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.
Syrian Government forces enter Ein Issa. Image courtesy of Al-Jazeera.
On October 13, in the face of rapid advances into northeast Syria by the Turkish-backed National Army, the Syrian Democratic Forces reached a military pact with the Government of Syria, paving the way for the return of Government forces to Self-Administration areas, and opening the door to eventual administrative reconciliation between Damascus and the Self Administration in northeast Syria. The agreement, brokered by Russia, comes as a bid by the embattled SDF “to repel this aggression and liberate the areas” captured by Turkey since the launch of the ‘Spring of Peace’ military operation on October 9.
Within days of launching ‘Spring of Peace’, the National Army, supported by Turkish airstrikes and heavy artillery bombardment, took control of the majority of Tell Abiad and Ras Al-Ain, seized a portion of the M4 highway, and advanced toward the strategic communities of Ein Issa and Tel Tamer. However, under the auspices of the new military agreement between the Government of Syria and the Self Administration, on October 14 Syrian Arab Army troops deployed to Ein Issa and Tel Tamer, as well as other strategically significant locations held by the SDF, including Ar-Raqqa city, At-Thawra, and rural Menbij, where they have effectively created a buffer to insulate Menbij from increasingly tense frontlines with the National Army. Meanwhile, on October 13 U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that the increased likelihood of U.S. troops becoming “caught between two opposing advancing armies” had forced the U.S. to initiate a “deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
The rapidly developing situation in northeast Syria is nothing short of a paradigmatic shift in the trajectory of the Syria conflict. The U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria (now underway, but by no means complete) will have a profound impact on wider regional dynamics; however, in the local context, its most profound and immediate effect has been to force the shotgun wedding between the SDF and the Government of Syria. The result is a potentially formidable military bloc that enjoys significant Russian support. Although the agreement has been met with ambivalence and a high degree of uncertainty on the local level, it is widely seen as a necessary step toward reversing Turkey’s military advances into northeast Syria. Now, wider clashes between the National Army and the newly aligned SDF and Syrian Government across northern Syria appear to be contained only by Russian mediation.
This new military partnership naturally raises important questions regarding the future administrative relationship between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria. On October 14, the Self-Administration released a statement clarifying that its deal with Damascus is, for now, only military in nature—its administrative entities “have not changed in any way, and the developments befit the stage through which we are now passing.” To that end, the contours of civil and administrative integration between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria will reportedly be defined in a meeting to take place in the coming days. That said, the conflict dynamics of northeast Syria are now taking on a new shape. Practically, the area covered by the potential Turkish ‘safe zone’ can be divided into three distinct areas, based on armed actor control, demographics, and strategic priorities; these areas have now been set on radically divergent trajectories. These three sectors are: the Ras Al Ain–Tell Abiad area, which is now almost entirely under Turkish control; Ain al Arab (Kobani), and the communities in the vicinity of Menbij; and the eastern Syria–Turkey border areas, to include Amuda and Quamishli.
The Ras Al Ain and Tell Abiad region was a natural location for the start of the Spring of Peace offensive, and is likely to be the heart of any Turkish ‘safe zone’ that materializes in northeastern Syria; securing this area is thus the primary Turkish priority in the coming weeks. This is due to the fact that the Ras Al Ain and Tell Abiad region is predominantly Arab and tribal in nature, with a minimal Kurdish population. To that end, Turkey has prioritized building relationships with tribal groups from this region, such as the Jiss, and components of the National Army are comprised of combatants from this region who were displaced to northern Aleppo; the fact that there is also a historic Turkman population in this region is of considerable importance to Turkey. Additionally, should the National Army continue to advance and secure the town of Ein Issa, it would further sever the M4 highway, and divide the Self Administration territorially.
Turkey’s intentions in this region must also be understood in light of the country’s two previous northern Syria military operations. The first, Euphrates Shield, brought the Aleppo northern corridor under Turkey’s total control militarily, and Turkey has since developed this region economically and administratively to the point that it is now essentially a Turkish protectorate inside Syrian borders. The second, Operation Olive Branch, captured Afrin, a historical stronghold of the PKK, and placed it under the control of the armed opposition, expelling Kurdish fighters and residents in large numbers. Now, Turkey’s intentions in northeast Syria represent some merger of these operations in the long term. In this way, Ras Al Ain and Tell Abiad should be considered as analogous to Jarablus in northern Aleppo, as the beachhead of a new Turkish state building initiative east of the Euphrates River.
Ain al Arab (Kobani) and Menbij are likely to become the major flashpoint communities in the Spring of Peace offensive. Control over this area, straddling the Euphrates River, is essential in order to link Tell Abiad to the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas. Additionally, Menbij is of particular importance to Turkey, considering that Turkey has also engaged in considerable tribal outreach with Arab tribes in Menbij, and again, many combatants in the National Army are originally from Menbij. However, these communities are also central to the SDF in terms of crossline trade, and Ain al Arab has particular symbolic significance due to its predominantly Kurdish population and its hard-won liberation from ISIS in 2015. Indeed, with Operation Olive Branch in Afrin as precedent, there is a widespread understanding that, should the National Army take control of Ain al Arab, the local Kurdish population will be forced to displace in large numbers and will likely be unable to return.
To that end, maintaining control of Ain al Arab and Menbij is likely to be the chief priority of the SDF and the Government of Syria. Consequently, Government forces have reportedly reinforced tense SDF frontlines with Turkish-backed armed opposition groups in northern and western Menbij. Reportedly, clashes in Menbij are ongoing, and on October 14, unconfirmed media reports stated that Turkish aircraft had bombed Syrian Government positions near that frontline. Thus, given the strategic value of the Menbij–Ain al Arab area, control over the communities may well be the critical factor setting the course for the whole of Turkey’s nascent military operations in northeast Syria.
The area stretching from Amuda and Quamishli to the Syria–Iraq border now constitutes the area of least priority to Spring of Peace operations. Throughout the conflict, the Government of Syria has maintained a presence in the Quamishli ‘security square’; now, under the terms of the agreement with the SDF, Government forces have retrenched in the border town, which serves as the Government’s strongest outpost in northeastern Syria. The strip of communities east of Quamishli is also critical to the power base of the SDF and the Self Administration in Syria, and is therefore an attractive target for Turkey; however, the area’s isolation and the robust Government presence in Quamishli are likely to dissuade Turkey from launching attacks in this region until its forces are capable of first securing the Tell Abiad-Ras Al Ain and Menbij-Ain al Arab border areas.
Ras Al Ain and Tell Abiad, Northeast Syria: As of October 15, UN and local NGO partners reported that approximately 194,522 people had been displaced throughout northeast Syria since the beginning of Turkey’s ‘Spring of Peace’ military offensive, on October 9. Thus far, the most deeply affected communities all fall within a band of territory between Ras Al Ain and Tell Abiad, much of which has been captured by Turkish forces. Most of the IDPs are reported to have settled with relatives in communities primarily in Al-Hasakeh Governorate, although large numbers of IDPs have also settled in northern Ar-Raqqa and eastern Aleppo governorates. The subdistricts now hosting the largest numbers of IDPs are Al-Hasakeh (88,346), Sarin (19,300), Ain al Arab (15,162), and Ar-Raqqa (12,278). Notably, on October 11 and 12, an estimated 5,033 residents of Mabruka camp (southwest of Ras Al Ain) evacuated to Areesheh camp.
Analysis: The possibility that SDF and Syrian Government forces will launch a counteroffensive to undo Turkish advances is worrying in its own right; however, this possibility is particularly concerning given the significantly reduced capacity of the humanitarian response. Several factors are critical in this respect. First, most humanitarian programming in the vicinity of the Syria–Turkey border was suspended in anticipation of Turkey’s ‘Spring of Peace’ offensive. Second, many INGOs have evacuated international staff, while local staff have in many cases have been displaced. Third, Turkish forces have seized control over a portion of the strategic M4 highway, which links Menbij to Erbil, effectively severing the cross-border supply line into northeast Syria. Many communities to which IDPs have been displaced are also likely targets of further military operations by Turkey—these potential targets include Ain al Arab, Tal Tamer, and Sarin (see In-Depth Analysis section above). Furthermore, Turkish bombardment has also disabled the Allouk water-pumping station, which supplies 80 percent of water in Al-Hasakeh Governorate, which has received the vast majority of the IDPs. These threats are likely to abate if Russia succeeds in brokering deconfliction between Turkish forces and the joint forces of the SDF and the Syrian Government; however, concerns over Areesheh camp will compound with time. Indeed, a reservoir near Areesheh has long posed a threat to the camp, given regular flooding and the possibility that the dam may collapse, while all previous efforts to evacuate Areesheh and close the camp have failed. If newly displaced IDPs remain in Areesheh into winter, they too will be exposed to these dangers.
Al-Quamishli, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On October 13, media sources reported that 785 individuals affiliated to some degree with ISIS had left Ein Issa camp as a consequence of Turkish shelling in the vicinity of the camp. Beginning October 9, Syrian Democratic Forces issued multiple statements accusing the Government of Turkey of targeting sites where ISIS-linked prisoners or their families are being held, including: Jirkeen prison (near Quamishli), the Ein Issa and Mabrouka camps, and Gurian prison. However, local sources denied any direct link between Turkish attacks and the freeing of ISIS affiliates from Gurian, and they rejected claims that Jirkeen prison and Mabrouka camp had been housing ISIS members when the Turkish offensive began. Nevertheless, with the onset of Spring of Peace operations, local rumors concerning the movements of ISIS-linked actors continue to circulate widely.
Analysis: Though ISIS is on the back foot and geographically constrained, the group—or elements loyal to it—remain a persistent threat in northeast Syria, and the unrest sown by the latest Turkish invasion may furnish the necessary conditions for its resurgence. Nonetheless, local sources cast significant doubt on widespread reports of ISIS attacks and rumors concerning the release of ISIS prisoners by overwhelmed and beleaguered SDF guards. For example, on October 9, media reports widely circulated by the SDF raised the alarm over a complex attack by ISIS cells in Ar-Raqqa city, in concert with the onset of the Turkish Spring of Peace operations. Although differing over the exact scale of the attack, later media reports indicated the incident had been limited to IEDs and resulted in no casualties. In the same vein, IDPs fleeing from Ein Issa camp, including young children, have routinely been labeled ‘ISIS sympathizers’ or ‘ISIS families’. It is imperative to note that such labels are highly problematic and, in many cases, outright incorrect, especially given the limited agency of the children in question. Concerning the trajectory of the conflict in northeast Syria, further clashes and shelling are almost certain to occur, as are further attacks that are likely to be attributed to or claimed by ISIS. Nonetheless, rumors concerning ‘ISIS’ activity in northeast Syria should be read with caution, now more than ever.
Damascus: On October 10, local media reported that the Government of Syria had lifted security restrictions for members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, effectively guaranteeing their safety—allowing them to freely enter and exit Syria and to conduct meetings inside the country without interference. Nominally, the decision implements Article 6 of the Constitutional Committee’s Rules of Procedure and Terms of Reference, which guarantees the safety of committee members. Already, these guarantees have been cast into doubt. On October 8, Muhammad Ali Sayigh, a member of the Constitutional Committee’s opposition list, was briefly detained by Military Security at the Lebanon–Syria border, reportedly while en route to Saudi Arabia. As of October 11, four members of the Constitutional Committee’s civil society list had announced their resignation; three of them cited cited security concerns for themselves and their families as the reason for their decision. (For further information on the membership of the Constitutional Committee, see: Syrian Constitutional Committee: Preliminary Background Note.)
Analysis: Lifting security restrictions on members of the Constitutional Committee is a fundamental first step in the nascent Syrian peace process. The detention of Sayigh and the announced resignation of four committee members over personal security concerns has raised doubts about the credibility of the process. Moreover, these developments threaten to derail the committee’s work indefinitely; its first session, scheduled for October 30, in Geneva, cannot proceed without a full slate of members. Government measures to guarantee the security of committee members are almost certainly intended to halt these mounting challenges. Although cautious skepticism regarding the Government’s ability to enforce these guarantees is warranted, the move is likely to assuage some of the rising concerns. This is especially true given the considerable emphasis the Syrian Government—and Russia—have placed on ensuring the success of the Constitutional Committee, which is a crucial step toward constitutional reform, and rehabilitation of the Government’s image both domestically and among the international community.
Aleppo City, Aleppo Governorate: On October 10, media sources reported that the Government of Syria had contracted Qaterji Group for the rehabilitation of Msalamiyeh Cement Factories, located in the vicinity of Aleppo city. The director of the General Establishment for Cement and Building Material, Ayman Nabhan, stated that the contract required the Qaterji Group to inject a total of 200 billion SYP (317 million USD at current market rates) into the venture, in return for an unspecified share of its profits. Nabhan did not disclose further details regarding the future management of the facilities or the timeframe for the contract. The site is said to have the capacity to produce 3 million tons of cement annually. Relatedly, further media reports indicated that Qaterji Group is currently negotiating to establish a 100-hectare real estate development zone in Sheikh Said, in southern Aleppo city.
Analysis: To date, public–private partnerships (PPPs) have been a key investment vehicle in Syria for large developmental projects, yet their use in the industrial sector has generally been limited. Perhaps the most notable implementations of PPP Law 5 (2016) have been in real estate, specifically the Marota City project (see the recent EUI study Phantoms of Marota City). However, writ large, the law is expected to enable the Syrian Government to undertake industrial and infrastructural rehabilitation on a broad scale and at limited direct cost. Notably, Syria’s PPP model is highly attractive for private capital investment as it is decisively tilted in the interest of private partners, who receive a lion’s share of profits, while influence exerted by the public sector party is limited. As such, the use of a PPP model to rehabilitate Msalamiyeh Cement Factories is noteworthy, especially given expectations that the reconstruction of Aleppo will create soaring demand for concrete. The involvement of the Qaterji Group is also notable, both due to the group’s intentions to usher in new developments in Aleppo and because of their place in the constellation of elite Syrian businessmen. In the past two months, Syria’s business community has been rocked by uncertainty, which is most pointedly illustrated by the fall from grace of Rami Makhoulf, in early August; Makhlouf had previously been considered an untouchable confidant of President Al-Assad, and Syria’s most powerful single business figure. Now, few businessmen enjoy seemingly stable relations with the Syrian regime; the Qaterji brothers—who have a growing investment portfolio and a seat at the table in the Syrian Constitutional Committee—are an exception. As such, the Qaterji Group will likely exercise considerable influence over the future course not only of Aleppo but of Syria itself.
Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus Governorate: On October 14, media sources reported that the Government of Syria National Security Bureau had denied reconciliation to approximately 3,250 males from Eastern Ghouta since the beginning of October. Reportedly, 3,000 of the affected individuals are from Duma city. The Government has variously justified its refusal to reconcile the individuals on the basis of several factors, including: ongoing communication with former opposition leadership evacuated to northern Syria; involvement in plotting ‘terrorist operations’; and the existence of pending civil charges against them over alleged involvement in the deaths of Government combatants during the period of opposition control over Eastern Ghouta. The affected individuals have reportedly been ordered to turn themselves over to local security branches. Notably, these events come amid the Government’s continued detention campaign across communities in Eastern Ghouta.
Analysis: On an individual basis, a variety of legal grounds have been used as pretext for detentions, prosecutions, and even executions targeting reconciled former opposition members in Syria, especially in recent months (see Syria Update September 18–24). However, the use of potential civil charges as a pretext for denying reconciliation raises several worrying and new prospects. Thus far, the Government’s involvement in civil cases against former opposition fighters has been restricted to passive tolerance. Now, however, by denying reconciliation on the grounds that such charges are pending, the Government has effectively taken an active, direct role in this process. This move suggests that in the future, such cases may proceed on a more expansive, systematic basis, or be driven more overtly by the Government itself. Moreover, the massive scale of the denial of reconciliation demonstrates the broad brush with which the Government has singled out former opposition strongholds—bypassing them for minimal restoration, enacting selective service provision, and punishing their populations. To this end, it should be noted that with reconciliation denied, the affected individuals have no meaningful recourse, and handing themselves in to local security branches is likely to be seen as tantamount to accepting detention.
Abu Kamal City, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On October 13, the treasurer of the Damascus and Rural Damascus Chamber of Industry, Maher Al-Zayyat, stated that the reopening of key Syrian border crossings—with Iraq at Abu Kamal and with Jordan at Nassib—has not yet had any positive impact on Syrian exports, or on the national economy more generally. Al-Zayyat noted that infrastructural damage to crucial Syrian industrial areas and high tariffs and import restrictions imposed by neighboring nations had blunted the anticipated benefits of restored commercial trade between Syria and its neighbors. The head of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Industry stated, separately, that Syria’s decimated electricity provision networks had had the greatest negative impact. Additionally, Jordan has enacted measures to bar the entry of 150 categories of Syrian products, including clothing, which has historically been an important Syrian export to Jordan.
Analysis: Although the opening of the Abu Kamal border crossing, on September 30, buoyed expectations for cross-border trade with Iraq and the revitalization of the domestic economy (see Syria Update September 25 – October 1), it is increasingly evident that the crossing’s reopening, in itself, is unlikely to be a productive step in this regard—primarily due to two main issues in key Syrian sectors. First: the manufacturing sector has been gutted by the conflict, which has caused widespread infrastructural damage, capital flight, and difficulties accessing inputs and credit. Second: the international trade sector has been adversely affected by the Syrian Government’s own direct interventions to shore up the manufacturing sector. Given the precarious state of domestic production, the Government of Syria has maintained high tariffs and tight import regulations; in effect, these protectionist measures on the trade through the Nasib crossing triggered retaliatory measures by the Jordanian government, which have further affected both Syrian traders and manufacturers. As such, Syria’s deep economic isolation is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, especially given that the Syrian Government is unlikely to remove these barriers.
Dar‘a Governorate: Between October 9 and 14, local sources reported that a series of civilian demonstrations took place in Jasim against the Government of Syria amid tightening security measures in southern Syria. Demonstrations reportedly spilled over into Dar‘a city and As-Sanamayn, where local sources reported that a local opposition group, Thouwar Al-Sanamayn, attacked the Criminal Security Headquarters and a checkpoint in the city, triggering clashes with Government forces in the area. These clashes reportedly resulted in the injury and death of several individuals. Subsequently, dozens of civilians reportedly protested in Dar‘a city, calling for the release of detainees and the fall of the regime. There, local sources report that demonstrators raided an office used by local Air Intelligence, and the commanders were forced to negotiate with leaders of the demonstration. Finally, civilians in Yarmouk have also threatened the local Security Committee with demonstrations, if the Government fails to halt arbitrary detentions and release detainees. Meanwhile, security incidents including IED attacks and targeted killings were reported in conjunction with the rising unrest in the governorate.
Analysis: The continuing popular unrest in southern Syria, along with the Syrian Government’s apparent inability to restore meaningful control, suggests that increasingly provocative, widespread, and potentially unified challenges to the Government of Syria in Dar‘a Governorate are likely. In fact, the snowballing impact of the events in Jasim indicates a growing solidarity in the area and the very real possibility of greater coordination among otherwise disparate local armed groups that remain deeply hostile to the Government of Syria. Meanwhile, the Government of Syria’s most recent appointment of new security officers in Dar‘a (see Syria Update October 2–8) has shown itself to be a counterproductive means of clamping down on the opposition and asserting control. More to the point, the measure joins a host of previous Government efforts to assert firmer security control in the south notwithstanding that it continues to pay lip service to the demands of local communities with regard to detainees, services, and rehabilitation. Neither prong of this initiative has been effective. Fifteen months since the capture of southern Syria, the area remains decidedly outside the Government’s grasp, and current conditions suggest that popular opposition to Government is only likely to grow.
Idleb City, Idleb Governorate: On October 8, media and local sources reported that Eastern Ghouta IDPs living in Idleb city had protested against the Salvation Government over its decision to evict the IDPs and their families from residential compounds where units have come under the ownership of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham affiliates. The Salvation Government had reportedly given the families eviction notices one week earlier, while HTS is said to have detained a member of the Eastern Ghouta IDP Council whose family refused to evacuate the building. The Salvation Government justified its decision to evict the IDPs on the basis of legal claims raised by apartment owners. To this end, it should be noted that the buildings in question had been erected by the Government of Syria as a public housing project, but were left incomplete and had reportedly been outfitted with basic services by humanitarian organizations; later, the buildings were claimed and sold by the Salvation Government to private individuals when, according to local sources, at least 100 IDP families were forced to sign nine-month rental contracts, without knowing who the new owners were.
Analysis: Armed actor interference, confiscations, and HLP have been serial issues throughout the Syria conflict, both in Government- and opposition-held areas. However, these concerns are particularly acute in northwest Syria. This is a result both of the concentration of donor-supported programming in the area and the massive, serial displacement and targeted bombardment that has destroyed significant housing stock, aggravating shelter needs. The recent evictions underscore the acute compliance concerns that exist for programmatic actors. In the present case, it is unlikely that the Eastern Ghouta IDPs will succeed in forcing the Salvation Government to give up its attempts to evict them, given that the competitive housing market in northwest Syria amplifies the strong interests at stake. Ultimately, such measures are likely to further undermine the Salvation Government’s persistent efforts to achieve meaningful community support.
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.