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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Date: 14 January 2020
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
Date: 14 January 2020
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
Date: 13 January 2020
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
Date: 15 January 2020
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
Date: 9 December 2019
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
Date: 15 January 2020
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
Date: 14 January 2020
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
Date: 16 January 2020
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
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.