(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis

    Millions of Syrians haven’t had enough fuel to cook their food and heat their homes this winter.

     

    Syria’s severe fuel shortages have had far-reaching knock-on effects, including a rise in food prices, driven by higher transport costs and currency depreciation in government-run areas that had largely avoided such economic hardship. According to the UN, two thirds of Syrians live in “extreme poverty” and 90 percent spend at least half their income on food, so there’s limited ability to cope with these price hikes.

     

    As frustration over the state’s inability to solve the shortages mounts, so does discussion of who or what is to blame. Syrian authorities accuse Western nations of “economic warfare”, while US and EU diplomats say the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible. Experts tend to point to a combination of economic malfunction, corruption, and Western sanctions.

     

    Over the past eight years of war, it has rarely been easy for Syrians to get the fuel that powers electricity plants, factories, hospitals, gas stoves, and home heaters. As Myriam Youssef, a Damascus-based researcher with the London School of Economics, wrote in February, “like many winters past, our days are drained by hours upon hours of waiting… we wait for fuel distribution vehicles to pass by our neighbourhood so that we buy a few litres, enough to warm the house for a couple of hours.”

     

    But in the last few months, the fuel shortages and related price hikes in parts of the country controlled by al-Assad have become unusually severe. As a cooking gas cylinder in Damascus hit 8,000 Syrian pounds ($15) in January on the black market – more than three times the official price – Baath Media, a news site run by al-Assad’s ruling political party, showed long lines of people waiting for gas in the southern city of Izraa.

     

    Even members of Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament, who have some leeway to discuss economic issues, complained about the gas crisis in their January session. Parliamentarians mostly blamed Western sanctions, but some also condemned corrupt officials – without naming names.

     

    Industry collapse, new sanctions

     

    Experts say this winter's scarcity is largely the result of new US sanctions, both related to President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and to targeted measures against Syria's oil trade.

     

    This hit at one of the main ways the Syrian government gets its oil, after domestic production was decimated by sanctions and war: Iranian shipments through the Red Sea, paid for with Iranian credits.

     

    The United States and the European Union both banned the purchase of Syrian oil after al-Assad began a violent crackdown on protesters in 2011, while also sanctioning regime-linked individuals. The EU had taken in 95 percent of Syria’s crude exports before the outset of the war, so its September 2011 embargo hit the country’s oil industry hard, and much of what remained collapsed in subsequent years due to conflict, looting, and a breakdown in maintenance.

    David Butter, a Middle East energy expert with the Chatham House think tank, told IRIN that according to official figures, Syria’s crude production has tumbled from a pre-war output of 385,000 barrels per day to around 24,000 today. With local consumption in government-held Syria at an estimated 125,000 barrels per day, that leaves a shortfall of more than than 100,000 barrels daily.

     

    The 5 November re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian energy and shipping assets meant that Iranian oil tankers could no longer buy insurance on the international market. They were followed by a 20 November warning from the US Treasury Department that it would “aggressively target” shipping companies if they continued to carry oil for the Syrian government.

     

    According to Butter, the 20 November notice, which targeted “the entire supply chain for fuel sales to Syria,” had an instant impact. Many of the oil tankers that serve Syrian ports appear to have responded by pulling out of the trade altogether.

     

    Jihad Yazigi, a Syrian economist and editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, also told IRIN the warning was “the main factor behind the recent shortages,” but added that it was important to take into account that demand for energy and oil products has been high because of the winter season.

     

    Even after the loss of much of the tanker trade, there is still some oil coming in on trucks from the Kurdish-held northeast. This supply is organised by regime-linked middlemen who have bargained for access to oil wells controlled – at various times – by Western-backed rebels, the so-called Islamic State, and US-backed Kurdish fighters.

     

    Butter estimates that this trade makes up around 20-30,000 barrels per day of crude oil – much less than the country needs.

     

    Oil and the economy

     

    The oil and gas shortages have hit both individuals and the wider Syrian economy.

     

    Idriss Jazairy, the UN Human Rights Council’s rapporteur on sanctions, reported last year that the US and EU oil embargoes had “dramatically raised the cost of fuel oil for heating, cooking, and lighting,” noting that the state’s gradual reduction of subsidies since 2011 had further impoverished Syrians, and that fuel shortages have second-order effects on the wider economy.

     

    “Iranian oil supplies to Syria play an important role not only in the sense that they supply oil products to the Syrian economy,” Yazigi explained. “They are also a major source, if not the main source of revenue for the Syrian government.”

     

    Since Damascus purchases oil from Iran on credit, the state gains from sales to citizens even when prices are subsidised. That makes oil an important revenue source, which, Yazigi said, “both enables the government to fund its war effort, if you want, but also government and public services.”

     

    Despite this trickle down impact on citizens who live under government control, European diplomats defend the sanctions. They told IRIN the Syrian oil sector is sanctioned because the government uses fuel for military purposes, such as to run helicopters that drop barrel bombs, and point out that there are exemptions for humanitarian purposes.

     

    They reject the suggestion that EU sanctions are responsible for civilian suffering.

     

    “It’s a much broader political economy that has caused those fuel shortages, or that determines who is having shortages and who doesn’t”, said one European diplomat, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.

     

    “There are people in Syria who have got plenty of access to what they need”, the diplomat said, pointing to the fact that people close to the regime do not appear to have been impacted by the shortages. “The EU can only control what it can control.”

     

    A diplomat from another EU member state insisted al-Assad’s government only has itself to blame for Syria’s predicament this winter.

     

    “The regime takes every opportunity to paint the picture that the EU and the ‘West’ is responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people”, this diplomat said. “However, the regime continues to wage war on its own population, adding to the massive suffering it has already caused.”

     

    An EU spokesperson told IRIN the sanctions, both on regime-linked individuals and on oil, are “a clear signal that the repressive policies of the al-Assad regime against the civilian population of Syria, including the expropriation of land for political purposes, as well as the production and use of chemical weapons, are considered unacceptable by the EU.”

     

    The spokesperson said the al-Assad regime must “change its behaviour and contribute to a lasting settlement of the conflict.”

     

    The US State Department did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment.

     

    What next?

     

    Syrian authorities have repeatedly promised that the crisis is about to be resolved, advertising a series of high-level meetings, police raids, and emergency measures to combat waste and corruption. That may be easier said than done given the involvement of top regime figures in the illicit economy.

     

    A new rationing system allows citizens to buy their allotted 450 litres of subsidised gasoline using a “smart card” that keeps track of purchases. But the rollout has been marred by problems, adding to the frustration of Syrians forced to wait in lines for fuel.

     

    In January,  a Damascus official announced that an old, parallel distribution network for public sector employees would be shut down. In a hint at government corruption, he said it had incentivised officials to request “large quantities” that were distributed in an “unclear” manner. The following month, the government also ended a decades-old state monopoly on cooking gas imports.

     

    Fuel needs will soon be reduced with warmer spring weather, but as the US Congress discusses more comprehensive sanctions, Syria’s oil and gas shortages are unlikely to go away any time soon.

    (TOP PHOTO: Ghada, 12, lights a fire to cook at her home in Aleppo this January. Khudr Al-Issa/UNICEF)

     

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

     

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    The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis
  • Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling

    As the United States and Turkey trade barbs over the US withdrawal from Syria, humanitarians operating in the country’s northeast say the diplomatic chaos has thrown open a Pandora’s Box of unpredictable security risks that threaten their ability to deliver aid to civilians.

     

    Since 2015, US troops have lent military, financial, and political support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia fighting the so-called Islamic State. The SDF has hostile relations with Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, and the prospect of major Turkey-SDF conflict is now at the heart of discussions over how and when any US withdrawal should proceed.

     

    Some two million civilians are thought to live in areas under SDF control, where relief operations provide support to the shattered city of Raqqa, aid to people fleeing conflict, and ongoing assistance to economically devastated resident communities.

     

    Northeastern Syria has a large Kurdish community, which has largely avoided conflict with Damascus, even as the SDF has carved out territory fighting off IS with international help from the air.

     

    A week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he might send troops into Syria “at any moment”, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that he was beginning to move his own military out, and threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the country attacked Kurds in the region. An Erdogan-Trump phone call on Tuesday sought to reduce tensions and find common ground as the US continued to prepare its withdrawal.

     

    It has been nearly a month since Trump first announced he would remove his troops from Syria, but it’s unclear how the pullout will work. And with both Turkey and Syrian government authorities apparently counting the days until the Americans leave – leaving the SDF unprotected – working in the area has become a particularly risky prospect for an aid operation involving around 25 international NGOs, the UN, more than 150 local NGOs, and donors.

     

    Despite being an agriculturally productive region, conflict, displacement, economic collapse and poor harvests have left a significant part of the population in need of humanitarian help.

     

    “The last thing that northeast Syria needs is precipitate and unplanned moves,” David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement shortly after Trump’s initial December announcement. “Relative stability could be replaced by chaos,” he warned.

     

    High humanitarian stakes

     

    The United States and its coalition allies have used airstrikes to target IS, but only maintain a limited ground force and civilian contractors in the northeast.

     

    Despite this small footprint, their presence has allowed at least some stability in the region, and by some measures the situation in northeast Syria has been improving over the past year. Displaced people are beginning to return home, particularly to Raqqa, despite the lack of infrastructure and services there.

     

    But many people still need help. Data compiled by the NGO Mercy Corps and made available to IRIN indicates that some 2.1 million Syrians live under SDF rule, including half a million who have already fled their homes at least once.

     

    That displacement continues even now, said Adnan Hezam, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He told IRIN that local sources recently counted 3,400 fresh arrivals from the Hajin area in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the SDF is still fighting IS holdouts. Many had walked for days to reach camps where aid groups operate.

     

    “There is rain and cold temperatures, they have no water, they’re scared of the shelling, some have lost family members on the way to the camp,” Hezam said. “There is also a risk of explosives and landmines contaminating the area.”

     

    Winter storms and heavy rainfall recently flooded some camps, adding to the crisis.

     

    And now the area is heading into an unknown future.

     

    Who will fill the void?

     

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible,” Refugees International Vice President Hardin Lang, who visited SDF-held areas in 2018, told IRIN. “But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

     

    But even with the withdrawal set to begin, mixed messages continue to come out of Washington.

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible. But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

    Earlier in January, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States may keep a separate base at al-Tanf in southern Syria, and would not exit the northeast until IS has been fully defeated and Syrian Kurds were safe from persecution.

     

    This triggered a sharp response from Erdogan. “Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” he said, refusing to meet with Bolton when he visited Turkey last week hoping to negotiate a deal that would secure the safety of Kurdish fighters.

     

    US officials seem ready to hand SDF territory to Erdogan and his Syrian rebel allies, despite the extreme hostility between Turkey and the SDF’s Kurdish core group. That group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.

     

    “The presence of a [PKK-friendly] area next to our border is not good for the future of Turkey,” a Turkish official told IRIN in a December interview. “We will keep fighting against this idea.”

     

    Although Erdogan has told Trump he will intervene with the purpose of finally defeating IS in the region, Turkey views the US withdrawal primarily as a chance to demolish SDF-backed authorities that were previously shielded by the American presence.

     

    In his tweet, Trump spoke about a 20-mile “security zone” along Turkey’s border, but offered no detail. Erdogan has long said he will establish a Turkish-controlled security zone in Syria, and when he responded on Tuesday, he portrayed Trump’s comments as a green light to drive the SDF away from Turkey’s borders.

     

    “They are terrorists,” the Turkish president said. “Can we leave this area to the terrorists?”

     

    A 20-mile Turkish “security zone” would cover most of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, including the cities of Qamishli, Amoude, and Kobane. Mercy Corps population data indicates that, depending on its exact borders, the area sought by Erdogan could include almost half the population in SDF-held areas.

     

    However, military, humanitarian, and regional analysts tell IRIN the primary target of a Turkish intervention would likely be the Arab-majority region around Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa. Turkish forces could then head south to bisect SDF territories and take Ain Issa, a strategically located Arab town that functions as a local administrative centre, including for humanitarian affairs.

     

    Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria say a Turkish incursion would bring chaos. “Attacks on the area would bring destruction and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” warned Hediye Yusuf, a senior official in the SDF-backed local authorities.

     

    Desperate to avoid Turkish attack, Kurdish leaders are turning to Damascus and Moscow.

     

    Kurdish leaders have said they want Russia to broker a return of SDF-ruled areas to central government control, while ensuring some form of local autonomy and a “fair distribution” of resources. They say SDF fighters should be integrated into al-Assad’s armed forces, and Russian and Syrian army troops should guard the border against Turkish incursions

     

    Soon after Trump’s announcement, SDF leaders invited a symbolic Syrian army contingent to the outskirts of the flashpoint city of Manbij, on the far western end of the Kurdish-controlled region.

     

    On 8 January, Russian military police also turned up in the area, apparently drawing a line in the sand to prevent Turkish intervention. In theory, Russian backing could allow President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to step in to fill the role the United States has up until now played as a bulwark against Turkey.

    Even as all involved seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

    “If the regime comes to an agreement with the Kurdish and Arab forces in the region, it would prevent the land from being divided and occupied by Turkey,” Yusuf, the Kurdish official, told IRIN.

     

    However, Russia is also in talks with Turkey, which distrusts al-Assad and fears that Kurdish groups could use an agreement with Damascus to ensconce themselves behind Russian and Syrian government lines.

     

    Even as all involved, including Turkey, seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

     

    “I think northeastern Syria will be resolved transitionally and piece by piece,” said Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow with the Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Studies.

     

    Complicating an already fragmented response

     

    Sources linked to northeastern Syrian aid operations, who requested anonymity, have told IRIN that the see-sawing US policy is making it hard to plan ahead and ensure the protection of staff and local civilians.

     

    Beyond the risk of violence and displacement, changes in territorial control will likely disrupt northeastern Syria’s complicated humanitarian architecture.

     

    Some 200 non-Syrian aid workers currently live in SDF-held Syria, working with around 25 international NGOs that deliver food, healthcare, water, and education to local communities.

     

    Most of these organisations are not registered with the Syrian government, which often refuses to let NGOs work both inside and outside its control – they have to choose.

     

    That means these organisations cannot officially partner with the UN, which is represented in the northeast by an office in the border town of Qamishli that reports back to the UN’s Syria headquarters in Damascus. Syrian government officials have a presence in Qamishli, though most of the city is under SDF control.

     

    Even as it bans aid from its territories to Turkish-held regions of Syria, al-Assad’s government has allowed UN convoys from Damascus and Aleppo to reach the SDF-held northeast.

    But government forces routinely remove medical equipment from UN convoys.

     

    To compensate, the UN brings in medical supplies through the SDF-held Yaaroubiyeh border crossing between Syria and Iraq, using a permission granted by the recently renewed UN Security Council Resolution 2165 to deliver cross-border aid without government pre-approval.

     

    Meanwhile, most NGOs bring supplies in through the Fish Khabour crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also used by US troops.

    Stabilisation aid

     

    In addition to UN and NGO relief, SDF areas are also bolstered by civilian contractors working on behalf of the US-led anti-IS coalition, with funding from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Denmark, and other US allies.

     

    Unlike humanitarian NGOs, which strive to maintain neutrality, the stabilisation contractors are explicitly tasked with reinforcing SDF governance against IS and al-Assad’s influence.

     

    In practice, however, much of their work takes the form of road repairs and the restoration of electricity, water, and sanitation – basic tasks that blend into the humanitarian effort and can often be a precondition for effective UN and NGO assistance.

     

    US officials have also supported the humanitarian community more directly by offering medical airlifts and pushing SDF officials to provide information and access for aid groups.

     

    Aid NGOs, which were mostly unwilling to speak on record, say their own work would suffer if the coalition stopped providing these basic services. They still take care not to be confused with coalition-funded contractors, in order to preserve neutrality, but for Damascus and Ankara the distinction is academic. Both governments regard NGOs that have chosen to work in SDF areas with suspicion, raising fears that local employees could be persecuted if the SDF loses control of the area.

     

    Planning for an uncertain future

     

    Even a non-violent shift in territorial control could hobble humanitarian operations in northeastern Syria. Although US authorities have stopped funding the stabilisation effort, an SDF official said the American presence remains the “nerve centre” of broader coalition efforts.

     

    If contractors working on water, electricity, and other basic services were to be withdrawn without a smooth handover to other capable actors, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate rapidly – especially if paired with violent conflict, new waves of displacement, border closures, and fragmenting local governance.

     

    Erdogan recently suggested Turkey could handle stabilisation and reconstruction efforts in the “security zone” through its urban development agency, TOKİ, but also hinted that it would require continued financial support from the anti-IS coalition. However, it seems unlikely that the coalition’s top stabilisation donors – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would be willing to fund a Turkish presence in the area, given their frosty relationship with Erdogan’s government.

    There appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

    It is also unlikely that the Syrian government, which appears to have a very limited economic and institutional capacity in eastern Syria, could immediately take over stabilisation operations in SDF areas that fall under its own control.

     

    As it stands, there appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

     

    Aid actors themselves say they are busy with contingency planning, but sources informed about the planning told IRIN it’s a struggle given the lack of clarity about the future.

     

    Aid groups are simply faced with too many possible scenarios, sprouting from a host of unresolved questions, including the speed and scope of US withdrawal, the potential for Turkish-American, Turkish-Russian, or Damascus-SDF agreements, and the risk of an IS resurgence, to mention just a few.

     

    On a normal day, aid groups would be begging for funding and resources. But in Syria, they are now desperately demanding something else: information, coordination, and time to adapt.

    (TOP PHOTO: Some 10,000 internally displaced people currently live in northeast Syria's al-Areesha camp, which has been hit by heavy rains and flooding. CREDIT: Hisham Arafat/UNHCR)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

    al/as/ag

    As Turkey threatens an offensive, thousands of civilians face disrupted assistance and new displacement
    Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling
  • Aid deliveries to Syria at risk in UN Security Council vote

    A Security Council resolution that allows the UN to deliver aid across Syria’s borders into opposition-held areas without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad is up for renewal and, as with so many diplomatic manoeuvres in the seven-year war, all eyes are on Russia.

     

    The UN relies on Resolution 2165, first passed in 2014, to use two crossings with Turkey to bring aid to millions of civilians in Syria’s rebel-held northwest, many of whom have fled their homes elsewhere in the country. A government offensive to retake the area, which includes Idlib province, is currently on hold after a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia.

     

    The lion’s share of cross-border assistance is delivered by groups outside the UN system, but humanitarians say the UN provides a reputational and organisational backbone that bolsters the entire aid operation – one that risks being lost if Russia vetoes the resolution.

     

    In an interview on Monday with IRIN’s Ben Parker, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said there is “no plan B” for delivering UN assistance without the backing of UN resolutions, as the Syrian government is “not willing” to allow aid to cross its front lines to reach rebel-held areas.

     

    ☰ Read more: The backstory of Resolution 2165

     

    UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which is the basis for all UN international humanitarian action, states “humanitarian assistance should be provided with the consent of the affected country”. The Geneva Conventions also say the consent of affected states is required but may not be arbitrarily withheld.

    In the early years of Syria’s war, many NGOs said that aid was being arbitrarily withheld to border regions and argued that by bringing aid in across borders they were therefore safely within the bounds of the Geneva Conventions.

    But that wasn’t good enough for the UN, which had an assertive member state – Syria – saying no to assistance; to work under 46/182 the body needed a Security Council resolution. They got it with 2165, which said that UN agencies no longer had to request permission from al-Assad, they only had to notify Damascus before crossing the border through one of four entry points:

    • Bab al-Hawa, from Turkey into Idlib in northwestern Syria
    • Bab al-Salameh, also from Turkey into northwestern Syria
    • Ramtha, from Jordan into southern Syria
    • Yaroubiyeh, from Iraq into northeastern Syria

    In 2018, the Ramtha crossing with Jordan was retaken by the Syrian army. Yaroubiyeh has been used sparingly, partly because of insecurity in Iraq.

    As a result, 2165 now mostly matters for northwestern Syria – an area which, according to statistics compiled by the Mercy Corps Humanitarian Access Team and made available to IRIN, holds some 3.3 million Syrians, three quarters of whom live in the wider Idlib area. (However, population statistics in Syria are highly unreliable.)

    Although 2165 does not require permission from Damascus, a demanding apparatus of border inspections came with the resolution, staffed by the UN and funded by donors.

    New UN hubs sprang up in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and in Amman, from where UN agencies began to organise a regular supply chain for civilians in border areas outside al-Assad’s control.

     

    With 2165 set to expire 10 January, Kuwait and Sweden are readying a one-year renewal. The two Security Council members will circulate a draft “soon”, Kuwait’s ambassador to the UN said on Friday.

     

    “The resolution allows the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid through the most direct routes to people in need in Syria,” Per Örnéus, Sweden’s special envoy for the Syria crisis, told IRIN. “The mandate is strictly humanitarian, offering a lifeline for millions of people,” he added. “It must be extended.”

     

    The resolution has been renewed annually since 2014, but last year’s vote caused friction – and nail-biting for humanitarians working on Syrian aid operations – when Russia singled it out for harsh criticism, saying it threatened Syria’s sovereignty.

     

    While al-Assad’s top ally on the Security Council opted not to veto last year, Moscow is sending out mixed signals as the January deadline approaches. Renewal looks more likely than not, but it is far from a sure thing.

     

    Major impact

    Resolution 2165 was first mooted at a time in the war when Damascus regularly denied UN requests to bring help across its borders to areas dominated by the opposition. It allows the UN to bring shipments in at specific points, as long as it notifies the Syrian government.

     

    Humanitarians insist 2165 is crucial, and stress that its importance should not be measured just in terms of the actual quantities of aid delivered.

    In 2017, UN agencies like WFP or UNHCR provided only around 20 percent of the cross-border aid deliveries to Syria. NGOs outside of the UN system brought in the rest, often delivering it through local Syrian organisations and importing their aid mostly through commercial channels (the official Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh crossings with Turkey) or a separate network of crossings monitored by the Turkish Red Crescent.

     

    Most goods – like food and fuel – enter northwestern Syria on a for-profit basis, imported by Turkish or Syrian businessmen.

    Aid agencies say more than three million people live in northwestern areas not controlled by the Syrian government, though population estimates in Syria are notoriously unreliable and have in the past often suffered from overcounting.

    Without 2165, private traders and NGOs could still bring goods in, as long as Ankara approved. But UN involvement would likely end immediately if Damascus objected, and, while NGOs might be able to fill the tonnage gap created by a UN pull-out, losing 2165 would be a big blow to the humanitarian relief effort.

    A source with significant experience of the Syrian aid operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 2165 brought a “significant increase in the overall response” by helping “what was a fragmented humanitarian community come closer together, coordinate, build institutions, and deliver a more joined-up and effective response as of 2015.”

    Mathieu Rouquette of the Syria International NGO Regional Forum, a network of 70 aid groups working in Syria, said the resolution “still underpins access to millions of people in areas that we are not able to reach from Damascus.”

    There would be other impacts too.

    Aid operations would likely suffer if the UN stopped planning and coordinating deliveries in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, as many NGOs rely on the UN hub for logistical support.

    “The resolution is what underpins the overall architecture of the humanitarian response,” explained Rouquette. “So an end to that would necessarily mean a return to a fragmented humanitarian response.”

    Moving to Damascus

    Aid workers said the loss of a UN role in the cross-border response would also accelerate the shift of international NGOs from opposition-held areas towards parts of Syria controlled by al-Assad’s government, while enhancing Ankara’s influence over cross-border operations.

    The Syrian government has told most NGOs that in order to register in Damascus they must end their “illegal” cross-border work under 2165.

    Many international NGOs were originally drawn into cross-border work early in the war by US and EU funding streams geared to shore up opposition regions, while others branched out from working with Syrian refugees. They also filled in the gaps before 2165 when the UN could only assist Syrians in state-controlled areas, except for very rare “cross-line” exceptions, like convoys from Damascus to besieged areas.

    Some chafe under the rules laid down by Turkey: Ankara has told international NGOs they can either provide cross-border assistance from Turkey to Syrians in the rebel-held northwest, or work in in northeastern Syria, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish groups hostile to the Turkish government. They can’t do both.

    In 2017, Turkish authorities ordered Mercy Corps to leave the country, apparently as punishment for its work in the Kurdish-held regions.

    With al-Assad now back in charge of most of Syria, and the sole remaining cross-border hub in Gaziantep catering to an area of northern Syria that is largely under Turkish tutelage, many NGOs have come to view Damascus as the best option.

    “The resolution is what underpins the overall architecture of the humanitarian response.”

    Several NGOs have voiced concerns about what being stripped of the UN cover would mean for the overall optics of cross-border work in a place like Idlib province, which is currently controlled by rebel groups – some of whom are designated terrorists by the United States and other countries.

    Bab al-Hawa has been controlled by the UN-designated al-Qaeda spinoff Tahrir al-Sham since 2017 and has been at the centre of diversion scandals that triggered Western aid cutoffs and NGOs suspensions. USAID is now rolling out a stricter inspection regime, further tilting the risk analysis for NGOs pondering where to focus their operations.

    On Monday, the Charity Commission – the UK government department that regulates and registers NGOs in England and Wales – issued an alert, warning “there is a risk that a terrorist organisation may financially benefit from any aid passing through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.”

    Tripping over counter-terrorism sanctions can cause very serious problems for NGOs: legal issues, economic losses, reputational damage, and donor flight. In the face of these risks, UN involvement offers them and their donors a sense of reassurance and legitimacy.

    Should the cross-border operation be stripped of its UN participation, it would likely prod more Western NGOs to withdraw from Syria altogether or rebase in Damascus on terms set by al-Assad. And, as a result, the northwestern cross-border response would come to rely even more on the Turkish Red Crescent and other Ankara-friendly groups.

     

    Russian roulette

    With a resolution expected on the table in the coming weeks, a Swedish diplomatic source told IRIN that Turkey and Russia are now the “key actors” in the battle over 2165. Ankara may influence Moscow’s views, but it is Russia’s vote in the Security Council that will be decisive.

    ☰ Read more: Moscow’s mood swings

     

    Moscow joined Western states in voting for resolution 2165 and extensions of it in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But last year’s vote was different.

    In November 2017, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia slammed 2165 as “unprecedented and extreme” and said it “usurps Syria’s sovereignty”. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the resolution of contributing to “the division of Syria”.

    US-Russian conflict in the Security Council was then at a high pitch after Nebenzia cast three successive vetoes to shut down a UN investigation that found the Syrian military had gassed civilians, and many humanitarians feared that 2165’s time was up.

    However, Moscow relented and said it would abstain from voting in return for a review of cross-border aid and monitoring procedures by the secretary-general, allowing 2165 to be renewed on 19 December 2017 with 12 votes in favour and none against. (China and Bolivia also abstained.)

    While aid workers were relieved, many assumed that the resolution was unlikely to be renewed again in recognisable shape.

    But something happened soon after that: Instead of ramping up attacks on 2165 as the vote approached, Moscow fell silent.

    IRIN has learned that a Russian diplomat unexpectedly told NGO representatives in Geneva last month that cross-border aid “should remain and should remain as it is”.

    Four humanitarian and two diplomatic sources confirmed that Russia voiced support for continued cross-border aid.

    Most attributed Russia’s apparent 180 degree turn to the 17 September Turkish-Russian agreement over Idlib, which seems to reflect an unspoken understanding that northwestern Syria will effectively remain in Turkish hands for the foreseeable future.

    “The only explanation I can think of is that there was some sort of deal struck between Turkey and Russia as part of the broader negotiations over Idlib in which Turkey sought non-opposition on this to avoid having to let in another wave of refugees”, a humanitarian source told IRIN.

    Russia could also have decided that it is not currently in its interest to hand back control over cross-border aid to al-Assad, when it currently has that control itself through the Security Council. Even then, Moscow may of course seek to dilute or amend Resolution 2165.

     

    After abstaining from voting on a renewal in 2017, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia as recently as June called the UN secretary-general’s positive review of the resolution  “disappointing” and said “it is essential to work to end the mechanism”, warning that the UN needed to “prepare for the closure of cross-border operations”.

    More recently, Moscow has signalled it will not look to block renewal. But some supporters of 2165 worry that Russia may be trying to lull rivals into a false sense of security, while others fear that poorly handled debates or unrelated quarrels could still encourage a veto.

    “To be honest, I’m not convinced the renewal will be so easy,” one humanitarian source said, accusing parts of the aid community of showing a “baffling” faith in renewal and of failing to prepare for other outcomes.

    On 29 November, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky told the Security Council that terrorist-listed groups are exploiting cross-border support and insisted that the “significant changes” on the ground in Syria in 2018 require “commensurate adjustment of the cross-border mechanism”.

    Polyansky did not elaborate, but even if Moscow has decided to let 2165 live until further notice, there are a number of limited amendments that may be in the Russian interest.

    Russia could, for example, condition renewal on new language that reinforces al-Assad’s legitimacy or supports reconstruction aid for Syria, which would infuriate Western nations. And while Turkey would presumably oppose the UN’s loss of access through Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh, stripping away UN access to US-backed Kurdish areas through the third crossing at Yaaroubiyeh might be another matter.

    If Moscow wants to have 2165 on the table more often, as a source of leverage, it could also seek to cut the time between renewals.

    The Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian UN mission, and representatives of the Syrian government all failed to responded to IRIN’s requests for comment.

    (TOP PHOTO: Internally displaced Syrians in northern Aleppo province's Tel Rifaat collect aid supplies. CREDIT: Antwan Chnkdji/UNHCR)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

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    Russia could veto renewal of the resolution that gives UN access to rebel areas
    Aid deliveries to Syria at risk in UN Security Council vote
  • Mission impossible for next UN Syria envoy?

    After more than seven years of war and a peace process that never managed to end the violence, whoever takes over for Staffan de Mistura as the UN’s special envoy for Syria has a tough job ahead – perhaps an impossible one.

     

    After four years on the job, the Swedish-Italian diplomat announced on 17 October that he will step down for “purely personal reasons” in late November. A day later, his advisor for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, also announced he was leaving.

     

    Egeland’s Humanitarian Task Force, although often deadlocked, sometimes seemed more fruitful than the political process headed by de Mistura, as it achieved small successes in widening humanitarian access and civilian protection on the ground.

     

    On the political track, de Mistura had no more luck than his predecessors, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

     

    Who will succeed de Mistura?

     

    Potential candidates to succeed de Mistura reportedly include no less than three Eastern Europeans: former Bosnian president Haris Silajdžić; UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov of Bulgaria; and Slovak diplomat Ján Kubiš, who heads the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

     

    Another top candidate is former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra. In what seemed like a nod to Lamamra, an anonymous Western diplomat told the Saudi-backed newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat that the UN secretary-general is “waiting for the right time to announce the name of an Arab diplomat.”

     

    Geir Pedersen, Norway’s ambassador to Beijing, is also said by some to be on the short list. With Western and perhaps also Chinese support, Pedersen would be a strong candidate if he can win Russia’s acquiescence.

     

    Egeland’s role as adviser for humanitarian affairs could have hobbled a Pedersen candidacy, since a UN team typically seeks to include many different nationalities. But Egeland’s resignation – a coincidence, according to UN diplomats – removes that obstacle.

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    Jan Egeland briefs the press during round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. Violaine Martin/UN Photo

    Securing humanitarian access

     

    As head of de Mistura’s 23-nation task force, Egeland has led the push to reach besieged and vulnerable civilians in Syria, often running into a wall of bureaucratic obstacles thrown up by Damascus.

     

    Whoever takes de Mistura’s role will have a large say in picking his or her next humanitarian adviser, but aid access will likely continue to be a problem in Syria.

     

    “Looking ahead, the Humanitarian Task Force must remain a venue for dedicated discussion and diplomacy on humanitarian access and protection of civilians across Syria,” said Rachel Sider, policy adviser for Egeland’s Norwegian Refugee Council, noting that many Syrians still risk being exposed to renewed fighting in rebel-controlled regions like Idlib.

     

    “The new team will hopefully build on Egeland and de Mistura’s work and bring renewed focus to protecting Idlib’s three million civilians,” Sider told IRIN. “This crisis is far from over.”

     

    The Geneva process

     

    Getting aid to civilians will be difficult enough, but the main task for the next envoy will be to revive the UN peace talks in Geneva, which have staggered on for years without much in the way of actual negotiating.

     

    The most recent round of UN-led indirect negotiations, known as Geneva IX, was held in spring 2017 and produced no visible result.

     

    In part, that’s a design flaw of the Security Council’s own making. As UN envoy, de Mistura’s work has been strictly guided by resolution 2254 of 2015, which calls for a political transition in Syria. In practical terms, the resolution requires him to create a mechanism to draft a new constitution that will permit UN-supervised elections.

     

    But the idea of a transfer of power remains anathema to President Bashar al-Assad’s government – and since al-Assad is winning the war and Russia has his back in the Security Council, he has no reason to make concessions.

     

    Most real negotiations have instead taken place outside the UN framework and avoided the transition issue altogether. In the Astana process, a series of talks overseen by Russia, Turkey, and Iran have hammered out pragmatic understandings over front lines and ceasefires, mostly to al-Assad’s benefit.

     

    In the hope of finding new leverage, de Mistura has tried to inject the Geneva talks with some of the momentum created in Astana, by working with Russia, Iran, and Turkey to set up a committee that would draft a new Syrian constitution. So far he has not seen much success.

     

    ☰ Read more: Syria’s constitutional committee

     

    In January 2018, de Mistura participated in a Russian-directed Astana spinoff conference in Sochi, in which it was agreed to create a committee tasked with the “drafting of a constitutional reform as a contribution to the political settlement under the UN auspices in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254.”

    By inserting a Damascus-friendly structure into the UN process, Moscow wants to steer the transition process in such a way that it ticks all the boxes of Resolution 2254 and also unlocks Western post-transition reconstruction funding, without actually threatening al-Assad’s power.

    Well aware of Moscow’s ambitions, de Mistura agreed to treat Sochi’s constitutional committee as an element of the Geneva process on one condition: he would pick one third of the delegates including “civil society representatives, independents and other Syrians of standing,” allowing him to control the balance between government and opposition members. At least 30 percent of the committee’s total members would have to be women.

    Eager to get one foot in the Geneva door, Russia approved.

    But since then, things have moved slowly. The Syrian opposition and al-Assad’s government eventually nominated candidates to the committee, but when de Mistura presented his handpicked team of civil society delegates, both Ankara and Damascus rejected it.

    Turkey eventually withdrew its protestations, but Damascus refused to budge, and even refused to meet with de Mistura to discuss the matter. Russian diplomats insisted they would try to persuade al-Assad to change his mind, but he never did. To de Mistura’s frustration, Moscow is still asking for more time 10 months after the Sochi congress.

    Critics of al-Assad – including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Saudi Arabia – have been pressuring the UN to move ahead and set a date for the committee’s launch. But Russia continues to reject what it calls an “artificial deadline”, and al-Assad’s government increasingly rejects the idea of UN influence over Syria’s constitution altogether.

     

    Performance reviews

    Despite the lack of movement on the constitutional committee, the powers that appointed de Mistura to the job gave his performance friendly reviews.

     

    US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said de Mistura had “worked tirelessly to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, saved lives by working to de-escalate the violence that has engulfed the country, and eased suffering by constantly pressing for unhindered delivery of vital medical and humanitarian aid to Syrians in need.”

     

    Nauert’s Russian counterpart Maria Zakharova said “we definitely appreciate his contribution as a professional, a specialist, and a diplomat to the Syrian settlement”, although she noted that it’s “impossible to win everyone’s approval in such a complicated matter”.

    The reactions from inside Syria underscored that point.

    “Sadly, it seems Mr. de Mistura wanted to end his term by stabbing the body of the Syrian people one more time,” Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Turkish-backed Moutassem Brigade rebel group, told IRIN. Accusing the UN envoy of being biased toward Russia, Sejari said de Mistura’s resignation “amounts to a clear shirking of duty, offering the Syrian regime an opportunity to escape any potential benefits of the peace process”.

     

    Supporters of al-Assad were just as hostile – but for the opposite reason.

    “I can only remember how he tried so hard to obstruct the liberation of Aleppo from al-Qaeda terrorists by legitimising their illegal occupation of the city through giving them what he called autonomy,” Aleppo parliamentarian Fares al-Shehabi told IRIN, referring to a proposal made by de Mistura during the siege of eastern Aleppo that would have left the area under opposition control if rebel fighters withdrew. The government eventually re-took the entire city at the end of 2016.

     

    “I am personally happy he is gone,” al-Shehabi said.

     

    Supporters of the Kurdish-dominated and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have fought the so-called Islamic State while pragmatically holding a cold peace with al-Assad, voiced no displeasure with de Mistura personally. They did disparage the UN negotiations, which they have been shut out of by Turkey, which considers the group to be terrorists.

     

    “If the negotiations are to enter a serious phase, it will be necessary to change and to include us in the political process,” Ilham Ahmed, who leads an SDF-linked political council, told IRIN. “If not, the crisis will continue and the war will drag on even longer.”

     

    Much ado about nothing?

    On 24 October, de Mistura made one last trip to the Syrian capital, on the heels of a Russian delegation that had reportedly tried to get al-Assad to engage more flexibly with de Mistura’s proposal for a constitutional committee.

    But at a joint press conference with de Mistura in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem demonstratively poured scorn on the UN plan, redefining it as a “committee to discuss the current constitution” and reiterating that any amendments would be a “sovereign matter”.

    De Mistura tersely noted that discussions had been “very frank and very intense”.

    On 26 October, de Mistura told the Security Council that past agreements with Damascus and Moscow over the constitutional committee no longer seemed to apply. Nevertheless, he said he would continue to consult with Russia and other nations before reporting back on 19 November, in what will likely be his last move as UN envoy.

    Reactions among Security Council members were split along familiar lines: the US said the delay in forming the committee was “unacceptable”, while Russia’s delegate rejected the idea of setting a deadline.

    Given the glaring disconnect between the UN envoy’s mandate and Syria’s political reality, de Mistura's mission was probably always impossible.

    The stalled constitutional committee plan now seems likely to fall into the lap of de Mistura’s successor, but the real question is how much it really matters.

    Even if a constitution-drafting process is eventually allowed to begin, there’s no reason to believe al-Assad or his allies will ever accept any diplomatic mechanism that could result in a genuine political transition, a point underscored by de Mistura’s reception in Damascus.

    Who rules Syria was always ultimately going to be settled by force of arms, and the military challenge to al-Assad has now subsided. The diplomatic haggling may go on, but Russia can continue to use its UN Security Council veto to block any unfavourable development in the UN.

    So as Staffan de Mistura leaves office, the sad truth about the past years of UN peacemaking in Syria is probably that given the glaring disconnect between the UN envoy’s mandate and Syria’s political reality, his mission was always impossible. Unless one or the other changes, his successor will do no better.

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    Mission impossible for next UN Syria envoy?
  • After Russia-Turkey deal, the fate of Syria’s Idlib hangs in the balance

    In two weeks, a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey that has so far held off a government offensive on the rebel-controlled Idlib region in northwestern Syria will come into effect. It could avert deepening a humanitarian crisis for millions already living in difficult conditions. But public details about the agreement – reached in the Russian city of Sochi with no Syrians present – are few and far between. So what do we know, and will it work?

     

    Fearing mass displacement and further violence, humanitarians have met the 17 September announcement out of Sochi with guarded optimism, even as they express uncertainty about the outlines of the deal and its chances of implementation.

     

    “The news of an agreement between Russia and Turkey offers relief, but only in so far as it will avoid a bloodbath in Idlib,” wrote Rachel Sider, a policy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, in an email to IRIN.

     

    Sider pointed out that many previous ceasefires in Syria have collapsed, and warned that even with a deal in place the humanitarian situation in Idlib and the surrounding areas – home to as many as *2.5 million people – remains grim, citing “severe water shortages and displaced families sleeping out in the open.”

     

    According to the published memo outlining the Sochi agreement, a demilitarised zone of between 15 and 20 kilometres will be established in Idlib province. No heavy weapons – such as tanks or howitzers – will be allowed inside that area.

     

    The deal further stipulates that all “radical terrorist groups” will be “removed” from the buffer strip by 15 October and the zone will then be monitored jointly by Turkey and Russia, though Russia will reportedly not maintain an on-the-ground presence there.

     

    Last but not least, two key highways that traverse Idlib – the M4, which connects Aleppo to the Syrian coast, and the M5, which links Aleppo to Hama, Homs, and Damascus – will be reopened for traffic by the end of 2018.

    Aside from these key points, the particulars of what was decided in Sochi have yet to be fleshed out or made public, including where exactly the zone will be and who will be allowed to remain in it. “The agreement itself is a bit ambiguous,” said Sam Heller, a senior fellow with the International Crisis Group.

     

    So, as with so many other deals in Syria’s seven-and-a-half-year war, the devil will be in the detail.

     

    What do the Syrians say?

     

    That the announcement came out of a handshake between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no surprise: the former’s support for President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the latter’s backing of al-Assad’s rebel enemies long ago pulled any real negotiations out of Syrian hands.

     

    While Putin is supportive of al-Assad, he also wants to keep Turkey engaged in Russian-directed peace talks and maintain positive ties between Moscow and Ankara, in the hope of prying this important NATO member away from the EU and the United States.

     

    As for Erdogan, his chief concern is to avoiding further fighting in the region, both in order to save Turkey’s rebel allies and out of fear of a massive refugee crisis flooding across his borders.

     

    While there was no Syrian presence at the negotiating table, buy-in from all the forces on the ground will be key if the buffer zone is to hold or even come into effect in the first place.

     

    At least for al-Assad’s part, this appears to be the case. The Syrian Foreign Ministry welcomed the agreement, noting that the diplomatic process must ultimately aim to rid “all of Syria’s soil from terrorism and terrorists as well as from any illegitimate foreign presence.”

     

    The rest of the pro-Assad camp quickly got on side, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif saying “diplomacy works”.

     

    What do the rebels say?

     

    Two major rebel factions dominate in the Idlib region: a pro-Turkey coalition called the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that grew out of the Nusra Front, formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Tahrir al-Sham controls key parts of Idlib, including the provincial capital and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

     

     

    The NLF issued a statement on 22 September that lavished praise on Erdogan and said Syrians in Idlib welcomed the Sochi agreement with “great relief”. However, the group warned it would “keep our fingers on the trigger” to guard against treachery on the part of “the Russian enemy”. The NLF has since warned that it will not tolerate Russian patrols inside the buffer zone.

     

    Heller told IRIN that while “at first glance [the NLF] looks intransigent,” he believes the coalition’s initial statement “likely signals their cooperation on implementing [the deal].”

    “It seems the deal doesn’t require any of the NLF’s [member factions] to actually withdraw [from the buffer zone] or even to surrender their heavy and medium weaponry, just to relocate those weapons beyond the demilitarised buffer,” a move it looks like the NLF will be willing to make, Heller said.

     

    To persuade fighters working under the Tahrir al-Sham umbrella to either withdraw or join Ankara-controlled rebel units, Turkey will likely have to wield both carrot and stick.

    What’s less certain is how other groups present in the area likely to become the buffer zone will react come 15 October. While no groups are mentioned by name in the documents published so far, the Sochi agreement is understood to take aim at the NLF’s jihadist rival Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist-designated factions.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham under pressure

     

    So far Tahrir al-Sham has taken an ambiguous stance, giving no clear indication if it will comply with the deal or try to wriggle out of it. The group clearly worries that accepting Turkish diktats would weaken its position, but also that rejection could draw a Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian army – or a Turkish-backed attack by the NLF.

     

    Heller said he expects Turkey to try to push Tahrir al-Sham out of the demilitarised buffer by 15 October.

     

    To persuade fighters working under the Tahrir al-Sham umbrella to either withdraw or join Ankara-controlled rebel units, Turkey will likely have to wield both carrot and stick.

     

    Veteran jihadists and foreign fighters dominate Tahrir al-Sham’s leadership, but much of the rank and file are young local men who may be more interested in their families’ survival than ideological principles. According to the Syrian pro-opposition newspaper Enab Baladi, one faction of Tahrir al-Sham has already signalled its readiness to withdraw from the buffer zone, over the objections of a more intransigent rival wing.

     

    While the Sochi-friendly members of Tahrir al-Sham are being courted by Turkey, their rejectionist rivals are supported by smaller jihadi groups like Hurras al-Din, a Tahrir al-Sham splinter that has positioned itself on the most extreme fringe of Idlib’s politics. Hurras al-Din has already come out against the agreement.

     

    Given that Tahrir al-Sham has fractured before, Ahmed Aba-Zeid, a Syrian researcher and supporter of the non-jihadist opposition, has previously told IRIN he anticipates “additional splits as Turkish pressure on the group to dissolve increases, but this time from its non-ideological contingent.”

     

    A Free Syrian Army-flagged group known as Jaish al-Ezzah has also protested the agreement, raising the heat on radicals in Tahrir al-Sham, who stand to lose face if they bend to Turkey’s orders.

     

    Although several prominent members of Tahrir al-Sham have attacked the Sochi deal in the media, it has issued no public statements as of yet, and the group’s representatives say they are still discussing the matter internally.

    Behind the scenes, Tahrir al-Sham appears to be pleading with Turkey to water down the demands placed upon it, or to help find some other face-saving solution.

     

    “Some of this [outward] rejectionist rhetoric may be part of a negotiating pose,” Heller noted.

     

    A Tahrir al-Sham spokesperson did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment.

     

    Turkey’s options, Russia’s decision

     

    Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide.

    Should Turkey fail to get Tahrir al-Sham to comply, or if some faction of the group tries to obstruct implementation of the Sochi deal, it’s possible Ankara will shift gears and support an NLF attack against Tahrir al-Sham, Hurras al-Din, and other jihadist rejectionists.

     

    Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide.

     

    Aware of the distaste most Syrians feel for foreign-inspired infighting, Tahrir al-Sham is already doing its best to appeal to a shared sense of hostility against al-Assad and the Russians.

     

    “Dividing the factions between moderates and terrorists and making them strike each other is a stratagem of the Russian occupation,” warned Tahrir al-Sham’s online news agency, Iba, in a 25 September statement distributed across Syrian social media.

     

    The following day Erdogan insisted that the withdrawal of “radical groups” from Idlib’s demilitarised zone was already underway. But the Turkish president provided no detail and so far there’s little evidence of movement on the ground.

     

    As things stand, the stalemate seems unchanged: Turkey keeps prodding Tahrir al-Sham to play by the Sochi rules and Tahrir al-Sham is still trying to bridge its own internal divides.

     

    With only two weeks left to go, it’s unclear if Erdogan can implement his side of the Sochi deal – or at least persuade Putin that whatever the situation is like on 15 October, it’s better than a battle.

     

    It’s a holding pattern for humanitarians too, with the UN estimating that as many as 800,000 people could be displaced by an offensive.

     

    “Any solution that removes the immediate threat of military action is welcome,” Cynthia Lee, a Damascus-based official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN. “We now have to wait and see how the announced ‘demilitarised zone’ around Idlib will be implemented.”

    (*Population statistics in Syria are uncertain and humanitarian sources have in the past overstated numbers in rebel-controlled regions, but there’s no disputing that many vulnerable civilians live in Idlib. Major aid agencies estimate there are as many as 2.5 million people in the wider Idlib region, an area that includes parts of the Idlib, Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo provinces but not Afrin or areas further along the Turkish border.)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    After Russia-Turkey deal, the fate of Syria’s Idlib hangs in the balance
  • Syrian war: Understanding Idlib’s rebel factions

    As the Syrian government prepares for an offensive on the rebel-held province of Idlib, rebel factions are divided in their loyalties and outlooks. Here’s a look at who would be fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in what could become the last major battle of Syria’s war.

     

    While Turkey controls the rebels in nearby Afrin and al-Bab, the landscape in Idlib is more complex. Two major factions dominate – the National Liberation Front and Tahrir al-Sham – and they differ on their positioning towards Ankara.

     

    Turkey’s favourite is the NLF, which is led by Fadlallah al-Hajji, a Muslim Brotherhood ally. The NLF includes Turkey-friendly Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham, the Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Ahrar, and groups that fought under the Free Syrian Army banner, like the Victory Army and the 2nd Coastal Division.

     

    Big but brittle, the NLF is held together by Turkish sponsorship and shared enemies: al-Assad’s government, Syrian Kurdish groups, and hardline jihadists.

     

    The NLF’s main rival in Idlib is Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that controls the provincial capital, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, and other key areas in Idlib.

    Led by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, Tahrir al-Sham grew out of what used to be the Nusra Front, Syria’s official al-Qaeda franchise. It is classified as a terrorist group by the UN as well as by the United States, Turkey, and many other nations. Moscow and Damascus typically point to the group’s presence when launching new military offensives.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham has a murky relationship to Turkey. Al-Golani appears to engage pragmatically with Turkish intelligence but refuses to fully submit to Ankara’s diktat.

     

    To his dismay, Turkey keeps pushing for control over the entire Idlib insurgency. Turkish officers tell rebels the only way to appease Russia and keep al-Assad out of Idlib is for Tahrir al-Sham to dissolve and let its members join the NLF.

     

    Some Tahrir al-Sham members seem to agree. Syrian analysts, including Ahmed Aba-Zeid, a well-connected Syrian researcher who supports the non-jihadist opposition, told IRIN that Turkey now dominates one wing of the group.

     

    Al-Golani is also under pressure from jihadist hardliners who portray him as a Turkish tool and a sellout.

     

    “Al-Qaeda leaders in Syria tend to see Tahrir al-Sham, and Abu Mohammed al-Golani in particular, as unprincipled and treacherous,” Cole Bunzel, a research fellow in Islamic Law and Civilisation at Yale University, told IRIN. Bunzel said hardliners view Tahrir al-Sham as “having disobeyed the al-Qaeda emir [leader] in breaking off from the organisation, and since then persecuting al-Qaeda members in Syria.”

     

    Some of al-Golani’s jihadist critics, many of whom are Jordanians and Palestinians, have gathered in a pro-al-Qaeda splinter faction known as Hurras al-Deen. The group is small, but its religious criticism stings and adds to al-Golani’s challenges. He must now simultaneously fend off further defections to Hurras al-Deen and prevent his other flank from being peeled off by Turkey, whose “good cop” attitude is backed up by the threat of a regime offensive.

     

    A Tahrir al-Sham official again rejected calls for the group’s dissolution on 28 August, but added that it seeks “a salutary solution in the liberated north that spares our people the expected aggression.” Behind the scenes, the group appears to be negotiating with Turkey, while Turkey negotiates with Russia.

     

    In Aba-Zeid’s view, how Tahrir al-Sham evolves in the future will depend on Ankara and Moscow.

     

    “If Turkey reaches an understanding with Russia to let Turkey handle the jihadist file in Idlib, one can expect to see Tahrir al-Sham split” between members who join the Turkey-backed block and hardliners who draw closer to Hurras al-Deen, he said.

     

    Minor factions and Chinese jihadists

     

    Complicating the picture in Idlib are several second-tier rebel factions.

     

    On the jihadist side, Hurras al-Deen is accompanied by a number of small foreign-led factions close to Tahrir al-Sham, including the Chechens of Junoud al-Sham. The so-called Islamic State also operates clandestine cells in the area, hunted by both the NLF and Tahrir al-Sham.

     

    Jaish al-Ezzah, a Free Syrian Army-flagged faction based near Hama, has not joined the Turkish-backed NLF like many of its former comrades. Some see the group as a covert Tahrir al-Sham ally, while others say their base is simply too far from Turkey for joining the alliance to make sense, so they are surviving by ducking out of intra-rebel rivalries.

     

    In the western part of the enclave, Jisr al-Shughour has emerged as a stronghold of the Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP, a group of Uyghur Chinese jihadists. The TIP’s presence in this strategic area (it’s near the border with Turkey and government-controlled Latakia) plus its links with both Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey could give this group a pivotal role in any upcoming battle.

     

    TIP has worked closely with Syria’s jihadist factions in the past, but also seems well acquainted with Turkish intelligence. After staying out of intra-rebel clashes for years, the group shed its neutrality policy this spring to help Tahrir al-Sham beat back a surprise attack by Turkey-backed Islamists.

     

    Aba-Zeid, who follows intra-rebel conflicts in Idlib closely, said TIP helped swing that battle in al-Golani’s favour. But, he still believes that “Turkey’s influence on TIP remains greater than the influence of their alliance” with Tahrir al-Sham.

     

    If all of this sounds complicated, it is. But to the Syrian government, Idlib’s rebels are all terrorists pure and simple – and the Idlib fighters themselves also see al-Assad as their primary enemy, transcending factional divides. Aba-Zeid insisted that if Russia green-lights a Syrian government offensive on Idlib, no matter how the various groups view Turkey or each other, they would all “prioritise repelling the attack”.

     

    Mustafa Sejari, a leader in the Ankara-backed Moutassem Brigade, agreed. “This is the last fortress of the Syrian opposition and preserving it is everyone’s obligation,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: A Syrian rebel fighter from the recently formed "National Liberation Front" rests against a wall along the front line near the village of Abu Dali in Idlib province on 1 September 2018. CREDIT: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    Syrian war: Understanding Idlib’s rebel factions
  • Idlib briefing: “Humanitarian catastrophe” feared as Syria war reaches final rebel stronghold

    As the Syrian government prepares to launch an offensive on Idlib province, humanitarians are on edge. Estimating the area may hold as many as three million people, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said he is “deeply concerned about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe”, calling on Russia, Iran, and Turkey to seek a last-minute deal to avoid violence, while UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is offering to personally escort civilians out of the warzone.

     

    The three countries do appear eager to work together on some level, and have promised to meet in early September. But with Russia and Iran still Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest allies and Turkey supporting the rebels, there is little common ground between them.

     

    It’s not just aid workers who are worried. Hundreds of thousands of civilian lives hang in the balance, and with the border with Turkey sealed, they may have nowhere to run if the tanks come rolling in.

     

    “The only thing people are talking about now is the coming battle,” said Rajaai Bourhan, a former business student who now ekes out a living as a freelance journalist in northwestern Syria. Speaking to IRIN from Idlib last week, he described a city hostage to circumstances outside its control.

     

    “People are afraid, and they can’t do anything about it,” he said.

     

    Who lives in Idlib?

     

    For years, Sunni rebel groups have controlled Idlib and adjacent parts of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo provinces.

     

    The surrounding area is mostly under al-Assad’s control, but the northern side of the enclave connects to Afrin, a Kurdish area captured by Turkish-led Syrian fighters earlier this year. From Afrin, Turkish proxies control a crescent of territory stretching around Aleppo to the city of al-Bab.

     

    The largest city in Idlib, a mostly rural area, is the eponymous provincial capital, with an estimated pre-war population of 150,000-200,000. Smaller cities include Jisr al-Shughour, west of Idlib, Saraqeb to the east, Maarrat al-Nouman and Khan Sheikhoun further south, and Khan al-Assal, Hreitan, and Anadan to the northeast, near Aleppo.

    As one of few remaining opposition sanctuaries and an entry point for cross-border aid, Idlib has seen its population swell with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians like Bourhan, who was born in the country’s southwest and told IRIN he was detained for demonstrating against al-Assad’s government in 2011.

     

    He fled to a neighbouring town after his release and then followed defeated rebels to Idlib when the army retook it, fearing arrest or worse.

     

    The inflow of people continues to this day, and the UN estimates that some three million people now live in Idlib, nearly half already forced to flee their homes at least once. That figure includes adjacent rebel-held parts of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo, but not the Afrin or al-Bab rebel regions.

     

    UN population estimates have often skewed high during Syria’s civil war, but they remain the only detailed estimates available.

    Two thirds of the population are said to be in need of some sort of humanitarian assistance, and “these people are extremely vulnerable”, said Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body.

     

    Pawel Krzysiek, head of communications for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, told IRIN by email that fighting in Idlib “will put thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, on the move.”

     

    Tom said as many as 800,000 people could be forced to flee in the event of an attack, an increase of 100,000 from previous UN estimates.

    Where will the displaced go?

     

    Turkey’s ties to the fight in northern Syria are about more than its longstanding support for some rebel groups, the opposition-in-exile, or its desire to keep Kurdish groups it considers terrorists from retaining power.

     

    Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR statistics, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure from the Turkish public and the EU to secure his borders. The defeat of the rebels would diminish Erdogan’s leverage over northern Syria – it currently has 12 military outposts in Idlib, and additional troops stationed in Afrin and al-Bab – and could trigger mass displacement toward Turkey.

     

    “Preventing a refugee influx has been, and remains, a priority for Turkey,” Armenak Tokmajyan, a Syrian researcher and International Crisis Group fellow, told IRIN, adding that many people may decide to stay put in the face of a major regime offensive, but “a big number” would likely try to cross into Turkey, or head towards Afrin.

     

    Erdogan’s intelligence services recently warned that 250,000 Syrians may head for Turkey if Idlib is attacked, advising him not to let them in but to instead “keep them in safe zones inside Syria near the Turkish border”. It’s not clear how these safe zones would work in practice, but the idea would likely mean Turkey tries to hold on to territory inside Syria.

     

    So far, Turkey is attempting to hold off the assault and the refugee flows by insisting that Russia must uphold a deal brokered in the Turkish-Russian-Iranian Astana peace process, which was supposed to turn Idlib into a “de-escalation zone”. But other de-escalation zones, like Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, were eventually retaken violently by the government, and Russia and Iran are now pushing to let al-Assad resume military operations in this one.

     

    On 30 August, the UN’s de Mistura pleaded with the three Astana powers to delay military action in Idlib and use the time to create “safe corridors” that would let civilians exit the area under UN supervision and sit out the battle in government-held territory. Such a mechanism could reduce risks to fleeing civilians, but it would also likely weaken the position of the rebels and do little for fighters and political activists wanted by al-Assad’s security agencies.

     

    Dramatically, de Mistura offered to personally serve as a human shield to uphold such corridors, but although Russia expressed interest in the idea, many opposition leaders reacted with outrage and accused the UN envoy of underwriting civilian displacement.

     

    And what of aid?

     

    Refugees in northern Syria have long been banned from entering Turkey, but humanitarian aid and commercial traffic is still getting into Idlib, mostly through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

     

    Bab al-Hawa’s importance can hardly be overestimated. UN statistics indicate that out of 403 trucks carrying humanitarian cargo into Syria last month, 341 passed through Bab al-Hawa.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham – one of the two Syrian rebel factions that dominates in Idlib – has controlled the crossing since July 2017. The group, which is listed by the UN as a terrorist faction, routinely skims money from civilian traders, but has treated humanitarian actors with a lighter touch to avoid triggering an aid cutoff. Even so, an internal USAID investigation recently found Tahrir al-Sham had diverted American-funded aid from a Catholic charity.

     

    ☰ READ MORE: Understanding Idlib's Rebel Factions

     

     

    While Turkey controls the rebels in nearby Afrin and al-Bab, the landscape in Idlib is more complex. Two major factions dominate – the National Liberation Front and Tahrir al-Sham – and they differ on their positioning towards Ankara.

     

    Turkey’s favourite is the NLF, which is led by Fadlallah al-Hajji, a Muslim Brotherhood ally. The NLF includes Turkey-friendly Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham, the Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Ahrar, and groups that fought under the Free Syrian Army banner, like the Victory Army and the 2nd Coastal Division.

     

    Big but brittle, the NLF is held together by Turkish sponsorship and shared enemies: al-Assad’s government, Syrian Kurdish groups, and hardline jihadists.

     

    The NLF’s main rival in Idlib is Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that controls the provincial capital, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, and other key areas in Idlib.

     

    Led by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, Tahrir al-Sham grew out of what used to be the Nusra Front, Syria’s official al-Qaeda franchise. It is classified as a terrorist group by the UN as well as by the United States, Turkey, and many other nations. Moscow and Damascus typically point to the group’s presence when launching new military offensives.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham has a murky relationship to Turkey. Al-Golani appears to engage pragmatically with Turkish intelligence but refuses to fully submit to Ankara’s diktat.

     

    To his dismay, Turkey keeps pushing for control over the entire Idlib insurgency. Turkish officers tell rebels the only way to appease Russia and keep al-Assad out of Idlib is for Tahrir al-Sham to dissolve and let its members join the NLF.

     

    Some Tahrir al-Sham members seem to agree. Syrian analysts, including Ahmed Aba-Zeid, a well-connected Syrian researcher who supports the non-jihadist opposition, told IRIN that Turkey now dominates one wing of the group.

     

    Al-Golani is also under pressure from jihadist hardliners who portray him as a Turkish tool and a sellout.

     

    “Al-Qaeda leaders in Syria tend to see Tahrir al-Sham, and Abu Mohammed al-Golani in particular, as unprincipled and treacherous,” Cole Bunzel, a research fellow in Islamic Law and Civilisation at Yale University, told IRIN. Bunzel said hardliners view Tahrir al-Sham as “having disobeyed the al-Qaeda emir [leader] in breaking off from the organisation, and since then persecuting al-Qaeda members in Syria.”

     

    Some of al-Golani’s jihadist critics, many of whom are Jordanians and Palestinians, have gathered in a pro-al-Qaeda splinter faction known as Hurras al-Deen. The group is small, but its religious criticism stings and adds to al-Golani’s challenges. He must now simultaneously fend off further defections to Hurras al-Deen and prevent his other flank from being peeled off by Turkey, whose “good cop” attitude is backed up by the threat of a regime offensive.

     

    A Tahrir al-Sham official again rejected calls for the group’s dissolution on 28 August, but added that it seeks “a salutary solution in the liberated north that spares our people the expected aggression.” Behind the scenes, the group appears to be negotiating with Turkey, while Turkey negotiates with Russia.

     

    In Aba-Zeid’s view, how Tahrir al-Sham evolves in the future will depend on Ankara and Moscow.

     

    “If Turkey reaches an understanding with Russia to let Turkey handle the jihadist file in Idlib, one can expect to see Tahrir al-Sham split” between members who join the Turkey-backed block and hardliners who draw closer to Hurras al-Deen, he said.

     

    Minor factions and Chinese jihadists

     

    Complicating the picture in Idlib are several second-tier rebel factions.

     

    On the jihadist side, Hurras al-Deen is accompanied by a number of small foreign-led factions close to Tahrir al-Sham, including the Chechens of Junoud al-Sham. The so-called Islamic State also operates clandestine cells in the area, hunted by both the NLF and Tahrir al-Sham.

     

    Jaish al-Ezzah, a Free Syrian Army-flagged faction based near Hama, has not joined the Turkish-backed NLF like many of its former comrades. Some see the group as a covert Tahrir al-Sham ally, while others say their base is simply too far from Turkey for joining the alliance to make sense, so they are surviving by ducking out of intra-rebel rivalries.

     

    In the western part of the enclave, Jisr al-Shughour has emerged as a stronghold of the Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP, a group of Uyghur Chinese jihadists. The TIP’s presence in this strategic area (it’s near the border with Turkey and government-controlled Latakia) plus its links with both Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey could give this group a pivotal role in any upcoming battle.

     

    TIP has worked closely with Syria’s jihadist factions in the past, but also seems well acquainted with Turkish intelligence. After staying out of intra-rebel clashes for years, the group shed its neutrality policy this spring to help Tahrir al-Sham beat back a surprise attack by Turkey-backed Islamists.

     

    Aba-Zeid, who follows intra-rebel conflicts in Idlib closely, said TIP helped swing that battle in al-Golani’s favour. But, he still believes that “Turkey’s influence on TIP remains greater than the influence of their alliance” with Tahrir al-Sham.

     

    If all of this sounds complicated, it is. But to the Syrian government, Idlib’s rebels are all terrorists pure and simple – and the Idlib fighters themselves also see al-Assad as their primary enemy, transcending factional divides. Aba-Zeid insisted that if Russia green-lights a Syrian government offensive on Idlib, no matter how the various groups view Turkey or each other, they would all “prioritise repelling the attack”.

     

    Mustafa Sejari, a leader in the Ankara-backed Moutassem Brigade, agreed. “This is the last fortress of the Syrian opposition and preserving it is everyone’s obligation,” he said.

     

     

     

    If refugee movements or an attempt to pressure Tahrir al-Sham leads Turkey to ban trade and humanitarian assistance through Bab al-Hawa, the effects on the civilians in Idlib – including access to healthcare, food, and safe water – could be swift and severe.

     

    “If border crossings with Turkey are to shut down, hundreds of thousands of people will be affected,” warned the ICRC’s Krzysiek.

     

    Can Russia broker a deal?

     

    The Syrian army has spent the past weeks moving troops to the Idlib region, including some former rebels from the south who have now joined up with al-Assad’s forces. Russian ships have reportedly deployed off the coast.

     

    The Syrian government appears to want to launch a major offensive, with Defense Minister Ali Abdullah al-Ayyoub saying on 26 August that “Idlib will return to the nation’s bosom and all of Syria’s soil will be cleansed of terrorism, either through reconciliations or through field operations.”

     

    “Reconciliation” is the government’s term for when opposition factions capitulate in return for amnesty, as seen recently in the southern Deraa region. Rebels who refused were sent to Idlib, where they now face the same dilemma again – but this time with no clear escape route.

     

    Housing thousands of rebel rejectionists from other parts of Syria, Idlib will prove hard to crack. The rebels are talking tough, too: Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani and the rival Turkish-backed Islamist commander Jaber Ali Pasha have both spoken about preparations for a massive battle and warned that anyone trying to negotiate a Deraa-style deal with the government will be arrested.

     

    As sabre-rattling continues on both sides, what happens next is largely up to Russia and Turkey, whose support is indispensable for al-Assad and the rebels, respectively.

     

    High-level meetings took place in Ankara on 13-14 August and again in Moscow on 24 August. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visited Ankara on 29 August, his Syrian counterpart travelled to Moscow the following day, and Zarif arrived in Damascus on 3 September-. A Russia-Iran-Turkey summit is scheduled in Tehran for 7 September.

     

    Turkey wants to stop al-Assad from attacking Idlib; Iran wants the opposite. But Russia’s role is more ambiguous: it wants al-Assad to win, but also to maintain good ties with Erdogan, whose country is a key NATO member.

     

    All this puts Russia in a “curious situation”, according to Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He told IRIN that while Moscow wants to support al-Assad, a new refugee crisis on Turkey’s doorstep would run counter to Russian interests.

    Even if Russia is content with kicking the can down the road, it’s not obvious it would succeed in brokering such a deal.

    “This is why Russia is likely to pursue an agreement with Turkey and the Syrian government,” Khlebnikov said. But what kind of agreement might that be?

     

    What happens now?

    With al-Assad champing at the bit and Turkey insisting that the Astana agreement be respected, there seems to be little common ground.

     

    Moscow may support an attack by al-Assad’s forces to muscle a distracted and less than fully committed Turkey into a fait accompli, allowing al-Assad to seize all or most of the Idlib area in one or more military offensives.

     

    Russia could also bend toward the Turkish position, postponing a reckoning in Idlib and giving Ankara more time to increase its leverage over the insurgents. A Turkish-allied Islamist leader stated on 1 September that, according to his information, Turkey’s “great efforts to spare the liberated area have been crowned with success”, pending a final decision at the 7 September tripartite Tehran summit. But rumours swirl, and this may or may not be true. Indeed, on 3 September, at the start of his visit to Damascus, the Iranian foreign minister warned that “the remaining terrorists in the remaining parts of Idlib must be cleaned out”.

     

    The Russians could also seek to establish a new interim arrangement, as a stopgap measure: a limited offensive that lets al-Assad retake certain key points while Turkey is allowed to dig in and continue to chip away at Tahrir al-Sham’s autonomy.

    For now, civilians can do little more than wait.

    However, even if Russia is content with kicking the can down the road, it’s not obvious it would succeed in brokering such a deal. To get Ankara, Tehran, Damascus, and Syria’s factionalised rebels to respect the same Russian red lines is easier said than done.

     

    “The situation in Idlib is incredibly complicated,” Mustafa Sejari, a rebel official from the Turkish-backed Moutassem Brigade, told IRIN. “The regime cannot decide on its own to move militarily against Idlib, but Russia’s calculus is also linked to Turkey, our strategic ally.” What will happen, he added, will depend on “the extent of the Turkish-Russian understanding.”

     

    For now, civilians can do little more than wait. Bourhan, the journalist, said he’s “very afraid and nervous.”

     

    With al-Assad knocking at the door of his latest refuge – and that of many other Syrians who opposed the government – Bourhan has started to look for a new escape route.

     

    “I’m tired of this, I’m really tired,” he said. “I want to live in a normal situation, in a normal place, with normal people. Everybody is tired of this war.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman carries a child as she sits in front of a tent at a camp for those displaced from the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib on 2 September 2018. CREDIT: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

    al/as/ag

    Millions at risk from looming army offensive; last-gasp Russia-Turkey talks to determine what happens next
    Idlib briefing: “Humanitarian catastrophe” feared as Syria war reaches final rebel stronghold
  • Dispossession or development? The tug of war over Syria’s ruined slum dwellings

    With about a third of Syria’s housing and half its medical facilities damaged or destroyed, rebuilding is sorely needed. But major international donors refuse to fund reconstruction as long as President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. After losing 80 percent of its GDP between 2010 and 2016, the Syrian government now hopes to attract outside investment.

    A new law, introduced in April but not yet put into effect, has become the subject of fierce controversy as it would allow the government to expropriate and redevelop areas it deems fit.

    The opposition and international human rights groups warn it is a fig leaf for mass confiscation of refugee property, perhaps preventing their eventual return. But to the government, Law 10 is a way to attract private capital by offering up valuable urban real estate. Supporters of the law present it as an apolitical piece of reconstruction legislation that is the innocent target of a disinformation campaign.

    The row took on more urgency this week as al-Assad’s cabinet announced what seem likely to be the first areas set for redevelopment under Law 10: Barzeh, Jobar, Qaboun, and Yarmouk. All are formerly besieged rebel-held areas in Damascus, most of whose residents have been displaced, which adds grist to the mill for those who believe the legislation is targeted at the government’s opponents.

    How Law 10 works

    In theory, it is fairly simple. The Ministry of Local Administration and the Environment – led by Hussein Makhlouf, a relative of the president – will recommend areas that could be expropriated and redeveloped under Law 10. The final choice is left to al-Assad.

    These areas do not necessarily have to have been damaged by the past seven years of fighting. The original purpose of the legislation amended by Law 10 was to redevelop slum housing – more on this below – though it is now most likely to be used in a reconstruction context.

    Once a zone is declared publicly, Syrian citizens who want to receive compensation for property within that zone must make sure their ownership is recorded in the national land registry or file property deeds with the government within 30 days, either in person or through a relative or legal representative.

    A committee will determine the value of property slated for expropriation, and the amount will be translated into new plots of land or financial shares in the new development project. Property owners will have five days to contest the evaluation, and can be provided with rent compensation and alternative housing.

    While all of this seems clear cut, opposition groups say internally displaced Syrians and refugees are unlikely to be able to file the necessary papers, especially in a month’s time.

    Human Rights Watch has termed the law “a major obstacle to returning home for displaced residents”, warning that even if they have the papers, refugees will not realistically be able to file claims from abroad and may be deterred from even trying, for fear of endangering themselves or their relatives.

    Jihad Yazigi, who edits the economic newsletter The Syria Report, told IRIN the law is a warning to refugees and the nations hosting them that unless they agree to al-Assad’s terms the path to return will be blocked. “The regime has started reaping the benefits from this with calls by the German, Greek, and Lebanese governments for the Syrians to repeal the law,” said Yazigi, who added that Law 10 would also entice businessmen in the Gulf to invest in confiscated land. The message is simple, Yazigi said: “push your government to reconcile with us and bring your cash.”

    Many dissidents take this a step further, insisting that al-Assad wants to re-engineer Syria’s religious demography by dispossessing Sunni Muslims, who formed the majority in areas slated for redevelopment and are also the majority of Syria's six million refugees.

    The government rejects such allegations, and its supporters have staunchly defended the new legislation. Law 10 “is not about dispossessing anyone”, al-Assad told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in May, blaming the criticism on “misinterpretation” or an attempt to “create a new narrative about the Syrian government in order to rekindle the fire of public opinion in the West.”

    Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem recently announced the 30-day filing period had been extended to a year. He insisted procedures are “easy and simple” and can be sorted out in 48 hours.

    Despite al-Moallem’s remarks, neither al-Assad nor the Syrian parliament – which is a rubber-stamp body – have actually amended the text of Law 10.

    Opposition activists insist whatever the law ends up saying on paper, there are no impartial institutions or independent courts in Syria, which ensures the process can be bent for political ends.

    mrwt-syty-marota-city-36_1.jpg

    Marota City
    A publicity image shows construction at Marota City

     

    Illegal housing

     

    Even if the time limit is extended, many Syrians in areas targeted by Law 10 will not be able to file their land deeds. The reason is simple: they don’t have any such documents.

     

    Millions of Syrians have lived in unregistered homes all their lives, in a legal grey zone born out of traditional informality, chaotic urbanisation, and dysfunctional governance. This is particularly the case in the Syrian countryside and in slums created through poverty-driven rural migration to the cities. These areas are what the government terms manateq al-mukhalafat al-jemaiyya, “areas of collective transgression”; more widely known as ashwaiyat, or “informals”.

     

    The legal status of the dwellings that make up the ashwaiyat is not clear cut. Some are indisputably illegal, squatting on land owned by others, like many of the neighbourhoods that cling to the slopes of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus from the north.

     

    But other ashwaiyat were built on legally purchased land, though the builders failed to abide by unenforced zoning regulations that designate an area as agricultural or industrial land. Such semi-legal suburbs make up most of the urban sprawl that has consumed the farmland of the Ghouta region around Damascus, in places like Darayya, Qaboun, or Jobar – areas now slated for redevelopment.

     

    Historically, illegal building was “the social response to the increase in demand and lack of supply in housing,” explained Marwa al-Sabouni, a Syrian architect and author of The Battle for Home, a memoir that speaks to the relationship between conflict and urban planning.

     

    Ideology and favouritism also played a part, as the ruling Baath Party promoted rural interests through the 1960s and 1970s. “Masses from the countryside were granted the socialist ’right’ to build over the land of ex-feudals, which is the cheaper solution than in-housing all of them and solving the land problems,” al-Sabouni told IRIN.

     

    Although the Baaths’ agrarian socialism had mutated into crony capitalism by the 1990s, the state remained unwilling to roll back illegal housing, largely due to bureaucratic inertia and a fear of social unrest. Authorities chose the path of least resistance, connecting informal areas to basic public services while turning a blind eye to the problem of ownership. By 2004, nearly all ashwaiyat in Damascus had running water, rubbish-collection, and paved roads, though many were still visibly poor, with irregular building styles, narrow streets, tangled electric wiring, and overcrowded schools.

     

    After a drought in 2006 sent hundreds of thousands of rural Syrians fleeing to the cities, economists began to warn that the housing issue was a “time bomb”. But the government did little to address the problem. 

    By the end of al-Assad’s first decade in power, an estimated 40 percent of Syria’s housing stock was in informal areas, which could mean that as many as eight or 10 million people lived in illegal or undocumented homes.

     

    The past seven years have only made the problem worse. As soon as state control weakened in 2011, there was an immediate surge in illegal building. Cement sales more than doubled in the month following the start of the uprising.

     

    Since then, Syria has seen massive civilian displacement, destruction of housing, and loss of documentation, particularly in poor, Sunni ashwaiyat areas that sided with the opposition and were shelled and bombed during the war.

     

    The four areas now considered for redevelopment under Law 10 are illustrative examples, all laid in ruins as the government recaptured them from insurgents.

     

    Barzeh and Qaboun were retaken in early 2017, while Jobar was captured by loyalist forces in March 2018, during the battle for the Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave.

     

    Yarmouk was historically a refugee camp run by UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, but had melted into a cluster of informal neighbourhoods in southern Damascus. After years of siege, shelling, and fighting, it was retaken in April. Formerly home to 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmouk is now mostly rubble.

     

    “The scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl on a 3 July visit to Damascus.

     

    The paperwork problem, multiplied by war

     

    With large areas outside of state control and half the Syrian population driven from their homes, gaps in property documentation are now even more widespread than they were before the war.

     

    “Houses and land have been changing hands throughout the conflict,” Rachel Sider, policy and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN.

     

    “Transactions are not always formally recorded, documents including property deeds have been lost or destroyed, and disputes over ownership are common. Many Syrians are excluded from even claiming their housing, land, and property rights in the first place because they lack the proper identity documents.”

     

    The problem is particularly acute for women, since poor and conservative families would often deal with authorities exclusively through the male head of the family. It has left women without any obvious way to claim their property if their father or husband has disappeared in jail or died.

     

    In a Norwegian Refugee Council survey of Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2016, the organisation found that only about a fifth owned property documents. Some never had written deeds to begin with, while others were forced to flee their homes too quickly to bring them, lost documents to fire, rain, or family separation, or had them confiscated at checkpoints.

     

    In cases where refugees did have paperwork, it was often “incomplete, inaccurate, not-recorded or improperly recorded, and of uncertain legal standing”.

     

    Decree 66: the test run

     

    In trying to divine the effects of Law 10, both detractors and supporters look to Decree 66 of 2012, an area-specific forerunner that was used to redevelop two areas in Damascus. (Law 10 is a detailed amendment to Decree 66, extending it nationally.)

     

    Though Decree 66, in an article that remains in effect under Law 10, notes that provincial authorities may choose to give “surplus” housing to inhabitants without legal claims, it also specifies that “offenders” who are found to have built illegally on public or private land have no rights beyond “collecting the rubble of their buildings”.

     

    In many ashwaiyat slated for development under Law 10, that could apply to most inhabitants, or even all of them.

     

    The best-known result of Decree 66 is Marota City, Syria’s largest investment project. Although major construction has yet to start, the project aims to build high-rise housing units for some 25,000 people, plus offices and malls, in the Basatin al-Razi area of western Damascus. The president himself visited the site in 2016 to inaugurate the project.

     

    Although Damascus Governor Bishr al-Sabban is formally responsible for Marota City, the leading players in this Central Bank of Syria-funded investment scheme are believed to be regime-linked financiers who have set up joint ventures with al-Sabban’s provincial authorities.

     

    They include the president’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who hails from the same family as the minister of local administration and is known to sponsor loyalist militias, and a wealthy Kuwait-based Syrian investor named Mazen Tarazi.

     

    Chief among Marota City’s future landlords is the mysterious Syrian-Turkish-Lebanese businessman Samer Foz, who emerged out of relative obscurity in 2016-2017 to suddenly gobble up enormous commercial holdings in Syria. Foz is widely assumed to be fronting for more senior political figures, with rumours centring on al-Assad’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Dhu al-Himma Shalish, or even the president himself.

     

    Marota City’s ownership structures are opaque, and the same goes for the results of the expropriation process.

     

    Syrian authorities present the Decree 66 redevelopment projects as an unmitigated success story, but even pro-government media has noted the absence of alternative housing for people evicted from Basatin al-Razi. Former residents were recently told they may get new apartments in the coming three years.

     

    In other words, if the Decree 66 pilot project is anything to go by, the implementation of Law 10 will likely be sluggish, under-resourced, socially abrasive, tailored to the interests of ruling elites, and politically controversial. But it was always hard to imagine that a wartime campaign to raze slums for new construction could be anything else.

     

    War by regulation?

     

    In theory, something like Law 10 was long overdue. If reconstruction is ever to begin, the state must find a way to smash through Syria’s legal thicket of undefined property rights – a legacy of economic mismanagement that long predates the war.

     

    To the government, the law’s primary function is to cut the Gordian knot of planning and property claims in the ashwaiyat, allowing authorities to move forward with construction in “a mixture of destroyed and illegal suburbs”. The urgency is hard to overstate, since Syria must quickly produce massive amounts of cheap urban housing for its millions of homeless and displaced citizens.

     

    But if, in practice, it is mainly former rebel-held ashwaiyat that will be redeveloped – which makes sense on its own terms, given the destruction there – Law 10 could end up having a devastatingly disproportionate political and social impact, depending on how land right issues are handled. All the more so, if the bulldozers are used to pave the way for upscale apartments and malls instead of low-cost housing.

     

    As the Syrian state moves to rebuild its cities, al-Assad’s government can decide to show leniency toward displaced civilians from the slums that rose up against him in 2011, or it can decide to wield the law as a weapon against them. For many hundreds of thousands of Syrians, their future hangs in this balance.

    (TOP PHOTO: A publicity shot shows new buildings at Marota City. CREDIT: Maroty City)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

    al/as/ag

    The government has chosen formerly besieged rebel areas as the first for reconstruction
    Dispossession or development? The tug of war over Syria’s ruined slum dwellings
  • As Syria looks to rebuild, US and allies hope money can win where guns lost

    President Bashar al-Assad is winning Syria’s seven-year war on the battlefield, but his American, European, and Arab opponents are ramping up the pressure on the economic front. Their plan to block aid and investment that could help the regime’s plans for reconstruction will frustrate al-Assad’s regime and his allies, but analysts say it’s also likely to prevent many civilians from rebuilding their lives.

     

    After seven years of war, much of Syria is broken and economically exhausted.

     

    More than six million people are displaced from their homes and about as many have fled abroad. Getting decimated cities like Aleppo or Homs back on their feet, and citizens back to a functioning economy, will require a major infusion of cash.

     

    Since al-Assad allies like Russia, Iran, and China appear unwilling to step in with additional support, and have donated very little to cover humanitarian needs in Syria, a credible international reconstruction programme would likely require funding from the wealthy Western countries that contribute the vast majority of assistance through the UN and World Bank systems.

     

    But American and European policymakers are hoping that money can win where guns failed, and, even as they withdraw support from the insurgency, they have settled on a strategy of boycott and sanctions, placing one major condition on reconstruction aid to areas the government controls: a transition away from al-Assad’s dictatorship.

     

    This transition seems unlikely to materialise, but their commitment to economic pressure remains – and now a bill in the US Congress wants to lock that strategy in place, by blocking funding for reconstruction in areas the regime controls.

     

    A broken country

     

    As of early 2017, the World Bank estimated that the conflict in Syria had destroyed a third of housing, as well as half of all medical and education facilities. It’s only gotten worse since, as US Air Force backing for a Kurdish campaign left much of Raqqa destroyed, without electricity or running water, and government offensives ravaged the Ghouta region near Damascus.

     

    It’s not clear who, if anyone, will provide the resources to rebuild Syria. The fate of formerly rebel-held neighbourhoods in Syria’s third city, Homs, is instructive. With little visible reconstruction or return of the displaced more than four years after being retaken by the army, these vast expanses of burned-out homes and concrete rubble have become visible proof of the economic weakness of al-Assad and his allies.

     

    Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics has revealed that the country lost four fifths of its GDP between 2010 and 2016, and al-Assad recently said the cost of a nationwide reconstruction programme could range between $200 billion and $400 billion, far beyond the means of his government.

     

    Help will not be forthcoming from Washington or its allies, at least not in the parts of the country the Syrian government controls. And while legislation currently before Congress aims to cement this position as law, it has been the general US policy for a while.  

     

    “The United States will not support international reconstruction efforts in Syria until there is a genuine political transition per UN Security Council Resolution 2254 through the Geneva process,” a US State Department official told IRIN earlier this year, referring to the December 2015 resolution that called for a ceasefire and an elections-based  political resolution, which has been the basis for peace talks in Geneva and Sochi.

     

    The official added that Washington will “discourage” international trade, cooperation, and normalisation with Damascus until al-Assad is “gone from power”.

     

    Complementing this strategy, the United States has asked allies to invest in reconstruction efforts in areas under the control of US-friendly non-state actors, like Raqqa, both in order to stabilise them and to reduce their interest in reconnecting with Damascus.

     

    But this element of the plan has been hobbled by US President Donald Trump’s March decision to withhold approximately $200 million in “stabilisation” aid to areas outside al-Assad’s control, demanding instead that America’s Gulf Arab allies provide money and troops to pick up the slack.

     

    This rise in foreign support for Kurdish-controlled and opposition regions has yet to materialise, but the wider strategy of boycotting reconstruction in al-Assad-controlled Syria is already solidly in place. It has been formally endorsed by several key US allies, ensuring that Syria cannot tap into World Bank support or other sources of funding.

     

    Expert scepticism

     

    Backing for the US strategy may be holding firm, but Syria experts contacted by IRIN put little faith in the plan to tie reconstruction to transition, noting that al-Assad has already weathered years of sanctions and war without offering meaningful concessions.

     

    According to Joshua Landis, who heads the Centre for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, Washington’s strategy of blocking reconstruction and keeping troops in oil-rich northeastern Syria aims at creating a “quagmire” for al-Assad’s Iranian and Russian allies.

     

    “The US policy should be gratifying to America’s allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Landis told IRIN. “But it will leave 18 million Syrians in the lurch”, he said, referring to the number of people thought to still reside inside Syria.

     

    Landis said that Washington and its allies are using the “language of human rights” to “disguise a mean policy in noble cloth”.

     

    Samar Batrawi, a Hague-based researcher with the Clingendael Institute think tank, also signalled scepticism about the idea of toppling al-Assad by economic means.

     

    “Strong conditionality and selective distribution of assistance appear to be the only two avenues US and EU policymakers have, apart from doing nothing at all,” she told IRIN in an email, but added, “the notion that assistance can help secure a political transition is in my eyes overly simplistic”.

     

    Though placing conditions on reconstruction aid could build some leverage over the Syrian government, it would be unlikely to determine al-Assad’s fate, given the high stakes on both sides and the deep involvement of regional and international powers.

     

    “I fail to see how strategic distribution of what will likely be a small percentage of the total reconstruction bill [given the massive overall needs] will override these proxy dynamics and interests,” Batrawi said.

     

    The No Assistance for Assad Act

     

    Whatever the linkage between reconstruction and political change, efforts are underway to fix the American-led economic boycott in place.

     

    On 24 April, the No Assistance for Assad Act, NAAA, was approved with bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives.

     

    If it passes the Senate and is signed by the president, it will become law, banning US assistance to all parts of Syria ruled by al-Assad except for basic humanitarian needs of the sort the UN already delivers, such as food or medicine.

     

    A major donor meeting in Brussels last month affirmed its adherence to the policy of dividing emergency aid from reconstruction, pledging some €4.4 billion in humanitarian support for 2018 but also stating that reconstruction aid “will be a peace dividend only once a credible political transition is firmly underway”.

     

    Humanitarian principles require that life-saving assistance should not have political strings attached. However, the Damascus government has a long history of manipulating emergency aid, regularly denying access to convoys into rebel-held areas it has besieged, and steering the UN towards cooperating with charities close to the al-Assad family. Supporters of the NAAA say the regime would likely seek to exploit reconstruction aid in the same way, and that this is all the more reason not to fund reconstruction of government-held areas.

     

    According to Faysal Itani, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who advised on the writing of the NAAA, passing the bill would “make it more difficult for the regime to directly or indirectly profit from US taxpayer money, and kill any World Bank dreams to get board approval and funding to operate in Syria.”

     

    One reason for the bill’s success so far is al-Assad’s alliance with Iran.

     

    “Bear in mind the depth of hatred toward Iran on the Hill,” Itani told IRIN. “Some of the more hawkish members of Congress see themselves as ‘picking up the slack’ left by the Obama team and now, to a lesser extent, the Trump team when it comes to Assad and Iran. Legislation like this is empowering in that sense, makes them feel useful on Iran, and applies pressure on the administration to hang tough.”

     

    As currently written, the NAAA would outlaw any use of US taxpayers’ money for “early recovery, reconstruction, or stabilisation” in any area of Syria governed by al-Assad, including through institutions like the UN, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund.

     

    Small-scale, internationally-funded reconstruction by another name – what the UN calls “stabilisation” and “early-recovery” – is already underway in parts of Syria not controlled by the government, but the NAAA is designed to stop precisely this drift into the grey zone between emergency humanitarian and reconstruction support.

     

    Exceptions could be granted on stringent conditions – including, for example, the holding of free elections, the creation of an independent judiciary, and the firing of senior security chiefs – but such demands are non-starters for al-Assad.

     

    Though the NAAA would formally be based on the policy of linking aid to transition, its more immediate effects would be to lock US tax money out of helping al-Assad-led Syria and to block any tendency within the UN to shift into a reconstruction role.

     

    To the bill’s authors, this is basic common sense: just as Russia would not provide money for the reconstruction of, say, Ukraine, so the United States will not support the rebuilding of a hostile, al-Assad-led, Russian-allied Syria.

     

    “If Bashar al-Assad, the Butcher of Syria, wants to destroy his own country and then expects the United States to pick up the pieces, he is sorely mistaken,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, New York Democrat Eliot Engel, after the NAAA passed the House of Representatives. “That simply won’t happen. He and Russia and Iran broke Syria, and now they have to buy it.”

    Reconstruction debate

     

    There are voices in the United States who favour even tougher measures than the NAAA, which stops short of cutting emergency humanitarian aid like food, water, and shelter already provided by the UN and other aid organisations.

     

    Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, and Mark Ward, who oversaw US assistance to Syria from Turkey between 2012 and 2016, recently penned an op-ed calling on the United States to end humanitarian assistance in government-held areas unless al-Assad stops interfering with UN missions.

     

    “Let’s stop funding UN agencies charged with delivering humanitarian aid inside Syria if the Syrian government continues to block the aid. The UN might complain,” Ford and Ward wrote, “but our taking such a bold step would strengthen their hand with the government in Damascus and its allies.”

     

    However, critics argue that the US strategy – even if it is ostensibly targeted at reconstruction in areas al-Assad controls – knowingly harms civilian welfare simply to make a political point.

     

    Not only does Washington plan to withhold its own money from a post-conflict phase, but it is also pressuring other nations to undercut Syria’s economic recovery through sanctions, aid boycotts, and border closures.

     

    The Middle East Institute’s Geoffrey Aronson recently accused the US government of running a “mean-spirited policy” that seeks to punish the Syrian people for the US failure to topple al-Assad.

     

    In Damascus, some think the trajectory of events on the ground means it won't be long before support for this US policy fades.

     

    “All these pronouncements that the pro-opposition countries will refuse to deal with Syria as long as President Assad remains in office are meaningless,” said Ibrahim Ibrahim, a consultant with the Syrian Law Journal, which markets legal services to would-be reconstruction investors.

     

    “Once the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have extended their control to all Syrian territory, the countries that opposed Syria will start to shift their stances,” Ibrahim said. “History has proven this to be the case.”

     

    Stuck in a broken state

     

    However, history has a habit of taking its time, and until and unless something changes, all sides seem to be trapped in an emerging stalemate.

     

    Washington and its allies will likely find it impossible to trigger a transition using only economic means. Measures like the NAAA, their deep anger against al-Assad, and the perceived need to set an example for future offenders will nevertheless ensure that many states – if not necessarily all – will continue a boycott-and-sanction policy for years to come, cementing Syria’s status as a barren market littered with political and legal risk.

     

    In such a scenario, given the meagre support provided by its allies, the Syrian government is unlikely to be able to launch large-scale reconstruction projects. It could even find itself unable to ensure the basic economic integrity of the post-war order, with harmful effects on civilian welfare and – which is of course the point of the American-European strategy – on the government’s internal functioning.

     

    To scrape together funds, Damascus could be forced to continue its fire sale of land and energy concessions to politically-connected profiteers and foreign allies. Although such measures may loosen the state’s grip on Syrian society and the economy, they would be a stop-gap to sustain al-Assad’s authoritarian rule rather than a prelude to real reform or transition.

    (TOP PHOTO: Conflict in Moadamiyeh, rural Damascus, left vast destruction in its wake. Ali Yousef/ICRC)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

    Critics say tying reconstruction aid to political change won’t work and will hurt civilians
    As Syria looks to rebuild, US and allies hope money can win where guns lost
  • Trapped between rebels and air raids, civilians in Eastern Ghouta face chaos

    East of Damascus, a long and brutal battle is coming to an end. After seven years, the rebel enclave in Eastern Ghouta is close to being fully recaptured by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fallout for civilians is already painful and chaotic, and the future uncertain.

     

    By the end of March, only Douma, Ghouta’s largest city, remained under the control of fighters from the powerful Islam Army faction. Rebels there have been accused of preventing civilians from exiting, and one UN estimate says up to 70,000 people may be trapped inside the city.

     

    Two of the area’s three rebel pockets have already been cleared by the government, using a combination of raw military force and negotiations.

     

    More than 30,000 inhabitants, most of them rebel fighters and their families, have been put on buses for rebel-held northern Syria as part of hastily arranged, Russian-brokered capitulation deals. Thousands of civilians are also thought to have opted to stay behind in recaptured neighbourhoods, while around 100,000 people – though estimates vary – have fled to surrounding areas and the greater Damascus region.

     

    The rapid displacement has overwhelmed the international humanitarian response. According to Rachel Sider, an Amman-based advisor with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which works in the Ghouta region, this response was originally planned to handle less than a tenth of the current number of fleeing civilians.

     

    Mass displacement

     

    Military operations in Eastern Ghouta started with a wave of often indiscriminate aerial bombardment in February. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock recently said more than 1,700 deaths had been reported since late February, and an opposition tally seen by IRIN placed the number even higher, above 2,000.

     

    As rebel control crumbled, Ghouta’s inhabitants began pouring out of the area in search of safety, food, medical care, and shelter. Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have escorted civilians across the no man’s land, waving white flags in an attempt to ward off sniper fire. Aid workers on the ground report that many who arrive at the shelters are in poor physical condition. The enclave has been under siege for years, with little food and almost no medicine allowed in by government forces. The blockade on food was further tightened last year.

     

    “We are seeing many medical cases and undernourished people,” IRIN was told by Sider. “People are extremely vulnerable.”

     

    Civilians have been forced to find their way out of the war zone on foot, with Syrian state media reporting the arrival of more than 1,000 people from Douma on Thursday.

     

    “People are very exhausted, as they spent days on the move before reaching the shelters, with the clothes they wear as sole belongings,” said Ingy Sedky, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “One woman was telling me that she had to throw on the road the few clothes she managed to bring for her and her children, as it became too heavy to carry them while walking for many hours before reaching the crossing point.”

    Shelters overwhelmed

     

    At least 10 shelters have been established in recent weeks. Civilians are housed in schools or other large buildings commandeered for the purpose, but conditions vary from shelter to shelter. Many are forced to sleep outside due to overcrowding, and the rapid influx of people has made it difficult to manage the sites effectively. Sider recounts how, in one case, a 1,000-person group of displaced civilians assisted by NRC swelled to 7,000 in one day and to 12,000 the next.

     

    In the chaos, family members may end up in different shelters with children separated from their families. UNICEF is distributing plastic bracelets that parents can write names and contact numbers on to help trace missing children.

     

    Aid groups are also providing mattresses, blankets, tents, medical care, and other necessities, as well as food. ICRC has assisted the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in providing bread packs for 15,000 people per day, and is also supporting collective kitchens to feed additional tens of thousands at the shelters.

     

    In Adra, bread queues recently stretched so long that a UNICEF official reported that it took her 20 minutes to walk from start to finish.

     

    “The main challenge for us is that thousands of newcomers keep coming and require assistance every day, new sites keep opening to host families and they are not equipped at all,” explained Sedky. “This makes it very difficult for humanitarians to make a proper planning to cover the needs.”

     

    In late March, however, there were some signs of relief. The shelters now hold 47,000 people, which is down from a peak of more than 75,000 a few weeks ago. Earlier arrivals are trickling away toward Damascus, where many have relatives, and some have reportedly turned back to their homes inside formerly rebel-held areas.

     

    Government treatment of the displaced

     

    While women, children, and the elderly appear to be allowed to move out of the shelters, sources say boys and men between 16 and 50 years of age must first go through a screening process known as taswiyat al-awdaa, “settling of status”. This is the government’s term for a quid pro quo process that involves being amnestied for political crimes (defined by the government as both armed violence and peaceful expressions of dissent), in return for registering with authorities and forswearing any involvement in the opposition.

     

    After the retaking of the rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo in late 2016, many men were reportedly subjected to military conscription, which is mandatory in Syria. There were also some reports of politically motivated arrests and hostage-taking of civilians related to rebel commanders.

     

    Sider noted in an email to IRIN that many civilians in the shelters seem to feel “fear and uncertainty of the future”.

     

    Information is very scarce, not least because there is no independent media access to the displaced. So far, there have been no credible reports of mass arrests, killings, or other major abuses at the shelters. However, there are anecdotal reports of sporadic ill-treatment and humiliation of displaced civilians.

     

    In a video clip that spread widely online last week, Syrian parliamentarian Mohammed Qaband was seen screaming at arriving civilians that they must praise Bashar al-Assad if they wanted water, which he was handing out near a frontline crossing. Aid workers have also witnessed troops verbally abuse fleeing civilians, and pro-government fighters have helped themselves to supplies intended for the displaced.

     

    The situation inside former rebel areas, where thousands or even tens of thousands are thought to remain, is even harder to ascertain. Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Heidar has said people displaced should return to their homes “as soon as possible”. But given the extensive destruction and the fact that areas like Harasta were looted by loyalist militias after rebels left, it is unlikely that Eastern Ghouta will be able to reabsorb all who fled – never mind the tens of thousands of previously displaced, long since scattered across Damascus and other parts of Syria.

     

    Opposition sources claim that a pro-Assad militia led by Sheikh Bassam Difdaa has arrested and arbitrarily executed people in the recently retaken Kafr Batna and Saqba areas. IRIN was unable to confirm these allegations.

     

    Civilians trapped in Douma

     

    Douma has remained in the hands of the Islam Army even as other areas have fallen to the government. In the past weeks, government troops have been camped on its outskirts, with a military source warning in the pro-Assad daily al-Watan that unless Islam Army members and their families surrender and leave the city, they will face “a huge military operation”.

     

    “We’re living through very high psychological pressure,” pro-opposition journalist Youssef al-Boustani told IRIN in an online message from inside Douma.

     

    Opposition sources in Douma said on the 27th of March that 130,000–150,000 civilians are currently in Douma, twice the 29th March estimate of 70,000 people given by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

     

    Aid and UN officials have noted that all population estimates for the area are extremely uncertain. However, using the UN’s own rough tallies, the combined number who either left for Idlib, fled to the Damascus area and the shelters, stayed in Ghouta, or are still in Douma, may add up to approximately 200,000 people. UN estimates of some 392,000 inhabitants in the wider Ghouta enclave before the offensive appear exaggerated, confirming a pattern previously seen in eastern Aleppo and other besieged areas.

     

    Civilians have reportedly been banned from leaving Douma by the Islam Army, and some appear desperate to get out. Though some inhabitants have in fact been let out of the city, especially in recent days and as part of agreed-upon prisoner swaps and medical evacuations, boys and men of fighting age appear to have been banned from exiting, which effectively traps their families, too.

     

    “We have heard reports from people inside Douma that they are being prevented from leaving by non-state armed groups and that there is fear of getting shot at while trying to leave,” said Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in an email to IRIN earlier this month. “Others didn’t feel safe leaving due to the heavy fighting, including aerial bombardment,” she added.

     

    Islam Army leaders reject the accusations. “As for what some people say about us banning civilians from leaving, this is completely false,” senior Islam Army leader Said Darwish told IRIN in mid-March, insisting that Ghouta’s civilians were voluntarily “standing firm with their people and their holy warriors on their land.”

     

    According to Darwish and other sources in Douma, the group has told Russian negotiators they are willing to discuss an agreement that would let the Islam Army stay in the area, though it is unclear how such an arrangement would work. Salafi preacher Osama Hawwa said any deal must guarantee the civilian population’s right to remain in Douma and “also find an acceptable form for individuals in the Islam Army faction to stay”.

     

    Mohammed Bayraqdar, a senior Islam Army leader contacted late March, said: “The Russians are making one single offer and that is for the fighters to leave. The Islam Army has rejected this offer and demanded the evacuation of those civilians who want to leave for a place of their choice, but the Russians refused. Until now, the Islam Army leadership remains decided to stay and resist.”

     

    The Syrian and Russian governments could not be reached for comment, but on Friday afternoon the Russian government reported that the rebels had agreed to leave Douma. An Islam Army spokesperson swiftly denied this.

    (TOP PHOTO: A Syrian child looks on in a destroyed building following air strikes on 25 March 2018, in Douma, in Eastern Ghouta. CREDIT: Hamza al-Ajweh/AFP)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    As the Syrian rebel enclave collapses, aid groups struggle to help those fleeing
    Trapped between rebels and air raids, civilians in Eastern Ghouta face chaos

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