Syria Update

October 23 to October 29, 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.

Torture Report Underscores Deep Resonance of Detention

In Depth Analysis

On October 21, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) published a widely circulated report documenting the scope of detention in Syria, an issue which remains one of the touchstones of the Syria conflict. In large measure, the report is a catalog of the various forms of abuse to which individuals detained by the Government of Syria have been subjected throughout the conflict, including physical abuse, deprivation of food and medical care, sexual violence, and psychological torture. The report also attempts to document the scale of detention in Syria; according to SNHR, 14,131 detainees have died in the custody of the Government of Syria throughout the conflict, while approximately 130,000 Syrian detainees remain unaccounted for. Presumably, the majority of these individuals are dead. To this end, it is difficult to overstate the impact of detentions on Syrian communities. Indeed, the issue of detainees and detention is a growing national concern that affects almost all aspects of the Syria conflict. The fate of detainees has shaped virtually all local reconciliation agreements, while the Government’s failure to substantively follow-through on this issue remains a major driver of instability in Government-held areas, most notably in Dar‘a. Furthermore, it is widely expected that the status of detainees will factor heavily in future returns as well as negotiations toward a political settlement to the Syria conflict.

It is important that detention be understood not as a niche issue, but as a major concern of national proportions in Syria. To that end, on September 15, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued the broadest amnesty to be made since the beginning of the conflict, guaranteeing the release of individuals who had been detained under a wide range of circumstances (Syria Update September 12–17). Thus far, however, few of the sweeping promises made in the order, Decree 20, have come to fruition. In Dar‘a, for example, local estimates place the total number of detainees released since the decree was announced between 2,000 and 3,000, a small fraction of those believed to be held in detention. Additionally, those released under the order had been charged for petty crimes and small offenses, and there is little sign of reprieve for individuals detained under more serious, conflict-related charges, or on arbitrary grounds. More concerning is that elsewhere in Syria, the number of detainees continues to grow. Since the beginning of October, the National Security Bureau has denied reconciliation to at least 3,250 individuals in Eastern Ghouta, effectively condemning them to detention (Syria Update October 9–15).

Image caption: An exhibition of images showing detainees who died in the custody of the Government of Syria. Image courtesy of Aljazeera.net.

In terms of local impact, nowhere is the importance of detention more evident than in Dar‘a. More than 15 months since the reconciliation of southern Syria, in summer 2018, the status of detainees remains a concern of potentially explosive volatility, underscoring the degree to which the issue of detention is capable of destabilizing Syrian communities in a post-reconciliation context. Certainly, the instability prevailing in Dar‘a has myriad causes, including unpopular conscription campaigns, faltering service provision, and increasingly open clashes between armed actors backed by Russia and Iran. However, the fate of detainees, which was central to local reconciliation negotiations, has remained a key factor in this instability; in this sense, the Government of Syria is either unwilling to de-escalate by releasing detainees, or incapable of doing so, presumably because many detainees have died in Government custody (Syria Update April 4–10). On June 30, Jamil Al-Hasan, then head of Air Force Intelligence, visited Dar‘a in a bid to quell rising unrest in southern Syria. When directly confronted over the status of detainees, Al-Hassan stated: “With respect to the detainees, forget about them,” tacitly admitting that many of the detainees have died (Syria Update June 27–July 3). In the months that have followed, Dar‘a has witnessed  anti-state resistance on an increasingly widespread, organized, and coordinated basis.

Finally, it is crucial to bear in mind that detainees and detention will be significant factors in the resolution of the Syria conflict and the mitigation of its impact. Death certificates for those who have died in Government custody are important for pragmatic reasons, to ameliorate HLP issues, and to assist family members seeking to claim entitlements or stake legal claims under the auspices of rehabilitation and reconstruction projects, as well as programming supported by the international community. As for returns, many Syrians who have been displaced internally or fled abroad will not voluntarily return to their communities (or to Syria) as long as they are wanted for arrest by Syria’s much-feared security services. In terms of transitional justice, transparency on the fate of detainees remains a demand of Syrian communities, although the prospects for accountability are dubious. Thus far, the Government of Syria has been adept at containing the impact of widespread detentions by releasing the names of those who have died in its custody on a limited basis and in a piecemeal manner, thus preventing large-scale popular reaction. Given the political salience of detainees in the long term, however, the resolution of this issue will be crucial to the Government of Syria’s efforts to restore legitimacy in—or, at the very least, to pacify—formerly opposition-held areas.

Whole of Syria Review

1. New chapter opens in NES as SIG forms Tell Abiad council and SDF acquiesces to Turkey-Russia pact

Tell Abiad, Ar-Raqqa Governorate: Amid the withdrawal of Syrian Democratic Forces from Syria-Turkey border areas, on October 28, the Syrian Interim Government announced the formation of a new local council in Tell Abiad, the first such council to form in areas captured by Turkey and the National Army in the ‘Peace Spring’ military operation launched earlier this month. Practically speaking, the council formation was enabled by the SDF’s acquiescence to the October 22 Russian-Turkish agreement carving out respective areas of influence in northeast Syria, under which the SDF withdrew from border areas with Turkey, facilitating the deployment of Government of Syria border guards and Russian military police. SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali stated that the SDF withdrew from border areas under a Russian guarantee, and that it would take all necessary steps to find a political solution for northeast Syria “on the basis of the same guarantee from Russia [for] a political dialogue with the central government in Damascus.” Relatedly, in terms of conditions prevailing on the ground, water has been unavailable for three days throughout Hasakeh governorate, affecting 750,000 individuals, as a result of damage to the Allouk water station due to Peace Spring operation.

Analysis: The establishment of a SIG-aligned local council in Tell Abiad marks an inflection point in the local dynamics of northeast Syria. Local councils that are effectively controlled by Turkey have served as critical building blocks of Turkish local administration in Syria, and they have functioned as precursors to de facto annexation in Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield areas. The formation of councils in these areas offers a road map for Turkish ambitions in northeast Syria, which primarily concern the dismantling of Kurdish political power and the resettlement of large numbers of Syrian Arab refugees in what is, in effect, a new ‘Arab Belt’ spanning the Syria-Turkey border. In the case of the former goal, the SDF withdrawal is a critical, but incomplete, first step to neutralizing the highly cohesive, powerful Kurdish-led SDF, which remains in tact in areas further south. In terms of the latter goal, the expansive territory secured by the National Army in the course of the Peace Spring offensive is nonetheless unlikely, in the long term, to satisfy Turkish ambitions to resettle Syrian refugees potentially numbering in the millions, given that it has marginal value strategically and contains no major built-up urban areas. Given that the National Army’s gains in these respects fall short of Turkey’s ultimate vision, the preservation of the status quo in northeast Syria is far from guaranteed in the long term. As such, the trajectory of the northeast will hinge on the willingness of Russia and Turkey to uphold the October 22 agreement, and on as-yet unarticulated efforts led by Russia to amalgamate the SDF into the command structure of the Government of Syria. Should either of these efforts founder, renewed hostilities, likely initiated by Turkey or the SDF, are distinctly possible.

2. ISIS ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi reportedly killed in U.S. operation in Idleb

Barisha, Idleb Governorate: On October 26, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed during a U.S. special forces operation in Barisha, a village in northeastern Idleb. According to President Trump, Al-Baghdadi was killed during the special forces raid when he detonated an explosive vest, killing himself and three of his children; Al-Baghdadi’s DNA was reportedly tested on site to confirm his death. According to several media sources, Baghdadi was said to have been residing in the house of a Hurras Al-Deen affiliate. Notably, Hurras Al-Deen is nominally linked with Al-Qaeda, and often at odds with HTS; clashes between the two have occurred frequently throughout the course of the conflict. ISIS media sources have denied the death of Baghdadi, stating that the individual killed during this operation was in fact a different ISIS leader, Abu Bakr Al-Rawi.

Analysis: Although undoubtedly marking an important symbolic event, the apparent death of Al-Baghdadi is unlikely to impact the actual functionality of ISIS in any meaningful sense. Al-Baghdadi’s centrality to ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq is questionable, and he had been in hiding since ISIS ceased to physically control territory in Syria and Iraq; as such, Al-Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to lead to the strategic collapse of ISIS, which is increasingly operating as a decentralized insurgent terrorist group. While continued ISIS sleeper cell activity in various locations remains likely, it is improbable that ISIS will re-establish itself in any significant way, at least when compared to its earlier iterations as a territorial power. As such, the most pressing concerns related to ISIS going forward are the future of ISIS prisoners and control over IDP camps holding the relatives of ISIS combatants. Al-Hol camp, in particular, remains a flashpoint issue for the larger international community, given the rapidly deteriorating security situation in northeast Syria. How the international community intends to deal with these ISIS combatants and their relatives, in particular those who are dual citizens or foreign nationals, is thus a critical issue. However, while the repatriation of some foreign nationals to their respective countries has been facilitated, it is unlikely that the international community will repatriate all of the foreigners currently held in northeast Syria, or even significant numbers of them. The future of these prisons and camps thus remains uncertain; there is a distinct possibility that the Government of Syria may assume control of them as negotiations proceed between the SDF and the Government of Syria.

3. Civil society list lags as Constitutional Committee convenes

Geneva: On October 26, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed that the Syrian Constitutional Committee would convene its first session on October 30 in Geneva as scheduled, despite the announced resignation of four delegates earlier this month. As of this writing, it remains unclear whether the four members of the civil society list who announced their intention to withdraw from the committee have rescinded their resignations, or whether alternate delegates have been selected in their place. However, in an interview on October 28, UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen stated that the full slate of 150 members of the Constitutional Committee will arrive in Geneva this week, adding that the committee’s work will proceed under the aegis of the UN, as planned. Meanwhile, both the Government of Syria and the opposition have each selected the 15 delegates who will represent their respective blocs in the 45-member ‘small body’ that will serve as the core of the Constitutional Committee; however, the delegates representing the nominally independent civil society list have yet to be announced (see: Syrian Constitutional Committee: Background Note).

Analysis: The uncertainty surrounding the composition and leadership of the civil society bloc is characteristic of the impediments that have slowed the progress of the Syrian constitutional reform process, and it underscores the degree of atomization that persists within this bloc. The fact that the civil society faction has lagged behind its counterparts in announcing delegates to the Constitutional Committee ‘small body’ may be especially consequential as the Government of Syria and opposition stake out their respective positions in the committee. The 45-member ‘small body’ will, in effect, set the parameters of debate for the wider committee. In this sense, uncertainty over the civil society list may signal that infighting and disunity within the bloc have not come to an end; however, it also highlights the crucially important swing-vote role to be played by the civil society delegates. Given the three-quarter voting threshold required to pass measures within the ‘small body’ and the full committee, it will be critical for the unified Government of Syria and opposition delegations to court the civil society to pass any measures. Nonetheless, given its high degree of uniformity and high technical capacity, the Government of Syria bloc has a strong hand and leverage to stymie progress until it is satisfied with the reforms on offer as well as the conditions on the ground inside Syria. As such, intense gridlock is for the time being highly likely.

4. Iran reactiviates $3 billion credit line, doubling down on Syria

Damascus: On October 28, local sources reported that Iran had reactivated a $3 billion dollar credit line to Syria. Iran has provided Syria with a $3 billion credit line every year for fuel, medicine, flour, and other goods throughout the conflict, but suspended this credit line in October 2018 due to intensified U.S. sanctions on Iran. While Iran was compelled to halt the credit line, and faced serious difficulties in shipping oil to Syria, it resumed shipping oil to Syria at scale in May 2019. The Government of Syria will reportedly use the renewed credit line to purchase generators, water pumps, flour, and yeast, to be imported by land; medicine, to be imported by air; and oil, to be imported by sea.

Analysis: Amid mounting international isolation, restrictive measures, and domestic political pressure, Iran’s willingness to continue providing support to Syria is remarkable, especially given the fact that the extension of the credit line will certainly be a major financial strain on Iran. However, while the extension of a credit line to Syria may cause immediate financial setbacks for Iran during a period of deepening recession domestically, there are both security and economic incentives for such measures. First, Iran’s vision of its own expansive role in post-conflict Syria is complementary to its broader security-military interests in the region. Second, only companies that are affiliated with the Government of Iran are allowed to receive funding through the credit line extended by Iran, which likely envisions long-term economic returns for its investments in Syria which are likely to mature only in a post-conflict, reconstruction phase. Inside Syria, reactivating the credit line will provide a crucial support which will be especially vital to avoiding shortfalls during the upcoming, fuel-intensive winter months.

5. Aid workers detained in northeast Syria, underscoring threat as control shifts

Al-Hasakeh City, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: In early October, local sources reported that at least three former aid workers were briefly detained in Al-Hasakeh city by Government of Syria Military Security. According to these sources, Military Security offices detained the aid works (to include two women), who were former employees of a French humanitarian organization, after they visited the offices of the Military Security Branch in Al-Hasakeh to file administrative paperwork. The aid workers were released after a brief detention, but only after their families paid large bribes to the Military Security officers in the city.

Analysis: Aid workers will face mounting protection concerns as the Government of Syria re-establishes de facto security control across most of northeast Syria. These concerns are particularly acute for employees of organizations that are not registered with the Government of Syria, especially those included on the Government’s list of so-called “terrorist entities” (among which were several international humanitarian organizations that operated prominently and with large rosters of local staff in northeast Syria). In general, the threats facing aid workers in northeast Syria mirror those previously witnessed in Rural Damascus, southern Syria, and northern rural Homs. However, in those areas, reconciliation agreements permitted (or forced) irreconcilable and vulnerable populations, including humanitarian workers, to evacuate to northwest Syria; in the case of northeast Syria today, these populations have remained in their communities, and will consequently be vulnerable to harassment, extortion, and detention. Moreover, with communities between Ras Al-Ain and Tell Abiad now under the uncontested military control of Turkey, restrictive legal and administrative conditions—like those seen in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas—are rapidly taking shape (see Point 1), and employees of organizations that are outlawed in Turkey are likely to be singled out. Consequently, former aid workers will quickly confront cross-cutting security challenges based on the local administrative or security control of the Government of Syria or Turkey. As such, further detentions are highly likely; given the scale of the northeast Syria response, this is a concern of wide-reaching implications.

6. U.S. forces redeployed to oil fields in Deir-ez-Zor

Rural Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On October 26, local and media sources reported that U.S. forces had redeployed from northern Iraq to rural areas in southern Deir-ez-Zor that contain some of the most productive oil fields in all of Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that the deployment was aimed “at keeping the fields from potentially falling into the hands of Islamic State militants.” In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov characterized the U.S. deployment as “international state banditry,” and stressed the Government of Syria’s exclusive control of natural resources within Syrian  territory.

Analysis: Despite its timing and the public assertions of U.S. policymakers, the stationing of U.S. troops in Deir-ez-Zor should not be seen as an effort to prevent resurgent ISIS cells from seizing strategically valuable oil fields (which is, in any case, a highly improbable scenario). Rather, the U.S. deployment is almost certainly intended to prevent the Government of Syria and local Iran-supported armed groups from taking control of oil fields on the east bank of the Euphrates River, either by force or through rapprochement with the SDF. Throughout 2019, U.S. forces have taken an increasingly hard-line approach to oil smuggling and the cross-line oil trade between the Kurdish Self-Administration and the Government of Syria. Under the prevailing system, crude oil extracted in northeast Syria is processed almost exclusively in Government of Syria refineries, before being apportioned to the Self-Administration and the Syrian Oil Ministry. The announcement that U.S. forces will remain in Deir-ez-Zor stands as evidence that despite the notably erratic turn in U.S. military policy in Syria, American efforts to isolate the Government of Syria and contain Iran’s influence regionally will remain, at least in concept and in the immediate term, largely consistent. Much like the U.S. garrison located on the Baghdad-Damascus highway at At-Tanf, the U.S. presence in Deir-ez-Zor should be viewed as an effort within the U.S.’s broader regional campaign to apply “maximum pressure” to Iran and, with it, Damascus.

7. Syrian cement factory work grinds to a halt as Lebanon gas imports stop

Damascus: Throughout the reporting period, local sources close to the Damascus industrial sector have reported that the import of industrial gas from Lebanon has ground to a halt, due to the ongoing uprising in that country. As per these sources, cement factories in Syria have halted production and other factories are thought to face similar challenges due to the gas shortage. In light of the ongoing general strike and civil uprising in Lebanon, activity within the Lebanese banking sector has been suspended, subsequently halting all money transfers to and from Lebanon. As a result, businesses in Syria are incapable of purchasing industrial gas. Additionally, the closure of key highways in Lebanon, including those linking coastal Lebanon to Syria, have also disrupted the cross-border trade in gas and most other goods.

Analysis: With no signs of improvement in the Lebanese economy in the near future, compounded by the ongoing turmoil in the country, Syrian businesses reliant on the Lebanese market are expected to see the production and import challenges they already faced greatly exacerbated. Besides the immediate impact of the banking sector inactivity and road closures, challenges facing Syrian businesses reliant on access to Lebanon’s market are expected to outlast the current turmoil in Lebanon. The Lebanese economy as a whole is rapidly deteriorating: the market exchange rate for the Lebanese lira is now rapidly devaluing for the first time in decades, state debt remains astronomically high, and the deep structural faults of the Lebanese economy are likely dependent on long-term political reforms. So long as Lebanese businesses, including fuel wholesalers, face these challenges, trade with Syria—and the Syrian economy as a whole—will be likely to face knock-on effects. Syria’s industrial capacity will likely be hampered for the foreseeable future, exposing the Syrian population to further shortages and deepening Syria’s reliance on outside assistance, which, for the moment, Iran is most willing to provide.

8. Government drug raid prompts Nasib protest, jeopardizing precarious border trade

Nasib, Dar’a Governorate: On October 23, local sources reported that Government of Syria anti-terrorism and Air Intelligence divisions conducted a massive raid on stores at the border crossing facility in Nasib, southern Dar‘a Governorate. The campaign was allegedly carried out to arrest drug smugglers who are active in the area. During the campaign, Government of Syria forces reportedly detained one individual from Nasib, though his involvement in drug smuggling was not established. Following the detention, civilians from Nasib reportedly tore down posters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at the Nasib border crossing station and halted all traffic through the crossing in an attempt to pressure the Government of Syria, which released the detainee on the same date, in an attempt to contain the uproar.

Analysis: The hostile reaction to the raid speaks to the deep resentment felt toward the Government of Syria in southern Syria, and it casts further doubt on the Government’s capacity to effectively foster the security conditions that will be necessary to restore vital economic activities, including trade with Jordan via the Nasib crossing. As previously reported (Syria Update October 9–15), the reopening of the Nasib border crossing has failed to revitalize commercial exchange between Jordan and Syria. In large part, this can be attributed to mutual protectionist measures kicked off by the Government of Syria’s imposition of high tariffs and restrictions on imports through Nasib; however, the dire state of the Syrian economy as a whole, as well as the continuing unrest in southern Syrian, will be seen as further impediments to cross-border trade (Syria Update October 16–22). Finally, it is important to note that the narcotics trade has become an immensely profitable wartime activity for many conflict actors in Syria. As such, Government of Syria initiatives to crack down on the drug trade with neighboring countries (especially Jordan and Lebanon) is a double-edged sword for the Government; while breaking up drug networks may make inroads toward a meaningful restoration of Government control, by rooting out entrenched interests, it is also likely to engender stiff resistance locally.

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.