18 May 2020
Deadly clashes break-out as northwest violence flares
In Depth Analysis
It is axiomatic that no ceasefire in Syria lasts forever. This has proven especially true in northwest Syria, where an uneasy calm has persisted since early March when Russia and Turkey inked a deal that froze what was arguably the most intense period of major-party conflict in Syria since 2018 (see: Syria Update 9 March). Now, in recent days, intense deadly clashes have erupted in the region on a scale not seen since the deal was reached. These clashes do not necessarily mark the end of the northwest Syria ceasefire, yet they do highlight the fact that the agreement has merely postponed the need to find a sustainable resolution to the thorniest questions that exist on the ground. In this respect, two dynamics are particularly notable: the first concerns the spoiler role that local extremist groups may play; the second concerns the role of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, which has a nominal investment in cementing its influence among the local population and solidifying a strategic partnership with Turkey. In all likelihood, these two interests are at odds. This is particularly notable, given the frictions that now prevent the Astana guarantors — Russia, Turkey, and Iran — from making needed progress to wind down conflict in the area (see: Syria Update 11 May). As a result, such issues are more difficult to solve, and the more time that passes without regional actors addressing the big-picture challenges that exist, the more likely clashes will become.
Spoiler? Hurras Al-Deen goes back to the battlefield
Among potential spoilers who have limited ideological or pragmatic reason to uphold the ceasefire are extremist groups on the ground in Idleb, most notably Hurras Al-Deen, the chief rival of HTS. On 10 May, local and media sources reported that Hurras Al-Deen, along with other splinter extremist factions, launched a military incursion against Government of Syria forces in the Ghab plain in southern Idleb governorate, reportedly killing dozens of Government of Syria combatants and looting military stores before they were rolled back shortly thereafter. Separately, on the same date, armed opposition groups reportedly shelled Government of Syria bases in Lattakia as well as the Russian airbase at Hmeimim. In response, the Government of Syria responded with artillery attacks targeting southern Idleb governorate and the Ghab plain. It is premature to describe these attacks as the opening salvos of a concerted campaign to undo the ceasefire, but they are a reminder that such groups have the power to erode confidence in the tenuous ceasefire, particularly as HTS’s predominance relegate them to secondary status.
Stabilizer? Seeking an off-ramp, HTS plays the hand it was dealt
Much has been said about the long-term strategic direction of HTS, but little is certain. What can be said safely is that the group finds itself negotiating an uneasy accommodation between local and regional needs. In that sense, the challenge facing HTS (or some core faction from within it) is in casting itself as the indispensable local partner needed to govern an area that Turkey is likely unwilling to administer directly. This will not be easy. It will require the group to strike a balance by satisfying local popular demands, managing Turkey’s expectations, and containing — and potentially battling — rival extremist factions such as Hurras Al-Deen. To that end, on 17 May, clashes broke out in western Idleb between HTS and local armed factions, including Hurras Al-Deen, over allegations of corruption and theft. However, the clashes are also a reminder that HTS remains invested with the greatest responsibility for managing local security conditions in Idleb, and as a result, will likely be critical to de-escalating local tensions.
Meanwhile, HTS continues to frame itself as a guarantor of local popular interests. The group’s good-will campaign has also proven difficult. On 12 May, at least 100 HTS combatants — including some disguised as women — demonstrated against Russian forces and pelted them with eggs in protest of joint Turkish-Russian patrols on the M4 highway. Such protests have been a centerpiece of HTS’s attempts to burnish its public image since the patrols began (see: Syria Update 16 March). Yet local sources indicate deep popular skepticism toward HTS, and the group’s popular legitimacy has been impacted by its attempts to resume crossline trade with Government of Syria areas. These tensions are a reminder of the difficulty the group will have in balancing its popular acceptance and its usefulness to Turkey as a key interlocutor of any agreement in northwest Syria.
Ink on paper
The northwest Syria ceasefire has by no means been relegated to the dustbin — yet. However, actors on the ground have not resolved the fundamental tensions that were frozen by the March ceasefire. On the contrary, the outbreak of clashes and retaliatory shelling by the Government of Syria are indicators that discord remains as fierce as ever, while HTS’s faltering attempts to gain popular local legitimacy highlight the challenges that lie ahead, even if the group succeeds in cementing its primacy on the local level. It is worth noting that throughout the conflict, the northwest Syria front has advanced in fits and starts. Cycles in which frontlines have remained frozen have been offset by periods of rapid deterioration into fierce clashes and unrelenting bombardment. If underlying tensions on the ground persist, the actors involved may resort to familiar tactics and return to the battlefield.
Whole of Syria Review
1. Homs Governor joins cabinet in consumer protection reshuffle
Damascus: On 11 May, President Bashar Al-Assad issued decrees No. 122 and 123, relieving Atef Naddaf as the Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection and naming Homs Governor Talal Al-Barazi as his successor. Syrian state media highlighted that Al-Barazi is now charged with “controlling the markets, monitoring prices and preventing the manipulation and the monopolization of materials.” The Government of Syria has not publicly stated the reason for the cabinet reshuffle. However, the announcement comes amid intensifying pressure from the Syrian street over inflation, which has led to popular calls for Al-Naddaf’s resignation over his failure to halt rising prices or check the continued deterioration in living conditions. To that end, the Syrian pound continues its worrying depreciation. At the time of writing, the pound’s value hovers around an all-time low: 1,740 SYP / USD — having depreciated to approximately one-third of its value as of this time last year. To date, Al-Barazi’s successor as governor of Homs has not been named.
A scapegoat for a crisis with no end in sight
On the economic front, the Government of Syria faces intense popular pressure. Making a sacrificial lamb of a responsible state figure is unlikely to satisfy the immiserated Syrian street for long, especially in light of the fact that scapegoating Al-Naddaf will do nothing to address the drivers of the state’s advanced fiscal disintegration. Like his predecessor — himself a peripatetic governor who served the Syrian state apparatus in multiple governorates — Al-Barazi holds one chief qualification for his new position: deep ties to Syria’s insular ruling structure. As such, it is unlikely that Al-Barazi will introduce new strategic undertakings to the office he now presides over. Among his first acts upon assuming his new post was to shutter 136 businesses for non-compliance with various consumer production laws. This act, like the campaign waged by Al-Naddaf to halt the predations of black marketeers and smugglers, will likely have a greater impact as a media event than a step toward meaningful consumer protection. This is especially true to the extent that any such campaign to rid the market of foul play will run up against the interests of the crony businessmen who operate with nominal regime sanction. Notably, the Syrian state apparatus has traditionally been deaf to popular criticism. Its sensitivity to current pressures should be read as an indicator that economic collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified pressures to a potentially explosive level that cannot safely be ignored.
Of particular note for programmers, Barazi’s reassignment introduces the possibility that the governing landscape in Homs will change in unpredictable ways. Al-Barazi had been noted for his direct role in approving and conditioning returns movements (see: Syria Update 4-10 July 2019 and Syria Update 6-12 November 2019). Moreover, his involvement was seen as a key player in local development, including the application of Law No. 10. How these and other files, to include security, will develop under his successor remains an open question.
2. Government tightens belt, slashes fuel subsidies
Damascus: On 9 May, the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources published a decision to halt fuel subsidies for certain classes of high-consumption motor vehicles, effective 10 May. The decision withdrew the fuel subsidy for individuals who own a private vehicle with an engine capacity greater than 2,000 cc, as well as those who own multiple vehicles. The most pertinent impact, however, will likely come as a result of the decision’s applicability to fleet-based services, thus threatening to halt support for some tranche of the transport industry and taxi services. Meanwhile, the decision has also generated friction due to its wavering rollout. In response to public criticisms, the Government of Syria has been uncharacteristically candid in acknowledging its failure to implement the system smoothly. Mustapha Haswiyah, director of the state entity responsible for distributing fuels, stated in a broadcast interview that the entity may review the shortcomings of the e-card system. Additionally, Tishreen, a newspaper closely affiliated to the Ba’ath Party, noted that it had received “numerous complaints” from readers whose access to fuel at subsidized prices had been revoked erroneously.
Transport costs likely to jump
Ostensibly, the reduction of fuel subsidies is tailored to impact only the classes of private motorists who are, in theory, most capable of paying more for fuel: those who own multiple vehicles or those whose vehicles have large engines (i.e. luxury vehicles). Reportedly, only 9% of Syrian vehicles will be affected by the cut. However, the reduction in subsidies on vehicle fleets may have a deep secondary impact on the transport sector. In that sense, the measure is likely to increase the cost of commercial shipping. As always, the additional cost of bringing goods to market is likely to be passed onto consumers, who are now more pressed than ever, as the Syrian pound depreciates to a new historic low almost daily. Meanwhile, it is worth asking why the Government of Syria has resorted to this measure now. International oil prices are at record lows, and the glut of Iranian oil that has reached Syria as a result is believed to have boosted domestic stores considerably. With supplies strong, a revenue motive is likely behind the measure. Indeed, the Government of Syria faces daunting budgetary challenges, and slashing subsidies is one way to bring more revenue into state coffers.
3. 4th Division demolishes dozens of houses in Harasta
Harasta, Rural Damascus: On 10 May, local media reported that several 4th Division technical units had demolished at least 50 residential housing units belonging to civilian residents of western Harasta, in early May. Reports indicated that 4th Division forces had blocked residents of the affected areas from accessing their neighborhoods, despite having the necessary approvals. Of note, the affected area is important agriculturally, and the 4th Division had granted approvals for farmers to access western Harasta during the daytime to work their fields, and landlords had been permitted to inspect their properties. However, few residents have been permitted to return to Harasta since the Government of Syria’s takeover in spring 2018.
Developing Eastern Ghouta’s Damascus ‘gateway’
Although two years have passed since the Government of Syria crushed the armed opposition’s last redoubt in Eastern Ghouta, the area remains in limbo. Different communities have been set on varying trajectories as authorities continue to view them through the lens of their opposition affiliation. As such, communities like Duma continue to be harassed for military service arrests and security searches, while others such as Jobar and Qaboun were placed at the center of the reconstruction agenda. Harasta is viewed by Syrian authorities as the northern gateway to Damascus, thus granting it significance in the urban area’s comprehensive development scheme (see: Political Demographics: The Markings of the Government of Syria Reconciliation Measures in Eastern Ghouta). Local fears of a hostile redevelopment under the aegis of Law No. 10 persist, yet Law No. 10 has received outsize consideration, at the expense of other legal mechanisms that can achieve similar aims, with less overt friction. Western Harasta appears to have been amalgamated under the Qaboun industrial area Development Plan No. 104, which was passed in July 2019 by Damascus Governorate. The plan affects 50 hectares of Harasta lands; however, it is unclear if the planned area covers the housing units targeted under the recent demolitions.
In either case, a profit motive should be noted. Reports suggest that prominent businessman Mohammad Hamsho was among the supporters of the decision to bar residents from accessing the area, purportedly in an attempt to induce residents to sell off properties. This detail cannot be confirmed, yet the long arc of the area’s post-conflict redevelopment suggests that a Marota City-like project for the area is possible. As such, threats to HLP rights will persist, thus leaving room for manipulation, intimidation, and expropriation.
4. Government forces redeploy amid continued escalation in southern Syria
Mzeireb, Dar’a Governorate: On 13 May, local sources and media reports indicated that large military convoys consisting of 4th Division units and Iran-backed militias were deployed to the vicinity of Mzeireb. This follows shortly after the withdrawal of regular Government of Syria forces, who were initially deployed to Mzeireb a week earlier, following the retaliatory execution of nine police officers by a former opposition commander, which brought the community to a flashpoint (see: Syria Update 11 May). However, the Government of Syria withdrew its forces after a tense standoff, which ended following the intervention of Russian military police and local intermediaries. Relatedly, on 13 May, mass demonstrations were mobilized in Tafas, Mzeireb, and Dar’a Al-Balad in protest of the deployments. Local sources also indicate that further demonstrations took place in Eastern Ghariyeh, 12 km east of Mzeireb, in protest of abuse at checkpoints. Reportedly, local notables asked Russian officers to intercede to remove the checkpoints.
The brink of collapse
The successive military deployments to contain the Mzeireb flare-up are a testament to the ‘stickiness’ of the tensions present in southern Syria. Certainly, substantive issues such as detainees and conscription have persisted throughout southern Syria since the original reconciliation period in the region expired in early 2019, yet the recent events in Mzeireb also highlight the extent to which local security events and internal frictions between various local armed actors are a driver of conflict, and will not be easily quieted, despite intervention on the part of Russia. Several points are especially notable. First, the apparent failure of previous rounds of mediation to quell unrest suggests the limitations of Russian mediation and the possibility that on the local level, various armed actors are also out of sync in dealing with the present conditions. Second, to that end, the composition of the new military deployment suggests the Government of Syria is willing to countenance a hardline approach to bringing the community to heel.
5. HTS reconstitutes the morality police
Idleb governorate: On 11 May, local media sources reported that HTS had reconstituted its morality police in Idleb and border communities and rebranded the force as the “Welfare Center” (markaz al-falah). The entity is reportedly a branch of the security forces, and it is tasked with implementing strict religious dictates. The newly formed center has reportedly published decisions related to gender segregation in public places and a prohibition on men selling women’s clothing or working with female non-relatives. Previously, a similar body existed and was known as Sawa’id Al-Khayr, but it was colloquially referred to as the Hisba, or “accountability” office. Such forces have been an inconsistent presence in HTS-controlled areas of northwest Syria. Reportedly, the entity was formally disbanded in 2017, yet morality police functions have continued in some capacity and often informally under the initiative of various other actors affiliated to HTS, albeit with lessening effect since HTS consolidated its de facto control over Idleb in early 2019 (see: Syria Update 10-16 January 2019). Previously, the Sawa’id Al-Khayr generated intense friction with the local population over its attempts to enforce segregation and to ban smoking. Now, the group’s reformation has sparked public outcry once again.
Among the many questions raised by the reinstitution of the morality police, the most pertinent is: why now? Within the scope of its overall strategic direction, HTS is now navigating a very narrow path indeed. Its long-term survival in some form requires a core faction of the group to prove strategic utility to Turkey. However, among the most important factors in establishing this usefulness is to prove a capacity to govern a local Syrian population that Turkey is itself unwilling and incapable of governing directly. The noted unpopularity of the morality police raises serious doubts for precisely this reason. However, it is also important to bear in mind that some functions ascribed to the morality police were also practiced by various HTS combatants directly; however, such interference was often seemingly ad-hoc and unenforceable. This is particularly true of internationally supported local initiatives and donor-funded programs, which were often capable of asserting independence by leveraging their international funding streams. As a result, the formal re-institution of the morality police function may not represent a step-change in the enforcement of social norms in northwest Syria, but it does raise questions over the contest for primacy between HTS’s own hardline and pragmatic wings.
6. Flour and diesel smuggling from Lebanon in the spotlight
Lebanon: Amid Lebanon’s continuing financial meltdown, local media have highlighted the illicit trade in diesel fuel and flour to neighboring Syria. According to local media reporting, an estimated 2 million liters of diesel fuel is being smuggled from Lebanon to Syria daily. Likewise, local media reports indicate that an increase in bulk flour sales in Lebanon without an obvious uptick in consumption suggest that flour is also being smuggled to Syria. Of note, in Lebanon, the issues have taken on deep political significance, thus fueling political rhetoric on the need to cut off illegal smuggling routes along the Syria-Lebanon border.
New attention for an old trade
As the collapse of the Lebanese economy continues, Lebanon’s deteriorating capacity to import goods becomes an increasing liability for Syria, which remains highly reliant on Lebanon as an outlet to the international market (see: Two Countries, One Crisis: the Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria). The Syria-Lebanon border has historically been porous, and smuggling has been a key economic activity in border communities in both nations. As such, reports on cross-border smuggling, specifically of diesel, are not uncommon. What is unprecedented is the tension that has surfaced in Lebanon due to the economic crisis, which has intensified anti-corruption rhetoric and brought smuggling under greater scrutiny. Nonetheless, the willingness and capacity of the Lebanese government and its ruling classes to effectively end smuggling are in serious doubt.
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.
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Source: The Carter Center
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Source: Current Affairs
Date: 7 May 2020
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Source: Center for Strategic Studies
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Source: Middle East Institute
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Source: Syria in Context
Date: 13 May 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.