Syria Update

October 16 to October 22, 2019

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The Syria Update is divided into two sections. The first section provides an in-depth analysis of key issues and dynamics related to wartime and post-conflict Syria. The second section provides a comprehensive whole of Syria review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance.

Putin and Erdogan strike deal to split northeast Syria

In Depth Analysis

On October 22, following a bilateral summit in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan unveiled a ten-point action plan that solidifies Turkish military gains in northeast Syria and draws a roadmap for Russian military police and Government of Syria forces to deploy across wide swathes of the Syria-Turkey border east of the Euphrates River. The agreement sets forth a rapid timetable for military deployments that will create several distinct zones of influence in northeast Syria. In areas that have already been captured by the Turkey-backed National Army between Tell Abiad and Ras Al-Ain, the agreement preserves “the established status quo” (i.e. Turkish military control) to a depth of 32 kilometers. In remaining border areas east of the Euphrates River—including northern Hasakeh and northeastern Aleppo governorates—Russian military police and Government of Syria border guards will “facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons” to a depth of 30 kilometers from the border; according to the agreement, this will take place within 150 hours, beginning October 23. Russia and Turkey will undertake joint military patrols to a depth of 10 kilometers across the border, with the exception of Turkish-controlled areas and Quamishli city. Finally, the YPG will also be forced to withdraw from Tel Rifaat and Menbij, which will presumably come under Government of Syria control.

The agreement is the latest development in the rapidly evolving political and military dynamics of northeast Syria, following the military agreement between the Self-Administration and the Government of Syria and the announced withdrawal of U.S. forces. Although the Russian-Turkish deal to split areas of influence in northeast Syria will shape the trajectory of northeast Syria as a whole, its impact will be particularly deeply felt in several key respects, to include ongoing political negotiations between the Government of Syria and the Self-Administration; the potential breakup of the SDF; and the status of opposition-held northwest Syria, which now comes into sharper relief as the looming priority in the Syria conflict.

Russian President Valdimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi to discuss the situation in Syria.
Image courtesy of Voice of America.

Politically, the agreement dramatically narrows the scope for negotiations between the Self-Administration and the Government of Syria. The October 13 agreement between the government and the SDF stipulated that Government forces would deploy to border areas; however, it avoided concerns such as security control over population centers and the nature of future administrative reintegration. ‘Final status’ issues such as these remain the remit of negotiations to be concluded through Russian mediation. Certainly, citizenship for Kurds, a separate Kurdish education curriculum, and the appointment of a new, Kurdish, governor in Al-Hasakeh are likely to be important demands of the Self-Administration. To that end, some modest concessions on the part of the Government of Syria are likely. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has hinted that constitutional recognition for Syrian Kurds is probable, noting that Russia’s “goal is to create a situation where all Kurdish organizations in Syria are woven into the country’s legal framework and constitution.” In general, Russia has prioritized winding down the Syria conflict, and pressure applied by Russia to Damascus will be a key factor in extracting further concessions. However, by constraining the space for military dimensions of these negotiations, the Turkish-Russian agreement puts real limitations on the ability of the Self-Administration to negotiate a favorable political settlement in matters of great material impact.

In this context, the survival of the SDF as a cohesive military force is now deeply challenged. With various sections of northeast Syria now falling under the military purview of Turkey (Peace Spring areas), Russia (most border communities), and the Government of Syria (Menbij and Quamishli), the  fragmentation of the SDF on a geographic basis is distinctly possible. One important question is the means by which Russia and the Government of Syria will implement the agreement with respect to the YPG, the core of the SDF. It is by no means certain that either actor will adopt the maximalist view of Turkey that all of the SDF is indistinguishable from the YPG. More broadly, local sources report that morale within the SDF has cratered since the U.S. military withdrawal from northeast Syrial. The SDF has resorted to increasingly desperate last-ditch attempts to gin up international support, although among the PYD, the ideological backbone of the YPG (and therefore, the SDF), a distinct sense of resignation is now apparent. As such, if the SDF does not come under direct Russian or Government of Syria command as a whole, it is almost certain that Arab and tribal components, as well as combatants in areas that are ‘peripheral’ to the Kurish power base, will begin to break away from the SDF as they adjust to evolving security landscape of northeast Syria.

Finally, by forcing the removal of “YPG elements” from Tel Rifaat and Menbij, the agreement insulates the Turkish-controlled northern corridor areas and casts renewed attention to northwest Syria. Removing the SDF from its westernmost outposts in Menbij and Tel Rifaat has been a key Turkish priority in northwest Syria. Indeed, the YPG/SDF presence in Menbij was the chief concern underpinning the so-called ‘Menbij roadmap’, a largely unsuccessful platform for military cooperation between Turkey and the U.S., while Tel Rifaat has frequently been used by YPG combatants as a foothold for launching insurgent attacks on Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas. To this end, in April, National Army units backed by Turkey launched a military offensive to capture the Tel Rifaat, only to see military operations grind to a halt due to difficult terrain, extensive landmines, and the slowdown in the parallel Government of Syria offensive on opposition-held areas in southern Idleb and northern Hama governorates. Now, (in theory) the Russian-Turkish agreement realizes Turkish priorities in both Menbij and Tel Rifaat; in so doing, it draws attention to the opposition-held northwest. Throughout the Syria conflict, major military offensives have often been confined to a single front. If the Russian-Turkey agreement is successful in resolving the political and military status of northeast Syria, it is almost certain that conditions will be conducive for all parties to turn their attention to northwest Syria. In this context, it is worth noting that in a rare visit to frontlines in northwest Syria on October 22, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stated that Syria troops there “are now ready to receive and execute the order when the time is right.”

Whole of Syria Review

1. Government resumes military operations in northwest Syria

Idleb and Hama governorates: Throughout the reporting period, media sources indicated that heavy Russian airstrikes and Government of Syria shelling targeted various frontline communities in southern and southeastern Idleb Governorate. Media and local sources reported at least 60 airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of at least two civilians, scores of injuries, and significant damage to frontline communities in Idleb. In response, armed opposition groups reportedly shelled Government of Syria positions in northwest rural Hama, southern rural Idleb, and western Aleppo Governorate, and repelled several incursion attempts made by Government forces. Most recently, on October 22, local sources reported that Russian military reinforcements had been deployed to frontline communities in southern Idelb and Kabani, in northern Lattakia Governorate.

Analysis: The resumption of heavy aerial and ground attacks in northwest Syria signals that a renewed Government of Syria military offensive in this area remains a distinct possibility, in spite of the ongoing Government of Syria deployments in the northeast. In the past, the Government of Syria has generally undertaken large-scale military operations in isolation, thereby avoiding overstretching its forces by deploying across multiple fronts. However, the Government has also undertaken continuous aerial bombardment as a means of applying consistent pressure to areas in which it is unable to launch major ground operations. In light of the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria, a simultaneous large-scale military operation  in northwestern Syria may be part of a quid pro quo agreement between Turkey and Russia, according to which Turkey will permit an offensive in northwest Syria—where it exercises nominal influence over armed opposition groups—in return for concessions in northeast Syria, where Russia is now acting as chief mediator between the Kurdish Self-Administration and the Government of Syria. Thus, while a Government offensive in northwest Syria appears unlikely for the time being, it cannot be ruled out entirely.

2. Government deploys security officers to Ar-Raqqa, signaling likely effort to restore administrative control

Ar-Raqqa Governorate: On October 17, media sources reported that the Government of Syria had issued a decision to deploy to Ar-Raqqa Governorate 12 high-ranking military and police officers from security branches in various other governorates. The officers have deployed to Ar-Raqqa city, Tabqa city, Ain Eissa district, and Jurneyyeh subdistrict. Russian military forces had already been deployed to many of these areas—moving in as U.S. troops withdraw from Syria—reflecting the pace at which the military agreement between the Government of Syria and the Self-Administration is taking shape.

Analysis: For humanitarian and developmental programmers, the degree to which the Government of Syria intends to impose administrative control over much of northeast Syria is now a critical question (for more information, see COAR paper on Potential Governance in Northeast Syria). The Government of Syria is more likely to regain full control of Arab-majority and peripheral communities than of predominantly Kurdish communities in northern Hasakeh and northeastern Aleppo, making its decision to deploy military officers to Ar-Raqqa Governorate unsurprising. Ar-Raqqa is a predominantly Arab area, where the SDF has long been unpopular among elements of the local population and whose Arab tribal leaders have maintained open channels with Government of Syria stakeholders. The deployment of security officers to Ar-Raqqa city is also of particular importance given that the city is the administrative capital of the governorate. As such, the increased presence of high-ranking Government of Syria security officers, as opposed to military officials, in the cities of Ar-Raqqa and Tabqa is likely an irreversible step toward the Government assuming administrative control of Ar-Raqqa. Pending ongoing negotiations between the Government and the Kurdish Self-Administration, government registration and engagement may become critical in order for organizations to maintain programmatic access; international actors must prepare for new administrative realities in order to avoid service gaps in ongoing programming.

3. Lebanon’s massive protest movement poses risks to Syria response

Lebanon: On October 17, nationwide protests erupted in Lebanon, triggered, ostensibly, by the Lebanese Government’s intention to impose new taxes as part of the newly drafted 2020 state budget. Protestors, reportedly numbering in the millions across Lebanon, have called for the resignation of the Cabinet, which they accuse of widespread corruption. In response, on October 21, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri presented a reform package, which appears to have been met with dissatisfaction by protesters. As of writing, large-scale protests and strikes continue throughout the country, with protesters strategically cutting off roads and highways. Amid Lebanon’s political uprising, Government of Syria television stations, such as Akhbariyya Suriya, have increasingly called for Syrian refugees to return to Syria.

Analysis: The political, economic, and social trajectories of Lebanon and Syria are deeply intertwined; thus far, however, the civil movement in Lebanon has focused its ire on the Lebanese political and business class. However, amid growing civil unrest, Syrian refugees may become increasingly vulnerable for two reasons. First, unrest and instability in Lebanon will certainly lead to increased calls from the Government of Syria, and perhaps the Government of Lebanon, for the return Syrian refugees to Syria. For years, political rhetoric in Lebanon has focused on Syrian refugees as a primary cause of Lebanon’s economic hardship, which has naturally created growing tensions between the Lebanese population and Syrian refugees. Should the protests continue, Lebanon’s political leadership is likely to attempt to redirect public anger toward Syrian refugees as a means of self-preservation. Second, the civil movement has already had several direct impacts on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Mobility and transportation are now severely restricted throughout Lebanon, impeding access to refugee camps, host communities, and project sites, forcing many response staff to work remotely and suspend programming. Given Lebanon’s importance as a response hub, the trajectory of the ongoing civil movement in Lebanon is now a major concern for the entire Syria response.

4. Hezbollah fortifies its presence in Qalamoun

Qarra, western Qalamoun: On October 21, media sources reported that Hezbollah had deployed new military reinforcements to Qarra, in the western Qalamoun. As per these sources, Hezbollah forces seized control of several buildings, erected barricades, and denied civilians access to the area. Other sources indicated that these deployments were concurrent with Hezbollah patrols on the roads leading to Qarra. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the increased Hezbollah military presence is due to the group’s efforts to establish a new air defence base in the vicinity. Critically, Hezbollah’s new security presence in Qarra has disrupted transportation routes throughout the Qalamoun, affecting supply lines of the National Defense Forces. In response, Hezbollah and NDF groups reportedly exchanged fire, although the tensions were quickly resolved.

Analysis: Hezbollah’s new military presence and securitization in Qarra are particularly significant given that this development presents a major obstacle to refugee return and the restoration of normalcy in the western Qalamoun, highlighting persisting HLP risks in the region. Hezbollah has always maintained a considerable military presence in Qalamoun, and it exerts influence over economic activities, access, and return policies in the region. Hezbollah’s mere presence, alongside its confiscation of civilian houses and its extreme securitization measures, are among the primary impediments to return in the Qalamoun region. Indeed, the limited and conditional nature of returns to Qusayr—a strategic base for Hezbollah—demonstrates the challenges to any future returns in the region (see Syria Update September 18–24). The displaced former residents of Qarra (many of whom are in Lebanon) are increasingly unlikely to be willing or able to negotiate return to Syria for the foreseeable future. Hezbollah is expected to retain its military presence in the Qalamoun, thereby narrowing the possibility for a post-conflict recovery in this region.

5. Government security forces crack down on pro-Government militias in Hama

Tal Salhab, Hama Governorate: On October 22, media sources indicated that Government of Syria security forces had encircled Tal Salhab—a predominantly Alawite community in western Hama—for at least a week, in an attempt to crack down on local pro-Government militias in the area. Clashes between government security forces and these militias have been recurrent throughout the reporting period, resulting in the death of several Government of Syria security forces. As per these media sources, the Government has circulated a list containing the names of 400 individuals wanted by the Government on suspicion of theft, kidnapping, and impersonation of military personnel. A considerable number of these individuals are already reportedly members of Government of Syria Air Intelligence units. The decision to encircle Salhab and crack down on these pro-Government combatants reportedly came after militia leaders threatened high-level Government military commanders.

Analysis: The Government of Syria has engaged in a crackdown on increasingly unaccountable pro-Government militias throughout Syria for at least the past six months; however, a crackdown on local militias in a predominantly Alawite area is particularly noteworthy. Alawites are a core constituency of the upper echelons of the Assad regime, and the Alawite community in general has been staunchly supportive of the Government of Syria since the start of the conflict—although this support has not necessarily won these communities  consistent, reciprocal attention from the Government. The Government’s crackdown on Alawite militias, and its reported rejection of mediation by Alawite community leadership, indicates its determination to pursue a policy of enforcing command and control at all costs. That said, while these efforts are ostensibly aimed at restoring centralized military control to government-held areas, curtailing local militias is also likely to disrupt war economy and patronage networks, which could ultimately further fuel unrest and lawlessness.

6. Government of Syria ramps up ‘civil charge’ detention campaigns in Rural Damascus

Rural Damascus: On October 19, media reports indicated that Government of Syria Military Security had detained at least 15 individuals from Saqba and Kafr Batna, in rural Damascus. These detentions were reportedly carried out under the pretext of both civil charges (individuals filing criminal cases against other individuals) and military conscription. Similar detention campaigns were reported in Al-Tall, Artouz, and Dhameer, on October 21. These large scale detention campaigns in Rural Damascus follow previous reports suggesting that the Government of Syria’s National Security Bureau had refused to accept the reconciliation of 3,250 individuals from Eastern Ghouta, as of October 14, on the basis of these individuals’ alleged ties to or communication with opposition groups, as well as civil charges filed against them (see Syria Update October 9–15).

Analysis:  The Government of Syria’s crackdown on reconciled communities under the pretext of outstanding civil charges suggests that it is now taking a systematic approach to resolving civil cases. Civil cases filed against reconciled individuals are thus becoming a defining feature of reconciled areas. In effect, reconciled individuals now regularly face criminal charges filed by other individuals in the community for actions taken when the area was under the control of the armed opposition, despite their reconciliation with the Government. Indeed, this could be presented as a form of transitional justice, in that it is an attempt to hold individuals to account for their actions during the conflict; however, considering that civil cases are filed with and enforced by the Government of Syria, the prosecution of civil cases should instead be viewed as a form of victor’s justice. For this reason, widespread detention campaigns are expected to remain a key feature of the Government’s policy vis-a-vis reconciled communities.

7. Security in southern Syria continues to deteriorate as clashes break out in As-Sanamayn

As-Sanamayn, Dar’a Governorate: On October 22, media sources reported that clashes took place in As-Sanamayn, in central Dar’a Governorate, between local Government of Syria forces and a local armed group, Thouwar As-Sanamayn. As a result of these clashes, all Government schools and public institutions were closed throughout the city.

Analysis: Violent unrest has been routine in southern Syria since the start of 2019; the recent events in As-Sanamayn are a further indication that this unrest shows no signs of abating. This unrest stems from the Government’s failure to meet the demands of much of the population in southern Syria with respect to detainees and the restoration of state services. Widespread detentions and regular armed confrontations between insurgent armed groups and Government forces remain relatively common, as do clashes between different pro-Government security forces; as central communities in Dar’a, As-Sanamayn and Dar‘a city have become the focal points of much of this instability. The Government of Syria remains heavily focused on ongoing events in northeast Syria and a potential military offensive in northwest Syria; the precarious security situation in southern Syria is thus only likely to deteriorate in the coming weeks.

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.