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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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