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 September 27, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres publicly released the “Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure” for the Syrian Constitutional Committee, clarifying the mandate, structure, and decision-making procedures to be adopted by the body as it works on a reformed Syrian constitution. In effect, these terms specify that the center of gravity within the committee will be a 45-member “small body” composed equally of candidates selected by the Government of Syria, the Syrian opposition, and Syrian civil society (the latter chosen through consensus, with input from the UN); this select committee will draft and adopt “constitutional proposals,” which must then be voted on by the full 150-member “large body.” Proposals in both the small and large bodies will require a three-quarter voting majority for adoption. As for the day-to-day procedural functions of the full committee large body will be headed by two co-chairs—representatives, respectively, of the Government of Syria and the Syrian Negotiations Commission. The committee will conduct its first session to “approve a constitutional reform” on October 30, in Geneva; however, the terms of reference do not specify a timetable for the committee to complete its work, which will theoretically culminate in “free and fair elections under United Nations supervision.”
Although the terms and procedures laid out in the document resolve the uncertainty surrounding the architecture of the process to draft a reformed Syrian constitution, they do not address the most pertinent matters of dispute among the blocs that will be represented in Geneva. The most pressing of these issues concerns the mandate of the committee itself: the opposition views the committee’s role expansively, to include the drafting of a new Syrian constitution; by contrast, the Syrian Government has taken a narrow view, insisting that the committee’s sole remit is to amend the present constitution. For its part, the UN has sidestepped the issue, investing the committee with power to pursue what it terms, vaguely, “constitutional reform.” Further matters of dispute include the nature of the “inclusive transitional governing body” specified under UNSC 2254 (but not mentioned in the terms of reference) and myriad specific issues at stake in the revision of Syria’s fundamental governing rules, such as the powers of the executive, the independence of the judiciary, and the role of highly powerful intelligence services.
Given the high degree of uncertainty surrounding the direction of these negotiations, it will be critical to look first at the composition of the various blocs within the constitutional committee itself. The 150-member committee is comprised of three 50-member blocs, selected, respectively, by the Syrian Government, the opposition, and the UN—the latter as ostensibly impartial representatives of Syrian civil society. Writ large, each bloc has divergent, and, to some degree, incompatible negotiating positions, while individual members within each bloc will represent the interests of varying constituencies whose ultimate buy-in will be essential to the process’s legitimacy inside Syria.
The membership of the Government list is uniquely unified among blocs due to its monolithic support for the Government of Syria; the list is nonetheless broadly divisible into two factions, both of which represent the interests of the Syrian Government and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad at the highest level, albeit in different ways. The first of these is a technocratic list. Essentially, these actors will constitute the backbone of the Syrian Government’s legal, administrative, and political interests in negotiations. The Government’s chief priorities will be to preserve Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to limit amendments to the constitution and mitigate efforts to curtail the power of the Syrian presidency, specifically in matters related to oversight of courts, security agencies, and the military. The second faction within the Government bloc consists of individuals chosen on the basis of personal and professional connections; as such, they represent the business and sociopolitical interests of the Syrian regime. Many of these actors lack relevant credentials and conventional expertise. (Indeed, this faction includes a professional basketball player and a poet.) Although these actors might appear to be ‘free-riders’ with little to contribute to the process, many do represent important constituencies, although indirectly. For example, prominent businessman Biraa Qaterji (a sanctioned oil and cereals trader whose substantial family enterprise is extremely close to the Al-Assad regime) is expected to effectively speak on behalf of the elite Syrian business community. Moreover, all of these actors are likely to parlay their roles on the constitution-drafting committee into future access to political and business prominence in Syria.
Image caption: UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem meet in Damascus to discuss the Syrian constitutional committee. Image courtesy of SANA.
In comparison to the Government bloc, the opposition list is highly fractured; however, due to the centrality of Turkey to the political and military platforms of the Syrian opposition, the Government of Turkey has exercised a strong influence on the selection of opposition members. As a result, Turkish influence will almost certainly drive the priorities of the opposition bloc during negotiations. Consequently, at least so far as northeast Syria is concerned, these actors are likely to emphasize Syria’s territorial unity as a means of disempowering the Syrian Democratic Forces and reining in the Self-Administration in northeast Syria, an emergent polity dominated by Kurdish political factions; indeed, Turkey views efforts to dismantle this entity as a national security priority. Further top priorities of the opposition bloc will likely include efforts to disempower Syria’s security services and dissolve the thicket of anti-terror legislation that the Government has wielded as a cudgel against opposition actors throughout the conflict—and, indeed, since the emergence of the Baath party as the core of the modern Syrian state. Moreover, the opposition list will likely use the committee as a space to push for its political objectives vis-a-vis detainees and the status of northwest Syria.
To an even greater degree than the opposition list, the membership of the civil society list is highly atomized. These members operate with a high degree of independence, and they effectively represent their own interests, or those of their narrow constituencies. Nominally, the members on the civil society list were selected by the UN on a non-sectarian basis as impartial representatives of Syrian civil society as a whole. Its membership consists primarily of skilled technocrats, including members with legal and humanitarian credentials, as well as activists and local notables. The influence wielded by the members of the civil society list is expected to be twofold. First, its members are expected to bring high-level technical expertise to the process. Second, the presence of local notables, such as Sheikh Daham Jarba, of the Shammar tribe, is likely to confer popular legitimacy on the process and its outcomes. Indeed, as nominal representatives of their ethnic, tribal, or geographic constituencies, these actors will play an important role in building, or withholding, buy-in that will be critical for the constitutional process to achieve legitimacy more widely.
Naturally, spoilers to the constitutional process abound. The most notable of these is the exclusion of the Syrian Democratic Forces or other representatives of the Democratic Union Party, the leading political faction in northeast Syria. These actors are the de facto local partners of the U.S.-led international coalition, and serve as administrative counterparts to wide-ranging humanitarian and developmental programming in northeast Syria. Their exclusion poses an overt challenge to the future role of international actors in Syria. Moreover, it is also a serious risk to the wider acceptance of the process locally. On September 29, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali stated that the inclusion of “a couple of Kurds … aligned with Damascus” does not equate to meaningful representation for the predominantly Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, which remain beyond the Government’s control.
More fundamentally, although the constitutional process is intended as a first step toward a UN-led political solution to the protracted Syria crisis, it is critical to bear in mind that the ongoing armed conflict remains the Government of Syria’s chief priority. To that end, there is little possibility that a negotiated breakthrough will prevent further Government bombardment in northwest Syria, which remains under opposition control, while negotiations to resolve the status of areas of Syria that are effectively under the purview of the U.S. or Turkey are a distant prospect. As such, despite the auspicious opening of negotiations in Geneva, the Government will have little incentive to hasten a political resolution to the conflict that will surely entail painful concessions regarding its own constitutional authorities. In effect, the Government will likely be capable of delaying progress more or less indefinitely. Indeed, so long as further fundamental aspects of the conflict remain unresolved, the peace process now underway in Geneva is likely to be yet another opportunity for the Government to bide its time until the emergence of favorable conditions for it to realize its interests.
For detailed analysis of the Syrian constitutional process and the members of the committee, please see COAR’s forthcoming report on the subject.
Damascus: On September 28, the governor of the Central Bank of Syria, Hazem Qarfoul, the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, and a number of prominent businessmen, including Mohammad Hamsho, Wassim Qattan, and Hussam and Biraa Qaterji, convened a high-level meeting in Damascus to discuss the Syrian business sector’s role in propping up the Syrian lira. Qarfoul subsequently stated that the meeting was directly linked to the Central Bank’s previously announced plan to establish a fund in coordination with the Damascus Chamber of Commerce to receive direct dollar deposits from prominent businessmen. The new initiative aims to stabilize the Syrian economy, and it will reportedly incentivize private deposits, which will be temporarily frozen and ultimately repayable in Syrian lira. The initiative will reportedly take the notable step of employing an exchange rate that will sit between the official rate and the actual market rate, to be updated on a daily basis. Business tycoon Samer Foz has reportedly pledged $10 million in support for the fund.
The unprecedented initiatives to stopgap the Syrian lira that are now being undertaken by the Syrian Central Bank and the Damascus Chamber of Commerce are indicative of the extreme economic hardship now facing the Syrian economy. In recent months, the Government has pursued a highly publicized crackdown on actors charged with corruption and terrorism offences, through which it has frozen and effectively appropriated the assets of tens of thousands of individuals, among whom are numerous high-level and wealthy figures. Now, Government efforts to ‘incentivize’ direct dollar deposits from prominent Syrian businessmen are likely driven largely by the same economic desperation that is at least partially responsible for the sweeping crackdown, specifically, the massive shortfall in the state budget. However, it would be reductive to characterize these measures simply as a Syrian Government crackdown aimed at confiscating the funds of elite businessmen; rather, it is important to note that to be a member of Syria’s foremost business circles is to be integrated, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Syrian regime itself, and the willingness to respond to such pressures and perform essential state functions (not only financially, but militarily and politically as well) is almost certainly a condition for access to these circles. For the foreseeable future, further efforts to incentivize dollar deposits are likely to be recurrent, due both to the deep instability and fluctuating value of the Syrian lira, and because of the persistent shortfalls in the Syrian central budget.
Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On September 30, the governments of Iraq and Syria announced the reopening of the Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim border crossing, in eastern Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, after seven years of closure. The governor of Anbar Province, Ali Farhan Al-Dalimi, stated that the opening is “a big step forward for commercial exchange, and toward strengthening relations” between Iraq and Syria. The official opening follows months of increasingly confident statements by Syrian and Iraqi officials regarding the status of the crossing, which was the subject of a trilateral summit conducted by Syria, Iraq, and Iran in Damascus in March. Nonetheless, the lack of resolution concerning critical elements of the crossing’s operation, including customs, local administrative procedures, and the volume of commercial traffic to be permitted have, until recently, been among the key factors preventing its opening. Moreover, periodic air strikes in Abu Kamal targeting Iranian forces have no doubt also been a factor delaying the crossing’s opening.
Analysis: The reopening of the Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim border crossing is an important waypoint in the restoration of commercial relations between Iraq and Syria; more fundamentally, however, the opening also signals that the progressive normalization of relations between the neighboring countries is likely to continue, irrespective of international pressures on Iraq to delay or forego re-engagement with the Syrian Government. Indeed, the primary Damascus-Baghdrad highway route remains cut off by the American garrison at At-Tanf; cross-border trade between Iraq and Syria is therefore now dependent on restored commercial access via the Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim crossing. Border authorities have agreed to permit 800 trucks to pass into Iraq from Syria through the crossing per day. Not only will this access revive Syria’s flagging export trade and decimated local production, it will also provide the Government with much-needed foreign currency. Moreover, Abu Kamal is a key element in Iran’s regional economic vision, which has been enunciated in numerous memoranda of understanding across multiple sectors which it has brokered with Syria and Iraq. As a result, the U.S. has been firmly opposed to restored commercial access via Abu Kamal and has applied deep political pressure to the Iraqi government to prevent its reopening. Further pressures on Iraqi companies and traders dealing in Syria or with Syrian counterparts are likely, as the scope of U.S. sanctions targeting Syrian interests regionally continues to widen; however, military pressure, including further airstrikes targeting Iranian positions in Abu Kamal, is also likely.
Ariqa, As-Sweida Governorate: On September 16, local media reported that the Government of Syria had settled the status of “dozens” of members of various militia groups who are wanted by the Government of Syria, in Ariqa, western As-Sweida Governorate. The agreement reportedly allows the combatants to retain their weapons; they will serve, in effect, as local police forces under the direct supervision of Government of Syria security forces in As-Sweida. Combatants who settle their status will have public charges against them dropped, although civil charges will remain in place. The agreement was directly facilitated by Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Bader Al-Deen Hasoun and Nazih Jarbou’, the commander of armed group Humat Al-Dayar. Humat Al-Diyar was created by Jarbou’ in 2013 with the approval of the Government of Syria’s Military Security branch. Since its establishment, the group has coordinated closely with Government forces to advance Government interests, including by quelling demonstrations, arresting activists, and pursuing individuals wanted on criminal charges in the governorate.
Analysis: From the perspective of the Syrian Government, the agreement to bring combatants in As-Sweida under the authority of its own security forces is an important breakthrough in efforts to gradually re-establish control in the predominantly Druze governorate, where kidnappings and violent incidents have become increasingly common. Previous Government initiatives to disarm local groups in As-Sweida and enlist their members have failed, and conscription and recruitment initiatives have sparked massive discontent among the local population. More importantly, such initiatives have also risked alienating the area’s highly influential Druze leadership, Mashayakh Al-‘Aqal, which has been cautious to prioritize local security concerns while disengaging from the wider armed mobilizations of the Syria conflict. As such, although the current agreement was facilitated on the local side by an armed group commander, it nonetheless carries the implicit endorsement of Mashayakh Al-‘Aqal, whose buy-in is considered all but essential for high-level political agreements in the governorate. In terms of impact, the agreement with the Government may have unintended consequences vis-a-vis the state of lawlessness that permeates As-Sweida; although the measure will bring combatants much-needed regular salaries, it will also formalize a process by which conflict actors, albeit local actors with deep roots in the community, are effectively deputized by the Government to fill vital state security functions, raising the possibility that lawless conditions will continue in a post-conflict environment.
Southern Idleb Governorate: On September 27, the Response Coordination Group issued a statement documenting the return of 5,476 civilians to communities in southern rural Idleb Governorate. According to the report, the total number of 39,903 individuals have returned to southern Idleb in the tenuous lull in bombardment that has permeated the area since the announcement of a Russia-brokered ceasefire on August 31. Nonetheless, the total number of returnees represents only a small portion of the total population displacement that has occurred in northwest Syria in the latest phase of the Government’s military campaign, which the Response Coordination Group estimates has displaced a total of 966,140 individuals.
Analysis: The return of civilians to communities in southern rural Idleb Governorate is highly significant given the high levels of destruction that communities in northwest Syria have experienced throughout the latest phase of the Government of Syria military offensive. Government forces have relied heavily on airstrikes and shelling to deliberately target vital infrastructure, hospitals, and schools in a concerted and systematic effort to displace the civilian population of target communities. The communities in southern rural Idleb to which IDPs are now returning, albeit slowly, will be in desperate need of basic services and emergency humanitarian relief. However, it is likely that the Government of Syria will once again resume its piecemeal campaign to capture frontline communities, which would almost certainly entail further heavy bombardment. The prospect of a renewed offensive raises the worrying prospect of serial ‘elastic’ displacement of residents from communities in opposition-held areas of northwest Syria.
Hol Camp, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On September 30, local media reported that 40 families (141 individuals) had been released from Hol camp, in southern Al-Hasakeh Governorate, to return to their communities of origin in Ain Al Arab (Kobani) and Sarin, located in eastern Menbij, Aleppo Governorate. Local sources estimated that a total of 1,136 individuals have left the camp between June 3 and late September, of whom 397 returned to communities in Deir-ez-Zor, 127 to Menbij, and 612 to Ar-Raqqa and Tabqa. Critically, these returns come under the auspices of a program put into effect by the Self-Administration in late May to facilitate the release of camp residents whose names are advanced (and to some degree vouched for) by tribal notables and the Self-Administration itself, on the basis that the individuals have no ties with ISIS. Separately, on September 29, UN-OCHA reported that 68,600 residents remained in Hol camp.
Analysis: Initiatives by the Self-Administration to secure the release of IDPs from Hol camp have been extremely cautious, primarily due to the large number of foreign nationals in Hol who are linked to ISIS, which further complicates the reintegration of IDPs from the camp. So far, efforts to facilitate the return of camp residents to communities in northeast Syria have primarily been concentrated in Deir-ez-Zor and Ar-Raqqa, where guarantees made by tribal mediators have been critical to securing return. In this context, returns from Hol to Ain Al Arab are of particular note; not only is Ain Al Arab one of the most prominent seats of Kurdish political power in northeast Syria, but the community was heavily besieged by ISIS from late 2014 to early 2015, during which time much of the overwhelmingly Kurdish population was displaced to Turkey. Given the ethnic makeup of Ain Al Arab and the prominence of ISIS-linked figures in Hol camp, the reintegration of Arab families from Hol in Ain Al Arab raises substantial concerns with respect to safeguarding, protection, and long-term social cohesion in the community. In effect, these dynamics are pointed reminders of the broader IDP reintegration challenges facing residents of Hol, where episodes of violence by ISIS-affiliated women in the camp against other IDPs and Asayish forces, as well as efforts to propagate ISIS doctrine, are an increasingly common occurrence. Given the slow pace of returns (and foreign repatriations) from the camp, pressures inside Hol are likely to intensify, and the camp is sure to remain a foremost concern for the foreseeable future.
Idleb City, Idleb Governorate: On September 28, a group of female activists in northwest Syria launched a protest campaign under the slogan “La Taksiro Qalami” (“don’t break my pen”), to challenge the suspension of international donor funding for the education sector in northwest Syria (see Syria Update September 12–17). The campaign began with a public demonstration at the headquarters of the Free Education Directorate in Idleb city on September 28, after which activists conducted a workshop to further mobilize local teachers and raise public awareness of the impact of the suspension on teachers and students in Idleb Governorate.
Analysis: It is highly noteworthy that the teachers’ campaign in protest of the suspension of education funding has been directed at the Government of Syria, the UN, and the donor community, rather than Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or the Salvation Government, which are, respectively, the dominant military and administrative actors in northwest Syria. Certainly, this is reflective of the fact that HTS and the Salvation Government have, in general, strategically limited their involvement (and interference) in the education sector; this decision has been driven by pragmatic considerations, namely the entities’ own inability to assume the high costs of education provision. However, it is also important to bear in mind that HTS has faced growing popular discontent and large-scale protests in the past month (see Syria Update September 5–11). As such, the group likely sees a practical benefit to tolerating civil dissent aimed at external actors over service provision that it can ill-afford to provide itself. Finally, it is important to note that the campaign is also driven by the economic impact of the funding suspension on teachers; the suspension will further shrink not only livelihoods opportunities but also the civil society space open to women in northwest Syria. Humanitarian and developmental employment, specifically in the education sector, has been one of the crucial entry points for women into Syrian civil society throughout the crisis. As support for these sectors shrinks, so too do opportunities for women to find well-paid employment.
Rukban, Homs Governorate: On October 1, the Government of Russia announced that the latest joint Syrian Government–Russian efforts to evacuate IDPs from Rukban and shutter the camp have failed due to the presence of the U.S. military garrison at At-Tanf, which is surrounded by a 55-km deconfliction zone that envelops Rukban. The statement declared that the U.S. is now solely responsible for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the camp. The announcement that Russia will abandon its initiative to evacuate Rukban is a surprise reversal of previously stated intentions, including a September 27 announcement of a new plan to evacuate the camp over the following 30 days, under the supervision of the UN and SARC. However, the plan was quickly abandoned; the governments of Syria and Russia now state that the Rukban Civil Administration and U.S.-backed armed opposition groups had prevented civilians from registering to leave the camp under the new initiative. According to the Russian statement, on September 29 when the new evacuation push began, only 336 camp residents left the camp through the Jleib humanitarian corridor, rather than the expected 2,000 evacuees.
Analysis: The closure of Rukban has been a consistent Russian objective in Syria throughout 2019; as a result, the announcement that Russia will give up its current efforts to shutter the camp should be seen not as a relinquishing of this objective, but as a change of tack. Russian (and Government of Syria) priorities concerning Rukban remain linked both to the unresolved status of camp residents and to the control of the deconfliction zone surrounding the camp. However, the clearest priority remains control of At-Tanf, the key entrepot to Iraq via the Damascus-Baghdad highway. At-Tanf is under the control of U.S. forces, supported by armed opposition groups that constitute the remnants of the disbanded Jordan-based Military Operations Center. For Russia, closing Rukban is a key precondition to wresting control of At-Tanf from U.S. forces. For that reason, on October 1, Russia publicly called for UN regional representatives to assess the U.S. actions vis-a-vis negotiations over the camp. (A decisive response is unlikely.) Naturally, these developments raise concerns over humanitarian conditions for the 12,700 individuals currently residing in Rukban, who have received only two aid convoys throughout 2019. In effect, the ability of the camp population to survive will likely be contingent on Russia. If Russia disengages from the camp, vital smuggling lifelines that Russian forces have clamped down on are likely to sustain remaining residents. However, it is also possible that Russia will seek to intensify pressure on camp residents in a bid to pressure U.S. forces at At-Tanf; in this case, further convoys from Damascus are unlikely, and camp residents will likely be compelled to negotiate increasingly limited access to food and aid.
Yamuk Camp, Damascus: On September 25, local media reported that IDPs from the predominantly Palestinian Yarmuk camp in southern Damascus city have begun to register their names to be allowed to return to the area. Although the Government has reportedly promised to facilitate returns to Yarmuk, no such returns have taken place since the Government re-established control over the area, in May 2018. Previously, Samir Al-Jazae’rly, a member of the Executive Committee of Damascus Governorate, stated that the return of Yarmuk residents would be initiated once the Government had assessed real property in the area and completed other procedural steps as per Law 10.
Analysis: The Government’s theoretical willingness to permit returns to Yarmuk is significant not only due to the community’s status as an important symbol of the conflict and its centrality to Syria’s Palestinian community, but also because it is likely to signal the way in which returns will proceed in other former opposition-stronghold areas surrounding Damascus. Yarmuk witnessed intense fighting among opposition- and Government-aligned forces and ISIS, and it was subjected to heavy siege by the Government that drove the majority of the population to evacuate by early 2016. The Governorate of Damascus has calculated that the total level of destruction in Yarmuk reaches 90 percent, which paves the way for reconstruction and dovetails with the Syrian Government’s wider intention to rehabilitate informal settlements, especially those with strong, cohesive linkages to the armed opposition. In light of these conditions, the Government of Syria’s calls for Yarmuk IDPs to register for return are unlikely to initiate returns to Yarmuk on any significant scale, which for the vast majority of Yarmuk remains effectively impossible. Moreover, IDPs are likely to face challenges in providing the documentation needed to validate their property claims, while fears of detention and public charges are also likely to deter them from even engaging in the claims process.
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.