‘Land Swaps’: Russian-Turkish Territorial Exchanges in Northern Syria

‘Land Swaps’: Russian-Turkish Territorial
Exchanges in Northern Syria

14 November 2019

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Executive Summary

The recently announced Turkish-Russian Memorandum of Understanding, signed on October 22, has essentially granted Turkey direct control over a large segment of northeast Syria. Naturally, the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria has and will continue to have a massive impact on local political dynamics in that region. However, here it is worth bearing in mind the secondary components of past Turkish military actions in Syria – specifically, the distinct correlation between Turkish military offensives and subsequent or simultaneous Government of Syria offensives.

Since late 2016, almost every major Turkish military operation has been ‘paired’ with a major Russian-backed Government of Syria offensive. The start of Operation Euphrates Shield began only weeks before the government siege intensified in Aleppo city; the Turkish military operation in Al-Bab city, which was indirectly assisted by Government of Syria military forces, came only weeks after the fall of eastern Aleppo city; and the Turkish-backed Operation Olive Branch in Afrin was concurrent with the Government of Syria offensive on Eastern Ghouta. Many Syria analysts have referred to this trend as a form of ‘land swap’ – effectively, Russia and Turkey granting each other ‘permission’ to take control of an area, or facilitating offensives on different parts of the country. Certainly, the term ‘land swap’ is an overly simplistic abstraction for what is a component part of the constantly evolving Turkish-Russian relationship in Syria; however, in practice this relationship does entail territorial exchanges to further larger geopolitical ambitions.

The extent to which a similar dynamic is at play in northeast Syria is a subject of open debate. A ‘land swap’ agreement between Russia and Turkey may not always have been in place – few could have predicted U.S. President Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw from the border in northeast Syria – however, considering the close working relationship between Russia and Turkey in Syria, a potential agreement should not be discounted out of hand. To that end, the Syria humanitarian and development response must consider the possibility that there may be a potential Russian-Turkish land swap agreement, and that this will involve heavy conflict and displacement in northwest Syria.

This short paper presents an examination of what COAR believes to be the most likely scenario: Turkish acceptance or facilitation of a Government of Syria offensive targeting northern Hama and the M5 highway region of northwest Syria, in return for territorial concessions that have already essentially been granted on the northeast Syrian border. This offensive will also potentially have a significant humanitarian impact, especially considering the fact that more than 300,000 individuals, almost a third of whom are IDPs, currently reside in the areas likely to be targeted by the offensive. The timing of this offensive is naturally impossible to predict – however, practitioners should assume that it will take place in the near term. Indeed, as of November 14, local and media sources have noted that the preliminary steps toward an offensive have already begun, and shelling has been reported along the front lines in eastern Idleb.

Territorial Exchanges: A Component of an Evolving Relationship

It is important to note that facilitating territorial exchanges should not be viewed as a simplistic quid-pro-quo. Turkey and Russia are two of the most influential regional actors in the Syrian conflict, and are the primary backers of the Syrian Interim Government and the Government of Syria. Both countries were partners in the Astana (now Nursultan) talks and the Sochi conference, are the primary guarantors of the (now largely defunct) de-escalation1 and disarmament zone agreements, and are deeply involved in the Syria constitutional committee process.2 Both Turkey and Russia also have different (though not necessarily incompatible) priorities in Syria that are constantly adjusting to new events. Thus, territorial exchanges should not be seen as isolated agreements – they are instead a component part of a multifaceted and constantly evolving relationship in which both actors are seeking to accomplish specific objectives as part of more comprehensive geopolitical foreign policy objectives. To that end, Presidents Erdogan and Putin, as well as Russian and Turkish military and diplomatic counterparts, regularly meet and closely coordinate their Syria policy.

Here it is worth briefly examining the history of this relationship, and marking when the Turkish-Russian partnership in Syria first developed to the point of negotiating territorial exchanges: the SDF capture of Menbij city. In the summer of 2016, the SDF launched a major offensive against ISIS, crossed the Euphrates river, and captured Menbij city in August 2016. The SDF crossing the Euphrates had, up until this point, long been considered a ‘red line’ by Turkey, which had emphatically stated that it opposed the Menbij operation for months.4 The crossing of the Euphrates, and the capture of Menbij thus represented what had long been considered a nightmare scenario by Turkey: the potential that the YPG-led SDF, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, would capture large swaths of northern Syria from ISIS and potentially link SDF-held northeast Syria to SDF-held Afrin. From Turkey’s perspective, this would lead to a situation by which the entire Turkish-Syrian border was controlled by a group that Turkey considers to be indistinct from the PKK.

Euphrates Shield, Aleppo City, and Al-Bab

To that end, mere weeks after the capture of Menbij, Turkey announced on August 29, 2016 the start of Operation Euphrates Shield. Euphrates Shield was ostensibly an operation against ISIS, but in reality it was an extremely ambitious project to establish direct territorial control over northern Syria, likely viewed by Turkey as the only means of preventing SDF expansion across the border in the long-term. Reportedly, the start of Euphrates Shield was closely coordinated with Russia – a necessary step to allow Turkish warplanes to support the operation, especially considering that Turkey less than a year earlier had shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border.5 Indeed, President Putin himself commented on the start of Euphrates Shield that “Turkey’s operation in Syria was not something unexpected for us…We understood what was going on and where things would lead.”6

Concurrent with the start of Euphrates Shield was the ongoing, and largely stalemated, siege of Aleppo city. As the Euphrates Shield region expanded outward from Jarablus toward Azaz on September 22, 2016 the Government of Syria announced its ‘final’ offensive on Aleppo city. To this end, two key points are worth noting: the Turkish-backed armed opposition forces engaged in the Euphrates Shield operation were, at the time, facing serious military setbacks in their offensive against ISIS; and, a sizeable component of the armed opposition groups in Aleppo city were backed to some degree by Turkey. Many analysts thus point to the resolution of the Aleppo city siege, and the ‘completion’ of Operation Euphrates Shield as the start of a close Russian-Turkish partnership, with territorial exchanges and personnel evacuations being a key component of that partnership.

Essentially, over the course of October 2016 to March 2017, Turkey and Russia took a variety of steps to ‘exchange’ Aleppo city for northern Aleppo. This was accomplished by a variety of means: Turkey withdrawing its support to the armed opposition groups it had previously supported in Aleppo city;7 Russian guaranteeing that selected armed opposition groups would be withdrawn to Euphrates Shield (thus, bolstering the military capacity of the Euphrates Shield operation); and finally, following the fall of Aleppo city, Russian and Government of Syria military indirectly supporting Operation Euphrates Shield in Al-Bab city.[footntoe]Almost immediately following the fall of Aleppo city, the Government of Syria launched an offensive against ISIS in southern Al-Bab, concurrent with ongoing Turkish-backed armed opposition military operations against ISIS in Al-Bab. Russia and Turkey conducted joint airstrikes, and established a joint operations room to manage the offensive. The Government offensive concluded when Government of Syria military forces captured Tadif, which joined Euphrates Shield to Government of Syria-held areas for the first time.[/footnote] There is no reason to assume that this ‘exchange’ was planned out in advance – in fact, it is more likely that sets of smaller agreements were reached based on changing conditions, such as the unexpected resistance of ISIS forces in Azaz and Al-Bab city, and the increasing likelihood that Aleppo city would fall to the Government of Syria with or without Turkish support. However, in effect the ‘template’ formed in Aleppo city and northern Aleppo should be seen as a potential model to inform how Russia and Turkey coordinate to achieve separate geopolitical objectives.

Eastern Ghouta and Afrin

The most cited case of a territorial exchange agreement between Turkey and Russia is in Afrin and Eastern Ghouta. Throughout late 2017, President Erdogan and Turkish officials regularly stated their intention to launch a new military operation against the YPG in Afrin, similar to the Euphrates Shield operation against ISIS. At this time, Russia had engaged in considerable outreach with the PYD, YPG, and the SDF. Indeed, the PYD maintained an office in Moscow since 2016, regularly engaged in high level negotiations with Russian officials, and Russian military observers were deployed in Afrin to mitigate conflict with the Turkish-backed opposition groups in Euphrates Shield. At the same time, late 2017 marked a significant escalation in the siege of Eastern Ghouta, whereby the Government of Syria was besieging armed opposition groups that were primarily backed by Turkey (primarily Jaish Al-Islam and Faylaq Ar-Rahman).8

In early 2018, Russian officials reportedly attempted to broker an agreement with the YPG in order to prevent a Turkish offensive, whereby Afrin would fall back under Government of Syria control. The YPG reportedly refused this proposal, and on January 18 the Russian military observers in Afrin withdrew to nearby Tell Rifaat; On January 19, Turkey military forces and Turkish-backed armed opposition groups launched Operation Olive Branch and entered Afrin, amidst heavy airstrikes and cross-border artillery.9

As operation Olive Branch was underway, on February 18 the Government of Syria launched its final offensive on Eastern Ghouta. At that time, Eastern Ghouta was a ‘de-escalation’ area guaranteed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran; notably, throughout the Eastern Ghouta offensive Turkey issued relatively few condemnatory statements, despite its role as a guarantor and regular demonstrations against the Eastern Ghouta offensive in Istanbul. On March 17, Turkish-backed armed opposition groups captured Afrin city, the essential goal of Operation Olive Branch. Three weeks later, on April 8, the Government of Syria negotiated the reconciliation of Eastern Ghouta, reportedly with Turkish mediation; evacuations began on April 10, and ultimately at least 66,000 individuals were forcibly evacuated to northern Syria. Many of these evacuees from Eastern Ghouta were eventually relocated to Afrin – indeed, members of the Duma local council now sit on the Afrin local council – and both Jaish Al-Islam and Faylaq Ar-Rahman are now among the most prominent Turkish-backed groups in Afrin.10

What Next?

Naturally, Turkey and Russia have not openly acknowledged previous agreements to exchange territorial control in Syria; such open acknowledgement would certainly be unacceptable to their partners inside Syria. However, the current situation in northeast Syria closely resembles the previous cases above. Turkey has launched a major military operation in northeast Syria, and as part of the Turkish-Russian MOU issued on October 22, Turkey has been effectively granted control over a large swath of land in the vicinity of Tel Abiad and Ras El-Ain – territory which Turkey views as critical to secure control over their southern border. The final extent of Turkish control in northeast Syria is still in question, and conflict is ongoing. However, Russia and the Government of Syria are certain to push for similar concessions in areas that they consider critical to their immediate strategic ambitions. To that end, the most likely area that Russia and the Government of Syria will attempt to ‘exchange’ in the near to medium term is in the northwest Syria de-escalation zone.

The Government of Syria has already made its intentions to launch a new offensive in Idleb quite clear. Throughout late October and early November there have been reports of increased Government of Syria deployments to southern Idleb and western Aleppo; indeed, President Al-Assad recently visited front lines in southern Idleb on October 22 (a solid indication of the Government of Syria’s priorities). President Al-Assad further stated in an interview with RT on November 11 that “the battle for Idlib will not take long,” emphasizing that Government of Syria forces are ready for an offensive. Also on November 11, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that “…all the hotbeds for terrorism are eliminated, and the only one remaining is in the Idlib region. This hotbed needs to be eliminated, and Turkey has to fulfill its obligation and distinguish between terrorists and the patriotic opposition,” again calling into question the future of the Idleb de-escalation agreement.11

M5 Offensive - Ma’arret An Nu’man and Saraqab

To that end, the most likely location of any forthcoming Government of Syria offensive in northwest Syria is on segments of the M5 highway, and northern Hama. Control of the M5 highway, which links Aleppo city to Damascus and Dar’a, has been a longstanding strategic priority of the Government of Syria since the start of the conflict (and was an important stipulation of the now largely defunct ‘disarmament zone’ agreement). Moreover, several of the most important major communities along the M5 highway – Ma’arrat An Nu’man and Saraqab – are still, at least partially, controlled by Turkish-backed groups within the National Liberation Front, and Turkey thus wields considerable influence over the military trajectory of these areas. Therefore, considering their key locations along the M5 highway, Ma’arrat An Nu’man and Saraqab are likely to be the primary targets of any impending Government of Syria offensive.

According to local sources, many civilians in northern Hama, Ma’arrat An Nu’man, and Saraqab are deeply concerned about the prospect of an upcoming offensive – reportedly, some civilians in these areas are already preparing to displace. Additionally, other sources note rumors that Turkish and Russian officials are already coordinating on a potential northwest Syria offensive that may necessitate Turkey allowing Government of Syria forces to circumvent the Turkish observation points stationed in northwest Syria, and that some intelligence sharing is already taking place. Local rumors are certainly not a benchmark of accuracy; however, considering the timing of events nationally, they should not be discounted out of hand.12


As noted, the area considered to be the most likely target of a major Government of Syria offensive is the southern M5 highway, to include the major communities of Ma’arrat An Nu’man and Saraqab. According to UN and local NGO partners, there are approximately 304,635 individuals living in the targeted M5 region of Idleb as of September 30, 2019; approximately 191,725 of these individuals are residents, and 99,943 are IDPs. In past northwest Syria offensives, between 60-80% of the resident population (and nearly all IDPs) tend to flee their communities either due to the conflict, or due to the fact that they are aware that they will not be permitted to reconcile with the Government of Syria. For that reason, response actors should consider the possibility that at least 250,000 individuals will flee from the areas targeted by the offensive alone. These individuals will likely flee to locations deeper into northwest Syria, such as Idleb city; to the Turkish border; or to Turkish-held Afrin, especially for those individuals and families that have linkages to Turkish-backed groups. Further displacement will likely take place throughout Idleb due to aerial attacks and shelling targeting communities throughout Idleb, a certain component of any major offensive.

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: 05 November – 11 November, 2019


Media Anthology

05 - 11 November, 2019

The Syrian army has opened a land supply route to Al-Hasakeh for the first time since seven yearsArabicSyria ScopeNovember 5, 2019Conflict and Military
Two announcements in one day, ISIS emphasizing its presence in Dar'aArabicEnab BaladiNovember 5, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey announces arrest of al-Baghdadi's sisterEnglishAnadolu AgencyNovember 5, 2019Conflict and Military
White Phosphorous use in Northern Syria, should the OPCW investigate?EnglishBellingcatNovember 6, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkey has started extraditing ISIS prisoners ArabicAljadeed TVNovember 11, 2019Conflict and Military
China gained three investment contracts to produce construction materials in Syria ArabicAl-7alNovember 5, 2019Economic
ISIS has destroyed an oil convey for the regime near to Ar-RaqqaArabicQasiounNovember 5, 2019Economic
Has the Syrian minister of culture facilitates Hezbollah’s smuggling of archaeology?ArabicAl modonNovember 9, 2019Economic
The Syrian Pound has reached the lowest rate in its historyArabicEqtsadNovember 10, 2019Economic
Kurdish self-administration under fireEnglishAl-MonitorNovember 4, 2019Governance and Service Management
Two conditions for SDF to cut a deal with the Syrian regimeArabicEnab BaladiNovember 6, 2019Governance and Service Management
Damascus Municipality reveals new details about regulating the Yarmouk campArabicAl-IqtisadiNovember 6, 2019Governance and Service Management
New jobs for Syrian womenArabicAl JumhuriyaNovember 5, 2019Social Dynamics
A statistic for the detainees and kidnapped people in As-Sweida over the last monthArabicNedaa SyriaNovember 5, 2019Social Dynamics
Zakat committee's crisis, Kafr Takharim is anticipating an offensive by HTSArabicEqtsadNovember 6, 2019Social Dynamics
Kafr Takharim expelling its Shura council, no deal with HTSArabicAl modonNovember 7, 2019Social Dynamics
Syrian people calls for demonstrations in support of "Kafr Takharim" and the disband of HTS-affiliate "Government of Salvation"EnglishNedaa SyriaNovember 7, 2019Social Dynamics
Tribal figures in Al-Hasakeh forge a reconciliation committee affiliated to the Russian forcesArabicJorf NewsNovember 9, 2019Social Dynamics
With the aim of recruiting children to its projects, Iran established a center for Al-Mahdi Scout in Deir Az-ZorArabicNedaa SyriaNovember 10, 2019Social Dynamics
The schools of north Syria are struggling to lastArabicEnab BaladiNovember 3, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Self-sabotage: Dismantling education in Syria’s IdlibEnglishSynaps NetworkNovember 4, 2019Humanitarian & Development
38 international aid trucks have entered Idleb through TurkeyArabicJisr TvNovember 6, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Thousands of teachers striking in Idleb against the suspension of aidArabicBaladi NewsNovember 9, 2019Humanitarian & Development
Ex-UN Syria envoy says he quit to avoid having to shake Assad's handEnglishThe GuardianNovember 5, 2019International Intervention
No cease-fire in Syria as joint Russian-Turkish patrols beginEnglishForeign PolicyNovember 4, 2019International Intervention
Trump OKs wider Syria oil mission, raising legal questionsEnglishAssociated Press NewsNovember 6, 2019International Intervention
Understanding Russia's intervention in SyriaEnglishRand Corporaition November 6, 2019International Intervention
A new competition for influence in northeast SyriaEnglishInstitute for the Study of WarNovember 7, 2019International Intervention
I saw the birth, and bloody death, of the dream of Syrian democracyEnglishForeign PolicyNovember 7, 2019Other

Syria Update: 06 – 12 November 2019

Syria Update

06 - 12 November, 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.

The End of ‘Northeast Syria’?

In Depth Analysis

Little more than a month has passed since Turkish forces and the National Army launched the ‘Peace Spring’ military offensive in northeast Syria, on 9 October, yet it is already clear that this event marks an inflection point in the Syria conflict as a whole. Indeed, the expansive, formerly cohesive territory formerly controlled by the SDF east of the Euphrates River is now breaking apart along divergent, fairly localized trajectories. To wit, border areas captured by the National Army have rapidly come under Turkish domination, the Government of Syria has widened its local influence in most population centers and border areas, and portions of southern Deir-ez-Zor that are nominally held by the SDF are now more than ever under the direct purview of U.S.-led coalition forces. In view of these dynamics, it is no longer accurate to speak of a singular “northeast Syria” in terms of the operational environment in which programmatic interventions will be planned and ultimately carried out east of the Euphrates River. Without doubt, localization has been an important dimension of international donor and operational partner strategies throughout the Syria conflict, yet humanitarian and development actors designing long-term strategies must now contend with the reality that northeast Syria — heretofore a priority for many donors and a comparatively uniform region in terms of access — has changed irreversibly.

In recognition of these conditions, a new conceptual framework for understanding northeast Syria is necessary. Indeed, northeast Syria can now be divided, on a preliminary basis, into four spheres, according to prevailing actor: Turkish forces, the U.S.-led coalition, the SDF, and the Government of Syria. The boundaries of these areas and their relationships to one another remain subject to change, as do the partnerships and animosities among the actors themselves. Nonetheless, as local conditions evolve, one dynamic retains the utmost importance: conflict actors’ access and influence on local levels, not merely their formal military control.

Turkish Zone

The most prominent change to the landscape of northeast Syria has taken place in the Turkish ‘safe zone’, which is rapidly transforming into a Syrian Interim Government–administered protectorate east of the Euphrates River. To date, territory captured by Turkey east of the Euphrates River is limited to a band stretching between Ras Al-Ain and Tell Abiad, but clashes on the edges of this zone continue, occasionally severing the M4, the primary logistical artery across northern Syria. Given the scope of Turkey’s ambitions for northeast Syria, further expansion is distinctly possible — namely in Ain Al Arab (Kobani). In areas now under Turkish control, local councils have already been dissolved and reconstituted under the Syrian Interim Government, and basic service provision is rapidly coming under the remit of Turkey, with the goal of cementing a Turkish presence in the area (see Point No. 1). Given these advances, resettlement of Syrian refugees is now the most pressing of Turkey’s unrealized goals for areas it has captured in Peace Spring operations. To this end, on 10 November, the mayor of the Turkish city of Urfa, approximately 55km north of Tell Abiad, was quoted by Turkish media as stating that 30,000 Syrian refugees have already resettled in the ‘safe zone’. This figure is incredible, but it does underscore that refugee resettlement remains a priority for Turkey — an actor that has seldom failed to carry out its most ambitious plans in Syria, despite the deep skepticism of many in the Syria response.

U.S. Zone

The U.S. zone is effectively a petro-statelet. This area stretches across the northern half of Deir-ez-Zor governorate and the southeastern third of Al-Hasakeh; though it has few significant population centers, this area contains five of the six most productive oilfields in Syria. Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria-Turkey border areas, Washington has been at pains to articulate its objectives in areas east of the Euphrates River. The U.S.’s top military commander has stated that the principal American “objective will remain the same: the enduring defeat of ISIS.” At best, this claim is specious. Certainly, ISIS cells continue to pose a latent threat across much of eastern Syria (see Point No. 3); however, there is little doubt that the U.S. mission in Syria is geared to prevent oil from reaching Damascus (Syria Update 23–29 October). By isolating the Government of Syria, this approach ultimately heightens the country’s need for — and, therefore, the financial cost of — Iran’s continuing support. Largely irrelevant in this context is the repeatedly stated desire of U.S. President Donald Trump to “keep the oil” now under effective U.S. control; such plans are the product of political theatrics, a misapprehension, or outright sophistry. According to local sources, these oilfields produce an estimated 135,000 b/d.13 Such volumes are unlikely to prompt the type of private investment Trump has invited. What is clear is that the U.S. military presence in Syria is now openly tied to a broader geopolitical objective that has deep potential to place the SDF in a precarious position vis-a-vis Damascus while forcing a heavier reliance on its neighbors. Moreover, by interrupting domestic oil supplies, this approach may also create unpredictable economic and humanitarian blowback throughout Syria.

SDF Zone

The SDF remains in nominal, but wavering, control over a vast band of northeast Syria that stretches from the Euphrates River to the Iraq border. Nonetheless, under the auspices of the 13 October military agreement between the Self Administration and Damascus, Government of Syria forces have restaked at least partial access to most populated areas that ostensibly fall under SDF control. Considerable ambiguity exists over the relationship between these actors, likely inviting impacts in terms of humanitarian access and long-term protection concerns for local staff, especially in areas where the Government’s de facto presence is now growing. However, in terms of the areas’ integration with Damascus, negotiations between the Government of Syria and Self Administration appear to have broken down. Given the Government of Syria’s limited administrative capacity and the U.S. military redeployment, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has willingly conceded that the Government of Syria takeover of such areas from the SDF “should take place gradually.” This arrangement also suits the SDF, which is likely to mount a pyrrhic defense to hold onto areas it has retained to date. This is especially true of Ain Al Arab (Kobani) — from the Turkish perspective, the ‘missing link’ between Olive Branch and Peace Spring areas — given that any territorial losses it now suffers are unlikely to be reversed.

Government of Syria Zone

The Government of Syria has seized on the upheaval in areas east of the Euphrates River to expand its access beyond Al-Hasakeh and Quamishli; now, Government forces are spread across pockets of military and security control located in (or near) most populated areas, including Ain Al Arab, Menbij, Tabqa, and Ar-Raqqa. Indeed, by leveraging local intermediaries, tribal networks, and long-standing military and political connections, the Government of Syria has been able to rekindle its influence in most major communities east of the Euphrates River without actually exerting full military control. Already, local reconciliation committees are forming (see Point No. 2); going forward, local security and protection considerations are likely to be of concern wherever Government security and political actors build influence, including border areas. To that end, the presence of Government of Syria forces currently stands in the way of Turkish ambitions to seize in Ain Al Arab and Menbij; despite the Government of Syria’s nominal commitment to defending these areas form Turkish incursion, however, in the long term this commitment may be contingent upon the Government’s satisfaction with progress made in negotiations toward amalgamating the SDF and the Government of Syria.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Rushing to Cement Its Position, Turkey Forms Local council in Ras Al Ain

Ras Al Ain, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: During the reporting period, local sources obtained and circulated a list of individuals who will take seats in the new local council to be formed in Ras Al Ain at the behest of Turkey. Naturally, members of locally influential tribes, including Al-Afadlah, Adawan, Neimeh, and Bakkara, feature prominently on the list. Relatedly, on 10 November, local media reported that the Director of Health for the Turkish city of Urfa, Umer Arkoush, had released a statement announcing the beginning of rehabilitation works on Ras Al Ain Hospital. As per the statement by Arkoush, various sections of the hospital had sustained damage during the Peace Spring offensive, and, allegedly, as a result of tunnels dug by the YPG beneath the structure.

Analysis: Following shortly on the selection of a Syrian Interim Government–aligned local council in Tell Abiad, the rapid creation of new administrative and service entities in Ras Al Ain, overtly at Turkey’s direction, highlights the seriousness with which Turkey intends to cement its control in border areas it has captured in its Peace Spring operation (Syria Update 30 October – 5 November). The selection of tribal figures as the vanguard of Turkish administrative authority follows a well-identified pattern (see previous COAR reports: Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria and Shifting Sands: Arab Tribal Political Realignment in Northeastern Syria). Likewise, the rush to plug Ras Al Ain into Turkey’s own service network is particularly noteworthy. Ultimately, all service provision and local administration are likely to be directly linked to the Turkish Provisional Authority, located in Urfa. Looking forward, these efforts are almost certain to widen. Turkey’s multisectoral advance into the Ras Al Ain-Tell Abiad enclave will have a significant impact on the operational space for humanitarian and development actors, as Turkey will almost certainly seek to consolidate aid work under its own relief and development frameworks (see: Local Governance Dynamics in Northeast Syria). In the longer term, the Turkish control over services, governance, and security control in the area is expected to render the ‘safe zone’ a permanent foothold for Turkey in northeast Syria, which will necessarily entail drastic and likely irreversible changes on the social fabric of the communities in the area.

2. GoS Expands Reach with Reconciliation Committee in Al-Hasakeh

Al-Hasakeh, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On 9 November, local media sources published a membership list for the National Reconciliation Committee in Al-Hasakeh city. The list was addressed to the head of the Russian Reconciliation Center at Hmeimem Airbase. Included on the committee are sheikhs belonging to locally prominent Arab tribes Jabour, Bakkara, and Al-Weldeh. Two Assyrian members were also selected to the committee, in addition to a representative of the local oil workers’ union. Local sources indicate that, to date, such committees are largely preoccupied with efforts to facilitate the reconciliation of individuals who failed to serve out the mandatory military service imposed by the Government of Syria.

Analysis: Reconciliation committees have been commonplace in areas recaptured by the Government of Syria throughout the latter stages of the conflict. However, as a new phenomenon in areas east of the Euphrates, such committees are likely to proliferate, and they signal that despite the Government of Syria’s resignation vis-a-vis militarily retaking northeast Syria, it will continue to undertake new initiatives to build local influence (Syria Update 30 October – 5 November). Whether local combatants will receive service waivers from the Government of Syria on the basis of their military service with the SDF or other local security forces in Self Administration areas is a matter of deep resonance in local communities. It is also unlikely to be resolved in the near term. The Government of Syria has a deep need for military recruits, and, if the SDF cannot eventually be incorporated into its command structure in some fashion, the Government is likely to refuse to recognize previous military service by SDF combatants. As such, with respect to the long-term relationship between northeast Syria communities and Damascus, military recruitment is likely to stand alongside recognition of Kurdish cultural identity as final-status issues that allow no easy resolution.

3. ISIS Allegedly Strikes Ar-Raqqa Oil Tankers As SDF Squeezes Crossline Oil Trade

Ar-Raqqa Governorate: Since the beginning of November, local sources have reported that at least four attacks targeted Government of Syria oil tankers in eastern Ar-Raqqa governorate, as they headed from oilfields in Deir-ez-Zor toward Government of Syria–controlled areas via Tabqa. Local sources and local media indicated that ISIS has claimed responsibility for each of the attacks; however, the actual affiliation of the actors involved remains difficult to discern. Relatedly, local sources also reported that since the initiation of the Spring of Peace military offensive on 9 October, the SDF has been enacting stricter measures to halt the oil trade between SDF-held areas and the Government of Syria. In one such incident, the SDF reportedly killed a driver transferring oil from Shiheil, and has sought to prevent agents of the Government of Syria–affiliated Qaterji company from passing through the Syrian Badiya.

Analysis: To date, the crossline oil trade has constituted a vital, but politically inexpedient, partnership for both the SDF and the Government of Syria. With a current production capacity estimated by local sources at approximately 40,000 b/p, the Government of Syria remains almost entirely dependent on oil supplied by its ally Iran, or extracted in areas held by the SDF and transported to Government-held areas almost exclusively in Qaterji company trucks. Meanwhile, the SDF depends on the Government of Syria to refine its comparably robust output, primarily at the Banyas refinery in coastal Tartous. Now, this production cycle may be breaking apart. If carried to the extreme, the SDF’s increasingly confrontational approach to the Qaterji company will likely cut off this trade altogether. Indeed, halting the crossline fuel trade is the overt objective of U.S. forces now occupying oilfields in eastern Syria (Syria Update 23–29 October). If crossline transfers to the Government of Syria are halted, Damascus will find no option but to turn to Iran for oil it has heretofore sourced domestically — unless Russia can somehow fill this gap. For its part, the SDF will be hard-pressed to refine oil at scale if it loses access to Syrian refineries. Local ‘artisanal’ refining, concentrated in eastern Al-Hasakeh governorate, is low-capacity and environmentally catastrophic. Cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan is theoretically possible, but problematic, given that inter-Kurdish relations between Syria and Iraq are tenuous at best, and have frequently broken down, to the point that border crossings have been closed altogether. Finally, the possibility of continuing ISIS attacks introduces an unwelcome wild card to these considerations. Denied territorial control, ISIS is likely to continue to prioritize asymmetric attacks designed to sow chaos, and, whatever doubts linger over ISIS’s responsibility for the title incidents, such attacks continue to take place unchecked. Although Syria has comfortable reserves compared to last winter, when major oil shortages occurred nationwide, domestic oil markets are undergoing a radical shift, and a multitude of vulnerabilities exists.

4. Popular Demonstrations Against HTS Continue in Northwest Syria

Kafr Takharim, Idleb Governorate: As of 12 November, local sources report that demonstrations against HTS continue in communities across northeastern Idleb governorate, fueled by monetary levies made by the Salvation Government on top of the burden of recent hikes to the prices of consumer goods. The most notable such demonstration continues in Kafr Takharim, where HTS has failed to negotiate a return after being driven out of the community by local protesters (Syria Update 30 October–5 November). Crucially, the community has blocked HTS’s return to the area despite attempts by local notables and Faylaq Al-Sham combatants to broker a deal. Meanwhile, local sources reported that protests over fees imposed by the Salvation Government have continued in Kafr Takharim, as well as in Idleb, Saraqeb, Salqin, Ma’arrat An Nu’man, and Atareb cities. Further fueling the demonstrations are rumors circulating locally that suggest that the Salvation Government intends to seize control of internet service provision throughout northwest Syria and impose a higher fixed price. Meanwhile, local sources report that HTS has arrested at least six protestors and forced them to sign pledges not to partake in future demonstrations, although further crackdowns or coercive reactions on its part have not been reported.

Analysis: At face value, the sustained protests now taking place in northwest Syria underscore the fact that HTS control over the communities where it holds nominal authority remains far from ironclad. More importantly, however, these protests also demonstrate that space does remain for local populations to challenge armed actors and shape conditions throughout Syria, even in communities held by HTS. Frequently, narratives concerning Syrian communities tacitly ignore the agency of local populations; in many cases, communities are portrayed as being tantamount to potential tax bases or recruitment pools for armed groups. Such narratives are simplistic and they have the effect of shrinking the perceived operational space available for principled, conflict-sensitive programming. Without doubt, Syrian communities continue to challenge HTS and the Government of Syria (as well as the Self-Administration); in the long term, identifying such agency will be crucial to designing programming and taking full stock of the impact of humanitarian, development, and peace-building interventions.

5. GoS Predicates Returns of Tadmor Families on Military Service

Tadmor, Homs: On 5 November, local media reported that Homs Governor Talal Al-Barazi informed a delegation of IDPs from Tadmor that return to their communities was conditional upon “voluntary” military service. Reportedly, “high-ranking officials” in the Government of Syria have determined that the IDP families will be permitted to return to Tadmor only under the condition that at least one family member “volunteer” for military service with Government of Syria forces, military reserves, or “allied forces” — apparently a reference to Government-aligned militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The imposition of these conditions follow the Government’s denial of repeated requests by the IDP families for permission to return to Tadmor.

Analysis: Returns and military service have been deeply interconnected throughout the protracted Syria conflict. On multiple occasions, the Government of Syria has employed temporary amnesties to encourage refugee returns and to boost military recruitment (Syria Update 18–24 October 2018). However, Al-Barazi’s rejection of returns to Tadmor is the first known acknowledgement from a Government of Syria official that military service is an overt precondition to return. To date, it is impossible to ascertain the exact conditions now being levied by the Government of Syria on Tadmor IDPs. The chief concern in this context is whether the requirement will fall only to individuals who are wanted for unfulfilled service requirements, or whether it will apply to all returnees equally, irrespective of service status. With past examples serving as a guide, it is distinctly possible that this requirement is intended in part as a response to the need for military manpower, rather than a punitive measure to impose barriers to return. This view is bolstered by the creation of a Government of Syria reconciliation committee in Al-Hasakeh (see Point No. 2). In the long term, such recruitment efforts are troubling indicators that a Government military offensive may be on the horizon (in northwest Syria), but they also serve as an indicator of the protection concerns that persist for returnees, even when other barriers to return are absent.

6. China Invests in Syrian Construction Materials, Aiming for Local and Export Markets

Damascus: On 5 November, local media reported that Chinese companies had signed three memoranda of understanding to plug the gaps in Syria’s shattered industrial and extractive capacity. In a statement to a television network closely affiliated to the Government of Syria, the head of the Syrian General Geological Establishment, Samir Al-Assad, stated that private Chinese companies had signed three cooperative agreements to produce building materials including cement, quartzite sand, and foundation gravel. Al-Assad stated that “the projects that the Chinese side is undertaking will be to process raw materials, and not merely to extract them with the goal of realizing a profit. This will guarantee the needs of the local market, and ensure the export of the outputs as well.”

Analysis: Though potentially important in economic terms on the local level, the title investments by Chinese companies do not signal that China’s broader strategic disengagement from the politically fractured and highly volatile Syrian market is likely to change in the foreseeable future. In the first instance, these investments are relatively small, especially considering the full-court press Damascus has made diplomatically in the interest of wooing Chinese businesses to Syria, in particular for reconstruction. In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that China would participate in Syria’s reconstruction, leading some analysts to posit that Syria would be given a prominent place in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (Syria Update 9–15 May). However, despite such statements, as well as multiple other pledges of funding and support, trade delegations, and numerous memoranda of understanding, few tangible outcomes of Chinese-Syrian industrial or economic cooperation have materialized. No doubt Chinese businesses see opportunity in Damascus in the long term, but important caveats obtain. Given Chinese risk-aversion and the likelihood that Syria will remain volatile in terms of security and governance far into the future, it is doubtful whether the Belt and Road Initiative will find its way to the Mediterranean via Syria. China is increasingly requiring that Chinese businesses comply with corporate due diligence and anti-corruption practices abroad — a distinct hurdle to entering the Syrian market. Finally, China has avoided the third rails of American foreign policy, especially Iran (expert sources point to China’s near-total disavowal of Iranian oil imports since Q3 2018 as a signal of China’s acquiescence to U.S. sanctions on Iran). Chinese actors are likely to view business undertakings in Syria with trepidation, so long as entering Syrian markets risks such local concerns and running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

7. Northwest Teachers Go on Strike for Continued Support

Idleb Governorate: On 9 November, local and media sources reported that teachers in northwest Syria had launched a three-day general strike and solidarity campaign to protest shortages in staffing, teacher salaries, and school supplies. Calling the campaign “I am a teacher, and I have the right to live,” the teachers are demanding sector-wide support, and have vowed to continue their protests if their demands go unmet. In a public statement, the teachers accused NGOs of “discrimination and selectivity in funding, by which they support one group of teachers, and at the same time deprive many others.” In this context, local media report that some teachers have condemned the Salvation Government for refraining from stepping in to lend holistic support to the education sector in northwest Syria.

Analysis: The present strike is the latest in a series of protest campaigns launched by teachers to preserve, or boost, support for the education sector in northwest Syria. Cuts to education sector funding do not carry the same life-threatening consequences as cuts to the health sector, for example, yet that does not mean that cuts to education are without major consequence. Education is a crucial backstop preventing recruitment by HTS, especially among vulnerable populations and IDPs, as well as in economically depressed communities. According to local sources, large proportions of teachers in northwest Syria already work on a volunteer basis; additional cuts will force yet more teachers to resign or forego their salaries in the hope that further funding will materialize in the future. It is important to note that a majority of teachers in northwest Syria are women; accordingly, funding stream issues that affect the sector as a whole will have a disproportionate negative impact on women, for whom education is one of the few livelihoods opportunities available. Finally, it should be noted that a wide breakdown in donor support for education would effectively collapse the sector as a whole and invite the participation of the Salvation Government. To date, the sector’s financial independence has been its greatest defense against interference; if independent support for the sector disappears, so too will its safeguards against interference.

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.

Syria Update: 30 October – November 05, 2019

Syria Update

30 October to November 05, 2019

Image caption: Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad conducts a wide-ranging television interview on 31 October. Image courtesy of SANA.

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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.

Al-Assad defiant in major television interview

In Depth Analysis

On October 31, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad conducted a wide-ranging interview with Syrian television reporters — the first such interview given by Al-Assad since June 2018. Much of the Western media reportage concerning the interview has focused on Al-Assad’s statements regarding northeast Syria, in particular his remarks that U.S. President Donald Trump is the “best American president” due to his “complete transparency” — a reference to Trump’s announced ambition to expropriate northeast Syria’s oil fields. However, inside Syria the interview carries far greater significance; the conversation between the Syrian president and the television reporters lasted more than one and a half hours, was remarkably candid, and touched on nearly all of the most pressing long-term intentions of the Government of Syria. Indeed, Al-Assad’s statements should be seen as an articulation of the military, political, and economic stances of the Syrian state itself; it is thus important to examine these remarks in detail. The interview addressed four main points: northeast Syria, the Syrian Constitutional Committee, the dire economic conditions in the country, and the widening scope of anti-corruption measures.

Northeast Syria

The interview addressed the issue of northeast Syria both in terms of military control and in terms of the ongoing Russian-mediated negotiations to forge a workable amalgamation of the Self Administration and the Syrian state. Regarding the military status of northeast Syria, Al-Assad rebuffed the interviewer’s suggestion that the 22 October memorandum of understanding between Russia and Turkey legitimizes Turkey’s Peace Spring military operations. He stated that “the agreement is a temporary one, not permanent,” likening the agreement to previous de-escalation area agreements, which have been implemented throughout the conflict to circumscribe active hostilities. Al-Assad stated: “In the short term, it is a good agreement” that “limits the damage [of a Turkish incursion] and paves the way for the liberation of this area in the future, or the immediate future, as we hope.” Al-Assad also addressed the continuing presence of U.S. forces in eastern Syria, where they are deployed with the overt purpose of denying the Government of Syria access to the country’s most productive oil and gas fields. On this point, Al-Assad acknowledged that Syria could not militarily contest the presence of U.S. forces, and hinted at the possibility of an eventual “popular resistance against the occupier” akin to efforts that drove U.S. forces to withdraw from Lebanon (during the Lebanese Civil War) and Iraq.

Al-Assad also spoke at length concerning the “facts on the ground” that would delay the administrative reintegration of Self-Administration areas with Damascus. On this issue, Al-Assad addressed three crucial points: the Government of Syria’s limited capacity to actually administer northeast Syria, the unlikelihood of disarming or disbanding the SDF, and the difficulty of reintegrating Kurdish communities that view Damascus with reservation, if not outright hostility. In a candid expression of his government’s limited capacity to subsume northeast Syria, Al-Assad explicitly linked the restoration of Government of Syria military control in this area to the government’s highly circumscribed administrative capacity. “The Syrian Army cannot be deployed only to carry out purely security or military acts,” Al-Assad said. “The deployment of the Syrian Army is an expression of the presence of the Syrian state, which means the presence of all the services that should be provided by the state. … This should take place gradually.” In terms of the “obstacles” that are likely to impede the Government’s restored control, Al-Assad pointed chiefly to the SDF, stating that “we do not expect them to hand over their weapons immediately.” Addressing a question concerning “the problem with the Kurds” and their integration within Syria as a whole, Al-Assad superficially acknowledged the legitimate grievances of Kurdish communities, and observed (correctly) that many Kurds “accuse the Syrian state … of being chauvinistic.” However, Al-Assad clearly stated that “separatist propositions” — not Kurdish communities as such — are the obstacle to reintegration. Here, it is highly noteworthy that Al-Assad identified Self Administration educational curricula, specifically Kurdish-language instruction, as a standing challenge to post-conflict détente among various Syrian constituencies. He noted that the ministries of Education, Defense, and Interior are currently studying the issue and will release a plan containing measures “to assimilate these people within the Syrian state … in the next few days.”

Constitutional Committee

Amid cautious optimism — buoyed by the efforts of UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen — the Syrian Constitutional Committee convened its first session in Geneva on 30 October. In a provocative denunciation of this undertaking, Al-Assad abnegated the Geneva process, repudiated the possibility of UN-supervised elections in Syria, and disavowed concessions on the part of the Government of Syria altogether. Striking a defiant tone, Al-Assad stated that “everything that is happening has its frame of reference as Sochi and is a continuation of it. There is no Geneva, it is not part of this process.” (For further assessment of the Constitutional Committee, see Point No. 2 below.)


In the course of the interview, Al-Assad was also pressed to explain the “deterioration in the living conditions of Syrian families” that has persisted despite military conditions progressively becoming more favorable to the Government of Syria and its forces. In response, Al-Assad listed several factors that have impeded Syria’s “development and economic cycle”: the loss of revenues from domestic tourism and exports, most notably from oil fields and cereal production in northern Syria; sanctions that have forced the state to procure strategic goods such as fuel “in a roundabout way in order to circumvent the sanctions”; slow, if not entirely “intangible” progress in rehabilitating vital service and industrial infrastructure; and the deep instability of the Syrian lira, which has been exacerbated by sanctions, lost export revenues, and “the speculation game” taking place in foreign currency markets. Finally, Al-Assad acknowledged that, faced with declining revenues and what amounts to a ‘guns or butter’ dilemma concerning the need to procure arms or stabilize the Syrian lira, the state has opted for the former. To that end, Al-Assad stated that: “Our priorities have been focused on arms and ammunition and squeezing what we can in order to provide the necessary weapons.” Finally, it is also important to note what the interview lacked: acknowledgment of the increasing centrality of Russian and Iranian investments in various sectors of the Syrian economy.


Finally, Al-Assad acknowledged that the Syrian state has embarked on a high-level initiative to crack down on corruption, but denied that the efforts are new or amount to extortion targeting wealthy businessmen. Al-Assad stated that the push for “accountability” began more than three years ago with the jailing of “high-ranking officers” in the military establishment; the effort simply did not come to light until recent months, he said, when it received attention due to the targeting of individuals in “the spotlight of society” (i.e. Rami Makhlouf and other prominent Syrian businessmen). Al-Assad rejected the interviewer’s characterization that the campaign constitutes a “Ritz Carlton Syria” scenario — a reference to the detention and apparent extortion of the Saudi business elite, reportedly at the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Defending the procedural legality of the Syrian state’s crackdown, Al-Assad pointed to the 28 September meeting of elite businessmen with the Syrian Central Bank and Damascus Chamber of Commerce in a desperate bid to stabilize the Syrian lira (Syria Update 25 September 1 October). On this point, Al-Assad made the fairly incredulous, though superficially accurate, claim that the businessmen “were asked to help state institutions, particularly the Central Bank, and they did so.” Although the businessmen did deposit dollars in exchange for Syria lira, they had not made “donations to the state,” Al-Assad said.

Image caption: Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad conducts a wide-ranging television interview on 31 October. Image courtesy of SANA.

Why does it matter?

In many respects, Al-Assad used this latest interview to repeat familiar tropes: he denounced foreign intervention in Syria, accused armed opposition groups of serving as foreign proxies, and framed the entire Syria conflict as a protracted battle against terrorism. He refused to characterize the conflict as a civil war, thus reiterating the framing that domestic opposition combatants are, in effect, illegitimate agents of foreign powers. Such tropes are not mere rhetoric, and Al-Assad’s speech should be seen as an indication of the Government of Syria’s political stance and long-term inclinations. To that end, the interview struck a blow against the Self Administration; although Al-Assad painted a realistic picture of his Government’s inability to forcibly recover territory in northeast Syria — at least for the time being — he nonetheless reiterated that concessions to the Self Administration will be difficult to achieve, even in terms of school curricula. Given the centrality of the education sector to donor-supported programming, Al-Assad’s remark that he hopes to “assimilate all [students] within the national system” is particularly concerning. Likewise, his unyielding position vis-a-vis the Syrian Constitutional Committee bespeaks the validity of concerns over the nascent constitutional reform process, and his attempt to decouple its work from future Syrian elections is particularly notable.

More fundamentally, the frank nature of Al-Assad’s responses suggests that the Government of Syria is now sufficiently confident to recognize, at least superficially, its own administrative failures and the bleak day-to-day realities confronting ordinary Syrians. In this sense, Al-Assad’s remarks concerning economic hardship and the ineptitude and corruption that pervade Syria’s bureaucratic apparatus are significant admissions, as are his statements acknowledging Kurdish grievances. However, it is important that Al-Assad’s frankness in these respects be understood not as a prelude to capitulation, but as an indicator that the Government of Syria is increasingly confident that, in the long term, it will have the capacity to weather these challenges without making substantive concessions to its domestic political challengers.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Intensifying clashes on northern Lattakia frontlines signal potential for ‘land swap’

Kabani, northern Lattakia Governorate: On 1 November, local and media sources reported that intense clashes and shelling had resumed on the frontlines between armed opposition groups and Government of Syria forces in northern Lattakia Governorate. Although opposition forces captured several important positions, local sources indicated that Government forces and Iranian militias launched a counter-offensive that reversed the advances, albeit with heavy losses. Indeed, in a further indication that military operations in these areas are intensifying, approximately 20 Government of Syria combatants were reportedly killed on Kabani frontlines in three days of clashes. Furthermore, as of 4 November, media sources reported that the governments of Syria and Russia had resumed heavy aerial and ground attacks on southern rural Idleb as well as northern rural Lattakia.

Analysis: The intensification of clashes and the resumption of military operations in strategic northwest Syria communities are worrying developments in their own right; however, there are indicators that a wider military offensive by the Government of Syria is possible in the near term. Cooperation between Russia and Turkey to establish respective zones of influence in northeast Syria may be an important precursor to a northwest Syria offensive; reference to previous ‘land swap’ frameworks implemented by the two powers is thus instructive. For example, in 2016, Turkey withdrew support to armed opposition groups in western Aleppo; in return, the Governments of Syria and Russia provided military support for Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation. Likewise, in early 2018, Russia withdrew its military police from Afrin, thus giving a green light to Turkey to launch the operation Olive Branch offensive; in exchange, Turkey cut off its political and financial support to armed factions in Eastern Ghouta, which the Government of Syria recaptured following a siege launched in March 2018. It is distinctly possible that Turkey, now in secure control of a large swathe of northeast Syria, will acquiesce to a renewed military offensive in Idleb, where it exercises nominal authority to implement the Sochi de-escalation zone agreement. Were the Government of Syria, supported by Russia, to undertake such an offensive, its chief priority would be the recapture of the M4 and M5 highways, the primary commercial thoroughfares linking Aleppo city to coastal and central Syria respectively. To that end, the Government of Syria is unlikely to waver in its ambition to restore access to the M4 and M5, which it has consistently framed as its chief strategic priority in northwest Syria. In a television interview on 31 October, Al-Assad was asked whether “zero hour” for the northwest offensive had arrived; in response, the president said that “in the near future we must give room to the political process in its various forms. If it does not yield results then this is an enemy and you go to war against it; there is no other choice.”

2. Constitutional Committee convenes amid harsh criticism levelled by Al-Assad

Geneva: On October 31, one day after the opening session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made several extremely notable statements regarding the constitutional reform process in a televised interview with Syrian broadcasters (see In-Depth Analysis section above). In the most noteworthy statement, when asked about the possibility of holding parliamentary and presidential elections under UN supervision, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254, Al-Assad stated that if the UN “believes that Resolution 2254 gives the authority to any party, international or otherwise, to supervise the elections, this means that they are returning to the era of the mandate … That would only be in their dreams.” Furthermore, Al-Assad called into question the legitimacy of the opposition list, calling its members “agents … appointed by Turkey.” Finally, Al-Assad categorically denied that the Government of Syria had made “any real concessions” with respect to the constitutional reform process.

Analysis: Al-Assad’s remarks indicate the Government of Syria’s readiness to play an obstructionist role in the constitutional reform process, and they raise crucial questions regarding the Government’s commitment to the process’s outcomes. To date, there has been considerable debate over the future implementation of Resolution 2254, specifically whether internationally supervised elections would follow the adoption of a new Syrian constitution. Al-Assad’s remarks underscore the Government of Syria’s public stand against internationally monitored elections and, consequently, the full implementation of Resolution 2254 as it has been interpreted by most in the international community. Criticisms of the Constitutional Committee and the legitimacy of its opposition-list members have been standard fare from Damascus; more worrying are Al-Assad’s statements forswearing any ‘real’ concessions whatsoever. In effect, these remarks confirm the Government of Syria’s willingness to push for the approval of the Syrian constitution as it currently stands, with no serious amendments (see: Syrian Constitutional Committee: Background Note). It is important that Al-Assad’s statements be taken seriously; however, that does not mean they should be taken entirely literally. The Government of Syria is deeply invested in the ultimate success of the constitutional reform process as a means of burnishing its legitimacy, shedding its pariah status, achieving domestic political accord, and paving the way to eventual reconstruction. To this end, on the sidelines of the committee’s first session in Geneva, Government of Syria bloc co-chair Ahmad Kuzbari reportedly suggested that the committee’s next meeting be convened in Damascus. Although there are credible doubts over the feasibility of convening a session inside Syria, should the Government of Syria offer the necessary safety guarantees, convening in Damascus would signal that — despite the harsh rhetoric — some modest concessions from the Government are possible.

3. VBIEDs in Afrin and Tell Abiad signal blowback in Turkish-held areas

Tell Abiad, Ar-Raqqa Governorate: On 2 November, media sources reported that more than a dozen people had been killed and approximately 20 were injured in a VBIED detonation in a market in Tell Abiad. Both Turkish-linked combatants and civilians, including children, were reportedly among those killed in the explosion. The incident came one day after joint Turkish-Russian military patrols began in northeast Syria, and they followed two days after a VBIED explosion killed at least 8 individuals and injured at least 30 in a market in Afrin. Turkey has frequently blamed the YPG for VBIED, rocket attacks, and violence in Afrin, while the YPG holds that Turkey’s overall strategy throughout northern Syria is to bring about demographic change. Relatedly, the Turkey-backed National Army has reportedly begun to register the names of combatants and their family members who wish to relocate to communities brought under Turkish control in the ongoing Peace Spring military operation.

Analysis: Attacks targeting Turkish forces and civilian areas have been a common occurrence in Afrin since Turkey captured the predominantly Kurdish area from the SDF, in March 2018. Afrin may thus represent a template for the security dynamics to come in Tell Abiad and other areas in northeast Syria captured by the National Army. These dynamics are likely to include further asymmetric attacks against security forces and populated areas, as well as heightened security restrictions imposed by Turkish forces, arrest campaigns, and — most disconcerting — the resettlement of Arab combatants fighting in armed opposition groups backed by Turkey. The recent disclosure that National Army combatants may register to relocate with their family members to areas of northeast Syria captured by Turkey is significant for several reasons. First, along with the formation of a Syrian Interim Government-aligned local council in Tell Abiad, the measure broadcasts Turkey’s resolve to establish meaningful, potentially permanent, control in these areas, despite the pronouncements from Damascus. Second, although the actual feasibility of a plan to relocate civilians to northeast Syria on an accelerated basis is dubious, the announcement that registration has opened is likely to prompt a response locally. As in Afrin, YPG-linked actors are unlikely to countenance the demographic, military, and administrative changes that are rapidly taking shape in newly Turkish-controlled areas of northeast Syria. As such, further attacks in Tell Abiad and other areas that are now falling under Turkish control are likely, and security conditions in these communities are liable to deteriorate rapidly.

4. Three removed from ‘terror list’ as Government seeks influence in Dar‘a, Al-Hasakeh

Dar’a Governorate: On 4 November, media sources reported that the Government of Syria Directorate for Countering Money Laundry and Terrorism Financing had removed from its “terrorist list” the names of three individuals: Anwar Nour Al-Dine Kharnoub, Ghassan A’qleh Al-Mahameed, and Nawaf Abd Al-Aziz Mosallat. These individuals had been placed on the list in February 2018, and the directorate did not disclose the reason for their removal. However, each of the individuals represents a community important for the Government of Syria. Al-Mahameed was among the founders of the Southern Front in Dar‘a Governorate, and went on to occupy a seat on the High Negotiations Committee as southern Syria communities were rapidly negotiating local reconciliation agreements and the contours of their relationship with Damascus. Al-Mahameed is known as an advocate for reconciliation with the Government of Syria in the area, and previously lived in the United Arab Emirates. According to local sources, Al-Kharnoub is a businessman originally from Yabroud, in Rural Damascus, and is known to visit the United Arab Emirates on a frequent basis. Further information about his background is not immediately available. Mosallat is a leader of the Jabour tribe, one of the most powerful tribes in Al-Hasakeh governorate, which is known for its generally strong affiliation to the Government of Syria.

Analysis: The removal of names from the Government of Syria terrorism list is a vanishingly rare occurrence. In the present case, the Government of Syria’s decision to remove individuals from the list is likely motivated by its pressing need to make inroads into strategically significant communities, including by capitalizing on the leverage wielded on the local level by these individuals. The Government of Syria routinely interacts with various communities through the good offices of locally influential intermediaries, to include tribal leaders, religious figures, notables, and armed actors, who function as brokers between their communities and the central government. Such intermediaries were linchpins of negotiations over local reconciliation agreements in southern Syria in 2018, and in the post-reconciliation context, these actors remained active brokers of service provision, security conditions, conscription, and returns (see: Intermediaries of Return). It is crucial to note that the Government of Syria is increasingly desperate to contain the disorder in southern Syria and establish a firmer presence there. While the probable selection of new intermediaries should not be seen as an olive branch to these communities, it is almost certainly indicative of a wider strategy to engage these communities on their own terms, and it is also likely to be wide-reaching. Likewise, as the Government seeks to capitalize on the rapidly developing security situation in northeast Syria, tribal interlocutors will likely be a crucial constituency. To this end, the Jabour tribe, which is influential throughout central Al-Hasakeh governorate, will be an important ally in staging a return to areas that remain, for the time being, being the Government’s direct reach (see: Shifting Sands: Arab Tribal Political Realignment in Northeastern Syria).

5. MOU grants Iran power to rehabilitate Syrian electrical grid

Lattakia Governorate: On 2 November, Iranian Minister of Energy Reza Ardakanian and Syrian Minister of Electricity Mohammad Zuhair Kharboutli signed a memorandum of understanding granting Iran a concession to rehabilitate the Syrian electrical grid. The preliminary agreement covers the construction of power plants and transmission lines, and includes the possibility of directly connecting the two nation’s electrical grids through a trilateral agreement including Iraq. Iran has reportedly already begun to rehabilitate the electricity grid in Lattakia. Meanwhile, between 31 October and 3 November, representatives of the Government of Syria attended the International Electricity Exhibition in Tehran. At the exhibition, the Government of Syria reportedly signed a number of additional contracts, although the specific details have not been disclosed. Notably, these agreements come on the heels of Iran’s decision to reactivate a $3 billion credit line to the Government of Syria for the import of fuel and other commodities (Syria Update 23–29 October).

Analysis: Iran’s participation in the rehabilitation of the Syrian electrical network is highly significant; if carried out to its greatest extent, the plan will grant Iran a concession to control an entire line ministry and a vital service sector in Syria. Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that previous memoranda of understanding over electrical grid rehabilitation signed between the Government of Syria and Iran (in 2017 and 2018) collapsed without tangible progress. In both cases, Iran withdrew from the deals due to the Government of Syria’s inability to secure the necessary funding for the projects. Given the Government of Syria’s deep fiscal constraints, it is extremely unlikely that it has now secured the means to fund Iran’s participation in the ambitious rehabilitation plan. Thus, it is far more probable that Iran has agreed to fund the project in expectation of collecting future user fees; however, the project will also make inroads to guaranteeing a stable economic and security environment in post-conflict Syria. Inside Syria, frequent blackouts and inconsistent electricity provision are wellsprings of popular dissatisfaction with Damascus, and the Government of Syria has frequently identified rehabilitation of the electrical grid as a national priority for kickstarting Syria’s industrial economy. To that end, it is important that the agreement be seen within the context of Iran’s deepening economic commitment to Syria. Despite facing economic pressures domestically, Iran’s recent reactivation of a credit line to Syria suggests that it has doubled down on its Syria portfolio, likely as a means of guaranteeing a return on its significant investments to date. Although the crucial details of any agreement between Syria and Iran are yet to be seen, the ambitious regional energy plan may indeed come to fruition.

6. Increase in fuel and bread prices triggers anti-HTS demonstrations in Northwest

Idleb Governorate: On 1 November, local and media sources reported that popular demonstrations against HTS and the Salvation Government had erupted in cities across Idleb governorate, including Idleb, Saraqeb, Ma’arrat An Nu’man, and Kafr Takharim. Galvanized by deteriorating economic conditions, protesters excoriated HTS and the Salvation Government. On 5 November, as the protests became progressively more confrontational, civilians in Kafr Takharim raided an HTS-run police station and the zakat directorate, before driving HTS combatants out of the community. According to local and media sources, the popular mobilizations were triggered by worsening economic conditions, which were acutely felt due to the Salvation Government’s decision to reduce the weight of a pack by bread from 900 grams to 760 grams, while maintaining the price for a pack. It is important to note that these conditions are at least in part due to the closure of the Al-Aoun crossing point between Menbij and northwest Syria, which was closed following the Government of Syria’s redeployment to Menbij. As a result, the vital fuel trade from northeast Syria has ground to a halt, and local businesses and producers have resorted to using dramatically more expensive fuel imported by the Salvation Government-affiliated Watad company (500 SYP/0.76 USD per liter, compared to 350 SYP/0.52 USD for domestically procured fuel).

Analysis: In some sense, the immediate trigger of the increasingly emboldened protest movement in Idleb is the closure of the Al-Aoun crossing, which links Euphrates Shield and opposition-controlled areas of northwest Syria to Menbij. The latter area is the hub of the crossline fuel trade originating in northeast Syria. However, the Salvation Government’s failure to implement price controls or to subsidize the strategic goods and basic services that have been affected is highly consequential in this respect. The Salvation Government is already deeply unpopular in many communities in northwest Syria, including those in which protests have now broken out. The rising real cost of bread, fuel, and electricity will add considerably to this resentment and will likely spark further protests. Popular demonstrations have broken out on a large scale and in numerous communities in northwest Syria since late August (Syria Update 29 August – 4 September). It is important to note that fuel procured by Watad internationally is also subject to fluctuations in the market exchange rate for the Syrian lira, which dipped from 633 SYP/USD to 662 SYP/USD in October; as such, further instability in the costs of fuel and fuel-dependent services can be expected in northwest Syria so long as crossline fuel trade remains cut off. For further details on the trade patterns that illustrate northern Syria’s heavy reliance on crossline trade, see the COAR infographic Trade Dynamics in Northern Syria.

7. Northeast humanitarian conditions stabilize, but remain tenuous

Alok, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: Throughout the reporting period, humanitarian conditions in northeast Syria continued to stabilize, and large numbers of IDPs displaced throughout northeast Syria have returned. Following the Russian-Turkish agreement reached on 22 October, clashes have become increasingly localized on the frontlines near Ras Al Ain, and on the Ain al-Arab-Ein Issa road. Displacement has also has become progressively more concentrated to a limited number of communities; to that effect, following the initial waves of displacement from most border areas in northeast Syria, displacement is now largely limited to areas that are actively contested, or have come under the partial control of the Government of Syria, most notably Ar-Raqqa. Nonetheless, the impact the Turkish offensive lingers. The massive destruction of civil infrastructure has had a significant impact on services; as many as 750,000 people across Al-Hasakeh governorate are liable to go without centrally supplied water due to repeated targeting of the Alok water station, which supplies drinking water to approximately 80 percent of the governorate’s population (Syria Update 23-29 October). As of writing, all efforts to restore the station to functionality have failed, and alternative water sources fall far short of local demand. Most importantly, the Self Administration has also been under severe pressure to accommodate IDPs; to that end, local sources reported that the Self Administration has begun steps to create a new temporary shelter center in Tweineh village, north of Al-Hasakeh city, to host as many as 3,000 IDP families displaced from Ras Al Ain.

Analysis: In some important respects, the 22 October Russian-Turkish memorandum of understanding has de-escalated northeast Syria, at least in the immediate term. Indeed, the agreement has succeeded in containing Turkey’s military advances, and it has been instrumental in fostering the conditions to limit displacement; however, the sustainability of the agreement in the long term is highly dubious. The most foreboding consideration in this context relates to the territorial ambitions of Turkey. To that end, speaking to parliamentarians on 30 October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey reserves the right to “expand our safe zone area if needed.” Given that the Government of Syria also rejects the agreement and clashes between the National Army and Government of Syria, as well as the SDF, continue, the agreement should be seen as fragile at best, and wider conflict is almost certain to break out once more, at least in limited areas. In this context, it is important to note that despite the elastic nature of many displacements in northeast Syria to this point, the prospects for return among those displaced from areas captured by Turkey are highly doubtful (see Point No. 3).

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: 29 October – 04 November, 2019


Media Anthology

29 October - 04 November, 2019

After setting fire to cars owned by Al-Bostan Foundation that belongs to Rami Makhlouf .. the regime forces carry out campaigns of raids in Al-Quneitra city and arrest a number of young menEnglishSyrian Observatory For Human RightsOctober 28, 2019Conflict and Military
casualties in an IED in Afrin north of SyriaArabicArabi 21October 31, 2019Conflict and Military
Assad-Russian bombing in Idlib countryside kills civiliansEnglishOrient NewsOctober 31, 2019Conflict and Military
Turkish-Russian patrols might start today east of EuphratesArabicShaam NetworkNovember 1, 2019Conflict and Military
Opposition factions controlled new locations for the regime in rural LattakiaArabicBaladi NewsNovember 1, 2019Conflict and Military
East of Euphrates: The war continues despite dealsArabicAl Quds Al ArabiNovember 2, 2019Conflict and Military
The Government formed a committee to detect the biggest tax evadersArabicAl-IqtisadiOctober 30, 2019Economic
Local cross-line coordination in SyriaEnglishUnited States Institute of PeaceOctober 3, 2019Economic
The US built a new bridge to transfer oil between Syria and IraqArabicZaman Al WaslOctober 31, 2019Economic
Iran signed a contract to reconstruct the power sector in SyriaArabicErem NewsNovember 2, 2019Economic
Azqoul: Goods movement between Syria and Lebanon has stopped ArabicAl-IqtisadiNovember 4, 2019Economic
Evacuation notices were sent to the residents of a neighborhood in Damascus in favor of Marota City investorsArabicAl-7alOctober 31, 2019Governance and Service Management
The Interim Government started to establish a police sector in Tell Abiad and Ras Al AinArabicEnab BaladiNovember 4, 2019Governance and Service Management
Germany charges two Syrians with crimes against humanityEnglishAl JazeeraOctober 29, 2019Social Dynamics
Syria is witnessing an increase in the number of reported suicides, although it is not known what is pushing people to take their own lives writes Snack SyriaEngishThe Syrian ObserverOctober 28, 2019Social Dynamics
A protest in Ar-Raqqa to refuse the entry of the regime forcesArabicEnab BaladiMarch 7, 1900Social Dynamics
My pen is my dream, a new campaign to salvage education in northwest SyriaArabicEnab BaladiOctober 27, 2019Humanitarian & Development
A Russian airstrike drove the building of 'Youth Toward Future' organization out of serviceArabicBaladi NewsNovember 1, 2019Humanitarian & Development
The main points in the opening speeches of Bahra and Kazbari in GenevaArabicEnab BaladiOctober 29, 2019International Intervention
The constitutional committee held its first meeting, with speeches from the regime and opposition presidents and from the UN Special Envoy reports Alsouria Net.EnglishThe Syrian ObserverOctober 31, 2019International Intervention
How the new Syria took shapeEnglishThe New York timesOctober 30, 2019International Intervention
Trump’s baffling plan to pillage Syria’s oilEnglishThe New YorkerMarch 24, 1900International Intervention
Russia in the Middle East: Jack of all trades, master of noneEnglishCarnegieOctober 31, 2019International Intervention
ISIS leader paid rival for protection but was betrayed by his ownEnglishThe New York timesNovember 1, 2019Other
An analysis of commonalities and divergences of Syrian constitutional papers since 2011ArabicLondon School of Economics and Political ScienceOctober 26, 2019Other
The conditions that created ISIS still existEnglishForeign PolicyOctober 28, 2019Other
45 Syrians are assigned to rewrite the new constitution, what are their qualifications?ArabicEnab BaladiNovember 4, 2019Other

Shifting Sands: Arab Tribal Political Realignment in Northeastern Syria

Shifting Sands: Arab Tribal Political Realignment in Northeastern Syria

02 November, 2019

Cover Image Caption: Members of the SDF attend a funeral for an Arab SDF combatant killed in eastern Deir-ez-Zor in June 2019.  Image courtesy of AFP.

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Executive Summary

Nearly every military and political reality in northeastern Syria has been upended in recent weeks by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from border areas, the memorandum of understanding between Russia and Turkey to implement the Turkish ‘safe zone’, and the military agreement between the SDF and the Government of Syria.  Amid these monumental shifts, the focus of much of the international community has remained fixed on the Self Administration’s potential incorporation into the Government of Syria and, more broadly, the fate of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish population. However, when considering the future of northeastern Syria, the political dynamics of local Arab tribes have received comparatively little attention, notwithstanding that Arab tribesmen are a significant component of the SDF and Arabs constitute a majority of the population in the areas controlled by the SDF.  Indeed, in many respects, tribal identity is the most important socio-political identifier in northeastern Syria. For these reasons, the shifting political allegiances of northeastern Syria’s Arab tribes are a critically important component of the future trajectory of the region.

To that end, this paper is a preliminary effort to map the political trajectory of northeastern Syria’s Arab tribes.  For the past several years, most of northeastern Syria’s tribes have aligned themselves, to some degree, with the SDF and the Self Administration out of genuine loyalty to the SDF, perceived financial incentives, or in pragmatic recognition of the fact that the Self Administration has been the primary governance actor in northeastern Syria.  Simultaneously, regional actors, to include Turkey and the Government of Syria, have maintained a policy of active outreach in northeastern Syria, based primarily on engagement with tribal leaders. Considering the rapidly developing political changes taking place in northeastern Syria, tribes and tribal leaders are now increasingly compelled to openly declare their allegiances to reflect these new realities.

This paper has four major findings: First, a majority of the Arab tribes and tribal leaders throughout northeastern Syria are increasingly inclined to break away from the SDF and align themselves with the Government of Syria.  Second, several tribes are, for now, on course to remain within the SDF coalition due to fear of the Government of Syria, or are internally divided between remaining with the SDF or aligning with the government. Crucially, these divisions are especially pronounced in Ar-Raqqa governorate and rural Deir-ez-Zor, highlighting the heightened possibility of intra- and inter-tribal conflict in these areas.  Third, those tribes that are most prominent within the Turkish-controlled regions on northeastern Syria are increasingly openly aligning with Turkey. Fourth, two tribes in particular — the Shummar and the Al-E’keidat — are attempting to pursue a policy of relative independence, leveraging their prominence, cohesiveness, and wealth as a means of negotiating separate agreements with whichever new actors become the dominant force in their areas of influence.

Background and Methodology

Much of the background analysis presented in this paper was drawn from a previous COAR paper, Tribal Tribulations, published in May 20192.  That research focused on the important social role that the tribe plays in northeastern Syria, in particular the role that tribal leaders play in dictating the political orientation of the tribe itself.2  Notably, while the tribe is not necessarily a cohesive entity as such, tribal affiliation informs the social composition of many communities, and tribal leadership figures often perform important governance functions to include dispute mediation, distribution of economic welfare and patronage, and security provision.  Shared tribal identity is thus often a critical component of armed group membership, the formation of political blocs, and the basis of popular mobilization. For that reason, tribal leaders are often influential political brokers, and frequently they are the best means of gauging the political orientation of the tribe as a whole.

Note: In maps throughout this report, individual points represent assessed communities. In communities shown by a solid color, a single tribe or affiliation is most prominent. In communities with split coloration, multiple tribes or affiliations are assessed.

Using field researchers, Tribal Tribulations also mapped which tribes were most prominent within each community in northeastern Syria.  The paper specifically focused on mapping the tribal outreach policies of regional governments, namely Turkey, Iran, and the Government of Syria.  The ultimate purpose of this tribal outreach was to secure relationships with northeastern Syria’s Arab tribesmen to create spheres of political influence within territory controlled by the SDF.  This policy had a geographic component: Turkey has specifically focusing on building relationships on Arab tribes in the proposed ‘safe zone’, especially in Tell Abiad and Ras Al-Ain; for its part, the Government of Syria engaged in tribal outreach throughout northeastern Syria, generally relying on pre-conflict tribal relationships.

Now, this tribal outreach policy is coming to fruition, and tribes are increasingly compelled to take sides as the political situation in northeastern Syria changes due to the Turkish incursion, the SDF’s alliance of necessity with the Government of Syria, and Russian mediation between the Government of Syria and the Self Administration.  To that end, for this paper, COAR field researchers in northeastern Syria have assessed the alignment of 19 major tribes in Al-Hasakeh, Deir-ez-Zor, and Ar-Raqqa governorates, and mapped this data onto the previously compiled tribal mapping data. Researchers focused on the alignment of these tribes and their tribal leaders as they are perceived locally in northeastern Syria. This is an imperfect methodology, but considering the speed of unfolding events, it does present a cohesive, if preliminary, set of findings that can inform an understanding of the future trajectory of tribal politics in northeastern Syria.

New Tribal ‘Alignments’

This paper proposes that Arab tribes can now be categorized into five distinct tendencies reflecting the political alignment of these tribes.  These five tendencies are: supportive of the Government of Syria; supportive of the SDF (generally out of a fear of the Government of Syria); internally divided between the government and the SDF; supportive of Turkey; and Independent.

Supportive of the Government of Syria

Nine of the 19 tribes assessed by COAR field researchers were perceived as being aligned with the Government of Syria.  These tribes are dispersed throughout all of northeastern Syria. Several of these tribes, such as the Tayy and the Bakkara, have been longstanding allies of the Government of Syria and have consistently been at odds with the SDF.3  However, others such as the Jbour or the Bou Assaf have large numbers of tribesmen who are SDF combatants, but tribal leadership figures either have high posts within the Government of Syria,4 or maintain open channels with Syrian government officials.5   Ultimately, many of these tribes are orienting themselves towards the Government of Syria out of pragmatism; the leaders of these tribes sense that the Government of Syria is returning to the region and the SDF may no longer exist in its current form, and their tribal leaders are essentially seeking to ensure that they will have some role in the region’s future.

Supportive of the SDF

Two tribes were noted by researchers as remaining staunchly aligned to the SDF — namely, the Al-Weldeh tribe, and the Afadleh tribe, both in Ar-Raqqa.  However, four other tribes were considered to be internally divided between supporting the SDF or realigning to the government of Syria (covered in greater detail below).  Most notably, the tribes that have remained supportive of the SDF are primarily located in Ar-Raqqa. Indeed, in August 2019 many Arab tribes in Ar-Raqqa regularly engaged in local protests, preemptively demonstrating against the Government of Syria returning to northeastern Syria.  According to researchers, there are essentially two major drivers pushing tribes to remain aligned to the SDF: fears of, or grievances against, the Government of Syria, or the perceived benefits to remaining aligned with the SDF. Many Arab tribesmen, especially in Ar-Raqqa, have a history of having aligned with the armed opposition in the early stages of the conflict, and consequently fear that a return of the Government of Syria will lead to evacuations, detentions, or revenge killings.  Others have specific grievances against the Government of Syria; for example, the Al-Weldeh tribe were originally located in the vicinity of what is now Lake Assad, and were expelled from their land by the government in 1974 in order to make way for the construction of the Tabqa dam. Additionally, some tribes in Ar-Raqqa, such as the Afadleh, have prominent roles in local and military councils in Ar-Raqqa under the Self Administration, and would view the return of the Government of Syria as a direct challenge to their power locally.  To that end, likely in an attempt to ensure the continued affiliation of both tribes, on October 29 the Ar-Raqqa civil council was restructured and the Self Administration has given members of both the Afadleh and the Al-Weldeh tribes a highly prominent role in the council.

Internally Divided Between the Government and the SDF

As noted, four of the 19 tribes examined by researchers were perceived as being internally divided between aligning with the Government of Syria, or remaining aligned to the SDF.  Each of these tribes is motivated by the same factors driving tribes that are now openly aligning with either the government or the SDF; what differentiates these tribes is the fact that they are less cohesive due to a multiplicity of leadership figures, or other narrow, parochial concerns.  Many of the tribes that are internally divided between aligning with the SDF or the Government are located primarily in Ar-Raqqa, or in rural Deir-ez-Zor. For example, in northeastern Syria the Al-Naim tribe is primarily located in Deir-ez-Zor, although it has branches across Syria and numerous leadership figures with close relationships to Government of Syria stakeholders.  However, a component of the Al-Naim tribe is in fact Kurdish and is openly supportive of the SDF. Another example is the Al-Bursan tribe, which like the Al-Wedlah tribe, was expelled from the vicinity of Lake Assad in 1974, and have been given a prominent role under the SDF’s Ar-Raqqa military council; however, prominent members of the Al-Bursan are also reportedly negotiating with the Government of Syria under the promise that they will be allowed to reclaim their ancestral lands along Lake Assad.

Supportive of Turkey

Researchers noted two tribes that are for all intents and purposes now aligned with Turkey: the Jeis and the Adawan.  The Jeis are primarily located in Tell Abiad, and the Adawan are the most prominent tribe in Ras Al-Ain; thus, their alignment with Turkey is in recognition of the fact that Turkey now exercices de facto in control of both areas.  Both tribes have also been a major focal point of the Turkish tribal outreach strategy in northeastern Syria. For example, the most important and popular leader of the Adawan tribe is Mohamad Al-Helou, who is also known as Abu Jasim; Abu Jasim is currently the Vice-Prime Minister of the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government.  Similarly, the leader of the Jeis tribe, Hassan Sheikh Ali Salloum has closely aligned himself with the Government of Turkey since the start of the Syrian conflict, and has lived in Turkey since 2014. Additionally, tribesmen from both tribes are also represented in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, and members of both tribes have been displaced to northern Aleppo and have openly advocated for a Turkish-backed offensive into Tell Abiad so that they can return to their communities of origin.


Two tribes — the Shummar and the Al-E’keidat — have been noted as independently engaging with the SDF and the Government of Syria on the basis of the considerable leverage they possess.  Here, independent refers not necessarily to the tribe’s alignment, but to its capacity to negotiate, as a tribe, with the government and the SDF. In this respect, both tribes should be viewed as powerbrokers in their own right.  The Shummar are by far the most cohesive, well-armed, and best-organized Arab tribe in Al-Hasakeh. The Shummar are led by the Jarba family, and the Shummar maintain their own armed group, the Sanadid, which is a significant component of the SDF.  Throughout the conflict the Shummar have aligned themselves to the YPG and the SDF; however, members of the Jarba family often negotiate independently with the Government of Syria, Turkey, and Russia. For example, Ahmed Jarba has regularly coordinated with the Government of Turkey. Similarly, Dahham Hadi Jarba has regularly been invited to the Government of Russia’s military base in Hmeimim, and his son Dahham Hadi is now a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee on the civil society list, reportedly at the request of Russia. Essentially, due to their cohesiveness, relative strength, and relationships with multiple regional actors, the Shummar are able to negotiate an important role independant of the Self Administration in the future politics of northeastern Syria.

The Al-E’keidat is also pursuing an independent policy on the basis of resource wealth.  The Al-E’keidat are among the most prominent tribes in the oil fields of Deir-ez-Zor; thus, they are a crucial interlocutor for any actor seeking to control Deir-ez-Zor’s most critical natural resource.  Notably, while many Al-E’keidat are a part of the SDF through the Deir-ez-Zor military council, the tribe also harbors serious grievances against both the Government of Syria and the SDF. The Al-E’keidat were overwhelmingly associated with the armed opposition in the early stages of the conflict, and many fear the return of the Government of Syria.  However, the Al-E’keidat have also had serious disputes with the SDF and the Self Administration, primarily due to the fact that they feel that they are not adequately represented in military and governance structures, and that they are not receiving their warranted share of financial benefits from Deir-ez-Zor’s oil fields. Thus, the Al-E’keidat are likely to negotiate with both the Government of Syria and the SDF for greater local authority as a means of securing the loyalty of the tribe.  To that end, sheikhs from the Al-E’keidat tribe are already reportedly negotiating with the Government of Syria to grant all Al-Ek’eidat tribesmen that have fought with the SDF a general amnesty, while simultaneously continuing to negotiate with the SDF over revenue sharing in Deir-ez-Zor’s oil fields.


  • It is likely that many Arab tribes in Al-Hasakeh will attempt to align themselves with the Government of Syria, opening severe fractures within the SDF.  One of the largest concerns of Arab tribesmen and tribal leaders in northeastern Syria is that they will be punished for having been affiliated with the SDF, as seen in the case of armed opposition combatants in reconciled areas.  For this reason, the fragmentation of the SDF is increasingly likely as tribal leaders, as well as individual combatants, attempt to distance themselves from the SDF in light of its potential amalgamation into the command structures of the Government of Syria .

  • There is the distinct possibility of inter- and intra-tribal conflict in Ar-Raqqa.  Tribes in Ar-Raqqa are generally charting one of two courses: remaining aligned to the SDF, or realigning to the Government of Syria.  This raises concerns that pro-government and pro-SDF tribes will begin to engage in open conflict with one another; similarly, there is also an increasingly possibility of conflict within tribes themselves, as tribal leaders within divided tribes jockey for influence.

  • Tribes located in Turkish-controlled areas are aligning themselves with Turkey, limiting Turkish influence elsewhere.  Turkish efforts to build relationships with the Arab tribes in Ras Al-Ain and Tell Abiad are well-documented, and appear to have borne fruit with Turkey’s new territorial control over the region.  However, in parts of northeastern Syria outside of Turkish control, no tribes appear to be attempting to align with Turkey.   Essentially, Turkey’s tribal outreach strategy is now likely to be localized to the areas that it controls.

  • The ‘independent’ Shummar and Al-Ek’eidat tribes will likely become critically important powerbrokers in their respective areas.  The Shummar are the most prominent Arab tribe in Al-Hasakeh governorate, while the Al-Ek’eidat are the most prominent tribe in Syria’s oil-rich regions of Deir-ez-Zor.  Both the Government of Syria and the SDF will be compelled to negotiate with these tribes in order to secure influence within these areas. Whether through financial incentives and guarantees of representation, or the threat of force, whichever actor is able to secure the loyalty of these tribes will, to a point, ensure political dominance over these areas.

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.