Dr. Ammar Al Kahf on 7th of October talking about Turkey's Idlib Operation, he said that there was a delay of the operation in order to contain elements from HTS "Al Qaida" and not to start a fight with them in order to save many life's of civilians, he added that the Astana agreement and three partners "Turkey, Russia and Iran" have different objective and this is not a strategic alliance in any way, but a very tactical step by step approach on containing the HTS forces at the time been, on the issue of Assad there is a political process that’s under going, and he is already lost credibility because of the fact that Russia and Iran are speaking on behalf of the regime and the his not on the table, he ended saying that there are life to save in Idlib and the agreement in Astana says that no Iranian or Russian troops will enter Idlib but they will be in charge of the border control of the de-escalation zone, he also added that one of the major objective in Idlib is to block any SDF advancement from Afrin.

Thursday, 05 October 2017 15:20

Mapping the Battle Against ISIS in Deir Ezzor

In recent weeks, the so-called Islamic State has suffered a string of defeats in eastern Syria. It has lost swaths of territory in Deir Ezzor city to advancing pro-Syrian government forces and has been driven from villages and oil fields on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River by a U.S.-backed paramilitary group.

The two simultaneous but separate offensives by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian government loyalists may have resulted in quick gains in their first few weeks, but fighting is ongoing in many parts of the province, much of which remains under complete militant control.

ISIS still controls roughly 74 percent of the Deir Ezzor province and commands two main strongholds in the areas of Boukamal and Mayadin, south of the provincial capital. The group also controls a resource-rich region east of the Euphrates River that contains most of the oil and gas fields in the province.

With a long and grueling campaign still underway to expel the militant group from its last bastion in Syria, Syria Deeply examines the battle for Deir Ezzor by looking at the main groups, their objectives and their advances in the region.

Who Is Fighting in Deir Ezzor

Syrian government loyalists are the main fighting force in Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding countryside. Their forces consist of two specialized Syrian army divisions: the Republican Guard and the 17th Reserve Division, which is responsible for northern and eastern Syria.

A number of pro-government militias are assisting, including the Baath Battalions, a Syrian paramilitary group that fought rebels in Aleppo province last year. The Galilee Forces (a Palestinian militia), the National Defense Forces(one of the largest pro-government militias operating in Syria), and the Syrian al-Qassam group’s elite forces.

The Lebanese Hezbollah and a number of other Iran-backed groups are also fighting alongside the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor, as are a number of local tribes, most notably the al-Shaitat tribe. Russian warplanes are providing aerial cover for pro-government advances, and Moscow announced on Thursday that it has deployed special forces to assist the Syrian army.

Infographic breaking down the multiple groups fighting alongside the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor. (Nawar Oliver)

On the eastern banks of the Euphrates River, a contingent of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, known as the Deir Ezzor military council, is also fighting ISIS. It is supported by U.S.-led coalition warplanes and U.S. special forces embedded within its ranks. The Deir Ezzor military council is made up mostly of Arab fighters from Deir Ezzor, but is supported by Kurdish fighters of the SDF.

The Race for Deir Ezzor

Although the SDF and the Syrian government have framed their respective operations in Deir Ezzor as primarily a battle against ISIS, each side has other objectives.

For the Syrian government, recapturing Deir Ezzor has been a main priority since the start of 2017, and gaining complete control over Deir Ezzor city, the largest city in eastern Syria, would be a symbolic victory.

Control over the oil-rich region on the southeastern flanks of Deir Ezzor province would also secure key natural resource revenues for the Syrian government.

The province is located along part of Syria’s border with Iraq, so controlling the area would help the government reassert its authority over the quasi-totality of its frontier with its southeastern neighbor. Increased government influence in Deir Ezzor would also help Iran secure a land bridge between Iraq and Syria, especially via the city of Mayadin, which provides a land route from Damascus to Iraq.

The government’s push in Deir Ezzor is also aimed at preventing a Raqqa scenario. In other words, the Syrian government is trying to keep U.S.-backed forces in Syria from carving out a zone of influence in the eastern province after ISIS withdraws.

For the SDF and its primary backer, Washington, the battle for Deir Ezzor is largely posturing against Assad’s forces. The group announced its operation in Deir Ezzor only days after pro-government forces breached ISIS’ siege on parts of the city, signaling to the government that its advance in the province would not go uncontested.

Although the SDF has said it would not enter Deir Ezzor city and would leave the area to pro-government forces, the group is seeking to expand its influence in the oil-rich parts of the province on the eastern banks of the Euphrates and in ISIS strongholds near the border with Iraq. This push is driven by Washington’s aim to secure the Iraqi border and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the region.

Tracing Government Advances

In recent weeks, pro-government forces have pushed into Deir Ezzor city from the west, along the al-Sukhna-Deir Ezzor highway, and achieved significant territorial victories in the provincial capital and its countryside. They have pushed ISIS militants back from areas around a military garrison known as Brigade 137, have breached a three-year siege of Deir Ezzor’s military airbase and a number of adjacent neighborhoods, and have also secured the strategic Deir Ezzor-Damascus highway.

Map of control for Deir Ezzor province that also shows advances by pro-government forces and the SDF. (Nawar Oliver)

The Syrian army said over the weekend that its forces have captured at least 44 villages and towns since launching the assault on Deir Ezzor earlier this month. According to the Syria Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), pro-government forces control roughly 64.3 percent of the provincial capital, while ISIS militants control 35.7 percent. Russia’s Defense Ministry, however, said last week that pro-government forces are in control of at least 85 percent.

They have also made significant gains on the western banks of the Euphrates, in Deir Ezzor’s northwestern countryside, where they have captured more than 60 miles (100km) of former ISIS territory, the SOHR said last week.

Pro-government forces also crossed into the eastern bank of the Euphrates last week, reaching within 3 miles (5km) of SDF-held positions.

The government’s advance suggests three short-term objectives. By expanding control on the western and eastern banks of the Euphrates, the Syrian government is trying to seal the eastern and western gateways to the city, thereby besieging ISIS in a pocket in the provincial capital.

It is also trying to complicate SDF advances in the region by preventing the group from reaching ISIS positions on the western axis while also blocking any potential SDF push down the east bank of the Euphrates.

The advance on the eastern banks of the Euphrates is also driven by an attempt to secure oil and gas fields in the area, most notably the al-Omar oil field, Syria’s largest and most lucrative field.

Current advances, however, do not signal an imminent push south toward ISIS strongholds in Boukamal and Mayadin. It would appear then that the real battle in ISIS’ best-fortified stronghold is delayed.

Tracing SDF Advances

Over the past two weeks, the SDF has pushed into Deir Ezzor province from the northeast using the Hassakeh-Deir Ezzor Highway, gaining full control of Deir Ezzor’s industrial zone and capturing a major gas field in the area.

The Conoco gas plant, Syria’s largest, came under full SDF control on Saturday, after days of fighting ISIS militants in the area. The plant had the largest capacity of any in Syria prior to the conflict, producing up to 459 million cubic feet (13 million cubic meters) of natural gas a day.

SDF forces are now moving away from Deir Ezzor city and advancing toward the Iraqi border. On Sunday, the push to capture the town of al-Suwar began, according to the SOHR. The area is a strategic junction which provides land and supply routes connecting SDF positions to ISIS strongholds in Boukamal and Mayadin. A coalition spokesman said over the weekend that these two ISIS strongholds, some 50 miles (80km) west of the Iraqi border, are the SDF’s eventual goal.

Risk of Confrontation

The race for gas and oil fields in the eastern banks of the Euphrates has increased tensions between Russia, the U.S. and their respective allies over resource-rich parts of Deir Ezzor.

The SDF said on Monday that Russian warplanes bombed their positions in the Conoco gas field, killing one SDF fighter and wounding two others, just two days after the U.S.-backed forces captured the area.

That same day Moscow blamed U.S. policy in Syria for the death of Russian Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov in ISIS shelling near Deir Ezzor one day earlier.

“The death of the Russian commander is the price, the bloody price, for two-faced American policy in Syria,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said. “The American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of [ISIS] … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.”

This is not the first time that the two sides have traded jabs over attacks in east Syria. Earlier this month, the SDF and the Pentagon accused Russia of shelling an SDF position in Deir Ezzor’s industrial zone. Last week, Russia said that it would target SDF positions in east Syria if pro-government forces come under fire from the group.

Moscow’s warning came after Russia accused the SDF of opening fire on Syrian troops and allied forces on the eastern bank of the Euphrates twice last week. Moscow has also accused the SDF of hindering government advances in the area by opening upstream dams to prevent its allies from crossing.

In an attempt to prevent an outbreak of clashes, U.S. and Russian generals held a face-to-face meeting to discuss operations in Deir Ezzor last week.

“The discussions emphasized the need to share operational graphics and locations to ensure … prevention of accidental targeting or other possible frictions that would distract from the defeat of ISIS,” Col. Ryan Dillon said.

Monday’s attack undermines earlier talks and signals that the U.S. and Russia have yet to reach an agreement over the oil-rich zone coveted by all sides. With Monday’s attacks, it would seem that oil-rich areas east of the Euphrates will serve as a testing ground for U.S. and Russian de-confliction arrangements.

If the two sides fail to delineate areas of respective control then sporadic fighting will continue to obstruct the campaign against ISIS in the area and will leave both sides vulnerable to militant counterattacks.

 

Published In The Syria Deeply, 26 Sep. 2017,

Written byHashem Osseiran, Nawar Oliver

Additional Info

  • Files Middle East, Syria, İran
  • Files-Hidden F72,F65,F40
  • Experts The Middle East Institute
  • Experts No - Hidden E43

Executive Summary

  • Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), exemplifies how international extremist jihadi organizations, such as Al Qaeda, have evolved in Syria. Informed by the experiences of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Iraq, HTS has developed a governance strategy that depends on building support from the local Syrian population.

  • In Idlib province (Syria), a few local administrative bodies that provide critical social services are affiliated with HTS. Others are affiliated with Ahrar al Sham and Jaysh al Fateh. Some, however, are affiliated with opposition Local Councils and civil society organizations.

  • Local Councils are responsible for local administration of services in coordination with the Syrian Interim Government. Currently, there are 156 Local Councils operating in Idlib province with the following administrative divisions: 9% City Councils, 30% Town Councils, and 61% Municipal Councils. Of these Local Councils, 86 operate in HTS-controlled areas—14% City Councils, 39% Town Councils, and 47% Municipal Councils.

  • Equipped with the combined experiences of its affiliated jihadi groups, HTS aims to gradually establish a permanent presence in Syria and create a state under “Islamic law” in one of three forms, an emirate, Islamic state, or caliphate.

  • HTS’ local governance strategy depends on three elements, 1) providing social services, 2) enacting coercive policies of public order, and 3) propagating its religious and political ideology. To support this strategy, HTS operates through four main bureaus, 1) General Administration for Services, 2) Military and security operations wing, 3) Dawah and Guidance Office, and 4) Sharia courts.

  • HTS establishes a relationship with the local population through cooperation (mutual interests), containment and infiltration policies, or exclusionary measures. The type of relationship is determined by HTS’ strength and control in a respective community, available resources, local support network, the strength of Local Councils, and the presence of other armed groups that support and protect Local Councils.

Introduction

Extremist Jihadi movements aim to seize territory in order to govern it; however, each movement has a different perspective on the type of governance, level of institutionalization, and mechanisms necessary to fulfill its vision for governing the territory. Some jihadi movements, such as the Islamic State, are aggressive and force a specific ideology on local communities. They spend less time providing basic goods and services, attending to the needs of the community, or managing their views on life or Islam. Other groups, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)([1]), pursue a relationship with the local communities based on mutual interests, managed by a combination of positive and negative incentives.

HTS, which formed from multiple jihadi groups including Al Qaeda, developed with essential insight and experience from various fronts of the “Global Jihad.” HTS used a combination of the following strategies to establish an effective local governance structure: providing social services, executing policies of coercion, and spreading its ideology—all through a specifically crafted structure cementing its presence in Syrian society for the long term.

No group understands the dangers of HTS efforts to establish local governance better than the Local Councils([2]), which in this case are faced with an extraordinary challenge. This study analyzes the possible impact of the HTS’s local governance on the Local Councils in Idlib province. This province was chosen for the case study for the following reasons: 1) it is the only province that is nearly completely outside of the control of Assad central state; 2) its geographic location, connecting coastal Syria with central and northern regions and Turkish border, is significant; 3) it has the most Local Councils of any other province controlled by opposition forces; and 4) it is the main stronghold for the HTS.

First, this study compares the governance methods of the HTS and Local Councils in the areas under HTS control. Second, this study explains how the HTS became involved in local governance and how it interacts with the Local Councils.

This study is part of a larger effort to understand the state of governance in all Syrian territories in order to reach a consensus on how to deal with these new circumstances during and after the political transition. This study compares local governance policies of HTS and the opposition Local Councils beginning with a description of how the HTS was formed and its involvement in local governance bodies. Next, this study offers a description of Local Councils that operate in HTS-controlled territories and examines the relationships between the Local Councils and the HTS. This study concludes with a number of recommendations on how to empower Local Councils in areas under HTS control to avoid their cooptation. This study was conducted based on interviews with Local Council members and analysis of open source information such as news articles, reports, and social media postings.

Formation of HTS: Specifically Crafted Structure

Some argue that HTS is merely a façade for Jabhat al Nusra (see section one below on the formation of Jabhat al Nusra), which attempts to curtail local and international pressure after the fall of Aleppo and the start of the Astana talks. Others claim that HTS is loyal to its core Al Qaeda leadership, and the reason for adopting the name HTS reflects recommendations from its central leadership to integrate into the local communities. Finally, some attribute the formation of HTS to a culmination of various groups competing to represent the “Syrian Jihad.” Because these perspectives offer only a partial understanding, our study provides a comprehensive analysis of HTS structure and governance as a major byproduct of Al Qaeda, a constantly changing cross-border Salafi Jihadi movement.

HTS has focused on the following major themes in order to establish itself in local communities: its relationship with the international community, jihadi experiences in Iraq, its relationship with Al Qaeda, competition with other rebel groups, and local support.

HTS developed its current structure as a result of three phases:

1.Jabhat Al Nusra – January 2012-July 2016

Jabhat al Nusra was formed in January 2012 with help by Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. The group adopted a patchwork of religious ideologies reviewed by Al Qaeda’s central branch. The leader of Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, made it clear that he wanted to avoid mistakes made during the Iraqi Jihad, and declared his commitment to Al Qaeda’s newfound ideology. In the beginning, Jabhat al Nusra refrained from publicly affiliating itself with Al Qaeda despite its public praise for the group. It also avoided international attention by presenting itself as a native Syrian organization. Jabhat al Nusra immersed itself in the local communities and concerned itself with society’s general demands, such as standing up to the Assad regime. The group also took advantage of the revolution to expand its presence in Syria, exercise its military strength, and create mutual alliances with the locals. The group also benefited from a significant boost in membership after the Assad regime released prisoners affiliated with jihadi movements.([3])

However, Jabhat al Nusra also has faced a number of challenges:

  1. Jabhat al Nusra’s designation as a terror group by the United States in January 2012 and by the United Nations in 2013
  2. Conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq in April 2013 following the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) and its subsequent caliphate in March 2014
  3. Jabhat al Nusra’s public acknowledgement of its loyalty to Al Qaeda, and the negative reaction from Syrian revolutionaries as a result
  4. Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015

Jabhat al Nusra dealt with all of these challenges and eventually adapted into a new organization in July 2016 under the name Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS)([4]).

2.Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) – July 2016-January 2017

Al Jolani personally announced the termination of Jabhat al Nusra and the formation of Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS), emphasizing that the new entity would have no ties to Al Qaeda. He explained that the organization made this decision to meet the demands of the Syrian people, who wanted to protect and strengthen the “Syrian jihad” and avoid claims from the international community that Al Qaeda elements exist in the Syrian opposition([5]) . It seems Al Jolani intended to improve the group’s relationship with the international community by announcing its independence from Al Qaeda and insisting upon its closeness to local communities. This new group presented an opportunity to regain local support for the jihadi project, for which support had dwindled following a series of Russian, regime and US led international coalition military strikes on opposition-controlled areas under the pretense that Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra forces were present in the area. This new group also sought to appease some locals who were displeased with Jabhat al Nusra’s interference in local affairs, which had created popular unrest.

JFS also emerged as a result of competition between Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham ([6]), to dominate the “Syrian jihad.” Al Jolani wanted to put pressure on Ahrar al Sham by draining its resources through a new jihadi coalition and bringing into question its jihadi qualifications.

But the presence of Abu Abdullah al Shami and Abu al Faraj al Masri, who are Al Qaeda linked Jihadi leaders inside Syria that were also affiliated with Jabhat Al Nusra, during Al Jolani’s announcement confirmed Al Qaeda’s implicit influence on JFS and provided the new group with credibility among jihadist organizations.

JFS endured repeated attempts to isolate and eliminate the group, especially following the eastern Aleppo deal (12/13/2016), Ankara’s cease fire deal (12/30/2016) and the Astana meetings (01/23/2017). The international community ultimately designated JFS as a terror group, even though it included non-terrorist factions close to the West, such as Nur al Din al Zinki. To prevent being targeted by the international community, JFS had no choice but to announce the formation of HTS at the start of 2017.

3.HTS – January 2017

HTS formed from a combination of opposition groups in northern Syria at the end of January 2017. These groups included JFS, Nur al Din al Zinki, Jabhat Ansar al Din, Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Liwa al Haq. A number of jihadi and Salafi leaders joined HTS, as well, including Abdul Razaq al Mahdi, Abu al Harith al Masri, Abu Yusuf al Hamwi, Abdullah al Muhaisni, Abu al Tahir al Hamwi, and Musleh al Iyani.

Furthermore, HTS emerged due to the continued competition between Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham. HTS attracted more than 25 opposition fighting groups from its competitors, 16 of which came from Ahrar al Sham([7]). Ahrar also lost a number of its prominent leaders to HTS including Abu Saleh Al Taha and Abu Yusuf al Muhajir.

The new group confirmed Al Jolani’s intentions to firmly establish the jihadi project in Syria and salvage its legitimacy. HTS adopted many of the revolutionary slogans used in local revolutionary circles([8]). Through its media campaign, HTS expressed approval for a conditional political negotiation and demonstrated a willingness to fight the “Khawarij,” who are a historically marginal yet significant group of Muslims that are considered more extreme and radical.

HTS comprises approximately 19,000 to 20,000 members, including administrators, fighters, and religious figures. HTS has a significant presence in some Syrian territories with well-known bases and checkpoints. In other areas, HTS has a limited presence where it merely patrols the area. HTS forces operate in Idlib province, southern and western Aleppo, Jarood al Qalamoon, eastern Ghouta, and Daraa province, minimally. (See map below for reference.)

 

Figure 1: Map of Territories in Syria as of May 15, 2017

Based on information surveyed and interviews, HTS operates through eight divisions, namely military, security, services, religious law, courts, media, finances, and politics. For each of these divisions, there is an office organized under the leadership of the “Shura Council.”

General Commander of HTS

Figure 2: HTS Command Structure

 

The HTS administrative structure suggests that the group is organized and tied directly to a central leadership body, which implies that HTS aims to establish a permanent Islamic governing structure. This structure is a direct threat to the Local Councils, the primary entities leading efforts to rebuild the nation.

HTS Management of Territory and its Relationship with the Local Councils: Road to Permanence

Jihadi movements with military wings seek to administer the territories they control in order to achieve their goals, but each movement differs in its approach to governance. In an attempt to avoid conflict, some jihadi movements focus on providing social services rather than forcing a particular ideology on local communities. Other groups take the opposite approach, regularly forcing locals to accept a specific ideology in order to secure a permanent presence. Here, it is important to shed some light on HTS’s experience with local governance, the methods and resources it requires to effectively govern, and its relationship with Local Councils in HTS-controlled territories.

HTS Perspective on Local Governance: Picking from the Most Successful Jihadi Practices and a Pragmatic Approach

HTS aims to establish a permanent presence gradually and to create an Islamic governing structure, such as an emirate, an Islamic State, or a caliphate. HTS’s governing structure is a collection of best practices gathered from its affiliate groups and other jihadi groups around the world ([9]).

In its attempts to establish a permanent presence through an Islamic governance structure, HTS affords the local community a status of great importance. HTS considers the local community a key actor, which has the capacity to carry forward the HTS project or bring it to an end. For this reason, HTS employs a number of strategies to gain support from the local community, such as 1) providing social services, 2) enacting policies of coercion, and 3) spreading a radical s ideology. Several factors that distinguish HTS from other groups include its level of presence and control in the areas it governs, the amount of resources invested in its governing structure, the results achieved, and the people responsible for making decisions and carrying out the project.

1.Providing social services: General Administration for Services

The General Administration for Services is responsible for providing social services in HTS territories. The administration was formed under Jabhat al Nusra in 2013, when the organization decided to separate from the Islamic Administration for Services ([10]).    The General Administration for Services is made up of several divisions established based on general geographical distribution (Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, etc). These divisions, similar to ministries, are connected to specific service offices, such as the Border Services Office, Desert Services Office, and Aleppo City Services Office. All of the offices are managed by a municipal administration, under the authority of the General Administration for Services. These local offices carry out the policies of the General Administration for Services ([11]). Through these offices, HTS interacts with the local community by providing important services. Some of these communities include Harem, Salqeen, Darkoush, and Talmins. In areas where HTS does not control the municipal offices, the General Administration for Services either directly coordinates with established service structures (via Local Councils) or independently provides the necessary services)[12]). If HTS is unable to provide services then Local Councils provide them, but HTS still maintains a significant influence over them ([13]).

Figure 3: Structure of the General Administration for Services ([14])

HTS knows well the importance of providing services to the local community in order to garner support and recruit new volunteers. HTS also knows that if it can provide basic services, it may weaken its competitors. Furthermore, if community members receive services from HTS, they may be more willing to accept the organization’s coercive methods of spreading its ideology. HTS cannot afford the high costs of providing all necessary services, so the group focuses on providing only the most important ones, such as electricity and water, through which it can significantly influence the Local Councils ([15]). In the meantime, HTS can diversify the kinds of services it offers as more resources become available, if such provisions will help the organization establish a permanent presence in the territories it controls.

HTS employs local civilians in social services jobs in order to maintain positive relations with the community ([16]). As for funding the services, HTS depends on its external support networks, both from the central leadership and from its supporters. HTS also levies taxes on the local community. Additionally, people passing through HTS-controlled territories must pay a road tax, which is especially lucrative in the crowded areas of northern Syria and along important supply lines( [17]) . Furthermore, organizations that want to operate in HTS territories must also pay for protection and permission to operate there ([18]). HTS also collects fines from those who violate its rules. In addition, HTS also buys and sells properties.

2.Policies of coercion: Violent and non-violent tactics

HTS also resorts to coercive measures against its adversaries. The organization justifies its coercive policies against those engaged in immoral acts, cooperating with the West or the Assad regime, and when applying Sharia law. HTS uses military force to execute its coercive policies, evidenced by its operations against opposition groups in northern Syria, including the Jabha Shamiya, Fastaqim, Suqoor al Sham, Jaish al Islam, and Jaish al Mujahideen ([19]). HTS security branches ([20]) also force locals to adopt the group’s worldview, and they punish those who do not comply.

HTS uses indirect coercion and non-violent means to force its worldview on the locals and create a shared ideology. This strategy is managed by HTS’s Dawah and Guidance Office, which is responsible for spreading the group’s ideology, and the media office, which is responsible for generating propaganda. The two offices organize and offer religious courses and programs in mosques and public places, where they can spread HTS ideology and organize protests against their competitors ([21]).

3.Ideology: The duality of courts and advocacy

Informed by the experiences of Al Qaeda, HTS gradually implements Islamic law, or Sharia, to avoid clashing with local populations ([22]). HTS depends on a two-pronged approach, comprising the courts and Dawah, to gain support from the locals. On one hand, HTS has inherited a court system established by Jabhat al Nusra in Salqeen, Sarmada, and Darkoush. By controlling the courts, HTS gains the locals’ trust by implementing policies according to its interpretation of Islamic law ([23]). This position of power also allows the group to act with impunity by exploiting religious ideology to justify unpopular actions, such as commandeering public goods or property, or those of its competitors ([24]). On the other hand, HTS depends on its Dawah and Guidance Office ([25]) to conduct ideological campaigns to convince local communities to support its project and adopt its vision. HTS has demonstrated greater success in spreading its ideology in rural areas compared to more populated areas in Idleb province, such as Muarat al Noman, Saraqeb, and Kafranbal. These areas have well-developed civil societies making it much more difficult for HTS to infiltrate them.

HTS’s Relationship with Local Councils: An Approach Based on Mutual Interest

Amid the ongoing conflict in Syria, Idlib province is significant for several reasons. First, it is the only province that is nearly completely liberated. Second, it is positioned in a strategic geographic location, connecting coastal Syria with central and northern regions. Third, it has the most Local Councils of any other opposition-controlled area. Fourth, and finally, it is the main stronghold of the HTS. Our description of the services provided in Idlib province includes the Civilian Services Administration of Jaysh al Fateh, the Committee for Services Management of Ahrar al Sham, the General Administration for Services of HTS, the Interim Government’s service offices, and the Local Councils, as well as other civil society organizations. There are currently 156 local sub-councils operating in Idlib province ([26]).

Figure 4: Distribution of councils by administrative divisions

There are also a number of councils in the villages and rural areas of Idlib province that are not recognized as full-fledged councils by the Interim Government’s Ministry of Local Administration or the Idlib Provincial Council. These councils were formed by either the leaders of these localities seeking support from aid organizations or military groups attempting to increase their legitimacy among the locals ([27]).

There are 81 Local Councils operating in territories heavily controlled by HTS in Idlib province. They are categorized by following administrative divisions. (Please see the figure below.)

Figure 5: Administrative Divisions of Councils Operating in HTS Controlled Areas

A large number of these councils are affiliated with the Provincial Council of Free Idleb, which is a part of the Syrian Interim Government ([28]). Some of these councils have no affiliation with the Interim Government. The remaining 450 the councils, including those in Harem and Salqeen, are affiliated with the HTS-controlled General Administration for Services.

All of the councils differ in their effectiveness and their roles within the community according to the following factors: capacity, legitimacy, size of the administrative unit, military operations, and its relationship with HTS. Each council aims to provide basic services to its communities including humanitarian aid, infrastructure renovation, health care, sanitation, education, civil defense, local security, and civil society organizations.

The local councils finance their endeavors through a number of sources, the most important of which are cash donations, work project grants, or in-kind donations. The support they receive from the Provincial Council—and the Interim Government overall—is limited and inconsistent. Therefore, Local Councils must generate funds through local taxes, investments in public property, and income from development projects. In addition, the Local Councils, especially those directly affiliated with HTS, receive both financial and logistical support from the HTS General Administration for Services ([29]) .

It seems that HTS acknowledges the significance of the Local Councils, and for this reason, it provides services and develops close relationships with the local community, international community, and parties providing financial support to humanitarian aid and development projects in Syria. Each of these entities are essential players in implementing a future political solution.

HTS’s goal to establish a state under Islamic law conflicts with the political goals of the Local Councils, which form the essential basis for a state. For this reason, HTS pursues a relationship of mutual interest with the Local Councils governed by the following principles: 1) the level of permanence and dispersion, 2) availability of resources, 3) amount of local support, 4) central role of Local Councils and their legitimacy, and 5) Local Council partners.

Based on these principles, the HTS adopted the following approach:

  1. Cooperation “mutual interests”: HTS develops relationships with the Local Councils based on areas of mutual interest, such as electricity and water—both of which the General Administration for Services controls ([30]). HTS and the Local Councils negotiate the terms of their agreements ([31]), and in some cases HTS may request money, services or logistical services from the Local Councils in exchange for electricity or water ([32]). In other cases, the General Administration for Services may provide Local Councils with logistical or financial support for certain projects ([33]). In territories where HTS does not exercise full control, such as Saraqeb, the organization must build a relationship with the Local Council in order to become a part of the armed coalition responsible for controlling the territory ([34]). HTS also prefers cooperative mutual interest-based measures in places such as Muarat Al Noman, where it does not have a majority of the local support ([35]). Because Local Councils are able to choose whether to align with HTS or its competitors in providing services to the community ([36]), HTS must cooperate with the Local Councils and avoid unwanted interference in local affairs ([37]).
  2. Containment and infiltration: HTS aims to contain and infiltrate Local Councils to use as a tool[38] in its efforts to forge a permanent presence in the region. HTS uses this strategy in territories where it exercises full control and has a military advantage. HTS also employs this tactic in regions where it does not have the resources to control administrative bodies that provide local services. In areas where HTS has strong local support, such as the rural areas of Idlib, the organization increases pressure on the Local Councils, especially when the councils are ineffective. HTS contains and infiltrates Local Councils by planting HTS-affiliated individuals on the council ([39]) or demanding that an HTS-appointed representative attain a seat on the council ([40]). HTS also employs subtler tactics by influencing the process ([41]) of making a decision within any given council or carrying it out ([42]). (Refer to endnotes for elaboration from Local Council members).
  3. Exclusion: In places where there is no resistance, where HTS exercises complete control of a territory, the organization terminates all Local Council operations and replaces them with its own structures ([43]). This strategy is especially true in high-value territory, near main supply lines and areas near the border, such as Harem and Darkoush. HTS also adopts this strategy in 1) areas where local support is contested, 2) areas with poor local services, and 3) areas in which Local Councils refuse to allow HTS to play any role, such as in Sanjar ([44]) and Salqeen([45]).

Strengthening the Local Council System: Civil Society, Effective Management, and Resources

Idlib is critical as a case study to measure the performance of Local Councils and the potential for development in the future. In general, Local Councils in Idlib face a number of challenges due to a lack of resources, fierce local competition, and conflicting policies of various parties involved in the Syrian conflict. Local Councils operating in areas under HTS control face the possibility of termination due to HTS’s policies of coercion and infiltration.

The following are general recommendations on how to strengthen Local Councils, especially those operating in areas dominated by HTS and those that are losing credibility among the local population. In order to prevent the Local Councils from falling prey to HTS’s strategy (mutual interest-based cooperation, containment and infiltration, and exclusion), Omran for Strategic Studies offers these recommendations:

  1. Productive Civil Society: Establish a strong civil society to support and collaborate with the council to prevent HTS from taking control of local administrative bodies. To build a productive civil society in Syrian communities, consider the following steps:
  • Teach the local population civil society empowerment skills through trainings and workshops on civil society activism and work.
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue, such as town hall meetings, in order to increase communication between civil society organizations and the Local Councils operating in areas controlled by HTS militarily.
  • Build public interest on issues of mutual concern, such as resisting efforts by armed groups, including HTS, to get involved in civil society activities. Local radio shows or newspapers can help achieve this step.

2.Effective Local Administration: Councils should have a clear structure and effective governance system that is protected from infiltration and capable of maintaining its operations in HTS-controlled areas. Consider the following steps:

  • Assist the Provincial Council of Idlib in streamlining all of its projects, solely through the offices of the Interim Government.
  • Provide training and financial/logistical support to the councils operating in HTS-controlled areas.
  • Protect areas that the Assad regime, its allied militias, and Russian forces attack—which they justify by claiming that the areas are under HTS control.

3.Improved Local Resources: It is important to develop the financial and human resources available to Local Councils to prevent them from having to negotiate with HTS for shared control. In order to improve and increase the councils’ available resources, consider the following steps:

  • Offer technical and theoretical training to qualified candidates to provide the council with necessary expertise. This includes for example trainings on good governance and public sector management.
  • Provide council members with consistent salaries.
  • Create new markets by developing alternative sources of electricity outside of HTS control.
  • Create a fund to invest in for-profit endeavors that would help generate funds for the council.
  • Train council members on how to manage public property and property taxes.

Conclusion

HTS is taking advantage of local administration to garner public support in an attempt to establish a state of its own under their version of “Islamic law”. Informed by the experiences of other jihadi groups and recommendations from Al Qaeda, HTS has formulated its own strategy for local governance. The approach combines positive and negative reinforcement measures, in order to secure support from the local community, through a perceived flexible administrative structure that can adapt as the situation in Syria changes. HTS poses a great danger for the stability of future Syria and the region because it seeks to establish a permanent grassroots presence through its local governance strategies—the foundation upon which to form a state—but the organization faces a number of challenges. To HTS, Local Councils are a significant asset because of the critical services they provide, even though the interests of HTS and Local Councils are often in competition. HTS also recognize that Local Councils are the official channels through which funds for aid and development will flow, both now and in the future. For these reasons, HTS pursues a relationship of mutual interest with the Local Councils. At times, HTS adopts a policy of cooperation when they are unable to take over full control; otherwise, HTS contains and infiltrates or excludes Local Councils altogether. HTS’ strategy threatens the existence of Local Councils and demands a serious effort to support these councils.

In order to maintain influence, Local Councils must effectively provide public services, gain support and legitimacy from the local communities, and institutionalize their cooperation with local forces pursuing a free and modern nation state. Furthermore, Local Councils must establish a clear and direct relationship with the Provincial Councils and the Interim Government. And, finally, Councils should attain adequate financial resources and depend less on donors. Only then will Local Councils be capable of overpowering HTS and supporting the creation of a free and modern nation state.


([1]) Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS.

([2]) Local Councils refers to the councils that are part of the Ministry of Local Administration under the Syrian Interim Government.

([3]) Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings, Date: July 27, 2016. Link https://goo.gl/otk0JT

([4]) JFS refers to Jabhat Fateh al Sham formed in January 2017

([5])Al Jolani outline four main goals of JFS, 1) ruling with God’s religion and establishing justice among the people, 2) uniting the forces of the mujahedeen and liberating the Levant from the regime and its allies, 3) protecting the Syrian jihad and continuing it in all legitimate ways, 4) relieving the suffering of Muslims and addressing their concerns at all costs, and 5) providing a peaceful and respectable life for people in the Islamic state. See the Announcement of JFS by Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, You Tube 07/28/2016 https://goo.gl/wDz7Os

([6]) Harakat Ahrar al Sham al Islammiya, commonly referred to as Ahrar al Sham, is a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist groups that joined to form a single group in 2011.

([7])Aaron Lund, The Jihadi Spiral, Carnegie Center, 02/28/2017 https://goo.gl/8ShXrp

([8])Ahmad Abazaid, The Great Competition: Ahrar Al Sham vs HTS https://goo.gl/Efr7qu

([9]) Daniel Green , Al Qaeda’s Soft Power Strategy in Yemen, The Washington Institute 01/23/2013 https://goo.gl/L8SGqq

([10])Challenges facing the local administration in Aleppo, Aljazeera, 3/31/2014, https://goo.gl/GmzdYc

([11])Announcement by the General Administration for Services/Office of the Technical Services on the Border in the Town of Harem, Official page of the Town of Harem, 04/20/2017, https://goo.gl/o8Yz6O

([12])Cooperation between the local council in Kafar Daryan with the General Administration for Services to connect an electricity line, Official page of the local council in Kafar Daryan, 10/19/2016 https://goo.gl/iOXzgP، and an electricity station in Saraqib, Radio al Kul, 2017/30/03 https://goo.gl/uO5bvg

([13])A member of the local council of the town of Sinjar mentioned that the council was structurally affiliated with the HTS controlled General Administration for Services on 05/17/2017.

([14])Structure of the Harem Town Council affiliated with the General Administration for Services, Official page of the Harem Town Council, 05/21/2016https://goo.gl/NfRXBG

([15])Maintenance work on the electricity stations in Al Zarba, Official page of the General Administration for Services. 05/01/2017 https://goo.gl/lpDP2K

([16])The Talmans Local Council President Fadel Burhan Omar said that there was a difference in the way HTS dealt with the Local Councils compared with Jabhat Al Nusra. Previously, the organization operated using military figures, but now it uses civilians. This information was gathered during an interview conducted over social media on 04/27/2017.

([17])Charles Lister, Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra, Brookings, July 27, 2016. https://goo.gl/otk0JT

([18])Information gathered through an interview conducted over social media with an individual working with civil society organizations in Idleb province on 05/22/2017.

([19]) Al Jolani’s Latest Plan: Fighting in Search of a Policy, Ahmad Abazaid, Idrak, 02/09/2017, https://goo.gl/4sTImj

([20]) HTS: Similar to Regime Prisons with Ideological Torture, Sultan Jalabi, Al Hayat, 05/13/2017, https://goo.gl/RWHsLq

([21]) Protests in Idleb in support of HTS and rejecting Astana 4, Micro Syria, 05/12/2017,https://goo.gl/cOJ6z7

([22]) Al Qaeda’s Shadow Government in Yemen, Daniel Green, Washington Institute, 12/12/2013https://goo.gl/qYjOeG

([23]) The Courts Ban the Sale of Any Real Estate Belonging to Muslims, Zaytouna Newspaper, 01/04/2017https://goo.gl/ANWN6c

([24])Yasir Abbasmay, How Al Qaeda Is Winning In Syria. War on the Rocks. 10/05/2016. https://goo.gl/kUSDvF

([25]) The Official Page of the Dawah and Guidance Office of Jabhat al 08/04/2016, https://goo.gl/JeMqU8

([26])An interview conducted via social media with Muhammad Khattab, Head of the Local Councils Administration in the Provincial Council of Idleb on 05/19/2017

([27]) Interview conducted via social media with Muhammad Salim Khudr, Local Council Member and PR Officer, 05/19/2017

([28])Naser Hazbar, former president of the Local Council in Muarat Al Noman, indicated that the council is structurally affiliated with the Interim Government and the Provincial Council in an interview via social media on 05/22/2017.

([29])The General Administration for Services is thanked for offering its support to make the water supply network operational again, Official page of the town of Kulli on Facebook, 02/21/2017 https://goo.gl/Zlaejz

([30])Said Gazoul, Sarmada Council in Idleb Pumps Water Again After Electricity Returns, SMART News, 07/21/2016, https://goo.gl/Udyai6

([31])Interview conducted via social media with Usama Hussein, former president of the local council in Saraqeb 05/21/2017

([32])Interview conducted via social media with Naser Hazbar, former president of the local council in Muarat Al Noman, 05/22/2017

([33])General Administration for Services helps the local council in Abu Thuhoor to create a garbage dump, 04/11/2017 https://goo.gl/xtIATZ

([34])In an interview conducted via social media with the former president of the local council in Saraqeb, Usama Hussein, he confirmed that a number of armed groups operated in the area, including Liwa Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb, Ahrar al Sham, and HTS. Liwaa Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb has been the main force since it is considered local, 05/21/2017.

([35])Naser Hazbar, former president of the local council in Muarat Al Noman, described previous Al Nusra and HTS efforts to force the locals to accept it as the main provider of services instead of the Local Council; however, the legitimacy that the council enjoyed and the support of the local civil society prevented the success of those attempts, 05/22/2017

([36])Yasir Abbasmay, How Al Qaeda Is Winning In Syria. War on the Rocks. 10/05/2016. https://goo.gl/kUSDvF

([37])Usama Hussein, former president of the local council in Saraqeb, confirmed that the Local Councils gained legitimacy by providing services, supporting civil society, and benefiting from a strong civil society movement in Saraqeb. The presence of political parties in Saraqeb also contributed to the Local Councils’ legitimacy. These were key factors in preventing HTS and other groups from interfering in council affairs, 05/21/2015

([38])Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Civil Society in Jabal al-Summaq. Syria Comment. Date 04/04/2017. https://goo.gl/ackML9

([39])Interview conducted via social media with Fadel Burhan Omar, President of the Local Council of Talmanas, DATE

([40])Yasir Abbas. Another "State" of Hate: Al-Nusra's Quest to Establish an Islamic Emirate in the Levant. Hudson Institute, Date: 04/29/2016. https://goo.gl/NTA6Li

([41])One of the members of the local council in Kafar Tkharim indicated that if the HTS wanted to influence the council in any way, it would resort to pressuring the council to change certain decisions. The interview was conducted via social media on 04/29/2017.

([42])Meeting of the local councils in the Misni district to discuss why the water project was cancelled by HTS, Official page of Majdalia Local Council on Facebook, 04/25/2017 https://goo.gl/h5PyMF

([43]) Omar Abdul Fattah, Sinjar in Idlib: JFS detains President of the Local Council Because it Does Not Recognize His Position, 03/01/2017 https://goo.gl/6r18s0, and after HTS refused the formation of the council it chased down members of the Salqeen civilian council and detained some of them as well, 02/21/2017, https://goo.gl/e8v1wz

([44]) Omar Abdul Fattah, Sinjar in Idlib: JFS detains President of the Local Council Because It Does Not Recognize His Position, 03/01/2017 https://goo.gl/6r18s0

([45]) HTS raids homes of local council member in Salqeen and detains a few, Zaytouna Newspaper, 02/22/2017, https://goo.gl/zejypf

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"This special report was published byMiddle East Institute , in collaboration with Omran for Strategic Studies, andOPC- Orient Policy Center"

Idlib is currently the site of increasing competition between the two most dominant armed coalitions, the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) and Ahrar al-Sham. The province has witnessed limited airstrikes since a de-escalation agreement, which came into effect on May 5, was brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran at the Astana talks. Idlib was one of four areas labeled as a de-escalation zone.

The agreement has, however, prompted a contest between H.T.S. and Ahrar al-Sham, with both groups vying to increase their influence and control new areas. The competition between them has three dimensions: military, economic, and social.

For strategic, economic, and military reasons, H.T.S. has focused efforts on controlling vital towns, specifically along the Syrian-Turkish border on the western side of the province. H.T.S. fighters that shifted to the region from losses in Aleppo and Homs were deployed carefully in areas where the al-Qaeda affiliate wanted to increase influence, particularly along the northwestern border.

The “smuggling” route along the border from Harem to Darkoush is totally controlled by H.T.S., which uses it to transport oil and other goods. The mountainous nature of the area and its many caves also allow H.T.S. to thwart any attack or attempts by Ahrar or any other group to assert control in those territories.

Though H.T.S. controls military bases in the area, such as Taftanaz, to the northeast of Idlib, and Abu Dhour, southeast of Idlib, the group faces challenges in governance. Lacking communal support and strong governing skills, H.T.S. can’t fully control major cities like Idlib, Maarat al-Noaman, and Saraqib. Even in smaller towns like Kafranbel, where civil society has been active, H.T.S. has also failed to maintain a tight grip.

The experience of Maarat al-Noaman is an example of how local communities have played a major role in confronting H.T.S. Since February 2016, civil society has actively mobilized against al-Qaeda’s presence, first against Jabhat al-Nusra, as they were called at the time, and later against present-day H.T.S. The group was unable to control the city or defeat armed opposition groups largely due to the local community’s support for the armed groups. “It is not the armed groups there that protected civil society and the local community, it’s the community that prevented H.T.S. from defeating the armed opposition inside the city,” said Basel al-Junaidy, director of Orient Policy Center.

The only large city H.T.S. has been able to control is Jisr al-Shughour, in part because the armed groups surrounding the city are loyal to Abu Jaber, the former leader of Ahrar al-Sham who defected to H.T.S. earlier this year.

Following increasing pressure from Turkey to protect its borders, H.T.S. delegated to Ahrar al-Sham control over parts of the northwestern border near the town of Salqin. However, H.T.S. still enjoys influence there, and Ahrar still needs H.T.S. approval to appoint the leader of the group assigned to watch the border in that area.

Yet the current map could also be misleading. There are areas where H.T.S. has presence, but struggles to maintain control, and there are areas where it does not yet have a presence, but could expand power if threatened. For example, the main border crossing between Idlib and Turkey is Bab al-Hawa. It is controlled by Ahrar al-Sham, but H.T.S. controls the route leading to the crossing through several checkpoints, and has the capability to attack the border crossing and seize control at will.

In the north, Sarmada is becoming the economic capital of Idlib. H.T.S. controls most of the decision-making there with regards to regulations like money transfers, the exchange rate, and the prices of commodities like metal and oil. On the other hand, H.T.S. is weakest in southern Idlib, from the borders of the Hama province to Ariha, the social base for Ahrar al-Sham.

H.T.S. governs through its General Directorate of Services, which competes with several other entities to provide services. These competitors include Ahrar al-Sham’s Commission of Services, local councils under the umbrella of the opposition interim government, independent local councils, and civil society organizations. A recent study conducted by the Omran Center shows that there are 156 local councils in the province of Idlib; 81 of them are in areas where H.T.S. has a strong presence. As highlighted above, however, H.T.S. doesn’t enjoy equal control over all of these councils. While in some instances the group has comprised whole councils—as in Harem, Darkoush, and Salqin—in other councils, H.T.S. is only able to influence some members.

Due to the de-escalation zones agreement, H.T.S. currently finds itself in a challenging position. When the Nusra Front established its presence in Syria, it promoted itself as the protector of the people. Escalating violence helped the group gain legitimacy and sympathy, and many armed groups found a strong ally in the al-Qaeda affiliate as battles raged against the regime. As front lines become quieter, H.T.S. is beginning to lose its appeal.

The H.T.S. alliance also faces internal threats. The dynamics are changing between Nusra and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement, the second largest component of H.T.S. On June 2, Hussam al-Atrash, a senior leader of Zenki, tweeted that areas out regime control should be handed over to the opposition interim government, and all armed groups should dissolve. Atrash justified his suggestion as the only way for the Sunni armed opposition forces to survive. The comments irritated H.T.S. leadership, which referred Atrash to the H.T.S. judiciary. The tweets disappeared shortly thereafter.

Following that incident, H.T.S. banned all fighters from mentioning any subgroup names, like Zenki, to enforce unity. However, it is unlikely that H.T.S. will be able to maintain long-term enforcement. No opposition military alliance has been able to survive throughout the Syrian conflict, and subgroups continue to migrate from one umbrella to another for tactical reasons, seeking military protection and/or new funding opportunities.

While H.T.S. faces these internal and external challenges, it is also evolving. Its leadership clearly realized the importance of building stronger connections with local communities in order to compete with Ahrar al-Sham. H.T.S. adopted new tactics in governing. Instead of appointing foreigners or military leaders, H.T.S. has appointed local civilians as its representatives in most of the towns under its control in Idlib.

H.T.S. and Ahrar will continue to compete in governance and service provision, which is key to building loyalty, increasing influence, and widening public support. The groups are also cautiously following regional and international developments as they prepare for different scenarios. If the de-escalation agreement collapses or an external force intervenes in Idlib, all dynamics will certainly change. Ahrar and H.T.S. might confront each other, become allies, or re-shuffle their respective coalitions. The situation in Idlib is far from stable.

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In recent weeks Daraa has witnessed the most intense clashes and aerial bombardments it has seen for years. Despite the plan for “de-escalation zones,” civilians in the city are likely to becaught in the newest battlefield for foreign power proxies and the warring Syrian sides.

ISTANBUL– When the Syrian government announced a 48-hour cessation of hostilities in Daraa on Saturday, some residents of the southern city were skeptical.

The brief pause in fighting, which ended on Tuesday as the Syrian army and its allied forces resumed their operation, came after two weeks of some of the most intense aerial bombardments and clashes the city has seen since 2015. Some saw the pause in fighting as a victory for the rebels who control the city and who have been resisting a government advance in the area since February. Others, however, were worried that the temporary halt was a cover for pro-government forces to bring in reinforcements.

The truce was announced just as the dates were set for the next round of United Nations-led peace talks in Geneva (July 10) and Russia-led negotiations in Astana (July 4–5). In theory, it sounded promising. Syrian state-run media said the purpose of the truce was “to back the national reconciliation efforts.” The area is part of Russia’s proposed “de-escalation zones,” where a ceasefire has, in theory, been in effect since last month, though it has not been enforced.

In fact, in recent months the area has become the newest battleground for fighting between rebel and pro-regime forces – and the various foreign powers with different strategic interests in the south. Aerial bombardment and ground clashes between opposition and pro-government forces are continuing in Daraa city.

 

Map of control for the fourth proposed “de-escalation zone” in Syria’s southern provinces. (Nawar Oliver)

Moving forward, the bombing is only going to increase, and there will be no reconciliation,” a Syrian military source told the nonprofit journalism organization Syria Direct. “Give it a month, and this will all be taken care of.”

With so many parties involved, a lasting ceasefire in the area is an unlikely option, and despite the international community gearing up for yet another round of discussions aimed at stemming the ongoing violence and destabilizing the actions of warring parties, civilians in Daraa continue to suffer.

Recent Fighting

Pro-government forces have carried out roughly 2,000 air raids, including the use of barrel bombs, missiles and artillery shells, on Daraa city in recent months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitoring group. In the two weeks before the temporary ceasefire, pro-regime forces allegedly carried out 645 barrel-bomb attacks, 199 airstrikes, 645 mortar attacks and 91 napalm rocket attacks, according to the volunteer group Syria Civil Defence.

During this time at least 88 civilians, including 18 children and seven women, were reportedly killed by pro-regime forces. Twelve people were killed in an airstrike that hit a school housing IDPs, Muhammad Asakra, a citizen journalist based in Daraa city, told Syria Deeply. A government missile also hit the civil defense center in Daraa last week, rendering the building and one ambulance inoperable, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The increase in attacks preceded a major ground offensive in the city by the Syrian army and Iran-backed Shia militias. On June 4, pro-government reinforcements, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite Iraqi militias and the army’s elite 4th Armored Division, were deployed in what rebels said was a move to seize the city and control Syria’s border with Jordan.

Pro-government forces were attempting to advance on the Daraa camp neighborhood to outflank the opposition, which had recently seized roughly 90 percent of the strategic al-Manshia district, Abo Muhammad Daraa, the spokesperson for rebel league Ahrar Horan, told Syria Deeply.

Fighting broke out in February when some Southern Front rebel factions, with members of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, launched the “Death Over Humiliation,” offensive against government forces in Daraa city, aimed at preventing the regime from capturing the border crossing with Jordan. On February 17, opposition fighters captured most of al-Manshia district and part of the highway leading to a crossing, postponing any regime attempts to reopen it.

Map showing the location of the February battle between rebels and pro-government forces to capture the border crossing with Jordan. (Nawar Oliver)

The partial truce came only afterrepeated” failed attempts to seize the city, Major Issam al Rayes, spokesman for the Southern Front coalition of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Reuters. “The regime’s forces have stopped their military operations after big losses in equipment and men since the start of their campaign over a month ago,” he added.

According to a statement from the rebel military operations room known as al-Bunyan al-Marsous, at least 40 members of pro-regime forces were killed in recent clashes in Daraa, including high-ranking officers, such as Ahmad Fayez Tajo, who directed fighting in Zabadani city and Darayya district. Senior Iranian military adviser Haydar Jalilond was also killed in fighting in Daraa, according to the Iranian Nasim news agency.

Foreign Interests in Daraa

The Syrian government is not the only side fighting in Daraa with foreign allies. Jordan, which shares a 235-mile (375km) border with Syria, and its allies have maintained relations with rebels to deter fighting and keep the border region relatively free of hostilities. As a result, until February, Daraa had largely been considered a de facto safe zone – despite intermittent Syrian airstrikes.

The southern provinces are largely under the control of Syria’s armed opposition, comprising roughly 40 Free Syrian Army-linked factions operating under the Southern Front umbrella. The Southern Front has received varying degrees of training and funding from countries in the joint Military Operations Center (MOC) between Western and Gulf states based in Amman. This has enabled Jordan to exert control, with tacit consent from the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, over rebel factions near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, southern Daraa province and the Yarmouk Valley.

Until February, the MOC had also been able to regulate the majority of activities between Southern Front factions and the Syrian regime. For example, in August 2016, the MOC reportedly offered Southern Front rebels monthly salaries if they refrained from an offensive against the government-controlled town of Sheikh Miskeen. This is just one instance of how Jordan had managed to keep a relative level of calm in the south before February.

Table showing the change in percentage of control of the different groups in southern Syria before and after the recent offensives. (Nawar Oliver)

When fighting broke out in February, the Jordanian government’s initial reaction was to close 55 miles (90km) of its border with Daraa and Quneitra, denying entry to everyone, including injured civilians. The MOC responded by attempting to persuade the Southern Front factions to stop the battle or halt their participation – signaling that Jordan did not consent to the fighting.

One source close to the situation, who requested anonymity for security reasons, suggested the battle was not a rogue move by the rebel groups, but rather an American plan to deter Syrian government- and Iran-backed pro-government forces from taking control of the border crossing with Jordan so close to its ally Israel. The U.S., Jordan, the Gulf States and Israel, on varying levels, oppose a strong Iranian presence on the southern borders – one of the main obstacles for foreign cooperation in a southern safe area.

‘Act for Daraa’

Daraa was not always a hub for foreign interests. The city, the homeland’s shield, was considered the spark that ignited the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2011.

The relative calm in Syria’s south in recent years has largely kept Daraa out of international headlines, but six years on residents and activists in the city are once again mobilizing to try to put an end to violence against civilians.

They started the “Act for Daraa” social media campaign on June 12 to raise awareness of the situation in the southern city. Using the hashtag #ActForDaraa, activists share photos, videos and reports of attacks in Daraa on various social media platforms. Some have also organized various sit-ins and demonstrations, and social media users around the world have posted pictures of themselves holding signs in support of the campaign.


Written by Housen Akoush, Nawar Oliver

Published In The syria deeply, 23 june 2017,

 

Additional Info

  • Files Russia, Syria, Terrorism and Security
  • Files-Hidden F72,F2,F3
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Executive Summary

  • The Raqqa operation closely mirrors the Mosul operation both politically and militarily. Politically, it was launched amid disagreements and a lack of clarity about which local and international forces would participate and who would govern the city post liberation. Militarily, ISIS used the same strategy it used in Mosul aiming to exhaust the attacking forces with the use of improvised explosive devices instead of direct combat. ISIS also retreated from positions near the borders of Raqqa and took more fortified positions inside neighborhoods with narrow streets in an attempt to change the battle into an urban combat nature.
  • The battle uncovered critical weaknesses in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its ability to fight alone. The SDF required heavy cover fire from Coalition forces as well as direct involvement of American and French forces, which deployed paratroopers in the area and changed the course of the battle by taking control of the Euphrates Dam and Tabqa Military Airport.
  • The tense political environment and the various interests of regional and international players will significantly impact the battle for Raqqa and future battles against ISIS in Syria.
  • This paper projects four scenarios about how the Raqqa operation and future operations could play out.
    • First, the United States’ continued dependence on YPG-dominated SDF forces as its sole partner, which will exacerbate tensions with Turkey.
    • Second, a new agreement or arrangement between Turkey and the U.S.
    • Third, a new arrangement between Russia and the U.S. in Raqqa, similar to what took place in Manbij.([1])
    • Fourth, the latest Astana agreement, which could set the groundwork for the U.S. to open the way for all Astana parties to participate in the Raqqa battle.
  • The most important contribution of the U.S. in Syria was undermining the “post-Aleppo status quo”([2]) established by Russia in an attempt to create an environment more consistent with an American policy that is more involved in the Middle East, especially in Syria.

Introduction

On May 18, 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the predominately Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG or PYD) form the main fighting force, launched an operation with a few American and French Special Forces and International Coalition air support to take Raqqa from ISIS control. According to the SDF, the battle ended on May 31, 2016, due to fierce resistance by ISIS fighters and the widespread use of mines in the rural areas surrounding Raqqa. At that time, the battle for Manbij was announced. The SDF seized control of Manbij on August 12, 2016, after which the battle for Raqqa was relaunched. In its first three phases, the battle for Raqqa achieved its desired goals: cutting off supply routes and lines of communication between ISIS’s Iraqi and Syrian branches, isolating and besieging Raqqa, and finally preparing for the offensive attack on besieged Raqqa, which is the fourth and final phase of the current operation.

The Raqqa operation closely mirrors the Mosul operation both politically and militarily. Politically, it was launched amid disagreements and a lack of clarity about which local and international forces will participate and who will govern the city post liberation. Militarily, ISIS used the same strategy it used in Mosul aiming to exhaust the attacking forces with the use of improvised explosive devices instead of direct combat. ISIS also retreated from positions near the borders of Raqqa and took more fortified positions inside neighborhoods with narrow streets in an attempt to change the battle into an urban combat nature. Furthermore, the battle uncovered critical weaknesses in the SDF’s ability to carry out the fight alone. The SDF required heavy air support from Coalition forces, as well as direct involvement of American and French forces, which deployed paratroopers in the area and changed the course of the battle by taking control of the Euphrates Dam and Tabqa Military Airport.

This paper analyzes the various political contexts surrounding the battle for Raqqa and breaks down the interests of the local and international actors involved. Furthermore, this paper projects scenarios about the governance of Raqqa post liberation, which is expected to have a significant impact on a political settlement and the future Syrian state.

Political Climate Preceding the Battle

The U.S.-led International Coalition decided to launch the battle for Raqqa depending solely on the SDF. Other groups that had previously been excluded from operations in Syria—until now—rejected the Coalition’s decision. However, similar to the way the US led international coalition initiated the operation in Mosul, their decision reflected two things: 1) the Coalition’s need to open a battle front in Syria in support of the Mosul operations, and 2) the desire for the operation to focus on fighting ISIS without allowing any participating party to exploit the battle for its own interests. Therefore, it seems that America’s choice of the YPG as the main fighting force of the SDF in Syria secured American interests, particularly by enabling Kurdish forces to participate, and created more obstacles for Turkey and Russia, whose participation in the battle remains a sore point. The battle for Raqqa is yet to begin, but the circumstances, as they are, force Turkey and Russia to align their interests more closely with America’s in the fight against ISIS if they want to participate in the fight—and in shaping the future Syrian state.

Interestingly, the dilemma of choosing partners and distributing roles is more difficult for the U.S. in the battle for Raqqa than it was in the battle for Mosul due to a number of political and military factors that make Syria different from Iraq.

A. Military Factors

The battle for Raqqa will be one of the toughest for the International Coalition because ISIS has lost significant territory in Iraq and thus will put more effort into maintaining the major cities it still controls in Syria, such as Raqqa. Furthermore, the SDF’s role in the first phases of the operation to surround Raqqa revealed that the group is not capable of carrying out the fight against ISIS in Syria on its own. This is especially concerning due to the SDF’s large numbers, with some sources estimating around 30,000 fighters.  Even if we accept this inflated estimate, 30,000 fighters is significantly smaller than the force of 120,000 that is participating in the battle for Mosul, which is yet to be completed. Considering these factors, it is questionable as to how a 30,000-person force could take on ISIS in Syria.

Major SDF Battles with ISIS 2016 - 2017

Measure of Level of Participation from 1 – 10

Table No. 1 Source: Monitoring Unit at Omran Center for Strategic Studies

B. Political Factors

Regional and international political interests are more aligned in Syria than they are in Iraq; however, participation of local actors is much less in Syria than in Iraq. Additionally, the government of Iraq maintains a national military, international legitimacy, and a reasonable level of national sovereignty to a much greater extent than the Assad-led government in Syria. Furthermore, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is a successful political project that poses little threat to other Iraqi forces. The PYD in Syria, however, is a militia that has its own political project and thus poses a threat. Furthermore, the number of international and regional actors in Iraq is far fewer than that in Syria. In Iraq, competition between international and regional actors is limited to the framework of a crisis between Turkey and Iran, and the Russian-American row is almost nonexistent; however, these complications are amplified in Syria.

The factors described above and the various interests of regional and international actors will significantly impact the battle for Raqqa and future battles against ISIS in Syria. This was clearly reflected in the reactions of various players to the announcement of the battle for Raqqa as described below.

1. Turkey - Drawing the line at National Security

For Turkey, the YPG participation in the battle for Raqqa is a red line for its national security. For this reason, Turkey’s president and other officials responded strongly to the announcement of the start of the battle, at one point threatening to close Incirlik Air Base, especially if the International Coalition were to insist that the SDF, of which the YPG makes up the bulk of the forces, leads the battle.([3]) There was also a negative atmosphere left behind due to the U.S. and the Coalition’s lack of support for Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield. Instead, Turkey relied on opposition forces, coordinated with Russia, and received minimal assistance from the U.S. These events revealed Turkey’s ability to launch an operation towards Raqqa with Syrian opposition forces without coordinating with the U.S. or the Coalition. Instead, Turkey could coordinate with Russia to prevent the SDF from expanding and taking over more Syrian territory. This is more likely due to statements made by Ankara that indicate its willingness to start new operations in Syria to liberate Raqqa. ([4])

Turkey also announced that it was supporting forces known as the Eastern Shield, made up of groups from eastern Syria currently operating in northern rural Aleppo.([5]) Turkey’s desire to act alone was expected after Washington ignored the Turkish proposals([6]) and after a March 7 meeting in Antalya, Turkey, about who would participate in the battle for Raqqa produced no results. So far, Washington’s position on YPG participation in the battle for Raqqa has proven to be a strong test for its relations with Ankara. Many Turkish officials have stated clearly that Washington’s insistence on the YPG’s participation in the battle will jeopardize relations between the two countries.([7])

2. Russia - Stuck in the Middle

Russia views U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS and the increased number of American troops in Syria as a threat to its political prowess and its control of the military situation on the ground. This was especially the case during the Obama administration. In fact, launching the battle for Raqqa without coordinating with Moscow, coupled with the U.S.’s refusal to allow regime forces or Iranian-backed militias to participate, which meant Moscow would not be included either. This led Russian officials to make a number of statements demanding to participate in the operations. Moscow indicated its desire to coordinate with the SDF and the International Coalition in the fight to take Raqqa, even after the American strikes on the Sheirat Airbase and after Russia announced its cancellation of military cooperation with the U.S. in Syria. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sent conciliatory messages to the Americans regarding the battle for Raqqa hoping to unite efforts between Russia and the International Coalition in fighting terrorism in Syria.([8]) The U.S. continues to reject Russian attempts to legitimize the Assad regime in the battle of Raqqa. Instead, America has conditioned any Russian role in Raqqa on reaching an understanding about a political solution in Syria that addresses Bashar al Assad’s future role in Syria. Until now, this remains a difficult task to achieve.

Russia is dealing with this American predicament surrounding the battle for Raqqa and must make a decision on who its allies will be. There are possibly two options: either give up its alliance with Iran and Assad and move closer to the U.S. or continue with its Assad/Iran alliance. If Russia chooses the second option, then it will lose any opportunity to be a partner in any internationally endorsed solution. Instead, Russia will be considered part of the problem. At the same time, Moscow is trying its best to create a third option by playing on the disagreement between Turkey and the U.S. regarding the role of the Kurdish militia in the battle for Raqqa. This Russian plan may be the one that appeals to all parties, similar to what happened in Manbij.([9]) The plan aims to encourage the U.S. to coordinate with Russia in the battle for Raqqa by allowing Assad regime forces to be included in the operations. Assad’s forces will enter into certain areas forming a buffer between the SDF and Turkish-backed forces with American and Russian oversight. This plan does not require undoing any existing agreements made after the fall of Aleppo, especially between Russia and Turkey. Turkey is not completely disturbed by the regime’s military activities in northern Syria since the placement of regime forces effectively separates the Kurdish cantons—Qamishli, Ain al Arab, Kobani (east of the Euphrates River), and Afrin (west of the river). This is exactly what Ankara wants.([10]) This would also ensure that Turkish-U.S. relations are not negatively impacted due to the less problematic Kurdish issue, if such a plan succeeds.([11])

3. Iran - Weary of All Parties

Iran rejected the new American presence in Syria. Iran also denied reports that the American incursion into Syria occurred based on an agreement between the two.([12]) Coming from Ali Larijani, chairman of the Parliament of Iran, this position reflected Iran’s fears of not only being excluded from the fight against terror but also a wholesale change in policy against the country, especially by the Trump administration. Trump considers Iran to be the main sponsor of terrorism in the region and considers its official forces and the militias it supports to be in the same camp as the terror groups in Syria. These are critical strategic challenges facing Iran that could change its future role in the region. Iran will specifically find it difficult to manage issues where its interests are in competition with the policies of the new American administration—in Iraq, where Baghdad is cozying up to Washington on the back of the Mosul operations, coupled with the increased American presence in Iraq and Syria, where America has deployed Marines in the North.([13])

Iran is also skeptical of Russia’s regional activities, such as its closer relations with Turkey. Furthermore, Iran is concerned by Turkey sending military forces into northern Syria, which weakens Iran’s ability to expand. Iran is also troubled by Russia’s willingness to sell out Iran and its militias in an American-Russian deal that would protect Russia’s interests. This is especially true after Israel stepped in to pressure both Moscow and Washington to put an end to the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Syria.

4. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - Avoiding the Cracks

The PYD is taking advantage of America’s predicament in choosing its best allies by presenting itself as a lesser of two evils for the U.S. The YPG is also trying to show flexibility by complying with American demands, such as including as many Arab fighters as possible in the fight for Raqqa and announcing that Raqqa will be administered by a local council comprising residents of Raqqa while still a part of the “Democratic Nation,” according to Salih Muslim, current co-chair of the PYD.([14]) For its part the YPG and its affiliated militias’ have shown success in the battle of Raqqa their ability to play politics with major regional and international actors while avoiding increased tensions between the US and Turkey, as well as Russia and the U.S. For now, the YPG separatist project depends on agreements made by major players—and what took place in Manbij is the strongest indication of what is possible.

As for its position towards Ankara, the SDF released increasingly stern statements about Turkish participation in the battle for Raqqa. It has tried to force its position on the U.S. On one occasion, Talal Sello, SDF spokesperson, claimed that he informed the U.S. that it was unacceptable for Turkey to have any role in the operation to retake Raqqa.([15]) In response, the U.S.-led International Coalition’s spokesperson John Dorrian failed to make clear whether Turkey would participate. Instead, he suggested that Turkey’s role was still being discussed on both military and diplomatic levels. He added that the Coalition was open to Turkey playing a role in the liberation of Raqqa and that talks would continue until a logical plan was reached.([16])

In response to the SDF’s statements and American ambivalence, Turkey shifted yet again from threatening rhetoric to real movements on the ground similar to what took place in Manbij. There are serious reports about a possible Turkish military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria. Reports show that Turkey has sent significant military assets to the border area. In addition, the Turkish Air Force has been striking PKK([17]) positions in Syria. Under these circumstances, American troops in northern Syria have become monitors to ensure limited military exchanges between YPG and Turkish troops in northern Syria. For this purpose, American troops were deployed to the Turkish-Syrian border to make sure the two sides do not engage. However, this does not necessitate a favorable stance from the U.S. towards the Kurds. The Trump administration is still studying alternatives to Obama’s Raqqa plan, which it believes was full of shortcomings, especially with respect to sidelining Turkey’s armed forces. What we can be sure of regarding American policy on Raqqa is that the U.S. is convinced that the Kurds must leave Raqqa as soon as they clear the city of ISIS forces. The previous U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who indicated that the Kurds knew that they would have to hand the city over to Arab forces as soon as they took over, confirmed this.

Even Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that starting any operation in Raqqa without Turkey would hurt the relationship between the two countries and would put Washington in an embarrassing situation for supporting a group that has conducted terror attacks against a NATO ally.([18])

The Start of the Battle and the Military Situation

Amid this politically charged environment, the SDF announced the start of its operation to take Raqqa under the name “Wrath of the Euphrates.” Its plan was to isolate the city starting from the southern rural areas of Ain Issa with heavy air support from the U.S.-led international coalition. On November 14, 2016, the SDF announced the end of phase 1 of their operation after taking 500 square kilometers of territory from ISIS.

Chart (2)

From its start, the operation focused on the rural areas south of Ain Issa, which are easy to take unlike residential areas. However, the situation was not so simple since ISIS depended on improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which were planted randomly around Ain Issa causing serious damage to the SDF.  The presence of IEDs was the main reason for the heavy Coalition strike on areas where there were no ISIS forces present.

The second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates started on December 10, 2016, aiming to take control of Raqqa’s western rural areas along the banks of the Euphrates River. The most significant development in this phase of the battle was the SDF’s announcement of new parties joining the operation:

  1. The Elite Forces of the Syrian Future Movement led by Ahmad Al Jarba after his deal with Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM).
  2. The Military Council of Deir Ezzor.
  3. Some Arab tribes from the area.

In the announcement came a confirmation by Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, a spokesperson for the Wrath of the Euphrates Operation, of successful coordination with the Coalition in the previous phase and the expectation of continued coordination.  

The second phase of the operation lasted until January 16, 2017, during which 2,480 square kilometers were taken over from ISIS, as well as important places such as the historic Qalet Jaber.

Chart (3)

On February 4, 2017, the SDF announced the start of the third phase of Operation Euphrates Shield. This phase of the operation aimed to cut off lines of communication between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and to make significant advances from the North and the West on ISIS’s self-declared capital.

Chart (4)

In mid-March 2017, Coalition airstrikes intensified on Tabqa and the surrounding areas, reaching 125 strikes between March 17 and 26. On March 25, an offensive was launched to seize control of the 4 km-long Euphrates Dam in Tabqa. On March 26, the dam was struck by Coalition airstrikes making it non-operational.  

Despite the heavy Coalition airstrikes, the YPG and its allies were unable to take the dam due to the large number of IEDs planted by ISIS. According to field interviews conducted by Omran Center, American troops landed in western rural Tabqa as YPG-led forces crossed the Euphrates River. An attack ensued on the Tabqa Military Airport from the South without striking the city itself.

On the evening of March 26, the YPG announced control over the military airport and immediately after—with oversight by American and French troops—the YPG started operations to take control of the rural parts of the city. By mid-April, the city was besieged and operations began to take the city with a significant uptick in Coalition airstrikes. Airstrikes on Tabqa city during the month of April 2017 reached 215 strikes, making Tabqa the most targeted city by the Coalition during that month, as shown below.

Chart (5)

Forces involved in the Tabqa offensive: The Americans headed up the landing south of the Euphrates. French troops were present at Jabar on the other side of the river and were able to secure boat crossings for the YPG to the other side. Coalition forces wanted to take Tabqa Military Airport to make it a base for future operations and eventually for the complete siege of Tabqa. As for the YPG, its role was limited to protecting the backs of the Coalition forces and then moving in when the Coalition leaves.

 Map No. (1) Control and Influence of Raqqa and Tabqa, between 7 February 2017 and 2 June 2017

On April 13, the SDF announced the fourth phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates that aimed to take what remained of northern rural Raqqa and Jallab Valley, according to a statement released by the Wrath of the Euphrates operations room.([19])

Even though the SDF announced the fourth phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, and previous phases achieved their stated goals, it was not able to take full control of Tabqa city until May 4, 2017. Furthermore, that only happened after making a deal with ISIS to let its fighters and their family members leave towards Deir Ezzor.([20])

Costs of the Battle (Infrastructure and Civilians):

Coalition strikes in September 2016 destroyed the remaining bridges that crossed the Euphrates River between the Iraqi border and eastern Raqqa. Additional raids destroyed the city's bridges on February 3, 2017. The Euphrates Dam was also damaged because of the clashes and now, with a damaged control room and the introduction of melting snow, the dam's status is questionable, with the water level increasing 10 meters since the beginning of the year.

The dam is now non-operational due to clashes between Kurdish fighters and ISIS, coupled with Coalition strikes. This has caused major concerns because if the dam breaks, the water could submerge more than one third of Syria and large parts of Iraq, reaching Ramadi.

Almost all of the hospitals in rural Raqqa are out of service. The only hospital remaining is operating at one fourth of its capacity even though there are approximately 200,000 civilians living there.([21])

On March 21, 2017, more than 200 civilians were killed and wounded in a Coalition strike on a school inhabited by displaced persons in the town of Mansoura in rural Raqqa.([22])

Again, on March 22, 2017, Coalition strikes committed another attack in Tabqa, west of Raqqa, targeting a bakery in a busy market killing at least 25 civilians and injuring more than 40 others.([23]) On April 22, 2017, another five civilians were killed and tens were injured in a Coalition airstrike on Tabqa.

In a mistaken strike by Coalition forces, 18 SDF fighters were killed south of Tabqa. The coalition released a statement explaining that the strike was conducted based on a request from one of its partners and the target was identified as an ISIS fighting position. The statement explained that the target was actually a front position of the SDF.([24])

Battle Scenarios

Even though the SDF is dominating the headlines and appears as the ideal force to liberate Raqqa, a number of factors indicate that there is more than one plausible scenario for the liberation of Raqqa. The issue is not determined solely by the force that will do the bulk of the fighting but also, who will administer the city after it is retaken, who will go after ISIS forces fleeing the city, and who will attack the last ISIS stronghold in Deir Ezzor, Syria.

The factors influencing the drawing up of possible battle scenarios are as follows:

  • The SDF is unable to carry out the fight alone, evidenced by the need for direct participation from Coalition ground forces in critical positions and the increased number of American troops in Syria. Furthermore, the SDF has been ineffective in identifying enemy positions resulting in a large number of civilian deaths and even the deaths of 18 of its own fighters.
  • Raqqa’s geographical positioning is quite difficult to deal with. It is open to Hassaka to the northeast and Deir Ezzor to the south, which is open to Iraq’s southeast. To the west, Raqqa is open to Hama and Homs, and to the north, Raqqa is open to Turkey. This requires a complicated coordination effort between local and international forces that must participate to make any final offensive effective.
  • There is an ongoing struggle over ISIS’ legacy and the areas that it will leave behind that cover a significant geographic area. This issue is directly linked to the shaping of a political solution in Syria, which has put the battle of Raqqa under the pressures of conflicting interests of local, regional, and international actors involved in Syria.
  • The Trump administration found itself in a predicament when it realized that the Obama administration’s Raqqa plan depended too heavily on arming and supporting Kurdish forces. On the contrary, the Trump administration adopted a policy of improving ties with Turkey and working closely with Russia to reach a political settlement to the Syrian crisis.

Given these factors, it is possible to project the following four scenarios for the battle of Raqqa:

First Scenario

The U.S. would continue to exclusively depend on the YPG and make serious attempts to take advantage of the Arab forces that are currently an inactive part of the SDF. This would balance out the influence of the PYD in the SDF. After Raqqa is liberated, it would be handed to a local council that represents the local population, as is being planned for now. This scenario seems more likely if we look at the increasing number of American troops in Syria. There are also 1,000 American Special Forces deployed in Kuwait on standby ready to be called in to support operations in Syria or Iraq. President Trump has also given the army the authority to determine appropriate troop levels in both Iraq and Syria.([25]) In this scenario, the U.S. would be able to conduct a successful operation to take Raqqa but with a significant footprint, including direct combat and an extended period. Moreover, the political issues would remain unresolved, especially with respect to Turkey. These unresolved political issues could heighten tensions between Turkey and the U.S. after the battle for Raqqa, especially since Turkey insists that the SDF refrain from taking control of any other territory and that current SDF-controlled territory be disconnected. Increased tensions with the U.S. may lead to a solution in this scenario that is something similar to what happened in Manbij.([26]) Moscow is hoping that it can take advantage of Turkish-American tensions in order to push the participation of regime forces as a legitimate option.

Second Scenario

The U.S. and Turkey would increase their coordination in Syria while pushing the PYD forces farther away. This would happen according to one of two Turkish plans. The first is that Turkish forces enter Syria towards Raqqa from Tal Abyad and the SDF opens a 25-km corridor for them. This would mean the PYD loses control of Tal Abyad and cuts off unobstructed access between Qamishli and Ain Arab (Kobani), which is unlikely. The other option is for Turkish forces to enter from Al Bab, which would mean either attacking regime forces or coordinating with them to secure a corridor access to Raqqa. It is unclear until now if the Trump administration is willing to completely give up its coordination with the SDF. In addition, the option of having Turkish-backed Arab forces fighting alongside the SDF is unlikely since both Turkey and the SDF reject such a proposal. Turkey will not participate in the battle if the other party includes PYD forces.

Third Scenario

The Americans and Russians would reach an agreement on the framework of a solution in Syria. This would include neutralizing Turkey and enabling the participation of regime forces alongside the YPG. This scenario would be welcomed by the regime. This scenario could become more likely because of the regime’s advances in eastern rural Aleppo reaching the administrative border of Raqqa Province (Ithraya-Khanaser). The regime has also reinforced its presence in Ithraya on the way to Tabqa, as well as in Palmyra, which is a critical position on the road between Palmyra and Raqqa. The regime has also been making attempts to increase its control of more positions in the desert by attacking “Usood al Sharqiyeh” forces in recent days.([27]) The regime also controls critical positions in Deir Ezzor, especially in the western rural areas congruent with Raqqa Province. This includes the Deir Ezzor Military Airport in the eastern part of the province, which extends to the Iraqi border. Thus, the regime puts the Coalition in a position where it has no choice but to coordinate with regime forces, either in the battle for Raqqa or in future operations.

Fourth Scenario

The results of the last Astana meeting to create four de-conflicted zones could be a premise for a fourth scenario in which the U.S. is more open to the participation of all interested parties from Astana in the battle for Raqqa and what comes after. This would include roles for the SDF, regime forces, and opposition forces backed by Turkey. American and Russian oversight would ensure effective implementation of the participating forces and prevent any infighting among them. The de-confliction zones proposal is the strongest evidence that such a scenario may be carried out. The de-confliction zones would essentially mean a truce between regime and opposition forces with well-defined borders in order for the parties to focus their efforts more closely on fighting ISIS. Turkey and Russia responded positively to the last Astana meeting, which followed a meeting between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, indicating that there are some preexisting agreements about Turkey’s participation in the battle for Raqqa. Furthermore, the American approval of the de-confliction zones indicates a possible three-way understanding about the battle for Raqqa. Another positive development is Russia’s reopening lines of communication with the U.S. regarding sharing and coordinating Syria’s air space. This was surprising given the deadly strikes on the Sheirat air base. Further clarification on this possible three-way understanding on the battle for Raqqa is expected following the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, D.C. on [insert date].

Map No. (2) Control and Influence of Eastern Syria – May 7, 2017

Conclusion

The presence of American forces in Syria joining the fight against ISIS is a significant change in the Syrian arena, making the situation more complicated and the interests of the various parties more contradictory. In the meantime, the U.S. continues to take advantage of these contradictory interests. Therefore, the most important contribution of the American entry into Syria was undermining the post-Aleppo status quo established by Russia in an attempt to create a new climate that is more consistent with an American policy that is more involved in the Middle East. These new understandings are still unclear and will not be completely understood until after the defeat of ISIS. The battle for Raqqa and what comes after are the apex of these understandings, especially the shape of a future Syria that regional and international actors will decide.


([1]) Front lines defenses were shored up at the eastern edge of Operation Euphrates Shield territory with regime, Russian, and US forces creating a buffer preventing any further Turkish backed offensive.

([2]) See above.

([3]) Fabrince Balance, The Battle for al-Bab Is Bringing U.S.-Turkish Tensions to a Head, The Washington Institute, 2017, https://goo.gl/Q5zGrg

([4]) Turkey announces the end of Operation Euphrates Shield, Arabic, Aljazeera Net, https://goo.gl/JvGtqT

([5]) “Eastern Shield Army”, A new formation to face three powers in Syria’s east, Enab Baladi News, Arabic, https://goo.gl/y4zVWx

([6]) Turkey’s plans to liberate Syria’s Raqqa, Turkey Now, Arabic, https://goo.gl/cmJr9X

([7]) American, Russian, Turkish coordination in Syria, Arabic, Aljazeera Net, https://goo.gl/O7cAC6

([8]) Moscow offers coordination with America in Syria, Al Hayat, https://goo.gl/mDCKb1

([9]) Front lines defenses were shored up at the eastern edge of Operation Euphrates Shield territory with regime, Russian, and US forces creating a buffer preventing any further Turkish backed offensive.

([10]) Safinaz Muhammad Ahmad, “Manbij and Raqqa..International and regional interventions and the new maps of influence in Syria”, Al Ahram for Strategic Studies, https://goo.gl/PyVtoS

([11]) Ibrahim Humeidi, Moscow’s surprise between Manbij and al Bab: Tempting Washington and marginalizing Ankara, Al Hayat, https://goo.gl/VnGkKn

([12]) Larijani: US intervention in Syria is not in its favor .. The presence of the Marines was not in coordination with Tehran .. We do not aim to achieve special interests in Syria, Rai Al Youm, https://goo.gl/PRk0SA

([13]) Ibid, 7.

([14]) Ibid, 8.

([15]) "Marines" in Syria to accelerate the battle of Raqqa ... and "reassure" Turkey, Al Hayat, https://goo.gl/UELPQg

([16]) Ibid, 12.

([17]) PKK is the Kurdistan Workers Party

([18]) After abandoning Obama's plan .. Trump is looking for his way to Raqqa, Russia Today Arabic, https://goo.gl/jvyX8p

([19]) The fourth phase of “Wrath of the Euphrates”: Trying to reach Raqqa’s border, The New Arab, https://goo.gl/JTHxLS

([20]) Daesh withdraws from Tabqa under agreement with SDF, The New Arab, https://goo.gl/3cZcD3

([21]) Raqqa, Between Coalition massacres and preparing for what is after Daesh, Enab Baladi, https://goo.gl/OiQTJ0

([22]) A new massacre by the international coalition in Mansoura in rural Raqqa, Zaman Alwasl, https://goo.gl/6VUbGZ

([23]) The international coalition commits a massacre in Tabqa, Raqqa Post, https://goo.gl/pp2wLv

([24]) Ibid, 16.

([25]) Trump gives the Pentagon the power to determine troop levels in Iraq and Syria, Reuters, https://goo.gl/7Er9oO

([26]) Front lines defenses were shored up at the eastern edge of Operation Euphrates Shield territory with regime, Russian, and US forces creating a buffer preventing any further Turkish backed offensive.

([27]) Lions of the East: The regime advances in rural eastern Sweida, MicroSyria, https://goo.gl/zB8cIV

Additional Info

  • Files Middle East, Syria, Terrorism and Security
  • Files-Hidden F40,F72,F15
  • Experts Maen Talaa, The Middle East Institute
  • Experts No - Hidden E45

Executive Summary

  • The de-escalation zones from the latest Astana meeting on Syria aimed to freeze the conflict on the western fronts in order to deploy the regime and its allies’ forces to prevent a total loss of the eastern territories to the American-led Kurds and opposition forces. Securing Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut free passage is strategically more important compared to Idlib or Ghota at the moment.

  • The agreement was largely observed by all parties (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) and resulted in an immediate reduction in military operations in the selected zones. Compared to the level of operations in March 2017, May/June 2017 witnessed an 80% reduction in western Rif of Aleppo, 75% in Eastern Rif of Aleppo, 97% in Idlib, 88% in Hama, 80% in Latakia, and 45% in Ghota of Damascus. There was a slight rise in military operations in Homs (8%) and a radical increase in Daraa (205%) but that increase was mainly attributed to vindictive offenses like in Homs, or tactical deterrence to the opposition as in Daraa’s al-Manshia district.

  • The latest Geneva talks ended with no significant outcome, probably in anticipation of settling the current competition over Raqqa and Dir Ezzor. It is unlikely for Geneva to restore its significance before stabilizing the military situation and before the US and Russia move towards a serious political settlement.

  • It is still too early to determine if the de-escalation zones can serve as a basis for a Russian strategy to stabilize the situation on the ground and foster an environment conducive to a political solution. The outcome of the battles on the ground in the East and the sustainability of ceasefire in the West will determine such an outcome. Neither easy nor quick dominance in the East is in sight for either side. Particularly because of the proxy nature of the operations, lack of cohesion between the participating forces, and unprofessionalism of the local forces aligned with the Americans (Kurds and opposition forces) and Russians (tribal forces and Fifth Corps).

  • Nor will there be a clam west, as HTS (al-Nusra coalition) will aim to expand and exhaust the moderate forces with potential reactions from the latter. Accelerated foreign contact, including by the Russians, with the Local Administration Councils (LACs) in the de-escalation zones is expected in order to secure influence during the transition period.

  • This paper argues that the political opposition should unite its negotiations delegations and increase its capacity and legitimacy. The military opposition should support the political process and provide views on its role in the future. The LACs should focus on their service delivery role and improve their capacity to meet the tasks of reconstruction and return of refugees. More important for the Local Councils is to avoid local politicization and alignment with either regional or global actors in order to protect their neutrality as guarantors of a stable future for Syria.

  • The US and EU should support forming a united negotiation delegation for the opposition as a political solution might be looming on the horizon, especially after the situation in a post-ISIS Raqqa and Dir Ezzor settles down. Notably, engagement in Russian-led Astana talks is important to develop critical ideas on a US-EU/Russia cooperation in the transitional period.

  • Russia should support the legitimacy of the opposition delegations and refrain from undermining their efforts to effectively represent their Syrian constituency. More strategically, Russia should approach to the Local Councils, support their professional service delivery, and coordinate with their EU sponsors to assure fruitful cooperation in preserving their role in the future.

Map No. (1) Russian Proposal for Safe Zones

Introduction

The latest two peace negotiation rounds on Syria ended with postponing the serious discussions until after the dust settles in the east of Syria. The Astana meeting in Kazakhstan produced an agreement on de-escalation zones, supported by Russia, Turkey, and Iran and opposed by Syrian opposition representatives. Not surprisingly, the Geneva talks did not break the low ceiling of expectations and ended where it started. The de-escalation zones serve Russian interests on many fronts, the most important of which is freezing the West “hot spots” (Idlib, Hama and Homs) to focus on the eastern front where Russia aims to disturb the American-led operations to recapture Raqqa and Dir Ezzor on the border with Iraq. The post-ISIS-controlled areas constitute the next battleground and are, to a large extent, the determinant of the final balance of power among all parties in future negotiations. While the eastern fronts will be fluid and hardly stable, the western fronts will not be calm either.

A few weeks before signing the agreement in Astana, there was an immediate reduction in military operations in the selected zones. Compared to the level of operations in March 2017, May witnessed an 80% reduction in western Rif of Aleppo, 75% in Eastern Rif of Aleppo, 97% in Idlib, 88% in Hama, 80% in Latakia, and 45% in Ghota of Damascus, according to the information unit at Omran Center. Some exceptions to the main reduction in hostilities were observed in Homs (8%) and Daraa (205%), with some vindictive offenses in Homs and tactical deterrence of the opposition forces occurred in Daraa.

The opposition forces (i.e., HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, and some MOC-affiliated militias) in late April has occupied al-Manshiya district in southern-Daraa and threaten to advance further into the regime controlled areas in Daraa; therefore, the regime aims to stop their advancement by redeploying forces from around Damascus after solving the problem of Qaboon and Barza cities. The Ghaith al-Dalla forces of the fourth division have joined the Shite militias in the south (Hizbullah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard IRG, and the Fatimioun brigades) to stop the opposition advancement beyond al-Manshiya using aggressive, rather tactical, deterrence offenses. (see Table 1 for more details).

This paper addresses the context of the de-escalation zones and provides an overview of the situation in all of the active fronts in the east and west of Syria. It also includes three sets of recommendations to the Syrian opposition (Political, Military, and LACs), as well as recommendations to 1) the US and the EU and 2) Russia.

The analysis concludes that both the Russians and Americans rely on forces that lack central coordination, professionalism, and discipline. Such characteristics weaken control over the operations, hence making it almost impossible to predict their outcome and trajectory. This turbulent and cloudy situation will dominate for an extended period, given the absence of a political framework to accommodate ISIS members after their organization collapses and they escape to new havens. In turn, the western fronts will be busy with HTS attempts to expand geographically and weaken the moderate opposition politically. There also will be an international and regional race to influence the LACs, considered the black horse in any future efforts for stabilization in the de-escalation zones through humanitarian aid, the management of the return of refugees, and reconstruction shall security guarantees are offered.

Information Support Unit, Omran Centre for Strategic Studies

De-escalation in the West, Escalation in the East

While attention is refocused on Raqqa and Dir Ezzor in the east of Syria, the latest agreement signed in Astana helps to freeze the western fronts in order to reallocate resources and concentrate forces for the upcoming battles in the East. The fall of both Raqqa and Dir Ezzor to America’s proxies limits Damascus’ control over the borders, cuts Iranian routes from Tehran to Beirut through Baghdad and Damascus, and empowers America’s grip over both Iraq and Syria.

The protracted war has exhausted the regime forces and devastated its capabilities, and the long line of active fronts in the West has distracted its allies’ attention to the slow developments in the East. The advancement of the Syrian Democratic Forces towards Raqqa and the Southern Front opposition forces towards Dir Ezzor alerted the regime to a near loss of the borders with Iraq. There was a severe need to reallocate the regime from Idlib and Homs, where they can revert to them later, to the eastern fronts, where it is more pressing to secure a foothold.

The new battle needs more manpower and expertise. For these, the Russians and Iranians rushed to organize the tribal forces and integrate them into the Fifth Corps under Russian command. Hizbullah has recently, and rather quickly, given its positions in the South to the Russians and its positions on the Syrian-Lebanese borders to the Lebanese Army; Hizbullah redeployed their forces close to Palmyra. The latest efforts of Hizbullah serve two purposes: 1) to release tension with Israel and hence avert an Israeli attack on Hizbullah inside Syria, and 2) to use its shrinking manpower more strategically to protect its supply line from Tehran.

Recent news coming from Syria was dominated by the American alliance strikes against a military convoy for the Shia militias approaching al-Tanaf crossing, which was captured recently by the American-led forces. Days later, and in a sign of resolve, the alliance forces air-dropped brochures that “advises” the Shia militias to refrain from further approaching opposition-controlled areas. Russia might have to negotiate with the Americans to secure a place on the borders for the Iranians, but that will come at a high price and only if the Russians succeed in interrupting the connection between the Kurds coming from the North and the Opposition groups advancing from the South.

Map No. (2) Battle of Eastern Homs and Al Sham Desert- 31 May 2017

This context shows that the de-escalation zone agreement was neither a Russian secret plan to divide Syria, nor a Russian trap for the U.S. and its allied groups. It actually reflects a pressing need for Russia to freeze the conflict for six to twelve months in the areas that have no strategic urgency, such as Ghota in the South, where Israel is concerned, or where in-fighting and Turkish influence will shape the situation in a less costly way compared to a direct intervention, like in Idlib. At this moment, Dir Ezzor is strategically more important than Idlib, and Nura is less of a threat compared to losing the borders with Iraq to the Americans.

Controlling the borders will change many equations for the regime and its allies: it will challenge its attempts to reclaim control over all of the Syrian territories; it will block the Iranian routes to Hizbullah; and it will give Americans the upper hand in both Syria and Iraq. Russians have tried to avoid confrontations with the Americans since their intervention in 2015, and such a scenario with American-proxy domination of the East and South might lead to undesirable tensions. More important, it is possible that at any moment the pressure of American proxies from the East and South on the regime areas will reverse the military vulnerability that Russia has successfully avoided in Syria so far. Consequentially, it is possible that Russia will be forced to accept a settlement that is not optimal to its interests.

The details of the agreement promise a successful implementation, but the absence of any follow-up or enforcement mechanisms make any euphoria disappear. There are sections of the agreement on international forces and monitoring mechanisms, guarantors, humanitarian access, refugees return, and reconstruction—all dependent on moderate forces restoring security and fighting terrorist groups. The possibility that moderates will be blamed for future acts of terrorists may cause rifts. The moderates will have to either essentially self-destruct by intensifying the in-fighting or face the threat of invasion or bombing by the Russians and the regime. The latest coalitions of HTS (al-Nusra coalition) will not be weakened or reversed before reaching a comprehensive political solution that could encourage small groups and individuals to defect and motivate the militia as an overall body to engage in a national Syrian military and political effort that meets its expectations.

Within the context, rather than the text, of the agreement, Turkey has agreed with Russia to deal with HTS in Idlib, an arduous task. Without a political settlement, Turkey will find itself facing increasingly disgruntled military groups that have the capacity to threaten the depth of the Turkey. There is little in the agreement that justifies the Turkish presence or its acceptance of the Iranian guarantees. However, given the Turkish sensitivities towards any expansion of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by the YPG and its PKK connections, Turkish cooperation with Russia becomes less questionable. The Turks have an interest in depriving the Kurds from having a seat at the negotiating table to determine Syria’s future. Moreover, with current challenges in Turkish-American relations, any increase in U.S. presence in both Syria and Iraq potentially diminish the regional influence of Turkey. The Turks find themselves implicitly allying with the Russians and Iranians, against the Kurds and the Americans.

The US and the EU did not pay attention to the Astana conference from the beginning in order to avoid reducing the importance of Geneva to Russian-led talks and to comply with their Iran marginalization policy. Militarily, The Americans did not respond to Aleppo’s fall or Idlib’s suffer because there were considered out of their strategic influence zones. Alternatively, Americans invested heavily in the Kurds and the southern groups in cooperation with the UK and Jordan in order to capture ISIS-dominated areas in the East. That will not only increase the areas under their control but also will increase the US legitimacy as successful forces in fighting terrorism. The US hope that strategy will create a new situation that will force the regime and its allies to negotiate seriously, by American terms, in Geneva or otherwise. In the meanwhile, the Europeans did not break their silence on Astana either. The EU focuses only on Geneva and is suspicious of Russia’s efforts. The Russians failed to buy their support to Astana despite the incentives inserted in the agreement by promising the return of refugees and reconstruction.

Indetermination in the East, and slow fire in the West

Against the clarity of the parties’ plans, the realities on the ground might tell a different story. Looking more closely at the formation of the competing forces racing towards Raqqa and Dir Ezzor, it appears that they are neither professional nor disciplined nor coherent in their composition or end goals. That will likely result in a non-linear path towards domination, lasting a long time and resulting in a high number of civilian causalities. The Syrian Democratic Forces are perceived to be YPG-dominated, which may provoke an armed resistance by the Arabs of Raqqa, especially in cases of brutal conduct against civilians conducted by the YPG. That scenario will slow the SDF’s advancement towards the South and will force it to prematurely withdraw leaving a power and governance vacuum behind. The rest of the American-supported groups, such as Maghawer al-Thawra, the Lions of Sharkia, Shahid Ahmed Abdou Brigades, and Ahmed al-Garba forces in al-Hassaka, are no more disciplined and will bring the same problems.

The situation for the Assad regime and Hizbullah might look brighter, but threats of American air attacks and Russia’s decision to refrain from a direct confrontation will neutralize this advantage. The rest of the regime-aligned forces will include the nascent groups working under the Fifth Corps, such as the tribal forces, whose capabilities are still questionable. The Russians bet on filling the vacuum in Dir Ezzor after the failure of the American-led forces to establish control. That gamble indicates that the battle will not be settled any time soon and its outcome is uncertain.

The distraction from the western fronts does not exclude them from the spot light. HTS (al-Nusra coalition) will try to expand geographically and attract more groups and individuals to its coalition in order to weaken the moderates’ body. That might be countered if the newly formed Turkish-led forces succeed in uniting all moderates under the Euphrates Shield zone and advances into Idlib. Other interesting events include the race to contact and empower the LACs in Idlib and northern Aleppo as a humanitarian and development player in a future political transition or a stable ceasefire. Europeans and Americans have been a strategic partner of the LACs, and now also the Russians are looking for a place in Idlib and other de-escalation zones. All powers will seek to improve the capacity and legitimacy of the LACs, but competing over the political alignment of the LACs is counterproductive. The use of LACs as political tools for any party will undermine their role as professional service providers and as a popular medium between the government and the local population.

Recommendations for the opposition and international players:

1-      The political opposition: Starkly, there were no Syrian signatories to the agreement, neither the government nor the opposition. This suggests that Syrians have lost control over the trajectory of the war in their own country. In Astana, the Syrians are observers rather than participants in any discussions concerning their cause, a position in Astana that disregards them no less than in Geneva. It is of interest to all parties, except for the Assad regime and Iran, to support the opposition in both conference. For that, there is a need to increase the capacity and legitimacy of the delegations. This can be achieved through:

  • Uniting the delegations of both Astana and Geneva in consultation with the opposition allies. Merging the military weight of the Astana delegation with the regional and international recognition of the Geneva delegation will make one solid front in both venues. This will not happen without a show of will from the two delegations and without some pressure on the allies—specifically Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These efforts entail recalibrating the current political and military establishments of the opposition in order to accommodate such overdue restructuring.
  • Increasing the technical capabilities of the delegation. Ever since Geneva I meetings in 2012, the opposition has needed to boost its capacity to conduct negotiations with the regime regarding myriad issues from humanitarian coordination to security reform, from reconstruction to the return of refugees. It is a mistake to assume that a constitution and elections will dominate the discussions. For example, the current de-escalation zones agreement includes minute details on the observers’ mechanisms and the international force composition and mandate, which are often out of the ream of expertise of unspecialized military officers. The failure to provide such capabilities will lead the delegation to blindly agree to unfavorable terms or unwittingly refuse to sign potentially favorable agreements.
  • Increasing the legitimacy of the united delegation. Two dilemmas face the Syrian delegations in both Astana and Geneva: one is weak communication with their wider constituencies inside and outside of Syria; the other is the disconnect among local actors in the opposition-controlled area.
    • Communicate with Syrians inside and outside of Syria. There is a need to improve the level and means of communication with Syrians in general, and especially those who count as natural constituency inside and outside of Syria. Direct messages 1) before negotiation rounds to explain the goals, 2) during the negotiations to elaborate on the development, and 3) after the end of rounds to summarize and hint on the future steps. It is possible to lose the message when there are too many delegations, each claiming to represent the Syrian cause.
    • Communication with local elements in Syria. The more local support the more legitimacy is secured in the eyes of the international community. In Astana, the militias represent power brokers on the ground, but they still cannot speak for other elements like local councils. Geneva talks represent political elements and regional clout where more players on the ground are excluded. The political body of the opposition is responsible for securing the physical needs of its constituency and representing its demands. The failure to play that role casts doubt on its legitimacy.

2-      The military opposition: The political opposition might look incompetent and unrepresentative to Syrians on the ground who have made significant sacrifices, but without the opposition it would be doubtful to receive political acknowledgement from the international community and hence weaken the possibility to transform the military achievements of Syrians on the ground into an institutionalized political gain. The military factions have hard tasks as they are responsible for defending their territories, as well as supporting the political process at once. The overall weight of the Syrian opposition does not give room for more than one delegation. Therefore, we recommend the following:

  • Pressuring to unite the negotiations delegation. The political opposition needs the militias’ help to coordinate the efforts and to lobby the allies in order to support merging the two delegations.
    • Providing a vision for the militias’ role in the transition period and the future Syria. Specific answers about the militias’ willingness and ability to professionally deliver security during the transition period, disarmament conditions, and integration in one united Syrian Army are much needed. Without clear and detailed answers to these questions, the negotiations process will be harder and all of the opposition’s sacrifices will be wasted. That eventually will transform the discontented fighter into a ticking time bomb in the future.

3-      The Local Councils: The LACs are an important Syrian asset for future stabilization and should be preserved at any cost. Therefore, we suggest the following:

  • Focus on professionalism in delivering services indiscriminately to all Syrians regardless of their faith, gender, and ideology.
  • Boost the LACs legitimacy by observing the elections cycles and avoid any political or ideological aligning.
    • Assure transparency in all transactions with donors to avoid any side deals with any harmful regional or international coalitions in the future.

4-      The US and the EU: Both entities can enhance the substance of the current negotiations in Astana and Geneva, as well as facilitate the institutional transition through the following:

  • Stepping up the US and the EU involvement in Astana on the political and technical level to assure better agreements in terms of implementation and following-up mechanisms. That would make it harder to be ignored and will reemphasize the US and EU’s responsible position towards the Syrian cause.
  • Supporting efforts to unite the Syrian delegations, both financially and technically. It is worth noting the importance of building a Syrian expertise base instead of the unsustainable reliance on costly and unproductive western consultancy companies.
    • Respect the professional and neutral aspects of the LACs and avoid pushing them into a polarized regional and international muddy field.

5-      Russia: There is a big room for Russia to reach quick and more effective results in resolving the conflict, improving the substance and outcome of the ongoing negotiations in Astana and Geneva, and facilitating the institutional transition through the following:

  • Avoiding undermining the legitimacy of the opposition and show goodwill by not targeting their local constituencies and deterring the regime and the Iranians from the same. A strong and legitimate opposition can uphold the agreements and assure their implementation, while a weakened one is a guarantee for instability and prolonged war.
  • Facilitating access of humanitarian aid to the opposition areas to build trust with Syrian citizens and also to support the legitimacy of the opposition in their eyes.
  • Establishing a communication protocol with the opposition delegation to Astana and Geneva in order to improve the substance and outcome of the negotiation rounds. The opposition delegation should obtain all necessary information that enables it to effectively represent its cause and transform the outcome into concrete results.
  • Respect the popular representation nature of the LACs and support their role as a professional service and security provider. Avoid any miscommunication that would result in delegitimizing them in the eyes of their constituency or their main sponsors. Russia can be a positive force to bring stability into the opposition areas by securing an environment conducive to the return of refugees and the reconstruction of infrastructure.
  • Cooperate with European countries and the US on supporting the LACS. This can be a good venue for trust-building and de-escalation between the US and Russia in Syria.

Additional Info

  • Files Middle East, Russia, Syria, Turkey, İran
  • Files-Hidden F72,F40,F11,F55,F10
  • Experts Omran Center
  • Experts No - Hidden E43

Executive Summary

This paper evaluates and scrutinizes the various security apparatuses in Syria, starting with areas under the political control of the regime, then delving into those held by the opposition, and finally looking into the administratively autonomous regions. Elucidating the measures that must be taken to bring the security services under control, the paper presents a preliminary proposal that describes the security sector, it function, and relationship with the center and the periphery. The proposal seeks to strengthen the conditions of local empowerment while also protecting the stability and unity of the country.

First: The Security Situation in Areas Under the Political Control of the Regime

From the time that allied foreign militias began pouring into Syria and local military groups overseen by senior regime officials began to coalesce, the security apparatuses in regime-held areas could no longer be viewed as cohesive and subject to a regulated and centralized security force. The accumulation of the state security apparatuses’ failures and their inability to face the growing uprising helped to push the regime to take a series of measures that eroded its central hold over the security services. This process began with the formation of auxiliary local militias backed by either the Syrian army or state security services. These policies replaced the regime – and its concentrated authority within the military and security establishments – with mercenaries from among the local population belonging to armed militias that have grown and expanded in both size and influence over the past three years.

These groups represent a real danger to the regime if they slip from its control. For instance, if they develop a large base of followers on the ground and establish strong ties with the local community, this could enable them to both negotiate with the regime for control and influence and work with international groups to further their own special interests, which may conflict with those of the regime. Thus, in 2016, the regime made containing these groups a top priority by restricting the institutionalization of these groups and ensuring their loyalty as a way to safeguarding its own survival and achieving both balance and stability. In general, these measures have had the following consequences:

  1. Granting local militias with the power to police the local population and carry out military missions among them.

  2. Permitting militias’ security and military functions to grow beyond their localities, allowing most to become centralized militias with departments and branches.

  3. Militarizing the community and linking its fate to the regime’s survival and continuity. This has increased the scale of the abuses and violations committed in the name of the state and its citizenry.

  4. Institutionalizing these militias by virtue of economic necessity and transforming them into entities that encompass both military strategy and centralized security.

  5. Creating military wings for political parties loyal to the Ba’ath Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). This has strengthened these parties’ local authority and rendered them partner security forces linked to the state’s centralized security force through shared benefits and interests.

We Find that the Main Security Apparatuses in Regime-Held Areas are the Following:([1]

1. National Defense Forces (NDF)

Formed in summer 2012 and considered to be by far the largest militia to back the regime, the NDF now encompasses over 100,000 volunteers and is comprised of units spread throughout the country that are overseen by the Syrian army and led by General Hawash Mohammed. The NDF started by organizing and training hundreds of volunteers in People’s Committees. These NDF-trained militias resembled the volunteer Basij militia in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), which has given rise to the belief that they were created under the guidance of the leader of the Quds Force in the IRG, Qasem Soleimani.

2. Suqur al-Sahara

Established as an “elite force” by Mohammad Jaber – a businessman closely tied to the regime – the Suqur al-Sahara operates in desert areas and is known to have both participated in the al-Qaryatayn offensive and help recover Kessab village on the Syrian coast. The militia is made up of Alawite and Shiite operatives (as well as individuals from the al-Shaitat clan) and is largely dedicated to fighting ISIS. Comprised of trained operatives – including both current and retired army officers as well as young Syrian volunteers – Suqur al-Sahara is the foremost militia specializing in ambushes and carrying out challenging special operations. Moreover, the militia specializes in protecting oil and gas wells as well as the largest weapons stockpile in the country: theMahin Arms Depot.

3. Al-Bustan Militias

These militias are commanded by the director of the Bustan Charitable Association, which established a security branch that attracts Alawites from Syria’s coast. Functionally and administratively, these militias fall under the purview of the local army divisions in their areas of operation and coordinate their operations with the 18th Division. The most prominent of these militias is Kata’ib al-Jabalawi. Operating in both Homs and Ghouta, it is the most independent of the National Defense militias. Another of these militias is the Leopards of Homs, which was in operation between 2013 and 2015 founded by Shadi Jum’a – a confidant of officer Abu Ja’afar (also known as the Scorpion), who founded the Khyber Brigade, one of the NDF’s militias in Homs. The Leopards of Homs preside over the National Shield forces, which coordinate with the Shiite Zulfiqar militias in Damascus.

4. Coastal Shield Brigade Militia

A statement from the Syrian Republican Guard (SRG) in May 2015 announced the formation of the Coastal Shield Brigade. Comprised of recruits paid a salary of up to 40,000 Syrian Lira, this brigade protects the regime’s main stronghold and maintains its readiness to take in new volunteers to serve in the brigade’s ranks for either two years or an indefinite period of time. Rami Makhlouf and the SRG’s Major General Hassan Mustafa have been tasked with leading the militia with the goal of protecting Alawite villages in the coastal areas. The brigade is made up of defectors from mandatory military enlistment and army reserve service, as well as a number of criminals, who are spread out among the villages of Sanobar – outside of Jableh – and Asitamo.

5. Al-Jazeera and Euphrates Assembly

This is a militia that was formed in the Veterans Hall in Damascus. Sources indicate that this assembly comprises citizens of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, and Hasakah and is headed by Riyadh Arsan, who is from Deir ez-Zor but resides in Damascus.

6. Political Militias

These militias arose from political parties and have sought to mobilize their volunteers using partisan and political slogans. The most prominent of these militias are:

  1. Ba’ath Brigades: This group was formed by Ba’ath Party members in Aleppo by Commander Hilal Hilal in summer 2012 after rebels managed to enter Eastern Aleppo. These brigades later sprang up in Latakia, Tartus, and even have operations in Damascus.

  2. The Eagles of the Whirlwind: This group symbolizes the slogan of the Lebanese SSNP, which, in contrast to the national Ba’ath Party, subscribes to the “Greater Syria” ideology. Approximately 8,000 operatives from the Eagles of the Whirlwind, both Syrian and Lebanese alike, take part in operations in Syria. While their main focus is on Homs and Damascus, they maintain a larger presence in the Suwayda Province than the Syrian army.

  3. The Arab National Guard: Formed in 2013 as a national militia made up of nearly 1,000 operatives, the Arab National Guard is stationed in Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Homs, and al-Quneitra and made up of nationals from several Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. The militia is staffed by several generals as well, including: Wadih Haddad (a Palestinian Christian), Haider al-Amaali (a Lebanese intellectual), Mohammad Borhami (a Tunisian politician), and Julius Jamal.

  4. The Syrian Resistance: Formerly named the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Sanjak of Iskandarun, this militia is loyal to the regime and follows a Marxist-Leninist ideology. The militia is led by the Alawite Turk Mihraç Ural (formerly known as Ali Kayyali), who possesses Syrian citizenship and is known for carrying out the Bayda and Baniyas massacres.

7. Sectarian Militias (Christian and Druze)

The most notable include:

  1. Jaysh al-Muwahhideen: This Druze militia declared its establishment at the start of 2013 and operates specifically in Suwayda, Daraa, Damascus, and other Druze areas. Initially founded to protect the Druze community, the militia now, under the leadership of Ismail Ibrahim al-Tamimi, more broadly supports the Bashar al-Assad regime.
  2. Sootoro Forces: Comprised of Syriac Christians and a few Armenians, this is a local militia located in Qamishli in Hasakah Province.

  3. The Christian Quwat al-Ghadab: Established in March 2013 in al-Suqaylabiyah Province in the Homs countryside to protect the city and its outskirts, this militia is closely affiliated with the SRG.

  4. Valley Lions Brigade: This brigade is led by Beshr al-Yaziji and centrally located in the Krak Des Chevaliers and Wadi al-Nasara areas and their outskirts where they recruit local youth supportive of the regime, often enlisting them to spy on their peers in the opposition. This group purports to protect Christians, who populate over 33 villages in the area. Al-Yaziji maintains a number of security relations, the most important being with Major General Jamil Hassan, and also coordinates with both Brigadier General Haythem Dayoub from the Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) and Colonel Mufeed Warda leader of the Mazhar Haider militia, which is directly linked to the state security services. Every fighter in the brigade is a volunteer that receives his or her salary from the state and is treated like a normal soldier or officer in the armed forces. The brigade uses the SSNP’s Marmarita bureau as a headquarters for coordinating its operations, a meeting place, and a center for both processing volunteer requests and enlisting new volunteers under the supervision of party members. In addition, a large number of the brigade’s members participate in combat operations, some of whom have died in battle, including: Fadi al-Shami and Tony Othman from al-Hawash, Firas Massouh from Marmarita, and Ghassoub Awad from al-Tal.

8. Palestinian Militias

These pro-regime militias were formed by Palestinian refugees both prior to and after the outbreak of the uprising. The Palestinian militias and factions that formed within refugee camps and have been active since the beginning of the uprising include:

  1. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – General Leadership: The role of the PFLP under the leadership of Ahmed Jibril stood out for its suppression of demonstrations in Yarmouk Camp at the beginning of the uprising. The PFLP also supported the Syrian army in its assault on Syrian protestors.

  2. Fatah al-Intifada: Established in 1983, this militia is led by Colonel Said al-Muragha.

  3. As-Sa’iqa: This group represents the Ba’athist wing of the armed Palestinian factions. It is tied to the Syrian Ba’ath Party and is a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

In addition to these factions, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front and the Palestinian Democratic Union (including the Return and Liberation Brigades) are also active. Likewise, the regime has assembled Palestinian militias within Syria. Some of these include:

  1. Galilee Forces: Comprising nearly 4,800 Palestinian operatives, the Galilee Forces are led by Fadi al-Mallah and trained by the Syrian army and Hezbollah. Having fought in the Battle of Qalamoun, members describe themselves as Syrians by affiliation, Palestinians by nationality, and resistance fighters by faith.

  2. Liwa al-Quds: Established in October 2013 and led by Muhammad al-Sa’eed (also known as “The Engineer”), Liwa al-Quds is linked to the Air Force Intelligence Directorate (AFID) and is made up predominantly of Palestinians from Aleppo refugee camps, particularly Al-Nayrab Camp. Their last battle was for control over Handarat Camp in Aleppo.

  3. Palestine Liberation Army (PLA): The PLA is led by Tareq al-Khadraa and differs from the Palestine Liberation Army that is subordinate to the PLO in that it has participated in a number of battles within Syria. The group’s most prominent battle took place in Adra, while its most recent was in northern Suwayda, during which it lost 13 fighters. The PLA has also fought battles in Darayya and Tell Souane and has participated in the sieges of Muadamiyat al-Sham and al-Zabadani. With regards to structure, the PLA comprises three brigades: “Hattin Forces” headquartered in the city of Qatana in Rif Dimashq, “Ajnadayn Force” headquartered in Mount Hermon, and “al-Qadissiyah Forces,” which are deployed near the city of Suwayda in southern Syria. Theoretically subordinate to the PLO leadership, in practice the PLA serves the Syrian government. Consequently, when a number of officers and personnel refused early on to enter into the Syrian conflict, they were executed in the field.

9. Druze Militias (in special cases they are absorbed within local authorities)

Suwayda Governorate’s neutrality has helped strengthen local militias, which have begun to take control of civilian life in the area. Checkpoints within the governorate are not all subordinate to the government, as some are administered by NDF militias, set up by People’s Committees, or run by an assortment of operatives from the Humat ad-Diyar militia, the SSNP, and the Ba’ath Brigades. According to local observers, these mixed checkpoints are divided up into gateways used to smuggle fuel into ISIS-controlled areas on the northeastern and south-southwestern borders of the governorate. These checkpoints are important sources of looting, collecting royalties from smuggling operations, and trading black market fuel, flour, and cigarette. Also active within the governorate is a militia with a religious veneer controlled by Nazih Jarbou that, along with other armed militias linked to the regime, is tasked with protecting the local community. Those belonging to this militia fall into three main groups: traders, fuel station owners, and those who need their interests protected.

Second: The Security Structure in Opposition-Held Areas

The decentralization of security bodies in areas held by opposition factions has developed as an alternative model to that of the strict authoritarian system that was in its place when the regime held control. Whereas a number of these security bodies have disappeared, others remain active and continue to provide security services. The first authorities that sought to take on security threats were the local councils, as their leaders were forced to deal early on with a number of issues that arose from the country’s new reality, including those related to security. Among these councils’ tasks was the maintenance of public order and the protection of public property.

The local councils’ role in maintaining security eventually faded for three main reasons:

  1. Regime military incursions into areas that had fallen out of its control, which led to a collapse of the initial structure of local governance.

  2. The increased militarization of the rebel movement and different factions’ assumption of security and military administration.

  3. The emergence of experimental policing units formed by defectors from the security establishment.

Generally, local councils’ preference to leave security duties to competent authorities was driven by the following reasons:

  1. The need to reorganize their priorities and refocus on services, particularly with the deterioration of the humanitarian situation and service provisions.

  2. An unwillingness to cause friction with opposition military factions.

  3. The lack of resources necessary to form security bureaus.

Following is a review of the most important security actors in the opposition controlled areas:([2])

First: Rebel Police

The police forces have experienced a marked increase in defections in comparison to the military and security apparatuses, as an estimated 500 officers and thousands of other personnel have defected. Whereas a portion of defectors withdrew from security detail, a number of them have joined opposition security apparatuses in rebel-held areas. These rebel factions have worked in cooperation with civilians, particularly with the increase in popular discontent caused by the rise in theft, crime, and encroachment on public property. By the end of 2011 and start of 2012, the following policing experiments had begun to manifest throughout the country: The Judicial Police in Huraytan and Tell Rifaat, the Revolutionary Security Bureau, and the Revolutionary Outposts in most regions outside of regime control.

This policing experiment became more organized by mid-2012 as a number of these experimental units are still in operation. The most notable include:

  1. Free Police in Aleppo and Idlib

  2. Police Command in Eastern Ghouta

  3. Police Command in Eastern Qalamun and Badia

  4. Police Experiment in Homs (internal security)

While there are many experimental units that operate under various names (such as the Maintaining Order Forces, the Revolutionary Outposts, Public Security, Security Councils, and the Judicial Police, there remain local experimental units that never developed a clear institutional structure that went beyond their sectors or regions.

Second: Local Judiciary

In the absence of courts operated by the state judiciary, alternatives have emerged that differ with regards to legal authority, formation mechanisms, work methods, and the nature of jurisdiction and subordination. These include:

  1. High Judicial Council in Aleppo

  2. Islamic Commission Courts for the Administration of Liberated Areas

  3. Judiciary Council in Eastern Ghouta

  4. Courthouse in Horan

  5. High Court in the Northern Homs Countryside

  6. Fateh al-Sham (al-Nusra) Front Courts (previously called Courthouses)

Third: Faction Security Bureaus

From their inception, opposition military factions have formed miniature Security Committees that are tasked with gathering and analyzing information and compiling a list of goals to be worked towards. These experimental committees continued to develop and were placed within the framework of Security Bureaus housed within the structure of the opposition factions themselves. These bureaus can be placed into four categories:

  1. Armed Opposition Faction Security Bureaus, including: al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, Nur ad-Din Zengi, Rahman Corps, Southern Front Factions, Jaysh al-Nasr, and the Authenticity and Development Front.

  2. National Islamic Faction Security Bureaus, including: Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Army of Islam, and Sham Legion.

  3. Security Bureaus Arising from Military Alliances, including: Army of Conquest’s Executive Power, Free Idlib Army’s Security Bureau, Descendants of Hamza and Abu Amara Brigades’ Joint Security Bureau, and the Homs Operations Room.

  4. Supranational Jihadist Faction Security Bureaus, such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Evaluating Security Work in Areas Held by the Armed Opposition

Decentralization is the dominant feature of security administration in areas held by armed rebel factions. This is due to there being no central reference point for administering security. The decentralized security authorities lack institutional character for the following reasons:

  1. Multiplicity of authorities: This leads to the creation of conflicting functions, clashing interests, and a lack of both consistency and integration.

  2. Lack of manpower and specialized skills.

  3. Lack of equipment and logistical support.

  4. Lack of strategic planning.

The escalation of chaos in Syria’s rebel-held areas stems not only from a lack of institutionalization and limited capabilities, but also from an increase in threats from rebel opponents. Indeed, there are signs that the security situation in these areas is only growing worse, as indicated by the rise in assassinations and explosions, as well as the increase in criminal activities, such as theft, looting, robbery, and crimes against public decency. This bleak picture is further bolstered by the persistence of detainment, forced disappearances, torture, and the spread of armed gangs, drug dealers, smugglers, and the sale of stolen merchandise. The experimental security units outlined above assume a critical role in both curbing the retreat of viable security mechanisms and fighting terrorist groups, such as ISIS, particularly Aleppo, Rif Dimashq, and Qalamun. This is apparent in their relentless efforts to institutionalize and codify their operations through ongoing coordination with local councils, which are more representative and legitimate than other governing bodies.

Third: The Security Structure in “Administratively Autonomous” Areas

The occupations of security personnel in administratively autonomous areas closely resemble analogous position in regime-held areas before the uprising. Both sets of occupations subscribe to a model of community policing that is commensurate with the political ideology of the ruling party, condones the legitimacy of political detention and community militarization, and that links security directives to the central governing authority. However, Syria’s security establishment suffers from deep conflicts within its institutions as well as duplicity among authorities spread out between regime- and Democratic Union Party (PYD)-controlled areas. Perhaps the greatest danger threatening public security is the PYD’s ideological connection with military and security branches and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is both separatist and hostile to neighboring countries.

With the outbreak of the uprising, the PYD formed organized cells, some of which were structured as units called the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” led by Xebat Derik, a former commander in the PKK who was affiliated with a number of its institutions and was the first commander of the People’s Protection Units. With the development of the conflict, the PYD’s military and security organizations proliferated, some of which include.([3])

1. People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units

These units rely on volunteer forces and lead major military operations in rural and urban areas that the PYD seeks to gain control of. The general structure of the YPG’s military hierarchy’s is comprised of a general command leadership, followed by a military council and field commanders drawn from different brigades, companies, and regions. In the past, the units’ military legitimacy rested on Article 15 of the “Charter of the Social Contract for Autonomous Democratic Rule” (ratified in the PYD’s first session on 01/06/2014), which states that the YPG comprise the only national institution responsible for defense and the preservation of both territorial sovereignty and peace in provincial lands. Moreover, the YPG serves the interests of the people by defending their objectives and national security. It is estimated that the number of fighters serving in the YPG ranges between 20,000 and 30,000.

2. Self-Defense Forces (HPX)

The Social Contract also ratified the formation of the Self-Defense and Protection Authority on 01/21/2014. Later, on 07/13/2014, the Legislative Council approved the Self-Defense Law, which states that each family is obliged to put forth one of its family members between the ages of 18 and 30 to perform “self-defense duty” lasting six months (nine months as of January 2016). The authority’s mission is to implement laws pertaining to the mandatory conscription of Kurds and is carried out by the PYD in areas under its control. Meanwhile, groups allied with the PYD, such as al-Sanadid Forces formed by the Shammar tribe, implement the policy in their own areas.

3. Core Defense Forces (HPC)

These forces draw their missions and duties from the needsof the autonomous Kurdish region by protecting areas and neighborhoods from attacks. For instance, they set up checkpoints on the main roads leading into neighborhoods, gather information about suspicious individuals in the area, support the People’s and Women’s Protection Units in combat operations, and coordinate with Asayish forces and other security services active in the area.

4. Asayish Internal Security Organization – Rojava

Subordinate to the General Authority, this group operates in al-Jazira and Kobani Provinces under the joint leadership of Commanders Jawan Ibrahim and Ayten Farhad. In the approximately four years since its inception, Asayish has developed the public security services in Rojava by leaps and bounds, now carrying out all security duties and possessing security apparatuses that carry out a multitude of functions. These include the: Traffic Directorate (tirafik), Anti-Terror Forces (HAT), Women’s Asayish, Checkpoints Administration, Public Security Directorate, and Organized Crime Directorate. By the end of 2016, the Public Security Directorate possessed 45 centers, 21 of which were located in al-Jazira, 5 in Kobani, 19 in Afrin, as well as over 195 permanent checkpoints throughout Rojava. There are 4,000 to 5,000 personnel and operatives serving in these different apparatuses.

There are other reserve forces as well, the most important including the Internationalist Freedom Brigade and an assortment of western advisors, which were formed because of the influx of foreign personnel to join the YPG after the battle against ISIS in Kobani. On 06/10/2015 the 25-person brigade officially announced its establishment in Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniye) and attracted foreign personnel of various nationalities, however most were Turkish leftists from the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) of Turkey, PKK, Villagers for Turkey’s Salvation (which is the military branch of the MLKP that dates back to 1973), and individuals from Eastern European leftist movements. At this time, a number of organizations began to form and were filled by newly arrived operatives to Rojava. At this time, the brigade divided into two parts: the Bob Crow Brigade (BCB), after the British union leader, and the Henri Krasucki Brigade, after the French communist leader. The Internationalist Freedom Brigade is led by a 30-year-old Kurdish woman named Deniz and is comprised of approximately 200 to 300 fighters.

The western presence in the Kurdish territories is not limited to volunteer fighters, but also includes a sizeable number of advisors who initially came to train YPG fighters, but went on to train the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) as well. These advisors include French, Americans, as well as a small number of Brits, nearly 500 of which direct the international coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS. The PYD is a strategic ally of the United States and, as their relations have developed, the latter has constructed five or six military bases in the outskirts of the oil city of Rmeilan, Mabrouka in western Qamishli, Tell Beydar in the northern outskirts of Hasakah, as well as a base headquarters near Ayn Issa and a base for American forces in the former French Lafarge cement factory.

Fourth: Security Fundamentals and Imperatives

The general unraveling of the security establishment in Syria clues us in to some of the fundamental forces that will act upon the shape of the future public security apparatuses in the country. These include:

  1. Differences in political, ideological, and military terms of references.

  2. International actors’ inconsistency in supporting the security services.

  3. Disparities in political projects and ambitions pertaining to security.

  4. Inability of any centralized government to regulate security services using integrated mechanisms because of the highly decentralized nature of the services.

  5. Additional hidden security threats will surface the moment that a political transition occurs that does not take into account the nature of Syria’s security situation.

  6. Inadequacy of the characterization that regions under regime political control have a coherent security structure.

  7. Doubt in the regime’s ability to reign in the security establishment.

  8. Increase in security threats throughout Syria.

  9. Need for the security transformation process to be consistent with data on the public security situation.

  10. Various and conflicting regional and international security breaches.

The Primary Arrangements Needed to Build an Integrated Security Sector

This refers to the group of measures and arrangements needed to transition from a less fluid security system to one that is more disciplined and in line with a central security strategy. The following recommendations speak to these needs:

  1. Implement a group of constitutional principles that outline the new security doctrine’s adherence to the concept of administrative decentralization, link security to the nation and its citizenry, and put an end to the security services’ interference in politics.

  2. Expel all foreign militias from Syria under the pretenses that they represent a real security threat.

  3. Have international and regional actors agree to support security stability, organize with the central government, and offer up the expertise and support needed to develop security service manpower.

  4. Dissolve all local militias and hand their weapons over to the state as a strategic necessity. Otherwise, have the security services regulate the security performance of these militias by enforcing codes of conduct and the security objectives expected of them. This can include a timetable for handing over arms and disbanding militias.

  5. Adopt political measures needed for changing the security establishment while emphasizing the necessity of integration.

  6. Have the state adopt governance programs for security work in Syria.

From here, the following points must be emphasized:

  1. Dispatch the state security force in an organized fashion throughout regions out of the regime’s control to carry out all security duties, except those related to sovereignty.

  2. Integrate all anti-terrorism personnel.

  3. Link successful policing experiments institutionally to local governments, particularly in opposition-held areas and the Suwayda Governorate.

  4. Put an end to all prevailing legal authorities and bind them to a unified model produced by the state in accordance with the new constitution.

  5. Archive security operations in all regions according to a special archive system.

  6. Emphasize the necessity that civil society supports, oversees, and protects the transition process.

  7. Turn all military apparatuses into local operational security mechanisms that are administratively subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, but granted a high degree of independence.

  8. Strengthen the concept of local empowerment by having locals supervise and implement the security plan, carry out security tasks, and maintain their area’s unique character.

  9. Issue a general law that organizes the security agenda’s goals and limits. This will also define the security apparatuses’ relation to the central security establishment and oblige security personnel to adhere to the policies both contained within the resolution on Syria’s independence and that guard against fragmentation and division.

  10. Ensure that financial, oversight, and administrative policies are consistent with the concepts of administrative decentralization.

The Figure Below Clarifies the First Recommendation Regarding Sectoral Security Functions:

1. Regional Functions

These are functions granted by the central authority of each geographic region that distribute security forces:

  1. Border Guards: These local military units are concerned with border control and crossing.

  2. Gendarmerie: These local military units deal with organized crime, smuggling, and gangs.

  3. Community Police: These units specialize in community policing and are made up of trained civilian personnel that carry out functions derived from the unique local circumstances of each community.

  4. Local Police: While administratively and structurally subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, these units are supervised by local units (Local Councils), which also appoint its staff according to set regulations.

  5. Special Force: This unit is integrally related to the central security apparatus and functions as its executive military wing in anti-terrorism operations.

2. Central Security Functions

These relate to security breaches, anti-terrorism, gathering security information and providing it to competent authorities, preserving stability, ensuring law enforcement, and following up on security operations in all districts via legally-regulated relations with local units.


([1]) Maen Tallaa, Power of security centers at the Regime, part of the unpublished research in Omran Center for Strategic Studies, January 2017.

([2])Ayman-Al Dassouky, a study entitled: local councils and local file security: Required Role for a problematic file, a study issued by Omran Center for Strategic Studies, 20 January 2017, Link: https://goo.gl/K9RzKM

([3]) Bader Mulla Rashid, Security infrastructure in SDF/YPG controlled Areas, unpublished paper from Omran Center for Strategic Studies, January 2017

Additional Info

  • Files Middle East, Syria
  • Files-Hidden F72,F40
  • Experts Dr. Ammar Khaf
  • Experts No - Hidden E46
Saturday, 31 December 2016 16:36

What’s Next for the Opposition After Aleppo

Abstract: The fall of Aleppo is not the end of the opposition in Syria, but perhaps marks the beginning of a Russian attempt to consolidate spheres of influence that are controlled by its regional allies and then push for a political track within its interpretation of political transition. What all actors understand is that it is no longer an option to return to the conditions prior to 2011. The Syrian opposition and its allies still have important cards to play including the empowerment of Local Administration Councils that gain legitimacy from the electorate and able to conduct stabilization programs that are essential during the transition. The opposition still control key strategic locations that should be empowered or a managed cease fire should be implemented to stop the misbalancing of powers.

The Syrian uprising has witnessed several phases each with different features and challenges. They ranged from the non-violent resistance phase, to the militarization, to the spread of cross-border ideological radical groups, to the internationalization of the conflict, the Russian intervention, and finally the consolidation of spheres of influence and control. Political negotiations can be characterized to have gone through phases beginning with the Geneva Communique in 2012, which calls for the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, then the Geneva I, II, and II talks took place starting January 2014 until 2016 where negotiation rounds were stalled every time because of the insistence of the Assad regime to frame the talks for fighting terrorism and not the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers. Towards the end of 2015 and throughout 2016, there were a series of meetings called for by Russia and the United States in Vienna and other European capitals where a new international group was formed called the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that called for a cessation of hostilities as a first step to re-start political negotiations with four main tracks: Humanitarian, Security, Refugee Resettlement, and civil society. A joint commission was formed by Russia and the US to oversee the cessation of hostilities process and the cease-fire agreements. During this process the United Nations Security Council approved the Russia-US agreement in the ISSG and issued UNSC Resolution 2254 calling for political negotiations with a strict timeline, where a cease fire takes place and ISIS and Jabhat Nusra will be targeted, political negotiations to reach a transitional body that ratifies a new constitution and holds elections to inaugurate a political transition. So far the UNSC 2254 has not been on schedule and that brings us to the last phase where Russia, Iran and Turkey met in

December 2016 and issued the Moscow Declaration. The agreement comes after the fall of Aleppo and puts out a more serious attempt to push a political transition process.

This expert brief argues that the fall of Aleppo was a result of a systematic policy by Russia to consolidate territories under the regime control, the Euphrates Shield zone, the Southern Front, the Kurdish controlled zones, then propose a political track according to its interpretation of “political transition”. In the face of the Russian policy, there was no other well-planned policy, underpinned by necessary means, implemented by other local, regional or international powers. The role of Iran is limited within the scope of the Russian policy, yet remains critical and strong on the ground, especially in its control of transportation routes to Lebanon. Additionally, the Russian diplomacy is far more aggressive and consistent with a clear determination for a political track without a regime change paradigm.

For Syrian opposition groups, the fall of Aleppo also puts forward a set of critical challenges and offers fewer options for diplomatic maneuvering while maintaining the balance of power through a freezing of hostilities or a nationwide cease-fire that freezes spheres of influence and control thus creating ground for negotiations. The Syrian opposition should adapt to the new conditions by generating new tools and mechanisms to deal with the new phase. Supporters of the Syrian opposition should also create conditions where Syrian “agency” and local actors are involved in the peace-making and stabilization process from the bottom-up.

The fall of Aleppo was a coordinated effort allegedly aiming at creating new conditions for a political track to be approached according to the Russian terms. This effort can be characterized by the following features:

1.     A consistent marginalization of societal demands and aspirations  while prioritizing a security based approach at any price, including forced evacuations of residents in Aleppo as well as Daraya, Zabadani and other regions. Local agency is often ignored and assumed to be a “proxy” to outside forces. This is why Russia has attempted to create a “Moscow 1 Syrian opposition”([1]) and “Homaimim opposition”([2]) to legitimize a “political track”; while realizing these groups’ inability to represent relevant Syrian actors in control of territories and borders.

2.     The priority of the regime and its allies was to re-gain control of Aleppo at any price while postponing efforts to fight ISIS in order to freeze zones of influence and presumably reach a political agreement that would then focus on fighting ISIS and Jabhat Fath al-Sham. This explains the minimal reaction by the regime and Russia to ISIS re-capturing Palmyra.

3.     The “Grozny” approach([3]) during the latest military operation to regain Aleppo after over two years of failed attempts by the Assad regime ends a phase that was featured by the maintenance of the balance of power approach in the management of the conflict. While it was clear the opposition failed to present governance solutions to address security threats, the current scenario puts excessive political and military pressure on the opposition to offer concessions and agree to a Russian framed political track. This will lead to further radicalization and for increased recruitment by terrorist groups who manipulate a victimized narrative.

Additionally, this will lead to further chaos and fragmentation of opposition held areas making it incapable of implementing any transitional programs.

Opposition’s options

The opposition choices are very limited. They need to be empowered to exercise self-criticism and review its positions and strategies of addressing the political track, including not falling in haphazard mergers between armed groups without a clear agreement on roles and responsibilities as well as relationships with local societal actors. It is of strategic importance now more than ever to empower Local Administration Council that are the only representative bodies in Syria today, as they are structured from the bottom up([4]). Field research shows a high positive correlation between citizen involvement and participation in local councils and the ousting of terrorist groups([5]). Moreover, Local Councils are service providers with clear political roles in representing citizens’ views and limit the control and influence of armed groups. Stabilization programs should rely on local councils and civil society organization more than on armed groups.

The recapture of Aleppo by militias allied with Bashar Assad was not possible without the air support of the Russian Air Force. The forces allied with the regime are very fragmented and disorganized that they could not alone recapture the city of Aleppo([6]). There were several attempts during the past 12 months to recapture the city but none was successful precisely because the Russians had different calculations and did not trust the ability of ground troops to take full control. The amount of military warfare waged on Aleppo was unprecedented and excessive, thus indicating a difficult front they were unable to previously capture without its full destruction and evacuation of all its citizens. The Assad regime remains very fragmented and does not have a monopoly to the “use of force” anymore thus suffering from diminished legitimacy. Information from the ground indicate that the Aleppo operation was fully managed by Russian and Iranian officers, while marginalizing Syrian-regime militias from decision making circles([7]).

Assad in fact has regained a city of rubble devoid of its native population. This poses important questions regarding the upcoming negotiations processes and the place of the evacuated residents in it. Great uncertainty covers the refugees return before the start of any political process, hence affecting the legitimacy of the process. Indeed, Aleppo was strategically very important to the opposition, but it is not the end of the struggle. The opposition is still in control of most borders, major transportation routes, the Southern Front, Euphrates Shield zone, and Idlib. Numbers of armed forces in opposition areas are not to be taken lightly.

 

Territorial Control Map - Syria - 15 DEC 2016, No (1)

Another element to be considered is the new evolving Turkish role that focused on securing its borders and national security through the Euphrates Shield operations that are now close to Al-Bab. These forces draw the limits of Turkish military options to the objective of fighting ISIS and ending any possibility of PYD connecting the area between its Kobane and Afrin cantons, hence creating a territorially contiguous Kurdish enclave along Turkey’s borders. While Aleppo has historic, political and economic significance to Turkey, the Turkish role shifted to become a mediator to help create a ceasefire agreement and support on humanitarian efforts. Perhaps the best scenario is a controlled and consolidated territory in the north of Syria where no foreign fighters or other radical Islamist fighters can operate. This serves the objective of stabilizing the conflict and providing new options for a political settlement. This also requires an empowerment of local councils in these zones that provide local services and empowering civilians against militants which seeds for democratic values and institutions.

The Moscow Declaration and the Challenges Ahead

The Moscow Declaration established a new set of expectations by actors who are present on the ground as compared to previous attempts by a larger setting such as in Vienna and Geneva. The Declaration also increases the importance of creating a platform for Syrian opposition groups to avoid previous mistakes and consolidate their bodies and decision-making processes. The new phase requires different diplomatic and military tools and mechanisms; and the current Syrian opposition structures and negotiation strategies fall short of meeting the challenges of the current phase.

The moment also requires a plan to deal with Jabhat Fath al-Sham (previously known as Nusra Front). Syrian groups should end all communications and coordination with this group, and work to push them out of inhabited areas of Idlib. This could be done by highlighting the role of representative local councils as the civilians “horses for peace”, while pushing the militias to be regulated under the new civilian administration in order to deliver security. Holding elections as means to re-establish localized governance is a stepping-stone to stabilization programs. This also requires the limiting of armed groups interferences in public life and the provision of public services. The model presented by the Euphrates Shield in re-organizing Free Syrian Army groups, professionalizing them, and limiting their mandate to fighting terrorism can be adopted at least temporally. These programs should not wait a political track. It should serve the purpose of consolidating opposition areas, countering terrorism, and re-establishing order and rule of law. This will empower the opposition to be better equipped as a “state” not as “opposition” to enter negotiations as a reliable partner. Many claim this is unrealistic, but I claim that a political will and a paradigm shift by opposition groups, local councils, and armed groups can make this a reality.

For a sustainable peace plan to be maintained, all relevant actors on the ground should be involved and not treated as a “proxy” with countries “guaranteeing” positions on their behalf. Assuming that a resolution could be reached by forming a government with members from different “sides” of the conflict overlooks the true societal nature of the uprising and assumes that citizens can go back to the former rules of governance and the former forged social contract. A new social pact based on decentralization of governance and administration should be agreed upon by Syrians. This means all foreign fighters beginning with the 41 militias([8]) supported by Iran including Hezbollah and their re-located foreign families should leave Syria. This requires a systematic process and a full plan that does not only rely on hard power and use of force. Syrian actors should be empowered to take responsibility of their local cities and towns and not allow them to operate freely. Additionally, the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates cannot be won without a unified Syria, an end of the current system of governance, a new military-security philosophy, and the exit of Shia militias that reinforce the ISIS narrative and increase its recruitment world-wide. The presence of these terrorist militias is the main reason for the imbalance of power in Syria that lead among other reasons to the spread of ISIS.

It is not over yet. The opposition still hold several important cards that should be wisely maintained for the best of all parties. There still remains strongholds for the Syrian opposition that require careful negotiations to ensure that it is not lost and does not undergo a similar fate to that of Aleppo, by including them in a nation-wide ceasefire and implementing an agreement for a weapon-free zone with Russian guarantees. These areas including the Eastern Ghouta in Damascus Suburbs, and Idlib as a center for refugee resettlement and economic reconstruction. The liberation of Raqqa will also determine the trajectory of the conflict and the nascent control zones, refugee outflow policies and programs, and counter-terrorism programs. All the forgone are potential cooperation issues between the foreign stakeholders and the Syrian opposition in order to reverse the vicious cycle of conflict.

The conflict in Syria will not end with fall of Aleppo and the new round of political talks unless relevant actors “local agency” is involved and have a buy-in to the transition plan. Local actors include Local Councils and influential figures and civil society groups. The political process cannot proceed without applying the same rule to all sides of the conflict; the exit of all foreign fighters. The weakest element in the equation is the Asad regime that has been deeply fragmented with multiple militias and loyalties within its composition thus making it incapable of fulfilling any agreement they sign on to, without guarantees by Russia and Iran. A true transition plan should address the demands of the local citizens and establish a new beginning for the reconstruction of Syria.

 

Published In ALSharq Forum, 29/12/ 2016: https://goo.gl/ecsOjf

 


([1]) The Russian Foreign Ministry hosted Moscow 1 and 2 meetings and invited opposition figures such as former government official Kadri Jamil, with the purpose of creating a legitimate body to take part in political negotiations but with demands limited to democratic changes in government to include more people rather than demands held by protestors. This group can be characterized as a group of individuals with little ties to relevant actors on the ground. This group alone cannot implement a peace truce but were brought to dilute the positions of the “opposition” and show a Russia-aligned group that could be a partner in the future.

([2]) Homaimim Russian base in Syria has been a hub hosted by the Russian Defense Department to bring together Syrian “opposition” that live in regime held areas and create “shell” bodies that represent their limited demand for inclusion and diversity while being more aligned with the Russian narrative of the conflict. These members represent primarily interest groups that are linked with the regime and not any actor that has the power to implement or “sell” an agreement with relevant actors on the ground.

([3]) In 1994-1995, Russian forces invaded the city of Grozny to stop the armed uprising and use lethal force and all destructive tools. Many refer to Grozny as it seemed a policy being implemented in the recapture of Aleppo where the eastern city was fully destroyed without any distinction of those being attacked and using all type of weaponry.

([4]) In the survey conducted by the Local Administration Council’s Unit (LACU) and Omran for Strategic Studies in Summer of 2015, 405 local councils were interviewed and asked about their governance structures. This number reflects those councils we were able to reach, but represents 90% of local councils in operation. About one-third of these interviewed say councils’ members are voted by local constituency and two-thirds by local consensus of local actors and civil society. These Councils are tasked with provision of basic services to local residents, including local governance, permits for NGO’s operation, public infrastructures, local safety, rescue services (White Helmets was started by Local Councils), education, and health services.

([5]) An example could be seen in the Southern Front where there are 76 local councils on the city and village level and the agreement between local councils and armed opposition groups allowed for Nosra to have little if any existence in areas governed by local councils. Another similar example is perhaps, Daraya (Damascus Suburb), and Maarat Noman (Idlib).

([6]) Omran for Strategic Studies Information Unit researchers in Aleppo reported large number of fighters pouring into the military fronts from al-Nujaba Shiaa Militia, and that the ground control command was with Iranian militias with minimal official Syrian Army presence. Also see: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/12/middleeast/syria-analysis-tim-lister/

([7]) Personal interview (Mohamad from Homs originally, does not wish to be named) with defected soldier who was stationed in Al-Qusair after its fall, then stationed in Deir Azzour before defecting, interview date August 25, 2016. He revealed that in military operation rooms where Hezbollah officers preceded, they did not allow Alawite Syrian officers to stay in the room during operational planning, and also forced them to taste food cooked before Hezbolla officers eat.

([8]) Omran for Strategic Studies Information Unit map of foreign militias allied with the regime including numbers and training locations, unpublished, dated Nov 25, 2016.

Additional Info

  • Files Russia, Syria, Turkey, İran
  • Files-Hidden F65,F10,F11,F72
  • Experts Arif Keskin
  • Experts No - Hidden E49

Dr. Ammar Kahf Talks about on the latest in Aleppo