Syria Update

11 January 2021
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Emboldened Self-Administration bids for greater power

In Depth Analysis

In a barn-burning statement published on 2 January, Ilham Ahmad, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), laid out a bold 2021 agenda for the Self-Administration. Ahmad stated that the Self-Administration hopes to burnish its image “as the seat of shared democracy in Syria, which is our joint project with the Syrian opposition and all parties [vying for] a solution [to the conflict].” However, the core proposition presented by Ahmad is not multi-party rapprochement, but triumphalism. The program lays out how the Self-Administration seeks to capitalize on growing foreign support to strengthen its position against local political rivals, the Government of Syria, and Turkey.

Ahmad’s remarks should be seen first and foremost as political rhetoric. They were published by an online news platform affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which represents the bleeding edge of revolutionary political ideology in the Self-Administration. The SDC itself later published a sanitized version of the remarks that left more room to find common cause across constituencies. While the statement may not represent a major departure from previous positions, its tone and assertiveness are undeniable. Collectively, Ahmad’s remarks capture the essence of the Self-Administration’s current mandate. Its leadership must balance competing local interests, yet an increasingly pressing question is how mounting pressure on Damascus and heightened international support to northeast Syria will advance the interest of the Self-Administration’s politically insular core.

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Cementing the status quo in the northeast

Through a combination of political pressure, military leverage, and sanctions applied to Syrian government entities, the U.S. has implicitly pushed for greater international support to northeast Syria (see: Syria Update 4 January 2021). By default, much of this is channeled through the Self-Administration, which is dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political affiliate of the YPG. Within the ambit of northeast Syria, these actors are negotiating from a position of considerable strength.

At face value, Ahmad’s statement suggests the Self-Administration’s openness to building bridges with the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), which is influential on the ground in northwest Syria. More likely, it refers to other opposition-affiliated actors rooted in northeast Syria, such as Ahmad al-Jarba’s Syria’s Tomorrow Movement or the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The Self-Administration has expended significant energy in its attempts to reconcile with rival factions in northeast Syria. Progress to date has been limited, and occasional partisan flareups demonstrate that full-blown reconciliation inside the Self-Administration will not be achieved easily. However, renewed U.S. and international support will likely embolden the Self-Administration leadership to wield greater leverage over rival local actors.

The view from Damascus

Ahmad’s remarks also call attention to the breakdown of negotiations with the Government of Syria. Flirtations between the Self-Administration and Damascus have ended in mutual disappointment. The Syrian government has not won back access to Syria’s major water, grain, and hydrocarbon resources — all located in the northeast — and it shows little willingness to offer a flexible reconciliation model to advance this goal. In effect, Damascus continues to promote a reconciliation format that is, from the Self-Administration’s perspective, tantamount to negotiated euthaniasia. So long as it shelters under the U.S. military aegis, the Self-Administration has little reason to sacrifice the political, military, and bureaucratic structures that it views as the signal achievements of northeast Syria (see: Potential Models of Governance in Northeast Syria). Previously, Turkish military pressure forced the Self-Administration to entertain negotiations. Now, the advent of a new Biden administration that is less accommodating to Turkey reduces the likelihood of another Turkish military incursion. The Self-Administration has less reason to negotiate with Damascus as a result.

To this end, Ahmad also called for greater UN aid to northeast Syria and demanded a stronger direct relationship between the UN and the Self-Administration, free of constraints imposed by Damascus. One flashpoint concerning aid access will be renewal of the cross-border resolution. The Self-Administration may view the inevitable renewal fight at the Security Council as a litmus test of the international community’s strategic direction in Syria (see: Syria Update 13 July 2020).

More provocative yet, Ahmad also called attention to the “political and diplomatic significance” of international delegations that have visited northeast Syria. In a seemingly contradictory formulation, Ahmad stated, “We do not speak about diplomatic recognition, but with the passage of time, work toward the democratic resolution to the Syrian crisis will lead to recognition of the Self-Administration. As for official recognition of the Self-Administration, it is an obligation on all humanity, and it is necessary for the world to carry out its duty and support this project.”

The view from Ankara

Ankara is certainly capable of parsing political double-speak, yet Ahmad’s nod toward “official recognition” of the Self-Administration will raise alarm in Turkey, diminishing the prospect that the parties will unify their lines of effort to pressure Damascus. Finding common ground (or at least common purpose) between the Self-Administration and the opposition in northern Aleppo and Idleb will remain difficult. The two sides are divided by political philosophy, demographics, and an acrimonious history. Yet their most important split concerns Turkey. Although some blocs within the opposition are outside Ankara’s orbit, the most influential opposition actors rely on Turkey for material, logistical, and political support. This puts them at odds with the Self-Administration, which Turkey continues to view as an inherent threat. It will be all the more difficult to advance their shared interest in pressuring Damascus given Ahmad’s declaration that “ending the occupation” — a reference to Turkey’s presence in the Peace Spring area — is among the Self-Administration’s chief goals for 2021.

Little has come of the steps the SDC and SDF have taken to show flexibility in their stance toward Turkey and the Syrian opposition. These steps include a statement made by SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi, in November 2020, expressing the SDF’s willingness to negotiate with Turkey and distance itself from the PKK (see: Syria Update 25 November 2020), as well as the peace talks between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the YPG, and the KNC, a member of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition (see: Syria Update 28 September 2020).

Actions trump words. Cutting ties with the PKK is a remote possibility. The PKK is enormously influential within the upper ranks of the SDF and, consequently, inside the Self-Administration as a whole. Abandoning or restructuring the PKK would require a major reconfiguration of northeast Syria’s political and security apparatus. The failure of the so-called Menbij roadmap is evidence — on a small scale — of how delicate such a scheme would be upon implementation.

How aid implementers should respond

Aid actors and donor agencies will be forced to navigate an uncertain future in northeast Syria. Coordinating security and access approvals through the Self-Administration is a requirement for working in northeast Syria. However, implementers can reduce their exposure to shifting political currents by finding independent entry points and avoiding, wherever possible, close affiliation with the Self-Administration. This should be viewed as an opportunity rather than an encumbrance. Working through local stakeholders and community entry points will not only reduce risk, it will also bring aid programming closer to beneficiaries and local needs.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 4 No.2_WebMap

1. Aleppo traders clash with customs agents

Aleppo city, Aleppo governorate: On 31 December, media sources reported that the Syrian Customs Directorate’s Anti-Smuggling Bureau confiscated goods worth an estimated quarter-billion Syrian pounds during a series of raids targeting smuggled merchandise in Aleppo city. The seized goods were primarily consumer products of Turkish origin — including clothes, accessories, cosmetics, and medicines — with an estimated value of up to 250 million SYP (approx. $87,000). The majority of raided shops and warehouses were located in the neighborhoods of Aziziyeh, Al Telal, and Al Mogambo‎. Facilities were sealed for two weeks, and some owners were arrested and transferred to Damascus to prove the legitimate sourcing of their goods. Brigadier General Asef Alloush, the head of Customs Control, stated that the primary goal of the campaign was to target the “smuggling whales in Aleppo” who have capitalized on fluid security conditions to build large-scale smuggling networks. In order to contain the traders’ anger, the head of the Syrian Customs, Fawaz As’ad, visited the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce on 10 January. As’ad affirmed that Customs patrols will be barred from raiding shops inside the city, while suspected cases will be investigated by Aleppo customs authorities alongside the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce.

Power play

The raid is evidence of tensions that have persisted as state authorities and local business communities jockey for power and economic footholds in post-conflict Syria. The raid should not be seen as evidence of an earnest or far-reaching campaign to crack down on cross-border smuggling, although smuggling is undoubtedly a concern, especially in northern Aleppo. Rather, this incident evinces the multi-front battle between state authorities looking to capture state revenue, traders hoping to profit from wartime connections, and industrialists seeking to rebuild the nation’s crippled manufacturing capacity.

Local traders have spoken out against what they see as overzealous and punitive customs enforcement. The Aleppo Chamber of Commerce condemned the campaign, which it said “led to a complete paralysis in commercial movement during the holiday period in Aleppo markets.” On 5 January, more than 200 Aleppan traders convened a meeting at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce. The MPs who were invited to attend did not show up. In response, the chamber announced the creation of a committee to coordinate with the Ministry of Finance to arbitrate disputes between local traders and customs officials.

Meanwhile, Aleppo industrialists cast blame on traders. In September, the Chamber of Industry called for a “serious” crackdown on smuggling, including by reducing import subsidies (see: Syria Update 7 September 2020). The head of the Chamber of Industry, former MP Fares Shehabi, has been among the leading voices blaming Aleppo’s industrial woes on smuggled Turkish goods. Syrian markets are awash in Turkish products as a result of Syria’s economic collapse and the Syrian Government’s unwillingness to crack down on smuggling. In 2019, the prime minister’s office agreed to increase the customs agency’s authority in order to “dry up the sources of smuggling in Syria.” Reportedly, this has resulted in intensifying patrols around cities and on main commercial roads. However, the main focus of enforcement has shifted downstream, resulting in raids carried out inside cities and commercial hubs. Shopkeepers, final-mile marketers, and small and medium enterprises are bearing the brunt of enforcement tactics that leave unscathed the very “whales” officials have vowed to target — figures such as Ali Khader and Hussam Qaterji.

A final consideration is financial. The increase in customs raids may also suggest the Government of Syria’s hunger for additional resources. In 2020, customs revenues from fines counted between 18 billion and 35 billion SYP, providing ample incentive for crackdowns to be carried out when doing so does not alienate important constituencies or powerful backers.

2. Government forces thwart assassination attempt against minister of agriculture

Dar’a city, Dar’a governorate: On 5 January, Syrian Minister of Agriculture Mohammad Hassan Qatana reportedly avoided an attempted assassination on the M5 Highway near Kherbet Ghazaleh. Pro-Government media reported that an engineering unit thwarted an IED attack moments before a convoy carrying Qatana and several local officials passed through the area. A series of assassinations targeting Government of Syria forces in Dar’a governorate took place in the week leading up to the incident. Local and media sources reported that these successful attacks mainly targeted members of Military Security, most notably, Chief Officer Marhaj Hassan and Commander Kamal Ibrahim. Several members of the 4th Division and the 5th Corps were also assassinated. Relatedly, on 7 January, the head of the Jasim municipality, Radi Jelem, was also assassinated.

Intentional or incidental?

Assassinations targeting Government of Syria military figures are commonplace in the chaotic security landscape of southern Syria, but a potential attack targeting a minister raises further questions. At the time of writing, it is not yet clear if Qatana was deliberately targeted or if the incident was merely opportunistic, without a clear intention to single out Qatana. As such, there are two possible explanations for this incident.

First, Qatana could have been intentionally targeted by local armed groups, both because he is a high-profile Syrian minister and because he is the figurehead of unpopular decisions to navigate the flour crisis and drive up wheat production in southern Syria (see: Syria Update 21 December 2020). Limitations on the use of subsidized agricultural inputs have been controversial, and the drive to increase local wheat production risks forcing farmers to neglect more suitable, traditional crops. Prior to pushing through these controversial measures, Qatana had said that Syrians must rely on themselves to secure bread and should not wait for government assistance. Such inflammatory statements, coupled with the restrictive measures on farmers, might have promoted antagonism among locals, leading to an assassination attempt.

Second, the assassination attempt might simply have been a side effect of the chaotic security landscape in Dar’a governorate. Indeed, as of writing, 10 assassinations have been confirmed as having taken place in the first week of the new year. These targeted Government of Syria forces, including members of Military Security. Unrest and insecurity have been defining features of post-reconciliation Dar’a; the measures imposed following the reconciliation agreement, in 2018, have failed to pacify the region (see: Syria Update 19 October 2020; Syria Update 16 November 2020). Since October 2020, there have been approximately 75 assassinations in Dar’a, mainly targeting former opposition members. Although the number of assassinations dipped in December 2020, the trend so far this year suggests that security incidents of this sort are likely to continue in Dar’a governorate. Aid implementers must be mindful of the fluid security conditions in the governorate and the risk that political and even technocratic decisions could fuel instability and violence.

3. Anti-SDF protests over conscription in Deir-ez-Zor

Sabha, Al-Azba, and Zghir Jazireh, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 3-4 January, demonstrations erupted across multiple towns in rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate to protest the forced conscription law imposed by the SDF. The forced conscription law, commonly referred to as the ‘self-defence law’, was enacted by the Self-Administration in 2014 and has been modified several times throughout the conflict. Media sources reported that the SDF met the protests with violence, and that mild clashes took place between the protesters and the SDF. Other anti-SDF protests had already been taking place in Deir-ez-Zor in recent weeks, as a result of the worsening living conditions, public services, and security conditions in the governorate. Local sources indicate that there are calls for general strikes across all towns in rural Deir-ez-Zor.

Conscription policies raise the stakes

Anti-SDF protests have been a regular occurrence in Deir-ez-Zor, but they are spiking now as a result of a confluence of factors. Local sources note that the ongoing demonstrations coincide with the sharp decline in fuel provision, rising socioeconomic pressures, deteriorating living conditions, and — now — forced conscription. The Self-Administration has previously mitigated locals’ anger by convening large-scale meetings between the SDF-affiliated Deir-ez-Zor local council and local tribal leaders. In contrast, the current protests devolved into violent clashes and repression. Media reports indicate that the SDF has detained several locals and activists accused of organizing the protests in Deir-ez-Zor.

In December 2020, anti-SDF protests increased markedly as a result of the Self-Administration’s decision to forcefully conscript school teachers, health workers, and employees in local councils and other Self-Administration institutions. This decision reportedly came in response to IS activity in rural Deir-ez-Zor. These events also follow the Self-Administration’s release, in early October 2020, of approximately 630 detainees, some of whom had been accused of being linked to IS. It also follows stepped-up efforts to release families from Al-Hol camp. IS-linked or not, such individuals are unlikely to view the Self-Administration positively. The protests will likely continue taking place for the foreseeable future, especially if the SDF continues to meet the demonstrators with violence.

4. Massive hike in transport license fees augurs tariff jump

Damascus: On 6 January, the Syrian Transportation Ministry dramatically increased the annual fees charged to microbus owners with commercial vehicle licences. The fee skyrocketed from 2,000 SYP to 62,000 SYP, a 30-fold increase. For trucks, fees were raised 10 fold, jumping from 20,000 SYP to 200,000 SYP. The massive increase follows a year in which the Sryian pound hit record lows; the currency shed two-thirds of its value and is now approaching 3,000 SYP/USD.

More fuel to the fire as tanks go empty

The massive increase in transit fees will have a pronounced impact on licensees, while knock-on effects are likely to be felt widely across all transit-dependent sectors and the population as a whole. The public transportation sector faltered in 2020 as drivers faced fuel shortages and price rises passed greater costs on to consumers. It is not clear if collectively set public transit costs will also change, but drivers will likely find themselves in an untenable position. As the value of the Syrian pound erodes, the Syrian Government continues to benefit from the asymmetry between market and fiat currency rates. Cheap tricks — including subsidy reductions and the maintenance of multiple conversion rates (high rates for dollar sales, low rates for purchases) — allow the Central Bank to improve the state’s balance sheets. Ordinary Syrians are not so lucky, and they will continue to bear the costs as deterioration continues unchecked.

5. Surprise attack: Hurras al-Din strikes Russian base in Ar-Raqqa

Tel Al-Samen, Ar-Raqqa governorate: On 30 December, local media reported that a car bomb attack had targeted a Russian military base in Tel Al-Samen, rural Ar-Raqqa governorate. Although Russian media has been tight-lipped regarding the incident, opposition media sources claimed that the attack resulted in a number of Russian casualties. The extremist group published a leaflet on 1 January claiming responsibility for the attack.

Drawing a wildcard

This incident has potentially major implications for aid implementers. The most troubling is that Hurras al-Din has been able to expand its operational remit and penetrate SDF-controlled areas. Certainly, there will be questions about the identity of the attackers, including questions about their mobility within and across SDF areas. Potentially, the attack may also signal the beginning of a new phase for the group. Hurras al-Din has struggled to assert a strategic purpose after a period of silence following clashes with its rival, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the summer of 2020. The attack sends a message to both the SDF and HTS that Hurras al-Din remains relevant. The attack demonstrates HTS’s failure to contain the latter group after its refusal to cut ties with Al-Qaeda. The targeting of Russian forces may indicate the group’s willingness to carry its resistance to Syrian government and Russian forces from northwest to northeast Syria. If established, Hurras al-Din’s presence in the northeast would present a new wildcard to implementers who have sought to capitalize on the region’s comparative stability to carry out long-term humanitarian and non-humanitarian programming.

6. Gulf reconciliation: Fearing Iran, GCC turns to Turkey

Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia: On 4 January, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reconciled with Qatar, opening Saudi land, sea, and airspace to Qatar for the first time since an acrimonious rupture in 2017. Of note for Syria, the reconciliation conference in Al-Ula, emphasized the Geneva I principles and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as political lodestars for the resolution of the Syria crisis. During the conference, the GCC condemned Iran’s presence in Syria and singled out Hezbollah. The council stressed that all Iranian forces should leave Syria immediately, although this statement was crafted in a way that left room for other regional actors to maintain a presence in the country. The Syrian Opposition Coalition praised Kuwait’s role in Gulf reconciliation and expressed its hope that a similarly happy political solution could be reached in Syria.

Still frosty toward Iran, warming up to Turkey

Although the Gulf states have varying positions on Iran, it is widely believed that Gulf reconciliation has been driven in part by a desire to create a unified Gulf Arab front, including to promote shared interests against Iran. The Syria crisis is one area in which such efforts may bear fruit. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both supported the Syrian opposition, and the latest initiatives may create space to support a Turkish-backed opposition. Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to slash support to northeast Syria has been interpreted as part of a package of measures designed to court Ankara. The GCC’s omission of Turkey in its discussion of foreign forces in Syria may indicate a further softening of its position. While the thrust of such efforts is likely anti-Iranian, the Gulf states may be induced to provide greater financial or political support to Turkish-backed initiatives in the future, to build their own influence. The Government of Syria has yet to concede to any demands regarding a political solution, and it remains unlikely that the Gulf states will be prime movers in this respect.

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.

Forcibly Disappeared in Syrian Detention Centers

What Does it Say? The report builds on interviews with the families of Syrian detainees and quantitative data to present a holistic picture of detention procedures.

Reading Between the Lines: The report is a useful quantification of processes that are, by their nature, opaque and poorly understood. Among its most troubling findings is the role of monetary extortion. The report surmises that Syria’s prison complexes have generated some $900 million in revenues, paid by interested parties for information about detainees or for visitation privileges.

Source: Association of Detainees & the Missing in Sednaya Prison.

Language: English

Date: 2020 December

Signs that the 2021 Budget Heralds Greater Austerity for Syrian Citizens

What Does it Say? Although the 2021 Syria budget has increased to a record 4.5 billion SYP, its dollar value is at an all-time low of $2.9 billion, suggesting that hardship and austerity are in store for Syrians.

Reading Between the Lines: It is imperative for the international Syria response to evolve new approaches to Syria’s fiscal reality. Policymakers’ pursuit of leverage over Damascus will apply greater pressure to the civilian population.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 3 January 2021

10 Points from Syria’s 2020 Economic Events

What Does it Say? The article lays out 10 key trends (all negative) in Syria’s economic proceedings during 2020.

Reading Between the Lines: Syria’s relative military calm has coincided with a significant increase in humanitarian needs based on other factors, including economic destitution and state collapse.

Source: Kassioun

Language: Arabic

Date: 2 January 2021

Humanitarian Disaster Looms Over Camps During Winter

What Does it Say? IDP camps in Idleb are subject to intense flooding each winter, damaging tents, causing great difficulties, and impeding aid work.

Reading Between the Lines: Winterization is a routine challenge in Syria. As the number of IDPs continues to increase and the winter months get colder, these hardships worsen. Moreover, many camp residents must endure this struggle on an annual basis.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 3 January 2021

Al-Hajar Al-Aswad: Allowing Residents and Homeowners Entry To Restore Destroyed Homes Is Out of the Question

What Does it Say? The Government of Syria has allowed some residents of partially destroyed homes to return to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, while people whose homes have been destroyed are prohibited from returning. 

Reading Between the Lines: The issue highlights the reality that for individuals — as for aid implementers — permissions are a powerful tool in the hands of the government.

Source: Damascus Voice

Language: Arabic

Date: 4 January 2021

What’s the Benefit for Russia From the Reopening of the International Highway (M-4)?

What Does it Say? Russia has reopened sections of the M4 Highway after a month of closure due to military developments. 

Reading Between the Lines: The economic situation in Syria is getting worse. The opening, even if partial, of the M4 may facilitate some trade.

Source: Eqtsad

Language: Arabic

Date: 4 January 2021

Redefining Victory in America’s War Against the Islamic State in Syria

What Does it Say? The enduring defeat” of IS — the linchpin of U.S. activities in Syria — is ill-defined and unrealistic.

Reading Between the Lines: Redefining this objective to fit ground realities will be a critical early test of the Biden administration. Policymakers must bear in mind that IS seized on an opportunity created by the near-collapse of the Syrian state — an outcome that is now the implicit intermediate goal of U.S. objectives in Syria.

Source: War on the Rocks

Language: English

Date: 5 January 2021

The American Envoy Visits the UAE, To Confirm the Commitment To Pressure the Assad Regime

What Does it Say? The U.S. special envoy to Syria met with the UAE and Jordan in order to secure assurances that the latter two countries remain committed to a maximum economic and political pressure campaign to push for a political solution in Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: The UAE has long been among the regional players most eager to restore commercial ties with Syria. Changes to its stance vis-à-vis Damascus may trigger a broader thawing of relations with the Syrian government.

Source: Alsouria

Language: Arabic

Date: 3 January 2021

Extension of Assad as President … Why and for What?

What Does it Say? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is working toward extending his time in office by another seven years. He has already served 20 years as president. 

Reading Between the Lines: Having achieved the greater part of a military victory to maintain his hold on power, al-Assad is unlikely to step down in a political process, regardless of pressure against him.

Source: An-Nahar

Language: Arabic

Date: 4 January 2021

Biden and the Syrian ‘Kurdish Down Payment’

What Does it Say? The article argues that the U.S. is in a position to negotiate political autonomy for the Kurdish region in Syria with the Syrian state. 

Reading Between the Lines: Such an about-face is unlikely. The U.S. has previously rejected Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria. To change position now would, in effect, reduce active pressure on Damascus by removing a key point of leverage.

Source: Asharq Al Awsat

Language: Arabic

Date: 27 December 2020

An Exchange of Detainees Between the Asayish and the Syrian Government is Taking Place Today With Russian mediation in Qamishli

What Does it Say? A prisoner exchange between the Asayish and the Government of Syria took place in Quamishli under Russian mediation.

Reading Between the Lines: Negotiations between Damascus and the Self-Administration have stalled, but functional cooperation on the tactical level continues.

Source: North Press Agency

 

Language: Arabic

Date: 6 January 2021

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.