By Ambra Visentin

The war in Syria, now a ‘low-intensity conflict’, has regained strength on several fronts and entered a new phase. Fighting is taking place in the north, in areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, with Turkish-backed Arab fighters launching attacks on Kurdish-controlled villages in Manbij and Arab tribal fighters clashing with the SDF in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor and the north-eastern province of Hasaka (Rojava). Recall that east of the Euphrates River are the forces of the US-led international anti-terrorism coalition. Kurdish forces arrived here between 2017 and 2019, in the last years of the fight against the Islamic caliphate.

Finally, in the south of the country, protests against President Bashar al-Assad are raging, particularly in the province of Sweida, in response to the country’s rapidly deteriorating socio-economic situation. This region is home to the Druze minority, which remained neutral during the civil war in 2011.

Conflict in the north

Fighting erupted in Kurdish-controlled areas of the province following the arrest (by the Syrian Democratic Forces) of Ahmad al-Khabil, the head of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (Arab militia), who was accused of embezzlement, drug trafficking, collusion with the Assad government and mismanagement of the security situation.
Ahmad al-Khabil was a member of the Islamic State terrorist group before fleeing to Turkey. When he returned to Syria in 2016, he began working with the SDF and the Americans in the area. His connections have allowed him to smuggle drugs and weapons with some success.

Senior US officials recently visited the oil-rich area in an attempt to defuse the Arab tribes’ uprising. Their response resulted in more than 150 deaths and dozens of injuries. Separate clashes in the neighbouring province of Hasakeh also took place in the Tal Tamr area in the north-west of the province between the Syrian army, local fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish-backed rebel groups.

Turkey’s interests in Manbij

Located at the crossroads between Aleppo, Raqqa and the Kurdish-administered northeast, Manbij is a strategic area for launching military operations in northern Syria to wrest it from Kurdish forces. Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan named the city and Tal Rifaat as Ankara’s next targets to complete the much-coveted 30-kilometre ‘safe zone’ along its southern border.

Turkey accuses the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the SDF, of being the Syrian front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group fighting for Kurdish rights in Turkey and designated a terrorist group by Ankara. The YPG denies the accusation.

Anti-Assad protests in the south of the country

The provinces of Sweida and Daraa, a stronghold of the Druze minority under the control of the Syrian regime, have been the scene of demonstrations since mid-August. Now in their third week, the protests have been fuelled by anger at the dramatic economic situation facing the country. The national currency is in free fall. One US dollar costs 15,500 Syrian liras. At the start of the country’s conflict 12 years ago, the exchange rate was 47 liras.

The anger of the protesters then focused on President Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of selling the country’s resources to foreign powers, especially those to whom he owes his survival: Russia and Iran. They also denounce what they call the “Republic of Captagon”, in reference to the synthetic drug produced locally by those close to power, which has effectively turned Syria into a narco-state. The protest calls for the overthrow of the regime and the drafting of a new constitution, including the implementation of UN Resolution 2254, which calls for UN-supervised elections and the return of refugees who have fled the war.

The high cost of repression

According to Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of The Syria Report and an economic journalist, the Syrian government is “currently in a state of incapacity”. Although the war should be in its final phase, no solution or political agreement has been reached to end it and start reconstruction projects.

Faced with such a situation, the authorities might be tempted to opt for another crackdown on the protest movement. But Jihad Yazigi explains that “the cost of repression is high” and will make the regime even more vulnerable. According to him, the regime’s priorities are to contain the demonstrations in the south, “because these are peripheral regions and not the centre”, and to pursue a policy of terror in the coastal regions, Damascus and the centre of the country, launching arrest campaigns and trying to silence the voices of the opposition.

According to a report published on 2 September by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH), a UK-based NGO with a wide network of sources in Syria, at least 223 people were arrested in August, including 57 civilians involved in the attack.

Cover image: Fahed saad kiwan on Shutterstock 

To learn more, read our Syria conflict factsheet