Syria Update

August 22 to August 28, 2019

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email
Share on whatsapp

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.