Pro-regime forces fired at and injured three protesters at the Baath party headquarters in Suwayda City on September 13. The attack is the first well-documented instance of pro-regime forces using violence against protesters in Suwayda since the protests erupted in mid-August 2023. The protesters and community leaders blamed both the Baath party and Iranian-backed militias for the crackdown, but the location of fire indicates the shooters were Baath party guards.
Syria Situation Report
The coalition between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Arab tribes in Deir ez Zor is fracturing amid clashes over long-standing grievances. The SDF’s response to the clashes very likely will undermine its ability to maintain control in the province for at least the next several months.
The turnout of about four thousand demonstrators on Friday, September 8 in Suwayda City was the largest anti-regime gathering since the 2011 Arab Spring. Protest span, density, and frequency during the rest of the week remained constant in Suwayda compared to last week, however. Suwayda protest banners demanded a United Nations-facilitated political solution in Syria and emphasized the movement’s non-violent approach. Druze symbols and religious leaders have also remained central to Suwayda demonstrations, while pan-Syrian revolutionary symbols have declined.
Anti-regime protests are gaining traction in Syria with demonstrators calling for the overthrow of the regime, and the protests could expand during the coming weeks. Syrians began demonstrating on August 17 after the Assad regime raised fuel prices, which exacerbated the economic crisis that the country already faced. Protest demands quickly escalated from economic grievances to call for the removal of Bashar al Assad from power. The Syrian regime has taken steps to crackdown on the protests that have not deterred the demonstrators. The regime also has not prevented the protests from spreading through security force deployments, limiting travel to protest areas, and arresting demonstrators. High temperatures did not stop the spread of the demonstrations. Protesters have gathered in squares in August despite temperatures over 100 degrees.
Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime are coordinating a coercive campaign to expel the United States from Syria. This campaign poses a serious risk to US forces in Syria and US interests in the Middle East. Iran and the Syrian regime have surged forces and materiel to the line of contact with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria from July 7 through 12 July. Both have deployed additional forces and materiel to the area since then at lower rates. The Iranian and Syrian deployments to eastern Syria have occurred alongside growing operational coordination with Russia. Russia has provided intelligence to Iran while conducting more aggressive flights against US forces in Syria since mid-March. Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime also are coordinating an information operation that falsely claimed the deployments were to protect against a US-SDF attack into regime-controlled territory. US forces are in Syria under Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, which aims to militarily defeat ISIS through partnerships with the SDF and International Coalition partners.
Key Takeaway: ISIS faces pressure along multiple fronts as it begins its annual Ramadan surge of attacks in Syria. Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) mounted counter-ISIS operations targeting leadership cells in Idlib, likely in order to both depress ISIS’s attack capability and performatively distance HTS from other “hardline” Salafi-jihadi organizations. The British Royal Air Force and the Russian military similarly conducted precision operations, possibly intended to target high-value ISIS leadership, in eastern Syria. The US-partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), meanwhile, secured camps and detention centers housing former ISIS affiliates in order to prevent ISIS from staging a prison break during the coming month. ISIS’s Ramadan campaign will likely continue to feature large-scale but disparate attacks on oil and gas facilities in the Central Syrian Desert and attacks targeting civil society leaders, exploiting existing Arab-Kurdish divisions, in SDF-held northeast Syria.
Key Takeaway: The United States and Russia are exerting pressure to limit Iran’s military and diplomatic leverage in Syria. The United States conducted several airstrikes targeting Iranian proxies in Albu Kamal, Deir ez-Zour Province, on February 25, 2021, in response to a series of proxy rocket attacks in Iraq in mid-February. Meanwhile, Russia began several new diplomatic initiatives on the behalf of the Assad regime that could diminish Iran’s potential economic and political leverage in Syria. Russia facilitated a deal to renew oil trade between the Assad regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), possibly reducing the Assad regime’s reliance on Iranian oil. Russia additionally brokered a prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria in which Israel also agreed to finance the purchase of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine for the Syrian government. Russia led trilateral talks with Turkey and Qatar that could be aimed at cutting Iran out of the peace process.
Key Takeaway: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is struggling to manage a deteriorating security situation in opposition-held Idlib Province as provocative attacks by more extreme al Qaeda affiliates threaten the March 5, 2020, Idlib ceasefire. HTS aligned itself more closely with Turkey in May 2020 in a bid to preserve the ceasefire, angering hardline Salafi-jihadist groups. Newly formed and reactivated fighter cells linked to Hurras al-Din and other al Qaeda affiliates are attacking Turkish and Russian forces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has assassinated hardliners and arrested senior Hurras al-Din members in a likely attempt to forestall further attacks. These HTS ‘security operations’ could lead to direct conflict between HTS and Hurras al-Din or other al Qaeda-linked groups, as occurred in July 2020. Russian and regime forces demonstrated their displeasure at the mounting attacks by carrying out rare strikes on al Qaeda affiliates in Idlib Province. Attacks on Russian forces could create the pretext for a renewed regime offensive on Idlib, while an HTS failure to contain hardliners may push Turkey to negotiate away a portion of the province.
By Isabel Ivanescu
Key Takeaway: Salafi-jihadist organizations in Syria are growing more ambitious. Both ISIS and Hurras al-Din have recently carried out attacks in Turkish-controlled areas in which they had not previously been active. While these attacks were fairly ineffective, they demonstrate intent and capacity to expand operations. Meanwhile, ISIS carried out two ambushes of regime forces in Deir ez-Zour Province that resulted in dozens of casualties. ISIS and Hurras al-Din are well postured to exploit security gaps in both Turkish- and regime-controlled areas and will likely do so in the coming year.