Syria Update

29 June 2020
Syria Update
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5th Corps and Government forces clash in Dar’a: A step-change for Syria’s most restive region as Oudeh and Russia bid for more power?

In Depth Analysis

On 27 June, intense clashes reportedly broke out between Russian-backed 5th Corps units and Government of Syria State Security in eastern rural Dar’a. At least five combatants were killed in the confrontations, during which the 5th Corps seized control over checkpoints in Sayda and Kahil, approximately 10 and 12 km east of Dar’a city. The clashes are the latest event to raise the pitch of tensions in southern Syria. On 20 June, an IED blast outside Kahil reportedly struck a bus transporting 5th Corps soldiers from Latakia to Busra al-Sham, killing nine and injuring 13. The ensuing public funeral transformed into a mass demonstration that has been described as the largest in Dar’a since 2018. Among protesters were soldiers and local civilians who vented rage at the Government of Syria and called for the expulsion of the Iranian and Hezbollah forces, which they blamed for the as-yet unclaimed bus attack. The protesters’ demands are not new in the context of southern Syria’s persistent discord. However, it is notable that the events have energized military recruitment by the 5th Corps under the auspices of the former Free Syria Army commander Ahmed Oudeh, as he and the 5th Corps vie for greater influence across southern Syria.

Who is Ahmad Oudeh?

Oudeh was a prominent commander in the Southern Front, and he served as a focal point for Western logistical and military support through the Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC). Oudeh used his influence to intercede with Russian military forces and broker the reconciliation terms that have shaped the subsequent trajectory of southern Syria. Although the capitulation to the Government of Syria’s most vital military partner severely dented Oudeh’s popularity at the time, it also gave him a platform for remobilization: the 5th Corps. By returning to the field with Russian support, Oudeh retained a foothold throughout eastern Dar’a governorate, where his power base has steadily grown over time as the 5th Corps itself has cemented its standing. The 5th Corps has been credited as a primary factor

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in the comparatively positive outcomes for eastern Dar’a communities in terms of security incidents, arrests, checkpoints, and breaches of reconciliation terms. These outcomes have not been universal, nor is it accurate to say that Oudeh is unchallenged, even in communities where his influence is formidable. Nonetheless, Oudeh has largely succeeded in cultivating a popular image as an important local power broker whose standing is backed by persistent — and growing — military influence staked by Russia.

Capitalizing on chaos

Following the bus attack in Kahil, on 23 June, Oudeh delivered a public address in Busra al-Sham, the 5th Corps’ effective base in eastern Dar’a governorate. In the speech, Oudeh stated that “soon, Horan will be one body and one army” — an apparent reference to the nebulous ambition of creating a single military umbrella in southern Syria under the 5th Corps, which has been engaged in a wide-reaching recruitment campaign since May, if not earlier. No doubt, economic hardship and the lack of non-military livelihood opportunities has factored in the success of the recruitment drive so far. Yet ideological incentives may also be at play. Large numbers of men in Dar’a have enlisted with the 5th Corps, particularly the Eighth Brigade, the same unit targeted in the Kahil bus attack. Many of the recruits are military defectors, deserters, and former opposition fighters.

Iran, Russia, and the scramble for the south

Through the 5th Corps, Oudeh has capitalized on the chaos in southern Syria to restore his reputation and build a popular base of local support. Now, it is not yet clear what the endgame of this approach will be, for Russia or for Oudeh himself. Certainly, resistance to Iran-linked groups and Hezbollah will be central to this effort, particularly given the axiomatic nature of Russian-Iranian tensions in southern Syria. However, the 5th Corps’ strategic relationship with the Government of Syria is more important — and less certain. Like all the formal military units that are active in Dar’a, the 5th Corps is nominally aligned with the Government of Syria, despite its composition and provenance. Nonetheless, combatants’ loyalties to Oudeh and Russia likely will complicate relations with Damascus. Local sources indicate unconfirmed reports that Oudeh recently met with Ali Mamlouk, head of Syria’s National Security Office, to discuss security conditions in southern Syria. During the meeting, Oudeh reportedly signaled his intention to oversee the formation of a single umbrella armed group for southern Syria. Mamlouk reportedly denounced the proposal as an overt challenge to Damascus.

To date, it has been extremely difficult to ascribe focused, ideological objectives to the chaos that has fragmented southern Syria since the area’s reconciliation agreements expired in early 2019. While much of this violence has clearly been directed against the Government of Syria and its proxies, in the aggregate, these events have lacked a sense of unambiguous purpose. In this respect, an understanding of the motivation for past attacks has not produced useful insight into the ultimate objectives of attackers. Forecasting and analysis have been extremely difficult as a result.

Now, the latest clashes between the 5th Corps and Government of Syria forces may evince a rift between Russia and the Government of Syria over the balance of power in Dar’a. If further clashes take place, the Government of Syria may be compelled to assert its presence more severely, as it did with a notable show of force in Mzeireb and surrounding areas in May (see: Syria Update 26 May). A key indicator of Russia’s intentions will be widening 5th Corps recruitment or expanded military activity in western rural Dar’a. Open confrontations with Iran-linked or Hezbollah forces will also be indicative. If Oudeh’s star continues to rise, it may also be an omen that Russia seeks to revisit its past strategy of expanding its authority through local intermediaries who command popular support. Potential motivations for Russia to do so abound. Southern Syria has been plagued by assassinations and seemingly random violence. Iranian forces exercise strong influence in much of the region. The geopolitical concerns that are raised by Israel and Jordan as a result make the region’s stability a priority for Russia. Whether Russia will attempt to impose order in close cooperation with the Government of Syria or in opposition to it, through a stakeholder such as Oudeh, remains to be seen.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 25_WebMap

1. HTS defections mount as clashes with ‘Fa Athbotou’ groups intensify

Idleb governorate: On 25 June, a truce between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and the newly formed Fa Athbotou operation room reportedly ended two days of intense clashes in the area stretching west from Idleb city to Armanaz and Jisr Al-Shughur. The clashes reportedly erupted following HTS’s detention of Malek Al-Taleh, a former military commander of HTS and the current leader of Hurras Al-Deenn, on 22 June. HTS had also detained numerous other critics and prominent local figures in recent days. Altogether, the Fa Athbotou operations room consists of a hodgepodge of extremist groups operating in Idelb, the most prominent of which are Hurras Al-Deen, Liwaa Al Ansar, Jabhat Ansar Al-Deen, Ansar Al-Islam, and the Jihad Coordination Group. The number of fighters brought together under the umbrella is difficult to establish with certainty. However, local sources estimate that it consists of 1,500 combatants who defected from HTS. Separately, as the inter-group clashes raged, the Government of Syria forces reportedly infiltrated opposition-controlled bases on the eastern frontlines of Jabal Al-Zawiya, instigating clashes between them that resulted in the death of four opposition fighters.

A paradigm shift for northwest’s extremists 

Defections from HTS are nothing new, nor is it novel that tensions have flared between the group’s more pragmatic wing and its own ideological hardliners and those of rival groups. However, there are indicators to suggest that this series of clashes may signal a paradigm shift in inter-group dynamics in northwest Syria. Indeed, HTS’s apparent clampdown, its detention of perceived rivals, and facile attempts to ban further defections or the formation of new operations rooms all raise serious questions over the group’s continuing hold on power in northwest Syria. The fact that several battalions within HTS reportedly abstained from taking up arms in the latest clashes is further evidence that the fissures within the group’s own command and control structures are real. These divisions are likely to invite further internal and external challenges. These may constitute a serious test of the group’s survival in its current form. On the strategic dimension, should events rise to the level of a bona fide threat to HTS, Turkey may be prompted to order decisive actions against the unreconstructed factions of HTS. Russia has long insisted upon such actions, which have been impossible to countenance as long as the group has remained an important local buffer for Turkey. Finally, the clashes that have taken place also up the odds that the Government of Syria and Russia will see an opening to renew their attacks on opposition-held Idleb.

2. Banks scramble to provide cash terminals as Caesar kick in

Damascus: On 23 June, Syrian state media announced that the Real Estate Bank of Syria and the Syrian postal system had extended its network of terminals to distribute military and civilian salaries and benefits to Latakia, Hama, Homs via the “real estate card.” The system had already been rolled out in Aleppo, Rural Damascus, and Tartous, while it is planned for expansion into Dar’a and Sweida. According to the director of the bank, the goal of the system is to “reduce overcrowding and the burden of movement for citizens while they collect salaries and benefits.” Of note, the measure coincides with an announcement by Cham Bank that it will begin offering cash payouts by secure envelope.

Summer of Caesar

Despite the positive tone adopted by Syrian authorities and bank officials, the banking initiatives likely come in response to the severe hardship facing Syrian financial institutions. Which hardships are to blame is difficult to determine. Syria’s economy has experienced acute turmoil since mid-2019, and rapidly changing conditions have clearly stressed Syria’s national financial infrastructure while squeezing businesses and individuals and reducing overall services. It is also possible that the Caesar sanctions have played a role in the move. Unconfirmed local reports indicate that Syria’s ATM network has gone offline. Multiple explanations for a lapse in network functionality are plausible, including preemptive de-risking by international financial software service providers. Of note, the financial services industry is among the sectors that is most directly exposed to risk as a result of the Caesar Act, which explicitly calls for scrutiny of the Central Bank of Syria as an institution “of primary money laundering concern.

More broadly, the knock-on effects the sanctions may have for everyday life and basic services in Syria will be considerable (see: Syria Update 22 June). In this respect, licensing and software updates constitute an important but often overlooked impact that sanctions will have on the functionality of various Syrian sectors. Reportedly, Zoom video-conferencing software is no longer functional inside Syria. Now, there is a risk that state institutions, medical diagnostic tools, and other industrial capacities will also degrade or go offline altogether as the international community seeks to isolate the Government of Syria. While difficult to confirm in the case of expanding cash terminals, such impacts speak to the wider risk that even though the sanctions contain humanitarian exemptions, unanticipated impacts are inevitably present.

3. Israeli attacks strike wide swathe of Syria

Various locations: In the early morning hours of 24 June, Israeli aircraft targeted multiple targets across Syria in an extensive fusillade that is the latest in Israel’s long-running shadow war with Iran on Syrian soil, according to multiple local media reports. Two Syrian soldiers and at least five Iranian combatants were reportedly killed in the series of strikes, which targeted purported Iranian logistical centers and munitions depots. Among the notable locations targeted were ten sites located in far-flung areas, including Salkhad, in As-Sweida governorate, As-Salamiyeh and Sabura in Hama governorate, and Sokhneh in rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate.

Iran’s Syria survival strategy

Through much of 2020, reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria have returned to baseline levels, following a lull of several months in mid-2019. What distinguishes the latest series of attacks from previous incidents is the targeting itself. Not only were the targets widespread geographically, but they also occurred in areas that have seen few if any attacks in recent memory. It is possible that Iranian forces have purposefully distributed their assets in Syria in a bid to reduce the impact of Israeli targeting. If true, this is a likely response to Israeli’s reported campaign to degrade Iran’s rocket program and basing strategy in Syria (see: Syria Update 26 May). In a rare public acknowledgment of Israel’s military actions in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened “constant action” to prevent Iranian forces from entrenching themselves in Syria. This campaign will run up against practical limitations that will check its ultimate efficacy, yet continued attacks are likely, and they have the potential to continue to have a deep impact. Iranian forces may be driven to new locations to avoid future attacks. One possible outcome is that the presence of Iranian forces and the resultant targeting of new communities may exacerbate local social tensions, particularly in restive areas in southern Syria, where Iranian forces are already deeply unpopular.

4. Spate of attacks trigger concern of ISIS ‘return’

Various Locations: A spate of recent attacks linked to ISIS across Government-held Syria have prompted local media sources to raise the alarm over the purported “return” of ISIS. Local media report at least five such events in 10 days. On 18 June, ISIS fighters reportedly clashed with the Government of Syria forces in Ithraya, killing 15 Government of Syria fighters. On 22 June, two separate ISIS attacks were reported in northeastern rural Aleppo governorate, and in Al-Mayadeen in southern Deir-ez-Zor governorate, resulting in the death of several government combatants.

Attacks continue, but without clear direction  

Definitive quantitative data concerning ISIS attacks in Syria is wanting. However, there is room for cautious skepticism over the purported change to the intensity and scope of ISIS activities. The reported death of 15 soldiers in a single clash is certainly noteworthy in its own right. However, it does not necessarily follow that the reports of widespread attacks across Government-held territory signal a phase shift in the activities of ISIS cells in Syria. In this respect, there is no clear-cut evidence of a campaign of coordinated or strategically purposeful attacks. Rather, the most consistent through-line of ISIS activities since the group was uprooted from eastern Syria’s population centers is the distinct lack of a coherent objective that it can achieve through persistent, focused action. The practical implication of this reality is encapsulated by the strategic vagueness of the U.S. State Department’s newly released counterterrorism country report for Syria. The report notes tersely that throughout 2019, “ISIS cells remained active in parts of Syria and launched attacks on civilians and U.S. partner forces.” Government of Syria and opposition forces in northwest Syria were also targeted. This is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future, and it may be impossible to ascribe broader ambitions than a simple desire to play a spoiler role. The pace of such attacks may ebb and flow as local conditions change, but ISIS is likely to remain a fixture of the security landscape in Syria for the long term.

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 Syrian regime declares its readiness to provide support to Egypt in Libya

What Does It Say? Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem has announced the Government of Syria’s official support for Egypt in its backing for the Libyan National Army.

Reading Between the Lines: The move is a notable political gambit by Damascus and is likely driven by three factors: its alliance with Russia, its hope for rapprochement with Egypt, and the inveterate mistrust of Turkey, which continues to eat away at Syria’s northern frontiers.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 23 June 2020

How Abu Dhabi provides assistance to Damascus

What Does It Say? The report provides fresh details on the reportedly offer made by Abu Dhabi: a top-up of $3 billion to the Government of Syria if it continued to fight opposition forces in Idleb.

Reading Between the Lines: The report is more titillating than it is informative. Certainly, there are hopes across the board in Syria that the battlefield can be used to drain the coffers of geopolitical rivals. Nonetheless, the report remains dubious: such an offer would raise eyebrows, even by regional standards.

Source: Orient XXI

Language: Arbic

Date: 23 June 2020

Is Ahmad al-Oda winning the “hearts and minds” of Dar’a’s people?

What Does It Say? Ahmad Oudeh is cultivating popularity in Dar’a.

Reading Between the Lines: By raising his stature, Oudeh is safeguarding his gains as a power broker in his own right, while ensuring that he becomes indispensable at the negotiation table with the Government of Syria.

Source: Middle East Institute

Language: English

Date: 22 June 2020

Rifaat al-Assad: From the Butcher of Hama to aspiring opposition leader

What Does It Say? A French court sentenced Bashar Al-Assad’s paternal uncle, Rifaat Al-Assad, to four years in prison for corruption for embezzling more than $300 million. 

Reading Between the Lines: The elder Al-Assad has not been in Syria since 1984, yet his conviction offers hope to many Syrians that justice can be attained, even after decades of impunity.

Source: Snack Syrian

Language: English

Date: 21 June 2020

Syrian Christians Between National Identity and Ecclesiastical Identity 

What Does It Say? The article notes how Syrian Christians are caught between incongruent religious and national identities. 

Reading Between the Lines:  The conflict has displaced Syria’s Christians as much as almost any other social group. This has only intensified the feelings of besiegement and victimization, which have in turn fueled the Government’s attempts to co-opt the community.

Source: Ninar Press

Language: Arabic

Date: 20 June 2020

Sanctions Against Syria Will Help, Not Harm, Civilians

What Does It Say? The article claims that the Caesar sanctions will not harm the civilians of Syria, only the Government of Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: This claim is simply implausible. The sanctions will undoubtedly affect ordinary Syrians, while there are grave and realistic concerns over their actual capacity to bring additional pressure to bear on the ruling elite who have profited from the conflict.

Source: Foreign Policy

Language: English

Date: 17 June 2020

Syrian textile workers amid the covid-19 pandemic: a case for closer cooperation between Turkey and the EU

What Does It Say? Syrian refugees working in Turkey’s textile industry face multiple challenges over working conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these conditions, putting Syrian refugees working in the industry in increasing vulnerability. 

Reading Between the Lines: The conditions present opportunities for Europe, including the imperative for more basic assistance, the need for advocacy for more worker protections and access to the formal labor market, and procurement conditions for European brands.

Source: Istanbul Policy Center

Language: English

Date: June 2020

As Turkish Currency Returns, Syria Relives a Tumultuous History

What Does It Say? With the Syrian lira in a continued state of free fall — eclipsing 3,000 SYP/USD — northern Syria has taken to using the Turkish lira in daily transactions.

Reading Between the Lines: the collapse of the Syrian lira and the introduction of the Turkish currency in northern Syria is further cementing Turkey’s position in Syria.

Source: Center for Global Policy

Language: English

Date: 19 June 2020

Welcome to the Archaeological Museum of Palmyra

What Does It Say? A virtual tour of the Archaeological Museum of Palmyra.

Reading Between the Lines: The irretrievable loss of Syria’s heritage is an neglected consequence of the conflict. While the social and identitarian aspects of this loss are clear, it will also have an economic impact as Syrians will struggle to capitalize on heritage to build post-conflict livelihoods.

Source: Virtual Museum Syria

Language: English

Date: No Date

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.