Many emergent Islamic actors have been accused of affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood by peer organizations (including others of a conservative character) vying for the same competitive funding streams through both private and institutional donors. Ultimately, these accusations are a product of competition, largely as a result of the funding conventions adopted by donors themselves. Importantly, donor funding streams and external support should be structured explicitly to encourage collaboration, rather than competition within these networks.

  6. In general, the atomization of the Syria response has diminished the effectiveness of external support; as above, donor engagement should encourage collaboration not only among conservative Islamic actors themselves, but between these actors and secular, progressive, and multi-ethnic entities. It is crucial that donors and developmental actors create incentives for conservative Islamic entities to operate collaboratively outside their immediate networks. Notably, these actors have a long track record of pragmatic coalition-building, and wide-spectrum partnerships are one of the defining features of the youth conservative Islamic networks. As such, partnerships with entities to include secular and non-ideological civil society actors should be encouraged.

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.

Syria Update: August 08 – August 21, 2019

Syria Update

August 08 to August 21, 2019

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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 August 7, the U.S. Embassy in Turkey announced that U.S. and Turkish military delegations had agreed to establish a ‘safe zone’ along the Turkey-Syria border in northeast Syria. As of August 20, the U.S. and Turkey continue to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Although all proposals for the ‘safe zone’ reportedly envision some limited withdrawal of the YPG from border areas with Turkey, fundamental aspects such as the depth of the ‘safe zone’ remain unresolved. It is notable that the negotiations have, to a considerable extent, reprised the steps of the failed Menbij roadmap process, through which Turkey and the U.S. agreed to conduct joint patrols in YPG-controlled Menbij. Given the divergence of the U.S. and Turkish proposals vis-à-vis the tentative ‘safe zone’ agreement, the most urgent question now concerns Turkey’s willingness to compromise as negotiations with the U.S. continue. Concerning implementation of any agreement, it should be noted that the withdrawal and disarmament of armed groups is by no means a simple task, and the YPG itself is not the only actor of potential concern to Turkey. More fundamentally, a ‘safe zone’ agreement is unlikely to resolve the most pressing of Turkey’s ‘existential’ concerns over Syria: the emergence of a functionally autonomous, heavily armed Kurdish polity that it views as an existential threat. In a sense, the implementation of a ‘safe zone’ may actually recognize and legitimate that entity.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  1. On August 20, Government of Syria forces entered Khan Sheikhoun; as Government forces continue to advance in northwest Syria, Turkey may be compelled to provide increasing support to armed opposition groups, or risk losing further ground to the Syrian Government and its allies.
  2. On August 15, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham downed a Syrian Government jet. Increasingly, airstrikes have emerged as a Government strategy to depopulate civilian areas, and the Response Coordination Group stated that between August 5 and August 19 aerial bombardment had displaced 141,000 people in northwest Syria.
  3. The leadership of the Kurdish National Coalition is now openly lobbying for greater international support; heightened competition among Syrian Kurdish political factions may be among the outcomes of the tentative U.S.-Turkish ‘safe zone’ agreement for northeast Syria.
  4. On August 8, the Syrian cabinet approved an amendment to Investment Law No. 8. Notably, the amendment will guarantee investments made in Syrian reconstruction, and it is likely to entice war economy actors to invest their money inside Syria.
  5. Russia and Turkey have conducted their first joint patrol of Tal Rifaat. Notably, Tal Rifaat remains under YPG control, and capturing the area is a key Turkish objective, which is likely to remain, for now, beyond its grasp.
  6. Local sources indicate that deadly raids on rural communities are increasingly common in Government-held Ar-Raqqa Governorate. General lawlessness is increasingly taking shape as a feature of remote areas under nominal Government authority, and the raids may inflame existing inter-communal or tribal tensions.
  7. A private Iranian company is planning to build a new commercial seaport in Hamidiya, in southern Tartous Governorate. The construction of the new port should be considered to be a component of the broader Iranian strategy of building infrastructure linkages across Iraq and the Levant.
  8. On August 14, media sources reported that a local activist in Kafr Nabul, Samer Al-Saloum, was killed in a Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham prison. The killing is significant due to Saloum’s prominence and as an indicator of the degree to which local communities in northwest Syria continue to resist HTS control.

U.S. and Turkey Agree to Establish* Northeast Syria ‘Safe Zone’

In Depth Analysis

On August 7, the U.S. Embassy in Turkey announced that U.S. and Turkish military delegations had agreed to establish a ‘safe zone’ (which will, according to the statement, become a ‘peace corridor’) along the Turkey-Syria border in northeast Syria. Few concrete details regarding the agreement—including fundamental aspects such as the depth of the ‘safe zone’ and the partial withdrawal or disarmament of YPG combatants in border areas—have been publicly released. The statement did note that the U.S. and Turkey agreed to “the rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns,” and to create a “joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together.” As of August 20, limited steps toward implementing the terms of the agreement have already been made. On August 12, American military advisors arrived in Sanliurfa to establish the joint operations center, and unmanned Turkish surveillance aircraft are now reportedly in operation over areas of northeast Syria. However, despite signs of early progress, U.S. and Turkish visions for the ‘safe zone’ are highly divergent, and it remains to be seen how or when the most contentious points of disagreement will be resolved.

In effect, Turkey’s demands for the ‘safe zone’ amount to a dismantling of Kurdish military and civil administrative power in northeast Syria. According to media sources close to the Turkish state, Tukey’s demands include: the complete removal of YPG combatants from the ‘safe zone’ area; that the U.S. cease arms transfers to, and military cooperation with, the YPG; and, most provocatively, that the Syrian Arab and Turkman ‘majority’ be placed at the head of local administrative entities in towns and villages currently operating under the aegis of the Kurdish Self Administration. Moreover, on August 16, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated that Turkey remains adamant that YPG combatants withdraw from an area extending as far as 40 km south of the Syria-Turkey border.

By contrast, on August 14, a leaked American ‘safe zone’ proposal appeared in Turkish media. The report is impossible to confirm independently; however, the proposal has now been widely cited, and it states that the U.S. envisions the withdrawal of YPG combatants from areas within 5 km south of the Syria-Turkey border, where Turkish and American troops will undertake joint patrols. Moreover, the proposal reportedly calls for the establishment of two additional security belts south of the 5-km ‘safe zone’. Accordingly, U.S. troops and YPG combatants stripped of heavy weapons will jointly patrol a security belt stretching between 5 and 14 km from the Syria-Turkey border. Finally, a third security belt relegated to the YPG alone would extend a further 4 km south, also with restrictions on heavy weapons. Crucially, the proposal calls for local military councils, not Turkish troops, to patrol populated areas, including those located in border areas.

Given the divergence of the two proposals, the most urgent question vis-à-vis the tentative ‘safe zone’ agreement now concerns Turkey’s willingness to compromise in further negotiations with the U.S. It is important to note that the U.S. and Turkey remain NATO allies; as such, Syria is merely one issue—albeit an important one which Turkey views as an ‘existential’ concern—within a multifaceted global partnership. However, numerous factors complicate the ongoing efforts to negotiate a northeast ‘safe zone’ agreement. Most notably, in June 2018 the U.S. and Turkey reached a similar agreement to conduct joint patrols in YPG-controlled Menbij, in northern Aleppo. Despite hopes that swift implementation of the deal would allay Turkey’s concerns regarding the presence of the YPG in Syria and augur improved Turkish-American cooperation, the roll-out of the so-called Menbij roadmap still remains incomplete more than a year later. Indeed, the failure of the Menbij process is a persistent source of consternation for Turkish officials, and it continues to guide Turkish negotiations over the northeast Syria ‘safe zone’. Further complicating negotiations, the long-term trajectory of U.S. military involvement in Syria itself is highly uncertain, notwithstanding attempts by American policymakers to link the continued presence of U.S. forces in northeast Syria to a wider strategy to confront Iran regionally. Finally, it is crucial to note that in the end, U.S. decision-making on Syria is ultimately the remit of one person: U.S. President Donald Trump.

Concerning the practical implementation of any ‘safe zone’ agreement, it is crucial to note that in the context of the Syria conflict, the withdrawal and disarmament of armed groups is by no means a simple task. U.S. forces operate in extremely close coordination with the SDF (and through it, the YPG) in northeast Syria; however, the YPG itself is not the only actor of potential concern to Turkey. Turkey has consistently accused nominally independent sleeper cells linked to the YPG of bombings and armed attacks that have targeted parts of northern Aleppo and Afrin since they were captured by Turkish-backed armed opposition groups. Moreover, Turkey’s own inability to force armed opposition groups to withdraw from the demilitarized buffer zone in northwest Syria is a signal indicator of the limitations of the command and control now being asked of the U.S. vis-à-vis the YPG in the northeast. More fundamentally, in the long term, a ‘safe zone’ agreement is unlikely to resolve the most pressing of Turkey’s concerns: the emergence of a functionally autonomous, heavily armed Kurdish polity that it views as an existential threat. In a sense, the implementation of a ‘safe zone’ may actually recognize and legitimate that entity, albeit further south.

Whole of Syria Review

MAP 08.21.2019_FINAL

1. Government Forces Enter Khan Sheikhoun as Turkey Redoubles Support of Armed Groups in Idleb

On August 20, Government of Syria forces entered the western outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idleb, following intense clashes with Turkish-backed armed opposition groups. The offensive continues to develop rapidly; however, as of August 20, armed opposition groups have reportedly withdrawn from Khan Sheikhoun and redeployed to the few communities that remain under opposition control in northern Hama, including Kafr Zeita, Latamina, and Morek. Consequently, the complete capture of Khan Sheikhoun by Government forces is now expected imminently. To a large extent, the Government’s capture of Khan Sheikhoun is the most notable outcome of intensifying clashes that are the result of greater direct and indirect military participation by Russia, Turkey, and—to a lesser degree—Iran since the conclusion of the Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) on August 1 and 2. In the two weeks since the summit concluded, Government forces have captured at least 14 frontline communities in an offensive that has been aided by Russian airstrikes on opposition-held communities and, reportedly, the direct (but limited) military participation of Hezbollah in Idleb for the first time. In response, Turkey has dramatically heightened its own support for armed opposition factions in northwest Syria. As of August 18, the two largest Turkish-backed armed opposition platforms, the National Liberation Front and National Army, had created a joint operations room and redeployed with medium and heavy weapons to the frontlines with Government forces in southern Idleb. Additionally, on August 19, Turkey dispatched multiple military convoys to re-equip its allies on the ground. In a highly provocative response, on August 19, Syrian Government aircraft launched an airstrike against armed opposition figures traveling with the convoy, reportedly killing three people, and injuring 12 others. On August 20, the Turkish Defense Ministry condemned the strike, and Turkish officials say they reserve the right to retaliate.

Analysis: Despite statements by many analysts on the strategic value of the capture of Khan Sheikhoun, by far the most critical dimension of the latest offensive in northwest Syria is the drastically heightened participation of Turkey, and, to a lesser degree, Russia and Iran. In fact, since the August 5 collapse of the ceasefire agreement negotiated in Nur-Sultan, each of the three so-called Astana powers has, to a degree, redoubled its military participation in northwest Syria. As a result, earlier questions over Russia’s willingness to provide air support to the Syrian Government’s continued offensive are, for the moment, moot. Moreover, the reported presence of Hezbollah alongside Government forces may signal Iran’s readiness to lend much-needed ground support to relieve overstretched Government forces. However, to a large extent, the trajectory of the intensifying military offensive in northwest Syria will be determined by the ability of Turkish-backed armed opposition groups to establish new, more defensible frontlines with Syrian Government forces. In this context, the fate of increasingly isolated communities still held by Turkish-backed armed groups in northern Hama, as well as the Turkish observation post at Morek, is now an open question. However, like the other international actors who are now deeply involved in the military offensive in northwest Syria, Turkey is likely to continue to provide substantial reinforcements and military support to its local partners, or risk losing even more ground to the Government of Syria and its allies.

2. HTS Downs Syrian Government Jet as Aerial Bombardment Displaces 141,000 in Idleb

Al-Teman’a, Idleb Governorate: On August 19, the Response Coordination Group stated that 141,000 individuals have been displaced by the Government of Syria and Russian airstrikes that have continuously targeted communities in southern Idleb and northern Hama since August 5, when the ceasefire agreement negotiated at the Nur-Sultan conference collapsed. Numerous communities, including Khan Sheikhoun, are now largely, if not entirely, depopulated as a result of the aerial bombardment; reportedly, IDPs have largely relocated to heavily populated border areas with Turkey. According to the Response Coordination Group, 85 civilians have been killed in the latest round of bombardment, which has continued to target schools, hospitals, markets, and religious buildings, where civilians often shelter. Relatedly, on August 15, a Government of Syria SU-22 fighter jet was shot down near Taman’a in southern Idleb. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham claimed the downing of the warplane, and announced that it had captured the Syrian pilot. Notably, the last time armed opposition forces downed a Government aircraft was in March 2018.

Analysis: The downing of a Syrian Government jet is highly noteworthy, as the ability to conduct airstrikes on opposition-held communities with near impunity has been a pillar of the Government of Syria’s military strategy throughout the conflict. Indeed, the Government drastically intensified its aerial bombardment of northwest Syria in July 2019; since then, the forcible depopulation of frontline communities through intense airstrikes has emerged as a key precursor to the advance of Government ground forces. The timing of the downing is highly suggestive; although it remains unclear where HTS acquired the surface-to-air missiles used to down the Syrian Government jet, the incident coincides with Turkey’s most robust efforts yet to equip and unify armed opposition groups to repel Government assaults on frontlines in northwestern Syria. Additionally, the Government’s loss of an aircraft is notable in its own right. The Government of Syria’s aircraft fleet is modest, and militarily, it is already highly dependent upon Russian technical support (and, indeed, direct Russian air support). Although there are no signs the Government has yet curtailed its aerial bombardment in response to the downing, the loss of further aircraft would almost certainly prompt the Government to revise its indiscriminate use of airstrikes in northwest Syria.

3. Opposition Kurdish Faction Lobbies for International Support, Risking Kurdish Rift

Quamishli, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On August 19, Kurdish media reported that Fouad Alleko, a leader in the Kurdish National Coalition (ENKS), stated that the ENKS is now lobbying international and regional powers, including the U.S., Russia, and Turkey, to support a more prominent role for the ENKS in northeast Syria. Alleko stated that the ENKS seeks to “have an active role in the Kurdish-majority areas in terms of security and administration, especially given that the Council has a well-trained military force [i.e. the Rojava Peshmerga] and can fill the resulting vacuum” if the U.S.-Turkey ‘safe zone’ agreement is implemented. Although it is currently a minority political coalition, the ENKS is the most credible challenger to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which exercises a near monopoly on Kurdish politics in northeast Syria; notably, the ENKS includes parties that are linked to both of Iraq’s leading Kurdish political movements (the KDP and PUK), and it is the sole Kurdish representative within the Turkish-based National Coalition for Revolution and Opposition Forces. However, as a rival to the PYD, the ENKS has been almost entirely shut out of local politics in northeast Syria, and, as a result, it draws a considerable degree of its continuing relevance from its role in the Syrian political opposition and from its external relations with Turkey.

Analysis: Inter-party rivalries between Kurdish political movements are not new. Indeed, for much of the Syria conflict, ENKS members have been barred by the PYD from contesting local elections in northeast Syria, and in some cases, they have been arrested; on rare occasions YPG and Peshmerga forces have clashed. However, the tentative agreement between Turkey and the U.S. to implement a ‘safe zone’ in northeast Syria may present an inflection point in the trajectory of Syrian Kurdish politics. In effect, the ‘safe zone’ agreement is driven by Turkey’s desire to prevent the establishment of a strong Kurdish polity that it cannot control or co-opt, as it has done in with the KDP in Iraq. In contrast to the PYD, the ENKS has relatively strong links to Turkey and Iraqi Kurdish political movements, as well as the United States, through training and joint military operations with the Rojava Peshmerga. The ENKS is now publicly seeking to position itself as a credible partner to the international community, as well as potential supporters in northeast Syria. In general, local support for the PYD is pragmatic, rather than strictly ideological, and if the ENKS is capable of framing itself as a viable and sustainable alternative to the PYD, it is likely to succeed in attracting greater local support. As a result, if recent efforts to bridge the divide among Syrian Kurdish parties falter, crackdowns on the ENKS by PYD-linked security forces in the form of arrests and further restrictive measures remain a distinct possibility. To that end, fractured Kurdish internal politics will only further contribute to the growing instability in northeastern Syria, which is already fraught by serious, and growing, Kurdish-Arab tensions.

4. Key Syrian Investment Law Revised, Potentially Paving Way for Reconstruction Investment

Damascus: On August 8, media sources reported that a new amendment to Investment Law No. 8 was approved by the cabinet on August 5. The amendment is primarily concerned with encouraging private investment in the industrial and real estate sector. Thus far, the exact stipulations of the new amendment remain unclear; however, the amendment will reportedly give private investors tax breaks for investments in Syrian industrial or real estate projects, new legal protections from security service interference, and guarantees even if the investment project is a failure. The new amendment has been under discussion since March this year, when the Minister of Economy objected to some of its provisions, specifically the tax exemptions.

Analysis: Syrian investment law was originally modified during the 1990s, and was further amended and expanded during the early 2000s. In the past, Syrian investment laws were passed as part of a liberalizing reform package; they frequently amounted to a mechanism by which private businessmen invested in and ‘privatized’ what were previously state assets. However, the purpose of the amendment to Law No. 8 is likely twofold: first, it is a means to facilitate private investment for reconstruction in Syria by granting assurances and concessions to private investors. Second, it is also likely a mechanism through which many of Syria’s warlords, militia leaders, and war economy profiteers who have garnered considerable financial assets over the past eight years will be able to legally (and, theoretically, safely) partake in Syria’s reconstruction. Thus, the amendment to the investment law is likely to serve a similar purpose to previous investment laws; it will both generate funds, as well as bind Syria’s economic elite closer to the state itself.

5. Russia and Turkey Conduct First Joint Patrol in Tal Rifaat

Tal Rifaat, Aleppo Governorate: On August 15, media sources reported that Turkey and Russia conducted a joint military patrol near Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo. Tal Rifaat and the surrounding countryside form an isolated enclave that remains under YPG control, and capturing the area is a strategic priority for Turkey. In early May, Turkish-backed forces launched an offensive to capture Tal Rifaat; in the ensuing months, clashes between the YPG and National Army factions around Tal Rifaat have been frequent, but repeated attempts by Turkish-backed armed groups to infiltrate the city have failed, and the Turkish-supported offensive has stalled. Notably, Russia and Turkey have conducted joint patrols in other contexts, including in western Menbij, and inside the Idleb demilitarized zone.

Analysis: The joint Russian-Turkish patrol in Tal Rifaat is highly noteworthy. As noted above, taking control of Tal Rifaat is a major priority for Turkey; many of the asymmetric attacks that take place in northern Aleppo and Afrin are reportedly conducted by Kurdish sleeper cells that are allegedly supported by the YPG in Tal Rifaat. Moreover, the start of the Government of Syria’s Idleb offensive was nearly simultaneous with the initial Turkish-backed offensive on Tal Rifaat in early May; past COAR Syria Updates noted the possibility that this was coordinated in some way, potentially as part of a ‘land swap’ in which Turkey would take control of Tal Rifaat and the Government of Syria, with Russan support, would take control of part of northwestern Syria. However, considering the fact that the northwestern Syria offensive has now become an issue of deep significance to both Turkey and Russia, it is unclear to what degree Tal Rifaat remains a major immediate Turkish priority. To that end, conducting joint patrols offers both Turkey and Russia a means of halting, at least temporarily, any major confrontations in Tal Rifaat, especially so long as the situation in northwestern Syria remains in flux.

6. Militia Raids Signal Increasing Lawless in Government-held Ar-Raqqa

Laweideh, Southern Ar-Raqqa Governorate: On August 15, local sources reported that between six and nine members of a single family, the Othman family, were killed during a dawn raid on Laweideh village, a small village south of the Euphrates River in the rural Ar-Raqqa countryside. According to local sources, the raiders were reportedly members of a local pro-Government National Defense Forces (NDF) group. Reportedly, the raid had no political motive, and was instead motivated by material concerns; the NDF group reportedly stole five vehicles, numerous sheep, and other valuables. The Othman family claims that as many as 19 villagers were killed in the incident, but local sources were unable to independently confirm this figure. Reportedly, the NDF has threatened the village with similar raids in the past, and deadly raids are increasingly common in Government-held rural Ar-Raqqa Governorate. Indeed, local sources report that in the past month, two people were killed and a commercial truck was stolen in a similar raid in Hadaij, while in the remote village of Kenbaj, two farmers were killed, and their vehicles and crops valued at approximately 6 million Syrian pounds were stolen. Also, the Syrian 4th Division has reportedly engaged in semi-regular clashes with the NDF in the region in order to put an end to the increasingly lawless local groups.

Analysis: The increasing occurrence of deadly raids in rural Ar-Raqqa Governorate is emblematic of the lawlessness that is now deeply entrenched in much of rural northeastern Syria. Government-held northeastern Syria, especially rural Ar-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor, is marginal and increasingly under the sway of local militias and armed actors. Indeed, even militias that are nominally loyal to the Government contribute significantly to the lack of security in the rural areas of Ar-Raqqa; this is evidenced by the fact that the 4th Division has apparently attempted to impose control over these NDF groups to no avail. The current general lawlessness of Government-held northeastern Syria has deep implications for the future stability of the region. As noted, according to local sources, the latest raids do not have an overtly political or tribal motivation; however, it is important to note that tribal identity remans fundamental in most Arab communities in northeast Syria, and the NDF militias are often themselves local. Therefore, while the raids appear to have been carried out as a means of generating income, they may inflame local and tribal tensions, which may have a deep local impact lasting for the foreseeable future.

7. Iran and Syria Plan New ‘Multi-Purpose’ Commercial Seaport in Tartous

Hamidiya, Tartous Governorate, Syria: On August 16, local and media sources reported that Syrian officials met with an Iranian company, ‘Seal of the Prophet,’ in the Hamidiya area of southern Tartous, near the Lebanese border. The meeting was conducted in order to discuss the establishment of a ‘multipurpose port’ on the Mediterranean Sea. The port will reportedly be operated by ‘Seal of the Prophet’ for a period of 30-40 years. Reportedly, the company is known to have a close relationship with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps; indeed, it is often referred to as an economic arm of the group.

Analysis: Control over seaports has emerged as a key economic interest of both Russia and Iran in post-conflict Syria, largely due to the fact that access to the Mediteranean is a key economic motivation for both countries. The location of the Iranian port in Hamidiya is especially strategically important, as the port will likely link to the rail connections in the vicinity of Hamidiya, thus linking the port to the rest of Syria. As noted in past Syria Updates, Iran has prioritized investment in Syrian railways, and has pushed for a rail connection linking Iran to Syria through Iraq. Thus, the construction of the Hamidiya port should be considered a component of the broader Iranian strategy of building infrastructural linkages across Iraq and into the Levant, with the purpose of linking Iranian markets to the Medditeranean basin. Additionally, the contract duration of 30-40 years is a further clear indication that Iran intends to pursue this strategy for the long term.

8. Activist Killed in HTS Prison, Renewing Questions Over HTS’s Local ‘Popularity’

Kafr Nabul, Idleb Governorate: On August 14, media sources reported that a local activist, Samer Al-Saloum, was killed in a Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham prison. Reportedly, Saloum’s death occurred approximately a year and a half after he was arrested by the group. However, the exact date of Saloum’s death remains unknown, although it likely occurred within the past several months. Saloum was originally arrested on charges of speaking out against HTS on social media; he was locally known for criticizing the group and for distributing political and children’s magazines. Notably, Saloum is from Kafr Nabul, a community that has a reputation for anti-HTS activism; for example, Raed Al-Fares, another prominent activist from Kafr Nabul, was assassinated (allegedly by HTS) in November 2018.

Analysis: The question of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s local ‘popularity’ is a fixation of many Syria analysts and the international Syria response. One common narrative holds that HTS is deeply unpopular with the majority of the population of northwestern Syria, and is effectively holding a population captive through violence. A common counter-narrative holds that much of the population is actively supportive of HTS due to the relative effectiveness of the Salvation Government, and that opposition to the group is limited to a small number of communities. In fact, it is impossible to assess the validity of either narrative, though the reality likely falls somewhere in between; as in Government-held areas, a plurality of the population is likely concerned primarily with immediate day-to-day needs, and a combination of selective service provision and the threat of violence ensures that activism is minimal, if not marginal. However, the killing of Saloum, like Raed Al-Fares, does highlight an important point: namely, that anti-HTS sentiment certainly exists, and that local activists and organizations are willing to take considerable risks to openly oppose the group, at least in certain communities.

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.

Media Anthology: August 13 – August 19, 2019


Media Anthology

August 13 to 99, 2019

As part of the escalating chaos in the province, an unidentified body with torture marks was found in northern countryside of al-SuwaidaaEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsAugust 16, 2019Conflict and Military
The National Army started providing Idleb with fighters and strategic weapons ArabicNedaa SyriaAugust 16, 2019Conflict and Military
As part of their quest to reach Damascus – Aleppo International highway, the regime forces advance northwest khan Shaykhun with hysterical air and land support controlling more areasEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsAugust 15, 2019Conflict and Military
The regime advanced in the Khan Shaykun and cut the international roadArabicEnab BaladiAugust 19, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey says military convoy targeted in northern SyriaEnglishAl JazeeraAugust 19, 2019Conflict and Military
Will the regime enter reconciliation areas in Dar'a?ArabicAl modonAugust 19, 2019Conflict and Military
Fertilizer is one the first ramifications of Russian domination over the Syrian economyArabicEnab BaladiAugust 11, 2019Economic
Why is the Syrian regime unable to control Syrian Lira price?ArabicSyria TVAugust 17, 2019Economic
Look beyond the violence to understand the dangers that remainEnglishChatham HouseAugust 16, 2019Governance and Service Management
Time is running out for Syrians in LebanonEnglishForeign PolicyAugust 14, 2019Social Dynamics
Germany's Seehofer warns refugees who take Syria vacationsEnglishDeutsche WelleAugust 18, 2019Social Dynamics
Fresh displacements from the southern Idleb countrysideEnglishThe Syrian ObserverAugust 15, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Three more humanitarian workers killed in Syria, with civilian death toll ‘rising every day’EnglishUnited NationsAugust 15, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The Syria safe zone will cripple the KurdsEnglishThe National InterestAugust 15, 2019International Intervention
Syria changed the Iranian way of warEnglishForeign AffairsAugust 16, 2019International Intervention
l really deal military Turkey-US does What EnglishAl-MonitorAugust 13, 2019International Intervention
140 thousand Syrian soldiers are under the Russian commandArabicAl modonAugust 18, 2019International Intervention

Media Anthology: August 06 – August 12, 2019


Media Anthology

August 06 to 12, 2019

One year after the reconciliation in the south, what did it achieve? and what future is waiting for it?ArabicJusoor for StudiesAugust 6, 2019Conflict and Military
Syrian village wiped out in Russian-backed regime onslaught on HamaEnglishAl ArabyAugust 8, 2019Conflict and Military
The Syrian regime seeks to isolate northern rural Hama by heading toward IdlebArabicEnab BaladiAugust 11, 2019Conflict and Military
Within the framework of its siege for the major towns of the northern countryside of Hama and Khan Shaykhun city, the regime forces achieve their most important progress south Idlib since the 30th of April by controlling al-Hbit townEnglishSyrian Observatory for Human RightsAugust 11, 2019Conflict and Military
Who is in charge of the Nasib crossing border, The fourth division or the military intelligence? ArabicAl modonAugust 5, 2019Economic
Aleppo: The tensions between Iran and Russia escalating, economicallyArabicAl modonAugust 6, 2019Economic
From Beqa' to Lattakia, the drugs trip into RussiaArabicAl modonAugust 11, 2019Economic
Germany: Refugees integrated into labor market 'quicker than expected'EnglishDeutsche WelleAugust 6, 2019Economic
Web of Lebanese companies may be shipping Iranian oil to SyriaEnglishThe NationalAugust 11, 2019Economic
The regime will sell the Cemetery of Harasta Martyrs in a public auctionArabicAl modonAugust 5, 2019Governance and Service Management
Building a huge thermal station in Lattakia through an Iranian contractorArabicSyria ScopeAugust 7, 2019Governance and Service Management
Semalka Border Crossing witnesses a large influx of Syrian returneesArabicNorth Press AgencyAugust 9, 2019Social Dynamics
Jbour tribe protests against SDF in QuamishliArabicJesr PressAugust 9, 2019Social Dynamics
East of Euphrates: Why have demonstrations against SDF stopped?ArabicAl modonAugust 8, 2019Social Dynamics
Language, religion, and culture are the fuel of the Russian-Iranian rivalry in SyriaArabicSyria TVAugust 10, 2019Social Dynamics
Inside the Syrian Arab Red CrescentEnglishSyria Justice and Accountability CenterAugust 8, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Kuwait provides a grant for farmers in the regime-held areas ArabicEnab BaladiAugust 8, 2019Humanitarian & Development
New evidence of Syria's regime withholding aid from civilians and enriching Assad loyalistsEnglishAl ArabyAugust 7, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The crisis is coming: Syria and the end of the U.S.-Turkish allianceEnglishWar on the RocksAugust 5, 2019International Intervention
From the 'peace operation' to the 'peace corridor', the precursors of Cyprus are present in east SyriaArabicSyria TVAugust 8, 2019International Intervention
Syria’s constitutional committee still mired in discordEnglishAl-MonitorAugust 8, 2019International Intervention
A large influx of displacement from the south in conjunction with the end of the grace periodArabicNedaa SyriaAugust 10, 2019Other
A suggestion to give three months as a grace period to illegal Syrians in IstanbulArabicEnab BaladiAugust 9, 2019Other

Syria Update: August 01 – August 07, 2019

Syria Update

August 01 to August 07, 2019

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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:

The trilateral summit between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Nur-Sultan on August 1 and 2 concluded without substantive progress. The failure to achieve a roadmap to de-escalate the conflict in northwest Syria and the tabling of negotiations to form a drafting committee for a new Syran constitution revealed the extent to which the three guarantor actors have limited power to compel their partners on the ground to implement new agreements. Indeed, the Nur-Sultan powers doubled-down on the Idleb demilitarized zone agreement, which has proven unworkable precisely because of Turkey’s unwillingness or inability to force Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to disarm and withdraw from areas within 20 km of the frontlines. Similarly, Russia’s inability to force the Government of Syria to accede to widely anticipated terms regarding the formation of a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution is revealing. Ultimately, even broad agreement among the guarantors to challenge the role of the SDF and the U.S.-led coalition in northeast Syria will prove difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Another round of discussions in Nur-Sultan will be held in October, but increasing divergence between each of the guarantors and their partners on the ground is clear. As evidenced by the August 5 resumption of hostilities in northwest Syria, neither the Nur-Sultan guarantors nor their implementing partners have unlimited patience over the implementation of long-delayed agreements.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  1. On August 5, the Government of Syria resumed its military offensive in northwest Syria. In the long term, a return to heavy bombardment is likely unavoidable unless HTS disarms and withdraws 20 km from frontlines. 
  2. Assassinations continued in Dar‘a Governorate at an alarming rate; increasingly, the Government and its supporters view the comparatively lenient terms of reconciliation agreements brokered by Russia as the cause of widespread unrest in the south, and a potential justification for harsher Government crackdown. 
  3. The Government of Syria reportedly suspended compensation payments to individuals whose property has been damaged during the war. The suspension highlights the enormity of war-related expenses and the Government’s lack of capacity, which is likely to amplify HLP challenges for the foreseeable future. 
  4. The Syrian Ministry of Industry announced the closure of the Tal Salhab sugar factory. The closure paves the way for potential private investment; notably, Tarif Akhras, a prominent businessman and the uncle of Asma’ Al-Assad, is considered a likely investor.
  5. The SDF detained as many as 100 individuals allegedly linked to ISIS in Al-Hasakeh city. The new campaign risks aggravating existing animosities between the SDF and the local population, particularly Arabs.
  6. Iranian private investors will open three new factories in Syria, producing generic medicines, cancer medications, and automobiles, respectively. Syrian commercial enterprises have lost a considerable degree of access to raw materials, both as a result of Syria’s economic contraction and due to international sanctions.  
  7. The Government of Syria and Jordanian authorities seized massive quantities of captagon, respectively in Rural Damascus and southern Syria, and in Jordan. Drug networks play a significant role in the militia and economic dynamics of the Syria conflict, and the entrenched economic interests of armed drug networks will likely obstruct future attempts to restore normalcy in Syria. 
  8. Clashes were reported between Russian police and Iranian Revolutionary Guard  members in Hamdaniyah neighborhood in Aleppo city. Such clashes are recurrent and likely reflect command and control challenges as well as persistent rivalries and contests of over local influence.

Northwest Syria Offensive Resumes

In Depth Analysis

Rusia, Turkey, and Iran hold negotiations over Syria in Nur-Sultan. Image Couresty of Al-Monitor

On August 5, the Government of Syria announced it would resume military operations against “terrorist organizations” in northwest Syria; the resumption of shelling shattered a tenuous ceasefire agreement that was the most concrete outcome of the 13th round of negotiations between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), on August 1 and 2. As of August 6, the intense aerial bombardment in northwestern Syria, which displaced more than 450,000 civilians in the months leading up to the Nur-Sultan summit, has largely stopped. However, the Government of Syria appears increasingly prepared to disregard international initiatives to de-escalate the conflict in northwestern Syria (see Point 1 in the Whole of Syria review, below), while Turkey’s willingness—and ability—to meet its commitments to disarm and disband Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham under the 2018 demilitarized zone agreement is an open question.

While the resumption of airstrikes in northwest Syria is especially worrying, the most disconcerting aspect of the Nur-Sultan summit is that it reveals the widening disconnect between the international guarantors’ broad political agreements and their limited ability to compel their local partners to implement them. Indeed, the failure to break new ground on northwestern Syria was not the only disappointment from the Nur-Sultan conference. The summit also failed to bring about a widely anticipated agreement on the formation of a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution. In effect, both these failures result from the inability of Russia and Turkey to compel their erstwhile local partners to make the required compromises. Notably, in the week leading up to the Nur-Sultan summit, the Russian Foreign Ministry gave encouraging signs that it had reached a compromise with the Government of Syria over the selection of civil society nominees to the constitution drafting committee (see Syria Update July 11 – July 17). However, in Nur-Sultan, progress on the Syrian constitution proved impossible, reportedly because of the Government of Syria’s unwillingness to accommodate the concessions. In a surprise admission of their failure in this regard, Russia, Turkey, and Iran tabled the constitutional committee formation until an upcoming tripartite meeting, to be held in Turkey next month.

As widely expected, de-escalation in northwest Syria emerged as an ongoing shared priority of the Nur-Sultan guarantors, although, as in the case of the constitutional committee, a roadmap for implementation is highly uncertain, as Turkish influence over armed opposition groups in the northwest appears increasingly tenuous. In a joint communique issued on August 2, Iran, Russia, and Turkey expressed “serious concern with the increased presence” of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in northwestern Syria; however, the three guarantor powers failed to break new ground on the issue. Instead, they doubled down on the September 2018 Idleb demilitarized zone agreement, which specified that HTS must surrender medium and heavy weapons and withdraw from areas within 20 km of the frontlines. Turkey ostensibly continues to wield considerable leverage over armed opposition groups in northwest Syria; however, its chronic failure to implement the terms of the Idleb demilitarized zone agreement has increasingly cast doubt over its actual leverage, at least over Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, the most important component of the armed opposition in northwestern Syria.

The summit did, however, produce an unexpected, if not altogether unprecedented, agreement among Turkey, Russia, and Iran to challenge the SDF’s role in northeast Syria. In the Nur-Sultan communique, the guarantors reiterated their rejection of “illegitimate self-rule initiatives, and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as threatening the national security of neighboring countries.” Two days after the summit, on August 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s intention to launch a military campaign in northeast Syria; nonetheless, that Turkey will unilaterally undertake such military operations remains a dubious prospect so long as U.S.-led coalition forces remain embedded among the SDF throughout the northeast.

As with the constitution and de-escalation in northwest Syria, the broad agreement among Russia, Turkey, and Iran to challenge the SDF and the U.S.-led coalition will prove difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. The three guarantors have agreed to hold another round of negotiations in October; but as noted, the disconnect between these actors and their implementing partners is increasingly clear. So too are the consequences of repeated delays to implement these agreements. Speaking about the situation in northwest Syria during a press conference in Nur-Sultan on August 2, Syria’s representative to the UN, Bashar Al-Jaafari, stated that Damascus “will not wait forever until the Turkish regime implements its obligations.” As evidenced by the resumption of hostilities in northwest Syria, neither the Nur-Sultan guarantors nor their local partners have unlimited patience over the implementation of long-delayed agreements.

Whole of Syria Review

1. GoS Breaks Ceasefire, Resumes NW Offensive

Northern Hama Governorate: On August 5, the Government of Syria announced that it would resume military operations in northwestern Syria due to breaches of the ceasefire agreement by Turkish-backed armed opposition groups. As noted above, the ceasefire was the only substantive outcome of the latest round of negotiations between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Nur-Sultan, on August 1 and 2; however, although the now-defunct ceasefire did lead to a decrease in the frequency and the intensity of shelling and clashes, it did not halt them completely. Many communities in northwestern Syria, including Latmana, Kafr Zeita, Khan Shayku, and Murak continued to witness rocket attacks while the ceasefire was in effect, prompting return shelling by armed opposition groups that targeted western rural Lattakia. Notably, warplanes that had ceased conducting operations at the start of the ceasefire resumed limited airstrikes overnight on August 5. Media sources reported that at least 105 civilians were killed in the three days leading up to the ceasefire, and four were killed while it was in force.

Analysis: The short-lived northwest Syria ceasefire was always unlikely to be sustainable. Indeed, to a large degree, the Nur-Sultan guarantors (Turkey, Iran, and Russia) presented the ceasefire as a modest outcome of the otherwise unproductive negotiations at Nur-Sultan, and their ability to implement it was dubious from the start. Irrespective of the political climate of the Nur-Sultan talks, it is important to note that throughout the Syrian conflict the Government of Syria has routinely employed ceasefires to solidify control over newly captured territory; only days before the summit began, on July 29, Government forces captured the strategically significant communities of Tal Milh and Jbine in northern rural Hama, thus securing the road that links As-Suqaylabiyah and Muhradah. In the long term, a return to the intense Russian and Government of Syria bombardment in the northwest is likely to continue unless HTS implements the terms of the demilitarized zone agreement by surrendering heavy and medium weapons and withdrawing from areas within 20 km of current frontlines. However, the limits of Turkey’s influence over the group leave this prospect in serious doubt.

2. As Dar‘a Unrest Mounts, Russian Reconciliations in South Questioned

Dar‘a Governorate: Throughout the reporting period, local and media sources reported a series of assassinations and attempted assassinations in Dar‘a targeting a wide range of actors, including military and civilian figures linked to the Government of Syria, as well as reconciled combatants. Local sources reported at least seven such incidents across the governorate, specifically in Dar‘a city, Tafas, Al A‘jami, Ibtaa, Tal Shab. Local rumors suggest that the Government of Syria and Hezbollah are responsible for the attacks, but these claims remain unconfirmed. Local sources indicate that there is widespread fear among the population that the Government will use unrest in Dar‘a as a pretext to reassert more direct military control and to fully revoke the terms of the reconciliation agreements that were brokered by Russia in summer 2018. This is not an unjustified fear; many Government supporters in southern Syria are reportedly increasingly calling for a military offensive to definitively pacify Dar‘a Governorate.

Analysis: Throughout 2019, Dar‘a Governorate has witnessed regular assassinations, primarily targeting members of Government of Syria intelligence and military security forces, and reconciled opposition commanders. The systematic nature of these incidents suggests that broad, organized patterns of violence are increasingly entrenched in southern Syria; it is unclear if or how the Government will quell these hostilities and impose a more effective security presence in the south. The Government’s capacity is significantly limited by the fact that pro-Government armed groups in Dar‘a often derived their authority from a variety of different international actors, such as Russia, Iran, and, to a lesser degree, Jordan and Israel. Consequently, a preemptive military operation by the Government of Syria in Dar‘a is unlikely, as it could potentially bring the Government into direct open conflict with its ostensible allies and neighbors.

3. GoS Suspends Compensation For Damaged Buildings

Yarmuk, southern Damascus, Syria: On August 4, media sources indicated that the Government of Syria has suspended monetary compensation to owners of properties that have sustained damage during the conflict. The Government established the Reconstruction Committee—nominally to compensate Syrian citizens whose buildings were damaged as a result of the conflict—under the Ministry of Local Administration in September 2012. The body has reportedly paid a total of SYP 1.7 million  (USD 2,814) in compensation in Rural Damascus; however, the total value of outstanding eligible compensation claims is estimated at SYP 1 trillion (USD 1.6 billion), or more. Accordingly, Assistant Minister for Local Administration and Environment Mo‘taz Qattan said that the Government has delayed the payment of compensation in order to prioritize the rehabilitation of infrastructure. Media sources also reported that the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment rejected demands to integrate land prices in the value of compensation paid.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s suspension of compensation payments to owners of damaged properties is almost certainly a result of its severe financial constraints. As such, payments will likely remain contingent on the Government’s ability to bolster its significantly strained financial resources and to overcome the limited technical and administrative capacity of the Ministry of Local Administration. Given the severe economic crisis facing the Government of Syria, which has been significantly exacerbated by recent U.S. sanctions on Iran and Syria, compensation payments are unlikely to resume in the near term.

4. Government Sugar Establishment to Close, Potentially Paving Way for Monopoly

Tal Salhab, Hama Governorate: The Syrian Ministry of Industry’s Economic Committee announced it would close the Tal Salhab sugar factory, currently operated by the General Organization for Sugar. The committee stated that the closure was a result of the poor sugar beet harvest, which is expected to yield 18 thousand tons—far short of the 200 thousand tons required to make sugar production feasible. Media sources indicate that over consecutive years the General Organization for Sugar has suspended production at several sugar factories near the Ghab Plain, the primary area for sugar beet production in Syria. Due to the announced closure, the Tal Salhab factory will purchase the current sugar beet crop for SYP 25,000 per ton, but, rather than converting the crop into sugar, the beets will be ground into animal feed and distributed to farmers’ associations in Hama Governorate.

Analysis: Sugar beet production has been dramatically affected by the Syria conflict, primarily due to the reduced availability of fertilizer and equipment, and the destruction or inaccessibility of considerable tracts of agricultural lands traditionally used for sugar beet production. Most important, however, is the sugar beet industry’s special reliance on state-run sugar concerns, which traditionally have directly purchased the season’s single harvest at a price set by the Government itself. However, the Government’s diminished technical and financial capacity has pushed farmers to cultivate alternate crops, such as cumin and pistachios, which can be sold directly on the open market with lower input costs, less effort, and greater flexibility. However, as in other sectors, influential Syrian businessmen may now be filling gaps that have opened in Government services during the conflict. Numerous sources have pointed to the potential opportunity that declining sugar production might offer to Tarif Akhras, the uncle of Asma’ Al-Assad, whose trading company, Through East, is estimated to have imported 30 percent of the foodstuffs that have entered Syria since 2005. In recent years, Akhras has monopolized the Syrian sugar trade in Syria, and media sources indicate that he is now willing to invest in three sugar factories in Hama and Homs, including the Tal Salhab factory. Syria’s sugar industry, like many agricultural industries dependent on Government contracts or subsidized inputs, will likely be deeply affected for the foreseeable future.

5. Kurdish and U.S. Forces Intensify Campaign, Risk Triggering NES Unrest

Al-Hasakeh city, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On August 1, local sources indicated that Kurdish Asayish forces had announced a campaign against ISIS sleeper cells in predominantly Arab neighborhoods in Al-Hasakeh city, with the nominal support of the U.S.-led coalition, in response to a string of bombings in the area (see Syria Update July 11 – July 17). Media sources reported that 100 supposedly ISIS-linked individuals were detained during the campaign, and considerable stores of weapons and explosive materials were confiscated. However, other local sources indicated that only 40 individuals were detained; these sources stated that the group was composed of individuals wanted by the Government of Syria for military conscription and IDPs from Deir-ez-Zor without guarantor documents. Most of the detainees were reportedly released following a short investigation; as per the latter local sources, U.S.-led coalition forces did not directly participate in the campaign. Meanwhile, a series of VBIED attacks took place in Al-Hasakeh, namely in the Guiran, Nashwa, and Meshref neighborhoods, between August 1 and 4, with no deaths reported. On August 1, media sources reported that the U.S.-led coalition had conducted an airstrike on a Government of Syria base in Al-Rashidiya, south of Quamishli city; local sources confirmed the airstrike but not the identity of the aircraft.

Analysis:  Heightened security measures, including military conscription, detentions, and raids, have persisted since the SDF assumed control over former ISIS-held areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Deir-ez-Zor and southern Al-Hasakeh; until recently these measures have been largely if not entirely concentrated in these areas. As such, the SDF’s recent raids inside Al-Hasakeh city, reportedly in response to alleged ISIS IED attacks in the city, are noteworthy, especially as they risk aggravating existing animosities between the SDF and local communities. Local perceptions of the SDF’s activities vary by community to a concerning degree. Within Kurdish communities, the perceived imminent threat of ISIS sleeper cells is viewed as justification for the SDF’s high-profile security operations. However, among Arab communities, these tactics are widely seen as an overreach, if not a persistant manifestation of outright discrimination against and mistrust of Arab communities in former ISIS-held areas. In this context, reported U.S. airstrikes are highly significant. The U.S.-led coalition and the SDF have taken pains to build goodwill among Arab communities in northeast Syria; any intensification of their operations, including conscription, raids, and airstrikes against ISIS-linked targets, jeopardizes those efforts.

6. Iran to Open Three Factories, Deepen Economic Reach in Syria

Tehran, Iran: On August 31, media sources stated that Iranian-Syrian Chamber of Commerce Secretary Massan Nahhas had announced several new Iranian investments in Syria. According to the statement, three new Iranian-owned factories will be established; the factories will reportedly produce generic medicine, cancer medications, and vehicles, respectively, but their locations remain unidentified. Nahhas’s statement came after a meeting between Iranian and Syrian businessmen in Tehran on July 30. A Syrian business delegation will reportedly travel to Tehran where contracts will be finalized. In addition to the new Iranian factories, in May 2019 an Iranian company, the Mabna Group, reportedly signed a contract to establish an electricity plant in Lattakia.

Analysis: The pharmaceutical industry and electricity sector in Syria have suffered major setbacks throughout the conflict. Reports indicate that approximately 30 percent of pharmaceutical factories were destroyed during the conflict, and, while the Government of Syria has reportedly prioritized rehabilitating pharmaceutical production, the sector currently falls drastically short of its former production capacity. Additionally, sanctions on imports to Syria have hampered the sector by blocking access to raw materials. Fuel shortages and damage to infrastructure have had a similar impact in electricity production. In efforts to restore vital sectors and service provision, the Government of Syria will likely continue to seek foreign investment from its allies, as it remains incapable of responding to these needs unilaterally. However, despite numerous joint Iranian-Syrian investment projects, sanctions on both countries will likely continue to limit the ability of Iran to have a significant impact on the recovery of the broader Syrian economy.

7. Government of Syria Seizes Hash and Captagon in Southern Damascus and Dar‘a

Rural Damascus and Dar‘a governorates: On August 4, Government media reported that the Narcotics Department of the Interior Ministry had seized 10,400 kg of hashish and 5,100 captagon pills in Rural Damascus Governorate, and another 1.5 million captagon pills in Dar‘a Governorate. These seizures came shortly after media sources reported that the Jordanian army had stopped 18 individuals trying to smuggle at least 1 million captagon pills into Jordan from Syria on July 31.

Analysis: The production and trade of illicit drugs has proliferated in Syria throughout the conflict; no drug has come to greater prominence than the amphetamine captagon. Combatants on all sides of the conflict have relied on captagon for its effects as a stimulant that also blunts inhibitions; Syria is now effectively the center of the international trade in captagon. Given its extensive presence across southern Syria, Hezbollah has reportedly played a large role in this trade, although the drug’s distribution is dominated by local armed groups in Syria. Indeed, this trade is becoming an important source of funding for many smaller local armed actors.  Critically, the drug trade is also independent of state patronage structures (whether Syrian, Russian, or Iranian), which only contributes to the increasing lack of command-and-control over many nominally pro-Government armed groups. Thus, Syria’s drug trade will only contribute to the increasing inter-militia conflict dominating Government-held areas in Syria, and challenging the state’s authority.

8. Russian MPs and IRGC Clash in Aleppo

Aleppo City, Aleppo Governorate: On August 2, media sources reported that armed clashes broke out between Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces and Russian Military Police in the Hamdaniyah neighborhood of Aleppo city, killing members of both groups and injuring several civilians. Following the clash, an unspecified number of Russian forces reportedly withdrew from the city, for unknown reasons. Notably, this clash reportedly followed a meeting between Russian and Iranian commanders that aimed to reduce local hostilities between the groups, which media sources report have increased since the beginning of 2019.

Analysis: Clashes between Iran-affiliated militias and Russian Military Police are not uncommon in Aleppo, as these actors retain a significant presence within the city, including in Hamdaniyah, as well as nearby rural areas. These clashes likely reflect entrenched local rivalries and ground-level contests for local influence and control over limited resources and economic opportunities. International actors, especially Iran, have a limited capacity to effectively discipline the conduct of such militias. For the foreseeable future, clashes among rival armed groups will likely continue to degrade the general security situation in Aleppo city.

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.

Media Anthology: July 30 – August 05, 2019


Media Anthology

July 30 to August 05, 2019

Assad’s control over Syria’s security apparatus is limitedEnglishThe Washington PostJuly 30, 2019Conflict and Military
The regime consolidates Tal Milh in northern Hama while the shelling continuesArabicAl modonJuly 30, 2019Conflict and Military
What is the role of Hezbollah in Dar'a assassinations? ArabicAl modonJuly 31, 2019Conflict and Military
Syria deaths soar as Idlib airstrikes target key roadsEnglishThe New HumanitarianJuly 31, 2019Conflict and Military
Dozens of deaths and injuries in an explosion in Shoayrat airbase in SyriaArabicRTAugust 3, 2019Conflict and Military
A new telecommunication company for the businessman Khadir TahirArabicEnab BaladiJuly 30, 2019Economic
New Iranian investment projects in SyriaArabicSyrian Press CenterJuly 31, 2019Economic
How is Tarif Akhras related to the closure of Tell Salhib sugar factory?ArabicAl modonAugust 4, 2019Economic
Poverty in Damascus prompted voices demanding the increase of salaries; armed robberies targeted exchange companiesEnglishAsharq Al AwsatJuly 31, 2019Economic
Immense suffering to Duma residents in the countryside of Damascus because of the neglect of the Assad regimeEnglishNedaa SyriaJuly 30, 2019Governance and Service Management
How does Russia observe the internet and telecommunication in Syria?ArabicAl modonJuly 30, 2019Governance and Service Management
Four laws issued by the self-administration within one monthArabicEnab BaladiJuly 30, 2019Governance and Service Management
Syria is witnessing 100 suicide attempts a weekEnglishThe Syrian ObserverJuly 31, 2019Social Dynamics
The Druze of As-Sweida:  The conditional return of the regime by the local and regional disputesArabicEuropean University Institute August 1, 2019Social Dynamics
Mohammad Habash as a part of the Syrian Sunni crisisArabicSyria UntoldJuly 29, 2019Social Dynamics
The Syrian refugees are partners in the Lebanese economy, not a burden on itArabicAl modonAugust 3, 2019Social Dynamics
Four months in, civilians remain a target of the government military campaign on northwest SyriaEnglishSyria DirectAugust 2, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Documents obtained by Syrian Justice and Accountability Center show role of Syrian intelligence in directing humanitarian aidEnglishSyrian Justice and Accountability CenterAugust 1, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock - briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, New York, 30 July 2019 [EN/AR]EnglishUN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsJuly 30, 2019Humanitarian & Development
A cautious return for south Idleb IDPsArabicQasiounAugust 4, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The final statement of Astana 13ArabicNedaa SyriaAugust 2, 2019International Intervention
Three disputes between the "guarantors" in Astana, a consent again the Kurdish administrationArabicAsharq Al AwsatAugust 3, 2019International Intervention
Turkish-American agreement over Tahrir Al-Sham in Syria, rehabilitation? ArabicArabi 21July 29, 2019International Intervention
Jordan army thwarts infiltration attempt for 18 persons who tried to smuggle drugs from SyriaArabicAnadolu AgencyJuly 31, 2019Other
The facets of the Syrian regime authority in eastern Ghouta townsArabicEuropean University Institute July 31, 2019Other
The Syrian regime sent the names of the Syrians refugees who have visited Syria to the EUArabicSveriges VerklighetAugust 3, 2019Other