There are many private security companies in Syria. These companies provide special protection for anyone who needs security services. Some of these companies provide types of services that do not fall under the category of “security” and are instead more like private military operations, such as role played by the “ISIS Hunters” against ISIS in the Syrian desert.
On 5 August 2013, the Syrian president issued Legislative Decree No. 55 regarding licenses for private protection and security companies. Before Decree No. 55, the number of the private security companies in the country was limited. The few private security companies that did exist were primarily funded by well-known businessmen and their main duties were providing security to banks, shopping malls, and sometimes musical concerts. Starting in early 2017, new private security companies began to emerge with much important tasks as well as stronger international allies or even foreign indirect ownership.()
Agencies and sectors that are concerned with Legislative Decree No. 55:
In order to receive a license, a private security company must meet the following conditions:
Additionally, the owners, partners, and management of the company shall be required to:
Private security companies are classified into three categories:
1st category: companies that have 801 guards and above.
2nd category: companies that have between 501-800 guards.
3rd category: companies that have between 300-500 guards.
|English Name||Arabic Name||License Date||HQ||International Relations|
|Professionals Company||شركة المحترفون||29 April 2012||Damascus||Independent|
|Shorouk||شركة شروق||12 November 2012||Damascus||Independent|
|Al-Husn||شركة الحصن||23 March 2013||Latakia||Independent|
|Qasioun||شركة قاسيون||28 October 2013||Damascus||Iran|
|IBS||IBS||27 November 2013||Damascus||Iran|
|Al-Watania||شركة الوطنية||28 March 2016||Damascus||Russia|
|ISIS Hunters||صيادين الدواعش||16 March 2017||Hama||Russia|
|Al-Qalaa||شركة القلعة||10 October 2017||Damascus||Iran|
|Al-Areen||شركة العرين||19 October 2017||Damascus||Russia|
|Sanad||شركة سند||22 October 2017||Damascus||Russia|
|Fajr||شركة فجر||02 January 2018||Aleppo||Iran|
|Alpha||شركة ألفا||15 February 2018||Aleppo||Iran|
|Al-Hares||شركة الحارس||08 May 2018||Damascus||Iran|
The power of each company is related to the number of secured locations it has, the type of operations it does, and the weapons and armored vehicles that it owns.
Shorouk Company for Security Services (Independent)
Shorouk was established on 12 November 2012. It is run by retired state security officers and its guards have played a major role in suppressing many demonstrations in Damascus. The company has maintained its independence despite the fact that Iran has made several offers to the company’s board members to try and gain their loyalty. Shorouk’s headquarters is in the governorate building in al-Zahra, Damascus.
|Shorouk Company Board Members|
|Retired Brigadier||General Gamal el-Din Habib|
|Retired Brigadier||Brigadier Ragheb Hamdoun|
|Retired Lieutenant||Colonel Ali Younis|
These officers, known for their good relations with Hafez Makhlouf and Yasser Qashlq, played an essential role in the events of Hama in 1982. The most important of these officers is Ali Younis, who was the most powerful figure in state security before retiring as a lieutenant.
|Main Contracts in 2017/2018|
|Al-Khair markets||Ein Tarma - Damascus countryside|
|Restaurant and nightclub Areas||Bab Touma in Damascus city|
|Sham City||Kafr Suseh in Damascus city|
|Cusco Mark||Restaurant chain in Damascus and Aleppo cities|
|Ski Land||Shami Village|
|Al-Badia Cement Factory||Abu Shammat area in al-Dumayr|
Shorouk has more than 2,000 employees, including the administrative and security personnel, and they all wear a special uniform with a logo of the company.
The security personnel are paid according to their specific tasks, with a salary range between 1,500 to 4,000 SP per day.
ISIS Hunters is a private security company formed, funded, and trained by the Russian military in Latakia to fight ISIS in the Syrian desert on the beginning of 2017, and after that the Wagner group took over responsibility for their training. ()
Originally, the ISIS Hunters’ main task was protecting the liberated gas and oil fields in western Palmyra, along with the weapons storage facilities near the T-4 Military Airport.
However, the activities of the ISIS Hunters quickly expanded into combat engagements including the liberation of the city of Palmyra and then crossing the Euphrates to clear ISIS from its eastern bank.
In its initial stages, the ISIS Hunters served more as a private entity within the Syrian Army (Russian military advisor in Khmeimim airbase instructed that) and its only task was to fight ISIS. This role changed after the company’s official registration in March 2017 under Decree 55.
In 2018, ISIS Hunters became more like a private security company but they maintained special privileges to use the army’s equipment because of their initial role fighting ISIS.
After the Syrian military and its allies captured Palmyra in 2017, the Russian-backed ISIS Hunters were tasked with guarding the town against the return of ISIS, clearing the environs, retaking the Palmyra gas fields, and keeping roads such as the Homs-Palmyra highway open. When the Syrian military and its allies lifted the siege of the Deir Ezzor military airport on 10 September 2017, the ISIS Hunters were occupied with clearing the area around Kusham on the east bank of the Euphrates, around 15 kilometers southeast of Deir Ezzor city. On 17 November 2017, the ISIS Hunters announced that they had fully secured Kate Island north of the city of Deir Ezzor and captured 250 ISIS fighters.
Currently, the ISIS Hunter main tasks include: securing the pipelines in eastern Homs, maintaining a presence in al-Talaa Camp in Deir Ezzor, and securing all the checkpoints between the Syrian regime and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Deir Ezzor province. Their most recent military activity was a very limited role in the battles of Eastern Ghouta in 2018.
Al-Qalaa Company was established on 10 October 2017 and is managed by the Syrian businessman Mohammed Dirki. Like several other similar companies, in the beginning al-Qalaa had a very limited scope of work. In February 2018, a group of security men and women from al-Qalaa in black uniforms equipped with small machine guns were spotted in the Sayyida Zainab Distract of Damascus. Their main role was to secure a Shi’ite convoy from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq that was visiting the Shi’ite holy sites. Iran’s main reason for creating and funding al-Qalaa was to protect these pilgrimage convoys, after several incidents in which Shi’ite convoys were targeted by in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Damascus city.
After the Syrian military and its allies recaptured more of the Syrian desert and Eastern Homs Desert they simply required more forces to secure these areas, in April 2018 the Syrian Interior Ministry (and Russia) approved al-Qalaa to be equipped with advanced weaponry in order to assist other groups such as the ISIS Hunters in securing the road, pipelines, and other locations in the desert.
Immediately after al-Qalaa was granted this contract, they received 25, 4x4 advanced trucks equipped with heavy machine guns, and were deployed to eastern Homs, southern Raqqah, and parts of the main Deir Ezzor-Homs highway.
Short Promotion video published on April 2018, https://goo.gl/c9ErhM
During the 2018 Damascus International Fair, al-Qalaa general manager talked about how the company had expanded their services and starting in May 2018, they provided the following:
() "Wagner group" is a Russian paramilitary organization associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Vagner commanders have fought for the company both in Syria and, before that, in support of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Map 1: Updated situation map of Idlib, western Aleppo and northern Hama
- M4 and M5 highways are considered one of the main strategic targets for any possible attacks from the Regime and his Iranian allies.
- Internal border crossings are trading hubs between areas under regime control and areas under opposition control. Currently these borders are closed by the regime for different reasons, except "Qalat Al-Madiq" in Sahel Al-Ghab was partially opened in the last few days to allow the last IDPs convoy from the south to enter Idlib.
- On 13 August, Russian Military Police took over both "Qalat Al-Madiq and Mourek" corresponding internal border crossing sites in regime areas replacing the Syrian Army’s 4th Division (Affiliated with Iran).
Navvar Saban "Oliver" at Omran for strategic Studies Military Expert and the Information Unit manager, recent interview entitled "Syrian refugees are unwelcome in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights" by TRTWorld via lcmporter, in the article Saban talked the following points:
1- 1. Russia is pushing for reconciliation – they want people and fighters to stay in their cities
2- 2. They don’t want to create some kind of a gap that will be filled by Iran-backed militias.
3- 3. Whenever there is a gap because of evacuation, Iran-backed militias are expert now in filling this gap.
That is a major problem for the Russians right now, especially in the south.
This report presents a brief account of latest developments in southern Syria, covering the Daraa and Qunaitera fronts with a specific focus on Iranian involvement from late May until July 17. Prior to the latest escalation along the southern border of Syria, there were reports of an initial agreement between Israel and Russia to push back Iranian and Iranian-backed forces along Syria’s border with Israel. The Iranians reacted by incorporating many of its militias and forces into the Syrian army to continue fighting in the area. Photographs and videos posted on pro-regime media as well as accounts belonging to some of the Iranian-backed militias confirm their involvement. In the final agreement between opposition forces and Russia involving parts of Eastern Daraa and Daraa city, green buses headed to the area to prepare the transportation of a small number of the opposition members to Idlib, while other areas concluded reconciliation agreements. Other areas to the west of Daraa are still going through negotiations to finalize the terms of their agreements. The Russians are pushing for an agreement where minimum number of residents are displaced to Idlib, as a deal to receive them was not concluded with Turkey. At the same time, Iranian forces are pushing for the escalation of attacks to take full control of all southern regions.
In late May 2018, Israel and Russia agreed that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces would vacate areas in southwestern Syria near the Israeli border(). Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that due to the Syrian army’s recent advances, foreign forces should withdraw from Syria and mentioned Turkish, American, Iranian and Hezbollah soldiers specifically when asked to clarify. Iranian Foreign Ministry representative Bahram Qassemi responded that Iran would remain in Syria while terrorism exists and for as long as the Syrian government wants Iranian forces there(). Nevertheless, in order to reduce pressure from Israel, Iranian-backed forces – including some of Hezbollah members – withdrew from areas in southern Syria only to return as integrated units within the Syrian Army structure. Examples of Iranian-backed forces within the Army include the following:
In early June, Russia began deploying troops near territories occupied by Israel, indicating Moscow’s preference for decreased Iranian presence in Syria and despite the dominant presence of Hezbollah in the area. Sources confirmed that Hezbollah was not happy with Russian moves and would demand Russian withdrawal, similar to what happened in Al-Qusir, Homs in the first week of June. Conveying Iranian opinion, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri told Lebanon’s al-Manar, “Iran and Syria enjoy deep relations that would not be influenced by the propaganda measures of anyone,” adding also that Lebanese militias would not leave Syria().
The following is a list of top Iranian-backed militias and forces involved in the escalation of violence in the southern front:
|Militia Name||Origin||Situation in Syria|
|Imam al Baqir Brigade||Syria||Part of LDF|
|Lebanese Hezbollah||Lebanon||Special Forces|
|Saryaa Al-Arin||Syria||Military Security Branch|
|Zu Al-Fiqar Brigade||Iraq||Republican Guard|
|Imam Hussein Brigade||Iraq||Militia|
|Al Quds Brigade||Palestine||Militia|
|Abu Fadl Al-Abba||Iraq||Republican Guard|
|A Taha Regiment||Syria||Tiger Forces|
|Arab National Guard||Mix||Militia|
|Salah Al-Assi groups||Syria||Tiger Forces|
At the end of June, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces – with the support of the Russian Air Force – began the attack on Daraa, quickly capturing a number of cities in a matter of days. Following this rapid advance, various towns throughout Daraa accepted reconciliation agreements with the Syrian regime, including the towns of Um Oualad, Saida, Um Mayazin, Taybah, Nassib, Jabib, Ibta, and Da’il. By the first week of July, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces along with the Russian military police had surrounded Nasib border crossing after capturing the city itself. According to Information Unit Source, the presence of Russian military police is part of an undeclared agreement between Russia and Jordan to ensure that Iranian-backed militias do not enter through the Nasib Crossing. However, as these militias integrated themselves into different Syrian army groups, it is difficult to monitor their presence in Daraa.
Map (1): Updated Southern Front Control Map - 19 July 2018
Iranian-backed forces suffered a number of casualties during the attack on Daraa, losing more than 50 top-level fighters – among these fighters were those from Hezbollah, as well as Khalil Takhti Nejad, a fighter for the IRGC. Nejad was deployed to Syria as a member of the Imam Sajjad IRGC Hormozgan Provincial Unit and commanded an operation from an unnamed base in a southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, approximately 32 km from Israel’s northern border.
Note: chart only indicates the number of dead among top Iranian-backed militias who participated directly in the recent Daraa battle; information obtained from monitoring pro-regime websites and official militia accounts.
By the second week of July, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias announced that they had captured 520 km2 in Daraa province; 290 km2 from military operations and the remaining 230 km2 following a deal between Russia and the opposition factions. Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias continued to advance along the Syrian-Jordanian border and reached the town of Khrab al-Shahm, facing no resistance from the opposition as most opposition forces had withdrawn from the borderline earlier.
Footage from Daraa battle of Iranian participation
The images below were taken from official media accounts of the participating militias and from pro-regime accounts.
Eastern Daraa Agreement and Western Daraa ongoing Negotiation
The situation in Daraa remains unclear. Four major events that are underway include:
About 20 buses are expected to depart with hundreds of civilians and fighters of Islamic factions with their families. There were about 1400 people expected to depart but the committees which are close to Russia are trying to persuade people to stay instead of evacuating to the north for the following reasons:
Note: In regards to Quneitra, there is no agreement until now and no initial negotiation between the Russian and any faction of the opposition forces. Russian negotiators want HTS to leave its post before starting any kind of negotiations.
The situation is being continually monitored in order to maintain an eye on what changes occur. The opposition’s divided actions will continue to leave it exposed to manipulation by outside forces. The Syrian regime will further its presence in the south by playing off the Israel-Russia-Iran trio; and Jordan will observe silently without exerting much effort in terms of actual fighting with or against any of the parties involved. With Russian forces gaining more ground in Syria whether at the behest of the Syrian regime or by making unilateral moves, it will be crucial – albeit difficult – to observe how Iran proceeds to protect itself and its assets in Syria.
() 29 May 2018 – Telegraph - https://goo.gl/Z5jFUh
() 8 July 2018 – Fares News - https://goo.gl/3KdLpU
() 10 June 2018 – Daily Sabah - https://goo.gl/noyzPV
() 16 July 2018 – Al Masder News - https://goo.gl/zyKA28
On the 14th of April 2018 (The Daily Star) published "Gemma Fox" recent article entitled "Strike a chance for ‘dissed’ Trump to hit back", in the article Nawar oliver Omran Center Military Expert mentioned, he Addressed the possible American strike on Syrian Regime military Site and how Iran military presence might be one of the major targets of American's strike:
*Important Note: The Article was published before the U.S., U.K. and France strike in Syria.
Original Link: https://goo.gl/zJTKBy
Iran has continued its attempts to expand in southern Syria despite international agreements aimed at curbing its role in the area. Russian and American the influential countries in southern Syria consider the arrival of Iranian militias to the Jordanian-Syrian border and the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to be “a red line,” which has necessitated direct interventions. Despite this, Iran has continued its expansion as part of the encirclement, which it has pursued in recent months.
In November 2017, Daraa province has witnessed surprising competition between Iran and Regime forces around the conscription of Syrian young men from the province, as well as the formation of a new force, Brigade 313, which is under the authority of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Despite the Iranian-led brigade only being around for a number of months, it has attracted more than 200 young men; members who were conscripted for the formation were young men from Daraa who were known to work on behalf of the regime, who were currently promoting the force based on its benefits, and the salary, which its members received.
Enlistment takes place at the Brigade 313 headquarters in the city of Sa'Sa', and new members receive an ID, which has the logo of the Revolutionary Guard, ensuring his ability to pass through Regime forces checkpoints.
During the same week the U.S. and Russia declared victory over ISIS in Syria, the militant group launched a series of surprise attacks around the country. Despite the triumphant claims of world leaders, these offensives suggest such statements are a little premature.
The same day that President Vladimir Putin declared victory over the so-called Islamic State, the militant group launched a surprise offensive against government forces in Deir Ezzor province, killing up to 31 pro-government fighters in the following three days.
“In just over two years, Russia’s armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists,” Putin told Russian forces on Monday during a visit to Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria, before ISIS attacked government positions north of the town of Boukamal, a former key stronghold for the militants.
U.S. President Donald Trump made similar victory claims on Tuesday while signing the National Defense Authorization Act into law. The bill, he said, “authorizes funding for our continued campaign to obliterate ISIS. We’ve won in Syria … but they [ISIS] spread to other areas and we’re getting them as fast as they spread.”
The following day, however, ISIS militants engaged in clashes with a Pentagon-backed rebel group near a U.S. base in al-Tanf in southwest Syria. Militants near the Palestinian Yarmouk camp south of Damascus also launched an attack on government positions in the nearby al-Tadamon neighborhood, seizing 12 buildings. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described it as the largest offensive south of the capital “in months.”
A map of control showing territory held by ISIS south of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
By Omran for strategic studies -Nawar Oliver
While it’s unclear if ISIS timed the attacks as a response to the U.S. and Russian statements, the militant’s new offensives serve as a reminder that it may be too soon to sound the death knell for ISIS in Syria, experts said.
At the height of its power in 2015, ISIS commanded territory in Iraq and Syria larger than the size of Ireland. This year, however, separate Russian and U.S. military campaigns pushed militants out of all their major strongholds across the two countries. While Putin and Trump call this a complete defeat others remain skeptical.
“I think that there’s a bit of ambiguity and confusion with regard to what a defeat might look like,” Simon Mabon, a lecturer in international relations at Lancaster University and co-author of The Origins of ISIS, told Syria Deeply.
“Whilst some will talk of a military defeat and the liberation of Syrian-Iraqi territory, the bigger and arguably much trickier struggle is about defeating the ideology and preventing the group – or a manifestation of it – from re-emerging,” Mabon said.
Earlier this month, Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian military officer claimedthat “not a single village or district in Syria under the control of ISIL.”
According to the SOHR, ISIS still controls 3 percent of Syrian territory, or 5,600 square kilometers (2,162 square miles). ISIS is present in southern Damascus, in “large parts” of the Yarmouk camp as well as in parts of the al-Tadamon and al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhoods, where they are battling government forces.
ISIS is also active in desert regions east of the government-held town of Sukhana in Homs province as well as in a small enclave in northeast Hama, where it is engaged in fighting with the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance.
A map of control showing territory held by ISIS in Hama province.
By Omran for strategic studies -Nawar Oliver
Militants also control at least 18 towns and villages in Deir Ezzor province, where it is battling both the Syrian government and the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces. In Syria’s southern province of Daraa, ISIS controls a small enclave close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where it has previously clashed with rebel forces.
A map of control showing territory held by ISIS in the southern province of Daraa.
By Omran for strategic studies -Nawar Oliver
Some White House staff and French President Emmanuel Macron said they were wary of Russia’s claim of victory on the ground. “We think the Russian declarations of ISIS’ defeat are premature,” an unidentified White House National Security Council spokeswoman told Reutersin a report published Tuesday.
“We have repeatedly seen in recent history that a premature declaration of victory was followed by a failure to consolidate military gains, stabilize the situation, and create the conditions that prevent terrorists from reemerging,” she said.
The militant’s last vestiges of territory are coming under severe strain by a wide array of rivals. It is only a matter of time before militants are driven to rugged hideouts in Homs and in the Euphrates Valley region. But as military battles subside across the country, a slow-grinding and methodical campaign should kick off to prevent an ISIS resurgence.
“To properly talk of a victory over the group, the conditions that gave rise to them must be eradicated. By that, I mean that people must improve their living conditions, be granted better access to political structures and to be able to exert their agency in whatever way they wish,” Mabon said.
“To fully defeat ISIS, such conditions must be addressed, preventing grievances from emerging that force people to turn to groups such as ISIS as a means of survival,” he added.
However, with military operations against militants still underway, there has yet to be any significant attempt to battle the ideological residues of the group or address the grievances that led to its emergence.
In an attempt at countering ISIS’ ideology, activists and Islamic scholars set up the Syrian Counter Extremism Center (SCEC)in the countryside of Aleppo in October. However, the so-called terrorist rehabilitation center has limited funding, giving it little ability to prevent the return of ISIS, especially after hundreds of ISIS-affiliated militants and defectors flocked to opposition-held areas in northern Syria in recent months.
Iraq, whose military also declared victory over ISIS this month after driving militants from their major strongholds, is already confronting a possible return of the extremist organization, in a further indication that claims of victory are premature.
According to the Iraq Oil Report, a new armed group, hoisting a white flag that bears a lion’s head, has recently appeared in disputed territories in northern Iraq. Citing local leaders and Iraqi intelligence, the report claimed that some members of the new group are known to have been members of ISIS. This has given rise to fears that ISIS may be “regrouping and rebranding for guerrilla warfare,” the report said.
A regrouping of ISIS would not come as a surprise, especially since militants can still capitalize on grievances in marginalized Sunni communities across Iraq and Syria.
“Across both states, Sunnis had been persecuted and marginalized, politically and economically, along with the physical threat to their very survival,” Mabon said.
“Whilst many are fearful and angry of ISIS, the deeper issues of marginalization and persecution remain.”
With political control fragmented among local powerbrokers in Syria, Russia’s overreliance on the Assad regime to protect its interests is a strategic threat. Despite current intersecting interests, neither the regime nor its Iranian allies are reliable partners. Competing and conflicting interests may finally come to a head once a political solution begins to take shape and Syria embarks on reconstruction, particularly in light of new regional arrangements.
Belying Vladimir Putin’s claim during his surprise visit to Syria that Russia is pulling back, these factors have in fact driven Russia to work to develop new tools that will enable it to maximize its gains and safeguard its interests in Syria.
Russia reportedly has seven military bases housing approximately 6,000 individuals in Syria, and an estimated 1,000 Russian military police spread throughout the de-escalation zones and areas recently reclaimed from the opposition as a result of reconciliation agreements. Russia has also entrusted several private security forces with the task of carrying out special missions ostensibly in its war against ISIS and with protecting Russian energy installations and investment projects; these include the paramilitary group, ChVK Vagner, which, according to sources, has around 2,500 individuals on the ground in Syria.
But Russia realizes that it is not strong enough to guarantee its interests in Syria on its own and that it must rely on local partners to do so. Hence, Moscow is making efforts on two separate fronts. One is vertical – aiming to establish lasting influence within state institutions, particularly the military and security apparatus – by investing in influential decision makers, such as General Ali Mamlouk, director of the Baath Party’s National Security Bureau, and General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, two of the most prominent security men.
The other is horizontal in nature. Russia is keen to develop relationships with local powerbrokers directly in order to build inroads with local communities with a view to balancing Iran’s growing influence within Syrian society. These relationships could be used as leverage to sway political negotiations towards Russian interests, while also recruiting them as local partners and guarantors for Russian investments.
The Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria at Hmeimim Airbase plays a key role in communications with local powerbrokers; however, the communication mechanism and those responsible for it vary according to who controls the relevant areas. In coordination with the National Security Bureau, Russia has been able to engage with local powerbrokers in regime-controlled areas, including various political parties, local dignitaries and religious and tribal leaders, through Reconciliation Centre staff. It has also been able to communicate with the Kurds via military and security channels like Hmeimim Airbase and the Russian Ministry of Defence or via political channels managed by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in coordination with Hmeimim.
But Russia faces a dilemma communicating with local powerbrokers in opposition controlled areas and dealing with the influence of multiple regional actors. To overcome those challenges, it has employed several mechanisms to communicate with these groups in an attempt to co-opt them, using important political figures such as Ahmad Jarba to communicate with local leadership in besieged areas like Homs and Eastern Ghouta, and resorting to local reconciliation committees (primarily made up of local dignitaries and technocrats associated with the regime) that possess their own communication channels that can be used to communicate with the local opposition, as was the case in Al-Tel shortly before the Free Syrian Army’s withdrawal.
According to an activist from northern Homs, Russia is also very much dependent on cadres of Chechen Muslim military police, fluent in Arabic, to communicate with local leaderships. In addition, Moscow has used Track II diplomacy to network with local powerbrokers and open up back channels through relationships with regional powers.
Russia has so far employed the ‘carrot and stick’ model when communicating with local powerbrokers to ensure its influence, offering up benefits like security protection and financing, while guaranteeing them a place at the negotiating table and a share of reconstruction revenue. But based on past form, more heavy-handed measures to pressure local powerbrokers, such as making them targets of future military operations or playing on local rivals to marginalize or giving preference to one group over another in a political solution and reconstruction arrangements, remain on the table.
Although it has made strides stabilizing its military presence and legitimizing its security arm in Syria, Russia still faces challenges generating leverage within state institutions and Syrian society where Iran opposes Russia's efforts. The regime’s many centres of power, reliance on militias and weak institutions limit Russia’s efforts to consolidate its influence in the rest of Syria. Similarly, Moscow is finding it difficult to communicate with Syria’s many powerbrokers and differentiate between their demands, references and allegiances to other regional powers – making Russia’s strategic pillars in Syria all the more fragile.
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.