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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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