Quamishli Clashes Bring Arab-Kurd Tensions to the Surface
In one of the most intense eruptions of violence in northeast Syria in recent memory, Autonomous Administration security forces have seized control over Tayy neighbourhood, the main Quamishli stronghold of the Syiran Government-aligned National Defense Forces (NDF). On 20 April, armed clashes broke out following a checkpoint dispute, setting off a series of on-and-off Russian-brokered deals. Large numbers of NDF members have reportedly fled the city toward nearby villages, while civilian residents of Tayy neighbourhood have also been displaced. The clashes are notable not only for their intensity, relapse into violence, and death toll, but also for the underlying tensions they reveal. The developments pose a significant test of Russia’s capacity as a mediator in northeast Syria, and they have added to ongoing initiatives by Arab tribes in the region to attain greater autonomy even under the auspices of the Autonomous Administration.
Whole of Syria Update
The chain of events began with the arrest of Abdelfattah al-Lylo — an NDF commander and member of the Tayy tribe — by the Autonomous Administration’s Asayish forces at a checkpoint in Al-Wihdah Circle (for more on the Tayy and northeast Syria’s tribes, see: Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria). At least 10 NDF fighters and three members of the Asayish were killed in two days of fighting that ensued, as the opposing sides vied for control over Tayy neighbourhood. Although Moscow brokered a ceasefire on 20 April, the fighting resumed the following day as the NDF sought to take back control of checkpoints seized by the Asayish and affiliated Anti-Terror Units (HAT). A large number of residents of Tayy neighbourhood were displaced by the fighting, and several civilians were reported killed or wounded.
Between 22-25 April, Russia facilitated a series of meetings at Quamishli Airport between the Asayish forces and Government of Syria military officers to cement a ceasefire agreement in the city. The deal that came into effect on 23 April entailed a complete ceasefire, the return of civilian residents displaced by the fighting, and the deployment of Russian patrols around Tayy neighbourhood as observers. Like the agreement that came before it, however, the more comprehensive Russian ceasefire also broke down, and clashes expanded to Halko neighbourhood. On 25 April, Asayish announced what it characterised as a permanent ceasefire in the neighbourhood under the joint auspices of Russia and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and it urged all displaced residents to return to their homes.
Beyond mediation: Russia co-opts allies and enemies
The breakout of intense violence in Quamishli brings to the surface two major fault lines in northeast Syria. The first is the extent of foreign influence in the region. Local sources indicate that Russia is using the events to pressure the Quamishli NDF, which Moscow is said to view as a liability. Tayy tribal leaders are said to have advocated against Russian mediation out of concern that Russia had allowed the process to drag on as the SDF-aligned forces gained the upper hand. Even the Government of Syria itself refrained from providing overt support to the embattled NDF, and its 154th Regiment, or Tartab Regiment, has sat on the sidelines during the clashes. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe Russia is also grasping for leverage over the Autonomous Administration’s security forces. On 21 April, media sources reported that Russian forces unexpectedly withdrew from two military bases in northern Syria, near Tall Refaat and Deir Jmal, exposing them to attack from nearby frontlines with Turkish forces. Russia’s stick-and-carrot tactics echo previous instances in which Moscow has pressured the SDF by permitting Turkish-backed forces to attack SDF positions (see: Syria Update 7 December 2020).
However, Russian prestige in northeast Syria is also being challenged by Iran. Media sources now report that Iranian-backed militia groups have recently intensified recruitment in Quamishli and Al-Hasakeh cities, targeting Arab tribesmen, the NDF, and members of the 154th Regiment. Russia may still use its mediator role to pressure tribesmen to refrain from cooperating with Iran. Indeed, the Russian willingness to undermine the growing Iranian influence in the city has, to an extent, overlapped with the Asayish’s hopes of expelling NDF members from Quamishli, reportedly one of the main objectives it pursued in the deal reached on 25 April.
The second, and arguably more important impact concerns the overt politicisation of Arab tribal identity in Syria’s northeast. The Quamishli NDF is seen as an arm of the Tayy tribe, which is the most prominent in the city. The tribe’s historical animosity with the region’s Kurds primed the pump for the recent clashes, which have taken on clear tribal and ethnic dimensions. During the latest bout of fighting in Quamishli, a notable figure in a clan belonging to Tayy tribe was killed by sniper fire following a mediation session. Tribes in Al-Hasakeh Governorate have generally sought to triangulate political positions that reduce their risk exposure from authorities of all types. In response to the latest incidents, however, various tribal leaders have urged Arab tribesmen to mobilise against the SDF, a sentiment captured in a 23 April statement released by the Tayy tribe. In response, on 25 April, a counter-statement by other tribal figures in Quamishli urged the Asayish and SDF to oust the NDF from the city.
There are other signs that tribal identity and historical grievances are gaining force as political rallying cries. The relationship between Arab tribes and the SDF in northeast Syria has deteriorated over the last year for reasons including military conscription into the SDF and the poor state of service provision and the economy as a whole. On 12 March, local sources reported that members of the Jabbour tribe convened a meeting in Tal Tawel, north of Al-Hasakeh city, to discuss the possibility of creating an explicitly tribal armed group. The formation would resemble the Sanadeed Forces, an armed group of the Shammar tribe, in that it would theoretically serve under the command structure of the SDF, thus fulfilling the military service requirement for tribesmen while allowing them to serve within their own communities. The gravity pulling large Arab tribes in northeast Syria toward overt political causes and factionalised armed groups may be a cause of additional tension, and it may fan the flames of local struggles for power between those tribes and the SDF. Economic considerations are also pertinent. Clashes between the Sanadeed Forces and the SDF on 5 February over control of the three border crossings with Iraq are illustrative of the linkage between armed groups and war economy activities. For aid implementers, issues such as these are also an indication that even as conflict-related violence in Syria is ebbing, deep social tensions may continue to grow.
Whole of Syria Review
Muhammad Issam Hazima Appointed Central Bank Governor
Hazima replaces ousted CBS governor Hazem Qarfoul
Damascus: On 20 April, Syrian state media reported that Muhammad Issam Hazima has been appointed Central Bank of Syria governor, replacing Hazem Qarfoul, who was dismissed as Syria’s top banker without explanation earlier this month (see: Syria Update 19 April 2021). Hazima had served as second deputy to Qarfoul and holds a doctorate in international law from France.
Qarfoul out, Hazima in
The reasons for Qarfoul’s dismissal remain ambiguous. While no official statements concerning the move have been made, two theories are circulating. The first posits that Qarfoul was ousted in response to the Central Bank of Syria’s impotence in the face of extreme fiscal instability, a situation that reached its zenith with the Syrian pound’s deterioration to 4,600 SYP/USD in mid-March. The second is grounded in rumours that Qarfoul had close ties with Rami Makhlouf, the economic titan whose national business empire has been systematically dismantled since he came into serious public conflict with the Presidential Palace in summer 2019. It has been suggested that Qarfoul’s suspected relationship with Makhlouf cast doubt over his loyalties. Looking ahead to Hazima’s tenure, it is not clear what changes to Central Bank policy will follow from his appointment. Hazima is seen as an academic, and local sources have characterised him as more of a politician than a banker. This may reduce even the limited independent agency the office had.
Syrian State Media Promote Denmark’s Declaration That Damascus is ‘Safe’
The incident reveals the risks of giving fodder to the Syrian regime
Damascus: Syrian state media have begun to repackage anti-asylum political sentiment in Denmark in a bid to shore up the Government of Syria’s own narratives regarding conditions in Syria. On 17 April, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported:
“Now you can return home to sunny Syria, your homeland needs you” is a phrase spread widely across billboards in the streets of Copenhagen, the Danish capital, in a campaign that confirms the fact that Syria has become safe after most of its territories have been liberated from terrorism, and aims to encourage Syrian refugees to return to their homeland.
The Syrian state media coverage builds on a pitched debate in Denmark in recent weeks over the procedures that led to the Danish government’s removal of temporary protection status for Syrian asylum-seekers originally from Damascus and Rural Damascus. Earlier this year, the Danish government informed at least 94 Syrians that their residence permits in that country would not be renewed, a step that clears the way for their eventual removal from Denmark.
A propaganda victory for Damascus
The Government of Syria’s ability to score cheap propaganda victories by drawing on the Danish refugee debate is a clear example of the political risks inherent to any actions that may be construed as normalising the Syrian Government. Damascus has a long history of validating its own positions by recycling favourable events from abroad. Particularly useful to it are developments that bear the legitimating stamp of Western government policy. As such, the Danish government’s determination that Damascus and Rural Damascus are safe for returning refugees function as valuable propaganda in the hands of spin doctors in Damascus.
Meanwhile, the changes to Danish asylum procedures have not gone unchallenged. The government’s decision to remove temporary protection status for certain classes of Syrian refugees in Denmark builds on the findings of a 2019 Country of Origin Information report which is now the subject of intense public scrutiny among the Danish public and Syria response actors. COAR is among the entities that are cited in the report. COAR and others have since publicly denounced the reporting process and its use to further a seemingly politicised approach to asylum proceedings for vulnerable Syrians. Worryingly, the events in Denmark undermine the already fragile framework that governs asylum procedures globally. There is a risk that politicised approaches to refugee affairs will erode protections and inspire states with a shakier commitment to the rule of law to take similar, or more consequential, action. Refugees are already poorly served by prevailing asylum practices, and it is important for asylum policy practitioners to note that although conflict-related violence in Syria has diminished, security risks persist. Nowhere in Syria is safe for return.
More Than 400,000 COVID-19 Vaccine Doses Reach Syria
Following the UAE’s lead, China steps up COVID support to Damascus
Various Locations: On 22 April, Syria received the first 203,000 doses of its COVID-19 vaccine allocations via the COVAX facility. The vaccines will be provided to healthcare workers in Government of Syria areas and northeast Syria, according to a statement by the WHO and UNICEF. The regional allocation of the doses is not immediately clear. Separately, 53,800 doses were delivered to northwest Syria through Gaziantep by WHO and UNICEF. Moreover, on 24 April, the Chinese government reportedly donated an additional 150,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Syria, which were received by the Syrian health minister in Damascus.
Without question, the arrival of more than 400,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Syria is an important milestone for vaccination in the country. As always, concerns over equitable distribution are paramount, given that COVAX allocations on a per capita basis are lowest for northeast Syria. The arrival of additional doses reportedly donated by China are also important, given recent reports that delivery through COVAX would be delayed over production shortfalls. China’s willingness to build bridges with Damascus through COVID-19 support is an important development, and it follows only days after the UAE donated medical aid and vaccines to Damascus. Support such as this will not necessarily change the fundamentals of either country’s bilateral relationship with the Government of Syria. That said, the longer the COVID-19 crisis lasts, the more likely it is that medical aid can be used to strengthen relationships when other forms of support remain verboten.
Two Aid Workers Killed in SDF-held Deir-ez-Zor
Local conditions make Basira especially challenging for aid implementation
Basira, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On 17 April, two Syrian aid workers were killed in an armed attack in Basira, in SDF-held southeastern rural Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. According to reports, unknown attackers shot and killed the relief workers as they were returning from a humanitarian aid project. Both victims were volunteers working for the NGO Al-Birr and Al-Ihsan Ras al-Ain. The United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Imran Riza, issued a statement condemning the attack and calling for the protection of all aid workers.
An especially challenging area in world’s most dangerous aid response
Adding to an already unstable local environment replete with access challenges, the killings will complicate aid delivery in the southern reaches of SDF-held Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. Reports indicate that this is the first incident in which aid workers have been targeted in the area. Given its remoteness, local resistance to the Autonomous Administration, perceptions of administrative corruption, and the lingering consequences of Islamic State (IS) rule, Basira is a challenging area for aid implementation. In light of such risks, security factors are merely one conflict-sensitivity concern among many. Nearly 1,000 aid workers have been killed in the Syria conflict thus far, and more than 3,800 are still in detention or have been forcibly disappeared. While northeast Syria is generally safer for aid workers than the northwest, attacks claimed by cells affiliated with IS, local tensions, and tribal disputes increase the risks implementers face.
New Armed Group in As-Sweida as Local Tensions Flare
Social tensions in As-Sweida Governorate
Qaraya, As-Sweida Governorate: On 18 April, local media reported the formation of a small Druze local protection force in Qaraya in response to repeated clashes with bedouins from the surrounding area. Local and media sources have indicated that Russia has intervened as a mediator, facilitating meetings between the bedouin population and Qaraya residents in a bid to reduce tensions and remove barriers preventing bedouin families from returning to Qaraya. Media reports indicate that the local community in Qaraya has agreed to the bedouins’ return, with the exception of some of those involved in previous armed attacks. Bedouins have been involved in previous violent clashes in Qaraya, particularly when backing the Russian-backed 5th Corps against the Druze Rijal Al-Karamah (lit. “Men of Dignity)” armed group (see: Syria Update 5 October 2020).
The limits of Russian mediation
The clashes — apparently motivated by disagreement over agricultural land — are a reminder that tensions in southern Syria are not limited to neighbouring Dar’a Governorate. As with past instances of tensions and violent clashes in western As-Sweida, Russia’s mediation is essential, given the close proximity to the main power base of the 5th Corps in eastern Dar’a. Although Russia is indispensable in this respect, it is by no means all-powerful, particularly given the absence of direct relations with important stakeholders in As-Sweida. Mistrust of Moscow is especially high in the predominantly Druze governorate.
Syrians in Sweden File Chemical Weapons Suit Against Syrian Officials
Chemical attack victims seek redress under universal jurisdiction
Sweden: On 20 April, four NGOs filed a lawsuit in Sweden against Syrian Government officials for their role in the sarin gas attacks in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017. Hundreds were killed in the incidents, and many more were seriously injured, including children. The filing in Sweden came one day before an unprecedented vote by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to suspend Syria’s voting rights in response to chemical attacks by the Government of Syria (see: Syria Update 12 April 2021). Syria is the first OPCW member state to face such an action.
Accountability measures are mounting
The lawsuit in Sweden is the latest of several initiatives to pursue accountability in Europe for crimes committed in Syria. Although at least 34 investigations, complaints, and legal cases were active as of February 2019, momentum has only recently built, following the prosecution of a Syrian Government agent in Germany on torture charges earlier this year (see: Syria Update 22 March 2021). A Canadian-Dutch initaitive to hold the Goverment of Syria to account under the torture convention and an investigation into Asma al-Assad in Britain are two other recent developments. Often in partnership with international rights groups, Syrian lawyers, activists, and organisations have played a central role in this effort by identifying both victims and perpetrators, building legal dossiers, and advocacy. Meanwhile, Swedish authorities have issued electronic pamphlets asking anyone who has been a victim of a war crime, or knows a victim or a perpetrator, to contact the police. While these are small steps, given the broad sweep of violations committed in Syria, they are nonetheless important. Successful prosecutions are likely to inspire further efforts to pursue justice through mechanisms such as universal jurisdiction.
IS Attacks Continue in Eastern Syria
IS increases attacks in the northeast
Shiheil, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate: On 20 April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that members of an IS sleeper cell attempted to assassinate an SDF intelligence officer in the countryside near Shiheil, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. On the same day, media sources reported that a suspected IS cell attacked an SDF military headquarters in nearby Sour, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. Meanwhile, Russian-led air operations targeting IS have reportedly continued in Government-controlled areas across the Euphrates River, in the Badia area stretching across Hama, Homs, Deir-ez-Zor, and Ar-Raqqa governorates. Although its claims are dubious, Russia has said its recent airstrikes have killed some 200 militants and destroyed 24 vehicles and about 500 kilograms of ammunition and explosives.
The IS resurgence is slow but worrying
Although IS has increased its activities in many parts of Syria, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate is among the areas that are most receptive to the group’s return. Over recent months IS-linked attacks and security incidents have increased in SDF-held areas, and of the approximately 40 security incidents reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) in SDF territory since March, most are related to suspected IS sleeper cells. A growth in IS activity in these areas speaks to the SDF’s limited local acceptance and the shortcomings of its anti-IS campaigns supported by the International Coalition (see: Syria Update 6 April 2021). These operations will not curb IS’ growth as long as local authorities remain ill-equipped to alleviate the root causes of IS activity, namely patchwork governance, fragile social and economic conditions, and exploitable rifts along ethnic lines. Moscow’s counter-IS operations on the other side of the Euphrates River will be forced to confront similar challenges, and an approach to IS that is rooted solely in military attacks against suspected IS positions in the Badia — as Russia has waged since late 2020 — will also meet with limited success. That said, Russia’s claims concerning its attacks on IS cells in the Badia are vague, unsubstantiated, and doubtful.
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