Syria Update

24 February 2020
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Two aid workers killed as southern Syria teeters on the brink

In Depth Analysis

On 19 February, two local aid workers employed by Oxfam were killed by unidentified gunmen when their vehicle came under attack on the road between Mzeireb and Yadoudeh, in rural Dar’a governorate. To date, no actor has claimed responsibility for the killing, which is reportedly the first of its kind to occur in Dar’a governorate. The high-profile incident comes in a month during which southern Syria has witnessed a staggering rate of targeted killings, amounting to one approximately per day. The incident focuses greater attention on security and programmatic access in southern Syria, as the area continues to experience the effects of internecine competition between a smattering of security services and reconciled armed opposition groups of varying capacity and unity.

Caught in the crossfire, or deliberately targeted?

The most critical question now facing international response actors is whether the aid workers were deliberately targeted. Oxfam stated that the attack was carried out by “a so-far unidentified armed group,” but further information is not immediately available. Throughout much of southern Syria, local security forces and administrative and governance actors have been targeted in security incidents with increasing frequency since the beginning of 2019. This has spawned concerns that aid workers are at risk of being caught in the crossfire, including at checkpoints, public facilities, or even program sites. The latest incident, however, will raise potentially grave concerns for future security conditions and programmatic access if it is confirmed that the aid workers were deliberately targeted. Unconfirmed local media 

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reports suggest that the aid workers’ vehicle was pursued at length and repeatedly fired on before the two men were killed, and a third wounded. Additional details concerning the event will be needed to inform the response of programmatic actors; however, the context of southern Syria itself raises additional concerns.

Two new challenges for the south?

The spread of instability in southern Syria has been a persistent focus of analysts and the international response since the self-styled “Popular Resistance” first began to claim armed attacks in Dar’a in early 2019. Such dynamics may offer a window onto underlying tensions that exist in reconciled areas elsewhere in Syria, particularly in rural Homs governorate and Rural Damascus. (Notably, in recent days, Government forces were reportedly targeted in an IED incident in Moadamiyet El-Sham, while 305 individuals in Wadi Barada have had their reconciliations revoked by the Government, echoing some of the underlying issues that are visible in Dar’a.) To make matters worse, local drivers of unrest in southern Syria are unlikely to be resolved, and few tools are available to the Government of Syria to stabilize the south. Attempts by Russia and local notables to quell unrest generated by inadequate service provision, conscription-related arrests, the presence of Iran-backed militias, and detentions have fallen far short of demands. In practice, the fluid security of southern Syria is ultimately a product of the Government’s inconsistent and highly contested security presence on the local level (see: Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar’a Governorate). As a result, the most effective likely means of pacifying the south is also the most extreme: a military-security campaign that would be forced to fill security gaps and to deny space to semi-autonomous armed groups (see: Syria Update 20 January). Currently, however, two additional challenges are coming into play.

First, southern Syria reconciliation papers will expire on 26 March. Without valid settlement cards, previously reconciled individuals will be unable to cross Government checkpoints and will face an elevated risk of detention. Indeed, coordinated arrests of those wanted for military service are reportedly already taking place in southern Syria, which may presage a wider sweep to come. Crucially, thousands of individuals — including many in Dar’a Al-Balad — have yet to reconcile with the Government. Such individuals face severe mobility restrictions, and local sources report that on the local level there is a pervasive fear that any attempt to reconcile is tantamount to submitting to arrest or military deployment to frontlines in Idleb. If the state security forces do undertake a sweeping campaign in southern Syria, there is a distinct possibility that it will prompt retaliatory attacks against Government-affiliated security actors and targets, potentially setting off a vicious circle of attacks and crackdown.

Second, local sources report preliminary information that extremist group recruiters have increased their physical presence in southern Syria. Such groups are believed to have maintained a limited presence in the region since its reconciliation in July 2018, which is said to have grown since the end of 2019, as they reportedly seek recruits from among the local population. Reportedly, recruiters are said to have affiliation to Hurras Al-Deen — and, potentially, Jaysh Khalid bin Walid — and have reportedly expanded their recruitment efforts from western rural Dar’a to the eastern half of the governorate in recent months. Should the Government of Syria take a heavy-handed approach to head off the perceived threat posed by such recruitment, security and access conditions in southern Syria will likely deteriorate considerably. Moreover, kinetic action to contain such groups may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: a violent response is possible, and former armed opposition fighters may be willing to latch onto any movement that offers the opportunity to challenge the Government of Syria militarily.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Turkey and Russia deadlocked, Damascus’ advances continue

Saraqeb, Idleb governorate: As of writing, negotiations between Turkey and Russia over northwest Syria remain  deadlocked, as heavy Russian and Government of Syria bombardment continues in southern rural Idleb. Meanwhile, clashes at frontlines in western rural Aleppo have reduced, following the Government’s capture of territory bordering the M5 and Aleppo city (see: Syria Update 17 February). The Turkish-Russian logjam persists despite the fact that Turkey has reportedly provided increasing levels of direct support to armed opposition groups to push back against Government of Syria forces at frontlines, including a notable failed bid to recapture Saraqeb, a strategic linchpin along the M5. On 22 February, clashes broke out in Nayrab, west of Saraqeb; separately, on the same day, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu, according to a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry. This followed a phone call on 21 February between the Turkish and Russian presidents, Recep Tayipp Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, during which the leaders reportedly agreed on the implementation of international agreements for Idelb, likely in reference to the Sochi agreement.

So long, Sochi?

The longer Russian-Turkish negotiations remain at a standstill, the further hopes that the Sochi agreement can guide a political solution to the military situation in northwest Syria will fade. Despite repeated assurances that the agreement remains in force, its implementation is becoming harder with time, as continuing advances by Government forces change the reality on the ground, veering away from the framework that the Sochi agreement sought to cement. In addition to the Government’s apparent hope to seize its moment to make military progress in northwest Syria, a further stumbling block is the fact that Turkey likely remains incapable of implementing the most nettlesome stipulation of the Sochi agreement: the requirement that it disarm and disband Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. So long as that objective remains out of reach, the agreement’s viability is dubious.

Displacement crisis continues

If the parties fail to resuscitate (or update) Sochi, the outcome will likely be continued displacement. Should Turkey find itself compelled to take on efforts to seize strategic territory (such as Saraqeb) to challenge the Government of Syria, the military escalation will likely produce further displacement in and around frontline communities. However, if Turkey refrains from undertaking a major counter-offensive, considerable further displacement remains likely, as Government forces show no signs of slowing down.

One unanticipated consequence of the displacement crisis now unfolding in northwest Syria is the possibility that Turkey will be forced to direct greater portions of new IDP populations into Euphrates Shield areas, at the risk of increasing social tensions and fueling instability in densely populated and urban areas there. Indeed, on 16 February, media sources reported that local residents and IDPs in Qabasin publicly demonstrated against the Qabasin local council and called for its members to step down. These reports indicated that protesters accused the council of confiscating aid allocated for IDPs, failing to provide services, and refusing to promote equitable representation in the local administration. However, local sources reported that the current local council enjoys a good reputation and is perceived as efficient and effective. Local sources suggest that the demonstrations were instigated at the behest of armed groups Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya and Ahrar Al-Sham. Former members of the local council who are affiliated with these armed groups have reportedly sought to capitalize on the wave of new IDPs from Idleb and western rural Aleppo, setting the community against the local council. As displacement in northwest Syria fuels further instability throughout northern Syria, there is a distinct risk that competition over resources may grow.

2. Russia-Turkey tensions spill over, northeast status quo threatened

Tel Tamer, Al-Hasakeh governorate: A spate of recent events suggests that regional tensions are rising in northeast Syria  as the Russian-Turkish relationship in Syria frays, due to conditions in Idleb. On 18 February, local sources reported that joint Russian-Turkish patrols resumed near Tel Tamer — the most hotly contested area of the Peace Spring frontline — after Turkish forces had refrained from joining two consecutive rounds of patrols. Notably, this follows local reports that Turkish forces have withdrawn from positions in Tel Tamer, Bab Elkheir, and Abu Rasin, in Haskeh over the past two weeks, leaving only SDF and Turkey-backed armed opposition groups in the area, amid intensified Turkish shelling in the areas. In response, Russian forces have also reportedly withdrawn from the Tel Tamer — a move that local sources report has triggered some preemptive civilian displacement toward Hasakeh city and Washu Kani camp, in anticipation that tensions may produce active clashes. Notably, media and local sources indicate that Turkish shelling targeted the electricity power station in Um El Keif on 21 February, cutting off the electricity supply to Tal Tamer and its surrounding area.

With Russia and Turkey at the brink, SDF is caught in the middle

Fierce disagreement between Russia and Turkey vis-a-vis northwest Syria has begun to spill over into the northeast; these tensions now threaten to break-up the fragile status quo that has frozen frontlines since October. Intensified shelling, the withdrawal of Russian and Turkish forces from frontlines, and the breakdown of the joint-patrol regime can be seen as deliberate pressure tactics aimed, primarily, at building leverage for a new Russian-Turkish bargain in northwest Syria. Without doubt, however, these events also raise the worrying possibility that active conflict will return to northeast Syria, if the fray in Idleb continues.

If the relationship between Russia and Turkey does break down further, the SDF will likely be caught in the middle. In addition to the risk that clashes will erupt near the Tel Tamer hotspot, the SDF command has summoned its fighters in anticipation of a potential Turkish incursion in Derbasiyeh, a border community beyond the easternmost edge of the Peace Spring area. For Turkey, however, the strategic priority in eastern Syrian is almost certainly Kobani, which is the ‘missing piece’ of Turkey’s buffer strip, which now runs across most of the Syria-Turkey border. In the near term, any of these areas may witness clashes, if Turkey and Russia fail to de-escalate.

3. EU targets Syrian businessmen in new restrictive measures

Brussels: On 17 February, the European Commission published a decision to levy restrictive measures on eight Syrian individuals and two entities accused of “making large profits through their ties with the Assad regime and … helping to finance that regime in return.” Notably, all of the named individuals are lesser-known business figures who have capitalized on their deep financial, personal, and political entanglement with the Government of Syria. The two affected entities are the Qaterji Company — an increasingly prominent corporate entity in Syria that has been instrumental in the cross-line fuel trade, including with ISIS — as well as Damascus Cham Holding Company, a public-private partnership that is intended to serve as the investment vehicle of the Governorate of Damascus, most notably in the management of the Marota City development.

Syria’s next frontline: the boardroom

International sanctions have progressively tightened around the network of business figures whose financial interests are deeply interlinked with the fortunes of the Government of Syria and the Al-Assad regime. However, there is serious doubt whether such measures can prevent the Syrian Government — or, more importantly, the Sryian regime — from accessing foreign markets or sustaining itself. Indeed, in terms of economic collapse, the Syrian regime is likely far more resilient than the Syrian state itself. No doubt international actors face enormous pressure to — in the words of one Obama-era foreign policy adviser — “do something” in Syria. Yet, in terms of efficacy, even targeted sanctions can do only so much to interrupt the shell game through which Syrian businessmen can conceal their activities (especially given lax regulatory environments in neighboring markets). Curiously, the Marota City project itself furnishes an example of precisely this dynamic (see: “Damascus businessmen: the phantoms of Marota City” by published by European University Institute through WPCS, a collaboration between EUI and COAR).

4. Stroytransgaz in mass furlough of Tartous port workers

Tartous, Tartous governorate: On 19 February, media sources reported that a long-running labor dispute between workers of the Tartous port and Stroytransgaz — the Russian company now operating the port facilities — ended with the issuance of revised contracts that, if reporting is correct, effectively dismiss as many as 3,600 laborers. The dispute ensued approximately two weeks after the Russian company took over management of the port, in June 2019. At that time, Stroytransgaz reportedly informed workers that their contracts would be terminated. However, the backlash generated by the announcement was sufficiently intense that the Government of Syria intervened as mediator between the parties. As a result, a committee of representatives of Stroytransgaz, the Government of Syria, directors and managers at the port, and the Union of Marine and Aerial Transportation Workers was established to revise the contracts. The committee reportedly handed workers a one-year unpaid furlough, a move that is widely perceived as a de facto dismissal, albeit a delayed one.

Labor in Syria: two steps forward, one step backward 

It is not immediately clear whether furloughed employees will be extended beyond the contract period, or how port operations will continue as personnel turnover takes place. However, the labor battle in Tartous brings two considerations to the fore. First, it lays bare the potential for friction between local workers and foreign companies seeking to do business on the cheap in Syria. Similar labor battles have played out elsewhere in the country, most notably in Homs (see: Syria Update 22-28 August 2019). Second, the Government of Syria’s limited success in mediating the dispute casts attention on its diminished capacity to stand up for the rights of workers — even those who belong to a valued constituency. In the present case, the majority of port workers are Alawites, a community that is widely perceived as necessary to the survival of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Reactions to the dispute have been harsh. Looking ahead, further erosion of workers’ interests will generate political volatility throughout Syria as a whole.

5. In televised address Al-Assad puts Aleppo at center of Syrian economy

Damascus: On 18 February, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, gave a nationally televised address to mark the Government of Syria’s capture of the outskirts of Aleppo city, reportedly the first address of its kind since 2000. In his speech, Al-Assad celebrated the resilience of the people of Aleppo, emphasized the city’s centrality to the Syrian economy, and stressed the imperative to rebuild the city. Additionally, Al-Assad warned that the Government of Syria’s recent gains in rural Aleppo governorate — which he deemed a clear “victory” — do not mark the end of the war, and he reiterated the Government’s intent to reassert control over all Syrian territory. Notably, Al-Assad emphasized that the military offensive in northwest Syria will not stop, despite Turkey’s increasingly stiff resistance and bellicose rhetoric.

Preparing for disappointment

National addresses by the Syrian president are a relatively rare occurrence, and they can be read as a declaration of the direction of state policy. Al-Assad’s latest address contained few surprises; however, by stressing that the health of Syria’s national economy will hinge, to some degree, upon the restored functionality of Aleppo, Al-Assad set expectations that Syria will continue its downward economic trajectory for the foreseeable future. Notably, Al-Assad stressed that Aleppo is now “secure.” The resumption of flights from Aleppo airport are a first step in that direction. However, northwest Syria remains volatile, and the the possibility remains that the deadlock between Turkey and Russia over steps to de-escalate northwest Syria may devolve into clashes and military operations that could turn the table on the guarantees of Aleppo’s safety and recovery.

6. Government of Syria claims to unearth mass grave near Duma city

Duma, Rural Damascus: On 17 February, Syrian state media reported that Government forces had uncovered a mass grave near Duma, in Eastern Ghouta. Reportedly, the bodies of 70 people, both civilians and security personnel, were recovered at the site. According to the Government, these individuals were executed by armed opposition groups between 2012 and 2014. Syrian intelligence reportedly recovered the body of an opposition-affiliated activist, who they claim had been handcuffed and subsequently executed at the hands of Jaysh Al-Islam, the armed opposition group that wielded the most influence over Duma when it was under opposition control.

Disclosure and resolution unlikely

Resolution concerning the fate of the detainees and the disappeared remains a key demand of Syrians of all ideological stripes. Mass killings have been worryingly common in Syria, with Ar-Raqqa witnessing widespread killings under ISIS, while the fate of thousands of detainees in Government of Syria prisons remains a matter of foremost concern (Syria Update 29 October 2019). Additionally, local sources indicate that the issue of political prisoners held by HTS in northwest Syria is likewise a growing challenge in light of ongoing military operations in the area. Indeed, the long Syria conflict has witnessed atrocities on a widespread scale; given the vanishingly small odds that the Constitutional Committee will negotiate a satisfactory resolution concerning the fate of the detained or missing, this issue is likely to retain its potential for explosive impact into a post-conflict context.

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 Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idleb: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani

What Does It Say? In the wide-ranging interview, the contention is made that Turkey and Russia (and by extension the Government of Syria) had previously agreed that the offensive in Idleb would be stopped, in exchange for Turkey undertaking real efforts to disarm and dismantle HTS, which is considered a terrorist group by both Russia and the U.S. When it became clear that Turkey was either unable or unwilling to carry out this demand, Russia and the Government of Syria used this as a pretext to continue their offensive.

Reading Between the Lines: As the Government of Syria and Russia incrementally progress in Idleb, the risk of commensurate escalation on the part of Turkey becomes increasingly acute.  It bears noting that Turkey’s ability to bring HTS under greater direct control (including to dismantle and — potentially — rebrand the group, excluding its ‘radical’ elements) has been called into question by months of failed agreements over northwest Syria.

Source: International Crisis Group

Language: English

Date: 20 February 2020

The Tribal Situation in Deir-ez-Zor: Its Reality and Future

What Does It Say? In many respects, Arab tribes form the social and cultural backbone of Deir-ez-Zor; this detailed study explores how parties to the conflict have sought to use the tribes for their own gain.

Reading Between the Lines: Parties involved in the conflict have sought to leverage the tribal structures primarily as a means of executing their own agendas, and have often overlooked or ignored the tribes’ own priorities for local rehabilitation and humanitarian programming.

Source: Deirezzor24

Language: English

Date: 2020

US Expansion in the East: Towards Tight Control of the ‘Petroleum Road’

What Does It Say? U.S. forces are seeking to link the oil and gas fields of Al-Hasakeh and Deir-ez-Zor by enlarging military bases in a strategic corridor that will allow them to cement their hold over the resources and deny their use to the Government of Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: In reality, Syria’s resource wealth has never been a major geopolitical concern in the conflict, due both to its relative size and to the considerable geological risk associated with the oil and gas fields themselves. However, these resources have been an important strategic issue and have been a persistent driver of competition at the local level. As such, the U.S. seeks to hold these fields as leverage against the Government of Syria, both as a political tool, and as a tool in its regional strategy of applying maximum pressure to Iran, a key financial backer of Damascus.

Source: Al-Akhbar

Language: Arabic

Date: 20 February 2020

Licensed Syrian Political Party Recruits Mercenaries in Syria to Fight in Libya with Russian Support 

What Does it Say? The Syrian National Youth Party is recruiting combatants in Sweida governorate, in cooperation with the Russian Wagner group, to deploy to Libya; these recruits are reportedly being offered a salary of $1,000 to $1,500, and have not yet been deployed.

Reading Between the Lines: Given dire economic conditions, men in Sweida can be expected to respond to the recruitment drive, albeit in limited numbers, given that the party failed to fulfill similar promises for recruitment to fight in Tadmor (Palmyra) in 2016.

Source: Sweida 24

Language: Arabic

Date: 16 February 2020

Surviving after the Disappearance of the Islamic State: A Strategy for the Resilience of the Syrian Kurdish Movement

What Does It Say? After the territorial defeat of ISIS in March 2019, dwindling levels of direct U.S. support exposed the Self Administration to greater risk from Turkish attacks as well as Government of Syria influence.

Reading Between the Lines: The Self Administration has been dealt a serious blow; save for an unlikely reversal of the U.S. position vis-a-vis Syria, the Kurdish polity’s likeliest path forward leads through Damascus.

Source: European University Institute

Language: English

Date: 17 February 2020

US military failed to account for $715 million in aid to Syrian anti-ISIS partners

What Does It Say? The U.S. military has failed to account for $715 million worth of military supplies intended for operational partners against ISIS, citing poor storage. 

Reading Between the Lines: Mismanagement of military hardware is an endemic issue; the enormous potential for secondary use will undoubtedly frustrate efforts toward disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.

Source: International Crisis Group

Language: English

Date: 15 January 2020

Changes to Syria’s conscription law will prevent the repairing of relations between the armed forces and civilians.

What Does It Say? The Government of Syria has updated the mandatory conscription law for Syrian men living in Syria or outside the country, providing four options: complete military service; pay $8,000 to avoid service, before the age of 43; pay the required sum after age 43; or have the assets of children, wives, or heirs seized without warning. 

Reading Between the Lines: Conscription is one of the most noted factors pushing people to leave Syria; doubling down on harsh penalties for failure to complete mandatory service will only intensify the pressure on Syrians to remain outside the country.

Source: Carnegie

Language: English

Date: 20 February 2020

The Global Compact on Refugees: Lessons from Bangladesh

What Does It Say? The authors argue that the Global Compact on Refugees lacks adequate scope and is hampered by a misplaced assumption that financial support alone is sufficient to ease the burden on host countries, all the while placing heavy emphasis on integration at the expense of return or resettlement.

Reading Between the Lines: Increasingly, the heavy emphasis on financial support and integration in host countries are becoming pervasive mantras of donor-supported international responses to refugee-intensive crises. Such efforts often fail to take into account the long-term impacts of population and demographic shifts, or the lack of livelihood opportunities.

Source: Overseas Development Institute

Language: English

Date: December 2019

Drugs are Iran’s new weapon in Deir-ez-Zor

What Does It Say? Iranian militias in Deir-ez-Zor are reportedly using narcotics as a means of inducing fighters to join their ranks. It has been suggested that the main source of these drugs is the Hezbollah militia.

Reading Between the Lines: Narcotics have had a persistent presence in Syria throughout the conflict, yet their prominence on the battlefield and as an inducement to fight has frequently been overstated — often to ludicrous proportions. In reality, drug networks in Syria increasingly function as a source of revenue, and control over networks of production and distribution may be an important factor in post-conflict livelihoods and law and order, with significant transnational implications.

Source: Deirezzor24

Language: English

Date: 20 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.