Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team
Despite the Syrian regime’s control of Aleppo neighborhoods at the end of 2016, the most pessimistic pro-Syrian revolution did not expect its significant relapse by the end of 2017.
There was a loss of land and a loss of opportunities to control the areas relinquished by the withdrawing ISIS, to the conflicting parties. In addition, opportunities were lost through adapting policies in conferences that have gone into insignificant details and ignored the main issues, and through conflicting factions at a time the influential countries have started interfering overtly in the control of its agents.
On the ground … al-Assad is the biggest winner
The influence map in Syria has witnessed major changes in 2017, most of which were in favor of the Syrian regime and the Kurdish forces while the opposition factions areas were clearly shrinking.
The ISIS withdraws eastwards
The eastern region of Syria was the most eye-catching area in the general Syrian scene. The control of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) over the city of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, was the most prominent military event which was followed by operations in Deir ez-Zor governorate and its control by the regime and the Kurdish forces.
A series of ISIS withdrawals also resulted in the Kurdish forces control of large areas of the eastern region of Syria starting from the city of Raqqa, which fell under their control in no more than six months.
The Kurdish Forces reached the province of Deir ez-Zor thanks to a military plan which was internationally prepared by the Washington-led coalition. They took control of the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, to compete with the al- Assad forces that went into battles against the ISIS through Hama, Homs, and Aleppo countryside and the Syrian desert and expelled the ISIS from the entire Euphrates West Bank.
Thus, the ISIS’s control over some of the enclaves in the western Abu Kamal countryside and some small areas on the Syrian-Iraqi border has receded.
It is likely that the total collapse of the ISIS in Syria will be announced in February 2018, according to the military analyst Colonel Hatem al-Rawi who expected that a Russian-Iranian competition may come to the fore after the announcement.
Al-Rawi told Enab Baladi that the map of the eastern region has become clear. The right bank of the Euphrates River is going to settle under American control through SDF. This is reinforced by the fact that the Kurdish forces have not resorted to violence with the war-weary people of the region who have sought peace even temporarily.
On the left bank, however, al-Rawi considered that the Popular Mobilization of Iraq was unable to enter Syria, which is a big blow against Iran and the Syrian regime. He pointed out that migration affects most of the western countryside of Deir ez-Zor, which caused instability in areas controlled by the Assad forces.
The “de-escalation” agreement adopted by Russia and Turkey in early May 2017 cannot be ignored, too, as it resulted in directing military operations against the ISIS, and temporarily freezing the rest of the fronts.
Negotiations delineate the borders of Idlib
Idlib and the surrounding areas to the northern and eastern Hama countryside witnessed a series of changes during the year 2017, because of the continued state of instability after being controlled by Tahrir al-Sham militarily, economically and at the level of services, following clashes against Ahrar al- Sham Islamic movement.
The control map hasn’t changed in the first months of 2017, as the Assad forces shifted their military weight to fight against the ISIS. The northern and eastern Hama countryside Front witnessed attack and retreat operations which were launched by the factions through small-scale battles and taking control of some sites for few hours then retreating.
However, these circumstances changed after the signing of the “Astana 7” agreement in October, which drew the boundaries of factions’ control, and the division of Idlib into three parts currently being implemented through operations of the Assad forces backed by Iran and Russia.
The recent Russian statements indicate that the year 2018 will be devoted to the war on “Fatah al-Sham” and that there will be transformations that may be accepted by the region, amid fear of exceeding the limits set in “Astana 7,” which dictates the withdrawal of factions from areas east of the railway and Abu Dahour military airport.
The Assad forces have begun fighting on more than one axis, north and east Hama and south of Aleppo, seeking to penetrate deep into the province after the introduction of large military reinforcements which ended the fights in the province of Deir ez-Zor.
According to Colonel al-Rawi, Iran and the al-Assad regime are working to undermine and neutralize the Turkish role in the province of Idlib, as Turkey is the only body capable of dismantling the complex situation between the “Tahrir al Sham” and the “Free Army” in Idlib.
As for Russia, stability has become necessary in order to speed up the investment of its privileges.
Al-Rawi does not see the decline of the opposition in the province. He says that “at best I do not think that the Assad forces have a chance of achieving significant progress.”
He explained that these developments coincide with the silence of the US, which may turn the table and neither Russia nor Iran are able to rebel or disobey.”
In reference to the “easing of tension ” in Idlib, which is supposed to be implemented in 2018, the agreement divided the province into three geographical areas, one is run by Russia while Turkey controls the second which is near its borders, and the third is demilitarized, as was confirmed to Enab Baladi by sources in the leadership of the “Free Army”.
According to the sources, the area east of the railway line, on the Aleppo-Damascus line, will be demilitarized and gun-free with no control of Russia protected factions. It will instead be run by local councils, while the second zone extends between the railway and the highway, and the third will be subject to Turkish influence.
Caution alerts of new battles in the south
The Syrian south has undergone no “significant” development in Daraa and Quneitra governorates, except for an international-backed “easing of tension” agreement, which led to a cessation of clashes between the opposition factions and the al-Assad forces, as well as progress made by the military factions in Daraa. It controlled the “strategic” al-Manshia neighborhood after battles that lasted for months and that were announced by Al-Bonyan Al-Marsous operations room.
While the fronts in the western countryside of Daraa collapsed in favor of the “Khalid ibn al-Walid Army,” accused of allegiance to the ISIS, which controlled the areas of Tasil, Saham al-Jawlan, Jalin, Muzayra, Adwan, Tal al-Jomoua, Tel Ashtra.
The last months of 2017 have witnessed many conflicts. Al- Assad forces and their supporting militias entirely took control of the area of Beit Jinn in the south-western Damascus countryside under an agreement with the military factions that guaranteed their departure to the Syrian north and the city of Daraa.
The agreement came after battles initiated by al- Assad forces on the region with Iranian participation similar to the scenario followed in other areas west of Damascus, such as khan al-Shih, Zakiya, Knaker, Barada valley, Al- Zabadani, and Madaya.
It seems that the battles of the Beit Jinn farm are the beginning of a series of conflicts that al-Assad forces are seeking to implement by controlling the influence of the factions south of Damascus, and opening the Triangle of Death fronts again and moving deep into the opposition areas in the western countryside of Daraa.
The crowd and reinforcements brought by al-Assad forces to various areas of Daraa countryside confirm that the south is facing a new military phase, which is similar to the circumstances of 2015, which witnessed the largest military record in the region since the beginning of 2011.
According to military analyst Colonel Abdullah al-Assaad, Iran is seeking to be more influential than Russia in the south, despite its already controlled military base in the Muthbain village near the city of Al-Sanamayn, and the sensor networks in Jordan.
Al-Assaad explained to Enab Baladi that Iran does not aim to reach the Israeli border with the Golan as it seeks to reach the border with Jordan and is currently focusing on As-Suwayda eastern countryside which it has recently controlled.
Unclaimed new Ghouta map
The most prominent military event in the eastern Ghouta of Damascus was the control of the al-Assad forces over the Barza and al-Qaboun neighborhoods, thus cutting off all supply routes and tunnels, which were the main food and military outlet of the opposition control areas east of Damascus.
The first months of 2017 witnessed attack and retreat battles between Jaysh al-Islam faction and the Syrian regime from the eastern side of the Ghouta. The situation remained unchanged, except for a slight advance of al-Assad forces, followed by an utter cessation of confrontations.
After March, Damascus Jubar neighborhood came to the scene after the operation that the opposition factions launched (Al-Rahman Legion (Failaq al-Rahman), Tahrir al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham), under the slogan of “O slaves of Allah, be firm.” The operation reached through to the Aabaseen square and took control of the surrounding areas to the Panorama complex on the highway which leads to the center of the capital Damascus.
These battles were considered as decisive. Less than a month after they ended and the factions withdrew from the new sites, al-Assad forces began an opposite operation to take control of the Jubar neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods, to separate them from the rest of the cities of Ghouta. However, they failed to advance because of tunnels and booby-trapped buildings.
The opposition hit another location when it took control over vehicles management spots in the city of Harasta, through a battle launched by Ahrar al-Sham, in November. The opposition made use of this battle to claim military advances, starting from Harasta and reaching Arbain city.
Al-Ghouta is waiting for a new military and interior map through the agreements, which opposition factions are secretly making with the Russian side and the Syrian regime and which resulted into the exit of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to northern Syria.
According to Enab Baladi’s obtained information, Failaq al-Rahman is negotiating the opening of a road between Harasta and its held areas in Ghouta and de-escalation in Jubar and the Middle Sector, as well as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s exit from the region.
Jaysh al-Islam is also negotiating securing aid and opening a road to Duma, in addition to the commitment to de-escalation and confronting Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Ghouta.
On the table… Russia is a Godmother and the opposition is undergoing an adaptation process”
Twelve months of long negotiations have not achieved a consensus shift between the opposition and the regime, along with the influential countries in the conflict, while Russia imposed itself as the Godmother of the political solution, amid the repetition of the same scene in the eight versions of the Geneva negotiations and Astana talks.
The ninth version of the Geneva negotiations, which will be held on January 21, will mark the beginning of 2018. Analysts believe critical. It will be then followed by the Sochi Conference, which will be held on 29 and 30 January, amid Russian attempts to resurrect al-Assad regime, while the opposition insists on pursuing the solution according to the statement of “Geneva 1” and Security Council resolution N2254.
At a time when al-Assad’s fate is still a conflicting matter heads are turning towards the Russian city, which overlooks the Middle East and Europe from the black Sea, and which has hosted official meetings and international conferences, most recently a tripartite meeting of the presidents of Ankara, Moscow, and Iran in November 2017.
The Fourth edition of Geneva negotiations has been limited to a four-file discussion identified by the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. It was expected negotiations will progress within six months; however, they generally remained just words on paper until the end of the year.
While the first file discusses issues related to the establishment of a non-sectarian and inclusive rule, the second discusses issues related to setting a schedule for drafting a new constitution, the third discusses all matters related to the holding of “free and fair” elections after formulating a constitution and the fourth examines strategic solutions for counterterrorism and confidence-building measures.
The opposition is accused and sticking to Geneva
The latest statement made by Nasr Hariri, the head of the delegation of the Supreme Commission for Negotiations, which included all the platforms of the opposition, during meetings at the Riyadh II Conference in November 2017, has put emphasis on “the usefulness of attending the Geneva negotiations” to expose the regime and its crimes to International society despite the absence of actual results. ”
He also referred to how “catastrophic” Sochi Conference was, considering that achieving political transition “is the only solution to save Syria,” despite the expansion of the Syrian regime military operations on the battlefield and of its sphere of influence and control in the internationally approved de-escalation areas, which reveals that he is still pursuing its policies away from settlement.
The opposition is waiting for explanations about Sochi. In an interview with Enab Baladi Firas al-Khalidi, a member of the Supreme Commission for Negotiations stated ” no one can withdraw the negotiations from Geneva.” He stressed that “it is clear that the negotiations are taking place under United Nations umbrella.”
Al-Khalidi pointed out that “in case the news that have been broadcasted about Sochi were meant to dilute the issue then this is unacceptable.” He added that “if the Russians were able to provide guarantees that the conference will intend to implement the political transition and resolution 2254 under the auspices of the United Nations, not to dilute the issue, then we will deal with it positively.”
Sochi Conference is a Russian game
Russia ignored the negotiations which had been held about Syria and began to promote for the Sochi conference as a key point in the political solution. In mid-December 2017, Reuters quoted an opposition official which it described as “major” saying that the United States and other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey, which had supported the opposition before, have agreed upon Russia’s vision.
Abundance of conferences around Syria
The political file in Syria has witnessed a series of conferences and meetings, starting with the Geneva 1 conference in June 2012, which resulted in various recommendations, foremost of which was the setting of the bullet points of the transition process in Syria.
The second version of the negotiations came in January 2014, followed by the first and second Moscow conferences in 2015, then the first and second Vienna conferences at the end of the same year, to the third edition of Geneva in early 2016.
2017 witnessed the beginning of the first version of Astana talks in January which was sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
The fourth version of Geneva talks was held in February 2017, followed by Geneva 5 in March, followed by negotiations on the sixth version in May, up to the last two versions in July and November.
Astana talks were recurrent, the first of which occurred at the beginning of the year, the second in February and the third, in which the opposition did not participate, was held in March. The opposition withdrew from the fourth version of talks in May.
July 2017 witnessed the fifth edition of Astana, while Astana 6 was held in September, reaching the seventh and eighth editions in November and December.
The opposition official attributed this position to the fact that “the whole world is fed up with what is going on in Syria,” while changes in the positions of some countries have shown that the resurrection of al-Assad is a possible option, although they did not tackle the issue publicly.
“There is more than a question mark about some of the opposition’s concessions or its acceptance of some international requirements,” said Sabra, who was chief negotiator of the opposition delegation to Geneva, to Enab Baladi. He called for the necessity of “distinguishing between the opposition and the revolution.”
According to Sabra’s vision, “the negotiating body says that it is forced to adopt political realism, as a result of changing international attitudes and thus linked its position to the States’ positions.” He pointed out that “in case the countries, which are controlling the body, wanted it to go to Sochi then it will go, regardless of popular rejection, considering that it has set itself to express the demands of States and not the Syrians.”
According to him what the Russians want from Sochi is the first meeting, which he described as “a carnival media show which will be attended by 1500 people to choose an already selected committee which includes 100 to 150 people to write the draft constitution.”
Sabra said that after the meeting, the Russians will tell the United States and the United Nations that they accepted that the formed committee will meet in Geneva during the negotiations, providing that it will examine the second and third files, which are being discussed already, namely the Constitution and the elections. Thus, in this case Astana will be dedicated to the discussion of the fourth file and the issues of confidence-building measures.
Sabra believes that the opposition is heading toward “a dangerous slide which will put an end to t and to the Syrian revolution. He added that ” our friends in the Supreme Negotiating Body are aware of this, and what we have said since the beginning of 2017 is that we must cooperate together to stop it, but they chose to follow the current path.”
“Russia aims at changing the levels and the parties of the conflict in order to drag the regime, which committed crimes in Syria and destroyed its past, present, and future, above the level of that conflict,” said Sabra. He also stated that this was crystal clear through the statements of the head of the delegation, Bashar Jaafari, during Geneva 8 negotiations.”
Jaafari accused the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, of “making mistakes and trespassing his powers as a mediator between the negotiating parties.” when he announced the end of negotiations for the regime the end of the first phase of the eighth version of the Geneva negotiations, then submitted to Russian pressure and attended the second phase.
In Sabra’s opinion, “some in the Supreme Commission are aware of what they put themselves into, but unfortunately they are adapting their positions to what suits the countries which nationalities they are holding.” He pointed out that “de Mistura put it in Geneva and addressed the opposition members as if he was saying ‘you are a member in the opposition holding a nationality. I know the policies of the country which gave you that nationality and it agrees to hold the Sochi conference’.”
At the political level, the opposition member believes Russia to be incapable of achieving a real settlement, for it is besieged by NATO at home, and this goes beyond the sound political logic of being weak at home and strong in Syria,” he said. Sabra added that “Russia cannot invest in its military achievement for a long time at the political level.”
The Russian “game” aimed at spreading the possibility of Farouk al-Sharaa’s presidency of Sochi and, according to Sabra, this serves the establishment of a “popular dialogue conference headed by the ruling authority, and this is not only a confirmation of Bashar al-Assad position as a president, but also to legitimize all his previously committed crimes. ”
According to analysts, international discontent over the Syrian issue manifested in de Mistura statement, in which he told the opposition that the states no longer support you. Sabra pointed out that the UN envoy had put it clearly since March 2017. He said “he was returning from Amman after participating in the Arab foreign ministers’ summit, then he told us that the countries do not want to remove Bashar al-Assad, so you have to be realistic and intelligent. ”
According to Sabra, “no politician or military official who claims to defend the revolution can say that he is forced to provide concessions because states changed their position and stopped their support.” He considered that “this is unacceptable because it reduces the Syrian people’s sacrifice to a mere tool to protect the gun or its political status.”
A member of the former opposition delegation to Geneva hoped that the Commission would consider the Syrian people’s opinion and express their voice.
A year of “fake” economic promises
2017 may be described as a “year of promises” made by the Syrian regime government, headed by Imad Khamis, as a result of the promises made by his ministers to improve the citizens’ situation, increase their salaries, boost production, improve the Syrian lira, and reduce prices.
But the first half of 2017 did not witness any concretization of these promises. The year began with a fuel crisis, in addition to the rationing of electricity, which sometimes reached 18 hours a day. This raised the citizens’ anger and resentment before the countries that supported the regime, on top of them Iran, started exporting fuel to Syria.
This was accompanied by an increase in the prices of basic foodstuffs and vegetables due to weak domestic production, according to the assistant Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection in the Syrian regime, Jamal Shuaib, in May last year, which has financially affected the citizens. In June, Damascus Center for Research and Studies (DCRS), which is close to the regime, estimated that 67% of Syrians live in extreme poverty, while some believe that the percentage is even higher.
However, the last few weeks of the year witnessed a decline in some prices, in light of the stability of the average income of the citizen at 35 thousand Syrian liras, and the contradictory statements by the regime officials about a future increase, linking it to an increase in the state’s production of its resources.
At the level of the Syrian lira, the exchange rate has been stable at 530 liras for months, before starting to decrease during the past two months to 400 liras, which gave hope to the citizens who expected that traders would reduce prices, but to no avail, as it turned out that the decrease in the exchange rate is a speculation between the major traders and the bank.t then re-increased up to 460 liras during the last weeks of the year.
On the other hand, 2017 can also be called the military and political “support bill” for Russia and Iran, as it witnessed the signing of high-value economic contracts in various fields (oil, gas, electricity, wheat, energy, telecommunications, agriculture, industry, livestock …) and became the year in which the two countries started gaining the credits of supporting al-Assad by obtaining economic advantages in Syria and depriving Syrians of such privileges for future decades.
Ghouta out of de-escalation zones
The opposition-controlled areas were divided according to their geographical location. The areas that are close to the borders with neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey experienced economic improvement, especially after the de-escalation agreement.
The southern region witnessed a relative peaceful atmosphere following the Russian-US agreement in early July, which led to the revival of markets in some sectors such as foodstuffs and clothing trade, as well as the thriving of the construction sector, household appliances, and solar power generation sectors as a result of the increase of the Syrian refugees’ return from Jordan to Syria.
While the city of Idlib has witnessed market activity through Bab al-Hawa Crossing Border with Turkey, which is the commercial center of the region, especially in recent months. Cities and towns of the northern countryside of Aleppo, which are supervised by Turkey witnessed an economic mobility as well.
The crossing borders of the northern countryside of Homs have witnessed a limited movement that led to revitalizing the commercial movement, securing the local market needs of foodstuffs and price stability as well as encouraging the residents’ return to their houses in the city.
However, prices have risen again because of the return of restrictions on these crossing borders, after the failure of the de-escalation agreement between the factions and civil activists.
In Ghouta, things are different. Although the agreement included lifting the siege which was imposed by al-Assad’s forces on it and the introduction of basic necessities, without any impediments or taxes, the region was subjected to a tightening of the siege and inflation in prices, before the agreement between the trader Mohieddin al-Manfosh and the Syrian regime on the introduction of foodstuffs and goods, through which the regime’s profits are estimated by about $ 20 million, according to Enab Baladi.
Kurds are trying to reach self-sufficiency
The expulsion of ISIS from large areas in the north-east of Syria in favor of the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the US opened the door to talks about reconstruction with the support of Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia.
While the area under Kurdish control, in Al-Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor, are trying to reach self-sufficiency by relying on natural resources, the most important of which are oil and agriculture, as the agricultural economy currently accounts for about 75% of the region’s economy map.
Al-Jazira region also includes oil and gas fields of strategic importance, including Rmelan, Al-Shaddadah, Jibsa, and As-Suwayda which have been controlled by the “People’s Protection Units” in mid-2012 as well as the new wells that were seized in 2017 in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor.
Huge waves of displacement… Do not come back
At the time when the Syrian regime’s government has been talking about the return of some refugees and displaced people with the stable security conditions, as it put it, the year 2017 has witnessed huge waves of displacement as a result of the military operations carried out by the regime and its allies, as well as the Kurdish forces’ advanced move in ISIS-controlled areas in northern and eastern Syria.
The official statements were not enough to create a positive atmosphere for the return of refugees and displaced people, as they were contradicted by other officials’ statements, most notably the dead commander, Issam Zahreddine, who vowed those who wanted to return that he would not forgive them. His famous saying “a piece of advice from this beard… do not come back” became a memorable adage.
The siege on Al-Zabadani and Madaya, which has lasted for years, ended in February 2017, when al-Assad’s forces and the Lebanese party Hezbollah displaced a large number of residents and combatants of the area to Idlib and the nearby town of Bloudan, thus, the opposition lost one of its most popular huts in the vicinity of Damascus after Darayya.
After 36 days of battles, the regime took control over the Barada river, which led to the displacement of 1500 people, in January 2017.
Al-Waer Neighborhood in Homs has witnessed a huge wave of displacement that affected 80% of its population, following an agreement to displace opposition combatants and the civilians who wish to.
According to Enab Baladi sources, the number of displaced people ranged from 20 to 25 thousand people, while no more than five thousand of the neighborhood’s population remained there. The last group of displaced people left on May 21, thus, the Russian military police and al-Assad’s forces have directly entered the neighborhood and took full control of the city of Homs.
11 groups left Al-Waer, seven of them went to the eastern countryside of Aleppo, three others went to Idlib Governorate, while the last group went to the northern countryside of Homs.
The first groups started leaving the neighborhood on March 18. They were followed by other groups who left the neighborhood on an almost weekly basis. The correspondent of Enab Baladi, who left with the residents, reported difficult conditions the displaced people have experienced during the completion of their moving procedures to the north of Syria.
In October, the military operation led by the Syrian Democratic Forces and backed by the US-led coalition forces to regain control over Raqqa from ISIS, has ended.
The military operations against ISIS led to nearly 450 thousand displaced people who left their houses, out of a total of 470,000 people who were living in Raqqa before the start of the liberation battle, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).
At the time of the last chapters of the attacks of al-Assad and Russian forces on the ISIS-controlled western countryside of Deir ez-Zor on September 6, 2017, the “allies” followed the method of continued heavy bombing which extended to the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor and which SNHR considered as a major cause of the civilians’ displacement.
This attack led to the displacement of 250 thousand people to other areas in Deir ez-Zor, which have been witnessing clashes between the Syrian Democratic Forces and ISIS, and thousands of them remained homeless and helpless in the banks of the Euphrates River.
The SNHR documented 10 air strikes it believes are Russian at crossings used by civilians to cross the two banks of the Euphrates by boat.
In November, the regime started a battle in the northern and eastern countrysides of Hama, and the southern countryside of Idlib, with the declared goal of opening the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway which goes through these areas.
The battles led to the displacement of thousands of civilians and more than 800 families in the second half of December, according to Enab Baladi information provided by Malhib Hussein, the head of the local council of Hawa, in the east of Hama Governorate.
Activists have estimated that thousands of residents of Tal Agher, Wadi Chahrour, Nasiriyah, Tel Amara, and Hawa have been displaced. According to Hussein, some villages have been totally deserted, while civilians have remained in other villages in the hope of the battles’ cessation.