September 18 – September 24, 2019
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.
Massive Protests Against Iran in Deir-ez-Zor Augur Wider Northeast Instability
In Depth Analysis
On September 20, in a massive protest march that originated in Syrian Democratic Forces-held territory, hundreds of demonstrators captured a Government of Syria checkpoint outside Salihiyeh, in rural Deir-ez-Zor, demanding that Government forces and Iran-backed militias withdraw from communities on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Among the demonstrators were large numbers of IDPs, as well as plainclothes Asayish internal security agents. As the protest march advanced, Government of Syria security forces opened fire, reportedly killing one demonstrator and wounding several others; according to local sources, one Asayish officer was also killed. The following day, protesters returned to the area and reiterated their demand that the Government withdraws from the small enclave on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, which encompasses several small communities, including Mirat, Hatla, and Khasham. According to local sources, a heavy exchange of gunfire between Government- and SDF-held communities situated across the river followed the protest. Although any popular mobilization of such enormous size in Syria is notable, these demonstrations are particularly noteworthy as the most high-profile confrontation between the SDF and the Syrian Government since the two actors divided their control over the Deir-ez-Zor Euphrates River valley in parallel campaigns against ISIS in late 2017; as such, the mobilizations raise the worrying prospect that deep-rooted tensions may disrupt a relative detente that has long persisted in northeast Syria.
Locally, several factors are seen as key drivers of the tensions that are now breaking out in demonstrations and clashes in rural Deir-ez-Zor. First, it is important to note that many of the demonstrators are IDPs from communities controlled by the Syrian Government or Iran-backed militias; in effect, for many of these individuals, return to these communities is in effect impossible. Second, local sources report that the SDF has promised to give demonstrators an expanded role in local governance in any communities that they are able to seize from Government control. Third, and most importantly, the protests reportedly came in response to threats made by Sheikh Nawaf Al-Bashir, the commander of the Baqir Brigade (a prominent Iranian-linked armed group in Deir-ez-Zor); indeed, in the week preceding the protests, videos circulated widely on social media showing Al-Bashir threatening that the Baqir Brigade would launch a cross-river assault to capture SDF-held territory. While such threats are not unusual in and of themselves, they have fueled local concerns in Deir-ez-Zor that implementation of northeast Syria ‘safe zone’ agreement on the Turkish border will leave front lines with the Syrian Government vulnerable to attack, with little hope for reinforcements from northern border areas.
It is also important to note that the tensions in northeast Syria have an important tribal component, which has been exacerbated by various parties to the conflict. Without question, the increasing influence of Iran is an important source of underlying tension in Deir-ez-Zor. To this end, the Baqir Brigades have recruited large numbers of Arab tribesmen in Deir-ez-Zor, specifically recruiting members of the Beggara tribe headed by Sheikh Al-Bashir. However, it is also important to note that Iran is not alone in forming a strategy of tribal outreach in eastern Syria. Indeed, all parties to the Syria conflict have integrated tribal outreach as a keystone of their military and influence strategies in eastern Syria; for its part, the Self Administration has also leveraged tribal power structures as an instrument to solidify its power base. (These dynamics are documented in detail on the community level in the recent COAR report Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria.) As such, the SDF has attempted its own outreach with the E’kidat tribal confederation, a longstanding rival tribe of the Beggara and one of the most prominent tribes on the east bank of the Euphrates River, where the recent protests have occurred. Arab tribesmen have generally been ambivalent towards the SDF’s attempts at outreach, especially in Deir-ez-Zor; however, on the issue of Iran, the E’kidat leadership have demanded assistance from the SDF and International Coalition to drive Iran-backed militias from the area.
Looking ahead, the mounting tensions that have now spilled over into violent demonstrations have clear ramifications. Both the Government of Syria and the SDF have deployed reinforcements to the area. Calls for continuing protests demanding the Government of Syria and Iranian militias withdraw across the Euphrates River are mounting. Meanwhile, further counter-demonstrations in protest of the SDF are also taking place in SDF-held areas; these measures are likely to have a particularly destabilizing effect in communities such as Shadadi where the popularity of the Self Administration and the SDF is already in question. Ultimately, although protesters’ demands for a Government of Syria withdrawal are almost certain to go unmet, and direct clashes between the SDF and Government or Iranian forces are unlikely in the foreseeable future, further confrontations between proxy groups and local tribes are likely to intensify.
Whole of Syria Review
1. As UN Heralds Constitutional Committee, Self Administration, U.S. Sit On Sidelines
Damascus: On September 23, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that the Government of Syria and the Syrian Negotiations Commission have agreed to the formation of a constitutional committee in accordance with UN Resolution 2254; according Guterres, the committee will convene “in the coming weeks.” The committee will be comprised of 150 members, with seats allocated equally to members nominated by the Government and the Syrian opposition, in addition to a third panel of ostensibly neutral civil society figures; the committee will be headed by a co-delegation representing the Government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission. While the official list of the committee members has not been published, news outlets closely affiliated to the Government have published such a list. Moreover, in terms of procedure, unconfirmed reports state that a 45-member subcommittee will draft amendments to the constitution, however, decisions will be reached within the whole constitutional committee by consensus, with deadlocks being broken by a three-quarters voting majority. In a highly consequential decision, the committee has reportedly excluded the Self Administration from participation. In response, on September 23, the Self Administration issued a statement condemning its sidelining from the UN political process, and announcing its rejection of all future outcomes of the committee.
Analysis: The creation of the Syrian constitutional committee marks an important stepping stone in the UN-led political process to resolve the protracted Syria conflict. Nonetheless, the exclusion of the Self Administration hints at potential hurdles which the committee can be expected to encounter. The Self Administration is the de facto governing authority for approximately 2.2 million individuals in northeast Syria, yet the political parties that form the backbone of the Self Administration’s governing coalition are not formally aligned with the Syrian opposition, and therefore have been excluded from the committee. In turn, this casts some doubt on the committee’s credentials as a representative of the whole of Syria. The exclusion of the Self Administration is further notable due to previous U.S. efforts to secure the Self Administration’s representation within the committee; potentially, the failure of these efforts puts the approval of the constitution by the UN Security Council at risk of a U.S. veto. More fundamentally, divergences among various constituencies within the committee itself persist. The Government has previously insisted that the committee limit itself to amendments of the 2012 constitution, whereas opposition representatives have demanded a new Syrian constitution be drafted wholesale. As such, the future course taken by the committee will be highly dependent upon its membership, as well as the members’ ability to effectively represent the interests of powerful actors who have, for a variety of reasons, been excluded from the process.
2. Nasrallah Calls For Al-Qusayr Refugees To Return From Lebanon
Al-Qusayr, Homs Governorate: On September 20, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah publicly called on Syrian refugees who were displaced from Al-Qusayr and now reside in Lebanon to begin registering their names with Lebanese General Security in order to return to Syria. The following day, local tribes in Hermel, Lebanon convened an information session attended by refugee families as well as high-level representatives of security and political actors from Lebanon and Syria. Among those present was former Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, head of Lebanese General Security Abbas Ibrahim, and representatives of Lebanese political factions Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement. As of this writing, registration of names under the initiative has not yet begun. Notably, Hezbollah has maintained a significant military presence in Al-Qusayr since it supported the Government of Syria’s military offensive to capture the area in 2013; the offensive resulted in the massive displacement of the predominantly Sunni population of Al-Qusayr to nearby communities in Lebanon.
Analysis: Nasrallah’s call to repatriate Syrian refugees from Al-Qusayr may signal a long-awaited resolution to one of the most intractable and high-profile displacements in the Syria conflict; however, it is important to note that significant uncertainty over the implementation of the return process remains. As with other recent large-scale return movements in Syria, the case of Al-Qusayr highlights the crucial role played by intermediaries of return. Indeed, the standout feature of the announcement is that it came not from a state actor, but from the leader of Hezbollah, although the buy-in of both Syrian and Lebanese stakeholders will no doubt be critical to facilitating the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr. To date, the foremost issue preventing return to the area has been the securitization of Al-Qusayr under Hezbollah, primarily due to its standing as a strategic outpost situated on a key smuggling route on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Finally, it is important to note that the invitation to return to Al-Qusayr almost certainly has limitations. Indeed, in the past, Al-Qusayr refugees have applied for permission to return via Lebnaese General Security, yet frequently have been denied on arbitrary bases, likely at the (indirect) behest of Hezbollah through Syrian Government interlocutors. Despite the promising sign that returns to Al-Qusayr may be possible for many displaced residents, these returns should also sharpen the focus on the case of those refugees for whom return is effectively impossible.
3. Salvation Government Levies ‘Zakat’ Tax On Olive Harvest In Northwest Syria
Idleb, Idleb Governorate: Throughout the reporting period, media recent reports surfaced that the Salvation Government has issued a directive ordering that olive producers in areas under its control pay what it called a “zakat” (i.e. an Islamic tithe) on olives and olive oil. Essentially, the order amounts to a new tax on olive production, although crucial questions concerning the way the order will be carried out are not yet clear, and no monies have yet been collected under the directive, as the olive harvest takes place in November. The directive stipulates that farmers who produce more than 3 kg of olive oil or harvest more than 129 kg of olives for oil production must pay approximately 5 percent of the price of olives or olive oil. Moreover, producers will be required to maintain precise records of their olive production in order to tabulate the specific amount to be paid under the fee regime. However, the Salvation Government has reportedly asked local mosques to ‘remind’ all Muslims of the religious importance of paying zakat, and requested that attendees of Friday prayers be reminded that failing to do so will carry ‘consequences’. Specific details concerning these consequences and the extent to which the Salvation Government intends to enforce the order remain unclear. However, the possibility of the Salvation Government acting upon such threats is credible.
Analysis: The importance of the Salvation Government’s new measure is twofold. First, new assessments of any kind on agricultural production are naturally a significant concern for humanitarian and development programming in northwest Syria. At the most extreme, the new Salvation Government order may jeopardize existing agricultural support programs by introducing further compliance concerns. However, the impact of the order will likely hinge upon how it is collected. Second, the imposition of new taxes is a provocative undertaking, and an indication that the Salvation Government may be experiencing financial hardship, and therefore must expand methods of generating financial revenues. Indeed, in the summer of 2019, the Salvation Government issued similar taxes on wheat production, which at the time caused great concern among local farmers. Notably, due to the fact that the Salvation Government has previously demanded that all local olive producers register their businesses with the Salvation Government, the authority now possesses a clear overview of olive production in northwest Syria. As a result of the dramatic potential implications it entails, the recently promulgated order is likely to ignite considerable discontent on the local level, especially in view of the fact that is expected to be levied against vulnerable small-scale olive producers; if the order is implemented, it may also elicit a response from institutional donors supporting agricultural programs in northwest Syria.
4. Freezing Qaboun Urban Plan, President Al-Assad To Decide Area’s Fate
Qaboun, Rural Damascus Governorate: On September 23, local sources stated that the Government of Syria has frozen the Qaboun Urban Plan, effectively conditioning its implementation upon the direct approval of President Bashar Al-Assad. Crucial details concerning the rationale behind the freeze and the expected date of further decisions are unknown. Meanwhile, media sources reported that Mohammad Hamsho, a prominent businessman who has largely monopolized trade in Qaboun through his strong ties to the inner circles of the Syrian regime, has purchased large swathes of land in Qaboun in hopes of reaping a financial windfall during the expected reconstruction in the area. To that end, Hamsho is reported to have incrementally driven up the value of real estate in Qaboun in coordination with local traders. Moreover, members of the 4th Division have also reportedly denied displaced former residents of Qaboun access to the area in an effort to compel them to sell their properties.
Analysis: The freeze on the Qaboun Urban Plan is a dramatic turn that follows the massive public response to the Qaboun redevelopment plan, including the submission of 740 public comments (as reported in Syria Update August 24-September 4). In essence, local industrialists have opposed the state’s plan to rezone and reconstruct much of Qaboun for mixed residential and commercial use; as a result, the plan would compel Qaboun’s traditional business class, including factory and light industrial interests, to relocate. The freeze on the redevelopment plan highlights that even formal procedural instruments are unlikely to succeed in bridging the rift between national (and international) actors seeking to benefit from reconstruction and local economic actors. More importantly, the freeze comes at a time of significant turmoil in Syria’s business community, and it is currently highly unclear which business interests will prevail in the long term. As such, the freeze also highlights the fact that Syria remains a security state in which Bashar Al-Assad remains the ultimate decision-making authority, and even formal processes are subject to presidential intervention. As such, the trajectory of the Qaboun Urban Plan is now highly uncertain. Finally, the freeze on the Qaboun Urban Plan also casts light on the role of civil initiatives in challenging the policies of government bodies and demanding that authorities be answerable, if not accountable, for policy decisions. Similar challenges over reconstruction and rehabilitation are certain to play out across Syria; to a large degree, Qaboun may serve as a bellwether of the degree to which the public can effectively push for local interests to be accommodated in post-conflict Syria.
5. Popular Resistance Threatens Public Figure Assassinations If Demands Not Met
Hara, Dar’a Governorate: On September 17, the Fajr Al-Deen Brigade of Hara, a branch of the Dar’a Governorate ‘Popular Revolutionary Resistance’, issued a dramatic ultimatum demanding that the Government of Syria address a host of the group’s demands. Among its demands, the Fajr Al-Deen Brigade called for the Government to release detainees, restore services, refrain from harassing activists, remove barriers to university enrollment, and rehire public employees dismissed from their posts. According to the statement, if these demands are not met by October 1, the Fajr Al-Deen Brigade threatened that it would declare Hara a ‘military area’, and that it would assassinate Government-linked individuals; the threat was accompanied by a list of individuals spanning numerous sectors and governance functions in the area, including municipal employees, members of reconciliation committees, and former members of opposition-aligned local councils that were instrumental in facilitating reconciliation.
Analysis: The timing of the ultimatum issued by the Fajr Al-Deen Brigade is highly noteworthy; indeed, it follows closely after the issuance of Decree 20, a Government recruitment and amnesty measure that has been received with a high degree of skepticism in Dar‘a (see Syria Update September 12-17). Indeed, the Government’s ability (or intention) to fulfill its promises regarding the status of detainees is likely to be crucial to the amnesty’s success in quieting restive areas where the Government’s popularity continues to be regularly challenged. This is especially true in Dar‘a, where the amnesty announcement was juxtaposed with news of continued detentions and the deaths of prisoners; throughout the reporting period, local sources reported that five prisoners from Sheikh Miskine died after being tortured in detention, while another prisoner from Ghabagheb was reported to have died in prison, also due to torture. Such conditions have been key drivers of the rapid deterioration of the security situation in southern Syria. The wide scope of the Fajr Al-Deen Brigade’s threats suggest that this deterioration is likely to continue. Specifically, these threats are likely to deter individuals from engaging in local administrative and public functions linked to the government, inevitably narrowing the possibilities of improving governance and security in the area. The threats may also have a serious impact on program implementation in Dar’a governorate, considering the important role played by local administrators in program implementation.
6. Businessmen Adapt as Crackdown Continues and Uncertainty
Pervades Syria’s Economic Climate
Damascus: Throughout the reporting period, media sources reported that the Government of Syria Ministry of Finance has seized the assets of the former Minister of Sports, Mohammad Fadi Al-Dabbas, allegedly over his implication in a number of corruption cases. Notably, Al-Dabbas has been targeted, among other reasons, in connection with former Minister of Education Hazwan Al-Waz, who was charged last week with embezzling as much as 350 billion SYP (approximately 555 million USD; for more information on Al-Waz, see Syria Update September 12-17). Moreover, Al-Dabbas is the cofounder of Dar Al-Khair Import and Export Company, and is the son-in-law of highly influential businessmen Mohammad Hamsho, whose own standing in the Syrian business community is now subject to numerous unconfirmed rumors. Additionally, several other high-ranking businessmen have also had their assets frozen over accusations of embezzlement during the past week, including the former head of the Union for Exporters, Mohammad Al-Sawah, and a co-founder of the United Industrial Investment Company, Mohammed Samer Al-Mulhi.
Analysis: As the sweeping crackdown targeting some of Syria’s most influential businessmen, government figures, and economic actors continues to cut across various sectors, its wider ramifications are becoming increasingly apparent. The most jarring result of the crackdown is that it has made it virtually impossible to determine the present or future standing of Syria’s most prominent businessmen and their associates, up to and including Mohammad Hamsho (for more on the economic measures targeting Syria’s highest-placed businessmen, see Syria Update August 29-September 4). In turn, this uncertainty has been a contributing factor in the fluctuating value of the Syrian lira, which has further complicated Syria’s business climate. To that end, local sources report that the highly well-connected Al-Qaterji business enterprise are now insistent that partners conduct large-value transactions in cash, using U.S. dollars. The pressures for other businessmen to follow suit are becoming increasingly acute. Ironically, by challenging the Syrian business community at the highest levels, the current crackdown may actually worsen the very economic conditions it is, at least nominally, meant to remedy. Consequently, the deep instability at the heart of Syria’s business climate shows no sign of abating.
7. Eastern Ghouta Faces Renewed HLP Concerns From Antiterror Measures
Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus: Throughout the reporting period, reports have surfaced that civil and security actors in Eastern Ghouta continue to use HLP procedures as punitive instruments against individuals formerly affiliated with the armed opposition. On September 23, reports stated that in recent days, members of the 4th Division confiscated an unknown number of houses belonging to former leaders of armed opposition groups in Duma. This follows earlier reports that the Government of Syria Political Security Branch had recently confiscated 76 houses in Harasta owned by former local activists and members of armed opposition groups. As per these sources, Government forces have also confiscated houses along the Damascus-Homs highway, in some cases targeting homes owned by individuals whose relatives have been charged with terrorism due to their affiliation with the armed opposition. Six individuals have reportedly been detained while protesting the confiscations, five of whom were women.
Analysis: HLP concerns are one the most prominent features of the post-reconciliation administrative climate in Eastern Ghouta, yet it is important to note that urban redevelopment in the area is not exclusively an artifact of the Syria conflict. Indeed, prior to the conflict, the Syrian Government frequently expressed its intention to redevelop or expropriate informal housing in Eastern Ghouta. Although such policies were never seriously pursued, the potential windfall to be gained by actors investing in the area’s reconstruction naturally raise the incentives to seek a share in this process for all actors involved. Due to geography, high levels of destruction, and linkages to the armed opposition, Duma and Harasta are now among the Eastern Ghouta communities that are most vulnerable to redevelopment, including by means of housing expropriation. To this end, it is also crucial to note that the anti-terror legal framework adopted by the Syrian state is fast emerging as one of the key policy levers to pursue urban ‘reform’ in Syria. Given the Government’s fundamental attitude vis-a-vis Eastern Ghouta, the punitive strategy targeting former opposition communities in Eastern Ghouta can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future; however, as noted above in Point 4, the exact trajectory of these developments is likely to depend upon a relationship among business and security actors that remains in flux.
8. Damascus Detention Highlights Risk Of Post-Reconciliation Prosecution
Beit Saham, Southern Damascus: On September 23, media and local sources reported that Government of Syria security forces arrested a former Ahrar Al-Sham commander, Abu Mohammed Ghaleb; Ghaleb was reportedly arrested on a civilian court decree, for the murder of several Syrian military and Hezbollah members. Ghaleb had previously reconciled his status with the Government following the reconciliation of southern Damascus in April 2018. The reconciliation committee of Beit Sahm has reportedly attempted to intervene in order to facilitate the release of Ghalib, but failed.
Analysis: The recent arrest of Ghaleb highlights the limitations of reconciliation agreements, and the extent to which the recently issued Decree 20 (see Syria Update September 12-17) fails to protect reconciled individuals against the various measures through which the Government can still prosecute them. Indeed, while Decree 20 commutes sentences for many classes of offenses, it does not offer protections against prosecution under civil charges. The prosecution of reconciled individuals for actions taken during the conflict has become an increasingly common occurrence. To that end, civilians or local legal officials have filed civil suits against former opposition combatants in Eastern Ghouta, Barzeh and Qaboun, Az-Zabadani, and northern Homs. It is important to note that this is not necessarily a Government-driven process; many armed opposition commanders and combatants committed abuses against civilians and local stakeholders, which has naturally fermented deep-seated grievances that still linger. Thus, the Government is to some degree encouraging community members to file cases against former opposition commanders as a means of retribution. Essentially, individual reconciliation resolves a former opposition combatant’s status with the Government of Syria, but it does not grant them immunity from their neighbors. As a result, reconciled armed opposition combatants will likely continue to be prosecuted through civil suits and be at risk of detention.
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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