Syria Update

17 February 2020
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Turkey and Russia at loggerheads in Idleb: Sochi agreement now at stake

In Depth Analysis

The worst displacement crisis of the Syria conflict continues to grow as the Government of Syria’s military assault in northwest Syria carries on unabated. On 12 February, UN and local implementing partners reported that the offensive has displaced 832,000 people since 1 December, which has “overwhelmed” the international humanitarian response. Potentially, the number of those displaced is already significantly larger, and it is likely to continue growing unless Turkey and Russia — which supports the Syrian Government — reach an agreement to veer away from the brinkmanship in northwest Syria. Crucially, the displacement crisis is viewed by Turkey as an urgent national security threat developing along its southern border. In response, Turkey has sought to impose significantly higher costs on Government advances. In addition to deploying thousands of Turkish troops to Idleb, armed opposition groups backed by Turkey have reportedly received advanced surface-to-air missiles, and in recent days, two Government helicopters have been downed. On 15 February, Turkish President Recep Tayeb Erdogan reiterated his threat that Turkey will carry out a full-fledged military campaign in Idleb if Government forces do not withdraw to pre-offensive frontlines. As of writing however, direct talks between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have failed to yield an agreement to break the impasse.

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Sochi take two

At the heart of negotiations between Turkey and Russia is the Sochi agreement. When facing similar circumstances in September 2018, Russia and Turkey (with buy-in from Iran) crafted the Sochi agreement to prevent a widely anticipated military offensive by the Government in northwest Syria. Most notably, the deal called for the restoration of access to the M4 and M5 highways, the creation of a demilitarized buffer zone at frontlines between the armed opposition and the Government, and joint Russian-Turkish patrols. However, the agreement has proven both impossible to implement and unsatisfactory to all parties concerned, at least in part due to the continued dominance of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in northwestern Syria.

Now, Turkey remains adamant that frontlines established by Sochi must be restored. For the parties to return to the Sochi framework, Russia will be forced to step up and throw considerable weight behind the deal. To that end, Turkey has built up considerable leverage to win concessions from Russia. The U.S. has been increasingly vocal in its support for Turkey’s stated ambition to push back in Idleb, and U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey has reportedly urged Turkey to “go all in” against Government of Syria forces and their Russian backers there. Additionally, unconfirmed reports have circulated that the U.S. has contemplated delisting Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham as a terrorist entity — potentially as a result of a formal dissolution of the group in an effort to cast out its ‘radical’ elements. This rumor remains speculative but, such reorganizations do have precedent. If true, such a measure would allow Turkey to provide direct support to the core fighters of one of the most experienced and best-organized armed groups active in Syria — a powerful card to play against Russia and the Government of Syria. As the pressure to reach a new understanding of the Sochi agreement mounts, Turkey is expected to advocate measures to relieve the pressure brought on by displacement, and will likely press Russia to use its own forces to secure areas recently captured by the Government of Syria. Such a measure would open the door to joint Russian-Turkish patrols, as specified at Sochi, but it would require Government forces to withdraw from frontlines to create a buffer area. If Turkey gets its way, the Sochi deal may yet provide a template for de-escalation in northwest Syria.

If not Sochi, what next?

However, if Turkey and Russia fail to negotiate a framework to implement Sochi, the Government of Syria is likely to continue its military campaign. For the moment, shelling and aerial bombardment are concentrated in areas immediately west of Aleppo city, where a pocket of opposition-held territory is in danger of being encircled if Government forces are able to advance southward from Nubul and Zahra. Looking further ahead, subsequent phases of the campaign are likely to continue in one of two directions.

First, the Government of Syria is likely to continue to prioritize efforts to reclaim the M4. In the process, Government forces may advance westward from recently captured Saraqeb (see: Syria Update 10 February), to link up important M4 communities Ariha and Jish Ash-Shughur — and, potentially, Idleb city. The effort would claw back the last sections of Syria’s most important coastal roads that remain outside Government control, but in the process it would force further large-scale displacement northward.

Second, the Government of Syria may seek to drive a wedge between opposition-held northern Idleb and Euphrates Shield areas. If Government forces in western rural Aleppo were to capture the vital Bab Al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, opposition-held Idleb would become perilously isolated, and would be left encircled on three sides. Such an outcome would significantly weaken the armed opposition, end cross-line mobility with Euphrates Shield areas, and maroon remaining opposition forces and large populations of displaced civilians in a highly embattled pocket. Such a scenario entails considerable risk, however. Turkey would not likely countenance the loss of valuable buffer zones between its own territory and areas held by the Government of Syria without funneling strong support to armed opposition groups in an effort to resist the loss.

Ultimately, the Government of Syria has already reaped massive rewards from its northwest offensive. On 15 February, Syrian state media reported that barriers along the M5 — the most crucial transit artery in Syria — are being removed in recently recaptured areas south of Aleppo city. Restoring access along the road has long been among the Government’s foremost objectives in the conflict. It is a reminder that even if a new framework is created to relieve the acute suffering in northwest Syria, the past months have witnessed dramatic changes in the conflict that will be difficult — if not impossible — for Turkey, and armed opposition groups it supports, to undo.

Whole of Syria Review

07_Syria Update_Map

1. Russia to broker Self Administration–Damascus negotiations

Damascus: On 10 February, Ilham Ahmed, the chairperson of the executive body of the Syrian Democractic Council (SDC), stated that the Government of Russia is willing to mediate negotiations between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria. The statement followed consecutive meetings conducted by the SDC at Hmeimem airbase and in Damascus, where SDC representatives reportedly met with the head of the Government of Syria’s National Security Office, Ali Mamlouk, and a Russian envoy. Ahmed stated that the meetings centered around frameworks for negotiations, rather than substantive matters such as resource wealth distribution or the integration of SDF and Government of Syria military apparatuses. Notably, local sources indicated that Russian officials had called for the meeting with the SDC in a bid to more effectively de-conflict with U.S. forces in northeast Syria, and only belatedly informed the delegation of Russia’s willingness to mediate negotiations between the SDC and Damascus.

Between a rock and a hard place

Russia is widely viewed as the most plausible mediator between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria, especially in the wake of the 22 October Russian-Turkish agreement that granted wider scope for Russia’s military presence in northeast Syria (see: Syria Update 16-22 October 2019). Negotiating frameworks have been in circulation since the beginning of the year, yet the Self Administration’s bid for limited autonomy and a cut of local hydrocarbon output are likely nonstarters for Damascus. In the interim, the Self Administration appears to be positioning itself as a viable partner, while also broadcasting its ability to play a spoiler role. In January, a high-ranking Self Administration figure sought Russian support in Moscow, while rumors that the SDF will cooperate with Government forces as the fighting intensifies in northwest Syria may also offer a means of building goodwill with Damascus to repel a common foe: Turkey. However, Ilham Ahmed has also vocalized the SDC’s intention to participate in the Cairo Conference on 3 March, opening a potential pathway to join the ranks of the opposition bloc in the constitutional process in Geneva.

This strategy is not without risk. By flirting with the opposition bloc in Geneva, the Kurdish polity risks losing out twice: first by burning bridges with Damascus and secondarily by joining a bloc that faces long odds in the constitutional reform process. Although the inclusion of northeast Syria on the opposition list would throw considerable military might and resource wealth behind the bloc, the SDC has not yet been welcomed by the opposition, which is, on the whole, strongly influenced by Turkey. Finally, the apparent intention of U.S. forces to retain control over key oil resources and border areas in eastern Syrian may well thwart the SDC’s ability to carry out any conciliatory promises it now makes (see: Syria Update 3 February).

2. U.S. forces kill Tay tribesman in roadblock clash

Kherbet Amu, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 12 February, U.S. forces killed a Syrian NDF combatant belonging to the Tay tribe during clashes that broke after local civilians blocked the road to prevent a U.S. military patrol from passing through Kherbet Amu, east of Quamishli. Local and media sources indicated that a group of more than a dozen Syrian civilians blocked the road as the U.S. military patrol passed, pelting the vehicles with stones. Eventually, the confrontation broke down into an exchange of fire, with U.S. forces killing one local NDF fighter. According to local sources, the clashes were put to an end by Russian police.

Fight or flight?

Though small in scale, the clash is an important reminder that the presence of U.S. and international coalition forces in eastern Syria — and the access they guarantee for the humanitarian and developmental response — will likely face future challenges as zones of influence are established and contested. To date, there are no indications that the incident was carried out at the urging of the Tay tribe or NDF leadership. However, the tribe is noted for its closeness to the Government of Syria and its staunch opposition to the Self Administration. Given the muted response on the part of these parties, the attack is unlikely to signal a step-change in hostility toward international actors in eastern Syria. However, the highly public killing of a Tay member does add fuel to the flames that have already been stoked by underlying tensions, not least because customary tribal law calls for redress through blood money (unlikely) or a revenge killing (a distinct possibility).

3. In answer to Turkey, Russia recruits Syrians for Libya war

Duma, Rural Damascus governorate: On 12 February, local media sources reported that Russia had recruited and deployed 25 Syrian combatants to fight in Libya in the first week of February. Reportedly, Russian officers have undertaken campaigns to recruit Syrian fighters in both Duma and central Syria. Recruits are reportedly furnished with “Friends of Russia” ID cards, offered an amnesty from military and reserve service, and paid between 800 and 1,000 USD per month.

With protracted conflict, Syria is a regional proving ground

The nascent recruitment campaign is a response to similar recruitment undertaken by Turkey beginning in late 2019 (see: Syria Update 6 January). Both Russia and Turkey are seeking to shore up their local partners in Libya, where the Government of National Accord has halted advances made by the Russia-backed forces of Khalifa Hifter, largely as a result of the increasing support in fighters and military hardware from Turkey. The Syria conflict has long been a staging ground for regional power competition; as the Syria conflict winds down, the fighters and military relationships that have been incubated in Syria are likely to move outward to other regional contexts. Indeed, military actors and business interests deeply connected to wartime Syria are increasingly using the Syria conflict as a launchpad to expand their influence in neighboring states and throughout the wider region (see: Syria Update 3 February).

4. Central Bank lists new strategic imports, rates for remittances

Damascus: On 6 February, the Central Bank of Syria published a decision designed to open the flow of remittances into Syria and to ease the import of strategic goods. The order specifies that remittances transferred via Western Union will be converted at a ‘preferential’ rate of 700 Syrian pounds to the dollar, against the current official exchange rate of 434 pounds to the dollar. Additionally, the Central Bank has also expanded a two-tiered list of 41 goods slated for supports that function as import subsidies. As such, Syrian commercial banks will be allowed to sell U.S. dollars at the ‘official’ rate of 434 pounds to the dollars for goods including rice, sugar, and milk, and at a rate of 700 pounds to the dollar, for a list of second-tier goods.

Economy remains vulnerable

Import regulations and harsh crackdowns on currency exchanges have characterized the Government of Syria’s attempts to deal with the liquidity crisis in Syria. Notably, in October, the Central Bank further trimmed the list of prioritized imports that banks are permitted to fund at preferential rates, removing from the list almost all items apart from medicine and food commodities. Now, likely as a response to growing needs, the Government has expanded this list and will allow traders to purchase dollars at rates that beat the black market. As a result, the prices of these select imports can be expected to stabilize. However, consumers’ purchasing power has been severely dented by the collapse of the pound, and parallel market rates will continue to affect the prices of unsubsidized imports.

5. Iran: No credit line for Syria residential reconstruction

Damascus: On 9 February, Russian media reported that the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Urban Construction had denied that it intends to finance the construction of housing units in Syria as part of a broader reconstruction plan. Iranian Deputy Minister of Roads Mahmoud Mahmoudzada stated in an interview that “the Iranian government will have no investment role, or allocate any credit line to Syria towards building housing units.” Zada stated that Iran’s role in this respect would be limited to efforts to facilitate private sector support, which will be paid for by the Syrian side.

Deal or no deal

Mahmoudzada attributed the Iranian state’s inability to support Syria directly to two main factors: the constraints placed upon Iran’s economy, and the pressures exerted on the Iranian government by popular demonstrations, which have singled out Iran’s ambitious regional agenda as a driver of fiscal shortcomings domestically. These justifications can be taken at face value. In large part, Iran has been incapable of making good on its promises of direct support and technical cooperation with Syria, including a 2 billion USD housing project and rehabilitation of electrical infrastructure. Instead, Mahmoudzada’s statements are further evidence that Iran’s cooperation with Syria may necessarily come in the form of business-to-business cooperation and private investment, with a more limited role for the Iranian state itself.

6. Northeast transit drivers strike over fuel costs, transit fares

Quamishli, Al-Hasakeh governorate: Local sources report that a group of public transit drivers has carried out a two-day strike in Quamishli to protest a recent order by the Self Administration’s Directorate of Transportation that set the transportation fee at 600 SYP per person, and stipulated penalties for those charging different fees. The drivers demanded that the Self Administration implement the 700 SYP fare advocated by the Syndicate of Drivers, which, they say, is a more accurate reflection of gasoline prices and other maintenance expenses they incur. In response, the Directorate of Transportation stated that its price was set in accordance with fuel costs.

Civil society questions at the fore

The tug-of-war over affordable transit offers a notable window onto local civic action in the Self Administration and in Syria more generally. The viability, independence, and effectiveness of local civil society initiatives, to include labor activism, are subjects of deep relevance for the international Syria response (see: Function Over Form: Rethinking Civil Society in Government-held areas). Not only do the answers to these questions reflect on the impact of past programming designed to empower civil society, they also cast light on the opportunities that remain for future interventions. Local sources indicate that entities commonly referred to as syndicates or unions are predominantly unorganized, ad-hoc bodies formed to carry out spontaneous collective action. In the future, response actors wishing to continue to ‘empower’ civil society will have to find ways to support such actors, with an awareness that direct partnership and overt financial support are often not possible — or desirable.

For drivers, no easy answers

Local sources indicate that — true to form — the Self Administration’s Directorate of Transportation has promised to create a committee to study transit pricing. No doubt drivers in northeast Syria have been impacted by high gasoline prices, shortages of quality spare parts, and other maintenance expenses, in addition to the shortage of fuels and the dire economic conditions that are now pervasive concerns nationwide. Balancing the need to keep transit affordable and drivers satisfied will not be easy.

7. Syrian Democratic Council turns over Deir-ez-Zor oil field to local contractor

Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 9 February unconfirmed local media reports indicated that the Self Administration had turned over management of oil wells in Al-Humadi oil field, in rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate, to a well-connected local contractor. Local sources indicate that the contractor controls several oil refineries in the area and is deeply connected to the area’s resource economy. Notably, this contractor is said to have played a prominent role in the oil trade during the period of ISIS control over Deir-ez-Zor governorate, and is a distant relative of the deputy head of Deir-ez-Zor Military Council. Reportedly, the contractor is expected to pay the Self Administration 5,000 USD per day for the exploitation of Al-Humadi oil field, against reported production of 1,000 bpd — or 25,000 USD, at expected rates.

All politics is local

Since late 2017, tensions within the Self Administration have persisted over the distribution of resource wealth, in particular in oil-rich, predominantly Arab regions of southeastern rural Deir-ez-Zor. The Self Administration has gone to great lengths to smooth over tensions in such communities. The release of detainees, targeted interventions in local fuel markets, relaxed restrictions on personal mobility, and oil revenue–sharing agreements have been hallmarks of this strategy (see: Syria Update 25 April-8 May 2019). However, the more fragile the Self Administration has become, the more considerable its concessions have been. Such sweetheart deals have only furthered the widely held perception of the Deir-ez-Zor Military Council as corrupt and unrepresentative. Ultimately, these conditions leave the sustainability of the Self Administration’s strategy in doubt. The result will likely leave local actors who are left out in the cold more emboldened to seek the support of other conflict actors, including the Government of Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

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 People’s Assembly’ is studying an app for passenger transportation

What Does it Say? The Government of Syria’s Ministry of Transport submitted a proposal to the People’s Assembly for the creation of an app that would allow medium-sized cars to be registered as specialized taxis, arguing that it would create jobs and alleviate transportation pressures.

Reading Between the Lines: Public transportation in Syria is ineffective and inadequate, but there is little hope that a purpose-built app will address primary concerns — fare prices, fuel availability, and depressed consumer power.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 10 February 2020

Iran’s credit line to Syria: A well that never runs dry

What Does it Say? Iran’s support to the Government of Syria has been a lifeline that has kept the Government afloat.

Reading Between the Lines: In addition to bilateral assistance estimated at as much as 7.6 billion USD, Iran has also invested in Syria through significant oil shipments, weaponry, soldiers, and the like. Whatever its domestic economic constraints, Iran has shown that its support runs far deeper than dollars alone.

Source: Atlantic Council

Language: English

Date: 10 February 2020

Once again … Israeli raids on regime military points in Damascus countryside

What Does it Say? Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes on Government of Syria military targets around Damascus, eluding the Syrian air defense systems.

Reading Between the Lines: Such strikes have been recurrent throughout the conflict; however, following a lull at the end of 2019, they have resumed with increased frequency since the killing of Qasim Soleimani in January.

Source: Halab Today

Language: Arabic

Date: 14 February 2020

The dialectical relationship between sectarianism and governance in Syria

What Does it Say? As a result of deep fractures within the Syrian populace, a multitude of social classes, ethnic groups, and religious identifiers have left the Syrian population highly fragmented.

Reading Between the Lines: Exploiting sectarian divisions has long been a means of control for the Government of Syria, which has deftly rewarded the loyalty of minority groups in order to maintain power, while keeping the majority at a disadvantage.

Source: Harmoon

Language: Arabic

Date: 13 February 2020

Kidnapped by ISIS. Failure to uncover the fate of Syria’s missing

What Does it Say? While in power, ISIS kidnapped thousands of people and held them captive for extended periods; approximately 8,000 people remain missing.

Reading Between the Lines: ISIS used kidnapping and torture to control populations, in order to dissuade people from speaking or acting out against its rule. Many of the missing are unlikely to be found; if they were intended to be released in through a bilateral exchange, this would likely have already happened, given that thousands of ISIS fighters remain prisoners in SDF custody.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Language: English

Date: 11 February 2020

Lebanon debt plan may need 70% haircut, 50% currency drop, Capital Economics estimates

What Does it Say? Lebanon may be forced to resort to a 70 percent haircut on deposits, as well as a currency devaluation of 50 percent due to the economic crisis currently plaguing the country.

Reading Between the Lines: Lebanon is in the middle of a deep economic crisis, aggravated by corruption and ineptitude. As a regional banking hub — and an important entry point to international finance for Syrians in particular — Lebanon’s economic trajectory will have profound effects beyond Lebanon’s borders.

Source: Reuters

Language: English

Date: 13 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.