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.1

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.