Weekly Syria Update Digest
A reconciliation campaign is underway in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. As many as 2,000 people are said to have applied for reconciliation with Damascus so far as the Government of Syria offers reconciliation to wanted individuals, including those from under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The push exploits pressure facing the SDF as threats of a Turkish military operation in northeast Syria persist, and it widens fissures between the SDF and local communities in its sphere of influence. Insofar as it is open to the populations of SDF areas, the reconciliation drive exploits local grievances with the Autonomous Administration, and it cashes in on concern over the prospect of a Turkish-led military incursion to the north.
- On 15 November, the International Conference on the Return of Syrian Refugees began for the second consecutive year. Russian and Syrian delegations reportedly discussed technical improvement in various sectors, yet their efforts have done little to stop the flow of refugees as support for rehabilitation and early recovery remain limited.
- Reports, denied by Iranian and Syrian officials, claim that Iranian Quds Force commander Javad Ghaffari was ousted by President Bashar al-Assad for actions that “violated Syrian sovereignty.” Nevertheless, belief that the dismissal of Ghaffari represents a rift between Tehran and Damascus likely represents wishful thinking on behalf of analysts and those who hope to see a reduction in the Iranian presence in Syria.
- Russia has begun restoring the Arch of Tadmor’s, a pre-Islamic historical marvel destroyed by the Islamic State. Russia’s interest in cultural heritage is calculated, but donors should take note: such sites have a deep impact on stabilisation in their communities.
- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has abolished the Grand Mufti’s office. While some have attributed the move to a personal dispute, its significance comes as a signifier of greater efforts to institutionalise religion in Syria. Implementers reliant on religious organisations should follow such developments closely.
- On 13 November, Islamic State (IS) elements infiltrated al-Hol camp and shot several refugees, killing the head of the Iraqi Council for Refugees in the camp and another person. The deadly attacks underscore that long as the issue of refugees in al-Hol camp and IS-affiliated detainees in SDF detention remains unsolved, attacks and security threats will continue.
- The U.S. Embassy in Damascus has announced that it will deliver 3,000 tonnes of wheat seed to areas under Autonomous Administration control. While the Syrian Government’s claims that this is deliberate sabotage are wrong, they do raise legitimate concerns about the nature of the support, and possible “do no harm” impacts.
On 17 November, al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Government of Syria, reported that a reconciliation drive is underway in Government-controlled areas of Deir-ez-Zor Governorate. The procedures are targeting individuals wanted by the Government of Syria for military service, either after desertion or draft evasion. Crucially, authorities have also opened their arms to residents of neighbouring areas of Deir-ez-Zor controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Al-Watan — echoing other pro-state media — has hailed the campaign as a success, reporting that as many as 2,000 people have reconciled so far. It is unclear what proportion of those seeking reconciliation have come from SDF- or Government-controlled areas. Although reconciliation procedures are not new in Syria, their revival in Deir-ez-Zor now is provocative. Implicitly, the campaign allows the Government to consolidate control in the region, and by opening the door to the predominantly Arab tribal populations of SDF areas to reconcile their status, authorities are inviting them to wager over the long-term future of the region, irrespective of which local actors hold sway in their area for the time being.
Cashing in on chaos
Although it is difficult to assess how many reconciliations have taken place, their political significance is readily apparent. Insofar as it is open to the populations of SDF areas, the reconciliation drive exploits local grievances with the Autonomous Administration and concern over the prospect of a Turkish-led military incursion to the north. Northeast Syria authorities clearly see the reconciliations as a threat. Among those to reconcile is Khalaf al-Asa’d, former head of the SDF Legislative Council in Deir-ez-Zor and a notable member of the prominent Bagara tribe. On 17 November, the Legislative Council issued a statement in which it threatened to suspend any employee of the Deir-ez-Zor civil administration found to have reconciled with Damascus. Not surprisingly, reactions to the news have commonly linked the development to broader dynamics in the northeast, threats of a Turkish incursion into SDF-controlled areas, and ongoing discussions between the SDF and Damascus (see: Syria Update 19 October 2021). Implicitly, the Government is seizing on geopolitical upheaval and resulting vulnerabilities to undermine local trust in the SDF’s staying power, a question perennially raised by the threat of Turkish incursion.
A familiar template
Of course, Damascus has other reasons to strengthen its hand in eastern Syria. For one, it is triumphant after a summertime military campaign in Dar’a Governorate forced former opposition fighters to capitulate and reconcile, hand over weapons, and, in some cases, displace to the north. Those efforts were led by Major General Hussam Louka, Director of Syrian Intelligence. Only weeks ago, Louka was relieved of responsibility for the committee in charge of reconciliation in the south, and he has now set his sights on the east (see: Syria Update 11 November 2021). On 14 November, Louka met tribal leaders and senior Ba’ath Party officials overseeing reconciliation proceedings in eastern Syria, both of which are important vectors of influence locally (see: Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria).
For another, Damascus may be seeking to rein in the region’s relative independent streak. It has been reported, but not confirmed, that the Government of Syria will extend the reconciliation campaign to Abu Kamal and Mayadin, two geographically important communities where the presence of central authorities is scarcely palpable. This is a reality which Iran has exploited, and many local militia groups look not to Damascus, but Tehran. Key communities along the Euphrates River are heavily under Iran’s influence, creating the conditions for local clashes and contests over war economy activities. Reconciliation in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate will impede recruitment by such militias, an alternative favoured over Syrian Arab Army service due to higher pay and a reduced likelihood of deployment to conflict frontlines.
Unlike in other reconciled former opposition areas, Damascus has been slow to push for meaningful control in eastern Syria, to say nothing of broad-based reconciliation, since it recaptured the area from the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. The fact that Deir-ez-Zor was forcibly retaken from IS forces could be one reason for the delay. Re-mobilising Syrians who joined or sympathised with IS could pose internal risks to the Syrian Arab Army. Damascus also benefits from the fact that IS sleeper cells across the region continue to bedevil the SDF, undermining the authority of and local buy-in for the Autonomous Administration.
Many analysts have seen the reconciliation drive through the prism of geopolitical developments. The threat of a new Turkish incursion is one such issue. A rumoured (and specious) rift between Damascus and Tehran is another. In reality, the Syrian Governments motivations are likely diverse. In general, the central authorities have kept reconciled areas at arm’s length, ramping up engagement only when there is a direct economic or security imperative. In the absence of restoring services, administration, and governance, reconciliation offers a powerful symbol of its nominal authority.
Implementers should ask what the latest drive means for the relationship between central authorities and peripheral areas of eastern Syria. It is unclear whether the return of a reconciliation campaign signals a changing approach, however. If it does, lessons should be drawn from recent reconciliations in southern Syria, where Damascus seemingly lost patience with the quasi-independent trajectory of the region. There are key differences in Deir-ez-Zor, however. Since 2017, the operational space for organisations working in eastern Syria has been limited by restrictions imposed by Damascus and the lack of plausible entry points. Local organisations in Deir-ez-Zor have been characterised as inefficient vehicles of self-dealing among management who are close to the Government of Syria. In SDF areas, if large numbers of men reconcile, their move will be read as a long-term bet on Damascus. This would increase tensions in affected areas, and it would draw greater attention to the gap between community-level grievances and top-level decision-making in the Autonomous Administration. For aid actors, the latest reconciliation campaign may bring change to the region, but it is unlikely to be positive.
Whole of Syria Review
Damascus Hails ‘Positive’ Refugee Returns Conference
On 15 November, Russian and Syrian delegations launched the second round of the international conference on refugee returns in Damascus. Representatives of several countries allied with Damascus attended the first round of the conference a year ago, including China, Iran, and Venezuela, while Turkey and the EU boycotted the event. The UN attended in an observatory role (see: Syria Update 2 November 2020). It is unclear whether delegations from countries other than Russia were part of the second round. The event was reportedly attended by representatives from almost all the Syrian ministries and representatives of several governorates, with Hussein Makhlouf, Minister of Local Administration, leading the Syrian delegation. The Russian delegation, headed by Alexander Yevmov, President Putin’s special envoy to Syria, also included the Vice President of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation and Monitoring of internally displaced people (IDPs) inside Syria. On 17 November, the Russian delegation also met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and they reportedly discussed the “positive results achieved on the ground” to provide the proper conditions for “continued refugee returns” and “accelerated reconciliations.”
Russian hopes for return of refugees grows
Russia is still eager for the conference to gain international support, but the main signposts of success, including refugee return and support for reconstruction, are little seen, despite changing regional approaches to Damascus and a high-profile refugee crisis on the European border. Return conditions may in fact be worsening, and Government-held areas have seen a new wave of migration of thousands of Syrians in recent months due to insecurity and economic devastation (see: Syria Update 20 September 2021 and Syria Update 15 November 2021). This likely offsets any returns since the first round of the international conference in November 2020. Refugees remain at-risk in host countries, particularly in the region and large-scale refugee return remains elusive.
Conflicting Reports over Removal of IRGC Commander in Syria
On 10 November, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Javad Ghaffari was reportedly dismissed by President Bashar al-Assad. Ghaffari has served as head of the IRGC forces in Syria since 2015, and was dubbed the ‘butcher of Aleppo’ by the Syrian opposition for his role in the Battle of Aleppo. Reports claim that Ghaffari provoked al-Assad’s ire due to his role in smuggling and establishing a black market for weapons, deploying Iranian equipment and forces to unapproved sites, and launching an unsanctioned attack against the U.S. base in al-Tanf on 20 October, risking a wider conflict.
Iranian officials dismissed the reports, noting that Ghaffari received a medal of honour from the Syrian defence minister for his role in the Syria conflict. Iranian media suggested the reports were part of a ploy by Saudi and Israeli media — who originally broke the story — to undermine Iran in Syria by claiming that relations between Tehran and Damascus were strained. Other sources suggest that the decision to dismiss Ghaffari was made in mid-October, before the attack on al-Tanf and the visit of the Emirati foreign minister, possibly for health reasons. Reports named Ali Asaf, a Lebanese national previously identified as a Hezbollah operative, as the new head of the Quds Force in Syria.
A storm in a chai cup?
Analysts have suggested that al-Assad is seeking to limit Iranian presence in Syria to pave the way for further reintegration with regional Arab powers on the heels of a visit to Damascus by the Emirati foreign minister last week (see Syria Update November 15, 2021). Indeed, the reports are likely being conflated with news of Iran’s waning influence in Syria amidst Arab normalisation, a precondition of which — according to a leaked document sponsored by Jordan — is reducing Iranian influence in parts of Syria. However, beyond military involvement, Iran has extensive and growing economic, educational, and cultural interests across Syria, the importance of which are much greater than the fate of one IRGC commander. If reports that Ghaffari was dismissed by al-Assad are true, it likely represents a negotiated adjustment to the Iran-Syria relationship rather than a rift or a break. As the need for Iran’s military support declines, al-Assad will turn to questions of reconstruction and balancing the often competing interests of potential economic partners — Iran, Russia, and Arab states. It is these interests, rather than IRGC commanders, that will shape the future relationships of Syria in the region.
Russia Begins Restoration of Tadmor Arch of Triumph
On 12 November, Russia began its efforts to restore historical sites in Tadmor (aka Palmyra) in coordination with UNESCO and the Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria (DAMS). The ancient city was captured and destroyed by IS twice before Syrian Government forces, backed by Russia, established full control in 2017. During their tenure, IS fighters destroyed many renowned monuments, including the Arch of Triumph, and looted the Palmyra City Museum. The city also reportedly suffered damage from Russian and Syrian Government bombardment during their campaign to recapture it. 20 artefacts are so far slated for restoration through a collaboration between Russia’s Hermitage Museum and the National Museum of Oman, with a view of later restoring all of the ancient city.
Russia first expressed interest in restoring the ruins in 2016, when the General Director of Russia’s Hermitage Museum presented President Vladimir Putin with a restoration proposal and subsequently communicated to UNESCO Russia’s willingness to restore the artefacts. In November 2019, Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums and the Hermitage Museum signed a memorandum of understanding to rebuild the Arch of Triumph.
Raiders of the lost Arch
The initiation of work in Tadmor signals the extent to which Russia seeks to place itself at the centre of any international efforts to restore the many historical sites in Syria that were damaged during the war. In some respects, this is merely another vehicle of Russian prestige and influence, which are already strong in military terms, but tenuous economically and socially. However, it is worth noting that Russia has advanced technical expertise in the field, primarily because of efforts undertaken to restore its own heritage sites after World War II. Donors should take note of sites of historical, cultural, and traditional significance in Syria. Such sites are of outsized importance, and their destruction across Syria has alienated communities from their hometowns (see: Syria Update 21 June 2021). Restoration may stem migration and even encourage return, a priority for Russia as well as Europe.
Al-Assad Abolishes the Grand Mufti’s Office
On 15 November, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree abolishing the position of Grand Mufti, the highest Islamic authority in Syria, effectively firing Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun. The decree delegates tasks previously assigned to the Grand Mufti, such as setting the date of religious holidays and issuing religious rulings known as fatwas, to the “Jurisprudential Scientific Council” (a body dedicated to Quranic interpretation), which is led by Minister of Religious Endowments Mohammed Abdul Sattar. The Council also includes 25 religious figures from all sects in Syria, a move which was seen as diminishing the influence of Sunni scholars within the body. The recent decree came after the Council criticised Hassoun’s interpretation of a Quranic verse, although without naming him, claiming it was not rooted in the principles of critical Quranic exegesis. Notably, in 2018, al-Assad ordered the establishment of a religious council of which the Mufti is a member only, granting the Minister of Endowment the authority to nominate the Mufti for a three-year term. Prior to 2018, the Mufti could remain in office until retirement, and could only be appointed or removed by the President. The Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council denounced the decree and accused the Syrian Government of attacking Syrian Sunnis by abolishing the highly symbolic position.
Reining in religion
Many analysts have attributed the decree to a longstanding power struggle between the Grand Mufti and the Minister of Religious Endowments. The decree does follow recent disputes between the Mufti and the Council over Quranic interpretation. However, rather than merely replacing Hassoun, the decision to abolish the position altogether should be seen as part of longstanding efforts by the Syrian Government, especially the Ministry of Endowments, to institutionalise religious authority in the country and assimilate it within official government structures. In that respect, it follows a speech by Bashar al-Assad last year in which he effectively pronounced a distinctly Syrian form of state-approved Islamic practice (see: Syria Update 14 December 2020), an initiative that arguably kicked off with the formation of the Damascus International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism (see: Syria Update 23-29 May 2019).
Implementers should be aware of trends in public religion in Syria. Religious organisations are often effective implementing partners, as they enjoy comparative freedom to manoeuvre. Further state influence over religious practice may impinge on that. In the long term, the move may revive debate over the shrinking of operational space in Syria.
Head of the Iraqi Council for Refugees in al-Hol killed
On 13 November, an attack by suspected IS members at al-Hol camp reportedly killed two Iraqi refugees, including Abu Sultan al-Iraqi, President of the local Iraqi Council, and injured several others. Al-Iraqi reportedly changed locations twice to escape rising security threats. Two days later, an Iraqi woman in the camp was shot in the head. 78 people are known to have been killed in the camp since the start of 2021, 58 of whom are Iraqi. Notably, only a week ago, the SDF, supported by the international coalition, reportedly thwarted an attack on Sina’a prison in west Al-Hasakah city, which holds an estimated 5,000 alleged IS operatives (see: Syria Update 15 November 2021).
Longer delays, more attacks
The events draw attention to the enduring risks at camps in northeast Syria. These risks are especially pertinent for Iraqi residents, who remain unable or unwilling to leave the camp, given the dangers they continue to face upon return to their home communities. Although al-Hol is viewed as a camp for IS affiliates, it is important to note that it hosts at least 10,000 Iraqis who fled IS’s advances between 2016 and 2018. The SDF has called on the Iraqi government to repatriate its citizens from the camp. Although the Iraqi government agreed in 2018 to repatriate 5,000 of its non-IS affiliated nationals, only 868 have so far returned, while hundreds of Iraqi families who have passed an arduous security clearance are still waiting for their turn. Reasons behind the delayed repatriation remain unclear.
Furor Erupts over U.S. Plan to Send 3,000 Tonnes of Wheat Seed to Northern Syria
On 10 November, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus (operations suspended since 2012) announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will respond to farmers’ requests by sending 3,000 metric tonnes of wheat seed to northeast Syria, in reference to territories controlled by the Autonomous Administration. In a 15 November statement, the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture warned farmers against using the U.S.-supplied seeds, noting that it is illegal and risks introducing a variety of pests, such as the wheat wart nematode, which could hamper wheat cultivation in the region. Also on 15 November, the U.S. Embassy published a post that skirted the ministry’s claims, instead stating that the “high-quality seeds” would help “hundreds of farmers” produce around 32,000 tons of wheat next year. However, the head of the Autonomous Administration’s Economy and Agriculture Committee, Salman Barudo, stated that the seeds will be held for testing before distribution.
The row over the seeds is predictable and highly politicised in light of an active disinformation campaign waged by Damascus against such projects, and it raises considerations for “do no harm” and conflict-sensitivity risks. Outside technical experts reportedly stated any new seeds introduced to the country pose some risk to wheat cultivation in all of Syria. They cite the need to test the seeds’ suitability to the climate and soil of the region, as well as ensure they do not carry pests that could have a wider impact. The Syrian Government has stated that the Autonomous Administration lacks the proper facilities to test these seeds and assess whether they are harmful to Syrian wheat production. A mismatch could inadvertently aggravate the wheat shortage the seeds are meant to address. However, in the current case, the seeds are sourced regionally and they have been held for appropriate testing. Damascus has played up potential risks for political effect.
The issues raised prompt questions for other donors contemplating agriculture work in Syria beyond politics alone. Syria has a longstanding relationship with international and regional institutions which provide technical support to authorities and individual farmers in assessing wheat seed quality. For instance, the Arab Center for the Study of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD) remains at least semi-functional in the northeast. Several agricultural programmes present in the region provide seed inputs to farmers; however, the degree to which they engage with technical institutions or incorporate third-party expertise to assess seed quality varies widely from project to project. Large donors such as USAID would be well-placed to engage directly with technical institutions that can provide such support. By not engaging with such institutions, the introduction of these seeds poses a significant risk to the wheat agricultural sector in northern Syria, an area that has historically produced the majority of Syria’s wheat. Implementing agencies should be aware of this reality and advise testing the seed for diseases and compatibility before planting the crops. Such engagement could also help dispel distrust sparked by Government messaging if it is well-documented, transparent, and adequately communicated to potential beneficiaries.
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..
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