Syria Update 20 January 2020

Syria Update

20 January 2020
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Dar‘a in flames: A template for reconciled areas, a prelude to crackdown — or both?

In Depth Analysis

In the past week, a series of escalating, tit-for-tat reprisals — including hostage-takings, armed raids on Government of Syria security positions, and the killing of multiple civilian and security figures — in southern Syria has elevated tensions to one of the highest pitches since the region’s reconciliation, in July 2018. In the most notable incident, on 11 January, reconciled former opposition combatants raided a Government of Syria checkpoint in Nahtah and, following intense clashes, took as many as 12 Air Force Intelligence combatants hostage, in an apparent effort to acquire bargaining leverage, according to media and local sources. In parallel, as many as nine Military Security Intelligence combatants were captured by opposition actors in a similar raid, in eastern Dar‘a Al-Balad. Local sources indicate that all the the combatants were later released in exchange for two civilians who had been detained at a checkpoint in Nahtah, in a deal achieved through Russian mediation.

Dar‘a a template for reconciled areas?

Such incidents, and the widespread demonstrations that continue throughout eastern Dar‘a, are not new, but their intensity and timing raise important questions concerning the future of Government control over southern Syria and the possibility of challenges to central authorities in

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other reconciled areas. It is crucial to note that the underlying social conditions and other drivers of widespread popular unrest in southern Syria are not unique to the region; on the contrary, all reconciled areas are characterized, to some degree, by continuing aversion toward central authorities, compounded by festering grievances related to detainees, conscription, and a growing portfolio of material complaints. To date, what has distinguished southern Syria is its unique security conditions, which have enabled this social unrest to manifest publicly, often violently (see: Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar‘a Governorate)

In recent months, however, gaps have emerged in the security curtain drawn by the Government of Syria over other regions, too. Heretofore unthinkable protests and security incidents have taken place in Rural Damascus communities ringing the capital, where the Government’s security presence has largely been thought of as being beyond challenge (see: Syria Update 4-10 December 2019). This is a consequential turn. As faltering economic conditions add to the existing drivers of popular unrest, the Government of Syria’s actual control over such communities may be lessening, even as the Government takes further measures to tighten its grip on local security conditions and mobility in areas such as Eastern Ghouta. There is not yet reason to believe the security conditions witnessed across southern Syria will become universal in the foreseeable future, but the case of Dar‘a remains instructive.

In southern Syria, past will read as prologue

In southern Syria, the Government of Syria will be forced to tolerate the persistent and growing unrest (which is unlikely in the long term), or to take more extreme measures to impose order over a region where its piecemeal security presence continues to create space for rival and competing networks of local armed actors. This environment is a product of competition between rival security services that are all nominally aligned with the Government of Syria. Such fractured control has served as an incubator for armed opposition activities and what has often been portrayed as a nascent popular resistance movement. Though hobbled by the effects of reconciliation, partial disarmament, and remobilization, armed opposition actors have been emboldened by the Government’s ham-fisted efforts to quell unrest through less-violent means. To date, attempts by the Government to mediate peace through local notables have failed; meanwhile, the release of small numbers of detainees, a half-measure criminal amnesty, and military recruitment deferments fall far short of meeting protesters’ demands.

Looking ahead, translating the Government of Syria’s vague wish for greater control into meaningful authority will require Damascus to deploy the only tool it wields with any dexterity: military and security force. The partial siege laid to As-Sanamayn in spring 2019 demonstrates the Government’s willingness to redeploy armor and heavy weapons, and to impose curfews, severely restrict mobility, or cut communications lines in an effort to bring restive communities to heel. If imposed on a region-wide scale across the south, such tactics would indeed address the proximate cause of the Government of Syria’s inability to secure southern Syria — the inconsistency of its presence. However, the root cause of the popular unrest is ultimately the nature of the Government of Syria itself. As growing pressures in Rural Damascus demonstrate, a robust security presence may quell the public manifestations of such unrest, but conditions underneath will continue to smolder. Worse, deteriorating material and economic conditions across Syria will add fuel to the fire.

Whole of Syria Review

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1. Worries mount as Central Bank pushes new securities

Damascus: On 14 January, the Monetary Policy Executive Committee of the Central Bank of Syria announced that it will begin to issue bonds, treasury bills, and certificates of deposit to fund the Government’s growing public debt and hold inflation in check. The first time such instruments were introduced was in February 2019, when the value of the Syrian pound fluctuated between 540-560 SYP to the dollar — approximately half its market value at present. In that instance, the policy had little impact on inflation or the pound’s devaluation, and the efforts were quickly abandoned.

An empty toolkit? 

As a means of boosting foreign reserves, the Central Bank’s new public borrowing initiative is a worrying signal of the lack of more effective tools to ameliorate the currency crisis now unfolding in Syria. In effect, the initiative will actually accelerate the decline in the value of Syrian pound, thus aggravating the widespread popular anger felt over the dearth of basic goods and the already dire living conditions inside Syria. Steps to limit the further outflow of foreign reserves by controlling and limiting imports for strategic commodities — such as wheat, sugar, medicine, oil and rice — by paring back funding instruments used to sustain them have already been enacted. As a result, importers have been forced to trade at black market rates. As this vicious cycle spins faster, steep rises in market prices will follow. Overall, this risks a freefall into hyperinflation, a scenario that will hit Syria’s most disadvantaged the hardest.

2. Ali Mamlouk meets Turkish intelligence chief in Moscow

Northwest Syria: On 15 January, Russian media reported that the head of Syria’s National Security Office, Ali Mamlouk, and Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, had discussed the future of northeast and northwest Syria during a meeting convened on the sidelines of a trilateral Turkish-Russian-Syrian summit in Moscow on 13 January. Reportedly, Mamlouk and Fidan discussed the potential for cooperation between the Syrian and Turkish governments to undermine the predominantly Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria. Also at issue was the trajectory of northwest Syria, including the lapsed ceasefire agreement in Idleb, which was touted by Turkish President Recep Tayib Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week. In a statement promoting the outcome of the Moscow summit, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated that the parties had discussed the prospect of establishing a “secure zone” in northwest Syria to host IDPs, adding that the Government of Turkey would reinforce its observation points in the region, which are now surrounded by advancing Government of Syria forces. Meanwhile, the Government of Syria reiterated its calls on Turkey to implement the September 2018 Sochi agreement, specifically by restoring Government access to the Aleppo-Latakia (M4) and Aleppo-Hama (M5) motorways and by eliminating ‘terrorist groups’ in the region. 

 

Ink still wet, ceasefire falters

On 14 January, Russia and the Government of Syria resumed ground and aerial attacks in northwest Syria. Since the resumption of hostilities, Government forces have advanced into several communities east of Saraqeb, while airstrikes and shelling continue to target communities in southern and southeast rural Idleb, as well as western rural Aleppo. 


UN and local implementing partners report a continuous increase in the number of IDPs in  the area, with the total population IDPs rising to 1,632,051 IDPs in Idelb and 815,503 in Aleppo, between 1 December and 15 January. Relatedly, on 11 January, following the ceasefire, the Russian Reconciliation Center announced the opening of three humanitarian corridors in the area — in Hader, Abul Thohur, and Hbit — which are intended to facilitate the evacuation of civilians. While local sources have not reported any evacuations via these crossing, Government of Syria–affiliated media outlets have claimed that opposition groups are targeting civilians moving through the Abul Thohur crossing.

Offensive looms despite Turkish-Syrian negotiations 

Meaningful implementation of the Sochi agreement has long vexed Turkey and the Government of Syria, yet logistical coordination regarding the pace and direction of the Government’s piecemeal advances into northwest Syria is a necessary step toward achieving that goal. To this end, rumors have circulated locally that Turkish intelligence officers recently convened a meeting with armed opposition commanders in Atma, Idleb governorate, to inform them that support to such groups would be withdrawn. The veracity of such rumors is impossible to test, but collapsing frontlines and rapid Government of Syria advances — to a point — can be expected if Turkey’s support has indeed been cut. Whether in the context of blossoming trilateral cooperation or not, the Government of Syria’s offensive in the northwest can be expected to resume at pace. In this context, the opening of so-called humanitarian corridors can be read as an ultimatum to the populations of frontline communities; such corridors have frequently served as a precursor to renewed offensive.

3. As Syrian delegation visits Iran, Israel strikes T4

Various locations: On 12 January, a top-level Government of Syria delegation — composed of Prime Minister Imad Khamis, Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Al-Mua‘lim, and Minister of Defense Ali Abdallah Ayoub — arrived in Tehran to meet with a number of their Iranian counterparts, marking the first senior diplomatic exchange between the two governments since the killing of Iranian military commander Qasim Soleimani (see: Syria Update 6 January 2020). The Syrian delegation met with top Iranian civilian and security figures, to include President Hassan Rouhani and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Hussein Salami.

Staying the course

The delegation publicly affirmed statements by the Syrian and Iranian governments to the effect that their bilateral relationship would not change radically as a result of the killing of Soleimani. Indeed, during the visit, Khamis maintained that Iran would play an important role in Syria’s reconstruction; for an Iranian government now challenged by a public exercised by deep economic malaise, such a demonstration of the (potential) dividends of Iran’s aid to Syria is opportunely timed. On the practical level, the visit will also have given a platform to address concerns over security cooperation. Militarily, the first-order concern relates to uncertainty produced by the killing of Soleimani, whose coordination of Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq was mico-managerial. For now, large-scale changes remain unlikely, but command and control challenges will grow over time if they are not addressed.

 

T4 strike signals Israel’s willingness to confront Iran

Relatedly, on 15 January, Syrian state media reported that Israeli aircraft had carried out a strike targeting the T4 airbase in Homs governorate, where Iran-backed forces maintain a strong presence. The Syrian military sources indicated that although several missiles did strike the installation, air defenses intercepted several others and no casualties were reported.

 

The strike is the first undertaken by Israel in Syria since the killing of Soleimani, and it is a partial answer to questions over Israel’s strategic direction following the commander’s death. Since the killing, Israel has largely deferred to the U.S. to confront Iran, yet there are enormous pressures within the Israeli political apparatus to seize the moment, while Iran remains on the backfoot, to push a more aggressive policy against Iranian military interests regionally, including in Syria. The modest attack on the T4 installation can be read as a reminder of Israel’s continued readiness to engage Iran in a post-Soleimani context, especially if the U.S. opts to seek a more conciliatory tone.

4. Turkey deploys 2,000 additional Syrian combatants to Libya

Tripoli, Libya: On 15 January, media sources reported that Turkey had deployed an additional 2,000 Syrian opposition combatants to Libya in a bid to prop up the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The recent deployment follows the recent deployment of as many as 300 Syrian opposition combatants, under the terms of redoubled security cooperation between Turkey and the GNA (see: Syria Update 6 January 2020).

Whence the irreconcilable?

Turkey’s mounting military support to the GNA is, in effect, the business end of an agreement between Erdogan and Libya’s GNA prime minister, Fayez Al-Sarraj, according to which Turkish military aid is necessary to secure Mediterranean drilling rights granted to Turkey on generous terms. The deployment of Syrian combatants to Libya will also address one of Turkey’s chief concerns in northwest Syria: what will become of irreconcilable opposition actors now hemmed in between frontlines with the Government of Syria and the closed border with Turkey? Plausible answers for the civilian population of northwest Syria remain elusive. For forward-deployable armed actors, however, Libya is something of a solution. Local and media sources report that armed opposition combatants may be offered Libyan or even Turkish nationality in exchange for their willingness to fight abroad; relatedly, Erdogan’s former senior advisor Adnan Tanriverdi has stated that Turkey should establish a private military company. Meanwhile, recruitment centers for Syrian combatants willing to fight in Libya continue to open in Afrin, under the auspices of Turkish-backed opposition groups. Should Libya’s two warring factions remain at loggerheads, it is highly likely that Syrian combatants will continue to find their way from frontlines in Idleb to those in Libya.

5. FIFA explores a return to Syria

Damascus: On 14 January, the International Football Association (FIFA) announced that an exploratory committee representing the association had visited Damascus to “assess the situation” for the first time since 2012. Following the outbreak of the conflict, FIFA imposed a ban on matchplay in Syrian stadiums — although FIFA has continued to support the Syrian nation team in matches that are played outside the country. As a result of the conflict, the Syrian Football Association has shrunk geographically, with teams playing only in areas under Government of Syria control. As the Government regained opposition-held areas, football gradually expanded beyond Damascus and Lattakia to other areas, to include Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced that the organization was studying a request by Syria, in November 2018, to lift the ban on its stadiums, yet no action materialized as a result of this request.

Foul call?

Over the past decade, sport has met with an increasingly enthusiastic reception as a ‘non-political’ piece of the developmental toolkit. Syrian football, however, does not exist in a vacuum; on the contrary, it holds up a mirror to Syria’s political, security, and social realities. For example, Firas Al-Khatib — who is considered to be one of the greatest players in the history of Syrian football — was banned from the national team after he declared his support for the opposition, in 2012. More recently, noted goalkeeper Abdul Baset Al-Sarout was a cause celebre among the opposition for swapping his jersey for military fatigues, until his death on the frontlines in northwest Syria, in June 2019. Meanwhile, Hatem Al-Ghayb, who was elected president of the Syrian Football Association during its proceedings that were observed by FIFA, is a brigadier-general in the Government of Syria police force. 

 

In its public statements on the visit, FIFA noted that for many Syrians, football has remained “the only joy and consolation during these difficult times.” This is unfortunately true. However, it is also notable that match attendance in Syria remains low due to financial barriers, security risks, and the myriad consequences of the conflict itself. As a result, restoring FIFA’s oversight of the ‘beautiful game’ inside Syria may bring a degree of normalcy to the way football is played, but, nationally, conditions remain anything but normal.

6. Sweida protesters call for better living conditions

Sweida, As-Sweida governorate: On 15 January, media sources reported that dozens of protesters demonstrated in the city centers of Sweida and Shahba in southern Syria, intermittently blocking roads to protest dire economic and security conditions. The movement was organized under the simple slogan “We want to live”, although some protesters directly addressed Rami Makhlouf and accused the Government of Syria of plundering the state’s coffers while conditions decline.

An invitation to clamp down on the Druze?

The demonstration has both national and local dimensions. Nationally, with the further deterioration of Syria’s economy, such mobilizations are expected to proliferate. Indeed, demonstrations against living conditions have been called for even in Damascus, under the social media hashtag “We want to live”. However, Sweida is unique in that it exists as a relatively self-reliant Druze enclave that is largely insulated from the social and military paradigms — if not the economic dynamics — of the rest of Syria. Public demonstrations that would be profoundly dangerous in Damascus can thus be carried out in Sweida, although not without potential blowback for antagonizing central authorities. Consequently, it is notable that Syrian state media reported on the Sweida protest; such reportage may be a necessary response, given the undeniable angst of the Syrian street nationwide. However, it also suggests the Government’s readiness to step in to drive the media narrative surrounding the nascent economic protest movement — including by pinning blame on local power brokers. This may have deep consequences in Sweida, whose traditional Druze leadership Syria’s central authorities have long sought to undermine and co-opt.

7. Rankus raid escalates into deadly clashes

Rankus, Western Qalamoun: On 15 January, media sources reported that as many as 24 combatants had been killed during clashes lasting five hours between Government of Syria forces and local fighters in Rankus. The clashes took place after Government of Syria forces raided a house; during this raid, as many as 16 individuals — including some reported to be NDF combatants — were reportedly killed. Subsequently, local fighters reportedly attacked Government of Syria checkpoints in Rankus, killing an additional 10 Government of Syria soldiers.

Disaffection and the DDR challenge

The clashes between Government of Syria forces and local combatants — including some NDF fighters nominally aligned with the Government — represent the first such incident in Rankus since the Government of Syria recaptured the area in 2014. The incident highlights the present volatility of Government of Syria–controlled areas, in particular the limitations of command and control over pro-Government militia and the shortcomings of reconciliation as a means of establishing stability. While reconciliation agreements have paved the way for the reintroduction of Government of Syria control, they have done nothing to eradicate opposition sentiments or resolve deep-seated grievances. When considered against the backdrop of DDR challenges, including the profusion of weapons throughout Syria, the lack of peacetime livelihoods, and the Government of Syria’s limited security presence throughout much of the country, these conditions foster the explosive potential for further clashes.

Key Readings

The Open Source Annex highlights key media reports, research, and primary documents that are not examined in the Syria Update. For a continuously updated collection of such records, searchable by geography, theme, and conflict actor, and curated to meet the needs of decision-makers, please see COAR’s comprehensive online search platform, Alexandrina, at the link below.

Note: These records are solely the responsibility of their creators. COAR does not necessarily endorse — or confirm — the viewpoints expressed by these sources.

Iran’s Response to Soleimani’s Killing Is Coming

What Does It Say? Responses by Iran and its regional allies to date will not be the end of the regional revenge campaign for the killing of Soleimani.

Reading between the Lines: Due to a fluid regional context, such actors may be tempted to resort to historic means of targeting U.S. and international actors — including asymmetric attacks that may play out over years.

Source: The Atlantic

Language: English

Date: 14 January 2020

Regime helicopters drop leaflets west of Aleppo calling on civilians to ‘depart

What Does It Say? Government of Syria helicopters dropped leaflets across the Idleb and Aleppo countryside, urging civilians to return to Government-controlled areas via recently opened ‘humanitarian corridors’.  

Reading between the Lines: Despite the existence of a tenuous ceasefire in northwest Syria, repeated violations and past experience suggest there is little hope it will last long.

Source: The Syrian Observer

Language: English

Date: 14 January 2020

In 48 hours, Al-Assad intelligence forces arrested 40 young men in Eastern Ghouta, in Rural Damascus

What Does It Say? Government forces have continued their campaign of arrests in Rural Damascus, arresting 25 people in Duma and Mesraba, and another 15 in Harasta.

Reading between the Lines: For wanted individuals living in Eastern Ghouta, restrictions on mobility continue to tighten; denied reconciliation, some such individuals have no way out — except jail.

Source: Zaitun Agency

Language: Arabic

Date: 13 January 2020

Adviser Shaaban replies: What she said is true, and everyone knows it

What Does It Say? In a widely criticized television interview, Syrian presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban stated that the Syrian economy is, in fact, improving.

Reading between the Lines: Shaaban’s attempt to double down and press the Government’s case is particularly facile amid deteriorating real conditions.

Source: Snack Syrian

Language: Arabic

Date: 15 January 2020

The triple nexus in practice: Toward a new way of working in protracted and repeated crises

What Does It Say? This study reviews the conceptualization and implementation of the ‘triple nexus’ — the alignment of humanitarianism, development, and peace-building objectives.  

Reading between the lines: Despite donor-side enthusiasm, nexus remains more pipe dream than pipe: national-level investments lag, collaboration is limited, and silos remain.

Source: NYU Center on International Cooperation

Language: English

Date: 9 December 2019

Iran sanctions under the Trump administration

What Does It Say? The Trump administration re-imposed more than 700 hundred sanctions on Iran in November 2018. Since then, the U.S. has continued to add sanctions against Iran. This graphic maps those sanctions.

Reading between the Lines: Punishing sanctions against Iran have been a major blow to Iran’s economy and its credit line to Syria, but the pervasive sanctions campaign has been waged on such wide grounds that few viable sanctions targets remain.

Source: International Crisis Group

Language: English

Date: 15 January 2020

Head of Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria imprisoned

What Does It Say? Sergey Chvarkov, former head of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, has been sentenced to three years in prison by the Russian Military Police Court for stealing 400 million rubles ($6.5 million). 

Reading between the Lines: Although the Russian military takes care of its own, the sentencing is a reminder that even this has its limits.

Source: The Syrian Observer

Language: English

Date: 14 January 2020

Syria; let there be mayhem

What Does It Say? Syrians suffered considerably in 2019: the gas crisis made heat unaffordable, the fuel crisis reduced mobility, and the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon exacerbated Syria’s own economic malaise.

Reading between the Lines: The winter months have only begun, and on top of issues that plagued Syria in 2019, the situation will only get worse as the incidence of petty thefts, muggings, and violent crimes tick upward.

Source: London School of Economics

Language: English

Date: 16 January 2020

UN report lays out agonies faced by Syrian children amid war

What Does It Say? According to a new UN report, children in Syria have been exposed to myriad crimes, including rape, torture, forced military service, malnutrition, sexual slavery, etc. — often on systematic bases. 

Reading between the Lines: With so much attention given to frontlines in the conflict, it is other issues, including those facing children, have been largely forgotten.

Source: Associated Press

Language: English

Date: 16 January 2020

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.

Syria Update 13 January 2020

Syria Update

13 January 2020

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Putin Stands Triumphant in Damascus Visit

In Depth Analysis

In the days following the eruption of U.S.-Iran tensions throughout the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Damascus and Istanbul on back-to-back visits that were choreographed to emphasize the status of Putin’s Russia as an imperious victor in Syria, and the essential power broker in the region. On 7 January, Putin arrived in Damascus — his second visit to Syria as president, following a 2017 stop at Hmemim airbase. The brief visit consisted of a carefully staged military briefing attended by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a closed-door meeting between the two presidents, and a number of set-piece tours of various religious sites in Damascus. The underlying aims of the trip were to broadcast Russia’s backing of the Government of Syria, to demonstrate improving security conditions in Damascus, and most importantly to show that Russia is in firm command of the bilateral relationship and a growing portfolio of regional affairs. Only hours after his arrival in Syria, Putin left the country, bound for Istanbul, to promote Turkey and Russia’s growing commercial alliance, exemplified by the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline.

Putin on the prowl

Above all, Putin’s visit should be seen as a reflection of Russia’s triumphant attitude toward its perceived successes in Syria. Certainly, in assessing the visit, there is a danger of recapitulating the overbaked analyses of past generations of sovietologists. Nonetheless, the Russian president’s visit to Syria can and should be scrutinized for its carefully orchestrated stagecraft as much as for its statecraft. The visit, thus analyzed, conveys several messages.

Putin and Al-Assad light candles in the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Dormition in Damascus. Image courtesy of the Times of Israel.

Russia runs the table in Syria

Chiefly, the visit was structured to demonstrate the extent of the Government of Syria’s dependence on Russia. The centerpiece of the visit was a military briefing conducted by Russian officers at the Russian military headquarters in Damascus. By far the most noted aspect of the briefing was the fact that Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub, positioned directly beside Al-Assad in widely circulated images of the briefing, was seated on a noticeably short chair. Although the Syrian opposition has been overzealous in reading meaning into the snub, there is no doubt the move was a deliberate effort to belittle a top Syrian officer and to recapitulate the contours of the larger relationship. In effect, it emphasizes that Russia is in the driver’s seat in terms of directing Syria’s military priorities.

Russia above the fray

The visit follows closely after the killing of Iranian military commander Qasim Soleimani, a valued interlocutor of Russia, in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January. The visit took place despite the considerable potential for U.S.-Iran attacks and escalating retaliation; this timing suggests that Putin seeks to cast Russia as being unassailable by either the U.S. or Iran. Russia has been largely silent about Soleimani’s killing, although there is little doubt that Moscow will seek to capitalize on Iran’s distraction to enhance its own footing, as Iran seeks to maintain ground, both regionally and in Syria, following the loss of an invaluable commander.

Putin to Erdogan: Russia won the Syria war

The visit also contained an implicit message to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among the religious sites visited by Putin in Damascus were the mausoleum of Saladin and the Umayyad mosque. Not only did the visits demonstrate the apparent safety of central Damascus, they also functioned as an overt challenge to Erdogan, who vowed in 2012 that “god willing,” he would “soon” pray at numerous sites of significance to pan-Islamic and Ottoman history in Damascus, including those visited by Putin — in theory, following the ouster of Bashar Al-Assad by Syrian opposition forces supported vocally by Erdogan. Putin’s imperious tour of Damascus establishes without question that he is the regional actor who controls access to Damascus — not Erdogan.

Sahlab summit

Russian media — and Syrian outlets sympathetic to the opposition — seized on the image of Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub seated in a noticeably short chair as evidence of Russian belittlement of Syria. Image courtesy of Step Agency.

Putin’s tour was not merely a dog and pony show; back-to-back visits to Damascus and Istanbul speak to Russia’s success in propping up the Government of Syria — and to Putin’s apparent aspiration to play the role of regional mediator, wielding both stick (security cooperation) and carrot (Russian gas). To that end, the Erdogan-Putin summit in Istanbul produced two calls for ceasefires, in Libya and northwest Syria — contexts in which Russia and Turkey provide military support to opposing factions. The outcome of these ceasefires will give some indication of the prospects of Putin’s ambition in this respect: the Libya ceasefire was initially rejected, and then cautiously endorsed by the Russia-backed Libyan National Army; the northwest Syria ceasefire has coincided with reduced violence, but it is likely a prelude to wider Government of Syria attacks on opposition-backed territory. Russian mediation between Damascus and the Self Administration in northeast Syria may prove more fruitful. For the time being, compelling regional partners to implement Russia-backed policies is a power that may yet elude Putin, but there is no denying that, in terms of mediation regionally, Russia has a leg up over other international actors — and one of the only seats at the table.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Despite ceasefire, Government eyes new front in northwest

Western Aleppo governorate: On 9 January, Russian Major General Yury Borenkov announced a ceasefire in Idleb in accordance with a Russian-Turkish agreement that resulted from a meeting between presidents Putin and Erdogan in Istanbul. Aerial bombardment in northwest Syria has since largely subsided; however, clashes between Government of Syria forces and opposition groups continue on frontlines in rural Ma’arrat An Nu’man, in eastern rural Idleb governorate. Media sources reported that opposition forces had advanced into several villages in the area but had not secured control, due to fierce resistance by Government forces. In parallel, local media sources reported that the Government of Syria has sent formidable military reinforcements to western rural Aleppo governorate. Local sources indicate that the deployed forces are from the 4th Division: shock units close to the Syrian regime and known for their participation in major military offensives throughout the conflict.

Biding time

The ceasefire should not be seen as a sign of progress towards de-escalation in the northwest; it is instead likely only a pause, allowing Government of Syria forces to recuperate and reposition ahead of future military offensives. In a joint statement, presidents Putin and Erdogan reiterated the necessity of implementing “all agreements on Idleb”, a reference to the 17 September Sochi agreement, which stipulated, among other things, the creation of a demilitarized zone ringing the opposition-held portion of northwest Syria. Certainly, there are good reasons to view any ceasefire in Syria with cynicism. However, it is also important to bear in mind that, particularly in the northwest, both Russia and Turkey have been at pains to force their local partners (i.e., the Government of Syria and various opposition factions) to actually implement top-level political agreements, as evidenced by the diminishing relevance and effectiveness of the outcomes of the Nur-Sultan summits. 

In the medium term, all signs indicate that a Government of Syria ground assault is looming. Should Government forces advance along a new axis from western Aleppo, such an assault would compel opposition groups to stretch their forces thin to meet the widening challenge. Moreover, such an assault would entail grave humanitarian consequences for the large number of IDPs who have sought refuge in northeastern Idleb and western Aleppo. UN and local implementing partners estimate that 95,394 individuals have already displaced — largely from southeastern Idleb — to Aleppo since the beginning of December; many of these IDPs are now in the path of a looming offensive. Meanwhile, local sources indicate that IDPs are beginning to return to Idleb; tellingly, they too are liable to face further bombardment.

2. Resolution 2165 renewed — with concessions

New York: With a midnight deadline fast approaching, on 10 January, the UN Security Council renewed the cross-border mandate, Resolution 2165, with substantial modifications to reduce its scope (see: Syria Update 6 January 2020). Four members, each with veto power — the U.S., the U.K., Russia, and China — abstained from voting on the resolution. The vote extends the resolution’s mandate for six months, rather than 12, and it allows cross-border aid convoys to enter Syria only through two crossings with Turkey, thus eliminating cross-border convoy access via Iraq and Jordan.

A shrinking response

For the Western bloc represented by the U.S. and the U.K., renewal of 2165 is both a concession to geopolitical rivals and an acknowledgement of a new reality in Syria. In the first sense, the renewal is a victory for the Russia-led bloc, which had opposed technical rollover (i.e., unmodified renewal) of 2165, a 12-month mandate, and the maintenance of the Yaaroubiyeh border crossing with Iraq. In the latter sense, it is an acknowledgement of the reality that the conflict in Syria has changed, and that the Ramtha crossing with Jordan was a holdover artifact of a different period of the conflict, when southern Syria was outside Government control, and was a natural focal point of the international cross-border response. This is no longer the case. Jettisoning low-traffic crossings is a painful concession, but it does preserve access where it is most needed: northwest Syria. For Russia and China, the vote is one further step toward the ultimate goal of ending the mandate altogether, nominally for the sake of the Government of Syria’s sovereignty. By closing Yaaroubiyeh, it will also push the Self Administration into greater reliance on Damascus, particularly for medical and health aid. Currently, this aid comes predominantly through Yaaroubiyeh; now, the Self Administration will have to look to Damascus for this assistance.

3. War of words continues, yet U.S. and Iran eye de-escalation

Various Locations: On 8 January, Iran launched a missile attack targeting military bases in Iraq that host thousands of U.S. troops: Ain Al-Asad airbase, in Iraq’s Anbar province, and a second airbase, in Erbil. No casualties were reported. Iran has hinted that the attack will, for now, constitute its sole military response to the lethal U.S. drone strike that killed Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, on 3 January (see: Syria Update 6 January 2020). Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that the attack was a proportional response; he added, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” In public remarks delivered following the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump — though gloating — largely echoed Zarif’s de-escalatory tone. Notably, Trump called for further economic sanctions against Iran and the suspension of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the “nuclear deal.” On 10 January, the U.S. Treasury imposed new sanctions on a multitude of Iranian actors and its metals industry.

So far, so good!’? 

To date, the limited scope of Iran’s response to the killing of Soleimani has allayed fears over the explosive potential for regional escalation between the U.S. and Iran. The bloodless reprisal will be seen as an attempt at saving face, rather than testing limits. In the short term, that is surely good news. For the future, however, concerns will remain. Iran’s wiliness to carry out a robust military response was no doubt blunted by its accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet — which is rapidly becoming a driver of public outcry in Iran — but this does not mean that Iran’s hawks or the throngs of mourners who poured into Iran’s streets to commemorate Soleimani will be satisfied with the response thus far. As a result, further reprisals, to include cyberattacks and asymmetric attacks carried out by proxy groups, are increasingly likely. For its part, the U.S. faces the opposite challenge: few viable means of advancing its pressure campaign against Iran exist. As the latest sanctions demonstrate, very few corners of the Iranian economy have yet to be touched by punitive U.S. sanctions.

Tensions spill over into Syria 

Inside Syria, no significant military developments have taken place as a result of increasingly fraught U.S.-Iran tensions. As per local sources, Iran-backed militias are on high alert, and leadership figures in particular have significantly limited their movements in areas where U.S. or Israeli aerial attacks have been recurrent. On 6 January, local media reported that the IRGC had closed the Abu Kamal border crossing, with Iraq, halting commercial and civilian movement. In western Syria, media sources highlighted a small-scale repositioning of Hezbollah forces in Qalamoun’s Sarghaya, along that Syria-Lebanon border; this movement is too small in itself to suggest a wider pattern of redeployment in preparation for a wider conflict.

Syria’s tribes to respond?

The risk of further responses, however, is realistic. Local sources report that Syrian Arab tribal figures who visited Tehran on 28 December have received requests to counter the U.S. presence in Syria and to coordinate with Iranian militias, specifically those in Abu Kamal. In particular, Faysal Al A’zel, head of Al-Ma’amra tribe and one of the sheikhs who participated in the visit to Iran, is now calling locally for the creation of a new armed group that would conduct insurgent attacks on American forces and positions in eastern Syria. Details concerning the potential operations of such a military formation have circulated locally, but remain difficult to verify.

As a result of such activities, humanitarian actors have also been on high alert. Local sources have reported widespread evacuations of expatriate personnel from northeast Syria and Erbil, in Iraq. These sources also report that at least two U.S.-funded humanitarian programs in Ar-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor governorates have been suspended. Meanwhile, other actors are reportedly reassessing the feasibility of programming in light of the potential for further security risks following the killing of Soleimani.

4. 21 killed in Maadan truffle massacre

Maadan, Ar-Raqqa Governorate: Local media sources reported that on 5 January, 21 shepherds, three of whom were children, were found dead in Maadan, in Ar-Raqqa governorate. Reportedly, the shepherds had been shot and stabbed while searching for prized desert truffles and were found by locals, who shared evidence of the bloody killings on social media. At present, no actor has claimed responsibility for the killings.

A history of violence

The recurrence of deadly raids in rural northeast Syria is emblematic of the general lawlessness of the region, which is now deeply entrenched due to its fractured security environment. Seemingly arbitrary killings, thefts, and other crimes have become increasingly commonplace. In August, 19 individuals were killed in a dawn raid in Laweideh, southern Ar-Raqqa governorate, when a local pro-Government National Defense Forces (NDF) group carried out an attack and stole five vehicles, numerous sheep, and other valuables. In June 2019, similar incidents occurred in Hadij and Kenbaj (see: Syria Update 8-21 August 2019). Local sources indicate that crime has, in general, become increasingly common since the partial U.S. withdrawal in October.

The reason for the killings in Maadan remains unknown. Syrian state media pinned blame for the incident on ISIS, while activists and a variety of local media outlets claim that Iran-backed militias carried out the killings in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Qasim Soleimani. However, local sources report that the killings were carried out by local NDF fighters and have no overt political or tribal motivation. Ultimately, such claims are not readily falsifiable; what is most important is that tribal identity be understood as a fundamental organizing principle in most Arab communities in northeast Syria; it is therefore possible that the massacre will inflame local and tribal tensions. Moving forward, as the Self Administration and the SDF gradually lose their monopoly on violence and authority in northeast Syria, security conditions in the region are likely to deteriorate further. In that sense, whether the latest killings were political or pecuniary in motive makes little real difference: eroding security conditions will make similar events more likely.

5. Syria and Jordan take aim at trade barriers for 2020

Nasib, Dar‘a Governorate: On 6 January, local media sources, citing Syrian customs officials, reported that Syrian exports to Jordan via the Nasib crossing totaled 9 billion SYP (approximately $9.1 million) in 2019. Reportedly, 148 Syrian trucks passed through the Nasib crossing on average per day, 90 percent of which carried agricultural produce, predominantly citrus. Trade through the Nasib crossing is expected to increase throughout 2020, as Syria and Jordan explore measures to revitalize relations. Syrian Minister of Transportation Ali Hammoud has indicated that the Government of Syria is studying the elimination of additional fees it has imposed on Jordanian trucks entering via Nasib. Similar measures were also discussed in a workshop in Damascus during the final week of December, which included representatives of various Jordanian stakeholders and the Chamber of Industry of Damascus and Rural Damascus. Notably, the head of the Jordanian delegation indicated Jordan’s willingness to re-activate the 2009 Syrian-Jordanian trade agreement, according to which commercial transit between the countries is to occur tariff-free.

Cross-border trade: no quick fix

Despite the apparent willingness of both Syria and Jordan to tear down barriers to trade, the existence of price supports and protectionist measures on both sides makes it difficult for either government to act first (see: Syria Update 9-15 October 2019). To date, Jordan continues to enforce an embargo on 194 categories of Syrian goods, including agricultural produce, which — given Syria’s wholesale industrial collapse — is naturally a cornerstone of its export strategy. To date, cross-border trade through Nasib and Abu Kamal has disappointed the Government of Syria’s expectations of commercial returns and normalization through trade. Myriad factors have contributed to this shortfall — security conditions, sanctions, and stubborn trade barriers among them. However, the most notable such factor is the hollowing-out of Syria’s productive sectors, which has no quick or easy solution.

6. 56 Palestinian students arrested for defacing Al-Assad image

Yarmouk Camp: On 5 January, Government of Syria security forces arrested 56 Palestinian students between the ages of 10 and 16 for tearing down an image of President Bashar Al-Assad at the Al-Jarmaq Primary School in Yalda. Some of the students were arrested at the school, while others were taken into custody during raids conducted by security forces on their homes in Yarmouk camp. Camp officials and the children’s families demanded the children’s release; however, security forces refused to free the children, on the grounds that they are ‘cubs of the caliphate’ and pledged allegiance to ISIS during the period of its control over Yarmouk. To date, one student has reportedly been released, following heavy interrogations that focused on ISIS.

New year, same tactics

The en masse arrest of primary school students casts light on the popular dissent that continues to exist throughout Syria and the Government of Syria’s willingness to deal with its opponents, including children, with surprising force. The arrest echoes the detention in February 2019 of 50 children between the ages of 13 and 16, for distributing leaflets in support of armed opposition groups in Al-Rastan, Homs governorate. In that case, child detainees were freed only after their families paid sizable ransoms to security forces. As for the Palestinian detainees, their arrest has raised fears of further reprisals and detentions based on testimony extracted under interrogration; hefty ransoms will likely be out of reach for many families in Yarmouk.

7. Consumer prices rise as temperatures fall

Damascus: On 8 January, local media sources reported that the average cost of living for a family of five in Damascus had increased by 25,000 SYP (approximately $25) in Q4 2019, bringing the price of a basket of basic consumer goods (consisting of food, housing, transportation, furniture, clothing, education, health, and communications expenses) to 385,000 SYP per month. For reference, a Government employee holding a doctorate earns a monthly salary of 57,495 SYP (approximately $58), whereas employees on the lowest rung of the public sector salary scale earn a mere 47,675 SYP per month (approximately $48). Meanwhile, media and local sources indicate that the prices of sugar, rice, and cooking oils have increased by approximately 30 percent in the past three months, due to the plummeting value of the Syrian pound and the rising cost of oil derivatives, which had already contributed to spikes in the cost of bread, manufactured goods, and the transportation of vegetables and other foodstuffs. Relatedly, on 13 January, unconfirmed media sources indicated that the Syrian Trade Cooperation confirmed the inclusion of food commodities, such as sugar and rice, on the Smart Card ration system, in response to market shortages and rising prices. How this will be implemented remains to be seen.

Ready or not, prices continue to rise 

While the basket of goods at issue in the title report is by no means standard, it does reflect a reality within Syria: prices are rapidly escalating beyond most Syrians’ ability to keep pace, and the Government is hard-pressed to respond. Adding food commodities to the Smart Card system may stabilize some prices, but it is not clear that supply will keep pace with consumer demand. The long queues and shuttered fuel stations witnessed last winter attest to the fact that stabilized prices do not guarantee that fuel (or other commodities) will be available. Moreover, price controls will force the Government of Syria to stretch its already thin budget to cover newly introduced supports, or to require producers and importers to provide such goods at a loss — or both. Should such scenarios play out, vigorous black market activity is likely, while importers and producers will likely seek to squeeze profits elsewhere.

Key Readings

The Open Source Annex highlights key media reports, research, and primary documents that are not examined in the Syria Update. For a continuously updated collection of such records, searchable by geography, theme, and conflict actor, and curated to meet the needs of decision-makers, please see COAR’s comprehensive online search platform, Alexandrina, at the link below.

Note: These records are solely the responsibility of their creators. COAR does not necessarily endorse — or confirm — the viewpoints expressed by these sources.

Russia advances ‘roadmap’ to mediation between Damascus and the Kurdish administration

What does it say? As 2019 drew to a close, Russia advanced a 10-point plan to guide the Self Administration’s reintegration with Damascus, including political representation and Government control of the northeast Syrian border.

Reading between the lines:  The plan is the most concrete proposal to amalgamate the entities to date; however, it leaves considerable detail unaddressed, and the Self Administration is — for the time being — free from the need to make major concessions.

Source: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat

Language: Arabic

Date: 7 January 2019

How Russia is reading the killing of Qasim Soleimani

What does it say? Russia has remained quiet regarding the killing of Soleimani, who was both a valuable interlocutor and a rival power broker in Syria and throughout the region. 

Reading between the lines: Russia faces an acute challenge to neutralize, co-opt, or contain (likely a combination of all three, as needed) Iran-backed militias in Syria. These groups rival in number and power the Syrian Arab Army, and were formerly answerable to Soleimani directly.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 3 January 2019

What are refugee camps for?

What does it say? The author argues that refugee camps serve three implicit functions: containing migration in third countries, facilitating licit wealth transfers to client states, and field-testing increasingly invasive surveillance tools.

Reading between the lines: As migration and refugee crises become larger in scale, real solutions will depend upon finding equitable solutions to migration triggers that are systemic and structural in nature.

Source: Current Affairs

Language: English

Date: 7 January 2019

Lawyers … a declaration of their status within two months

What does it say? The Syrian lawyers’ syndicate has ordered that members who live abroad must reconcile their status and declare the details of their foreign travel history, nominally in the interest of updating the syndicate’s member rolls.

Reading between the lines: The move is a troubling sign of ‘sorting’ on the part of a Government-supported professional syndicate, forcing members to sign on to the plan or give up their seat at the table — with unclear repercussions.

Source: Al-Watan

Language: Arabic

Date: 8 January 2019

Government hopes for agricultural sector ‘revitalization’ in 2020

What does it say? The Government of Syria has promised new price supports as part of a strategy to revitalize the Syrian agricultural sector in 2020.  

Reading between the lines: The Syrian conflict has ravaged agricultural production, which had already been weakened by a shift from Government support to small producers themselves to market-oriented price supports. The efficacy of any strategy conceived in the current climate is dubious.

Source: Al-Hal

Language: Arabic

Date: 6 January 2019

How Trump pushed the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war

What does it say? Based on numerous insider accounts, the article compiles the most detailed record to date of the lethal drone strike that killed Qasim Soleimani.

Reading between the lines: Among the most notable revelations in the article is the confirmation of widely expected involved by informants among Iraqi and Syrian military figures, as well as Hezbollah. The revelation will fuel already tense mutual suspicions among such actors.

Source: New York Times

Language: English

Date: 12 January 2019

State Department terrorist designation of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq

What does it say? The U.S. State Department has designated the predominantly Shiite Iraqi Population Mobilization Forces member group Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq a terrorist entity.

Reading between the lines: The group was long thought to be attempting to enter the political mainstream in Iraq, and its designation is likely calculated to put more pressure on Iran and its proxy forces in Iraq.

Source: U.S. State Department

Language: English

Date: 4 January 2019

Syrian consulates and embassies cease issuing recruitment documents

What does it say? Syria diplomatic posts abroad have ceased issuing documents related to military conscription, deferments, and reserve status to Syrians living abroad.

Reading between the lines: Issuance will reportedly begin following the release of new directives from central authorities, but the stop may indicate a coming change to these policies.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 9 January 2019

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 in 2020: New Response Challenges to an Evolving Crisis

Syria in 2020: New Response Challenges
to an Evolving Crisis

11 January 2020

The Syria crisis is changing, and the international Syria response must change, too. As the period of the conflict defined by rapid military developments draws to an end, response actors are increasingly being forced to contend not with the acute needs created by conflict conditions, but by the emergent realities and systemic issues present in a new Syria. As a new year begins, COAR presents a short primer on four of the most pressing dynamics that the Syria response must take into consideration as the crisis continues to evolve: the increasing decentralization of the Syrian state; the mechanisms by which the Government of Syria will retake control of the country; the transformation of civil society; and Syria’s dire economic conditions. It is our hope that this report will serve as a useful introduction to issues that will be at the heart of our research and analysis in 2020, and which are likely to exert considerable influence over the Syria crisis in the year to come and beyond.

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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: 18 December , 2019 – 06 January, 2020

Syria Update

6 January 2020
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Iran’s ‘Living Martyr’ Soleimani Killed: U.S. Strikes
Match in Tinderbox Region

In Depth Analysis

In an event that will profoundly shape the dynamics of war and peace across the Middle East, in the early hours of 3 January, U.S. forces carried out a lethal drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport, killing Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force and a revered figure who has served as the master architect of Iran’s external military engagement, including its efforts to militarily support Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. The strike reportedly killed seven others, including Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the head of the Iraqi Kitaeb Hezbollah militia, which is supported by Iran. The profound significance of Soleimani’s killing and its potential ramifications are difficult to overstate. What can be said with certainty is that the event constitutes a grievous escalation in a chain of increasingly tense and lethal confrontations between U.S. forces and Iran-affiliated groups; in the immediate term, the killing invites a forceful response from Iran, and it opens the door to potentially catastrophic tit-for-tat responses in Iraq and regionally.

The Pentagon has justified the strike on the grounds that Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” Nonetheless, Soleimani was targeted at least in part as a response to the humiliating siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by members of Kitaeb Hezbollah, and the power play over Iraq that it presaged. On 31 December, demonstrators stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone and breached the outer walls of the U.S. embassy complex, which they occupied until receiving promises that the Iraqi Parliament would reassess the terms of Iraq’s longstanding security cooperation with U.S. forces. On 2 January, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that in the wake of the embassy incident, “the game has changed.” The killing of Soleimani — who has long been in American crosshairs — confirms this, and it raises the stakes even higher.

The killing will have myriad consequences inside Iran. The sudden escalation in U.S.-Iran tensions will empower Iran’s domestic hardliners and hawks (see Syria Update 9-15 May 2019). Contrary to the assertions of some Western pundits, Soleimani was one of the most popular national figures in Iran; although some in Iran will quietly celebrate Soleimani’s demise, by and large the Iranian public is likely to rally around the flag in the wake of his death, and the massive popular mobilizations that have mounted an unprecedented challenge to Iran’s central authorities in recent months will likely abate. Furthermore, Soleimani’s death introduces unwelcome ambiguity to Iran’s regional agenda. As a Kissinger-like grand strategist, a singularly focused military commander, and the object of pious devotion as a ‘living martyr’, Soleimani was a keystone of Iran’s state apparatus, second in stature only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For two decades, Soleimani has spearheaded the regional military cooperation — against Israel as well as ISIS — that has won Iran a vast arc of influence through partners including Hamas, Hezbollah, and a multitude of local militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran’s relationships with (and its command and control over) these actors will now be subject to worrisome changes. Most concerning, however, is the fact that Soleimani’s pragmatic and strategic outlook had imparted a degree of predictability to Iran’s military activity abroad. In effect, Soleimani was viewed as the most important breakwater against the waves of the increasingly aggressive American pressure campaign. Notwithstanding Iran’s vows to continue to prosecute its regional agenda without change, the relative predictability lent by Soleimani is no longer a given, as the commander’s former deputy and appointed successor, Ismail Ghaani, steps up.

Qasim Soleimani. Image source: Creative Commons.

Looking ahead, an in-kind response by Iran and its regional allies is now likely unavoidable; what remains to be seen is how and where such a response will occur. Khamenei has vowed “severe revenge” will follow. In Lebanon, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has also pledged “revenge” for the assassination, vowing that once “the coffins of American soldiers and officers begin returning home, Trump and his administration will realize they have lost the region,” although notably, Nasrallah stated that America civilians would not be targeted.

Myriad responses by Iranian proxy forces targeting U.S. interests and American allies are plausible. Viable targets are distressingly vulnerable, to include: commercial oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, oil and gas infrastructure in the GCC, diplomatic facilities, global cyber infrastructure, and U.S. military forces stationed in sprawling Gulf outposts. The severest direct consequences, however, will likely be felt in Iraq, which is now primed to be the primary theater of further escalation. Popular momentum that Iran gained as a result of the U.S. embassy siege has rapidly crystalized in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination. Iran is likely to wield this momentum in a bid to bring Iraq into its own orbit, and on 5 January, the Iraqi Parliament took the first procedural steps to expel U.S. forces from the country. The U.S., too, has begun to pour additional manpower into the region to combat Iranian interests in Iraq, setting up the likelihood of more costly confrontations and further escalation. Already there are signs that various Iraqi factions will seek to exploit these conditions to gain more power on the national stage. The clearest (and perhaps only) beneficiary of the further disintegration that is now distinctly possible in Iraq, however, will be ISIS. ISIS cells have continued to carry out small-scale and ad-hoc attacks in much of western Iraq; by distracting from the battle to suppress these increasingly bold cells and shatter their fractured networks, the U.S.-Iran confrontation will create the conditions that could fuel a long-feared ISIS resurgence that will spread into Syria and potentially beyond.

In Syria, reaction to Soleimani’s death has broken along ideological lines. State media has naturally condemned the killing of a military commander whose regional intervention has been crucial to the Government of Syria’s survival. For this very reason, the Syrian opposition has largely celebrated the strike. Ultimately, Soleimani’s death should focus attention on the fact that conflict in the Middle East is increasingly becoming internationalized, as regional powers assert themselves, and spillover effects are becoming difficult or impossible to contain (see point No. 8 below). Should the U.S. succeed in its improbable efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran now that the hounds of war have been loosed, aftershocks will nonetheless continue to be felt, including in Syria. ISIS cells active in Syria’s eastern hinterlands will surely be emboldened — and may well seize the opportunity to target international coalition forces and the SDF. Iran-backed militias located throughout Syria will almost certainly be marshaled as regional confrontation unfolds. As we wrote in response to a spike in U.S.-Iran tensions in May: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” This dictum is more relevant now than ever.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Twice vetoed, cross-border resolution set to expire 10 January

New York City: On 20 December, the UN Security Council failed to extend Resolution 2165 (2014), the touchstone resolution of the Syria crisis response, which enabled cross-border aid delivery through four border crossings, with Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan (see Syria Update 11-17 December 2019). Absent modification for the first time since it was enacted in 2014, the serially renewed resolution will expire on 10 January. Notably, the Security Council voted on two modified draft resolutions: one proposed by Germany, Kuwait, and Belgium, and the other drafted by Russia. The Russian proposal — vetoed by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States — stipulated that in place of the standard one-year renewal, the resolution would be extended by six months, to permit access through two border crossings with Turkey, while border crossings at Yaaroubiyeh (with Iraq) and Al-Ramtha (with Jordan) would be decommissioned. The counter-proposal seeking a piecemeal extension of 2165 was also shot down. Under this proposal, three border crossings — two with Turkey and one with Iraq — were to remain operational for an additional 12 months, while access via Al-Ramtha crossing was to be extended for six months, with a further conditional six-month extension to follow, unless explicitly overruled by the Security Council. Both China and Russia vetoed this proposal.

Resolution 2165: Once operational, now geopolitical

Ultimately, the competing proposals to amend 2165 reflect the disparate objectives of ostensible blocs that exist within the Syria crisis response: one led by Russia and broadly supportive of the Government of Syria, and another nominally representing the UN and Western INGOs, and advocating for an expansive vision for the cross-border response. The Russian proposal would achieve several Russian aims: closing the largely defunct Al-Ramtha crossing would deliver a message about Syria’s sovereignty, while shuttering Yaaroubiyeh would undermine SDF-held areas in northeast Syria, which remain largely dependent on medical supplies delivered by UN convoy via Yaaroubiyeh. The latter goal is also shared by Turkey, which is effectively dependent upon Russia to represent Turkish interests in the Security Council. Conversely, the competing proposal aims to preserve a capacious response architecture that Russia and the Government of Syria have long decried as an affront to Syria’s territorial integrity. Both proposals, however, would extend the mandate of the cross-border response in northwest Syria, which plays an important coordination role and has grown in capacity by 40 percent since 2018, largely in response to serial and protracted displacement in the region.

The failure of rival blocs to reach a compromise over 2165 for the first time is a worrying sign that the cross-border response will be held captive to geopolitical wrangling among Security Council members. Should the resolution expire, it is possible that cross-border aid convoys will continue, albeit under a cloud of uncertainty concerning their legality and mandate. INGO aid deliveries — which are not explicitly addressed by the resolution — will also be exposed to greater liability. As a result, the UN and the Syria response itself may be caught flat-footed until a compromise is passed — a process that may drag on for months.

2. Embattled PYD extends olive branch to Kurdish rivals

Al-Hasakeh city, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 17 December, the Self Administration — dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — announced its willingness to reconcile with the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC/EKNS) in an attempt to unify the Kurdish political and military front in Syria. The Self Administration claims it has revoked all previously enforced restrictions on the KNC, including security restrictions on the latter’s personnel and suppression of its political activities in SDF-controlled areas. Additionally, as per the statement, the Self Administration has vowed to release political prisoners and disclose the fate of KNC-affiliated individuals among the disappeared. To date, reports over the KNC’s response to the olive branch initiative are contradictory. Unconfirmed media reports indicate that direct negotiations between the KNC and the Self Administration that took place in Al-Hasakeh city produced a tentative agreement, which purportedly stipulates the deployment of Peshmerga forces from Iraq to northeast Syria, in support of Self Administration control. However, public statements by members of the KNC denied that a final agreement had been reached, although some such accounts verified that meetings had taken place.

Building a united Kurdish front

The PYD exercises a near monopoly over the political field in the Self Administration; attempts to woo the KNC thus suggest that the Self Administration is now willing to undertake desperate measures in the face of its growing political and military isolation. As a result of the long-running and often combative rivalry with the PYD, the KINC has effectively been exiled to Erbil, yet the KNC’s closeness to Turkey — a relationship which has long been anathema to the PYD — may now provide the means of assuaging Tukish concerns in northeast Syria. Moreover, a detente with the KNC would also bolster the SDF militarily by adding to its ranks the Rojava Peshmerga, which has an almost mythic stature in northeast Syrian politics, where it is widely considered a partial solution to nearly all pressing military concerns, particularly those involving Turkey. Previous attempts to bring the Peshmerga into northeast Syria, to act as a buffer force along the Syria-Turkey border, have failed, at least in part due to intransigence on the part of the Self Administration. What distinguishes the present case, however, is that the Self Administration now faces the seemingly unavoidable prospect of painful concessions in its political negotiations with Damascus (see Syria Update 4-10 December). Building a stronger, multi-party Kurdish alliance will no doubt give Self Administration negotiators more backbone to stand up to Damascus; the military support of the formidable Rojava Peshmerga would undoubtedly do even more work in this respect.

3. Government of Syria resumes ground offensive in Idleb

Jarnjaz, Idleb Governorate: On 2 January, local sources reported that intense Russian and Government of Syria bombardment of southeastern Idleb governorate had partially subsided, following weeks of heavy shelling and airstrikes, in addition to fierce clashes between opposition groups and Government forces, after the Government of Syria launched a ground offensive on 19 December. To date, the Government has captured numerous communities in southeastern Idleb, to include Jarnjaz, while a Turkish observation point at Sarman is now entirely surrounded, as frontlines recede behind it (see inset map). Echoing previous offensives, the heavy bombardment is a bid by the Syrian Government to retake territory by driving the resident and IDP populations of frontline communities deeper into opposition-held northwest Syria (see Syria Update 25-31 July 2019). Ma’arrat An-Nu’man, the most significant community now lying in the immediate line of fire, is nearly entirely depopulated, and much of the population of the surrounding countryside has likewise displaced; an estimated 284,000 individuals fled the area in December alone due to the offensive, according to UNOCHA.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

The Government of Syria’s military strategy in northwest Syria remains consistent: brief ground assaults that punctuate long periods of intense aerial bombardment have slowly, progressively eaten away at opposition-held territory. The strategy has guaranteed the mass displacement of frontline communities. Local sources report that few of the newly displaced have found shelter in IDP camps located in relative safety along the Turkish-Syrian border, due to the size of the displacement and camp overcrowding that has been intensified by winter flooding. As a result, many of those fleeing active frontlines and targeted areas have relocated to population centers in northeast Idleb and southwest Aleppo governorates, including Idleb city and Ariha. However, even in these areas, many IDPs have been turned away by local landlords who demand three months of rent upfront. Plans are underway to expand IDP camps, but this will do nothing to address the needs of the newly (and serially) displaced. As a result of these conditions, IDPs are settling in public facilities such as mosques, banquet halls, and schools. Disconcertingly, all of these are among the structures that have been deliberately targeted in Government of Syria attempts to uproot the opposition in northwest Syria.

In the immediate term, the massive displacement poses an acute humanitarian emergency. Large gaps have arisen not only in shelter, but in food, education, healthcare and psychological support. These gaps have been aggravated by inconsistent access, harsh winter conditions, and continuing bombardment. However, the displacement is also a prelude to further intractable issues in the opposition-held northwest, where nearly 3 million people are effectively trapped in the slowly shrinking pocket of armed-opposition control. According to local sources, this population shows no sign of warming up to the prospect of reconciliation with the Government of Syria. In parallel, Turkey remains firm in its categorical refusal to admit more Syrians across its borders as refugees. Consequently, as Government of Syria–led bombardment and ground forces slowly but surely advance toward the strategic M5 highway, the displaced population is likely to be confined to an ever-receding pocket of territory.

4. Military service law amended: Serve, pay up, or forfeit assets

Damascus: On 17 December, local media sources reported that the Syrian Parliament had passed an amendment to the country’s wide-reaching military service requirement, Law 97 (2008). The amendment allows for the confiscation of assets belonging to individuals who fail to fulfill their military service obligation and who are unable to pay the $8,000 ‘offset’ that has long served as an escape clause for military-age Syrians of means, and many in the diaspora.

Breaking home ties?

Mandatory military service remains among the key deterrents to return for Syrian males of conscription age; it is naturally an underlying factor for internal displacement as well as emigration. Notably, as of 2019, the median wealth of a Syrian adult had fallen to a mere $884, by some estimates (see Syria Update 20-26 November 2019); as such, the sum levied for exemption from conscription is well beyond the reach of most Syrians. By seizing the property of those who refuse to submit to mandatory military service and who cannot afford to pay their way to exemption, the law will create another off-ramp to avoid service. However, by seizing and disposing of the assets of those wanted for service — including many who are abroad — the amendment will raise a practical barrier to return, and it will likely have a deep impact on the families in Syria of affected individuals. For Syrian refugees, the effect may be to punctuate the fact that ties with Syria itself have been irreparably severed.

5. Residential Collectives union dissolved, placed under Ministry of Housing

Damascus: On 18 December, media sources reported that the Syrian Parliament had issued a legislative decree dissolving the General Union of Residential Collectives. The Ministry of Housing and Construction will directly assume all roles and responsibilities previously carried out by the union. The union had functioned as a liaison entity, coordinating the relationship between residential collectives — which serve a role similar to homeowners’ associations — and the Ministry of Housing and Construction. The union had also facilitated the collectives’ functions, primarily the management of residential policies, the allocation of land, and the implementation of residential building projects.

Paving the way for reconstruction?

Residential collectives are quasi-governmental local entities, and are therefore bound to the policies of the Government of Syria, yet they nonetheless represent the interests of their members, often with a degree of freedom not afforded to overtly political entities.  Collectives were also locally elected, and thus in some ways represented an important form of local civil society. Although this liatitude was not without limits, residential collectives have been capable of challenging Government decisions with regard to housing, or, at the very least, pushing the Government to take local interests into account. In myriad cases, collectives representing various stakeholders and sectors have succeeded in challenging state decisions, specifically those related to housing and construction (see Syria Update 18-24 September 2019 and 24 August-4 September 2019).

It is unclear to what extent the dissolution of the General Union of Residential Collectives will impinge upon individual collectives’ capacity to operate independently. The Government of Syria has justified the union’s dissolution as a move to unify and expedite requests, in the name of good governance. However, the move to bring the collectives directly under a powerful line ministry will necessarily entail a greater degree of state supervision, and it constitutes a step toward the further centralization of housing affairs within Government of Syria institutions. As such, placing the collectives directly under the Ministry of Housing and Construction may pave the way toward more seamless implementation of state-endorsed real estate and reconstructions projects. Whatever its ultimate intention, the reshuffle will have sweeping effects. The latest General Conference of the Union of Residential Collectives (2016) put the total number of residential collectives in Syria at 2,680 with 93,6710 members.

6. ‘Terrorism and money laundering’: Government closes hawala offices

Various Locations: On 18 December, local media sources reported that the Syrian Central Bank had closed the offices of money transfer and exchange agencies in various locations across Syria. On 19 December, the Syrian Central Bank clarified that the closures came in response to unlicensed transactions that, according to the statement, potentially involve terrorism funding and money laundering. On 24 December, in a post to its official Facebook page, the Syrian Central Bank stated that the vice president of the Bank had convened a meeting with the managers of local money transfer agencies, representatives of the Telecommunication and Mailing Regulatory Authority, and the Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Authority, to discuss breaches of financing laws that had resulted in the branch office closures. To date, thousands of transactions have reportedly been affected by the initiative.

In Caesar’s shadow?

Myriad factors have contributed to the Government of Syria’s closure of hawala offices, but it is impossible to ignore the potentially catastrophic impact of the U.S. Caesar sanctions that were passed into law at the end of December (see Syria Update 11-17 December 2019). The sanctions’ first order will be to determine whether the Syrian Central Bank “is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” Such a finding may indeed be a foregone conclusion, and a wealth of evidence gives reason to doubt whether any actions taken by the Syrian state can impact the U.S. Treasury’s determination in this respect. However, it is not impossible that the Syrian state will take action (sincerely or otherwise) to influence this determination, or to combat financial skullduggery, which is endemic inside Syria. Without doubt, the hawala system is amenable to reform. However, it is also the backbone of the crisis response; as such, the closure of money transfer offices and the implementation of restrictive exchange policies can be expected to impact programming and disrupt the basic economic functionality of economically fragile Syrian communities.  

No halting the freefall

As such, it is important to frame such measures against the backdrop of Syria’s ongoing economic implosion (see Syria Update 27 November-3 December 2019). The latest initiative may further signal an attempt by the Central Bank to better control the money supply with the aim of preventing currency devaluation. Indeed, throughout Q4 2019, the Syrian street (and much of the state fiscal apparatus) was gripped by currency concerns, as they witnessed the exchange rate of the Syrian lira dip to unprecedented levels, despite facile attempts by the Government to halt the freefall (see Syria Update 13-19 November 2019). Little noticed in this respect was the Central Bank’s order to increase the so-called ‘preferential’ dollar price used for certain classes of money transfers — from 434 SYP to 700 SYP — which is likely to set a floor for the lira’s value going forward.

7. Civil and security disorder grows in Rural Damascus

Duma and Kanaker, Rural Damascus governorate: On 29 December, local media sources reported that Russian Military Police had forced the Republican Guard to leave Duma, after the latter forces conducted a raid on warehouses on the Duma-Misraba road in an attempt to establish a military outpost there. Reportedly, the Russian forces established several checkpoints in Duma and have maintained a presence in the area, along with State Security forces. Relatedly, media sources indicated that Criminal Security Forces had detained the head of Duma Local Council, Nabih Taha, on 19 December. The various justifications for Taha’s detention range from alleged corruption, to the underlying tensions that are now growing within the Duma local council itself.

Kanaker Reconciliation Committee head killed

Relatedly, on 29 December, media sources reported that an IED attack had killed the head of the Kanaker Reconciliation Committee, Bahjat Hafez. As is usual in such attacks, no actor has claimed responsibility. Notably, signs of dissent and opposition sentiments have been recurrent in Kanaker (approximately 30 km southwest of Damascus) in recent months, and demonstrations for the release of detainees have taken place (see Syria Update 4-10 December 2019).

Another Dar‘a?

The end of 2019 witnessed a marked intensification of anti–Government of Syria dissent in Rural Damascus; this has been met with a commensurate response from the Government, as it seeks to prevent latent dissatisfaction from crystallizing into outright chaos in the vicinity of the capital, as it has in southern Syria. Whereas the wholesale breakdown of security witnessed in Dar’a is unique to southern Syria, the underlying ideological, economic, and political factors that motivate it are also present in Rural Damascus — and, indeed, throughout Syria. What has permitted the breakdown of security in southern Syria is the region’s unique security fragmentation (see Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar‘a Governorate).

To this end, it appears that the Government of Syria has prioritized the stability of Rural Damascus. In the most notable evidence of such a strategy to date, the Government has imposed severe mobility restrictions on opposition-affiliated and ‘unreconcilable’ individuals in Eastern Ghouta (see Syria Update 11-17 December 2019). For Russian forces to restore calm to these areas will require their meeting political, material, and security demands that are likely well beyond their capacity. Should this fail, further assassinations targeting Government-affiliated security actors and public employees are likely, as is a progressive breakdown of security in such communities. Should this occur, the Government will likely stamp out dissent in affected areas as it has done in much of Rural Damascus: by imposing further iron-fisted security policies.

8. Turkey deploys Syrian fighters to Libya

Tripoli, Libya: In response to a formal request for military assistance made by Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) on 19 December, Turkey has deployed as many as 300 Syrian opposition combatants to Libya, according to multiple Syrian and international media sources, as well as social media posts by the combatants themselves. Reportedly, the fighters are predominantly ethnic Turkmen from Jarablus and A‘zaz, in northern Syria. A large contingent of the fighters redeployed to Libya had reportedly fought under the banner of the Sultan Murad, Suleiman Shah, and Liwa Mu’tasim factions, and formerly received lethal support from the U.S. Reportedly, as many as 1,000 additional Syrian fighters have crossed into Turkey to be trained for deployment to Libya, and it is rumored that an active campaign to gain further recruits is ongoing in northern Aleppo.

Regional ramifications 

For Turkey, there are multiple benefits to deploying Syrian proxies in defense of Turkish national interests abroad. Such combatants are relatively cheap (salaries reportedly exceed $2,000, but this is likely true only for technical specialists), yet these combatants are also highly effective, as many have become professional warfighters through extensive combat experience against ISIS, HTS, the Government of Syria, and various rival armed factions. Moreover, such deployment spares Turkey the potential domestic political consequences associated with putting Turkish boots on the ground to prop up Libya’s embattled GNA against its rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by Khalifa Hifter and supported regionally by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, through private contractors with the Wagner Group.

The deployment of Turkey-backed Syrian fighters in Libya is likely to increase in scale and scope, in accordance with a 27 November agreement between Libya and Turkey. This bilateral agreement secured Turkey’s maritime interests and in the long term seeks to guarantee the commercial outlook of private Turkish companies in the country. In exchange, Turkey has already begun to deliver deep military support to the GNA. Within Libya, the deployment will lend credence to the LNA’s efforts to cast GNA fighters as islamists; intensify the race for external support now ongoing between the LNA and GNA; and extinguish hopes for détente between the warring factions. Regionally, further important ramifications are also clear. As Western states reassess and redirect their direct military presence in the greater Middle East, gaps are opening for other actors, namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia, to assert themselves as regional power brokers. Finally, the deployment of Syrian combatants to Libya offers a glimpse of how the protracted Syria crisis has created a fractured military proving ground, which will have spillover effects regionally.

Key Readings

The Open Source Annex highlights key media reports, research, and primary documents that are not examined in the Syria Update. For a continuously updated collection of such records, searchable by geography, theme, and conflict actor, and curated to meet the needs of decision-makers, please see COAR’s comprehensive online search platform, Alexandrina, at the link below.

Note: These records are solely the responsibility of their creators. COAR does not necessarily endorse — or confirm — the viewpoints expressed by these sources.

Trump’s Crude Justification

What Does it Say? Control of oil fields in northeast Syria promises little financial gain for the U.S. or corporate actors.

Reading Between the Lines: While commercial exploitation of the fields is not worth the political (or geologic) risk, occupying the fields does give leverage over Damascus and Iran.

Source: Carnegie

Language: English

Date: 11 December 2019

The Islamic State’s ‘Revenge’ Expedition for Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Abu Al-Hassan al-Muhajir: Data and Analysis

What Does it Say? From 22-28 December, in ostensible reprisal for the killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, ISIS claimed responsibility for 106 operations, including 50 in Syria — 35 of which targeted the SDF.

Reading Between the Lines: The attacks were largely small in scale and attest to the group’s degraded capacity, but regional disturbances may open the door to greater operational space.

Source: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Language: English

Date: 31 December 2019

Qardaha: ‘The Tiger’ Confronts the Assad Family’s Gangs

What Does it Say? Qardaha, ancestral stronghold of the Al-Assad family, is in the midst of a struggle as influential local gangs resist attempts by Government security forces to impose order, including by stripping the local groups of heavy weapons.

Reading Between the Lines: The foundering efforts to restore control in Qardaha speaks to a problem that will be encountered throughout Syria while demobilizing powerful local actors that have spent much of the conflict with unchecked power — and enormous extractive interests — in their communities.

Source: Al-Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 18 December 2019

U.S. and Russian Soldiers in Syria Fist Fight

What Does it Say? A fist fight reportedly broke out between Russian and U.S. forces in Tel Tamer, after local residents accused the U.S. forces of betrayal following the partial military withdrawal in October. 

Reading Between the Lines: If true, the incident suggests the implications for community acceptance of the U.S. withdrawal, but it will also be seen as evidence of Russia’s attempts to supplant the U.S. in northeast Syria, including as guarantors of the interests of the local population.

Source: Middle East Monitor

Language: English

Date: 30 December 2019

‘Independents’ Meeting’ Ends with the election of Two Lists to Form the ‘General Secretariat’ and New Members of the ‘Negotiating Committee’ 

What Does it Say? In an attempt to assert greater control over the overall process, Saudi Arabia has sought to reshuffle membership of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s opposition bloc. 

Reading Between the Lines: By asserting more influence over the process, such efforts by Saudi Arabia may ultimately weaken the opposition bloc.

Source: Halab Today

Language: Arabic

Date: 29 December 2019

Soaring Fuel Prices Make Syrian Winter Even Colder

What Does it Say? As the value of the Syrian lira has collapsed, the cost of a barrel of heating fuel has jumped to $100, up from $35 last winter, pushing desperate Syrians to seek out fuel alternatives — such as wood, coal, and pistachio shells — as winter sets in.

Reading Between the Lines: Given the ongoing military offensive in northwest Syria, the overturning of the domestic fuel trade, and regional instability, this privation is likely to worsen.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 1 January 2020

Europe: Food Aid for Lebanon?

What Does it Say? The collapse of the Lebanese economy has prompted a search for new methods of shoring up the country, including in-kind support.

Reading Between the Lines: Whatever form it takes, support to Lebanon is likely to be contingent upon reforms the Lebanese political class is resistant to — or incapable of — making.

Source: Al-Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 6 December 2019

Velayati Receives Arab Tribal Sheikhs in Tehran, Including Nawaf Al-Bashir

What Does it Say? Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to the Iranian leader, met with Syrian Arab tribal leaders in Tehran

Reading Between the Lines: Tribal outreach has been a touchstone of state actors’ strategies in Syria, particularly in the northeast, where the U.S. withdrawal has opened space for actors to capitalize on their influence campaigns.

Source: Jorf News

Language: Arabic

Date: 28 December 2019

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.