Syria Update

September 12 to September 17, 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.

Assad Issues ‘General Amnesty’, Deferring Military Service And Reducing Sentences

In Depth Analysis

On September 15, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued Decree 20, a ‘general amnesty’ deferring military service for Syrians who are wanted for conscription, and reducing or commuting the sentences for more than a dozen classes of offenses. Decree 20 is effective immediately, and it has the potential to be the most expansive amnesty issued since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. To that end, in limited cases, the decree reduces the sentences that have been handed down under some articles of Syria’s far-reaching Counterterrorism Law Number 19. Moreover, further articles concerning juvenile crimes, misdemeanors, minor infractions, and traffic violations may impact significant portions of the Syrian population. Nonetheless, the decree contains significant limitations, and credible doubts over its ultimate application remain to be addressed.

Despite the expansive nature of Decree 20, the most consequential provisions of the order concern Syria’s mandatory military service requirement. The decree grants a three-month deferment of compulsory military service to Syrians who reside inside Syria, and a six-month deferment to those who are wanted for service but reside outside the country. As such, the decree is almost certainly intended in large part to meet the Syrian Government’s deep need for military conscripts. Indeed, the last amnesty issued by the Government, in October 2018, contained similar provisions to defer the service requirement for those wanted for service by four and six months, respectively. Then, as now, the Government’s proximate conflict goal is recapturing the portions of northwest Syria that remain under the control of armed opposition groups. To that end, since the Government launched its offensive on Idleb in spring 2019, its advances across key communities on the edges of Hama Governorate have been slow, and Government forces have sustained high levels of casualties.

In addition to the conscription deferrals, Decree 20 contains provisions to reduce sentences for a wide array of offenses. Among the most widely discussed of these are provisions to reduce the sentences that have been meted out under Counterterrorism Law Number 19, which has furnished the Syrian state with a broad legal basis for arrests, detentions, and property confiscations since it was enacted in 2012. In this regard, however, the actual impact of Decree 20 as a reprieve for those convicted under Law 19 has been overstated. Indeed, individuals convicted of “conspiracy” to commit any crime enumerated in Counterterrorism Law Number 19 will receive a full amnesty, if they are Syrian and—implicitly—provided they were not convicted of further crimes under the law. Likewise, the decree grants amnesty to those who were sentenced under the ‘duty to report’ any crimes as specified under Law 19. Finally, the measure cuts in half the prison sentence for anyone convicted under Law 19 of causing an explosion, provided the blast resulted in no material damage. However, the more problematic and operative provisions of Law 19 are not addressed by the latest decree.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad greets soldiers in Eastern Ghouta; the Government of Syria's deep need for military conscripts is among the drivers of the latest amnesty decree. Image courtesy of Al-Jazeera.

Decree 20 also contains numerous sentencing reductions that seemingly bear little logical relationship to the conflict—or to each other. Among these, the decree orders that a previously issued death sentence be reduced to a life sentence with hard labor. In turn, a sentence of hard labor for life will be reduced to 20 years, while a life sentence in prison will be reduced to 20 years in prison. Prisoners suffering from a terminal illness who are at least 75 years old will be released. Moreover, full amnesty will be granted for misdemeanors and minor infractions, while juvenile sentences will be cut by one third, and the fines assessed for certain traffic violations are to be reduced by half.

As with past amnesties, Decree 20 has clear limitations. In cases that resulted in personal injury, some of the reduced sentences specified are applicable only when the injured party has waived a right to compensation. Moreover, the amnesty does not offer protection against civil cases; as a result, individuals remain in jeopardy of civil prosecution. Furthermore, Decree 20 does not actually modify the security laws whose provisions it is intended (at least nominally) to mitigate; consequently, future prosecution under the auspices of laws such as Counterterrorism Law Number 19 remains a distinct possibility. Finally, crimes such as treason and espionage, under which the armed and political opposition have frequently been prosecuted, fall outside the scope of the amnesty.

Given its sweeping provisions and likelihood to touch many corners of Syria’s judicial system, Decree 20 is the broadest amnesty in Syria since Bashar Al-Assad issued a presidential decree following national elections in June 2014. However, as in the case of the 2014 amnesty, Decree 20 is unlikely to redress the chief concerns of the Syrian opposition. Indeed, in the months following the 2014 amnesty, thousands of prisoners were freed. However, the releases were widely seen as arbitrary, and considerable numbers of prisoners who were putatively eligible for release remained in detention. As a result, questions over the application of the latest amnesty are a concern of the highest order.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Russia, Turkey, and Iran Announce Syrian Constitutional Committee, Defer on Idleb

Ankara, Turkey: On September 16, the three Astana guarantors (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) concluded their fifth trilateral summit, in Ankara, Turkey. The most concrete outcome of the summit was the long-awaited finalization of the Syrian constitutional committee. Although the composition of the committee has not been disclosed, in a press conference following the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the committee’s member list has been “fully agreed,” and it should begin its work in coordination with the UN in Geneva “as soon as possible.” In addition to the constitutional committee, the powers also discussed the implementation of the demilitarized zone in Idleb Governorate and the ‘safe zone’ agreement between the United States and Turkey along the Turkish border in northeast Syria. Concerning the situation in northwest Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed that no joint Russian-Iranian-Turkish military operations are being planned there. Finally, in a joint communique issued following the summit, the powers emphasized the need for the Government of Syria to reestablish its control over areas currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. To this end, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his dissatisfaction with the speed of U.S. efforts to implement the ‘safe zone’ agreement, and reprised his threat to undertake military operations in northeast Syria unilaterally if the agreement is not implemented by the end of September.

Analysis: The formation of the drafting committee for the Syrian constitution resolves one of the chief obstacles in the Syrian peace process, and it comes at the conclusion of several months of abortive efforts to that effect. Nonetheless, the summit as a whole leaves little reason to hope that Russia, Turkey, and Iran will be capable of brokering a wider agreement on the most pressing points of contention among them vis-a-vis Syria in the foreseeable future. To that end, the membership of the civil society list has been hotly contested between Turkey and Russia; this divergence has primarily centered on decision-making processes within the committee and the extent of its mandate to change the constitution. As such, notwithstanding the selection of committee members, the work of the committee itself will almost certainly produce further deep disagreement. Similarly, the joint Russian-Turkish-Iranian statement failed to herald any decisive steps with respect to the future course of northwest Syria, or, for that matter, the implementation of the northeast Syria ‘safe zone’. In the absence of a grand bargain by guarantor powers regarding northwest Syria, attempts to resolve the status of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham as per the September 17 Sochi agreement are likely to remain central. Moreover, the trajectory of the Syrian Government offensive on Idleb and Hama Governorates is likely in the near term to continue in a cycle of intermittent advances supported by heavy shelling and bombardment, punctuated by temporary truces, as the Government is likely to continue to accommodate Turkish concerns over displacement as it prioritizes its efforts to progressively secure key highways.

2. ‘Safe Zone’ Talks Turn To Refugee Resettlement

Ar-Raqqa and Al-Hasakeh Governorates: On September 13, media sources reported that, according to the joint head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Riyad Darar, the ‘safe zone’ agreement in northeast Syria has been “fully implemented.” Specifically, Darar stated that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have withdrawn from areas along the border with Turkey, and have transferred control of the areas to local military councils in each of the respective communities. Subsequently, on September 15, local sources reported that members of the Tal Abiad military and civil councils and representatives of the U.S.-led International Coalition had agreed to key terms under which refugees could be hosted in the area, which has been a key demand made by Turkey vis-a-vis the ‘safe zone’. The terms stressed that returns must be voluntary and contingent upon the support of international aid and humanitarian organizations; most importantly, the SDC demanded that returnees be original inhabitants of communities in northeast Syria.

Analysis: Despite the SDC’s assertion, the ‘safe zone’ agreement is far from full implementation, and the most contentious issues related to its dimensions remain unresolved. On the whole, Kurdish officials are now as unlikely as ever to concede to the most ambitious of Turkey’s demands regarding the ‘safe zone’; nonetheless, the SDC’s willingness to host refugees signals a growing realization that in the long term, the SDC will almost certainly be forced to make further concessions to Turkey. To this end, both parties are now staking out negotiating positions with regard to returnees. To wit, on September 17, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey sought to relocate as many as 3 million Syrian refugees to northeast Syria, a number which is significantly larger than the total population of all areas currently under SDF control. Similarly, the conditions demanded by the SDC regarding refugee return effectively make large-scale return impossible, given that few of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey were displaced from northeast Syria, and the territory now under SDC control encompasses few urban areas capable of absorbing returnees on a large scale. Moreover, international assistance of the kind required to support a mass return as envisaged by Erdogan is highly improbable. Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that throughout the Syria conflict, Turkey’s willingness to carry out its most ambitious threats unilaterally has frequently been underestimated; likewise, analysts have consistently discounted the likelihood that Kurdish officials will make pragmatic concessions regarding the northeast Syria ‘safe zone’. As such, further SDF withdrawals are likely, and refugee resettlement remains a distinct possibility.

3. U.S. Sanctions Hawalas, Ratcheting Up Pressure On Syrian Economy

Damascus: On September 10, the U.S. Department of Treasury announced a bundle of new sanctions targeting various money exchange services and individuals providing financial support to groups the U.S. has deemed terrorists. Targeted by the sanctions are some of the largest exchange services in Syria, including: Saksouk Company for Exchange and Money Transfer, which has local branches in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey; Al Haram Exchange, which reportedly manages money transfer from Belgium to Syria; and Al-Khalidi Exchange, which has offices in Raqqa, Mayadin, and Gaziantep, Turkey. According to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), all of the Syrian entities targeted in the latest round of sanctions were instrumental in transferring money for ISIS when it controlled vast swathes of northeast Syrian territory.

Analysis: Over the past six months, it has become progressively more difficult to transfer money into Syria, primarily as a result of sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury. During this time, the lodestar guiding U.S. sanctions targeting financial transactions in the Middle East has been the broader U.S. policy to contain the regional influence of Iran, and measures undertaken under the auspices of the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran have generally been tailored to that effect. However, this latest round of OFAC sanctions primarily targeting ISIS-linked entities suggests the U.S. sanctions campaign is widening, and Syria is likely to be an area of key interest in this regard. Indeed, a month of dramatic instability in the market value of the Syrian lira has been attributed at least in part to U.S. measures to crack down on money transfers that are a key source of foreign currencies to the Syrian Central Bank, while measures to expedite the process of adding entities to the sanctions list have also been taken. Naturally, these efforts will have grave repercussions for the Syrian population, the Syrian economy, and the international Syria response, as vital remittances and foreign money transfers become increasingly difficult to conduct and the fluctuating value of locally procured goods inside Syria frustrate long-term budgeting. Given that efforts to contain Iran are among the few areas of unwavering consistency in U.S. foreign policy, challenges associated with money transfer to Syria are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

4. ISIS Targets Local Council Workers, Raising Risk For Northeast Response

Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: During the reporting period, various media sources circulated a list reportedly published by ISIS on September 3, which contained the names of 137 civilians it has targeted for reprisals due to their cooperation with local councils and the Autonomous Administration in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. The list urges individuals who work with the local councils and the Autonomous Administration to publicly “repent,” and it warns that individuals who fail to do so will be “kidnapped from their homes, public shops, and places of worship” or have their “homes destroyed over their heads.” Moreover, local sources reported widespread rumors that ISIS affiliates have also made verbal threats and intimidated other residents of northeast Syria for similar reasons. The threats have reportedly incited fear in communities throughout the governorate, and according to media and local sources, more than 150 individuals have renounced their past affiliation with the Autonomous Administration in local mosques thus far.

Analysis: Threats made by ISIS against actors linked to local councils and the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria are significant, not only for local actors themselves, but for international humanitarian and developmental entities as well. In this respect, it is highly problematic that across northeast Syria, international actors are widely viewed as being closely affiliated with, if not indistinguishable from, the Autonomous Administration itself. To a certain degree, this is an unavoidable result of the access dynamics that have shaped the Syria crisis response: specifically, the reality that access in northeast Syria is contingent upon the Autonomous Administration. However, as the northeast response pivots deeper into priority need areas that were formerly under ISIS control, specifically Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, the reputational, programmatic, and security risks presented by this association will become increasingly acute. Indeed, as international actors concentrate a greater portion of their programming in areas where the Autonomous Administration is viewed with deep misgivings, it will be crucial they build community acceptance in their own right, especially through outreach to local Arab and tribal stakeholders.

5. Suspension of Education Funds Signals Mounting Challenges in Northwest Syria

Idleb Governorate: On September 16, the Response Coordination Group issued a statement declaring that “donors announced that they would no longer support” the education sector in the Idleb, Hama, and Aleppo Governorates. As per the statement, funds will be suspended from a total of 840 schools across northwestern Syria. The Response Coordination Group expressed grave concerns over the future of education in the area, highlighting that during the ongoing Government offensive, 115 educational institutions have been targeted, and causing 278 students casualties and 21 among teachers.

Analysis: The suspension of donor funding for the education sector in northwest Syria casts light on the general uncertainty that has reigned among international actors since Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham established control over virtually all of opposition-held northwest Syria in January 2019. Indeed, the rise of HTS has presented humanitarian and developmental actors with increasingly pressing questions over the viability of programming, as they face mounting challenges stemming from potential reputational, political, and legal risks associated with programming in areas under ostensible HTS control. On the institutional level, HTS has made efforts to avoid interference that would jeopardize internationally supported programming for which it lacks either the financial or technical capacity to perform itself. Nonetheless, on local levels, incidents have occurred, and donor support to various sectors in northwest Syria had already been temporarily suspended in recent months, before being restored without incident. Given this tenuous balance, the viability of such support in the long term likely hinges on the withdrawal or disbanding of HTS. To this end, despite widespread rumors that Turkey may force HTS to withdraw from frontline communities in accordance with its obligations under the northwest Syria demilitarized zone agreement, such efforts are not forthcoming. Although community needs are significant and spaces for principled engagement do exist, the challenges are also considerable.

6. Mugawir Al-Thawra Pressure Rukban Residents to Remain

Rukban Camp, Homs Governorate: Throughout the reporting period, reports have surfaced that significant disputes have broken out among residents of Rukban Camp over the distribution of aid by the UN and SARC. Some reports have suggested that families dissatisfied with the distribution attempted to confiscate aid from other families and the UN. Nonetheless, according to local sources inside Rukban, the distribution took place without incident. However, significant issues have arisen concerning the UN and SARC registration for Rukban residents who wish to leave the camp. According to these sources, members of the armed opposition group Mughawir Al-Thawra have attempted to intimidate camp residents in order to prevent them from registering their names to evacuate to Homs city and return to their communities of origin. Ostensibly, the group is resistant to further evacuations because the continuing presence of civilians inside Rukban serves both as a deterrent to Government of Syria attacks on the area, and it furnishes a lever of influence for the group itself. According to the local sources, another distribution by the UN and SARC is being planned for September 25.

Analysis: The return of IDPs from the shelters in Homs city highlights one of the key dynamics with bearing on return in Syria: the importance of intermediaries as brokers of return. Indeed, due to extremely restrictive security policies that limit mobility and access, for many Syrian IDPs, return to communities of origin is often effectively impossible. It is important to note, however, that in the absence of a coherent national policy guiding returns procedures, return remain highly localized, as evidenced by the fact that IDP returns are frequently contingent upon communities of origin, in addition to individual characteristics and identity. As such, the intervention of an outside actor such as Russia (or other local notables with connections or access to the Syrian state) is virtually required to broker return movements of any considerable size, such as the 300 Rukban evacuees held in Homs city shelters. However, the role of intermediaries does have important limitations: although intercession by an intermediary may be necessary to broker return on any large scale, it does not resolve further protections concerns. Indeed, even after reconciliation with the Government of Syria, returnees, including the Rukban evacuees now released from the shelters in Homs, remain vulnerable to further security screenings (for example, at border crossings and checkpoints), potential civil legal actions, reprisal, arbitrary detention, and conscription. For this reason, it is crucial that returns be viewed not only as a single bureaucratic step to facilitate return, but as a highly involved, ongoing process of reintegration into the Syrian state apparatus which is likely to remain ongoing for the foreseeable future.

7. Former Education Minister Faces Corruption Charges, Assets Seized

Damascus: On September 15, media sources reported that the Government of Syria has seized the assets of former Minister of Education Hazwan Al-Waz on charges that he embezzled as much as 350 billion SYP ($600 million) during his time at the ministry. Additionally, 130 employees of the Ministry of Education and the head of the Hama City Council, Adnan Yahya Al-Tearr, have also had their assets frozen on accusations of corruption. Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis has stated that a large number of corruption cases are currently open, and newly formed committees in all sectors will hold to account those who have “benefited from the crisis in Syria by amassing large wealth.” These cases are reportedly directly managed by the national leadership of the Baath party and, ultimately, by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Analysis: Widespread (and often highly public) crackdowns on corrupt practices have become a common occurrence in Syria in recent months, as the Government ramps up its efforts to restore public confidence in state institutions that are widely perceived as inept and corrupt. During this period, anti-corruption investigations have targeted numerous local officials on local levels, as well as high-ranking officials such as former Minister of Trade Abdullah Gharbi (see Syria Update for August 22-28), in addition to Al-Waz. Moreover, the recent crackdown on Syria’s most powerful businessmen, including Rami Makhlouf, is almost certainly linked to efforts to restore public confidence in Syria’s institutions. In the present context, investigations within the Ministry of Education are particularly significant for international actors working in Syria, given that education programming is often viewed as one of the ‘safest’ sectors for humanitarian or developmental programming. As such, it is crucial to note that the ongoing campaigns are likely a superficial gesture toward rooting out corruption, which is endemic at nearly all levels of the Syrian state and across its institutions. Nonetheless, anti-corruption initiatives are all but certain to continue as the Government seeks to publicly burnish its image; indeed, on September 15, Khamis told the Syrian Parliament, “you will be surprised by the persons who will be held accountable in the next few days.”

8. Syrians Swept Up In Sudan Campaign Targeting Illegal Labor In Khartoum

Khartoum, Sudan: On September 10, media sources reported that Sudanese police forces have carried out a detention campaign in neighborhoods predominantly populated by Syrian nationals in Khartoum city. The campaign resulted in the detention of several individuals who were released after paying a fine. On September 13, Sudanese Police announced a campaign targeting foreigners and those who have attained Sudanese nationality to screen their legal status; the statement was abruptly followed by a campaign on foreigners including Syrian and individuals of other nationalities. In response to the strife raised by the crackdown, the Government of Sudan has temporarily halted its measures; instead, officials have announced an ultimatum giving foreigners until November 2019 to attain the legal documentation necessary to stay in Sudan, including passports, work permits, and residency cards. Of note, the Government of Sudan issues two types of residencies for Syrians: a residency issued on the basis of war (which does not confer work rights) and work residency, both of which require a Sudanese guarantor.

Analysis: The Sudanese campaign measures on foreign labor increases the vulnerability of Syrian refugees in Sudan, as it poses threats of deportation and narrows their chances of decent livelihoods in the country. Reports indicate that Syrian refugees ability to meet legal requirement requested by the Government of Sudan is limited, given the low average their incapability to cover the costs of necessary legal documentation.  The complexity and slow pace of the bureaucratic processes, such as their need to secure a Sudanese guarantor, are other factors that might limit their chances to meet the decided deadline. Recent developments in Sudan have necessarily raised concerns on the increasingly violent measures that transitional government and military forces have adopted vis-a-vis opposition entities and civil protests in the country. In line with its current practices, the Government of Sudan is likely to pursue harsh measures against foreigners, keeping in place various structural and legal impediments that challenge their prospects to secure a long -term residency in the country. To that end, these procedures are likely to lead to the deportation of Syrian refugees, or in the least compel them to return to Syria, thereby subjecting them to potential security threats and livelihood challenges.

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.