Intermediaries of Return

Intermediaries of Return​

07 October, 2019

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Executive Summary

In several important respects, the conflict in Syria has been largely frozen throughout 2019. Indeed, no major changes in zones of control have taken place, and areas that lie outside the Government of Syria’s direct military control are essentially under the purview of international actors. At first glance, returns in Syria appear similarly frozen. Currently, 5,564,322 Syrians remain registered as refugees with UNHCR, and according to UN and local NGO partners, 6,017,736 Syrians are internally displaced. However, these figures can be misleading, as returns are taking place, albeit primarily among IDPs, and with limited visibility on the part of the wider development and humanitarian community. Indeed, according to UN and local NGO partners, 172,237 displaced Syrians returned to their communities of origin between January and July 2019, while 1,250,956 returns took place in 2018. Naturally, given the enormity of the Syrian displacement crisis, returns are a concern of the foremost humanitarian, economic, and political importance. Returns have been the subject of a growing discourse that has predominantly focused on the conditions surrounding return — specifically, whether a given return movement is voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable. While such conditions are indeed highly consequential, the precise mechanisms of return are arguably of greater importance in understanding the trajectory of future returns movements, yet these mechanisms have rarely been scrutinized.

To that end, one critical and widely overlooked mechanism that is crucial to IDP returns in Syria is the role played by local intermediaries. Fundamentally, Syria remains a security state in which military and security agencies exercise significant control over bureaucratic procedures, administrative policies, and personal mobility. As a result, security forces frequently serve as a major obstacle to return, and in many communities returns movements must be negotiated. Often, these negotiations are the de facto remit of local intermediaries — including local notables, religious figures, tribal leaders, businessmen, armed group commanders, and state employees — who serve as critical conduits between individual communities and the Syrian state itself. However, the involvement of an intermediary does not in itself guarantee that return will be possible, nor does it ensure that return movements will be safe, voluntarily, dignified, or sustainable. It is nonetheless increasingly apparent that the involvement of a local intermediary to negotiate return between a community and central authorities is an important, and perhaps a necessary condition for return movements of any significant size inside Syria.

This paper is the product of extensive research, numerous key informant interviews with local stakeholders, and analysis of publicly available data and data compiled by UN and local NGO partners. It should be noted that although intermediaries are also understood to play an important role in return movements of refugees, especially from neighboring countries, mechanisms of refugee return are beyond the scope of this study, which is entirely focused on the role played by intermediaries in IDP returns.

The Politics of Intermediaries

In some ways, the ongoing conflict has dramatically altered the way in which the Government of Syria interacts with local communities. After eight years of war, what was once a seemingly omnipresent and highly centralized top-down structure has become much more decentralized and localized. Individual communities have now formed new relationships to the Government of Syria, often based on the degree to which these communities opposed or supported the Government throughout the conflict. However, although decentralization is ongoing and community relationships to the central state continue to transform, one factor remains consistent from the pre-war period: the reliance of the central state on local intermediaries as a means of accessing, interacting with, and controlling Syrian communities.

What Is An Intermediary?

The concept of local intermediaries in Syria is explored in depth in the recently published ‘Building from the Wreckage: Intermediaries in Contemporary Syria’, edited by Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur.1  As defined by Khaddour and Mazur, a local intermediary is “an actor that connects a local community to outside authorities.”  In this context, ‘community’ can refer to any number of entities: a small village, a city, a large family network, a tribe, or an entire region.2  In pre-war Syria, the ‘outside authority’ — in this case the Al-Assad regime — long relied on networks of local intermediaries to ‘access’ or negotiate with communities, exercise control indirectly, or distribute resources.  The politics of intermediaries has not fundamentally changed since the pre-war period; what has changed is the identity of the intermediaries and the outside authorities interacting with local communities, and often, the makeup and needs of communities themselves.

Who Are Intermediaries, And How Do They Function?

Given the centrality of intermediaries to state-community relations in Syria, it is important to identify how intermediaries are selected and how they relate to both communities and the state. The relationships between an intermediary and a community in question are highly diverse, contextually specific, and dependent upon a number of factors, while the profiles of individuals who act as intermediaries are equally varied. Indeed, intermediaries in Syria range from local notables, religious figures, and tribal leaders, to public personalities, traders, businessmen, armed group commanders, and state employees.

Broadly speaking however, there are two kinds of intermediary-community relationships.3 In a patronage/contractual relationship; and an ‘organic’ relationship.  In a patronage/contractual relationship, the intermediary is not necessarily originally a member of the community; either the community or the outside authority selects and uses the intermediary as a proxy in negotiations.  In these cases, intermediaries derive authority from their ability to act as a negotiator, broker, or representative, often through their capacity to channel patronage. One example of this paradigm is Kinana Hweijah, a Syrian television presenter who took part in negotiating local reconciliation agreements in numerous communities in central Syria.  Another is Khalil Taher (also known as ‘Ghawwar’), a businessman in northern Hama who is the essential actor negotiating and dictating cross-line trade dynamics at commercial crossing points in northern Hama.

In ‘organic’ relationships, the intermediary comes from the community itself.  To some degree, these actors derive their authority from personal status or interests within the community, and/or a relationship with the state.  For example, in As-Sweida, Sheyoukh Al-Aqal (the Druze religious leadership) often function as intermediaries and negotiators with the Government of Syria, due to their social standing in the Druze community as well as their long-standing relationship with the upper echelons of the Government of Syria.4  Another example is a group of businessmen from Duma city, who recently relied on their relationships to a member of parliament to lobby for more flexible security and mobility restrictions in the city.5

Why Do Intermediaries Matter?

As noted above, relationships among Syrian communities, the Government of Syria, and intermediaries have been in flux since the start of the conflict.  During this period, the Government of Syria has increasingly decentralized, thus heightening its reliance on local intermediaries as critical conduits to access and negotiate with communities.  Given this decentralization and the lack of formal state authority in many communities, intermediaries now play an important role in various sectors, including political and military negotiations, the proliferation of new service provision networks, war economy dynamics, the design and implementation of local security enforcement, and the allocation of state services.  Moreover, intermediaries increasingly act as interlocutors between communities and various ‘central authorities’; for example, the intervention of international actors, especially Russia, has created new and important authority structures which sometimes exist in parallel to the Government of Syria on the local level.

Most notably for the purposes of this paper, intermediaries have also come to play a significant role in negotiating the return of internally displaced individuals. The prospect of returns in Syria is a foremost concern of the international community; however, discussions of return often focus on the willingness of Syrian IDPs and refugees to return to their communities, or the prospect of safe, dignified, and sustainable returns.  Less understood are the impediments to return and the mechanisms used to overcome them. Indeed, in many localities in Syria, a combination of Government security priorities, administrative approval procedures, and security screening processes have made it essentially impossible for many displaced individuals, and even entire communities, to return.6  For these reasons, local intermediaries are increasingly essential actors in the returns process.  As returns in Syria begin to take shape, the way in which intermediaries intercede between returning individuals and the Government of Syria will become increasingly important; holistically, the role of intermediaries, and the means by which returns are facilitated, should be viewed as critically as the conditions to which displaced individuals return.

Case Studies

Intermediary relationships between the Government of Syria and local communities illustrate the degree to which returns in Syria must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, given the diversity of mechanisms, actors, and motivations involved.  The following case studies illustrate some of these distinct dynamics. In the case of Maliha, individual intermediaries advocated for IDP returns where the Government of Syria was either unwilling to permit returns, or oblivious to the fact that returns were, in effect, prohibited.  By contrast, in Deir-ez-Zor city, the Government of Syria actively used intermediaries to initiate and regulate the flow of returnees. Finally, in Dar’a city, intermediaries gained legitimacy by making guarantees regarding services and conditions in the community, but have since lost influence as they have proven incapable of fulfilling these guarantees.  It should be noted that while communities located in areas under the control of the Government of Syria struggle to restore normalcy, the roles played by intermediaries (and indeed the identify of the intermediaries themselves) are subject to change, although it is all but certain that current intermediaries will remain in competition as they seek to carve out spheres of influence in post-conflict Syria.

Maliha: A Community-Selected Local Intermediary

Maliha town in April 2014.  Image courtesy of Voice of America.

Conflict And Displacement

Maliha subdistrict is located immediately east of Damascus city and southwest of Eastern Ghouta; it encompasses several villages (the most important of which are Hosh Elsultan and Zabadin) that had a combined population of 55,545 according to the most recent pre-conflict census, in 2004.7  Throughout the Syria conflict, Maliha has been been strategically valuable for two reasons: first, due to its proximity to Damascus city and the Damascus International Airport, and second, due to the fact it was seen as a key linkage between the armed opposition in Eastern Ghouta and in southern Damascus.  The armed opposition seized full control of Maliha in mid-2012, when much of Eastern Ghouta fell from Government of Syria to armed opposition control.  However, in August 2014, Government of Syria forces recaptured the majority of communities in Maliha subdistrict from opposition groups (namely Faylaq Ar-Rahman) with the support of Iranian-affiliated militias, primarily Hezbollah.8

Depopulation And Securitization

Due to these clashes and changing armed actor control, by September 2013 Maliha subdistrict was almost entirely depopulated.  Indeed, between 2011 and 2013, a large percentage of the population of Maliha subdistrict  displaced to Government-held areas in Damascus city and its vicinity.9  In turn, the Government of Syria military offensive to recapture Maliha in 2014 forced the civilians who had remained in the area to displace deeper into the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta enclave.  Once the Government of Syria retook control of the area, Air Force Intelligence and Political Security branches enacted strict security procedures, and returns to the area were not permitted.

High-Level Local Intermediary Appeal

The reversal of the blanket security policies preventing return to Maliha was likely triggered by the mediation of a single influential actor with close linkages to the upper echelons of the Government of Syria.  Several factors made this mediation possible. Crucially, the intermediary10 is a Maliha resident11; as such, the actor had both a personal stake in facilitating returns, as well as a direct mandate from the community itself to facilitate returns. Moreover, due to professional connections, this intermediary was afforded an opportunity to raise the issue of returns to Maliha with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad directly.

The Maliha intermediary is a senior-level journalist at a privately-owned newspaper closely aligned with the Government of Syria; in May 2018, this actor was among a small group of journalists invited for an audience with President Al-Assad at the Presidential Palace.12  During the meeting, the Maliha intermediary requested that President Al-Assad grant approval for civilians displaced from Maliha to return.  President Al-Assad assented to the request, and issued a directive ordering the Governor of Rural Damascus, Alaa Mounir Ibrahim, to act accordingly.  Shortly thereafter, the blanket security restrictions that had prevented returns to Maliha subdistrict were lifted, and IDPs began to return. As of June 2019, approximately 7,100 individuals had returned to the communities that make up Maliha subdistrict, and these returnees now constitute the entirety of the local population.

Figure 1.1 Maliha Subdistrict Population Dynamics

Deir-ez-Zor City: Government-Appointed Intermediaries Regulate Returns

Remains of the Deir-ez-Zor suspension bridge, destroyed in 2013.  Image Courtesy of DeirezZor 24.

Conflict, Siege, And Displacement

Between late-2011 and mid-2013, large parts of Deir-ez-Zor city fell under the control of various armed opposition groups (the largest of which was Jabhat Al-Nusra); only four neighborhoods in western Deir-ez-Zor city remained under Government of Syria control.  In July 2014, ISIS ousted armed opposition factions from Deir-ez-Zor and seized control of the entire city, with the exception of the western Deir-ez-Zor neighborhoods in which the Government of Syria retained control. Consequently, these neighborhoods were effectively besieged by ISIS.

Throughout the conflict, Deir-ez-Zor city has seen three significant waves of displacement, primarily to Damascus or Aleppo cities.13  The first wave of displacement occurred between 2011 and 2013, during which time Deir-ez-Zor residents fled as the armed opposition progressively established control over the city. The second significant displacement wave occurred between 2013 and 2014, as individuals fled from an increasingly dominant ISIS.  The third and final wave of displacement from Deir-ez-Zor city occurred after the Government of Syria launched its eastern Syria campaign in mid-2017; under the auspices of this campaign, Government forces advanced against ISIS from eastern rural Homs Governorate, and by November 2017, the Government of Syria broke the siege of western Deir-ez-Zor and took control of the city in its entirety.  In the course of the offensive, however, nearly all ISIS-held areas of the city were heavily damaged, prompting further mass displacement. In November 2017, only 82,496 individuals remained in Deir-ez-Zor city, almost exclusively in Government-held western Deir-ez-Zor; this should be compared to Deir-ez-Zor’s 2004 population of 211,857.

Government Intermediaries As ‘Gatekeepers’ Of Return

Almost immediately upon capturing Deir-ez-Zor, the Government of Syria took steps to facilitate IDP returns to the city, primarily through administrative initiatives and ministerial decrees.14  As a result, returns began to occur shortly following the offensive, and by May 2018, 20,770 individuals had returned to Deir-ez-Zor city.  However, in June 2018, the Government of Syria changed tack and formally established a reconciliation committee office in the security square in Deir-ez-Zor city, as well as several sub-offices in communities on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Reportedly, there are nine such centers,15  which now constitute the primary mechanism for facilitating return to the city.

All of the individuals serving on the Deir-ez-Zor reconciliation committees are appointed by the Government of Syria Ministry of Reconciliation, and these figures are deliberately selected to represent various key constituencies of the Deir-ez-Zor community.  These intermediaries include local Baath party leaders, military commanders, local notables, and tribal leaders, many of whom have a prior relationship to the Government of Syria. Specifically, the mediators of return in Deir-ez-Zor city include high-ranking members of local Baath Party, prominent figures in the E’keidat and Sheikh Bouleil tribes, and other locals notables. According to local sources, members of the reconciliation committees prioritize the reconciliation of prominent figures from Deir-ez-Zor, in an apparent effort to empower these figures as mediators of return and facilitators of reconciliation in their own right.

Figure 2.1 Deir-ez-Zor Population Dynamics

Under the aegis of the returns process implemented by these intermediaries, between June 2018 and June 2019 at least 22,411 individuals returned to Deir-ez-Zor, including to areas formerly held by ISIS. As such, returns facilitated by intermediaries now constitute a majority of the total returns that have taken place in Deir-ez-Zor since the Government offensive, and this process is likely to remain the primary mechanism for return movements to Deir-ez-Zor for the foreseeable future. In this context, it is crucial to note that the Deir-ez-Zor reconciliation committees are ‘effective’ intermediaries of return despite the fact that individual committee members are viewed with a high degree of skepticism by the local community. This skepticism is primarily due to the fact that many of these actors have changed their political affiliation throughout the conflict, leading to a widespread impression they are opportunistic and self-serving. Furthermore, according to local sources, these intermediaries frequently make guarantees of personal security or offer financial incentives in an effort to induce return; however, in some cases, returnees have reportedly been detained, irrespective of these guarantees. Despite community misgivings over these actors, they remain effective as intermediaries of return primarily due to the de facto authority conferred by their relationship with the Government of Syria, specifically the state security forces who hold ‘veto’ authority over reconciliation procedures.  As such, it is important that intermediaries of return be seen not only in terms of their local legitimacy and community acceptance (or lack thereof), but as actors serving a fundamental mechanistic role at the behest of the Syrian state.

Dar’a Al-Balad: Changing Power Dynamics Impede ‘Organic’ Intermediaries

Dar’a City in July 2018.  Image courtesy of Sana.

Dar’a City Reconciliation And Displacement

In March 2011, demonstrations broke out in Dar’a city, marking the beginning of the Syrian uprising.  Between late 2011 and early 2012, various armed opposition groups established control over the majority of southern Syria, including the southern half of Dar’a city (known as Dar’a Al-Balad), while the Government of Syria retained control over the northern part of the city (i.e. Dar’a Al-Mahatta).  Dar’a remained divided until Government of Syria forces retook control of the city in its entirety in July 2018, as part of the broader military offensive in southern Syria, which began in June 2018. As Government of Syria forces advanced into Dar’a Governorate, armed opposition groups and local notables in Dar’a city reached a reconciliation agreement with the Government of Syria through negotiations that were led by Russian representatives in Dar’a city and western Dar’a Governorate.16

The intensity of the Government offensive led to mass displacement throughout Dar’a Governorate.  Tracking this displacement was extremely difficult, and credible sources cited displacement figures as high as 600,000.  Such remarkably high displacement numbers, however, were misleading, in that displacement in Dar’a Governorate was highly ‘elastic’, as individuals had often displaced multiple times previously, and frequently relocated only short distances.  Moreover, shortly after the offensive and subsequent reconciliation, many IDPs quickly returned to the locations where they had been immediately prior to the offensive. In the case of Dar’a city, the population in April 2018 was approximately 95,243, compared to a 2004 population of 97,969; however, of the April 2018 population, nearly half—44,968—were IDPs, primarily from elsewhere in Dar’a Governorate.

Figure 3.1 Dar’a City Population (April 2018)

Dar’a Negotiations Committee: Russia’s Intermediaries

Following the reconciliation of Dar’a city in July 2018, several local notables and opposition commanders who had taken part in the reconciliation negotiations formed what is now known as the Dar’a Negotiations Committee. Members of the committee assembled spontaneously on the basis of their local prominence and social capital, and over time the committee expanded to include representatives of all major families in the governorate. At first, members of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee were primarily drawn from Tafas and Dar’a Al-Balad, given the centrality of both cities to the power base of the opposition in western rural Dar’a. Initially, the population of Dar’a was skeptical that the committee would succeed in de-escalating tensions in southern Syria; however, as one local source stated, “people are not necessarily content with the committee, but they had no other choice.”

In time, however, the local influence of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee grew, due in large part to the outsize role played by Russian representatives in security and administrative affairs in southern Syria in the wake of reconciliation.  Specifically, Russian mediators assumed roles as key actors in post-reconciliation Dar’a, as Russian Military Police were deployed to Dar’a city and western rural Dar’a, and numerous armed opposition leaders and combatants were incorporated into military units with a close relationship with Russia.  In turn, members of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee leveraged their open channel with Russian representatives to establish their legitimacy and status vis-à-vis the local population. Local sources report that through engagement with Russian representatives, the Dar’a Negotiations Committee effectively deterred the Government of Syria from undertaking raids and detentions in Dar’a, and facilitated the release of detainees,17 delayed conscription, and rehabilitated key services.18

Dar’a Negotiations Committee: Building Legitimacy As Intermediaries Of Return

Naturally, this influence also translated to impact regarding returns to Dar’a. Primarily due to the Dar’a Negotiations Committee’s effectiveness in securing guarantees through Russian representatives, Dar’a city (especially Dar’a Al-Balad) witnessed returns on a large scale following reconciliation.  Between July and December 2018, approximately 40,518 individuals returned to Dar’a city; of these, 29,612 individuals returned to the formerly opposition-held areas of Dar’a Al-Balad. In this context, it is important to note that Dar’a city witnessed two distinct population movements in the aftermath of the Government of Syria offensive. The first such wave of returnees primarily consisted of individuals who were displaced to nearby sparsely populated rural areas, including many who were displaced by the offensive itself. The second and more substantial wave of returns consisted primarily of returnees from other populated urban areas, including Damascus; it was this second wave of displacement in which the mediation of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee proved instrumental, specifically through guarantees regarding security, services, and detention.

Figure 3.1 Dar’a City Population (April 2018)

Diminished Russian Role, Diminished Intermediaries

It is crucial to note that the effectiveness of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee has been impacted by the rapid deterioration of the political and security environment of southern Syria since early 2019, especially in Dar’a city.  Indeed, the persistent shortfalls of service provision and increasing conscription pressures have ignited deep-seated discontent among the local population, which has manifested itself in public expressions of anti-Government sentiment, including graffiti, vandalism, and frequent protests. This growing anti-Government movement has become progressively more violent, coinciding with open clashes between Russian-linked groups and other pro-Government forces. Additionally, throughout this period, Government of Syria military divisions (primarily the 4th Division and Air Force Intelligence) and other Iran-linked groups have increased their footprint in much of Dar’a Governorate.  As a result of these conditions, throughout 2019, assassinations targeting various Government of Syria combatants and commanders, as well as reconciled opposition militants, have become a common occurrence.

In this context, the effectiveness of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee has diminished, primarily due to the fact that the committee’s primary interlocutors (namely Russian representatives) have lost their near-monopoly on authority in much of Dar’a Governorate. Indeed, the changing balance of power in Dar’a has magnified the impact of a conscious decision by Dar’a Negotiations Committee members to limit their engagement with Government of Syria military and security commanders, reportedly out of fear that open engagement with the Government would jeopardize their tenuous legitimacy with the population of Dar’a, which continued to harbor staunchly anti-Government sentiment. Consequently, the ability of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee to serve as an effective mediator of return has decreased markedly.  As a result, throughout 2019 only 7,045 individuals returned to Dar’a city. Certainly, this is not exclusively due to the shrinking influence of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee; returns are also impacted by the deteriorating security environment and the poor economic situation in Dar’a Governorate. However, it is important to note that the Dar’a Negotiations Committee also mediated these sectors; thus, the relative decline in Russian influence has limited the capacity of the Dar’a Negotiations Committees to intercede holistically, further impacting returns in Dar’a. As of yet, no alternate mechanism to mediate returns is apparent.

Figure 3.3 Dar’a City Population Dynamics


Local intermediaries in Syria function both as interlocutors between Syrian communities and governing authorities, and as important local actors in their own right.  Mediation of returns movements in Syria is therefore an increasingly critical function expected of prominent local actors, especially given that many Syrian communities have been severely depopulated throughout the conflict.  This paper addresses only three case studies of intermediary involvement in returns; however, anecdotally, nearly every return movement of any significant size in Syria has had some degree of local intermediary involvement. However, these case studies do illustrate several key points about the importance of intermediaries in the returns process, and the mechanisms by which these intermediaries facilitate return.  Equally importantly, they demonstrate the diversity of relationships among communities, intermediaries, and governing authorities. On the basis of this research, five key points stand out as crucial to note when considering the important role played by intermediaries in the returns process in Syria:

1: Intermediaries play a critical, and often necessary, role in IDP returns in Syria; however, the involvement of an intermediary does not guarantee that return will be possible. It is increasingly clear that in Government-held areas, large-scale return movements are effectively impossible without the facilitation of an intermediary.  Nonetheless, even in cases in which intermediaries are present to facilitate return, in many Syrian communities and for many individuals, return remains effectively impossible.  Among widely recognized impediments to return are Government of Syria security policies and planned or in-progress reconstruction or redevelopment projects; however, to a surprising degree, in many cases return is an ad-hoc process, and it is now apparent that barriers to return are not always the result of top-down security or economic policy dictated by the Government of Syria. 

2: Facilitation by an intermediary does not necessarily guarantee that a return movement will be safe, dignified, voluntary, and sustainable. The role of intermediaries is shaped by the personal interests of the intermediaries themselves, and by the interests of the Syrian state and individuals Government actors; there is no guarantee that these interests align with the interests of returnees.  In Deir-ez-Zor, Government of Syria security forces worked through intermediaries to facilitate large-scale return, irrespective of degraded humanitarian, economic, and security conditions in the city. Likewise, the guarantees made by the Dar’a Negotiations Committee are contingent upon the presence of Russian mediators; as relative Russian influence in Dar’a wanes, so too does the ability of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee to shape the trajectory of local conditions.  As such, it becomes clear that guarantees made by intermediaries during returns negotiations are subject to important limitations. 

3: The fact that intermediaries have brought changes to Government of Syria security policies regarding return highlights that in many communities, these security measures may be more arbitrary than previously assumed.  The Government of Syria’s long-standing denial of permission to return to Maliha has been widely perceived as the result of an overarching strategy to secure the vicinity of Damascus, including the airport and nearby military bases. However, the lifting of the ban on return to Maliha casts doubt on the degree to which the Government systematically and structurally addresses the issue of return.  In fact, these case studies suggest that return dynamics are highly nuanced, locally specific, and determined at least in part by the interplay between international actors and their local clients, as well as the degree of effective command and control over security actors and administrative entities nominally affiliated with the Government. 

4: The relationship between communities, intermediaries, and governing authorities is a continuously evolving, iterative process.  The intermediaries involved in return negotiations will likely become or remain key stakeholders in their communities in the post-conflict phase.  In general, local intermediaries are actors who have used their standing in the community to mediate return, or they are actors seeking to leverage their role as intermediaries as a means of securing their social, political, or economic ascendance in post-conflict Syria.  The prominence of these actors in the long term hinges upon the value of their networks and relationships to central authorities. In Deir-ez-Zor, the leverage of local notables stems both from their historical linkages to the Government of Syria and from their strong tribal affiliations; these actors will most likely retain their influence in the city in the future.  By contrast, the long-term standing of the Dar’a Negotiations Committee is comparatively tenuous. In other contexts, intermediaries are likely to parley their influence to establish themselves as key actors in future administrative, governmental, and economic initiatives in their respective communities. 

 5: Refugee return is a highly complex process involving multiple international, regional, and local actors, both inside Syria and in host countries.  Intermediaries also play a role in the return of refugees to Syria, but the localized dynamics involved in these relationships are poorly understood, and further study is needed.  Large-scale refugee returns to Syria remain largely frozen.  However, in host countries, the Syrian refugee file is being increasingly politicized, and Syrian refugee communities are facing increasing pressure to return.  When seeking to understand return dynamics, humanitarian and developmental actors have focused primarily on conventional rubrics, including push and pull factors, and increasingly, impediments to return, namely administrative and security procedures. However, little attention has been paid to the specific involvement of intermediaries, which are likely all but essential in the large-scale return of refugees.  Further study into the role played by these actors is needed.

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.

Media Anthology: September 24 – September 30, 2019


Media Anthology

September 24 to 30, 2019

The establishment of military councils in the Self Administration areas: Context, aims, and ramificationsArabicOmran CenterSeptember 20, 2019Conflict and Military
Despite Syria ‘Safe Zone,’ Kurdish leader fears threat from TurkeyEnglishForeign PolicySeptember 23, 2019Conflict and Military
Moscow says 'terrorists' received 'outside help' in Hmeimin drone attacksEnglishAsharq Al AwsatSeptember 25, 2019Conflict and Military
After hundreds of crimes, gangs reconciled with the state in As-SweidaArabicSuwayda 24September 23, 2019Conflict and Military
Could a war be launched against HTS in Idleb?ArabicAl modonSeptember 26, 2019Conflict and Military
Syriatel, facing reports of the Makhlouf-Assad dispute, preemptively strikes expected third operatorEnglishThe Syrian ObserverSeptember 25, 2019Economic
Syria makes second attempt to swap its durum for soft wheatEnglishThe Daily StarSeptember 26, 2019Economic
Damascus Chamber of Commerce announcing the procedures of the business sector's initiative to support the Syrian LiraArabicAl WatanSeptember 25, 2019Economic
‘Economic donations’ to Russia and Iran secure Assad's future but threaten Syria’s (interactive map)EnglishSyria DirectSeptember 25, 2019Economic
Sheraton meeting: Intentional ambiguity and predictions of financial settlement with war profiteersEnglishThe Syrian ObserverSeptember 30, 2019Economic
When will the collective punishment against east Aleppo population be stoppedArabicAl modonSeptember 23, 2019Governance and Service Management
10,000 people have  been affected by the precautionary holding lawArabicHalab Today TVSeptember 29, 2019Governance and Service Management
Many people from Yarmouk camp applied for returnArabicAction Group for Palestinians of SyriaSeptember 25, 2019Social Dynamics
Humanitarian Access Analysis as of 17 September 2019EnglishUnited Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsSeptember 18, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Russia starts dismantling Rukban campEnglishBaladi NewsSeptember 28, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Idleb drinks contaminated water ArabicAl JumhuriyaSeptember 26, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The regime's hands seizing humanitarian aids under the pretext of civil society ArabicSuwar Magazine September 26, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Pedersen achieves the first Syrian-Syrian consensus: The Constitutional Committee with reference to the resolution 2254 ArabicAsharq Al AwsatSeptember 24, 2019International Intervention
For the second time, deploying an American-Turkish joint patrol in the Safe ZoneArabicEnab BaladiSeptember 24, 2019International Intervention
The European Union: No return for diplomatic relations with the Assad regimeArabicBaladi NewsSeptember 24, 2019International Intervention
Who are the 150 members of the Constitutional Committee ArabicAl modonSeptember 24, 2019International Intervention
U.S. intelligence finds Syrian government conducted chlorine rocket attack in MayEnglishThe Wall Street JournalSeptember 26, 2019International Intervention
Syria Study Group final reportEnglishUnited States Institute of PeaceSeptember 24, 2019Other

Media Anthology: September 17 – September 23, 2019


Media Anthology

September 17 to 23, 2019

Airstrikes target military bases on the Syrian-Iraqi bordersArabicEnab BaladiSeptember 17, 2019Conflict and Military
Assassinations in Al-Qardaha and Talal Al-Assad vows of revengeArabicOrient NewsSeptember 17, 2019Conflict and Military
Assassinations in opposition-held areas over the period between February and July 2019ArabicOmran CenterSeptember 17, 2019Conflict and Military
Saudi Arabia undertook airstrikes against Iranian locations in Syria for the first timeArabicAl-7alSeptember 18, 2019Conflict and Military
Two operations for ISIS in Dar'a and As-Sweida in 24 hoursArabicEnab BaladiSeptember 23, 2019Conflict and Military
The regime militia expel reconciliation factions from Nasib crossingArabicAl modonSeptember 17, 2019Economic
Collapse of the Syrian pound deals blow to struggling shopsEnglishNahar netSeptember 18, 2019Economic
Reclaiming home: The struggle for socially just housing, land and property rights in Syria, Iraq and LibyaEnglishFriedrich Ebert StiftungSeptember 17, 2019Governance and Service Management
The Salvation Government opens the registration on Idleb Residential ProjectArabicQasiounSeptember 18, 2019Governance and Service Management
How Did Syrian Businessman Mohamed Hamsho Strip al-Qaboun Real Estate From Its Owners?Arabic damascus voiceSeptember 19, 2019Governance and Service Management
After designating them on the terrorist list, a security campaign against Syrian companiesArabicQasiounSeptember 19, 2019Governance and Service Management
Turkey says three million could return to safe zone in SyriaEnglishBBCSeptember 16, 2019Social Dynamics
As-Sweida is one step away from burningArabicSuwar MagazineSeptember 17, 2019Social Dynamics
Nasrallah to allow the return of Al-Qusayr people from Lebanon to their hometown  ArabicStep News AgencySeptember 20, 2019Social Dynamics
Syrian protesters demanding withdrawal of Iran-backed militias wounded by regime forcesEnglishKurdistan 24September 20, 2019Social Dynamics
The humanitarian situation in northwest Syria one year after Suchi AgreementArabicHumanitarian ResponseSeptember 23, 2019Humanitarian & Development
European Union halting Its support for education sector In IdlebEnglishEnab BaladiSeptember 20, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Presidents of Russia, Turkey, Iran agree on forming Syrian Constitutional CommitteeEnglishTASS Russian NewsSeptember 17, 2019International Intervention
Congress aims to restore Syria stabilization aidEnglishAl-MonitorSeptember 18, 2019International Intervention
James Jeffrey: We will continue to support SDF and the US forces will for an unlimited periodArabicNorth Press AgencySeptember 16, 2019International Intervention
The Negotiation Committee announces its candidates for Constitutional CommitteeArabicQasiounSeptember 19, 2019International Intervention
Terror, genocide, and the “genocratic” turnEnglishAl JumhuriyaSeptember 19, 2019Other

Syria Update: September 25 – October 01, 2019

Syria Update

September 25 - October 01, 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.

Constitutional Committee Sets Rules and Procedures, to Convene on October 30, in Geneva

In Depth Analysis

On September 27, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres publicly released the “Terms of Reference and Core Rules of Procedure” for the Syrian Constitutional Committee, clarifying the mandate, structure, and decision-making procedures to be adopted by the body as it works on a reformed Syrian constitution. In effect, these terms specify that the center of gravity within the committee will be a 45-member “small body” composed equally of candidates selected by the Government of Syria, the Syrian opposition, and Syrian civil society (the latter chosen through consensus, with input from the UN); this select committee will draft and adopt “constitutional proposals,” which must then be voted on by the full 150-member “large body.” Proposals in both the small and large bodies will require a three-quarter voting majority for adoption. As for the day-to-day procedural functions of the full committee large body will be headed by two co-chairs—representatives, respectively, of the Government of Syria and the Syrian Negotiations Commission. The committee will conduct its first session to “approve a constitutional reform” on October 30, in Geneva; however, the terms of reference do not specify a timetable for the committee to complete its work, which will theoretically culminate in “free and fair elections under United Nations supervision.”

Although the terms and procedures laid out in the document resolve the uncertainty surrounding the architecture of the process to draft a reformed Syrian constitution, they do not address the most pertinent matters of dispute among the blocs that will be represented in Geneva. The most pressing of these issues concerns the mandate of the committee itself: the opposition views the committee’s role expansively, to include the drafting of a new Syrian constitution; by contrast, the Syrian Government has taken a narrow view, insisting that the committee’s sole remit is to amend the present constitution. For its part, the UN has sidestepped the issue, investing the committee with power to pursue what it terms, vaguely, “constitutional reform.” Further matters of dispute include the nature of the “inclusive transitional governing body” specified under UNSC 2254 (but not mentioned in the terms of reference) and myriad specific issues at stake in the revision of Syria’s fundamental governing rules, such as the powers of the executive, the independence of the judiciary, and the role of highly powerful intelligence services.

Given the high degree of uncertainty surrounding the direction of these negotiations, it will be critical to look first at the composition of the various blocs within the constitutional committee itself. The 150-member committee is comprised of three 50-member blocs, selected, respectively, by the Syrian Government, the opposition, and the UN—the latter as ostensibly impartial representatives of Syrian civil society. Writ large, each bloc has divergent, and, to some degree, incompatible negotiating positions, while individual members within each bloc will represent the interests of varying constituencies whose ultimate buy-in will be essential to the process’s legitimacy inside Syria.


The membership of the Government list is uniquely unified among blocs due to its monolithic support for the Government of Syria; the list is nonetheless broadly divisible into two factions, both of which represent the interests of the Syrian Government and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad at the highest level, albeit in different ways. The first of these is a technocratic list. Essentially, these actors will constitute the backbone of the Syrian Government’s legal, administrative, and political interests in negotiations. The Government’s chief priorities will be to preserve Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to limit amendments to the constitution and mitigate efforts to curtail the power of the Syrian presidency, specifically in matters related to oversight of courts, security agencies, and the military. The second faction within the Government bloc consists of individuals chosen on the basis of personal and professional connections; as such, they represent the business and sociopolitical interests of the Syrian regime. Many of these actors lack relevant credentials and conventional expertise. (Indeed, this faction includes a professional basketball player and a poet.) Although these actors might appear to be ‘free-riders’ with little to contribute to the process, many do represent important constituencies, although indirectly. For example, prominent businessman Biraa Qaterji (a sanctioned oil and cereals trader whose substantial family enterprise is extremely close to the Al-Assad regime) is expected to effectively speak  on behalf of the elite Syrian business community. Moreover, all of these actors are likely to parlay their roles on the constitution-drafting committee into future access to political and business prominence in Syria.

Image caption: UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem meet in Damascus to discuss the Syrian constitutional committee. Image courtesy of SANA.


In comparison to the Government bloc, the opposition list is highly fractured; however, due to the centrality of Turkey to the political and military platforms of the Syrian opposition, the Government of Turkey has exercised a strong influence on the selection of opposition members. As a result, Turkish influence will almost certainly drive the priorities of the opposition bloc during negotiations. Consequently, at least so far as northeast Syria is concerned, these actors are likely to emphasize Syria’s territorial unity as a means of disempowering the Syrian Democratic Forces and reining in the Self-Administration in northeast Syria, an emergent polity dominated by Kurdish political factions; indeed, Turkey views efforts to dismantle this entity as a national security priority. Further top priorities of the opposition bloc will likely include efforts to disempower Syria’s security services and dissolve the thicket of anti-terror legislation that the Government has wielded as a cudgel against opposition actors throughout the conflict—and, indeed, since the emergence of the Baath party as the core of the modern Syrian state. Moreover, the opposition list will likely use the committee as a space to push for its political objectives vis-a-vis detainees and the status of northwest Syria.

Civil Society

To an even greater degree than the opposition list, the membership of the civil society list is highly atomized. These members operate with a high degree of independence, and they effectively represent their own interests, or those of their narrow constituencies. Nominally, the members on the civil society list were selected by the UN on a non-sectarian basis as impartial representatives of Syrian civil society as a whole. Its membership consists primarily of skilled technocrats, including members with legal and humanitarian credentials, as well as activists and local notables. The influence wielded by the members of the civil society list is expected to be twofold. First, its members are expected to bring high-level technical expertise to the process. Second, the presence of local notables, such as Sheikh Daham Jarba, of the Shammar tribe, is likely to confer popular legitimacy on the process and its outcomes. Indeed, as nominal representatives of their ethnic, tribal, or geographic constituencies, these actors will play an important role in building, or withholding, buy-in that will be critical for the constitutional process to achieve legitimacy more widely.

Naturally, spoilers to the constitutional process abound. The most notable of these is the exclusion of the Syrian Democratic Forces or other representatives of the Democratic Union Party, the leading political faction in northeast Syria. These actors are the de facto local partners of the U.S.-led international coalition, and serve as administrative counterparts to wide-ranging humanitarian and developmental programming in northeast Syria. Their exclusion poses an overt challenge to the future role of international actors in Syria. Moreover, it is also a serious risk to the wider acceptance of the process locally. On September 29, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali stated that the inclusion of “a couple of Kurds … aligned with Damascus” does not equate to meaningful representation for the predominantly Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, which remain beyond the Government’s control.

More fundamentally, although the constitutional process is intended as a first step toward a UN-led political solution to the protracted Syria crisis, it is critical to bear in mind that the ongoing armed conflict remains the Government of Syria’s chief priority. To that end, there is little possibility that a negotiated breakthrough will prevent further Government bombardment in northwest Syria, which remains under opposition control, while negotiations to resolve the status of areas of Syria that are effectively under the purview of the U.S. or Turkey are a distant prospect. As such, despite the auspicious opening of negotiations in Geneva, the Government will have little incentive to hasten a political resolution to the conflict that will surely entail painful concessions regarding its own constitutional authorities. In effect, the Government will likely be capable of delaying progress more or less indefinitely. Indeed, so long as further fundamental aspects of the conflict remain unresolved, the peace process now underway in Geneva is likely to be yet another opportunity for the Government to bide its time until the emergence of favorable conditions for it to realize its interests.

For detailed analysis of the Syrian constitutional process and the members of the committee, please see COAR’s forthcoming report on the subject.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Syrian Central Bank and Business Elites Rally Funds to Shore Up Syrian Economy

Damascus: On September 28, the governor of the Central Bank of Syria, Hazem Qarfoul, the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, and a number of prominent businessmen, including Mohammad Hamsho, Wassim Qattan, and Hussam and Biraa Qaterji, convened a high-level meeting in Damascus to discuss the Syrian business sector’s role in propping up the Syrian lira. Qarfoul subsequently stated that the meeting was directly linked to the Central Bank’s previously announced plan to establish a fund in coordination with the Damascus Chamber of Commerce to receive direct dollar deposits from prominent businessmen. The new initiative aims to stabilize the Syrian economy, and it will reportedly incentivize private deposits, which will be temporarily frozen and ultimately repayable in Syrian lira. The initiative will reportedly take the notable step of employing an exchange rate that will sit between the official rate and the actual market rate, to be updated on a daily basis. Business tycoon Samer Foz has reportedly pledged $10 million in support for the fund.

The unprecedented initiatives to stopgap the Syrian lira that are now being undertaken by the Syrian Central Bank and the Damascus Chamber of Commerce are indicative of the extreme economic hardship now facing the Syrian economy. In recent months, the Government has pursued a highly publicized crackdown on actors charged with corruption and terrorism offences, through which it has frozen and effectively appropriated the assets of tens of thousands of individuals, among whom are numerous high-level and wealthy figures. Now, Government efforts to ‘incentivize’ direct dollar deposits from prominent Syrian businessmen are likely driven largely by the same economic desperation that is at least partially responsible for the sweeping crackdown, specifically, the massive shortfall in the state budget. However, it would be reductive to characterize these measures simply as a Syrian Government crackdown aimed at confiscating the funds of elite businessmen; rather, it is important to note that to be a member of Syria’s foremost business circles is to be integrated, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Syrian regime itself, and the willingness to respond to such pressures and perform essential state functions (not only financially, but militarily and politically as well) is almost certainly a condition for access to these circles. For the foreseeable future, further efforts to incentivize dollar deposits are likely to be recurrent, due both to the deep instability and fluctuating value of the Syrian lira, and because of the persistent shortfalls in the Syrian central budget.

2. After Seven Years, Iraq and Syria Reopen Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim Border Crossing

Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On September 30, the governments of Iraq and Syria announced the reopening of the Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim border crossing, in eastern Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, after seven years of closure. The governor of Anbar Province, Ali Farhan Al-Dalimi, stated that the opening is “a big step forward for commercial exchange, and toward strengthening relations” between Iraq and Syria. The official opening follows months of increasingly confident statements by Syrian and Iraqi officials regarding the status of the crossing, which was the subject of a trilateral summit conducted by Syria, Iraq, and Iran in Damascus in March. Nonetheless, the lack of resolution concerning critical elements of the crossing’s operation, including customs, local administrative procedures, and the volume of commercial traffic to be permitted have, until recently, been among the key factors preventing its opening. Moreover, periodic air strikes in Abu Kamal targeting Iranian forces have no doubt also been a factor delaying the crossing’s opening.

Analysis: The reopening of the Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim border crossing is an important waypoint in the restoration of commercial relations between Iraq and Syria; more fundamentally, however, the opening also signals that the progressive normalization of relations between the neighboring countries is likely to continue, irrespective of international pressures on Iraq to delay or forego re-engagement with the Syrian Government. Indeed, the primary Damascus-Baghdrad highway route remains cut off by the American garrison at At-Tanf; cross-border trade between Iraq and Syria is therefore now dependent on restored commercial access via the Abu Kamal–Al-Qaim crossing. Border authorities have agreed to permit 800 trucks to pass into Iraq from Syria through the crossing per day. Not only will this access revive Syria’s flagging export trade and decimated local production, it will also provide the Government with much-needed foreign currency. Moreover, Abu Kamal is a key element in Iran’s regional economic vision, which has been enunciated in numerous memoranda of understanding across multiple sectors which it has brokered with Syria and Iraq. As a result, the U.S. has been firmly opposed to restored commercial access via Abu Kamal and has applied deep political pressure to the Iraqi government to prevent its reopening. Further pressures on Iraqi companies and traders dealing in Syria or with Syrian counterparts are likely, as the scope of U.S. sanctions targeting Syrian interests regionally continues to widen; however, military pressure, including further airstrikes targeting Iranian positions in Abu Kamal, is also likely.

3. Government of Syria Reaches Breakthrough Agreement to Recruit As-Sweida Militiamen

Ariqa, As-Sweida Governorate: On September 16, local media reported that the Government of Syria had settled the status of “dozens” of members of various militia groups who are wanted by the Government of Syria, in Ariqa, western As-Sweida Governorate. The agreement reportedly allows the combatants to retain their weapons; they will serve, in effect, as local police forces under the direct supervision of Government of Syria security forces in As-Sweida. Combatants who settle their status will have public charges against them dropped, although civil charges will remain in place. The agreement was directly facilitated by Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Bader Al-Deen Hasoun and Nazih Jarbou’, the commander of armed group Humat Al-Dayar. Humat Al-Diyar was created by Jarbou’ in 2013 with the approval of the Government of Syria’s Military Security branch. Since its establishment, the group has coordinated closely with Government forces to advance Government interests, including by quelling demonstrations, arresting activists, and pursuing individuals wanted on criminal charges in the governorate.

Analysis: From the perspective of the Syrian Government, the agreement to bring combatants in As-Sweida under the authority of its own security forces is an important breakthrough in efforts to gradually re-establish control in the predominantly Druze governorate, where kidnappings and violent incidents have become increasingly common. Previous Government initiatives to disarm local groups in As-Sweida and enlist their members have failed, and conscription and recruitment initiatives have sparked massive discontent among the local population. More importantly, such initiatives have also risked alienating the area’s highly influential Druze leadership, Mashayakh Al-‘Aqal, which has been cautious to prioritize local security concerns while disengaging from the wider armed mobilizations of the Syria conflict. As such, although the current agreement was facilitated on the local side by an armed group commander, it nonetheless carries the implicit endorsement of Mashayakh Al-‘Aqal, whose buy-in is considered all but essential for high-level political agreements in the governorate. In terms of impact, the agreement with the Government may have unintended consequences vis-a-vis the state of lawlessness that permeates As-Sweida; although the measure will bring combatants much-needed regular salaries, it will also formalize a process by which conflict actors, albeit local actors with deep roots in the community, are effectively deputized by the Government to fill vital state security functions, raising the possibility that lawless conditions will continue in a post-conflict environment.

4. Returns to Southern Idleb Raise Concerns Over Serial Displacement

Southern Idleb Governorate: On September 27, the Response Coordination Group issued a statement documenting the return of 5,476 civilians to communities in southern rural Idleb Governorate. According to the report, the total number of 39,903 individuals have returned to southern Idleb in the tenuous lull in bombardment that has permeated the area since the announcement of a Russia-brokered ceasefire on August 31. Nonetheless, the total number of returnees represents only a small portion of the total population displacement that has occurred in northwest Syria in the latest phase of the Government’s military campaign, which the Response Coordination Group estimates has displaced a total of 966,140 individuals.

Analysis: The return of civilians to communities in southern rural Idleb Governorate is highly significant given the high levels of destruction that communities in northwest Syria have experienced throughout the latest phase of the Government of Syria military offensive. Government forces have relied heavily on airstrikes and shelling to deliberately target vital infrastructure, hospitals, and schools in a concerted and systematic effort to displace the civilian population of target communities. The communities in southern rural Idleb to which IDPs are now returning, albeit slowly, will be in desperate need of basic services and emergency humanitarian relief. However, it is likely that the Government of Syria will once again resume its piecemeal campaign to capture frontline communities, which would almost certainly entail further heavy bombardment. The prospect of a renewed offensive raises the worrying prospect of serial ‘elastic’ displacement of residents from communities in opposition-held areas of northwest Syria.

5. IDPs Return to Kobani From Hol as Pressures in the Camp Intensify

Hol Camp, Al-Hasakeh Governorate:  On September 30, local media reported that 40 families (141 individuals) had been released from Hol camp, in southern Al-Hasakeh Governorate, to return to their communities of origin in Ain Al Arab (Kobani) and Sarin, located in eastern Menbij, Aleppo Governorate. Local sources estimated that a total of 1,136 individuals have left the camp between June 3 and late September, of whom 397 returned to communities in Deir-ez-Zor, 127 to Menbij, and 612 to Ar-Raqqa and Tabqa. Critically, these returns come under the auspices of a program put into effect by the Self-Administration in late May to facilitate the release of camp residents whose names are advanced (and to some degree vouched for) by tribal notables and the Self-Administration itself, on the basis that the individuals have no ties with ISIS. Separately, on September 29, UN-OCHA reported that 68,600 residents remained in Hol camp.

Analysis: Initiatives by the Self-Administration to secure the release of IDPs from Hol camp have been extremely cautious, primarily due to the large number of foreign nationals in Hol who are linked to ISIS, which further complicates the reintegration of IDPs from the camp. So far, efforts to facilitate the return of camp residents to communities in northeast Syria have primarily been concentrated in Deir-ez-Zor and Ar-Raqqa, where guarantees made by tribal mediators have been critical to securing return. In this context, returns from Hol to Ain Al Arab are of particular note; not only is Ain Al Arab one of the most prominent seats of Kurdish political power in northeast Syria, but the community was heavily besieged by ISIS from late 2014 to early 2015, during which time much of the overwhelmingly Kurdish population was displaced to Turkey. Given the ethnic makeup of Ain Al Arab and the prominence of ISIS-linked figures in Hol camp, the reintegration of Arab families from Hol in Ain Al Arab raises substantial concerns with respect to safeguarding, protection, and long-term social cohesion in the community. In effect, these dynamics are pointed reminders of the broader IDP reintegration challenges facing residents of Hol, where episodes of violence by ISIS-affiliated women in the camp against other IDPs and Asayish forces, as well as efforts to propagate ISIS doctrine, are an increasingly common occurrence. Given the slow pace of returns (and foreign repatriations) from the camp, pressures inside Hol are likely to intensify, and the camp is sure to remain a foremost concern for the foreseeable future.

6. Idleb Teachers Launch Campaign in Protest of Funding Suspension

Idleb City, Idleb Governorate: On September 28, a group of female activists in northwest Syria launched a protest campaign under the slogan “La Taksiro Qalami” (“don’t break my pen”), to challenge the suspension of international donor funding for the education sector in northwest Syria (see Syria Update September 12–17). The campaign began with a public demonstration at the headquarters of the Free Education Directorate in Idleb city on September 28, after which activists conducted a workshop to further mobilize local teachers and raise public awareness of the impact of the suspension on teachers and students in Idleb Governorate.

Analysis: It is highly noteworthy that the teachers’ campaign in protest of the suspension of education funding has been directed at the Government of Syria, the UN, and the donor community, rather than Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or the Salvation Government, which are, respectively, the dominant military and administrative actors in northwest Syria. Certainly, this is reflective of the fact that HTS and the Salvation Government have, in general, strategically limited their involvement (and interference) in the education sector; this decision has been driven by pragmatic considerations, namely the entities’ own inability to assume the high costs of education provision. However, it is also important to bear in mind that HTS has faced growing popular discontent and large-scale protests in the past month (see Syria Update September 5–11). As such, the group likely sees a practical benefit to tolerating civil dissent aimed at external actors over service provision that it can ill-afford to provide itself. Finally, it is important to note that the campaign is also driven by the economic impact of the funding suspension on teachers; the suspension will further shrink not only livelihoods opportunities but also the civil society space open to women in northwest Syria. Humanitarian and developmental employment, specifically in the education sector, has been one of the crucial entry points for women into Syrian civil society throughout the crisis. As support for these sectors shrinks, so too do opportunities for women to find well-paid employment.

7. Russia Abandons Plan to Evacuate Rukban, Declares U.S. Responsible for Its Fate

Rukban, Homs Governorate: On October 1, the Government of Russia announced that the latest joint Syrian Government–Russian efforts to evacuate IDPs from Rukban and shutter the camp have failed due to the presence of the U.S. military garrison at At-Tanf, which is surrounded by a 55-km deconfliction zone that envelops Rukban. The statement declared that the U.S. is now solely responsible for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the camp. The announcement that Russia will abandon its initiative to evacuate Rukban is a surprise reversal of previously stated intentions, including a September 27 announcement of a new plan to evacuate the camp over the following 30 days, under the supervision of the UN and SARC. However, the plan was quickly abandoned; the governments of Syria and Russia now state that the Rukban Civil Administration and U.S.-backed armed opposition groups had prevented civilians from registering to leave the camp under the new initiative. According to the Russian statement, on September 29 when the new evacuation push began, only 336 camp residents left the camp through the Jleib humanitarian corridor, rather than the expected 2,000 evacuees.

Analysis: The closure of Rukban has been a consistent Russian objective in Syria throughout 2019; as a result, the announcement that Russia will give up its current efforts to shutter the camp should be seen not as a relinquishing of this objective, but as a change of tack. Russian (and Government of Syria) priorities concerning Rukban remain linked both to the unresolved status of camp residents and to the control of the deconfliction zone surrounding the camp. However, the clearest priority remains control of At-Tanf, the key entrepot to Iraq via the Damascus-Baghdad highway. At-Tanf is under the control of U.S. forces, supported by armed opposition groups that constitute the remnants of the disbanded Jordan-based Military Operations Center. For Russia, closing Rukban is a key precondition to wresting control of At-Tanf from U.S. forces. For that reason, on October 1, Russia publicly called for UN regional representatives to assess the U.S. actions vis-a-vis negotiations over the camp. (A decisive response is unlikely.) Naturally, these developments raise concerns over humanitarian conditions for the 12,700 individuals currently residing in Rukban, who have received only two aid convoys throughout 2019. In effect, the ability of the camp population to survive will likely be contingent on Russia. If Russia disengages from the camp, vital smuggling lifelines that Russian forces have clamped down on are likely to sustain remaining residents. However, it is also possible that Russia will seek to intensify pressure on camp residents in a bid to pressure U.S. forces at At-Tanf; in this case, further convoys from Damascus are unlikely, and camp residents will likely be compelled to negotiate increasingly limited access to food and aid.

8. Government Initiates Registration for Return to Yarmuk Camp, Doubts Remain

Yamuk Camp, Damascus: On September 25, local media reported that IDPs from the predominantly Palestinian Yarmuk camp in southern Damascus city have begun to register their names to be allowed to return to the area. Although the Government has reportedly promised to facilitate returns to Yarmuk, no such returns have taken place since the Government re-established control over the area, in May 2018. Previously, Samir Al-Jazae’rly, a member of the Executive Committee of Damascus Governorate, stated that the return of Yarmuk residents would be initiated once the Government had assessed real property in the area and completed other procedural steps as per Law 10.

Analysis: The Government’s theoretical willingness to permit returns to Yarmuk is significant not only due to the community’s status as an important symbol of the conflict and its centrality to Syria’s Palestinian community, but also because it is likely to signal the way in which returns will proceed in other former opposition-stronghold areas surrounding Damascus. Yarmuk witnessed intense fighting among opposition- and Government-aligned forces and ISIS, and it was subjected to heavy siege by the Government that drove the majority of the population to evacuate by early 2016. The Governorate of Damascus has calculated that the total level of destruction in Yarmuk reaches 90 percent, which paves the way for reconstruction and dovetails with the Syrian Government’s wider intention to rehabilitate informal settlements, especially those with strong, cohesive linkages to the armed opposition. In light of these conditions, the Government of Syria’s calls for Yarmuk IDPs to register for return are unlikely to initiate returns to Yarmuk on any significant scale, which for the vast majority of Yarmuk remains effectively impossible. Moreover, IDPs are likely to face challenges in providing the documentation needed to validate their property claims, while fears of detention and public charges are also likely to deter them from even engaging in the claims process.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.