Syria Update Digest
On 31 May, local and media sources in southern Syria reported the killing of five individuals and an additional attempted assassination in Dar’a Governorate over a two-day period. While violence has plagued the region since its recapture by Government forces in 2018, such violence is evolving as it becomes increasingly tied to the uptick in the drug trade, which is likely to overlap with related illicit activities that have a long track record in Syria: extortion, kidnapping-for-ransom, human trafficking, mercenarism, and arms trafficking. Syria’s drug trade will not go anywhere soon, and while coverage to date has focused on the impacts that will be felt in destination markets far afield, its cost in blood is likely to be borne most heavily by Syrians in Syria, especially in the south. International political, security, aid, and stabilisation actors working in the region would do well to adapt their planning to this worrying trend in the aim of limiting the human cost.
- On 1 June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey would soon launch an attack on Menbij and Tall Refaat, continuing the latest round of threats since the possibility of an operation was first announced on 23 May. While it is not yet clear whether another invasion will occur, analysts are advised to pay attention to military movements rather than political signals, and aid actors should plan for all possibilities.
- The eighth round of Syrian Constitutional Committee talks were held in Geneva this past week and were predictably inconclusive. In the context of irreconcilable interests of the Syrian, regional, and global parties involved, marginal wins are likely the best that can be hoped for, and the emphasis should be on finding tactical-level areas of agreement where concord can lessen the suffering of Syrians.
- On 30 May, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported that the Syrian Government had arrested officer Amjad Yusuf, who took part in the Tadamon massacre in 2013, in an effort to limit further exposure and investigation efforts. For actors hoping to gain some measure of Government of Syria acquiescence to accountability efforts, Yusuf’s disappearance is an ominous signal of the barriers to formal accountability.
- On 30 May, the EU sanctioned Hurras al-Din (HAD), the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, its leader Faruq al-Suri, and its religious leader, Sami al-Aridi. The belated sanctioning of HAD and its leaders — long past their relevance to the conflict, or any serious operational threat abroad — raises questions about the timeliness and efficacy of the EU sanctions mechanism, and of the international coordination of Western sanctions.
- On 26 May, residents of Rukban camp in southern Syria accused UNICEF of reducing the amount of water supplied to the camp from Jordan to half its usual amount. Competing narratives over the source and duration of the camp’s water issues highlight the need for clearer and stronger public messaging on the part of aid actors in Syria as disinformation, misinformation, and rumour spread.
On 31 May, local and media sources in southern Syria reported five killings and an attempted assassination in Dar’a Governorate over a two-day period. As documented by local media, at least 57 people of various political affiliations were killed in southern Syria in May. While violence has plagued the region since its recapture by Government forces in July 2018 (Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar’a Governorate), such violence is evolving as it becomes increasingly tied to the drug trade — a trend that should alarm policy makers and humanitarian implementers whose explicit aim and approach are tied to efforts to restore stability to the region.
Silver and lead
Analysis and media coverage of the Syrian drug trade have predominantly focused on the role of the Assad regime and the scale of export to markets in the Gulf. In this context, the increase in drug-related bloodshed in southern Syria is evidence of the ways in which drug trafficking and drugs sales are emerging as little-recognised drivers of conflict and instability, albeit on a local scale, within Syria itself (see: Syria Update 1-7 August 2019). Donor governments and aid and stabilisation actors working in Syria should find such incidents troubling; there is a distinct risk that as more Syrians are exposed to drug economies (see: The Syrian Economy at War: Captagon, Hashish, and the Syrian Narco-State), petty competition, score-settling, and inter-personal conflict over the narcotics trade will fuel deadly violence, driving local unrest in a new phase of conflict, even as large-scale violence abates. Attention is needed from aid actors and policy makers to manage the challenge, which is likely to become worse before it can begin to get better.
Southern Syria: A centre of drugs production, trade, and violence
The southern Syria region has become synonymous with captagon production, cross-border shipments (primarily from southern Lebanon into southern Syria and from southern Syria into Jordan), and local drug retail. Violence is a risk at every stage, and from a variety of actors — from high-level Assad regime-linked organisations and individuals to reconciled opposition actors and local smuggling networks. This violence, and the drug trade more broadly, is deeply entangled with other criminal enterprises, previous conflicts, political rivalries, and personal vendettas between individuals and groups active in the region. When analysing dynamics in this context, it is thus often difficult to discern the direct role of the drug trade from adjacent drivers of instability. What can be said with certainty is that all of this makes for a complex security context that is ripe for violence at every point in the drug supply chain.
The victims of the recent killings and attempted killings in Dar’a and at the border illustrate this complexity. They include Abdullah Aqleh Abu al-Hayal, a lawyer mediating between detainees’ families and security agencies. While local sources do not believe al-Hayal to have been directly tied to the drug trade, his killing is thought to be linked to his failure to make payments to the leader of a local Military Intelligence-affiliated armed group, Imad Abu Zureik, who is heavily involved in drug production in Dar’a and drug shipments to Jordan. By contrast, Ahmad Imad al-Issa, a leader within a Dar’a armed group reportedly working for the Air Force Intelligence Directorate and who survived a recent assassination attempt, is reputed to be deeply involved in drug shipments, and has allegedly been working with Abu Ali al-Laham, a major overseer of drug trafficking routes in eastern Dar’a in coordination with Military and Air Force Intelligence. Another recent casualty, Ahmed Mamoun Abu Jaysh, who was assassinated in Dar’a on 28 May by unknown parties, was believed to have been involved in local drug retail, while a smuggler was killed by Jordanian Armed Forces on 2 June while attempting to transport drugs across the border.
While information about the violence is scarce, one thing that stands out is its localised nature. Although drug-related killings on the Syria-Jordan border are well-noted, similar deaths inside Syria have attracted precious little consideration, given the predominant focus by analysts on the role of the Assad regime and the Syrian Government. Yet, it would be a mistake to understand these issues as a centralised endeavour led by the Syrian regime alone. Rather, on the functional level the drugs trade is decentralised and distributed, with networks of involved actors of various roles and sizes — from nominally state-affiliated institutions like the Fourth Division, Military Intelligence, and Air Force Intelligence, to Iran-linked militias like Hezbollah, to local entrepreneurs, former opposition networks, and Bedouin tribal smugglers. Each actor exercises a degree of autonomy and initiative, and alternately competes and cooperates with one another and the regime itself. While the Assad regime undoubtedly sits at its centre drawing in rents from its proceeds, the Syrian drug industry — and indeed the Syrian ‘system’ as a whole — is best understood as a network of actors with overlapping sovereignties, operating more like a corporate franchise in a highly competitive, profit-driven ecosystem.
An evolving challenge for Syria and the region
The drug trade in Syria has become the most prominent and arguably the most profitable illicit economic activity in the Syrian conflict. Events like the recent killings in Dar’a demonstrate how it has also become a driver of conflict and instability. The longer the chaos in Syria drags on, the more actors will be pressured to participate in the drug trade, and a rise in localised violence can be expected (see: Syria Update 7 February 2022). Regrettably, an uptick in the drug trade is likely to overlap with related illicit activities that have a long track record in Syria: extortion, kidnapping-for-ransom, human trafficking, mercenarism, and arms trafficking. These risks and the spread of violence and instability are unlikely to be contained entirely within Syria’s borders. For the foreseeable future, the Syrian state is unlikely to make serious efforts to suppress narco-trafficking. Communities threatened by drug and other criminal violence will likely look to their own defence, with local Druze militias in As-Sweida already engaging in violence against traffickers and suspected traffickers in much the same way as did the autodefensas that emerged in Mexico in the last decade. Syria’s drug trade will not go anywhere soon, and while coverage to date has focused on the impacts that will be felt in destination markets far afield, its cost in blood is likely to be borne most heavily by Syrians in Syria, especially in the south. International political, security, aid, and stabilisation actors working in the region would do well to adapt their planning to this worrying trend in the aim of limiting the human cost.
Whole of Syria Review
Turkey Continues to Threaten Invasion of Northeast Syria
On 1 June, Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced that Tall Refaat and Menbij will be the first targets of a planned Turkish military operation into northern Syria. According to Erdogan, the planned operation is intended to rid the two cities of “terrorists,” and will later expand to “other regions, step-by-step.” The territories in question are currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Turkish government considers the YPG terrorists due to alleged affiliations with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgent group. Erdogan initially announced plans for an operation on 23 May, declaring his intention to create a 30-kilometre-deep “safe zone” in northern Syria along the Turkish border (see: Syria Update 30 May 2022). Erdogan’s announcement followed unconfirmed reports that Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) units and affiliated Syrian opposition groups have begun to amass in the A’zaz area in possible preparation for an offensive. During a visit to southern Turkey on 2 June, the US ambassador to the UN reiterated US opposition to the attack. Meanwhile, a US military redeployment was reported east of the Euphrates River; critically, there is no known US military presence in Menbij or Tall Refaat.
Whether Turkey will actually launch such an offensive remains to be seen, although its selection of target areas that are absent an active US troop presence edges the likelihood somewhat higher. If verified, Turkish military movements and evolving geopolitical dynamics may also make an offensive more likely than in the recent past. Similar threats in October 2021 failed to materialise after Turkey proved unable to get the green light from Russia and the US, the latter of which withdrew forces to make way for Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in October 2019. Despite the importance of concurrent pressure tactics over the Kurdish question by Turkey vis-à-vis NATO, given the realities of troop positions, the US objection may matter less than the outcome of Turkish-Russian negotiations, due to Russia’s direct military presence in both Tall Refaat and Menbij. The Turkish and Russian presidents reportedly discussed the planned offensive on 31 May, and are slated to discuss it further as part of the Sochi talks.
While both Turkey and Russia are likely to use the events to win political concessions, aid actors focused on Syria should heed the lessons of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine: significant military build-ups and large-scale troop movements are costly as political theatre, but important signifiers of a genuine willingness to launch a full-scale military offensive. In terms of the humanitarian impact of any such offensive, Tall Refaat is sparsely populated, presently unlikely to be targeted for significant humanitarian assistance, and strategically useful primarily as a staging ground for attacks by Kurdish partisans on northern Aleppo. The case of Menbij is different. It is a diverse, largely Arab community that has nearly returned to Government of Syria control on several occasions. An offensive targeting Menbij would wreak havoc in a bustling transit hub that is still recovering from Islamic State rule, and disrupting traffic on the cross-region M4 would interrupt commercial activity and transit across northeast Syria. Aid actors’ contingency planning for an offensive should take this into account.
Eighth Round of Constitutional Talks in Geneva Conclude with Little Progress
The eighth round of the Syrian Constitutional Committee meetings, chaired by the United Nations Special Representative for Syria, Geir Pedersen, kicked off on Monday 30 May in Geneva, Switzerland, and concluded Friday 3 June having made little headway. The talks were attended by members of the “Small Body” responsible for writing the constitution, including 15 representatives each from the Government of Syria, the opposition, and civil society. The discussions focused on four principles (agreed upon by the Government- and opposition-aligned co-chairs): unilateral coercive measures (sanctions), maintaining and strengthening state institutions, ensuring the supremacy of the constitution and the position of international treaties, and implementing transitional justice. One day of discussion was allotted per principle. This and the seven previous UN-led constitutional negotiations achieved no significant progress largely due to the lack of viable political backing to the process. The ninth round of talks is scheduled for 25-29 July.
Move the needle, not the boulder
The failure of this latest round of talks — which have been ongoing since 2019 and are the latest iteration of multiple phases of negotiations since the start of the Syrian conflict — was disappointing but likely unsurprising to most observers. There has rarely been a viable zone of possible agreement between the parties to the conflict, and for the Government of Syria, a military solution has always been preferable. Shortly before their launch in October 2019, President Bashar al-Assad described the Government of Syria delegation to the constitutional meetings as “backed by the government… but the Government itself is not part of these negotiations,” essentially undermining the reliability of such engagement. While negotiations are unlikely to produce a solution to the conflict itself, they remain a relatively low-cost line of effort that may yield occasional marginal wins. Nevertheless, it is not clear how such meetings could resolve the irreconcilable interests of the Syrian, regional, and global parties involved, and address issues of political fragmentation, durable instability, violence, economic crisis, and widespread humanitarian need, complicated by major access challenges. In that context, marginal wins are likely the best that can be hoped for, and the emphasis should be on finding tactical-level areas of agreement where concord can lessen the suffering of Syrians.
Chief Suspect in Tadamon Massacre Detained
On 30 May, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported that the Government of Syria had detained Amjad Yusuf, a Military Intelligence officer who headed Branch 227, which is associated with the killing and rape of dozens of people in Tadamon in 2013 (see: Syria Update 9 May 2022). Yusuf — and the violence in Tadamon — came to the forefront of the news in the last month owing to new public reporting on the massacre, including newly-released video footage of many of the killings. In a rarity for Syria, Yusuf confessed to carrying out dozens of killings as part of an investigation by a pair of genocide researchers. To date, the Government of Syria has not released information regarding Yusuf’s disappearance, nor has it referred him to the judiciary. The Syrian state has not commented publicly on the Tadamon killings, although a general amnesty for terrorism crimes was promulgated only days after the reportage began to attract global attention (see: Syria Update 9 May 2022).
The consequences of confessing
It is likely, as SNHR and others have surmised, that Yusuf has been forced underground or detained by the Government of Syria itself in a bid to prevent further confessions or disclosures. In so doing, it neutralises an actor whose statements implicate the Syrian security services and challenge the legitimacy of the Government of Syria. More broadly, the case of Yusuf and Tadamon highlights the challenges facing legal, social, and intercommunal accountability and reconciliation in Syria, especially to the important first steps of disclosure and remembrance. Despite the wealth of reporting and audio-visual data documenting the conflict in Syria, gaps in evidence remain, often due to the intransigence of authorities. For instance, the Government of Syria has not disclosed the identity of the victims of Tadamon, has not informed their families of their passing, and neither has it done so for countless other incidents throughout the war. For actors hoping to gain some measure of Government of Syria acquiescence to even the meanest accountability efforts, Yusuf’s disappearance is an ominous signal of the barriers to formal accountability.
EU Sanctions Syrian al-Qaeda Affiliate Hurras al-Din
On 30 May, the European Union enacted sanctions against Hurras al-Din (HAD), the once-feared al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Measures also specifically targeted its leader, Faruq al-Suri, and its religious leader, Sami al-Aridi. According to the EU, HAD has been involved in the planning of external terrorist operations by establishing operational camps in Syria that provide terrorist training to its members. In 2019, the US State Department designated HAD a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and placed “Rewards for Justice” bounties on three of its leaders, including al-Suri and al-Aridi.
Slow on the Draw
Analysts have puzzled over the timing of the sanctions, given that HAD’s relevance to the conflict in Syria and any threat it may once have posed have long since faded. HAD was formed in 2018 by former Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) senior members with ties to al-Qaeda, but in recent years has been degraded by HTS crackdowns, US-led International Coalition airstrikes, and attrition such that it is now severely debilitated and poses little threat to Syria, let alone to Europe. Since 2020, HAD has managed to carry out only two attacks: one targeting Russian forces in Ar-Raqqa Governorate in late 2020 (see: Syria Update 11 January 2021) and another against the Syrian Government security apparatus in Damascus in August 2021 (see: Syria Update 9 August 2021). Given the irreconcilability of the targeted actors, sanctions in this case are a security measure rather than a means of political coercion. Nonetheless, sanctions are the primary policy lever wielded by the West to shape the behaviour of actors in Syria — including the Government of Syria. The belated action in the case of HAD prompts questions over the agility of sanctions-related measures, and it highlights the fact that if Western actors wish to get serious about achieving leverage through sanctions, including their use in ‘step for step’ and ‘more for more’ approaches, they will need to make dramatic improvements to multilateral coordination and responsiveness to contextual realities.
Rukban Water Supplies Coming from Jordan Reduced by Half
On 26 May, the official Facebook page of Rukban camp in southern Syria accused the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) of reducing the amount of water supplied to the camp from Jordan to half its usual amount amid an ongoing siege imposed by the Syrian Government (see: Syria Update 4 April 2022). That narrative has not gone undisputed, however, as activists in the camp attributed the decrease in water to maintenance work on the pumping station in Jordan, noting that the reduction is likely temporary and that this is not the first time that the amount of water has been reduced. Nonetheless, many have continued to attribute water issues to wilful action by the UN. Syria TV cited sources claiming that the UN had reduced its funding to the water company responsible for transporting water from Jordan to the camp. On 30 May, The Syrian National Coalition called on the UN to immediately retract the decision to reduce the camp’s water supply, and to work effectively to ensure a decent life for thousands of families in the camp, who told the media that the reduction in the water supplies would be disastrous on their limited farming and livestock.
A population in peril
Rumour and hearsay have thrived given competing narratives over the source and duration of the camp’s water issues, highlighting the need for clearer and stronger public messaging on the part of aid actors in Syria as disinformation, misinformation, and rumour spread, particularly concerning UN activities. The director of the local NGO “Better World,” which has been responsible for water distribution and maintenance of water lines in cooperation with UNICEF since 2017, told the Rukban Network that water quantities are determined by UNICEF based on the needs of the population, and stated that his organisation is not responsible for the shortage. While some media sources suggest that UNICEF is attempting to cut off Rukban residents by slashing funding to the organisation in charge of transporting and distributing water, other outlets quoted activists and camp representatives who seemed to understand the matter as a temporary maintenance procedure. Stronger communications regarding the reasoning behind, and objectives of, UN activities may prevent misunderstandings and forestall criticism, as was seen with the recent UNDP factory rehabilitation project in Homs (see: Syria Update 30 May 2022). With humanitarian conditions at Rukban bleaker than ever, a long-term solution should be formulated, and donors, especially the US, should pressure Jordan to facilitate access to Rukban.
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.