Function Over Form: Rethinking Civil Society in Government-held Syria

Function Over Form: Rethinking Civil Society in Government-held Syria

11 February 2020
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Purpose

This paper, and the assertions within it, were primarily informed by an examination of civil society actors in Syria for the purpose of identifying alternative programmatic opportunities. The conclusions of this research, as well as COAR’s long association with industrial humanitarianism, led COAR to challenge the manner and framework through which many international response actors have conceptualized and engaged with Syrian civil society.  This paper examines how civil society works in Syria, but should not be considered a mapping exercise of the civil society space, however one chooses to define it. The findings of this research demonstrate the diversity of civic space, while case studies examine how civic space is navigated and defined locally. Programmatic opportunities and challenges are also noted clearly.

The names of some of the organizations and groups examined as case studies are included in the annex, which is structured as a simple typology.  The large majority of the information on these organizations and groups is publicly known in Syria; in some cases, names of organizations and individuals have been removed when and where this information would risk harm. More detailed information on specific organizations can be made available upon request.

Methodology

This research is based on multiple primary and secondary sources. Field researchers located in Government-held areas conducted a series of iterative key informant interviews between June and October 2019. COAR has also held several interviews with Syria civil society experts to include: individuals working for or with existing Syrian civil society organizations; donors and INGO staff partnered with Syrian civil society organizations; and academics (both Syrian and non-Syrian) working on the topic of Syrian civil society. Additionally, open source material was used for the purpose of triangulation to include social media, official Government of Syria media, and opposition-oriented media.

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Executive Summary

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, ‘support to civil society’ has been one of the most pervasive mantras of the international Syria response.  Indeed, the vast majority of humanitarian program proposals contain a civil society component, which stresses the need to “map”, “develop”, “consult”, “empower”, “train”, “partner with”, or “transform” Syrian civil society. Yet after eight years of conflict, Syrian civil society, especially in Government-held areas, remains poorly understood by the international Syria response.  For a variety of reasons, the cross-border humanitarian and development response has defined civil space narrowly, and primarily through the lens of formally registered NGO/CBOs in opposition-held areas. However, as territorial control shifts to the Government of Syria much of the Syria response continues to apply this NGO-centric lens to civil society, and perpetuate corresponding narratives about access ‘shrinking’ or ‘expanding’.

This paper is a preliminary attempt to recalibrate the current discourse by proposing a broader (and in some ways more traditional) definition of civil society.  In essence, civil society should be understood to be any group of individuals initiating thoughtful collective action outside the aegis of officially mandated state policy directives, to include initiatives that seek to change or improve state policy; those that attempt to negotiate with the state; and those that provide services outside of official state mechanisms.  Were one to apply this definition, one might argue that more civil society and civic space exists in Government of Syria–held areas than is often recognized. This civil society faces obvious obstacles; yet it is also extremely diverse, present organically in nearly every community in Syria, and is often a product of a new culture of civic engagement that has grown since the start of the conflict.

However, many civil society actors in Government-held areas do not fit cleanly within existing western INGO conceptions of civil society, partially due to the fact that they are more challenging to instrumentalize as a platform for ‘at-scale’ service delivery. While civil society actors in Government–held areas do include formalized CBO/NGO structures, there are also wide range of other formal and informal actors, to include religious institutions, tribal councils, negotiations committees, local informal initiatives, volunteer groups, development councils, and even semi-governmental organizations.  Some of these organizational typologies predate the conflict; however many are new or are taking on new roles, and their prominence and reach will only expand as the Syrian state fails to reimpose centralized authority and provide basic services.

At the same time, previous conceptions of civil society are increasingly less relevant given the Government’s recent military victories, and donors should base future plans on current civic space realities.  Donors and implementing agencies must now consider whether partnerships with this ‘new’, changing, often informal Syrian civil society can advance respective policy and humanitarian objectives, while also reflecting on ‘how’ to work within this new civic space.  There are opportunities to engage with and empower a range of Syrian civil society actors in Government-held areas, yet one should note that time-honored engagement strategies, such as capacity-building sessions based on powerpoint slide decks and conducted by external consultants, followed by large-scale grants, may not be the most effective approach.  Indeed, engagement will require considerable creativity and will be fraught with challenges; moreover, without clearly articulated objectives, the results may be limited at best and counterproductive at worst.

What is Civil Society?

Civil society is traditionally understood to be the ‘third estate’ that ecompasses all collective civic action outside of government and private industry.  However, there is no universally agreed definition for civil society. The World Economic Forum defines civil society as “the area outside the family, market and state, encompassing a spectrum of actors and entities with a wide range of purposes, structures, degrees of organization, membership, and geographical coverage.”1  For its part, the European Union defines civil society to include “all non-State, not-for-profit structures, non-partisan and non-violent, through which people organise to pursue shared objectives and ideals, whether political, cultural, social or economic. Operating from the local to the national, regional and international levels, they comprise urban and rural, formal and informal organisations.”2

Thus, while civil society is often narrowly conceptualized by the international community as formalized NGO/CBO structures with clearly defined specializations and areas of service delivery, many accepted definitions of civil society allow for and include a much wider range of actors.  In essence, civil society is the means by which groups of individuals collectively interact with or shape their local context, communities, or government policies. Under this definition, NGOs and CBOs are certainly an important part of civil society; however, a vast array of other entities and groups also fits this definition, to include informal local initiatives, local notable committees, tribal and family councils, development committees, religious groups and, potentially, organizations tied the state, such as trade unions and agricultural collectives. If the definition of civil society were to also include individual and community-level collective action that goes beyond formal structures, then the list of potential civil society actors in Syria grows dramatically.

Past ‘Civil Society Engagement’ in Syria

In Syria, the formation of ‘civil society’ presents an inherent challenge — the Government of Syria is authoritarian, and the state consequently plays a role in nearly every level and aspect of social engagement and communal organization. Prior to the Syrian conflict, the Government of Syria severely restricted the creation of formal civil society organizations — really, any organizations — and required official state sanction and significant oversight.3 Additionally, many organizations that would normally be considered ‘civil society,’ such as trade unions or chambers of commerce, were essentially transformed into arms of the Government of Syria or the Syrian Baath party. Indeed, several individuals interviewed or consulted for this paper independently noted that prior to 2011, there were few real ‘civil society organizations’ to speak of in Syria, with the exception of local religious charities or NGOs that were closely linked to the Government of Syria, such as Syria Trust.

Given donor restrictions and the absence of western-style civil society, the international humanitarian and development response to the Syrian conflict has largely concentrated support on more formalized civil society entities, many of which were created or repurposed after 2011, and out of pragmatic necessity or a need to begin to structurally resemble their international counterparts. Driven in part by the requirements of cross-border programming, the creation, maintenance, and or/training of Syrian civil society became a key component of nearly all interventions, regardless of the funding stream.  Indeed, civil society organizations provided not only an entry-point for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but also served the unacknowledged nexus theory that humanitarian interventions should also support peace and development outcomes, in this case the transformation of Syria into a pluralistic democracy.

Considering the political realities and humanitarian needs of conflict-affected Syria, western support was overwhelmingly directed at formal and independent civil society organizations that provided services to constituencies outside the control of the Government of Syria; in Government-held areas, the Syria humanitarian and development response largely relied either  on a few formal organizations with close linkages to the Government of Syria, such as SARC or Syria Trust, or on a select few religious organizations able to implement service delivery. Indeed, since 2011, Syrian civil society organizations and movements flourished not only outside of Government of Syria control, but also internationally, through a dual process of international support and local ingenuity. However, as the Government of Syria has retaken large swaths of the country, many of the organizations supported by the international community have been driven underground, forcibly evacuated to opposition-held parts of the country, or disbanded entirely.  As a consequence of these events, there exists a growing narrative that the ‘space for Syrian civil society’ is shrinking.

‘Space’ in Government-held Areas: New Civil Society, and New Civic Culture

In one sense, narratives around a shrinking civil society in Syria are absolutely accurate: as the Syrian state has militarily regained, and administratively reimposed, control over Syria, space has shrunk for donor-supported, formal, and independent civil society organizations in opposition-held areas, the vast majority of which began as a consequence of the absence of the state. However, if one expands the definition of civic space,4 there exists considerable civic space, albeit not necessarily programmatic space, in Government of Syria–held areas. Civil society, at least as defined earlier in this paper, is present in some shape or form in nearly every community in Syria, often generated through a truly organic process (i.e., not deliberately ‘created’ by the state or external donor community), and which often takes a bottom-up and consensus-driven approach to meeting needs, supporting community members, and/or advocating for local interests.  Admittedly, the current civil society landscape in Government of Syria–held areas is in many ways a product of new cultural and social norms with respect to civic engagement, which arose as a consequence of the Syrian conflict and accompanying international response; interestingly, many civil society organizations located in Government-held areas were created or developed in parallel to counterparts located in opposition-held areas, and under many of the same external influences, albeit often with very clear differences regarding neutrality and independence.

This ‘new’ civil society in Government-held areas often consists of formally registered and regulated CBO/NGO structures; however, it also includes a diverse range of religious institutions, informal structures (with no clear leadership or organizational framework), and even entities which are nominally linked to the Government of Syria. Indeed, many new civil society entities defy easy categorization; there is considerable overlap between different ‘types’ of civil society, many informal organizations would easily fit into several categories of civil society, and one could argue for multiple different approaches and methodologies of categorization.

‘Space’ in Government-held Areas: New Civil Society, and New Civic Culture

Much has been said about the legal restrictions imposed by the Syrian Government on civil society actors; however, what must be emphasized is the fact that, practically speaking, legal frameworks should not be considered to be hard or universally applied rules; they are instead the means by which the Government (or local security actors) can selectively halt activities. While legal frameworks do matter, adherence to them, in a country in which rule of law is largely absent, is no guarantee of legal protection. Similarly, just because a formal or informal group is operating outside of legal frameworks does not mean that it does not have considerable ‘space’ at the local level.

There are several key points to consider with respect to official legal frameworks governing civil society in Government of Syria-held areas and their corresponding impact on the scope, scale, and nature of civil society actors. First, when taking an expanded definition of Syrian civil society, there exist a multitude of often overlapping legal frameworks that technically govern different aspects of the civic space. For traditional civil society organizations, the most important legal frameworks is Law 93,5 which places the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) nominally in charge of civil society organizations; MOSA thus holds the mandate to register and dissolve these organizations. Theoretically, all official civil society organizations must register with the MOSA directorate in their respective governorate. Some organizations — specifically, those that receive funds from outside of Syria — are also compelled to hold dual registration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). On the other hand, religious institutions or charities interact less with MOSA and are instead registered with the Endowments Ministry, under the dictates of Law 31 (2018). Finally, other institutions, such as unions, professional associations, or agriculture collectives, fall under legal guidelines developed much earlier, many of them passed in the 1970s and 1980s.

An in-depth study of the legal framework governing Syrian civil society would be a massive, though obviously very valuable undertaking, especially when considering the importance of civil society in Syria’s post-conflict constitution.6 However, from the perspective of humanitarian and development programming, significantly more important than frameworks is their application: practically speaking, much of civil society (as it is currently manifested in Syria) does not necessarily fall under the strict aegis of existing legal frameworks. While these frameworks are the ‘law of the land’ and are regularly referenced, they are not universally or uniformly applied. For example, a formal NGO working openly in Government-held areas may implement programs in a sector completely distinct from those stipulated in its official MOSA registration; certain religious charities registered under the Endowments Ministry function in practice as humanitarian or development NGOs, yet remain unregistered with MOSA; other overtly religious charities are registered under MOSA instead of the Endowments Ministry; several NGOs that have registered and remain in good standing with MOSA are completely prevented from implementing programs in specific sectors or geographies by security officials; many local volunteer initiatives are completely unregistered but have been granted informal, locally approved security permissions to implement projects; local notables and elites often act as informal civil society bodies that defy easy categorization or registration; and some semi-governmental bodies, such as trade unions and chambers of commerce, have actively conducted ‘NGO-esque’ activities or lobbied formal governance institutions on behalf of their constituents.

Space is ‘Locally Defined’

Considering the complexity of existing legal frameworks, and their overlapping and selectively applied mandates, legal frameworks primarily matter in that they are a regulatory tool that can be used by the Government of Syria and local officials to put an end to activities of which they do not approve.  National-level frameworks thus matter less than observers may think, and rarely do they unilaterally shape a specific organization’s ability to implement programs or exert influence in its community. Instead, when examining some of the diverse manifestations of civil society in Syria, what becomes clear is that ‘civic space’ in Government-held areas is, in practice, locally defined — by interactions between individuals, groups, and organizations.

At the local level, the ‘space’ available to an organization or group is negotiated and maintained through specific interactions and relationships with local security or political officials; it is also, and equally, defined by interactions between the group and the community itself, and the popular legitimacy garnered by these interactions. The actual application of legal frameworks, and the consequent space available to civil society, varies widely based on local conditions, stakeholders, and relationships, which in turn informs attitudes and the application of the law by local authorities or the central government in Damascus.

Essentially, civic space is, by its nature, a constant and evolving process of interactions involving individual personalities, interest groups, and community stakeholders that constantly negotiate what are and are not ‘acceptable’ civil society activities on the local level. ‘Access’, effectiveness, and the ability to influence local context is thus not defined by clear modalities, rubrics, or delineated processes, but rather complex relationships and local legitimacy that afford a local organization space to deliver services in a specific community.7   Similarly, other organizations may have no ability (or willingness) to conduct service delivery, but instead have an important role as local agents of influence that can impact the trajectory of other service delivery mechanisms.8

The Challenge: Who, How, and Why?

Considering the above, there is likely space to engage with and empower existing Syrian civil society in Government-held areas, especially at the local level. However, there are essentially three important questions that the Syria response should consider when examining future Syrian civil society support:

  • How can Syrian civil society organizations be mapped in a manner that goes beyond merely creating a list of formally structured NGOs and CBOs and a description of their capacities?  
  • What are the mechanisms necessary to impactfully support, partner with, and ultimately empower Syrian civil society, both formal and informal?   
  • What is the ultimate objective of an empowered Syrian civil society?

Who?

Civil society mapping has been undertaken repeatedly since the start of the Syrian conflict.  However, much of the mapping exercises conducted have concentrated on the instrumentalization of civil society as vehicles for service delivery. Essentially, the focus has been on the ‘form’ of civil society organizations, i.e. location and reach, registration status, organizational structure, work domain, financial structure, and past funding.  Instead, effective programming requires civil society mapping that emphasizes the ‘function’ served by civil society entities, in all their forms and in a specific location of interest.

Civil society entities often serve a multitude of functions locally, to include: civilian oversight mechanisms; grassroot mobilization tools; mechanisms through which elites can secure power within communities; representation for a constituency that interfaces with authorities; state and/or international service providers, to include in culture, education, research, health, development, law, advocacy, and political dialogue; and as externally-facing advocacy bodies.    This ‘function-centric’ mapping of civil society must be complemented by simultaneous mapping of the sociopolitical environment of the specific area, as well as an examination of how this environment is changing, in order to map the interactions between local manifestations of civil society and different social, governance, and security stakeholders. Needless to add, this kind of mapping exercise is both challenging and time-consuming, requires devoted research that closely considers the dynamics of each specific entity in its applicable local context, and does not necessarily result in a ‘telephone book’ for INGO programming.

How?

Discerning ‘how’ exactly to empower civil society groups also requires considerable thought. Indeed, when directly funding many Syrian civil society organizations, international donors have often fundamentally changed their nature, character, and relationships, the latter both inside and outside their communities. By receiving external donor support, many grassroots and organically formed organizations will either cease to exist due to increased scrutiny from the Government of Syria, be co-opted by the Government of Syria, or transform into new patronage structures, thereby undermining exactly those qualities that made these organizations effective in the first place.  Indeed, there exists a real risk that direct donor funding, will result in many organic civil society organizations shifting to indirect cost recovery-driven (i.e. profit) models, with accompanying competition and atomization, similar to many of their international counterparts. This shift has already occurred, to some extent, with CBOs/NGOs working in opposition-held areas; the creation of ‘competitive’ funding streams caused great damage to many nascent civil society organizations and essentially precluded collaboration in pursuit of shared goals and interests.9

Therefore, while there does exist space to support Syrian civil society, the means and mechanisms used to support civil society must be both creative, and sensitive to past errors. Grafting an existing partnership strategy onto a Damascus-managed response may be one (admittedly imperfect) solution. Direct implementation agencies – especially the UN – could be compelled or incentivised to consult or work with existing (pre-identified) local civil society entities. Similarly, small grassroots initiatives could be empowered as important decision-makers in locally implemented projects, even in the event that they were not directly funded by these projects.10   At the most basic level, what is required is a new paradigm of civil society support that goes beyond subcontracting, simple indirect funding mechanisms (partnership programs), and tedious workshops.

Why?

A critical question to be addressed by international donors and implementing agencies with respect to supporting Syrian civil society in Government-held areas is: what exactly do you seek to achieve? The way in which individual civil society entities should be interacted with and empowered in Syria must be informed by a clear strategy. Is civil society a means of providing service provision alternatives to the Government of Syria? Is civil society a means of improving local development in specific communities?  Is civil society empowered as a means of politically transforming the Government of Syria? Is civil society support to be based on Western development theories and objectives, or on a more ‘community defined’ series of objectives? Is civil society being empowered for its own sake?

Ultimately, different civil society entities can potentially perform all of these functions, in different localities and through different modalities. Civil society is an important vehicle for service delivery in hard to reach areas, and it can also be a means of improving existing service delivery mechanisms. Moreover, civic society engagement has the potential to be inherently disruptive and transformative, especially as the Government of Syria rapidly loses its capacity to directly provide services and exert totalitarian control throughout many parts of Syria.  However, this will require a realistic set of objectives that takes into account the fluid nature of civic space at the local level.

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 10 February 2020

Syria Update

10 February 2020
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Idleb Fighting Heats Up as Ankara and Damascus Vie For Leverage

In Depth Analysis

On 8 February, media sources reported that high-level Russian and Turkish delegations met in Ankara to discuss steps to de-escalate the rapidly intensifying conflict in northwest Syria. Reportedly, the parties will meet again in coming days in the hope of agreeing to a ceasefire in Idleb. The meeting followed two weeks of nearly unchecked military advances by Government of Syria forces against armed opposition factions, which have dug in their heels, amid increasingly direct involvement by Turkish military forces on the ground. However, despite the marked intensification of Turkey’s attempts to cement frontlines and retain its hold over strategic population centers in central Idleb, on 6 February the Government of Syria captured the pivotal community of Saraqeb, which lies at the intersection of the M4 and M5 highways. As of this writing, intense fighting has, for the moment, calmed near Saraqeb and along a second axis in western rural Aleppo. However, there remains a risk that if diplomacy fails to defuse tensions across frontlines, the brinkmanship between the Government of Syria and Turkey will break out into fierce clashes and aggravate a massive displacement that is among the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the conflict.

The humanitarian impact of the fighting has been immense. On 3 February, UN and local implementing partners indicated that at least 586,000 individuals have displaced from frontline communities since 1 December — a number that is now likely far larger — as aerial bombardment by Russia has consistently and deliberately driven civilian 

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populations out of frontline communities. Like other communities before it, Saraqeb was almost entirely depopulated upon its recapture by Government forces. Notably, despite a lull in Russian airstrikes, civilians continue to displace from communities seen as lying in the path of the next phase of the Government’s offensive, to include Ariha and Idleb city. Meantime, at least 53 medical facilities have suspended operations due to the fighting in January alone, according to the WHO, and local sources and UN-OCHA report that camps and host communities in northern Idleb have no capacity to receive further displacements.11

In response to mounting  pressures, Turkish President Recep Tayeb Erdogan has threatened to launch a full-scale counter-assault against the Government of Syria forces if they do not withdraw from Turkish observation posts by the end of February. In the past, dialogue over Idleb has frequently concerned implementation of the demilitarized zone agreement and open access to the M4 and M5 highways, which is meant to be secured by joint Russian-Turkish patrols. These were construed as necessary first steps toward de-escalation in line with the September 2018 Sochi agreement. These efforts have failed. Despite calls from the international community, it is now clear that the de-escalation framework — long a dead letter in other parts of Syria — has outlived its utility in Idleb as well. Escalation is now seemingly the clearest means of bringing Turkey and Russia back to the negotiating table to seek a new agreement.

Cutting the Gordian knot?

While regional actors’ approaches to Idleb may be changing, the fundamental concerns at stake have not. The Government of Syria (and with it, Russia) remains focused on recapturing the M4 and M5 corridors. At present, the Government shows no sign that it seeks to reconcile or reintegrate the massive populations now being displaced by the offensive. Negotiations between remaining armed opposition factions — including Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham — and the Government of Syria to reintegrate northwest Syria are improbable (see: Syria in 2020: New Response Challenges to an Evolving Crisis). Turkey is, likewise, fixated on the potential that the Syrian Government’s offensive will fuel the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding on its immediate southern border. As we have noted, there is a risk that populations now being corralled into a shrinking opposition enclave in northwest Syria will be trapped in a no man’s land, even if frontlines stabilize as a result of de-escalation. The alternatives are equally troubling: that the Government of Syria may push northward and seek to re-capture all of opposition-held northwest Syria, or that Turkey will launch a counter-offensive in a bid to claw back territory recently captured by the Government and prevent Turkish observation posts from being overrun and isolated.

The way out of this conundrum will likely require Turkey and Russia to broker another agreement. For Turkey, the issue is no longer one of mere strategic interests, but of fundamental national security. Looking ahead, its priorities are to alleviate the pressure on Turkish observation posts as well as the threat of prolonged massive displacement, and to retain leverage in northwest Syria, including through the possibility of joint patrols with Russia along the M4 and M5 highways. However, the Government of Syria will not give up newly captured territory without a fight — or the threat of one. If Turkey does not launch a full-scale counter-offensive, in time, the Government of Syria is likely to continue its own push until it achieves its goal of reclaiming the whole of the M5 and M4, if not all of Idleb. If conflict conditions do calm, response actors will, nonetheless, be forced to contend with protracted displacement on a staggering scale. Worryingly, this may be among the best possible outcomes.

Whole of Syria Review

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1. KNC opens office in Kobani: Kurdish detente on the horizon?

Erbil, Iraq: On 2 February, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) announced that it would re-open an office in Self Administration–controlled eastern Syria, in accordance with a Kurdish unity initiative undertaken by the Syrian Democratic Forces in December. The decision to open an office was reportedly welcomed by top officials within the Self Administration and the SDF. SDF General Commander Mazloum Kobani praised the KNC’s return, highlighting its importance for “solidifying the Kurdish front in Syria” and “reaching a fair solution for the Kurdish cause in Syria”. Local sources indicated that the KNC office is open in Ain Al Arab (Kobani), in northern Aleppo governorate.

Intra-Kurdish relations: Evolution, not revolution

The creation of a unified ‘Kurdish front’ in eastern Syria has been a subject of increasingly serious negotiations since Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, and the return of the KNC to Self Administration areas is the first concrete step toward making this ambition a reality (see: Syria Update 6 January). Historically, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has used its dominance within the Self Administration to marginalize rival Kurdish factions, including the KNC, and tensions have occasionally broken out into clashes. Now, however, the Self Administration is locked in discussions with the Government of Syria over the amalgamation of the Self Administration and the rest of Government-controlled Syria. Courting its Kurdish rivals — politically and militarily — will give Self Administration leadership a stronger hand to play against Damascus. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the Self Administration will take further tangible steps, including the release of political detainees and the removal of restrictions on the KNC’s open political activity in northeast Syria. The PYD will have to sweeten the deal, if the KNC is to jeopardize its relations with Turkey for the Self Administration’s benefit. A restored political presence for the KNC is an important first step, but meaningful collaboration remains a lofty ambition.

2. Joint Syrian-Iranian bank delayed on sanctions fears

Damascus: On 5 February, local media reported that the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and an Iranian trade delegation had signed multiple bilateral agreements, and announced that an Iranian trade center in the Damascus free zone was nearly complete. Two additional trade centers, in the Homs and Latakia free zones, are already reportedly planned. According to these reports, the Iranian trade center in Damascus is ready to receive and distribute Iranian goods in Syria and neighboring countries, beginning within the next three months.

Sanctions setbacks

Iran’s commercial presence in Syria will hinge upon mutual efforts to overcome the complications of sanctions and the consequent financing challenges. However, Syria’s consumer market is open to new suppliers, given that Syria is largely reliant upon Turkish goods, including those traded across lines from opposition-held areas. Notably, local sources indicate that the economic crisis in Lebanon has already created a more attractive market for goods imported from Syria. One key to opening Syria’s borders to Iranian exports is the planned Syrian-Iranian Bank, which has apparently been delayed as a result of sanctions targeting financial institutions in both nations. If this cross-border banking initiative takes root, it will spare the Government of Syria the need to dip into its own foreign currency reserves to fund needed imports. In the short term, this may be welcome news for cash-strapped Syrian consumers. In the long term, however, Iran’s success as a commercial exporter to Syria will come at the expense of Syria’s own domestic producers.

3. Israeli airstrikes target central and southern Syria

Central and southern Syria: On 2 February, media sources reported that Israeli aircraft carried out a series of airstrikes targeting military positions where Iranian-backed forces are believed to maintain a strong presence. According to Syrian state media, the first fusilade of missiles targeted military positions in the suburbs of Damascus, while the second targeted military positions in Dar’a, Quneitra, and Rural Damascus governorates. The Syrian Defense Ministry indicated that Syrian air defenses intercepted some of the Israeli missiles, which nonetheless wounded eight individuals. Syrian state media reported no casualties as a result of the incidents; by contrast, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the strikes killed as many as 23 Government of Syria and Iranian-backed combatants.

Collateral damage risks are high

Following a salvo launched against Iranian-backed military positions in Syria last month, Israel continues to make a deliberate showing of its readiness to challenge Iran-linked targets in Syria (Syria Update 20 January). Indeed, the attacks come as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mounts a do-or-die re-election campaign, giving further incentive to his government to burish its hawkish credentials against Iran in Syria. Notably, although the U.S. has opted to seek a more conciliatory tone with Iran in the wake of the killing of Qasim Soleimani, the ‘Deal of The Century’ nonetheless gives Israel clear assurances that it has unquestioned U.S. backing. Whether such attacks on Iranian targets serve as spoilers of U.S. hopes to defuse regional tensions, or tacitly advance an agenda agreed with the U.S., they do carry the risk of collateral damage. Local sources indicate that Syrian missile defense systems responding to the Israeli strikes destroyed numerous houses and automobiles in Al-Tell, Rural Damascus. Moreover, the Israeli strike itself reportedly forced a Syrian commercial airliner carrying 172 passengers to divert from Damascus and perform an emergency landing at Hmeimem airbase. Iran’s inadvertent downing of a passenger airliner outside Tehran under similar circumstances in January serves as a sobering reminder of the gravity of the unintended consequences that are possible as this posturing plays out.

4. Key agricultural inputs to be added to Smart Card system

Damascus: On 5 February, media sources reported that the Syrian Trading Establishment began to distribute sugar, rice, and tea via the Smart Card system, following its announcement in late January that the staples would be added to the list of state-supported goods (see: Syria Update 13 January). Notably, this followed media reports that indicated that the Government would also use the Smart Card system for the distribution of key agricultural inputs, including animal feed, diesel fuel, and fertilizers.

Rations, not subsidies

The Smart Card system is now coming into wider use as the Government of Syria seeks greater control over consumer markets in which pricing and the availability of goods are becoming deep concerns for the Syrian street. The Smart Card system should be viewed foremost as a rationing mechanism; as such, its introduction as a means of doling out animal feed, diesel fuel, and fertilizers may have further ramifications for crop production, agricultural livelihoods, and food security. Already, the quality and sourcing of fertilizers are issues of primary concern to farmers. Additionally, the eligibility criteria to be used in allocating these inputs are also unclear, particularly for farmers who have resorted to small-scale or subsistence agriculture and are not registered with the Government. Such individuals may be forced to resort to black market inputs if they are ineligible for Government-supplied rations.

5. U.S. military offers conflicting views of ISIS resurgence following Peace Spring

Northeast Syria: On 5 February, the U.S. Department of Defense published a lead inspector general report offering conflicting assessments of the current threat posed by ISIS in eastern Syria. Citing U.S. military sources, the report noted that the Turkish military incursion in northeast Syria in October — which prompted the U.S. to suspend anti-ISIS operations —  “did not result in any significant ISIS resurgence or increase in its capabilities in northeastern Syria.” In contrast, however, the report cited an assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency that noted that the number of attacks claimed by ISIS online had increased by 20 percent month-over-month following the incursion.

ISIS down but not out

Justifiably, the international Syria response has been fixated on the possibility that a security vacuum in eastern Syria will furnish still-active ISIS sleeper cells with the space needed to carry out more complex, widespread, and deadly attacks. To date, however, such a resurgence has not been observed on any large scale. Indeed, the inspector general report notes that the presence of other actors — including the Government of Syria, armed opposition groups, Turkish troops, and Russian forces — has prevented a security vacuum from opening in eastern Syria. ISIS in Syria is down, but surely not out. The return of a cohesive territorial entity in Syria is improbable, as long as international coalition forces or other military factions retain a presence. In the meantime, as the inspector general report notes, the most pressing threat posed by the group is toward Government of Syria forces, the SDF, local administrative authorities, and civilians.

6. IDP families to be evicted by Self Administration on HLP claims

Tweineh, Al-Hasakeh governorate Local sources report that the Self Administration–affiliated municipality in Tweineh, Al-Hasakeh governorate has requested that approximately 75 IDP households vacate their homes within a week. As a result, an estimated 300 individuals are at risk of being made homeless. According to these unverified reports, the Self Administration has claimed that the land on which these houses were built is in the public trust and some of the structures violate local ordinances because they are built on top of water and sewage networks and telecommunications cables. According to these sources, the affected individuals purchased land and acquired construction licenses four years ago, following their displacement from Deir-ez-Zor governorate, but their paperwork has reportedly not been recognized by the Self Administration.

HLP concerns

In northeast Syria, a HLP chief concern is the construction of new homes, which is complicated by a number of specific local conditions that may differ from those in Government-held areas. In many communities, access to the local real estate and construction sectors has been difficult for all but the most influential traders and businessmen linked to the Self Administration itself. Adding to baseline concerns, arcane and costly permitting procedures enacted via local municipalities have stood in the way of green-lighting construction for much-needed housing. These conditions are especially challenging for IDPs, whose access has been constrained by security-forward policies, such as the need for them to secure local guarantors in order to sign rental contracts. Notably, Tweineh has witnessed multiple waves of IDP arrivals throughout the conflict, the most recent of which came as a result of Operation Peace Spring (see: Syria Update 20-26 November 2019).

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.

The eleventh hour for Idleb, Syria’s last rebel bastion

What Does it Say? The current offensive in Idleb may result in the worst humanitarian crisis that Syria has witnessed to date, with the Government of Syria — along with Russian air support — succeeding in capturing densely populated areas in southern Idleb.

Reading Between the Lines: The ongoing offensive in Idleb has greatly increased the tensions between Turkey, on the one hand, and the Government of Syria and Russia, on the other, creating a real risk of a devastating confrontation that would exponentially worsen the humanitarian situation.

Source: International Crisis Group

Language: English

Date: 6 February 2020

What America can learn from its mistakes in Syria

What Does it Say? From 2014 onward, the U.S. campaign against ISIS prioritized short-term goals at the expense of long-term development and diplomatic objectives that will be necessary to address the root causes of extremism.

Reading Between the Lines: Partnering with the SDF damaged relations between the U.S. and Turkey, creating a feedback loop in which the U.S. assuaged Turkey by short-changing its own long-term approach and undermining governance in northeast Syria.

Source: War On The Rocks

Language: English

Date: 3 February 2020

Germany pledges 25 million euros to Turkey for brick houses in Idleb

What Does it Say? Germany has pledged to provide the Turkish Red Crescent with 25 million euros to shelter Syrians displaced in northwest Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Turkey has played the refugee card to full effect, and it continues to use the threat of refugee inflows to Europe as a source of leverage for its conflict aims in Syria.

Source: Hurriyet Daily News

Language: English

Date: 5 February 2020

Has the opposition disrupted the navigation systems of the Syrian regime’s planes?

What Does it Say? Government of Syria helicopters bound for the Idleb and Aleppo have been forced to return to their airbases due to interference with navigation systems.

Reading Between the Lines: Opposition forces have repeatedly sought out new means of disrupting aerial bombardment by the the Government of Syria; while such technologies will do nothing to change the tide of the conflict or the offensive in Idleb, they may give civilian populations needed breathing room.

Source: Al Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 3 February 2020

Who is the Islamic State’s new leader?

What Does it Say? Following the killing of ISIS lead Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on 26 October, the group crowned its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, a relatively unknown figure.

Reading Between the Lines: Inconsistent U.S. actions in Syria and Iraq have hindered efforts to decisively end ISIS’s capacity. Worse, ceding control of the conflict to Turkey, Russia, and the Government of Syria has privileged their agendas — none of which prioritize the defeat of ISIS.

Source: The Soufan Center

Language: English

Date: 5 February 2020

Iranian company announces its willingness to build Syrian cities in 3 years

What Does it Say? The head of the Iranian delegation to the Government of Syria expressed Iran’s willingness to support Syria economically, promising that it is capable of building Syrian cities within three years.

Reading Between the Lines: Promises of such ambitious projects have been par for the course from Iran, which has thus far failed to back its words with actions, due to economic plight and the effects of deep sanctions.

Source: Halab Today

Language: Arabic

Date: 2 February 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 3 February 2020

Syria Update

3 February 2020
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Government Takes Ma’arrat An Nu’man; Resistance Stiffens

In Depth Analysis

On 29 January, Government of Syria forces backed by Russia captured the strategically and symbolically significant community of Ma’arrat An Nu’man, which was almost entirely depopulated as civilians fled northward in massive convoys. According to the UN and implementing partners, since the beginning of December, 586,000 individuals have been displaced by the Government of Syria’s military offensive, predominantly into northern Idleb governorate. In terms of immediate impact, the capture of Ma’arrat An Nu’man restores Government of Syria control over an important waypoint along the M5 highway; looking ahead, all signs now indicate that the Government’s military offensive aims to continue along multiple axes, even as stiff resistance from Turkish forces and Turkish-backed armed opposition groups mounts. Two questions are now critical: What will become of individuals displaced by the offensive? And how far will the Government of Syria’s military advance reach?

IDPs: residents and irreconcilables
Local sources indicate that nearly the entire civilian population of Ma’arrat An Nu’man was displaced by the Government’s military offensive; in the face of intense bombardment, a majority of the populations of Ariha and Saraqeb have also displaced northwards toward Idleb, Maaret Tamsrin, Dana, and Atareb subdistricts. In general, the waves of IDPs now fleeing frontline communities fall into two camps, and will face differing problem sets concerning return and long-term displacement. These two groups are: local resident populations and the serially displaced who have evacuated to northwest Syria throughout the conflict.

Syria Update 3 February 2020_Page_1
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A considerable proportion of local resident populations displaced by the ongoing offensive are likely to return to their home communities in Idleb — eventually. Throughout the conflict, displacement from communities captured by the Government of Syria (most notably in southern Syria) has frequently been elastic, defying the expectations of many analysts, who have consistently underestimated the scale of return to conflict-affected communities. In practical terms, the populations of communities such as Ma’arrat An Nu’man and Saraqeb have spent years actively resisting Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham rule, yet this resistance does not necessarily mean that they will be unwilling to accept the reality of Government of Syria control. In such communities, return decisions will be shaped by local shelter conditions and destruction levels, as well as service provision, mobility, and the possibility of individual reconciliation. On balance, these conditions are daunting, but the alternatives are also grim: camps are overcrowded, and rental properties are scarce and overpriced.

For many others displaced by the offensive, however, return will likely remain impossible for the foreseeable future. Many of these IDPs evacuated to Idleb — forcibly or voluntarily — as a result of reconciliation negotiations elsewhere in Syria. As such, large numbers of these IDPs have already been refused reconciliation by the Government, and there is no clear path toward their return to Government-held communities. These conditions suggest that considerable portions of the IDP population in northwest Syria will be caught in limbo inside a shrinking pocket of opposition-controlled territory.

Ma’arrat An Nu’man was almost entirely depopulated during its capture by the Government of Syria. Image courtesy of Al-Jazeera.

Next stop: Saraqeb
How the Government of Syria will deal with these ‘irreconcilable’ populations will, in part, dictate the course of the military offensive in Idleb. The writing is on the wall: the Government has prioritized efforts to retake control of the M4 and M5, with Saraqeb, Ahira, and western rural Aleppo standing as key focal points of these efforts. These vital transit corridors are the most important economic interest in northwest Syria; however, putting aside the Government’s declared intention to restore control over all of Syria, for Damascus there is little near-term benefit to recapturing areas north of the M4 and M5. Doing so would force a reckoning with the many Syrians whom the Government has deemed ‘irreconcilable’. No mechanism for re-integrating such individuals exists — or is likely to be created any time soon. Economically, recapturing northern Idleb is equally low-priority. The area has no major resources of interest to the Government of Syria in the near term, while the reintroduction of the large populations sheltering there would strain the Government’s already overburdened service networks.

Whatever the limits of its objectives, for the Government, achieving these objectives will be no simple task. In the immediate term, armed opposition groups and Turkish forces have mounted increasingly stiff resistance to further advances by the Government of Syria. As of 3 February, media reports indicate that considerable Turkish military reinforcements have been deployed to frontlines, and four Turkish observation posts have reportedly been erected around Saraqeb, to repel further advances by Government forces. Early reports also indicate that multiple Turkish soldiers have been killed in rare direct exchanges between Turkish and Government of Syria forces. Moreover, local sources report that fighters belonging to armed opposition factions that were previously defeated, disbanded, or expelled to Euphrates Shield areas by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham are now returning to western rural Aleppo governorate, apparently in a bid to resist Government advances along the M4 (see: Syria Update 10-16 January 2019). In northwest Syria in particular, unified operations rooms and purpose-formed military alliances have repeatedly faltered, but there is a pervasive sense that armed opposition factions are now treating their efforts to prevent Government forces from clawing back control as a last stand.

Whole of Syria Review

05_Syria Update_MapWeb

1. Government cracks down on cash sales of cars and homes

Damascus: On 22 January, Syrian media sources close to the state reported that, beginning on 15 February, the Government of Syria will require that all real estate and automobile purchases be conducted through the formal banking sector — effectively outlawing cash sales. Homes and vehicles purchased outside the formal system will reportedly not be eligible for registration with authorities. The deputy governor of the Central Bank of Syria, Muhammad Hamra, stated that the objective of the decree is “to spread banking culture among citizens, and to encourage the opening of bank accounts in order to create the appropriate environment for the launch of the electronic payment project this year”. Notably, the decree follows in the wake of Legislative Decree No. 3, which imposes substantial punishments for the use of foreign currency in commercial transactions (see: Syria Update 27 January).

Confidence in the economy is shot

This banking requirement is a further initiative to bring greater oversight of Syria’s economy to central authorities who are looking to build confidence in Syria’s wobbly financial sector and to slow the state’s economic collapse. However, like a raft of recent Government initiatives to rein in inflation and control the money supply, the measure will fuel parallel markets. The Government’s assurances that the measure will not trigger greater tax liabilities are dubious, and as a result, it remains probable that deals will continue to be paid out, at least in part, under the table. To date, many Syrians do not have bank accounts, and Syria’s commercial banking sector is small and badly in need of reform, but the Government faces an uphill battle as it looks to build confidence amid the current collapse. Indeed, the Commercial Bank of Syria has been forced to apologize to would-be depositors over its inability to open new bank accounts, thus thwarting hopes of rapidly putting the decree into practice on a wide scale.

2. Wheat tenders canceled, financing suspected

Various Locations: On 29 January, media sources reported that Syria had cancelled two tenders for 350,000 tons of soft wheat from Russia, valued at a combined 1.9 million euros, because the Syrian Grain Establishment was unable to finance the imports. This is not the first such cancelation. In 2019, the Syrian Grain Establishment issued numerous wheat tenders to compensate for a shortage of local production, and several of these were cancelled and reissued. Notably, the majority of successful wheat contracts have allegedly been executed by high-profile businessmen with close ties to the Government of Syria, to include Samer Foz and Tarif Al-Akhras, who have relied on Russian wheat imported through companies based in Lebanon. Meanwhile, on 17 December, Russian Deputy Minister Tury Borisov announced that Moscow would supply 100,000 tons of wheat as humanitarian aid at the beginning of 2020, making no mention of the wheat tender.

Flour power 

Despite widespread hopes that an expected bumper wheat crop in 2019 would blunt Syria’s need for imports, this need remains considerable. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization, local output falls 2.2 million tons short of meeting demand, due to low production levels and the spread of yellow rust disease. With ‘wheat diplomacy’ as one pillar of its strategy to build influence across the Middle East, Russia has been eager to fill the gap. Syria now lies at the center of this strategy; a $500 million rehabilitation and expansion is intended to make Tartous port the hub of this regional wheat network.

To date, no official statements have been issued to explain the cancelation of the wheat deal; however, a similar cancelation in November 2019 was attributed to mounting Western sanctions. As we have written about at length (see: Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s upheaval on Syria), Syria’s economic woes have been aggravated by Lebanon’s slowly unfolding economic crisis, which has — along with Syria’s own foreign reserve shortage — prevented Syrian traders from financing imports. Already, the slumping value of the Syrian pound has driven inflation not only for imported goods, such as industrial gas, but necessities, such as wheat and flour. As a result, in various locations across northwest Syria, bread prices are now pegged to either the dollar or the Turkish lira — sparing bakers from the immediate effects of instability, but passing rising costs onto consumers (see: Syria Update 27 January 2020). Should Syria struggle to meet its wheat needs, the resulting shortages will push the prices of staples like bread even higher.

3. U.S. looks to redraw influence map in eastern Syria

Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 25 January, media sources reported details of two separate meetings conducted by U.S. President Donald Trump with Iraqi President Barham Salih and KRG President Nechirvan Barzani in Davos, Switzerland. At issue in both meetings was U.S.-Iraqi military partnership with impact on Syria — specifically, anti-ISIS efforts. Among the topics reportedly discussed were U.S.-Iraqi military cooperation along the Syria-Iraq border, in the vicinity of Syrian oil fields; the presence of international coalition forces in the region; and the U.S. military outpost at Al-Tanf, along the Damascus-Baghdad highway. Notably, these discussions reportedly included efforts to prevent Russian forces from accessing a long strip of the Syria-Iraq border extending from the Fish Khabour border crossing, in northeastern Al-Hasakeh governorate, to Abu Kamal, on the Euphrates River in southern Deir-ez-Zor governorate.

Lines in the sand 

With the prospect of a full U.S. military withdrawal from Syria now seemingly off the table, the U.S. is keen to redraw a more favorable map in eastern Syria. At core, this need is driven by continuing anti-ISIS operations and — on a larger scale — region-wide efforts to contain Iran’s presence in Syria and curb its influence throughout the Levant and the wider Middle East.  Nonetheless, for U.S. forces, the most contentious issue at play in eastern Syria is the possibility of confrontations with Russia — not Iran. Low-level confrontations between U.S. and Russian forces have been recurrent in eastern Syria in recent months, at least in part due to the fluidity of security conditions and the nebulous state of zones of influence in the wake of Operation Peace Spring, which created the space for Russian forces to create a strong presence in eastern Syria. Local sources deny media reports that ‘skirmishes’ took place between Russian and U.S. forces on the outskirts of Tal Tamr in recent days; moreover, it is unclear if U.S. maneuvers to block access to Russian forces near Kharita, southeast of Tal Tamr, are related to Russian intentions to establish a new military outpost. Looking ahead, such low-level confrontations are likely to continue as zones of influence are negotiated.

4. New fronts for war-connected businessmen: Europe and Turkey

Various Locations: On 15 January, media sources reported that Mohieddine Al-Minfoush, a prominent businessman with close ties to the Syrian regime, had recently opened several businesses outside Syria, to include two trading companies in Hungary and Slovakia and a dairy processing plant in Turkey. Notably, the recent opening ceremony of Manfoush’s dairy factory was reportedly attended by a member of the Turkish government, and as far back as early 2019, Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli voiced his hopes for Manfoush’s diary factory on Twitter, stating that “the factory will contribute in supporting Turkey’s economy.”

Business beyond borders

Al-Minfoush is one of the most prominent war profiteers in the Syria conflict. By leveraging connections to elite businessmen Rami Makhlouf and Mohamed Hamsho, Al-Minfoush was able to gain a monopoly on crossline trade into besieged Eastern Ghouta. As a result, the businessman converted a modest fortune earned through his family’s dairy business into a formidable commercial empire, which now encompasses rubble collection in Eastern Ghouta (see: Beyond Checkpoints: Local Economic Gaps and the Political ​Economy of Syria’s Business Community​). The latest openings suggest the ways in which Syrian businessmen who rose to prominence through networks of influence and outright war profiteering will reach beyond Syria’s borders.

Notably, these opportunities will not be limited to elite businessmen. Local sources indicate that a former commander of Jaysh Al-Islam has also recently opened two malls (in Instanbul and Antakya) and a shawarma shop (in Fatih) in Turkey. Like the Syrian fighters who are now finding their way to north Africa to support Turkey’s regional military and economic aspirations (see: Syria Update 20 January), the influence of Syria’s war-time businessmen will not be limited to Syria alone.

5. Self Administration-Euphrates Shield crossing opens — briefly

Menbij, Aleppo governorat: On 28 January, media sources reported that the Um Jaloud crossing, west of Menbij city, which links nominally SDF-controlled northeast Syria to Euphrates Shield areas, had opened. However, local sources indicate that the Menbij Military Council shuttered the crossing the following day. Among local sources, various explanations for the opening (and closure) are circulating. Some sources suggest that the crossing was opened specifically to allow tanker trucks carrying refined oil products to cross into SDF-held territory, thus alleviating crossline transit issues that have persisted since the onset of Operation Peace of Spring. Other local sources suggest that disputes over tariffs between the SDF and Turkey-backed armed groups led to the closure of the crossing to commercial traffic.

Local markets feel impact of Peace Spring 

Commercially, northeast Syria continues to feel the lasting impact of Operation Peace Spring. Key crossings with Euphrates Shield areas — to include Um Jaloud and Al-Aoun — remain intermittently closed. Given eastern Syria’s reliance on Turkish manufactures, these closures have wide-reaching impact on local markets. Looking ahead, SDF-controlled areas will remain reliant upon Turkish imports; in the long term — so long as security conditions remain favorable and zones of control are static — the trade barriers between Euphrates Shield areas and eastern Syria are likely to fall, albeit with the continuing possibility of intermittent and repeated closures as disputes flare up.

Nonetheless, a further factor reshaping the flow of goods in eastern Syria is less amenable to negotiated resolution: the presence of Government of Syria troops. Local sources report that commercial transporters are now resorting to alternate routes to avoid traveling along the M4 highway, thus bypassing checkpoints — and associated fees — manned by Government of Syria forces, who crossed the Euphrates River and established a solid presence in eastern Syria following the 22 October military agreement between the SDF and Damascus. Unlike crossline trade with Euphrates Shield areas, the Self Administration has little real leverage over such Government forces, whose presence is now unlikely to be rolled back.

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.

After Russia, China veto, UN says medical aid for Syria stuck in Iraq

What Does it Say? Medical convoys are now struck in Iraq following changes to the UN’s cross-border resolution, 2165, which was modified in January to prevent agency convoys from entering Syria through Iraq.

Reading Between the Lines: To date, northeast Syria has been reliant on medical aid delivered from Iraq; the modifications to the cross-border resolution now leave the Self Administration with little choice but to turn to the Government of Syria for this aid.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Language: English

Date: 29 January 2020

Khamis two years ago: Increasing teacher salaries is a priority … Teachers: Where is the increase?

What Does it Say? Teachers continue to wait for a salary increase of 25-30 percent, which was promised by the Teachers Syndicate “soon” — in August 2018.

Reading Between the Lines: With increasing inflation and the collapse of the Syrian pound, teachers’ need for a pay bump grows, yet the likelihood the Government can fund such a pay raise continues to shrink.

Source: Snack Syrian

Language: Arabic

Date: 20 January 2020

Religious speech has a responsibility to push Syrian society towards rapprochement

What Does it Say? The writer argues that preachers should profess the similarities between religious sects and promote peaceful coexistence in Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: The Government of Syria has actively sought to co-opt preachers and promote a distinctly Syrian version of Sunni Islam that serves its own objectives by confronting the anti-Government bent of the nation’s more conservative Sunni populations. Such efforts will likely intensify over time.

Source: North Press Agency

Language: Arabic

Date: 26 January 2020

Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria

What Does it Say? Mark Lowcock, the under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, called for a ceasefire in northwest Syria. 

Reading Between the Lines: Such statements have little real impact, given the predominance of the Astana powers.

Source: UN-OCHA

Language: English

Date: 29 January 2020

Insights into Syrian refugees’ perception on recent government decisions

What Does it Say? The majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unaware of the state’s decisions regarding refugees in the country. Large portions of the refugees surveyed lacked accurate information concerning deportations, legal procedures, and selection processes.

Reading Between the Lines: This knowledge gap exacerbates the vulnerability of Syrian refugees, increasing the likelihood that they will miss out on important entitlements and aid.

Source: Danish Refugee Council

Language: English

Date: 27 January 2020

A Syrian crime in five food items: Syrians are trapped by the circle of influence and narrow trade

What Does it Say? The prices of basic food commodities have risen exponentially due to the high cost of imports needed to sustain production. 

Reading Between the Lines: The collapse of the Syrian pound has fueled a rise in food prices, which has only been exaggerated by the Government’s attempts to rein in inflation.

Source: Kassioun

Language: Arabic

Date: 20 January 2020

Russia’s UN Envoy Blasts ‘Deal of the Century’ Map Which Shows Golan Heights as Part of Israel

What Does it Say? The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vaily Nebenzya, condemned the Israel-Palestine “Deal of the Century” proposed by the Trump administration. Notably, the plan included the annexation of the Golan Heights by Israel. Russia stated that the annexation of the Golan Heights is against international law and it rejects such a plan.

Reading Between the Lines: Russia’s rejection of the annexation of the Golan Heights is remarkable, due to its own actions in Crimea, yet it is clear that the so-called “Deal of the Century” will have little immediate impact on the Syria conflict, for which the status of the Golan Heights is of middling significance.

Source: Sputnik International

Language: English

Date: 30 January 2020

Suleiman Shto: ENKS association with the Turkish state impedes unity

What Does it Say? Rapprochement between the PYD-dominated Self Administration and the minority Kurdish National Council have faltered, reportedly because the KNC has wavered over the arrangement.

Reading Between the Lines: Unity among Kurdish factions would strengthen their position overall, yet for the KNC, the gains offered by the proposition are not immediately clear: a union with the Self Administration would sacrifice the leverage gained through membership in the Turkey-backed opposition.

Source: Hawar News

Language: Arabic

Date: 31 January 2020

SDF commander says Kurds ready for dialogue if Ankara is sincere

What Does it Say? In a wide-ranging interview, Mazloum Kobane stated that Turkey will not be capable of making peace with Damascus due to Ankara’s continued support for the opposition. 

Reading Between the Lines: There is little new or revealing in the Kobane’s statements, yet it bears note that among conflict actors, the SDF and the Self Administration remain uniquely placed to negotiate a reintegration with the Government of Syria.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 23 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.