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TSI Syria Update: July 28, 2017

Takeaway

Fighting has flared up between members of the opposition factions Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Failaq al-Rahman (FAR) in opposition-controlled Eastern Ghouta.  The infighting that flared on Friday occurred over the death of an HTS fighter, who was reportedly killed by a group of FAR fighters in his home in the town of Hamouriya. An HTS statement today also voiced complaints about FAR regularly harassing HTS fighters and confiscating their weapons. An FAR spokesman has denied the HTS allegations, claiming instead that the HTS fighter attacked FAR fighters first. This discord between the two groups in Ghouta is unusual. Though not ideologically aligned, the groups overlap in areas of control and are known to cooperate militarily. The FSA-affiliated FAR took HTS’ side in April when another armed opposition group – Jaysh al-Islam – launched an offensive against HTS which was largely successful in diminishing the power of the group in Eastern Ghouta. HTS is a hardline coalition led by the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. If this fighting escalates it could spell the end of HTS in Eastern Ghouta, as it lacks other allies in the besieged enclave and there are regular civilian protests against its presence.

Military

  • 27 JUL: US-backed armed opposition group (AOG) Ossoud al-Sharqiya shelled pro-government locations in al-Badiya on Thursday, including a checkpoint in Um Ramam area. The attacks reportedly killed 15 soldiers and destroyed two tanks. (Smart News-AR, @osoudalsharqiya-AR, SMO-AR)
  • 27 – 28 JUL: On Thursday and Friday, the Assad Coalition continued to advance along the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway, capturing several locations and hills overlooking the town of al-Sukhneh. The Assad Coalition are now several kilometers away from al-Sukhneh, the last major Islamic State (ISIS)-held town in Homs governorate. (al-Masdar, Reuters, Qasioun-AR)
  • 28 JUL: Assad Coalition forces and Islamic State (ISIS) fighters clashed today south of Deir Ezzor city, near al-Panorama and al-Maqaber areas, while Russian warplanes targeted ISIS  with airstrikes. Fighting reportedly began when pro-government forces started an offensive to take control of the areas from ISIS. ISIS also shelled residential areas of government-controlled Jorah and Qusour in Deir Ezzor city. No advances occurred during the clashes. (Qasioun-AR, SANA)
  • 28 JUL: Today a fighter from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was killed in a clash with Failaq al-Rahman (FAR) in Hamouriya. After the incident, HTS released a statement in which they accused FAR of attacking and killing the fighter in his home, in addition to regularly harassing  their fighters, confiscating their weapons, and attacking a medical center . In response to the statement, FAR spokesman Wael Elwan told pro-opposition media that the HTS member was killed only after he attacked FAR fighters. Notably, hundreds took to the streets in Eastern Ghouta today to protest HTS presence in the area, calling for their expulsion. (Enab Baladi-AR, All4Syria-AR, SOHR-AR) (Analyst Note: Infighting between AOGs in Eastern Ghouta started in April with Jaysh al-Islam clashing against FAR and HTS. The recent clash between FAR and HTS is a new development that might affect the presence of HTS as the smallest faction operating in Eastern Ghouta).
  • 28 JUL: Assad Coalition warplanes carried out several strikes today, reportedly using cluster bombs on the towns of Autaya, Hosh al-Dawahira, and al-Shaifuniya in Eastern Ghouta. Pro-government forces shelled the towns of Ein Tarma and Jobar while trying to advance in the area. (Qasioun-AR, Ghouta Media Center-AR, SMO-AR, SOHR-AR). (Analyst Note: The de-escalation agreement for Eastern Ghouta was announced on July 22, yet, pro-government violations have been recorded almost every day since then.)
  • 28 JUL: A group of 30 fighters, including a leader from US-backed AOG Maghawir al-Thawra, reportedly defected to the Assad Coalition, taking with them a number of heavy and personal weapons. No statement from pro-government or Maghawir al-Thawra sources has yet been released about the incident. (Qasioun-AR, Smart News-AR)
  • 28 JUL: On Friday, ISIS fighters attacked a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) training camp near the town in al-Karamah, to the east of Raqqa city, reportedly killing a large number of SDF fighters and abducting a number of them. Inside Raqqa, the SDF operations in Nazlat Shahada district was slowed down by several ISIS car bomb attacks. US-led Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon stated yesterday that less than 2,000 ISIS fighters remain in the city. (Reuters, Ara News-AR, the Daily Caller)

Political

  • 27 JUL: On Thursday, Al-Marj Local Council released a statement in response to intensive pro-government strikes yesterday. They condemning pro-government violations of the de-escalation agreement, and calling for UN protection from the UN. (Ghouta Media Center-AR)
  • 27 JUL: A large fire consumed part of the Bab al-Jabiya area in old town Damascus near the Umayyad Mosque on Thursday. The fire started in a shoe workshop and quickly spread to nearby shops and houses. Firefighters were delayed at the checkpoint, so they were unable to reach the fire to put it out promptly. (Smart News-AR, All4Syria-AR) (Analyst Note: This is the third massive fire in old town Damascus in a year. The first fire destroyed three major shops in al-Hamidiya, the main market in Damascus. The second  fire consumed more than 50 shops in Asrouniya market. Local sources claimed that fire was arson. Pro-government businessmen, mainly Iranian investors, made offers to buy these properties, but their offers had been rejected.)
  • 27 JUL: HTS released a decree on Thursday banning the formation of any new faction or armed group in northern Syria. The decree also stated that any fighters defecting from a group must leave the group unarmed. (@IbnNabih1-AR) (Analyst Note: HTS took control of a majority of Idlib governorate last week after days of clashes with Ahrar al-Sham. As a result of infighting, several factions and fighters defected from HTS)

Humanitarian

  • None.

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 28 JUL: “Medical Facilities Under Fire” – (Syrian Archive)
  • 27 JUL: “Are We Nearing the Endgame with ISIS?” – Robin Wright (New Yorker)
  • 27 JUL: “The Problem With Syrian Demographics” – Tarek Osman (Foreign Affairs)
  • 28 JUL: “Children Pay High Price in Fight to Take Raqqa from ISIS” – Samuel Oakford (Airwars)

TSI Syria Update: July 21, 2017

Takeaway

Late Friday evening Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham reached a ceasefire agreement aimed at ending days of deadly fighting. The terms of the agreement call for a mutual exchange of prisoners, and for both groups to withdraw from Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border, which will be turned over to a civilian administration. At the time of writing, it is unclear if either group has withdrawn from the area or whether the deal applied to other areas of Idlib governorate.

Military

  • 21 JUL: Assad Coalition warplanes targeted the towns of Ein Tarma, al-Rayhan, and Douma in Eastern Ghouta today, leaving several civilians injured. These attacks are part the Assad Coalition offensive on the besieged areas east of Damascus. Pro-government media reported that Assad Coalition forces captured several locations and streets on the outskirts of Ein Tarma, which the report described as completing the offensive’s first phase. (Qasioun-AR, Ghouta Media Center FB-AR, al-Masdar)
  • 20 JUL: Assad Coalition forces tried to infiltrate armed opposition groups’ (AOGs) fronts on Thursday in opposition-held Beit Sahm town in the besieged southern suburbs of Damascus. Pro-opposition media claimed that armed opposition stopped the pro-government militants. This attack is considered a violation of an ongoing truce agreement between the government and opposition groups that has been in place since 2014. (Beit Sahm Revolution Coordination FB-AR,  Revolution Spring-AR)
  • 21 JUL: US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to advance slowly against Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Raqqa on Friday amid heavy US-led Coalition airstrikes. The SDF was able to secure parts of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik district, near the Old City, and advance deeper into Nazlat Shahada district, reportedly freeing hundreds of trapped civilians in the eastern part of the city. (Ara News-AR, RaqqaSL-FB)
  • 21 JUL: The Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah launched a coordinated cross-border offensive targeting an area near the Lebanese town of Arsal and the Syrian town of Fleita, believed to contain fighters from al-Qaeda-linked militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Pro-Hezbollah media reported shelling and Syrian airstrikes in the area, and claimed the operation had made initial gains. The Lebanese army also deployed additional forces in the area in order to prevent fleeing fighters from moving further into Lebanon. The offensive has raised concern among human rights groups, as the Jaroud Arsal area contains several thousand Syrian refugees. The Lebanese army has said it is facilitating the passage of refugees out of the conflict area with UN supervision. (Reuters, BBC, Al-Jazeera)
  • 21 JUL: On Friday evening, Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) reached an agreement for a ceasefire in Idlib governorate near Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Under the terms of the agreement, all detainees would be released by both sides, and both factions would evacuate the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in order to turn it over to a civilian administration. Should the agreement hold, it would bring an end to four days of fighting between the two groups. Clashes between HTS and Ahrar had continued earlier in the day, mainly near the Bab al-Hawa crossing point with Turkey. HTS advanced toward the crossing point and took control of several positions in the area, reportedly including the town of Atmeh. Meanwhile, the initiative by Failaq al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Deen al-Zinki to act as peacekeeping forces failed when Failaq al-Sham reportedly withdrew its forces, allegedly without clarifying its reasons for retreating. (Smart News-AR, Qasioun-AR, Orient News-AR, @Ahrar_SpokesMan, Medium @_alhamra)
  • 21 JUL: Local sources reported today that an estimated 500 Russian troops and military police have recently arrived in Daraa governorate to monitor the de-escalation zone brokered by the US, Russia, and Jordan. The Russian forces are expected to establish a base in the town of Mothbeen, north of Daraa city. Local sources also reported sighting Russian forces in the towns of Sanamayn and Izraa, in northern Daraa governorate. (Qasioun-AR, Souriati-AR- ِAll4Syria-AR)

Political

  • 9 JUL: At the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects, Qin Yong, Vice President of the China-Arab Exchange Association, announced China plans to invest US$2 billion in Syria to establish industrial parks. Syrian Ambassador to China, Imad Mustafa, stated “China, Russia, and Iran have provided substantial support to Syria during the military conflict. Therefore, it is these three countries that should play a major role in the reconstruction of Syria.” (Chinascope)
  • 20 JUL: Thursday night, the Syrian People’s Assembly (the Syrian Parliament) removed the People’s Assembly Speaker Mrs. Hadiyah Abbas from her position. Pro-government media said the decision was made by majority of member votes after 164 members petitioned to discharge Abbas. A post on the Assembly’s Facebook page said that the related the discharge to disputes during the morning session, when Abbas she cut discussion short on bylaw proposal. In the same statement Abbas’ behaviour was described as “irresponsible and illegal” and causing an “accumulation of a large disorder as a result of non-democratic behavior, which reflected negatively on the Council.” (SANA, Syrian People’s Assembly FB-AR)
  • 20 JUL: On Thursday, the Trump Administration’s Homeland and Counterterrorism advisor Tom Bossert stated the US is seeking a political transition in Syria and would not insist on the removal of Bashar al-Assad, saying “I don’t think it’s important to say Assad must go first.” Bossert noted that the removal of Assad was the eventual desired outcome, but would not be a priority. (Washington Post)

Humanitarian

  • None.

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 20 JUL: “Aaron Stein’s Take on Continued US Military Involvement in Syria, Despite Ending the CIA Program” – (Atlantic Council)
  • 21 JUL: “Open Gun Markets Helping Spread Chaos in Syria’s North”  (The Syrian Observer via  Al-Araby al-Jadeed
  • 21 JUL: “What a Battle on the Lebanese Border Could Mean for Syria” – Kareem Chehayeb (Syria Deeply)
  • 21 JUL: “America Had Already Lost Its Covert War in Syria–Now It’s Official” – Sam Heller (The Century Foundation)