Syria Update

October 02 - October 08

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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.

Spring of Peace: Turkey Moves Closer to Northeast Syria Offensive

In Depth Analysis

On October 6, following a telephone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House released a statement indicating that Turkey will “soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation in Northern Syria.” Although the statement specified that U.S. forces “will not support or be involved in the operation,” it added that American troops will not be present “in the immediate area”—in effect, giving the green light for Turkey to undertake a long-anticipated military offensive east of the Euphrates River. The statement triggered a series of significant developments that have the potential to dramatically shape the military, political, and humanitarian contours of northeast Syria. On October 8, Turkey announced that its operations would begin “shortly,” and the situation on the ground continues to develop rapidly. U.S. forces have reportedly withdrawn from areas in Syria bordering Turkey, and Turkish troops are positioned in force on the northern side of the border between Tell Abiad and Ras Al Ain, the latter of which has reportedly been shelled by Turkish artillery. The anticipated military incursion has already had a deep impact in northeast Syria: local sources indicate that small numbers of residents of vulnerable communities, including Menbij, Tell Abiad, and Ras Al Ain, have already preemptively moved to Ar-Raqqa and Al-Hasakeh cities, and SARC and various NGOs have halted programming in border areas.

To date, analyses concerning Turkish military operations and Turkey’s adamant, repeated demands for a ‘safe zone’ in northeast Syria have been dominated by skepticism over the feasibility of such undertakings. Although a high degree of uncertainty over the exact shape of potential Turkish operations does remain, a military incursion of some kind in northeast Syria is more than plausible. President Erdogan has made repeated and escalating threats of a military incursion in northeast Syria since December 2018; what distinguishes the present context is that U.S. forces have now reportedly withdrawn from border areas. In effect, the draw-down opens the door to a Turkish military offensive in northeast Syria for the first time. Concerning the establishment of the ‘safe zone’ itself: throughout the Syria conflict, Turkey has mounted a coordinated campaign to build influence in border areas through expansive outreach to Sunni Arab tribesmen. Although this campaign has received far less attention than the tribal outreach Iran has undertaken in Kurdish-controlled areas of southern Deir-ez-Zor, it has been key to Turkey’s overall strategy in northeast Syria. To that end, Turkey has already built deep relations with tribal stakeholders in nearly every community along the Syria-Turkey border as a matter of coordinated policy, with the intention of paving the way for a ‘safe zone’ to be created. (This is explored in depth, on a community level, in the recent COAR report Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria.)

Naturally, the exact parameters of any ‘safe zone’ implemented by Turkey are a foremost concern; however, it is equally important to understand that Turkey’s overt objectives in northeast Syria may amount, in effect, to a form of political-demographic change, in order to contain what it views as the national security threat posed by the emergent Kurdish polity. The first such objective is the removal of YPG combatants from border areas. While it is true that many high-ranking SDF commanders have linkages to the YPG/PKK, as Turkey claims (indeed, some cases commanders are Kurds of Turkish, rather than Syrian origin), the SDF is nonetheless an important vehicle of local self-defense; regional military councils are ostensibly localized and responsive to community needs. However, more troubling is President Erdogan’s stated ambition to resettle as many as 3 million Syrian refugees in the ‘safe zone’ (see Syria Update September 12–17). Indeed, Turkey has publicized a plan to develop the safe zone into an industrial hub and economic enclave, along the lines of its development scheme now in effect in ‘Euphrates Shield’ areas. This plan is linked to Erdogan’s hopes of repatriating predominantly Arab Syrians currently living in Turkey to this ‘safe zone’ area. The explicit objective in so doing is to build out a putatively neutral buffer against the Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, and to dilute the influence of the Kurdish population.

To a large extent, the greatest uncertainty now concerns the SDF’s response to the anticipated incursion by Turkey. Already, the long-standing U.S.-SDF partnership is almost certain to unravel, perhaps beyond repair. On October 8, the SDF stated that “Washington stabbed us in the back by withdrawing from the border.” Most concerning for the northeast Syria–based international response is the possibility that the SDF and its political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council, will have no exit strategy to prevent the incursion except for reconciliation with Damascus. Indeed, a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria would almost certainly lead to protracted and multi-front conflict, including the possibility of offensives by Government forces and Turkish-supported armed opposition groups in Menbij, and by Syrian Government- or Iranian-linked militias in southern Deir-ez-Zor. To that end, on October 8, SDF commander Mazlum Abdi stated, “We are considering a partnership with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, with the aim of fighting Turkish forces.” Such a reconciliation was the subject of months of shuttle diplomacy between Quamishli and Damascus, until negotiations collapsed in late summer, partly due to American pressure; now, a detente between Quamishli and Damascus may be inevitable.

Finally, should Turkey succeed in militarily capturing portions of northeast Syria, the immediate impact on the Syria-based humanitarian response may be catastrophic. Access to areas captured by Turkey will almost certainly come under Turkish administrative control; as in the ‘Euphrates Shield’ region, access inside any ‘safe zone’ area will likely be restricted to organizations capable of working from Turkey, and organizations without Turkish registration will almost certainly be barred from entry. However, conditions may be dramatically more complicated if the SDC is compelled to negotiate a reunion with the Syrian Government. In that case, it is probable that access will become conditional upon Damascus registration—not only in border ‘safe zone’ areas, but throughout all of northeast Syria. Potential restrictions on humanitarian access, at this time, are particularly concerning; a Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria will likely cause widespread displacement,  drastically deteriorating humanitarian conditions, at least in the short term.

Whole of Syria Review

1. SIG Merges National Liberation Front and National Army

Northwest Syria: On October 4, Syrian Interim Government Prime Minister Abd Al-Rahman Mostafa announced the merger of the two armed opposition platforms supported by Turkey in northern and northwestern Syria: the National Liberation Front (NLF), based in Idleb Governorate, and the National Army, based in the ‘Euphrates Shield’ and ‘Olive Branch’ areas of northern Aleppo Governorate. Accordingly, NLF factions will be reorganized under the command of the National Army, although the merger has yet to be implemented. To date, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, the armed group that exercises effective military control over the majority of Idleb Governorate, has not commented on the merger. However, local sources report that historically fraught tensions between HTS and NLF factions are rising. Accordingly, HTS has heightened its screening of non-HTS combatants at all checkpoints in areas it controls; the group has also shortened the duration of military deployments to frontlines with Government forces for fighters who are not members of HTS—from several months to a maximum of seven days—effectively barring them from all but brief surge capacity support. Meanwhile, local sources reported that anti-HTS demonstrations took place in Atareb, Kafr Takharim, and Ma’aret An Nu’man on October 4.

Analysis: The merger of the NLF with the National Army coincides with two important developments that are of critical importance to the trajectory of northwest Syria. The first concerns the statements made by U.S. President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan regarding the increasing likelihood of Turkish military operations in northeast Syria (see In-Depth Analysis above). The second event took place on October 4, when Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that “large-scale combat operations [in Syria] are over” and it will be “impossible” to resolve the Syria conflict through military actions. Given this statement, major military offensives by Russia and the Government of Syria in northwest Syria are, for the time being, unlikely. To that end, it is increasingly possible that HTS will seize the opportunity to launch a preemptive assault on armed groups backed by Turkey in northwestern Syria. The NLF has long been viewed as the likeliest means by which Turkey could check the influence and expansion of HTS in northwest Syria; merging the NLF factions with the National Army may thus be a critical first step toward unifying armed opposition groups against HTS, which remains by far the most cohesive and formidable force in the area. Meanwhile, popular unrest in key communities in northwest Syria only increases the pressures mounting against HTS, as the group’s nominal control over northwest Syria remains fixed as the key impediment to politically or militarily resolving the status of the area.

2. Self-Administration Clamps Down on Public Employees, NGOs

Quamishli City, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On October 1, the Self-Administration Executive Council issued a directive to humanitarian organizations prohibiting them from employing, in any capacity, individuals who already work for the Self-Administration, under the threat of revoking the organizations’ licenses to operate in northeast Syria. In parallel, the council also issued a directive prohibiting employees of entities linked to the Self-Administration from taking on any work or receiving financial compensation outside the scope of their contracts with the Self-Administration. Employees who are caught violating these conditions will be prevented from working with the administration in the future, and will be subject to relevant “legal procedures.”

Analysis: Staffing has been a persistent locally contentious issue for humanitarian organizations operating in Syria. Indeed, as a result of the relatively high salaries they offer, international organizations have routinely been accused of ‘poaching’ experienced staff from local NGOs, as well as local councils and other governance and administrative bodies; anecdotally, many currently active public sector workers in Syria are said to also work in some capacity for international organizations. Although it is impossible to verify the extent to which public employees in northeast Syria are ‘moonlighting’ for NGOs, the timing of the Self-Administration’s directives to clamp down on humanitarian organizations is of particular concern. The threat of Turkish military operations has already triggered limited displacement in northern Ar-Raqqa Governorate; if Turkey does initiate a military offensive in northeast Syria, massive displacement throughout border areas can be expected, and open conflict is likely. As such, northeast Syria may now be on the verge of the most extensive fighting to touch the region since the capture of Ar-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor cities from ISIS, in late 2017. The possibility that humanitarian organizations may now lose staff as a result of the Self-Administration’s directives poses a considerable operational challenge, whereas the  threat of de-registration for those organizations threatens deep consequences for the humanitarian response as a whole. In accordance with the Self-Administration’s directives, increased vetting of local partners and staff can be expected, and some loss of local staff and implementing partners is likely.

3. Syrian State to Seize Properties Frozen Under Antiterror Law 19

Damascus: On October 3, the Syrian General Directorate for Real Estate ordered the Syrian Minister of Agriculture and Agricultural Reform to urgently implement a September 24 order for the state seizure of assets frozen under Law 19. In effect, the order transfers to the Government of Syria the ownership of assets frozen under Syria’s sweeping antiterror law. Relatedly, local sources provided a circular issued by the Baath Party Branch in Suran, Hama Governorate, urging party members to report to the party all cases in which property owners are unknown, or have been identified, according to the language of the directive, as “terrorists and combatants supportive of terrorism.” As per the document, the party branch will then communicate all information to “relevant entities” for use by “the committee for supporting families of martyrs.”

Analysis: The terms of various antiterrorism laws constitute perhaps the most serious HLP challenge in Syria. As a crucial mechanism used by the Government of Syria to target the armed and political opposition, antiterror legislation poses significant consequences not only for individuals’ legal status but also for key issues of wider concern, including returns, the implementation of donor programming, and, ultimately, reconstruction. Despite the impact of these laws, however, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to estimate the scale and scope of Syria’s wide-reaching antiterror legislation. Most concerning, however, is that individuals are not necessarily aware they have been targeted under the provisions of Law 19, and no meaningful due process is available to contest one’s legal status. Perhaps the most pertinent concern in the new seizure order is that the transfer of assets to the state is most likely irreversible. As such, the new orders may suggest that the Syria conflict is crossing a worrying threshold by aggressively implementing antiterror laws that were previously largely abstract.

4. Turkey Plans ‘Massive’ Industrial Zone, University Expansion in Northern Syria

Aleppo, Aleppo Governorate: On October 4, media sources reported that the Government of Turkey plans to establish a “massive” 15-hectare industrial zone in ‘Euphrates Shield’ areas of northern Aleppo. The planned project is said to encompass 700 factories producing myriad goods including plastics, textiles, shoes, and iron, and generating 7,000 jobs. Reportedly, the Government of Turkey plans to implement a similar industrial project in the ‘safe zone’ in northeast Syria. Additionally, on October 4, media sources reported that Gaziantep University will open three faculties in northern Syria: Islamic studies in A’zaz, education in Afrin, and economics and administrative studies in Al-Bab.

Analysis: Although Turkey’s plans to create a manufacturing hub in northern Syria are in some sense a continuation of previous Turkish efforts in the area, the massive scale of the undertakings now being proposed signals the realistic possibility that Turkish intervention will irreversibly alter the economic balance of northern Syria—in part by effectively isolating Aleppo city. In general, Turkey has sought to control local administration, military factions, and—to a large extent—the humanitarian response in ‘Euphrates Shield’ areas. Consequently, in a number of crucial respects, communities such as Al-Bab, Jarablus and A’zaz now function as Turkish communities. Turkey’s plans to tighten its economic dominion over northern Syria will further this objective. However, among the most significant consequences of the Turkish intervention in northern Syria is the likelihood that it will dramatically undercut Aleppo city, the traditional commercial and manufacturing hub of northern Syria, and an economic engine for Syria as a whole. On the local level, such changes would inevitably slow the economic and physical rehabilitation of Aleppo; at the national level, in the long term, they would be certain to blunt Syria’s post-conflict recovery more generally.

5. High-Level Security Reshuffling in Dar’a Raises Fears of Crackdown

Dar’a City, Dar’a Governorate: On October 1, local and media sources reported that the Government of Syria had reshuffled two top-level security offices in southern Syria. Reportedly, Qahtan Khalil, a former deputy head of Air Intelligence, has been appointed as head of the Security Committee in southern Syria, while General Khardal Dyoub will serve as head of the Air Intelligence unit in Dar‘a Governorate. Khalil is noted for his involvement in Government military operations in Darayya in 2012, and is implicated in the deaths of prisoners at the hands of the Air Intelligence Investigation Branch at Mazzeh Airport.  Meanwhile, Dyoub reportedly played a direct role in the chemical attacks carried out by the Government during the siege of Eastern Ghouta. Local sources indicate that the appointments have triggered widespread local concerns that the Government intends to crack down through stricter security measures and, potentially, military operations in southern Syria. Meanwhile, local sources report that between October 1 and 6, eight assassinations took place in Dar‘a Governorate, continuing the pattern of attacks targeting Government affiliates, reconciled combatants, and members of local municipalities.

Analysis:  The appointment of military-security figures with reputations for a willingness to use extreme force to quash the armed opposition underscores the Government’s willingness to respond aggressively to rising lawlessness in southern Syria. Indeed, from the perspective of the Government, the conditions prevailing in Dar‘a all but necessitate a highly symbolic reshuffling of top-level security apparatus figures, as it seeks to re-establish some control over the restive area. Such measures, however, will do little to address the key drivers of popular unrest in southern Syria: the Government is likely incapable of restoring services, and state authorities have repeatedly rebuffed local demands concerning the status of detainees. The most recent Government initiative addressing the issue, the presidential amnesty in Decree 20, has made no progress on the highly sensitive detainee file (see Syria Update September 12–17). As such, there is no clear end in sight to the escalating tensions; should the Government continue its provocative attempts to assert authority, it is all but certain to fuel further discontent.

6. Deficit Looms as Government Issues 2020 Budget

Damascus: On October 7, various media sources began to circulate details of the Government of Syria’s draft 2020 budget. The most consequential detail to emerge concerns a ministerial decision issued by Prime Minister Imad Khamis specifying that the budget be calculated at a rate of SYP 435 to the dollar (the same exchange rate used in the 2019 budget), despite the fact that the black market exchange rate has since climbed precipitously to SYP 649 per USD. According to statements by the Ministry of Planning, the 2020 draft budget weighs in at SYP 4 trillion ($6.16 billion at current market exchange rates), with a deficit of SYP 1.4 trillion ($2.16 billion). The largest single allocation disclosed thus far is for electricity support, totaling SYP 711 billion ($1.09 billion), while a further SYP 333 billion ($513 million) has been allocated to stabilize consumer prices. Notably, the budget slashes allocations for fuel and gas from SYP 343 billion to SYP 11 billion ($17 million).

Analysis: While individual allocations are indeed important signals of the Syrian Government’s political priorities, by far the most significant aspect of the 2020 budget is its rapidly declining size in real dollars. Despite the nominal budget increase (in lira) of approximately 3 percent as compared with 2019, the actual size of the Syrian state budget, approximately $6.16 billion, represents a massive decline from the $8.34 billion budget of 2019. This is primarily due to the declining value of the Syrian lira. To grasp the true extent of this rapidly accelerating problem, one need only consider that inflationary pressures were already a concern when the 2019 budget emerged; at that time, the lira traded at approximately SYP 465/USD (see Syria Update October 18–24, 2018). Holistically, the 2020 budget is indicative of the dire fiscal status of the Syrian state and its increasingly limited capacity to prop up vital sectors. The most notable decline is the shrinking allocation for fuel and gas support. It should be noted that 2019 witnessed the suspension of the Iranian credit line for fuel purchases; the Syrian Government may now be passing the costs of this shortfall onto the Syrian public. However, it is also important to bear in mind that, due to the declining value of the lira, the actual value of state support is declining in all sectors. Ultimately, the greatest consequence of the shrinking Syrian budget will be to push the burden of rising costs further onto Syrian households.

7. As Iran Eyes Syrian Bauxite Mines, Two-Pronged Investment Strategy Takes Shape

Qalamoun Mountains: On October 7, local media sources, citing Iranian state media, reported that the Government of Iran intends to invest in Syria’s reserves of bauxite, an ore crucial for aluminum production. According to local sources, the investments are likely to target mines in Qalamoun, in Syria’s eastern coastal mountains. Iran is reportedly “facing a crisis in the aluminum industry” due to a shortage of bauxite, which has crippled Iran’s domestic manufacturing and automobile industry. In mid-September, Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Suleiman Ghanem traveled to Tehran to discuss Iranian investment in multiple sectors of the Syrian economy, including oil, petroleum, and minerals. At that time, Iranian Industry, Mining and Trade Minister Reza Rahmani stated that Syria had “about 20 billion tons of mineral reserves,” adding that the robust framework for bilateral economic cooperation between Iran and Syria—involving Iranian technology, technical assistance, and direct investment—augurs the potential for “vast cooperation,” including in the mining sector.

Analysis: Iran’s investment agenda for post-conflict Syria is taking shape around two core principles: satisfying Iran’s own domestic needs and building its power base inside Syria. To date, large-scale Iranian investment in Syria has aimed to satisfy Iran’s own resource and logistical needs. These have included agreements to rehabilitate or create rail networks, seaports, and cross-border facilities, which it requires in order to export Iranian goods not only to Syria but to the wider Mediterranean (for more on Iranian investments in rail, seaports, and the Abu Kamal border crossing, see Syria Updates for July 4-10, August 8-21, and September 25-October 1 respectively). Investment in bauxite underscores this trend and highlights that, as it is currently configured, foreign investment in Syria (particularly on the part of Russia and Iran) will not rehabilitate Syria’s most vital economic sectors or stabilize the flagging economy. Indeed, the second pillar of Iran’s post-conflict Syria investment strategy depends, to a certain extent, on the continuing weakness of the Syrian economy—specifically, the Syrian state’s inability to meet the needs of remote communities. Through targeted direct service provision, micro-finance, religious outreach, and military recruitment, Iran has sown influence among the most marginalized Syrian communities, especially in rural Deir-ez-Zor but also in southern Syria, Rural Damascus, and Aleppo. Given the weaknesses of the Syrian economy, and the chronic shortfalls in service provision, especially in peripheral areas, Iran is likely to continue to pursue both pillars of its economic agenda in Syria for the foreseeable future.

8. Rural Damascus Allocates 5 Billion SYP for Reconstruction, 3 Billion to Maliha

Maliha Town, Rural Damascus: On September 21, media sources reported that the Governorate of Damascus had allocated SYP 3 billion ($4.6 million) for the reconstruction of Maliha subdistrict, out of a total of SYP 5 billion ($7.7 million) allocated for the reconstruction of Rural Damascus areas as a whole. SYP 200 million ($308,000) was reportedly allocated for the rehabilitation of services in Maliha town. These allocations were announced during a visit to the area by Governor of Damascus Alaa Mounir and various representatives of the Governorate Council, as well as Minister of Agriculture and Agricultural Reform, Ahmad Al-Qaderi. Notably, the Government of Syria previously estimated the cost of the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Eastern Ghouta communities at SYP 450 billion ($693 million).

Analysis: The selection of Maliha for rehabilitation over other communities of greater strategic importance to the holistic revitalization of Eastern Ghouta naturally calls attention to the nebulous selection criteria that govern the Syrian state’s approach to post-conflict recovery. In the case of Maliha, it is important to note that the community has already benefited from high-level intermediary intervention, which overturned arbitrary security policies barring return (see COAR’s recent thematic report Intermediaries of Return). Consequently, although the specific drivers of the Government of Syria’s decisions on returns are surely multifaceted, it is likely that, in many instances, these decisions depend upon personal connections, business relationships, and the possibility of negotiations brokered by key intermediaries connected to both the communities and the state. More generally, however, it is important to note that the Government’s allocation for rehabilitation in Maliha falls far short of local needs, to say nothing of the needs of Eastern Ghouta as a whole. While it is generally understood that selective resource distribution by the state is likely to be a key driver of intercommunity conflict in the future, it is unlikely that targeted rehabilitation investments will actually be effective in achieving their purposes if they are isolated from wider, more systematic interventions.

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.