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.1 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.