Syria Update

16 March 2020
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Bump in the road for first Russian-Turkish patrol on the M4

In Depth Analysis

On 15 March, Turkish and Russian forces conducted their first joint military patrol along the M4 highway in Idleb governorate, according to the Turkish Ministry of National Defense. However, the patrol of the 12-kilometer-wide ‘security corridor’ surrounding the highway was reportedly cut short, apparently in response to demonstrations by local protesters and armed opposition groups. Local sources indicate that on consecutive days, local demonstrators staged protests and burned tires where patrols were scheduled to take place along the M4. Reportedly, on 14 March Russian and Turkish forces attempted to break up the demonstrations, and Government of Syria forces subsequently shelled a location where the protests had been staged. No casualties were reported as a result of the attack. In response to the events, the Russian Ministry of Defense reportedly accused armed opposition groups of using demonstrators as “human shields” and stated that it has granted Turkey additional time to eliminate “terrorists and furnish safe conditions for the execution of patrols.”

Though truncated, the patrol marks the first tenuous step toward implementation of the multi-part ceasefire agreement signed by Russia and Turkey on 5 March in a bid to de-escalate northwest Syria (see: Syria Update 9 March). However, the challenges the deal has already encountered foreshadow the difficulties that may impede its full implementation, and, ultimately, threaten its sustainability in the long term. Although Russia and Turkey appear committed to implementing the deal, several points expose vulnerabilities in the joint framework, and important unanswered questions cast doubt on the deal’s long-term viability. Most notable among these are the status of Turkish troops and observation posts in northwest Syria, the time, place, and manner for the deal’s full implementation, and the creation of a mechanism for dealing with the 960,000 displaced Syrians now effectively trapped between the new ‘security corridor’ and the Turkish-Syrian border.

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Turkish troops
Turkish troops remain deployed in northwest Syria in large numbers, and Turkish observation posts that are surrounded by Government of Syria forces in southern Idleb are still vulnerable to attack. Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has threatened to walk away from the cooperative framework if Turkey’s forces or its encircled observation posts come under attack. Erdogan stated that attacks on its observation posts have already occurred on a small-scale, and that Turkey has “shar[ed] these developments with Russia … and expect[s] them to take measures.”

Full implementation
A crucial challenge to the deal’s implementation is the limited sway exercised by Turkey over armed opposition groups, in particular Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The possibility remains that such groups will target Russian-Turkish patrols or other Government of Syria targets in a deliberate attempt to sink the deal. Local sources report unconfirmed rumors that Government forces may withdraw from frontlines within 15 days of the start of the patrols (i.e. by the end of March). Such a scenario remains highly speculative, but if carried out, it would reduce the pressure on areas held by the armed opposition groups and mitigate the risk that these actors will purposely sabotage the Moscow de-escalation deal.

Russian and Turkish soldiers prepare for joint military patrols in Idleb. Image courtesy of the Turkish MInistry of National Defense.

Returns
A foremost concern for the international Syria response is the refusal (or inability) of Syrians displaced by the Government of Syria’s military advances into Idleb to return to communities located in territory captured by the Government. As of this writing, local sources report that returns have not taken place at scale. The primary reasons for this are likely deeply ideological as well as pragmatic. Among the IDPs are former opposition fighters who have been evacuated to northwest Syria over the course of the conflict. Strong doubts exist whether such actors will reconcile with the Government of Syria willingly. Additionally, the mechanism for doing so remains in doubt. On 12 March, Russian and Turkish delegations reportedly agreed to specific terms for implementing the Moscow deal, including protections for Syrians to return to areas captured by the Government in recent weeks. However, there are no signs that large numbers of the displaced will be willing to test this mechanism, meaning that large numbers of the displaced may elect to remain in northern Idleb rather than risk return — come what may.

The situation remains volatile. However, looking ahead, further joint military patrols will signal that all parties may be willing to overlook points of serious contention to keep the deal afloat. If this situation holds and Government forces do withdraw from current frontlines, there may yet be hope that zones of control will stabilize for the foreseeable future. This will be a necessary precursor to restored commercial access to the M4, and it will be a welcome reprieve for the displaced populations hemmed into northern Idleb and for frontline communities.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Damascus in denial as coronavirus enters pandemic stage

Various locations: On 14 March, the Government of Syria announced that it would shutter schools until 2 April and postpone forthcoming parliamentary elections until 20 May; the steps constitute the most sweeping mitigations to date to combat the spread of coronavirus, which Syrian health authorities maintain has not yet been detected inside the country. Nonetheless, the Government has clamped down on movements and public gatherings. Syria has reportedly closed its borders with Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon (except to returning Syrians), while business hours have been curtailed, public institutions have been staffed by skeleton crews, and commercial flights from Iran, which has been badly hit by the virus, have reportedly been suspended. The Syrian Health Ministry has pledged transparency concerning the virus, and has vowed to announce diagnoses as they occur. However, Syrian physicians have reportedly received strict orders from government authorities to refrain from publicly discussing any cases, on the grounds that doing so would jeopardize national security.

Outbreak

The situation may evolve rapidly; however, to date, the Government of Syria has approached the outbreak of the novel coronavirus with a pragmatic — if mendacious — response. Closing borders, limiting interpersonal contact, and reducing the opportunities for transmission are commonsense mitigations that may be instrumental in ‘flattening the curve’ — i.e. reducing the intensity of the impact on the nation’s fragile health systems by slowing the spread of the virus. These mitigations are also critical, given that the Government of Syria’s denial strategy is likely a result of the fact that it has extremely limited capacity to test for — or treat — coronavirus cases. There is no reason to doubt that coronavirus infections have taken place in Syria. Indeed, local media reports indicate that the infection has spread in Damascus, Tartous, Homs and Latakia. Moreover, on 9 March, media sources reported that the Pakistani Health Ministry confirmed that six individuals from Syria, via Qatar, had tested positive for coronavirus.

Similar mitigation tactics have been taken throughout Syria. In northeast Syria, the Fish Khabour crossing with Iraq was temporarily closed to establish screening procedures, and on 15 March, the Self Administration suspended some government operations. The greatest risks, however, may be in northwest Syria. In particular, IDPs residing in densely-populated camps and informal shelters are extremely vulnerable to transmission of the virus due to the close physical proximity, deteriorating living conditions, inadequate sanitation, and the region’s shattered medical infrastructure, which has been aggravated by the deliberate targeting of hospitals during the latest Government of Syria military campaign. Health practitioners in these areas have already warned that they lack testing kits needed in order to identify the virus, and intensive care units or respirators needed to treat critical patients are unavailable, posing a risk of catastrophic consequences should the virus spread.

2. Baath party annuls internal elections, vows restructuring

Damascus: On 10 March, local media reported that the regional command of the Syrian Baath Party had annulled the results of recently completed branch elections and called for a reconfiguration of the party structure (see: Syria Update 2 March). The party leadership has claimed that it will abide by the results of internal elections, yet conflicting and incomplete justifications have been given for the unexpected shakeup. Media sources report that the decision to restructure the party comes in response to the large volume of complaints made over the elections’ results, although the exact nature of the complaints remains unclear. However, local media sources have reported that Russia raised a red flag over results in districts in Rural Damascus and Syria-Lebanon border areas, where candidates closely affiliated with Iran and Hezbollah reportedly fared well in the polls. Reportedly, the restructuring will allow for individuals close to Russia to balance out Iran’s perceived influence within the party.

Central to Syria’s governing pipeline

The exact cause of the upset within the Syrian Baath Party is difficult to ascertain. Despite its status as the traditional dynamo of modern Syria’s political establishment, the Baath Party faces acute challenges on multiple levels. In terms of Syria’s social and political hierarchy, the Baath Party is at a crossroads, following nearly a decade of armed conflict in which military and economic elites have edged out party apparatchiks in Syria’s domestic pecking order. Reported friction between Russia and Iran over the composition of the Baath Party’s regional command may reflect efforts by the two regional powers to convert their battlefield prominence in Syria into longer-term influence in the political sphere. Indeed, in terms of post-conflict governance, the Baath Party is expected to remain a vital organ of the Syrian body politic. To that end, the party’s regional conference, expected in May or June, will lay out the party’s next five-year plan. Traditionally, such plans have been the first stage of Syria’s governing pipeline, thus granting the party considerable clout in shaping public policy and state priorities. For both Iran and Russia, gaining stronger influence over post-conflict governance in Syria is a process that may therefore begin inside the Baath Party itself.

3. Bread rations imposed in Damascus

Damascus: On 12 March local sources in Damascus reported that state-run bakeries in Government of Syria-held areas had imposed a ration of 2 kilograms of bread per family, per day. Previously, no such limits had been in place.

Wheat tenders in question

Bread rations are a worrying indicator that food security challenges may be on the horizon in Syria. In this respect, myriad factors have conspired to bring Syria to the brink. The most  notable of these are the series of poor wheat harvests and the deepening financial crisis, which has stymied wheat imports and driven up the price of staple consumables. On multiple occasions this year, the Government of Syria has failed to execute contracts for wheat imports, fueling concerns that the financial strain faced by the central government may compound food needs and bring Syria to a crisis point over its most important food staple.

4. U.S. strikes Abu Kamal after two U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq

Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 11 March, unidentified aircraft carried out 10 airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militias at Al-Imam Ali airbase, outside Abu Kamal city on the Syria-Iraq border. Twenty-six Hashd Al-Shaabi militiamen were killed as a result of the airstrikes. Among the dead were members of Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah, Harakat Al-Nujaba, Sayyid Al-Shuhada, and Liwa Haidariyoun, according to media reports. The U.S.-led international coalition has not confirmed responsibility for the attack, which was alleged to occur in retaliation for an 18-rocket attack on U.S. forces at Taji airbase, north of Baghdad, earlier in the day, resulting in three casualties. The last attack of this kind was recorded on 10 January, when unidentified aircraft struck Hashd Al-Shaabi warehouses and vehicles near Abu Kamal.

Ratcheting-up regional tensions

The Abu Kamal and Taji attacks are likely a continuation of the tit-for-tat attacks between U.S. and Iranian forces across Syria and Iraq. On the one hand, the Taji airbase attack marks the 22nd attack on U.S. interests in Iraq since October 2019. These attacks have brought minimal casualties, yet their heightened frequency has pressured the U.S. to strike back at Hashd Al-Shaabi’s logistical centers to minimize its ability to respond, whether in Iraq or across the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. On the other hand, both the U.S. and Hashd Al-Shaabi see eastern Syria and Iraq as one extended battlefield. For this reason, the U.S.-led international coalition (and Israel) have consistently targeted support lines of Iran-backed militias in Syria to limit the potential transfer of arms from Iran via Iraq.

Overall, such attacks are not without risk of escalation through miscalculation. Indeed, the killing of Iranian commander Qasim Soleimani in January was the endpoint of one such chain of tit-for-tat attacks. However, despite the potential for escalation, it is expected that the U.S. will continue targeting Iranian interests on a limited scale for the foreseeable future. This is unlikely to present these militias with an opportunity to escalate against U.S. interests in the region, given the fragmented presence of Iranian-backed militias across Syria and on various frontlines. Thus the militias’ responses will be likely limited to sporadic harassment bombardments in the medium term.

5. Turkish cell networks expanded to Idleb city

Idleb City: On 7 March, telecommunications provider Syriana 4G announced that it would “soon” extend its high-speed mobile internet coverage to Idleb city. The move would mark a considerable expansion for the Sarmada-based provider of Turkish telecom services. Notably, Turkish cell network coverage is already strong throughout Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield areas, where it is provided by private companies that piggyback off Turkey’s central telecom networks.

Turkey’s ‘cordon sanitaire’ in Syria

The extension of Turkish service networks to Idleb city is an early indicator that frontlines in northwest Syria may stabilize as Turkey consolidates its security, administrative, and service presence in northern Syria over the long term. Throughout the latest military offensive in Idleb, analysts have disagreed over the degree of the Government of Syria’s willingness to recapture areas north of the M4 highway. As the governorate’s administrative hub, Idleb city has been the focal point of much of this speculation. Now, with frontlines frozen by the 5 March deal between Turkey and Russia, the expansion of Turkish network coverage to Idleb city is a leading indicator that frontlines may remain static, if northern Idleb governorate finds itself under increasing Turkish control. If this is carried to its extreme, the area may well recapitulate the experience of Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring areas before it. (For a detailed assessment of Turkish control over northern Aleppo, see our Northern Corridor area profile.)

6. Quds Force commander visits Aleppo and Damascus

Aleppo and Damascus: On 10 March, local media sources reported that the new commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, visited Aleppo and the southern suburbs of Damascus, including the community of Sayyeda Zeinab. The trip marks Ghaani’s first appearance in Syria since the death of his predecessor, Qasim Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike in January (see: Syria Update 6 January).

Filling Soleimani’s shoes

Ghaani’s visit to Syria re-affirms Iran’s overseas military coordination role post-Soleimani, and should be read as a sign of Iran’s continued support to the Government of Syria after the killing of Soleimani, whose direct influence was considered crucial to maintaining the efficacy and coordination of Iran-backed militias in Syria and throughout the wider region. Ghaani’s visit comes after a period of the conflict in that witnessed the most intense clashes to date between Government of Syria and Turkish forces, during which dozens of Iran-backed combatants were killed. Now, rumors have surfaced that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is deploying additional troops to northwest Syria. Although Ghaani’s visit does not confirm this, it should be read as an indication of Iran’s intent to maintain a strong influence in Syria, including in the northwest. According to local sources, at least 11 militia groups supported by Iran participated in the most recent offensive in northwest Syria, and many of these have direct linkages to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, particularly its hybrid intelligence and external special operations umbrella, the Quds Force.

7. Al-Assad to SDF: ditch Washington, fight Ankara

Damascus: During a television interview with broadcaster Russia 24 on 5 March, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad laid out the most important conditions for the Self Administration to achieve rapprochement with the Government of Syria: severing the relationship between the SDF and U.S. forces, and joining it to fight Turkey. Al-Assad stated that “we cannot reach results in any dialogue with them, even if we were to meet thousands of times, unless they take a clear position, a patriotic position: to be against the Americans, against occupation and against the Turks because they too are occupiers.” In response to the interview, local political parties in northeast Syria released a collective statement disavowing separatism and reaffirming their belief that the Self Administration is not a challenge to Syrian national unity.

All quiet on the western front

In practical terms, the Self Administration is caught in an uncomfortable position vis-a-vis three powerful actors: the Government of Syria, the U.S., and Turkey. For the leadership of the Self Administration, the difficult choice has been determining how to balance relations as it has partnered with the U.S.-led international coalition, kept its distance from Damascus, and attempted to fight Turkey. This has been no easy balancing act. Although the SDF views Turkey as its primary adversary, the SDF’s relationship with the U.S. has forced it to fight Turkey with one arm tied behind its back, including after Turkey’s military campaign in Afrin and, more recently, Operation Peace Spring. Partnering with Damascus, as suggested by Al-Assad, would require breaking ties with the U.S., but it would free up the SDF to commit greater resources to fighting Turkey, which remains an ideological lodestar for the SDF’s backbone force, the Kurdish-majority YPG. To this end, the timing of the interview is noteworthy. The 5 March agreement between Russia and Turkey to halt the Government of Syria’s military offensive in Idleb frees up both Government of Syria and Turkish forces for military undertakings elsewhere, including in eastern Syria. To date, the SDF has not voiced its willingness to shred its relations with the U.S. However, Turkey may well force the SDF’s hand. Should Turkey resume its military operations in SDF-held territory — including the priority area of Ain Al-Arab (Kobani) — the Self Administration may have no choice but to partner with Damascus to defend against Ankara.

8. Clashes break out over checkpoint fees in Al-Mayadeen

Al-Mayadeen, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 11 March, local media sources reported that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces clashed with Syrian 4th Division fighters in Al-Mayadeen, killing one civilian and injuring two others. The clashes ended with the withdrawal of 4th Division combatants from one checkpoint in the city. Reportedly, the events were ignited when local tribal leaders complained to the Iran-linked militias that crossing fees charged by 4th Division combatants had become burdensome.

Regional interests, local actors

Clashes among the various militia groups present in eastern Deir-ez-Zor have recurred frequently since the east bank of the Euphrates River was recaptured by a patchwork coalition of pro-Government of Syria forces in late 2017. In the time since, competition among these actors has been a key conflict driver locally. Without doubt, clashes in the area often do have a regional dimension. Al-Mayadeen sits on an important regional transit route linking Damascus and Baghdad, and as such, it is a priority area for Iran, which has engaged in heavy tribal outreach and military recruitment throughout the corridor. It is important to note, however, that rather than reflecting a top-down strategic directive, such clashes have often been instigated by zero-sum competition for control over local war economy activities, to include smuggling routes, valuable real estate, and lucrative checkpoints. Although it is difficult to identify the exact reason for the recent clashes in Al-Mayadeen, future clashes are expected to recur, as local actors jockey for power.

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.

Manufacturing division: The Assad regime and minorities in southwest Syria

What Does it Say? The study assesses how the populations of minority communities in Syria have shrunk considerably since the conflict began in 2011. 

Reading Between the Lines: Crucially, the Government of Syria has adopted a survival strategy in which it has become heavily reliant upon minority communities as recruitment pools for militias and its armed forces. Though effective militarily, this has sown tensions that will likely persist for years to come, including after the conflict has subsided.

Source: Middle East Institute

Language: English

Date: 11 March 2020

What have the reactions to the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East shown?

What Does it Say? The coronavirus outbreak has shown that many Middle Eastern nations are ill-equipped to deal with such a fast-breaking epidemic in terms of health infrastructure or public policy.

Reading Between the Lines: With long histories of persistent conflict, political unrest, economic hardship, and sanctions, many nations in the Middle East have been left acutely vulnerable for such an outbreak.

Source: Carnegie

Language: English

Date: 12 March 2020

Turkey proposed joint management of oil fields in Syria with Russia

What Does it Say? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Turkey and Russia could jointly control the oil fields in eastern Syria in order to manage funds to rebuild Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Given the energy partnership between Russia and Turkey, such a proposal is little surprise. What is most notable is the implicit subtext of Erdogan’s proposal: Russian-Turkish joint control of eastern Syria’s resource wealth would require displacing not only the Kurdish-majority SDF, but also the U.S. forces who now control the oil fields.

Source: Asharq Al Awsat

Language: English

Date: 11 March 2020

Photo essay: Satellite imagery reveals the scale of destruction and displacement in Idleb

What Does it Say? The images show the magnitude of destruction from the Government of Syria’s latest intense military campaign in northwest Syria.  

Reading Between the Lines: The human and physical cost of the military campaign has been enormous.

Source: Syria Direct

Language: English

Date: 9 March 2020

Partitioning and taxing in Deir-ez-Zor: Who benefits, and who pays? 

What Does it Say? The article breaks down the crossing fees paid by traders entering Government of Syria-controlled areas.

Reading Between the Lines: The division of Syria into fractious zones of control has given space for a robust war economy. As the conflict winds down and physical control is centralized, war economy opportunities will also subside, leading to greater competition — and clashes — among such actors.

Source: Naher Media

Language: Arabic

Date: 9 March 2020

Coronavirus: How are Middle East refugee camps prepared?

What Does it Say? Coronavirus poses a grave threat to refugee camps, especially those within Syria, which has a health system that is already “on its knees.” 

Reading Between the Lines: In addition to its overt health implications, the spread of the virus may further hinder refugee movement. Worse, public fear over the virus will likely further negative stigma towards refugees.

Source: Info Migrants

Language: English

Date: 12 March 2020

Islamic State Advice on Coronavirus Pandemic

What Does it Say? ISIS printed a set of instructions, heavy with religious scripture, explaining what people should do in order to avoid further spread of the coronavirus.

Reading Between the Lines: The publication is likely a bid by the group to stave off its decline into functional irrelevance, while capitalizing on latent mistrust in governments over the measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Source: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Language: English

Date: 12 March 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.