Syria Update

Quamishli Clashes: GoS and SDF Seek Pressure Points

Quamishli Clashes: GoS and SDF Seek Pressure Points

In Depth Analysis

On 10 January, media sources reported that the Asayish, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-affiliated local security body, had detained a dozen Government of Syria security forces and three officers, as part of widening effort to push back against the Syrian government’s presence in the region and assert an independent prerogative. The detentions were reportedly carried out as a means of instigating a detainee exchange with the Government of Syria. Seeking to increase pressure as talks with Damascus falter, the Asayish encircled three neighborhoods controlled by the Government of Syria inside the city — Halko, Zanko, and Taye — banning the entry of food and medicine. This blockade was met by anti-SDF protests in Halko, where residents brandished Government of Syria flags. In response, the Government of Syria imposed similar restrictions on civilians in Ash-Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, in Aleppo city, which has been controlled by Kurdish forces since 2013. The confrontation has since widened, and on 17 January, media sources reported that the SDF besieged the neighborhoods controlled by the Government of Syria in Al-Hasakeh city as well. Various local sources indicate that SDF has warned the Government of Syria that its forces have until 20 January to evacuate the ‘security squares’ in both Al-Hasakeh and Quamishli.

Guarding Ein Issa, or gaining Quamishli?

Quamishli has been under the joint control of the Government of Syria and the SDF since 2012. Damascus controls three neighborhoods, which make up a small enclave known as ‘security square’, while the SDF controls the remainder of the city. This unique model of control is present in Al-Hasakeh, and it has been shaped by years of security and service cooperation, but a rivalry has continued over influence and resources.

Clashes and mutual detentions have taken place sporadically in recent years. The latest incidents come a week after tensions flared in Quamishli over mutual detentions by the Asayish and Syrian government forces. The confrontations have not abated despite mediation efforts by Russia — including facilitating detainee exchanges at Quamishli Airport and deploying Russian police patrols to Quamishli. The Asayish reportedly blamed the Syrian Air Intelligence for the upset, which it attributes to the reported detention of civilian Self-Administration employees.

The timing and pitched escalation of the latest incidents suggests that outside factors are likely at play. There are three immediate factors that may be driving the escalation. First, the SDF could be pressing the Government of Syria in order to gain leverage in discussions over the status of Ein Issa (see: Syria Update 14 December 2020), which remains in limbo despite Russia’s apparent willingness to use Turkish military pressure to bring the SDF to heel. Second, the tensions could be related to a reshuffling among the Government of Syria military and security commanders in Al-Hasakeh governorate. Such changes are often met with firm messaging by the SDF. Third, it is possible that the SDF has been emboldened by presumed U.S. support and the relatively sunny outlook of power players in northeast Syria (see: Syria Update 11 January 2021). In the extreme, this may encourage the Self-Administration to seek to oust the Government of Syria from Al-Hasakeh and Quamishli, containing its presence to the Quamishli Airport. However, this is a remote scenario and a risky one at that. Expelling government forces would likely prompt Russia to withdraw its own troops and invite Turkey to apply military pressure on northeast Syria. Moreover, the Government of Syria’s own presence in Quamishli has been one of the key factors preventing a Turkish assault against the major border city. In this respect, the SDF and the Syrian government share a common foe, and their mutual coexistence has persisted precisely because their interests have aligned.

Encircling Government of Syria-controlled neighborhoods, which are predominantly Arab, is a relatively new — and risky — tactic for the SDF. It draws uncomfortable comparisons to the sieges imposed by Syrian government forces as a means of forcing the capitulation of opposition-held communities, albeit without the pressure of military bombardment. Nonetheless, the precedent is troubling, particularly considering the attendant risks to humanitarian conditions, access, and mobility.

Syria Update

Quamishli Clashes: GoS and SDF Seek Pressure Points

Whole Of Syria Review


1. Fuel crisis returns as Government ‘temporarily’ reduces supply

Various locations: On 10 January, the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources announced a 17 percent reduction in fuel supply and a 24 percent reduction in gas oil supply to all governorates in Syria. The ministry claimed that the decrease in fuel provision would be temporary, pending the arrival — currently delayed — of oil and fuel imports. Authorities have variously blamed the U.S. Caesar sanctions and an IS attack on an oil tanker convoy for the shortage. Meanwhile, many gas stations around Damascus reportedly closed their doors due to dwindling supplies, while hundreds of cars lined up in front of the few open stations, creating unusually long queues. Growing black market sales in gas oil were observed, as petrol station owners and people who had received Smart Card allowances resold their shares at elevated prices.

Amid the furor, Government of Syria security forces patroled fueling stations, ostensibly to organize distribution. However, media and local sources indicated that the patrols were also taking bribes (2,000-5,000 SYP) to allow cars to jump ahead in the queue. Notably, the black market price of gas oil is approximately 1,000 SYP per liter ($0.35), while the official government price per liter hovers at 180 SYP ($0.06). Meanwhile, a liter of fuel has reached 1,500 SYP ($0.52) at the black market rate, while the official price hovers at 650 SYP per liter ($0.22) for subsidised petrol and 1,050 SYP ($0.36) at the unsubsidised rate.

A nation running on empty
Reducing fuel supply to all governorates has brought an end to the few weeks of relative stability witnessed in some regions. Syrian civilians will immediately bear the brunt of the shortage of fuel and gas oil, which is mainly used for heating — a worrisome development given the onset of winter. The decrease in oil supplies follows the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection’s two successive price hikes for oil-based products in October (see: Syria Update 26 October 2020). While the Government of Syria scrambled to blame the shortage of oil supplies on the U.S. Caesar sanctions, the re-emerging fuel crisis coincides with several incidents that are likely to contribute to worsening fuel conditions around Syria.

First, on 5 January, IS’s Amaq News Agency announced that the organization’s combatants had attacked several Qaterji Group trucks carrying oil from northeastern Syria to the Homs oil refinery. The attack reportedly took place in eastern Hama governorate and resulted in the destruction of 10 oil tankers as well as several deaths. This is not the first time that an IS attack has targeted Qaterji oil trucks operating between Self-Administration areas and Government-held areas. The extent to which the Government of Syria relies on shipments from the Self Administration remains unclear, but any interruption to the supply could be impactful. This is especially notable given the apparent surge in IS-linked activity in eastern Syria.

Second, on 3 January, an explosion struck a fuel and gas storage facility in the Lebanese town of Al-Qasr, which abuts the Syrian border. The warehouse is reportedly a hub for fuel and gas smugglers operating between Syria and Lebanon. While the impact of this explosion on the current fuel crisis is unclear, the Government of Syria has reportedly been relying on smuggled oil products from Lebanon — where fuel prices are lower — in light of the shortage of formal imports. (It should be noted, however, that oil supplied by Iran reportedly increased in volume by 15 percent in 2020, year on year.) Syria’s currency collapse, financial challenges, and international isolation make for a complex import environment.

In practical terms, the effects of reduced fuel supply and the recent increase in fuel and gas oil prices will likely be felt immediately. The public transportation sectors will be among the first to experience the impact of the fuel shortages, due to the recent massive hike in transport license fees (see: Syria Update 11 January 2020). Over time, the ill-effects of rising prices are likely to trickle down to other sectors of the economy. In the long run, ordinary Syrians will be forced by necessity to revert to illicit and even violent economies. The meager wages of state employees — security actors and bureaucrats alike — put them under pressure to accept bribes, but they are not alone. Syrians of all sectors are increasingly incentivized by the deteriorating economic situation to sell rations to make due. As the challenges mount, civilians will join predatory economies that harm other civilians. In this way, violent economies will grow horizontally as well as vertically.

2. Journalists and activists targeted in northern Syria

Al-Bab, Aleppo governorarte: On 6 January, media activist and Syria TV reporter Bahaa al-Halabi survived an assassination attempt in Al-Bab, Aleppo governorate. In response, activists and journalists in northern Syria launched a campaign to protest insecurity in the region, condemning the attacks that they said aimed “to create chaos in areas outside of government control.” Similar events have proliferated in the region. On 12 December, journalist and media activist Hussein Khattab was assassinated by unknown assailants in Al-Bab. Khattab’s assassination reportedly came after a series of threats and unsuccessful attempts on his life; it prompted the “Stop Killing Journalists” campaign in northern Syria. Relatedly, on 4 January, media sources reported that Syrian women’s rights activist Nour Al-Shalo was released from HTS custody after almost three months of detention.
Shooting the messenger
The string of assassinations and detentions of journalists and activists highlights the considerable security risks facing civil society activists in northern and northwestern Syria. This atmosphere limits the space for independent activism and any semblance of a free press, creating an environment in which local voices are stifled. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria 174 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom and security for journalists. Syria is the second deadliest country for journalists on the planet. Although it remains unclear who is responsible for the assassination of Khattab and the attempted assassination of al-Halabi, these incidents shed light on the turbulent security landscape in northern Syria and the recent targeting of journalists and activists, which is not limited to the region. Media sources reported that SDF combatants recently attacked and insulted activist and journalist Shihab al-Tameh in Abu Hamam, eastern Deir ez-Zor. Moreover, reports indicated that several dozen activists and journalists who are not affiliated with the SDF have recently left Deir-ez-Zor after receiving threats or being raided by the SDF.

3. Down but not out: IS clashes with HTS and GoS

Kafr Takharim, Idleb governorate; Ithriyah, Hama governorate; Rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 13 January, local media sources reported that intense clashes had taken place between IS cells and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) security forces in Kafr Takharim, northwest Idleb. During the clashes, three IS fighters were reportedly killed and three were injured. The incident followed shortly after an attack in the Hama countryside, where IS fighters clashed with Government forces, leaving 15 soldiers unaccounted for. Meanwhile, IS cells in rural Deir-ez-Zor reportedly killed at least nine 4th Division soldiers in attacks, and additional Government of Syria soldiers and Iranian forces reportedly continue to be targeted in the area. Local sources across Syria note that December saw the most intense IS activity of any month of 2020. Many of these attacks occurred in the Syrian badlands stretching from the eastern Deir-ez-Zor countryside, which is under SDF control, to portions of rural western Deir-ez-Zor, southern Ar-Raqqa, and Homs, under Government of Syria control.
The ‘enduring defeat’ mirage
IS cells have proven that even without a significant territorial presence, they retain military capacity across a wide expanse of Syria’s geography. Whether the cells are capable of meaningful coordination and establishing unity of purpose is unclear. Concrete objectives are likely beyond reach and — in any case — unnecessary so long as the group is content as a persistent spoiler. Notably, Russia has been leading a campaign in government-held eastern Syria against IS cells, following an attack on a 4th Division convoy west of Deir-ez-Zor city in December (see: Syria Update 4 January 2020). However, the attack in eastern rural Hama shows that the scope of IS activity targeting Government of Syria forces is not limited to the remote stretches of eastern Syria alone. These most recent attacks demonstrate the difficulty of stamping out an amorphous insurgent group with a limited physical footprint, flexible objectives, and adaptable methods. The risk posed by such attacks is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

4. Syria Trust legal sessions tackle thorny HLP issues in Yarmouk

Yarmouk camp, Damascus: On 5 January, Syria Trust for Development announced that its legal aid initiative had provided approximately 90 free legal-awareness sessions to more than 900 displaced people from Yarmouk camp. The sessions are intended to assist the displaced to acquire the legal documentation needed to prove property ownership. Most of the beneficiaries of these sessions were individuals intending to return to properties in the camp. However, they still must overcome bureaucratic procedures — completing paperwork and retrieving ownership documents from various authorities and government bodies — before being permitted by Damascus governorate and Syrian security services to return.
Navigating (un)civil society in Syria
This legal support project follows others of its type carried out by Syria Trust. Collectively, this programming demonstrates that the black-and-white image of Syria Trust — particularly, the common criticism that the organization is simply the aid arm of the Government of Syria — fails to capture the reality. Access has been a watchword among donors and aid implementers throughout the Syria crisis. Projects such as this demonstrate that much-needed programming can reach vulnerable populations, albeit through nontraditional or even suboptimal channels. This is especially relevant in contexts inaccessible to more traditional aid actors, including NGO partners who would typically be favored.

A narrative exists among response actors that civil society space — including space for NGO partners — is shrinking in Syria. By forcing many traditional local partners to disband or move underground, the return of the Syrian state apparatus has left many aid actors facing vital questions over how to implement programming in Government-held Syria. While the politicization of aid and conflict sensitivity remain foremost concerns, programming remains possible. This concept is explored in greater depth in COAR’s thematic report on Syrian civil society, Function Over Form: Rethinking Civil Society in Government-Held Syria.

5. Israeli airstrikes intense as Trump era ends

Abu Kamal and Deir-ez-Zor, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 13 January, media sources reported that Israeli forces had conducted at least separate 18 airstrikes on Deir-ez-Zor and Abu Kamal, targeting Iranian military sites. Other sources reported that over 30 airstrikes took place, targeting sites including warehouses in Abu Kamal and the College of Education in the center of Deir Ez-Zor city. Sources indicated that the strikes targeted forces connected to Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Fatemiyoun Division. Reports place the number of deaths between 23 and 40, in addition to at least 35 injuries at the time of writing. Casualty figures are expected to rise. The incident follows the first Israeli airstrikes of 2021, which targeted Government of Syria and Iran-linked targets in Rural Damascus and As-Sweida on 6 January. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Israel carried out airstrikes or missile attacks in Syria 39 times in 2020. These attacks resulted in significant structural and property damage and the deaths of at least 217 people, among whom were 94 militia fighters of non-Syrian origins and 21 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members.
The Syrian front in a regional contest
This fusilade is one of the largest attributed to Israel in recent memory. Striking inside Deir-ez-Zor proper is a notable escalation; it risks collateral damage in a city that has been a focus of aid activities. Yet, apart from its scale, there is little to differentiate the attack from the many others that have characterized Israel’s shadow war with Iran in Syria. Regional political calculations are likely a factor. As the Trump White House hands over power to an incoming Biden administration, the unapologetic ‘swagger’ that has defined America’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran will likely give way to a more pragmatic, conciliatory posture. Israel may view this liminal period as its last opportunity to carry out attacks with impunity. However, it may also view the early days of the Biden administration as an important window to establish its prerogatives through show of force. Looking ahead, the Biden administration is eager to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran, yet for all the criticism that Biden’s team has leveled at the Trump administration’s pressure tactics against Tehran, they may use the same tools as a springboard for launching their own diplomatic efforts. In the same vein, the Biden administration may capitalize on Israel’s eagerness to strike Iranian targets in Syria in pursuit of its own agenda. As such, there is ample reason to believe that further attacks will remain a possibility for the foreseeable future.

6. Temperatures drop, shelter needs rise in the northwest

Northwest Syria: As winter weather intensifies in the eastern Mediterranean, plummeting temperatures, flooding, and a lack of heating and adequate shelter are increasingly putting  vulnerable Syrian populations at risk. Around 6.2 million people are in need of aid across Syria, but IDPs — and the  nearly 1.3 million Syrians who are living in informal settlements in northwest Syria, according to the camp cluster — face especially acute danger. In December 2020, 23 camps in Idleb and Aleppo were damaged due to flooding, raising the stakes for aid needed during the winter period. Meanwhile, projects to move IDPs in northern Syria into concrete shelters are ongoing. Turkish aid groups have been among the most zealous supporters of projects to build shelters for IDPs in Idleb governorate. Another project, by an international nonprofit, is building shelters consisting of two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a bathroom.
Shelter — but for how long?
Sustainable shelter is vital to dignity and safety. This is especially true in a complex environment like northwest Syria, where limited housing stock, recurring cycles of displacement, waves of new arrivals, and harsh winter conditions amplify risks and worsen outcomes in other sectors, such as education, health, and GBV. However, caution is warranted. Building stopgap shelters in northern Syria carries a risk of resolving one problem while introducing others. Concrete shelters are a welcome upgrade from the tents and other makeshift facilities now in use. However, the use of concrete in shelter construction does not, in itself, make for a viable permanent structure. Raising such structures will stabilize residents inside northwest Syria. Yet, they do not necessarily ameliorate the drivers of displacement, which include untenable living conditions and flare-ups of violent conflict. Moreover, there is a tendency for clusters of such shelters to transform into settlements over time, as with the Palestinian camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. This is a worrying trajectory, as camp clusters grow into settlements without economic opportunity, infrastructure, and services  commensurate with their populations. The status quo in northwest Syria looks set to remain static for the foreseeable future. While it is challenging to adapt implementation modalities to long-term thinking, it is vital for aid implementers to take the long view when assessing the potential impact of activities. Unintended impacts can arise from a static context as well as an evolving one.

7. WHO in aid politicization row after using Syrian airliner

Benghazi, Libya: The World Health Organization (WHO) is facing searing criticism over the use of airliners belonging to Syria’s Cham Wings for aid deliveries to Libya on 6 and 8 January. WHO stated that it had supplied 16 tonnes of medicine and equipment from WHO warehouses in Dubai to Benina International Airport in Benghazi, Libya. However, the delivery has ignited a furor because Cham Wings has been under U.S. sanction since 2016, over allegations that it provided direct material support to the Government of Syria’s war effort. The World Food Program (WFP), which facilitated the transport of the medical cargo on behalf of WHO, defended the use of Cham Wings, citing the absence of UN sanctions on the company and the dearth of “options for air freight delivery into Libya.”
Charting a course through complex crises
The incident is a public relations row that reflects the heightened sensitivity to aid politicization in high-profile, protracted conflicts. Cham Wings itself was sanctioned in 2016 by the U.S. Treasury for cooperating “with Government of Syria officials to transport militants to Syria to fight on behalf of the Syrian regime and assisted the previously-designated Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) in moving weapons and equipment for the Syrian regime.” The company was also accused of involvement in money laundering activities and assisting “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards in the shipment of illegal cargo — including rockets, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition — to aid the Syrian government.” According to media and human rights reports, Cham Wings also shuttled Syrian, Iranian, and Russian mercenaries between battlefields and training camps in Syria, Russia, Iran, and Libya. The UN itself identified at least 33 flights which were “likely carrying Syrian mercenaries in contravention of an international arms ban on Libya.” Such incidents would constitute violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, yet the entity has not been yet sanctioned by the UN.

The latest incident focuses attention on the risks inherent to aid programming in complex crises. Humanitarian neutrality seldom survives contact with ground truths. In that vein, political and reputational risks are paramount concerns, even where legal risk is not present. As such, the incident highlights the need for implementing agencies and donors alike to employ holistic, in-depth assessments of activities, supply chains, and downstream impacts. Ultimately, contexts like Libya and Syria are complex and highly challenging. Agencies have limited leverage over host governments, and key leadership positions are often filled (or not) at the pleasure of host government line ministries. Permissions, including access, field missions, distributions, beneficiary selection criteria, and staffing are also susceptible to interference, influence, or denial. Some risks can be mitigated. Others must be accepted.

Open Source Annex

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.

Humanitarian Aid and the Biden Administration: Lessons from Yemen and Syria

What Does it Say?: In a panel discussion, the experts assess lessons learned from humanitarian responses in Syria and Yemen.

Reading Between the Lines: Drawing on (often painful) lessons from the field, the participants note how a ‘one size fits all’ formula fails to achieve donor objectives in complex crises.

Source: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Language: English   Date: 15 January 2021

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After Confiscating the Properties of Its Opponents, Will the Syrian Regime’s Weapons Be Used Against It?

What Does it Say?: The extensive report catalogues the means by which the Government of Syria seizes properties and repurposes them for its own use.

Reading Between the Lines: Property confiscation is one of the chief outcomes of the expansion of Syria’s national security state under anti-terror and other laws. Dismantling this legal architecture may provide a first step toward post-war compensation and restorative justice.

Source: Enab Baladi                     Language: Arabic                         Date: 21 December 2020

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Deir-ez-Zor, the Ticking Time Bomb

What Does it Say?: Deir-ez-Zor is a microcosm of the Syrian conflict, with regional actors and local actors converging on the center of the governorate for different reasons.

Reading Between the Lines: After more than one year without major kinesthetic activity, northeast Syria is primed for potential political and social changes.

Source: Al Sharq News                           Language: Arabic                     Date: 19 August 2020

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Map of the Military Bases and Posts of Foreign Forces in Syria

What Does it Say?: The map lays out the location and number of foreign forces on Syrian soil — now the largest number since the conflict began.

Reading Between the Lines: The conflict in Syria involves many actors, making its solutions all the more difficult and complex.

Source: Jusoor for Studies                 Language: English                     Date:  6 January 2021

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Exclusive: Longtime US Diplomat Weighs America’s Legacy in Syria

What Does it Say?: In a wide-ranging interview, U.S. ambassador Bill Roebuck notes the state of play — as Trump leaves office — for U.S.-SDF relations, IS cells, and the agricultural economy of northeast Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Roebuck provides greater insight into the Syria stalemate itself than potential means of resolving it.

Source: Defense One                    Language: English                              Date: 11 January 2021

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A Path to Conflict Transformation in Syria

What Does it Say?: The study notes that few international actors have yet expressed a willingness to recalibrate maximalist demands in Syria in exchange for a phased approach that may be critical to step-by-step progress.

Reading Between the Lines: The report is a valuable roadmap to practical steps, including confidence-building measures, sanctions relief, and — ultimately — how notional leverage can be converted into action on the ground.

Source: The Carter Center                   Language: English                         Date: January 2021

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Coming Home to You

What Does it Say?:  The report assesses the set of unspoken rules for social etiquette governing how Damascenes behave.

Reading Between the Lines: Social changes wrought by the conflict are often overlooked, but they are important to improving social cohesion and equitable access in Syria. At present, these rules are mostly arbitrary, and they reflect a deeply segregated society.

Source: Levant X                            Language: English                              Date: 11 January 2021

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The Newly Appointed Ahrar al-Sham Commander is Once Again a Former Detainee of Sednaya Prison

What Does it Say?: The article is a primer on Syria Trust for Development, the nation’s premier NGO, which has grown significantly since the beginning of 2020.

Reading Between the Lines: First Lady Asma al-Assad’s control over Syria Trust presents obvious concerns over impartiality, neutrality, and compliance. That said, Syria Trust’s role within the Syrian NGO space and civil society more broadly is not clear-cut. The organisation is an effective implementer, and it can be seen as an incubator for efficient staff.

Source: Enab Baladi                     Language: English                           Date: 1 February 2021

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A New Palestinian Community?

What Does it Say?: The article attempts to provide a comprehensive view of Palestinian-Syrians and their internal community dynamics throughout the conflict.

Reading Between the Lines: Although Syria has become increasingly authoritarian over the years, it has been less punitive toward Palestinians than other countries (such as Lebanon). How (and whether) this clemency will outlast the conflict is now a key consideration for post-war Syria.

Source: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung      Language: English and Arabic         Date: May 2020

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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.

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