Syria's Assad is at risk of winning the war but losing the peace

As the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year, the news media is abuzz with stories about President Bashar al-Assad's victory on the battlefield. Yet, Syrians in government-controlled territory are increasingly expressing discontent with the president as living standards in the country continue to deteriorate even as the conflict winds down, the Washington Post reported.

Why it matters: Syria's president is at risk of winning the war but losing the peace if he fails to address a crippling shortage of fuel and electricity, provide jobs for the men returning from the front lines, and stabilize the Syrian currency. These challenges are compounded by inefficiencies and corruption amongst his government.

What Syrians are saying:

A Damascus-based worker for a non-governmental organization in an interview for Shout! News claimed that Syrians feel they have been betrayed by their government. They acknowledge, however, that the central government's control of territory outside the capital has weakened due to the partial devolution of state and military power to local authorities as a measure to fight the war. Local warlords emerged as a result.

"Military men don't behave like military anymore," the man said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Access to public services, as water, has been privatized by local strongmen and offered for a fee, he complained. He mentioned the example of a village he visited recently where public access to water is now run by someone close to the local strongman.

"Today's living standards are worse than during the war," but Western countries' sanctions against the Syrian regime are also responsible for their deterioration, the man said.

Programmatic propaganda in action in Syria's conflict: #OperationOliveBranch

The ongoing conflict in Syria blends conventional warfare with social media manipulation operations to influence public opinion, according to research.

The backstory: In January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation, code-named Olive Branch, in an around the northern Syria's city of Afrin.

Key findings: There is a social media manipulation dimension to Turkey's war in Syria. The Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence public opinion on the conflict, backing up the Turkish state message in a computer automated manner and orchestrated campaign connected with the Twitter hashtag #operationolivebranch.

The details: Research identified two ways the Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence audiences perception on Twitter.

  • Automated Twitter accounts that pose as journalist and political account: Two high-volume automated accounts, one that poses as a journalist/blogger @PelinCiftek, and the other a political profile AkPartiNet. At the time of the research these two accounts were tweeting at a rate of 465 tweets per day (on a seven day average) and sharing the same content from twenty two other accounts. These two accounts at first glance have nothing in common nor appear to be connected. Yet, research found they were operating in concert with the identical volume, timing and tweets themselves. These two accounts were created within one month of each other, and have nearly an identical tweet to like ratio, and following to follower ratio.
  • A network of automated amplifiers. These seemingly two unrelated (not directly connected) accounts are highly programmatic, and serve as the hubs of a tightly connected network that is amplifying the Turkish government message on the war in Afrin and other issues. This serves as an example of computation propaganda in action. Our research highlights how this network operates in a computer automated manner. Additional automated Twitter accounts amplifying the Turkish government's message about the war in Afrin and other issues. Research concluded these are likely government approved proxies or messengers (if not, it's highly improbable this content and network would exist) whose tweets are relayed by the two accounts above. At the time of the research it was noted that these ten accounts have a daily tweet average to classify them as cyborgs.

The big picture: Turkey's military operation in the conflict in Syria is the first invasion by Turkish ground forces into a sovereign nation since the Cyprus conflict in 1974.

Go deeper: A recent study by Oxford University shows widespread use of social media tactics by governments to shape public discourse and spread misinformation.

This analysis was first posted on Medium, including research findings and methodology.


Interview: "ISIS wives" want to go to Turkey instead of home

Women branded as "ISIS wives"--accused of being widows of Islamic State supporters, detained in a camp operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces said in an interview that they would rather go to Turkey than return home. Amongst the reasons invoked is the freedom to wear the niqab--face-covering clothing--that Turkey grants.

Why it matters: As the Islamic State has been loosing its last territory in Syria, Western and other countries have been confronted with what to do with the thousands of their citizens who joined the Islamic State. Some governments are reluctant to take back home-grown fighters and their families. Western media have predominantly described "ISIS wives" as wanting to return home. This interview refutes that claim.

This interview was conducted on March 8, 2019 by Mr. Ahed Al Hendi, an activist, writer and humanitarian, and former journalist with Voice of America, in the Al Houl detention camp in northern Syria.


Tracking casualties in Syria’s conflict

Data collection and monitoring in Syria's conflict has been exceedingly challenging, amidst disinformation campaign and lack of access. However, the horrendous human cost of this conflict makes reliable casualty data essential to justice and accountability for war crimes.

Several sources have attempted to document this data, as the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), which recorded and reported casualties resulting from the civil war in Syria since June 2011.

As a quick test, I selected the month of my visit to Damascus in regime-controlled area (August 2015) in the VDC dataset. During two short weeks, there were nearly daily random mortar shelling from the rebel-held suburbs (Joubar and Douma) into the city. I was lucky to escape unscathed—once only narrowly. My host, a prelate from Damascus, would occasionally relay casualties from the day's shelling. Looking at the dataset for that period, none are mentioned (assuming the prelate's reports were accurate).

It is tempting to see a political agenda behind missing data. It may not be so. It does however underscore the challenges around data collection in this conflict and the need for transparency around methodology and missing information. Syrians deserve it.


Report: Why Syria's Manbij matters beyond the Islamic State

Last June I visited "checkpoint zero," marking the frontline just outside the city of Manbij, Syria, where an Islamic State-claimed suicide attack killed four Americans on a routine patrol last Wednesday.

"Checkpoint zero" is manned by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the alliance of Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Syriac Christian militias and other forces created in 2015 to defeat the Islamic State.

However, there isn't the Islamic State on the other side of the frontline that "checkpoint zero" defends, but fellow Syrians; rebels backed by the Turkish military. The Euphrates Shield, as Turkey named them.

They are there to prevent Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from expanding further west of the Euphrates and toward the border with Turkey--a scenario the Turkish government considers as a threat because of what it claims is an existential link between the Kurdish fighters in Syria and the PKK in Turkey, who has been engaged in a bloody armed struggle with the Turkish state.

The Kurds and their Syrian Democratic Forces allies said they have every reason to fear that Turkey and allied Syrian rebel forces will act in Manbij the same way they did in Afrin, a Syrian city further north, where Turkish-backed rebels reportedly committed exactions against the local population.


What Trump's Syria policy means for Syrians

We are about three weeks into President Trump's announcement that he will withdraw American troops from Syria and I caught up with Sameh, the young engineer from Damascus who is developing alternative and sustainable way of farming that could help bring food security to local populations in Syria. His story was published by the Atlantic Council last November.

Sameh told me what he thinks American troops pulling out of Syria means for his country and the future of his agriculture project.

  • "A crazy turn of events for an area [northern Syria] everybody around me took for granted was going to be under the protection of the U.S.."
  • "We don't know who's going to be in control [of northern Syria], which has been a recurring problem with the Syrian revolution…Since 2011 there has been too many people and too many parties involved, each with their own agenda for Syria. Islamic groups, fighters who don't have religion, fighters backed by Arab Gulf countries gulf and who follow their orders, groups backed by Turkey…Each come with their own propaganda."
  • Three main opposition fighting groups are left in Syria. "Islamic groups, like HTC, groups backed by Turkey, and in between the Muslim Brotherhoods who lost in Ghouta and southern Syria and might have joined groups backed by Turkey and therefore support Turkey's policy in Syria…and the Kurds."
  • The U.S. might be taking a stand for the Kurds and delaying withdrawal. "According to a recent statement [by the Trump administration], the U.S. wants to make sure that the Kurds are not going to be killed. What is the meaning of this big statement? Will the U.S. give weapons to the Kurds or seek an agreement with Turkey? Are they going to leave one single military base in northern Syria, perhaps near the oil wheels, around which Kurdish fighters would relocate?
  • "My agricultural project [initially planned for northern Syria] is in wait and see mode. But we are still working on building the prototype, here in America."

Syria's 2000 American troops: Strength is not in numbers

But "if there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," last U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told me.

With President Donald Trump's announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria on December 19th, analysts and American media have deemed the presence of about 2000 troops in northern/eastern Syria controlled by the U.S.-allied and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces either as:

  1. Wholly insufficient compared with the number of troops and military assets from the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, or,
  2. In the word of Hagar Chemali, a former spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations, on CNN yesterday: "a very low-cost effort. You have about 2000 troops in areas that have already been liberated. They're there to make sure that things are rebuilt, that refugees can go back. And we know that ISIS is not completely defeated."

"Only" 2000 troops, but boots on the ground is not the full story about American military capability in Syria. On February 8, 2018, an attempt by pro-Syrian government forces to attack territory controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and where American troops were present was met with devastating American and coalition airstrikes and repelled, the New York Times reported. U.S. troops on the ground typically collect intelligence and call in airstrikes.

Characterizing American presence in Syria as a "very low-cost effort [...] in areas that have already been liberated," is equally inaccurate and misleading. As I saw the day of my arrival in Manbij last June, American troops go in patrols in groups of three Hummvees and go on foot patrols as well, reportedly. This makes them vulnerable to attacks. One U.S. soldier was killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Manbij on March 30th. Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar was the fourth service member who has died in Syria since the U.S. sent troops to Syria in 2014.

"If there is an incident where 10 or 15 American soldiers are killed, it becomes a political issue in the U.S. and Trump will abandon Syria. The Iranians understand that," Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me in May.


Libyan weapons, demands for independence and Islamism in the Sahel

France's role in removing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi blamed for current mess in the region

'You are not going to drag us into your shitty war.'

It was late afternoon on March 15, 2011, and Susan E. Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had called her French counterpart.

France was urging the U.S. to join them in a military campaign to prevent Libya's strong man, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering his opponents.

The French won. On October 20, Colonel Gaddafi was captured and killed as rebel fighters took his hometown of Sirte. His convoy had been bombed and scattered by U.S. and French airstrikes only moments earlier.

In our recent visit to the region, seven years later, we found that it is the French who are largely taking the blame for the current mess in Libya, a failed state and a terrorist haven, and the region as a whole.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Paris on March 19, 2011. The French president, who had pressed for the bombing campaign that guaranteed Gaddafi's demise, told Mrs. Clinton that French fighter jets were already in the air. Photograph: Lionel Bonavent


Yet, it is striking that only a few Western news media have paid attention to what happened to neighboring countries after the Libyan leader's demise.

The Dictator's Weapons

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Photograph: Reuters

Colonel Qaddafi left behind a vast military arsenal.

By late 2011, this huge arsenal of weapons was turning up in Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Gaza, often in the hands of terrorists, insurgents or criminals, the New York Times found.

It looked really scary. In the fall of 2012, American intelligence agencies produced a classified assessment of the proliferation of arms from Libya. "It was like, 'Oh, my God,'" said Michael T. Flynn, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. "We've not had that kind of proliferation of weapons since really the end of the Vietnam War."

A connection to the region's largest terrorist groups was also established. Libya had indeed become a source of materiel for Boko Haram, as evidenced in transfers of weapons from Libya that transited Niger en route to Nigeria.

The U.S. did try to take measures to secure the vast arsenal left by Colonel Qaddafi, but they largely failed.

"There was one arsenal that we thought had 20,000 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, SA-7s, that basically just disappeared into the maw of the Middle East and North Africa," recalled Robert M. Gates, the American defense secretary at the time, according to the New York Times.

Weapons have been trafficked out of Libya since the fall of Colonel Qaddafi in 2011, especially through the south. Visual: The New York Times

Superjumbo: the Tuareg and the Islamists

The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic people who live in the Sahel-Sahara zone of north-west Africa.
In Mali and Niger they have fought on and off for many years with their central governments, demanding greater independence or at the very least more investment in the areas they live.
Many Tuareg were in Libya's armed forces when the uprising started in 2011. Left unemployed when Qaddafi fell, returning Tuaregs--to Mali, especially--were able to bring with them considerable quantities of weapons and ammunition from former army storages that suddenly nobody controlled when the Gaddafi state crumbled.
In Mali, these returning Tuareg reinvigorated an insurgent army and soon joined forces with Islamists group from the region, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They formed an uneasy but potent alliance that quickly routed Malian government forces, prompting the French military to intervene in 2013 as insurgents risked threatening Bamako, Mali's capital.
The French military intervention assisted by troops from Chad and Niger was able to beat back the Islamist and Tuareg rebels in the northern part of Mali, but France has had to maintain a sizable military presence to this day.

Tuareg rebels storming towns in Mali's northern desert in 2012. Photograph: Veronique de Viguerie/The New York Times


The end of the Qaddafi regime in Libya triggered regional instability as men and weapons poured through neighboring countries.

Interestingly, in Mali, while those we talked to during our recent visit blamed former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for the current instability, it is France, the country, they expressed gratitude toward when Sarkozy's successor, Francois Holland, decided the military intervention that routed insurgents and Islamists in 2013.


Programmatic Activism From Syria


Findings from our analysis of the ongoing tweet and retweet activity using the hashtag #saveGhouta help us understand programmatic behavior on Twitter in connection with the current war in Syria and the complexities of the information landscape.

This hashtag has been used in activist campaigns to bring the world's attention to Eastern Ghouta, an area on the outskirt of Syria's capital Damascus where armed rebel groups have been locked in a fight with the Syrian government forces besieging them. Both civilians and opposition fighters are entangled in this dense urban tissue, and civilian casualties from government airstrikes have been rapidly mounting. The tragedy of Ghouta is being promoted for fundraising purposes by groups based in the United States, such as the Syrian American Medical Society. The Society's Facebook verified page prominently features the hashtag on its cover photo and is currently holding fundraisers.

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No Simple Solution for Syria — A Response to U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford

DO NOT cut aid to Syria.

[Update: Ambassador Robert Ford responded with the following statement on Twitter]

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford proposed a policy recommendation that cuts humanitarian aid to Syria. It's part of a strategy, which pressures Damascus to allow the United Nations to deliver aid to both government and opposition areas. This is simplistic and misguided.

Cutting U.N. humanitarian aid to Syria will only achieve two detrimental objectives for U.S. interests. It will cut the aid currently going to opposition-controlled areas, which will hurt millions of civilians who have no one to rely on for aid but the U.N.

For many Syrians inside government-controlled territories, U.N. aid is what keeps them alive. Only a few aid organizations are currently operating in areas controlled by President Bashar Al-Assad because the Syrian regime blocked aid to communities that support the opposition, according to Ambassador Ford and his co-author. The Syria Trust for Development is an organization that distributes aid provided by the U.N. and is chaired by Asma al-Assad, the president's wife.

However, recipients of U.N. aid are not exclusively composed of the regime and its supporters. In fact, most people, businesses, and organizations that are associated with the regime are under sanctions, meaning they are already denied aid. These individuals and entities have already figured out alternative ways to receive funds — either from the Syrian diaspora or countries who sympathize with Al-Assad. Threats to cut humanitarian aid will not work here.

Al-Assad and his gang don't rely on the U.N. or Western organizations for humanitarian aid. Iran and Russia have been providing the Syrian regime with enough financial assistance to keep it afloat (as a failed state, that is). No matter how many millions of dollars worth of aid the U.N. provides, ambassador Ford and his co-author recommend to cut it off. Yet it's a fact that Al-Assad's survival depends on billions of dollars in credit from Iran. Or the many Iranian investments that have been flooding into areas controlled by the regime.

That financial aid is, one might say, beyond imagination. It fueled the riots that recently took place in Iran. With the U.S. and the European Union exiting Idlib and the areas controlled by al-Nusra Front — under its new name, Hayet Tahrir al Sham, an offshoot of al-Qaeda — expect to see more Russian and Iranian funding rushing to fill that void and used as leverage against U.S. interests.

Furthermore, the U.S. will lose the small but not insignificant leverage it has on Al-Assad. Because the regime's survival does not depend on humanitarian aid provided by the U.N., cutting it off will not be enough to compel Al-Assad to change, as Ambassador Ford would like us to believe.

Kahina Souria is a Syrian expert from Damascus with extensive personal and professional network and experience on military, humanitarian and strategic issues in Syria. Follow her on Twitter.