Syria in 2020 | Dire living conditions pose threat to Syrian lives…Israel greatly escalates its attacks…ISIS steps up its operations…Iran entrenches its presence…Russia’s influence expands…and Turkey continues violations
As years pass, chronic crises are plaguing Syria and it people who still suffer from the scourge of the ongoing violent, security chaos and repression, while no workable solution looms on the horizon. The Syrian geography has experienced remarkable shifts of power and influence and military, political and economic changes, with no actor or military power in Syria could care less about lives of the people of Syria. Since January 1, 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has documented the deaths of 6,817 people, including 1528 civilians of whom there are 231 children and 197 women. This is the lowest yearly death toll ever since the start of the “Syrian Revolution”.
In 2020, the Syria scene went through various developments reflected at all levels, including the political, economic and social . The most prominent developments in Syria in 2020 could be summarized in the following:
- Regime control of entire Aleppo-Damascus international highway after killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
- Putin-Erdogan agreement regarding the “de-escalation zone”.
- The agreement to expand military and security collaboration between Tehran and Damascus.
- Imposition of new sanctions on the Syrian regime, “Caesar act”.
- The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19).
Ongoing arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and kidnappings
With the prevalence of kidnap gangs, armed militias and groups, arrests and forced disappearances of men, women and children continued throughout Syria, no matter which power dominates which area. In 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitored and tracked kidnappings across Syria and managed to document 512 incidents of kidnapping, including 61 children and 53 women. Most of these kidnapped civilians are still detained, and a few others were released after having paid ransoms, while 43 civilians, including two children and five women, had already been killed by their kidnappers. It is worth noting that regime-controlled areas have topped the list of kidnappings in 2020, with 198 incidents, followed by areas under the control of Turkish forces and their proxy factions with 183 incidents, then SDF-held areas with more than 92 incidents. While the smallest number of incidents of kidnapping has been recorded in areas under the control of rebel and jihadi factions with 39 incidents. Also, SOHR documented the deaths of 119 Syrian civilians under torture in regime prisons.
Syrian women: extra burdens and deprivation of rights
The ongoing violence and hostilities in Syria in 2020 had touched the lives of Syrian women, as the recent dire conditions have affected women psychologically and socially. The Syrian Observatory has been continuously focusing on the sufferings of Syrian women, which can be summarised in the following main points:
- Violence and abuse
- Early marriage
- Exploitation and sexual abuse
- Increase of marriage age to 33 years
- Growing rate of celibacy and spinsterhood
- Lack of job opportunities unemployment: unemployment rate has reached 95% in areas controlled by jihadists.
- The emergence and spread of “women breadwinners” phenomenon: according to SOHR sources, the poverty rate among widows and wives of missing persons has approximated 90%.
- Women engaged into heavy physical and manual labour previously done by men
- Illiteracy: illiteracy rate among Syrian women has reached approximately 30%, according SOHR statistics
- Lack of social security
- Limited participation in political life.
Moreover, Syria’s war has created a very bitter reality and left negative psychological impacts on Syrian women, as the absence of social security, struggle with unstable conditions, torture, detention and violence made Syrian women vulnerable to psychological trauma, including permanent fear, anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies and withdrawal, especially with the lack of psychological and mental health treatment, and limited medical capabilities and resources.
Syria’s Children: A bitter present and uncertain future!
As the Syrian crisis, with its ongoing violent and bloody fighting, mass displacement and crippling social and economic consequences, the children of Syria have emerged as its biggest losers; and they are the real and true victims of this tragic conflict, for they are the ones who live a bitter present and potentially face an uncertain and bleak future.
In 2020, SOHR highlighted the unabating suffering and plight of the children of Syria, chief among them were:
- School dropout due to recruitment of children and child labour
- Lack of schools in refugee camps and the long distances between camps and schools.
- Poverty and destitution.
- Lack of ID and supportive documents for some children.
- Early marriage for very young girls forcing them out of education.
- The increasing number of homeless children and prevalence of begging: SOHR monitored widespread prevalence of begging in Jaramana in the Damascus area, especially since many children have lost their houses and families because of the ongoing conflict and violence.
- High rates of poverty and destitution.
- Prevalence of crime among children.
- Children involvement in illegal activities and drug abuse.
- Physical and mental distress: with all the violence, sexual abuse, exploitation, recruitment processes, kidnappings, and explosions and attacks that Syrian children have had to experience through no fault of their own, they have become more prone to mental illness and disorders, including depression, withdrawal, and numerous phobias and suicidal thoughts.
Economic, social and political consequences of the deteriorating security and mounting human rights violations
Violations committed by all warring powers in Syria in 2020 have scarred the Syrian society on all levels, including the economic, social and political and can be summarized in the following main points:
- “Caesar Act”: The US has imposed new economic sanctions on the Syrian regime and its affiliated entities, leading to increasing poverty rates and deteriorating living conditions. It is worth noting that “Caesar Act” was ratified after an ex-regime officer, nicknamed “Caesar”, had leaked 55,000 pictures of 11,000 detainees who died under torture in regime prisons.
- Infrastructure has been weakened and debilitated.
- Chronic crises and shortages have affected almost all essentials and services and goods.
- Economic hardship hit the entire Syrian geography.
- Civilian mass exoduses continued and increased dramatically..
- The Syrian pound plummeted and hit record low in 2020, as essentials and basic goods had been monopolized and reached unaffordable prices.
- Unemployment has prevailed greatly among Syrian people, as SOHR statistics have shown that more than 93% of Syrians and Syrian women are living in poverty, 65% of whom living in extreme and abject poverty, while poverty rate among the widows and wives of missing persons is approximately 90%.
- Electricity and energy sector has been greatly affected, after Al-Furat, Teshrin and Al-Ba’th dams were put out of service, following SDF control of the oil and gas in eastern Syria region and Russia’s control of gas in Palmyra region. Accordingly, most Syrian areas suffer from power outages for more than 20 hours a day.
- Water crisis has emerged with many areas in Syria struggling with frequent water cut-offs which last for long hours. In this context, SOHR tracked a new episode of the interruption of drinking water in Al-Hasakah city and countryside in 2020, as Turkish forces shut down “Aluk” water station in the countryside of Ras al-Ain (Seri Kanier), which supplied the city of Al-Hasakeh city and surrounding areas in its countryside with drinking water. The pumping of water to the area was stopped under the pretext of “maintenance”. It is worth nothing that it was the ninth time for Allouk water station to be de-activated by Turkey. The Autonomous Administration had refused the Turkish forces’ request of increasing the capacity and volume of electricity supply to the “Peace Spring” areas, so the Turks retaliated by cutting off drinking water supplies completely. Similarly, SDF cut off the power line that supplies Ras al-Ain city and countryside, controlled by Turkish forces and proxy factions, in response to the water cut-off in SDF-controlled areas.
- Most of essentials and basic services have become unavailable, while food and fuel crises hit almost all Syrian geography. On September 6, SOHR sources reported that fuel and transportation crises re-struck regime-controlled areas. In the meantime, the sever bread shortages which plagued the Syrian people in early September 2020, came to the fore again in mid-November and lasted until the end of the year.
The most prominent corruption files in 2020 was that of Rami Makhlouf, Bashar Al-Assad’s tycoon cousin. Makhlouf was a key pillar of Al-Assad regime’s economy, the financial executive arm of the regime, the regime’s partner in looting the Syrian people’s money and public funds, and one of the most important backers financing Al-Assasd’s war effort since 2011. The rift between Rami Makhlouf on one hand, and the Syrian regime and the Russians on the other, started after the regime and Russians seized “Al-Bostan Association” in 2019 and dissolved all affiliated militias under the pretext of “corruption”. At that time, the regime confiscated the funds of Rami Makhlouf and his mobile phone company “Syriatel”, arrested officers, regime soldiers, managers, employees, technicians and fighters working for businesses and associations belonging to Rami Makhlouf, asked Makhlouf to pay funds owed to the “Syrian Telecommunications Regulatory Authority”, and froze his assets under “precautionary seizure”.
Rami Makhlouf has been accused of tax evasion and illicit enrichment during the Syrian war which started in 2011. Makhlouf, however, accused the security services of arresting employees working for his business in order to force him to give up and resign from his companies, particularly “Syriatel” company which controls nearly 70% of Syria’s telecommunication market.
Most of employees in Makhlouf’s companies, arrested by regime security services, were released later in September 2020, including 41 employees in “Syriatel” and 57 others in “Al-Bostan Association”. Furthermore, 58 regime officers and soldiers who dealt and cooperated with Rami Makhlouf affiliated militias were also released.
Moreover, the entire Syrian geography, no matter which power dominates, struggled with poor surveillance and wide prevalent of corruption due to the extreme poverty, sanctions and Syrian currency plunge, which helped stockpiling, monopoly and black markets to “flourish”. In the wake of sever crises in Syria in 2020, corruption noticeably escalated and prevailed even among top officials, as SOHR disclosed, in January 2020, several acts of corruption by officials of the “Salvation Government” via the “Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs” which struck deals with humanitarian and aid organizations operating under its banner, seizing all support provided for these organizations and aid supplies allocated for displaced people, which later were sent to HTS fighters.
As for SDF-held areas, reliable sources informed SOHR on April 17 that fighters and commanders of “Manbij Military Council” were involved in smuggling operations between areas held by “Euphrates Shield” factions, and areas under the control of “Manbij Military Council”, where the smuggled goods were sold for much higher prices. It is worth noting that the crossings of Tal Tamr, which have been prepared for such smuggling operations, are under supervision of Jaysh Al-Thwaar, Sh’aytat and SDF.
While in November 2020, reliable SOHR sources confirmed that officials in Al-Hawl camp and some members of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) received bribes reached $4,000 each in return for helping 110 extremist ISIS women to move from their section inside Al-Hawl campin Al-Hasakah countryside, to other sections allocated for Syrian and Iraqis refugees. These officials also allowed the camp’s inhabitants to bring in large sums of money over $200 which is officially allowed by the camp’s administration
Recruitment operations and the transformation of Syrian fighters into mercenaries
In light of the sever economy hardship in Syria, some regional states have exploited and recruited many Syrians, turning them into mercenaries to guard and serve their own interests outside Syria. Russia, for example, has recruited nearly 3,000 Syrian fighters, via “Wagner Security Group” to fight in Libya onthe side of the “Libyan National Army”, at the same time when Turkey has recruited 18,000 Syrian fighters, including 350 children under the age of 18, sending them also to Libya to fight alongside the “Government of National Accord”. Additionally, Turkey has recruited 2,580 Syrian mercenaries thrown into battles in Azerbaijan. Not to mention the child recruitment operations by the SDF-backed “Al-Shabiba Al-Thawriyah” (Jawani Shourshokr) which kidnap children, forcing them to join its affiliated military groups.
Increasing forced mass displacement…shoddy and unfit refugee camps…”farcical” Russian and regime-sponsored conference on refugees’ return…regime efforts to profit from the plight of refugees stranded on Lebanon-Syria border
The fierce and violent battles among all warring parties in conflict zones in Syria led to the destruction of vital infrastructure almost completely, forcing more than half of Syria’s population to displace to other areas in and outside Syria, as the Syrian civil war has been descried as the “worst man-made disaster since World War II”. In this context, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented enforced displacement movements during the war, shedding light further on Al-Hawl camp which has become the largest refugee camp in Syria with nearly 70,000 displaced people and refugees living in it, mostly of whom fled from areas which had under the control of ISIS.
Another refugee camp on the Iraq-Syria-Jordan border triangle, Al-Rukban camp, is struggling with dire economic, social and medical situations, posing a threat to the lives of 11,000 displaced people living there. It is worth noting that Idlib and surrounding countryside experienced the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people over the military operations by regime forces and the Russians. Meanwhile, displaced people in Harbanoush camp in northern Idlib, Talmannas camp in the west of Kafriya village in the north-eastern countryside of Idlib, and other makeshift camps in Deir Hassan village near the Syria border with the Iskenderun region in northern Idlib are suffering from similar disastrous humanitarian situation.
On February 16, the Syrian Observatory confirmed that the number of displaced people in Idlib and Aleppo exceeded two million, following the expansion of contested and fought over areas. The Russian and regime forces’ latest military escalation in Idlib and Aleppo since mid-December 2019 led to the largest displacement wave ever, amid dire humanitarian situation in the wake of lack of minimum levels of basic livelihood and overpopulation in areas of displacement. While on July 14 SOHR activists monitored a new wave of displacement in Ariha city and other villages in Jabal Al-Zawiyah, as civilians were fleeing from the ongoing Russian airstrikes and intensive bombardment by regime ground forces, with tens of rockets and artillery shells hitting the areas. Idlib is one of the most overpopulated Syrian provinces with large numbers of displaced people and refugee camps, which drains the province’s own economic resources and leads to the spread of various negative social phenomena, including the high ratio of poverty, unemployment, crimes and violence.
Furthermore, Syria has experienced several incidents of enforced displacement which aimed at changing the demographic structure of specific regions. One example, among many, is Turkey’s demographic change in Afrin canton. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has monitored and tracked such changes in Syria which started in “Al-Kedam” neighbourhood in Damascus on March 13, 2018, and were followed by several displacement operations in accordance with deals and agreements between factions and representatives of the areas which experienced mass exodus on one hand, and Russian and regime forces on the other. The Syrian Observatory documented an estimated 120,000 displaced people who left their areas in eastern Ghouta, southern Damascus, southern Rif Dimashq, eastern Qalamoun, north Homs countryside and south Hama countryside, and headed to northern Syria region. Most of these displaced people moved to Afrin canton, and in turn, hundreds of thousands of Afrin inhabitants were forced to displace due to “Peace Spring” operation. After the Turkish-led operation, tens of thousands of displaced people were settled in the houses and farms that belonged to Afrin’s indigenous Kurdish civilians who were forced to flee the violations and atrocities of Turkish forces and their proxy factions.
As for Syrian refugees, the Syrian regime exploited the plight of refugees stuck on the Syria-Lebanon border since March 23, 2020, the date of the closure of the Syria-Lebanon border crossings, when hundreds of Syrians living in Lebanon wanted to return to Syria after they had lost their income, along with the start of the coronavirus outbreaks. The Syrian regime’s authorities issued “Resolution No. 46” on July 8, 2020 preventing Syrian citizens from entering Syria, unless a sum of 100 USD was handed over and exchanged, on arrival, into Syrian pound at an official rate set by the Syrian Central Bank. Such obstinate decisions and procedures by regime authorities led to the death of a Syrian girl on the Syria-Lebanon border.
On the other hand, Russia and Syrian regime allied nations insisted on holding an international conference on refugees’ return in November. It is worth noting that the European Union member states, which host the bulk of Syrian refugees, as well as the United States boycotted the conference, while a United Nations representative attended as an observer. Meanwhile, the conference failed to find a workable solution for the refugees’ hardship, especially with the ongoing killing, displacement and demographic change throughout Syria, let alone the major donors’ shrinking funds allocated for Syria’s post-war reconstruction, which would cost around $400 billion according to initial reports.
Increasing suicide cases
In light of the disastrous living conditions of most of Syrian people, SOHR has recorded 51 confirmed cases of suicide in Syria since the beginning of 2020, including 13 cases of children under the age of eighteen and eight cases of women, with Aleppo province topping the list of the number of suicides. Violence and protracted conflicted have greatly contributed to the increasing the number of people whose dire conditions forced them to kill themselves.
Many factors have led to blocking and suspending aid supplies provided to many IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp, which threatens Syria with unprecedented famine. Some prominent reasons behind depriving Syrian people from aid allocations can be summarised in the following:
- Widespread security chaos
- Lack of good governance and effective role of the governmental actors that should serve civilians.
- The inability of humanitarian organizations in many areas to provide the needed aid to civilians.
- The corruption and seizure of aid supplies that led to preventing relief allocations from reaching the families in need
- The threats of hindering aid supplies provided by international organizations with the aim to exert pressure on international actors regarding specific interests.
And as a part of the “politicization” of humanitarian aid delivery into Syria, vital aid supplies have been blocked as the United Nations Security Council failed to extend permission for humanitarian aid to be delivered via crossings on the Turkey border, because of the Russian-Chinese veto. Moscow has insisted on reducing the number of border crossings to one, Bab Al-Hawa crossing in Idlib, arguing that 85 % of humanitarian aid supplies pass through this border crossing. Russia also wanted to shut down the other border crossing, Bab Al-Salama crossing in Azaz in northern Aleppo.
The protracted conflict in Syria has left serious unforeseen consequences regarding the medical sector, including the following:
- Acute shortages of medicine and medical equipment required for treating patients .
- Lack of medics and doctors as many have fled Syria.
- The spread of diseases and epidemics.
- The increasing ratio of deaths among civilians.
- The prevalence of malnutrition due to shortage and pollution of food and drinking water in some areas.
- The lack of serums and vaccines need for diseases, infections and epidemics.
It is worth noting that most of Syria’s resources goes into armament, while 70% of health and medical services and hospitals have been put out of services due to the military operations.
SOHR had cited the World Health Organization’s warning and concern considering the rapid outbreak of the novel coronavirus, especially in refugee camps. The Syrian Observatory has tracked the development of coronavirus pandemic, documenting the confirmed infections and deaths across Syria, which were regionally distributed in late 2020 as follows:
- Areas under the control of Autonomous Administration: 45,000 infections and 1,600 deaths.
- Areas under the control of Turkish forces and their proxy factions: 27,000 infections and 350 deaths.
- Regime-controlled areas: nearly 130,000 infections and 8,200 deaths.
Deteriorating education and Ideological curricula
Education is a sector which has had the largest share of damage and destruction due to bombardment and displacement, with a large number of those displaced being children, where children are either dropping out or stay in education but facing obstacles hindering their education. The deteriorating education in Syria could be attributed to many factors, including the destruction of infrastructure, low funds, lack of teachers, fragile curricula, and high rate of illiteracy. One example, among many, of deterioration of education is the “politicized and ideological” curricula provided by the Autonomous Administration in their controlled areas. Accordingly, some residents refuse to send their children to schools in these areas. Besides, military powers control some schools and educational centres in Autonomous Administration’s held areas. Moreover, the certificates are not recognized in areas outside the control of the Autonomous Administration, which means that such certificates will be useless if their holders decided to move to another area inside Syria or another country.
Repression and violations against media activists
The Syrian Observatory has monitored and tracked repression and violations against journalists, media practitioners and activists whose job is to document violations committed by the various warring parties against the Syrian people. Such violations included prosecution of Syrian, Arab and foreign journalists, threats of killing, arrests, enforced disappearances and killing. From March 15, 2011 to November 16, 2020, SOHR activists documented the death of 748 Syrian journalists. Furthermore, 100 journalists were killed by ISIS and opposition rebel, Islamic and jihadi factions, and here is a quick breakdown:
- Rebel and Islamic factions killed 13 journalists.
- HTS (Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham) killed 18 journalists.
- ISIS was responsible for the killing of 74 journalists, including five foreign journalists, as well as an activist worked for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Also, 38 journalists have been abducted and forcibly disappeared in areas under the control of opposition factions and Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham. SOHR has also documented a blatant violation against journalists by Turkish forces, when two journalists within a convoy in Ras Al-Ain city were killed during the Turkish-backed military operation “Peace Spring”.
In regime-held areas, however, SOHR activists say that Al-Assad’s regime has been clamping down on and arresting Syrian as well as foreign journalists who criticize the regime, oppose its policy or go into issues of corruption. Regime forces and their proxy militias have killed 541 Syrian journalists and eight foreign journalists. Among the total number of journalists killed by the Syrian regime there were seven females as well as five SOHR activists killed in Latakia, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Damascus and Rif Dimashq; while 56 other journalists died under torture in regime prisons. Additionally, Russian aircraft have killed 29 Syrian journalists.
On the other hand, SDF-held areas have also witnessed violations against journalists and media activists. SOHR sources have confirmed the deaths of six activists killed by SDF members, while five journalists had disappeared in SDF-held areas and their fate remained known. While the International Coalition aircraft killed three Syrian journalists, including a journalist who was working as an activist at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Raqqa city.
SDF-held areas: Signing oil deals with U.S. amid regime condemnation…unprecedented escalation in Ain Issa at the end of the year
SDF’s new deals with the United States concerning the petroleum sector in eastern Euphrates region led to the signing of an agreement between Syria Democratic Forces and “Delta Crescent Energy”, seemingly an ad-hoc American oil company, in late July 2020. The new agreement stipulates maintaining, developing and modernizing oil fields in SDF-held areas, in addition to providing two mobile refineries which are planned to process nearly 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
In an effort by Washington to control Syria’s oil, as most of oil fields are located in Deir Ezzor and Al-Hasakah provinces in north and east Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has rejected these deals, while Russia, Turkey and Iran criticised them, with the refusal of the people of Deir ez-Zor, which comprises an Arab majority.
In this context, the Syrian Observatory monitored security tensions in Deir ez-Zor which resulted in human losses, especially of oil workers, in addition to attacks on tribal elders in Deir ez-Zor, where the Syrian Observatory documented a number of assassinations attempts on tribal elders and sheikhs in the area.
The Syrian Observatory also documented several assassinations targeting tribal elders and dignitaries in Deir Ezzor.
On July 31, 2020, ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of “Ali Suleiman Al-Hamadah”, the official spokesperson for “Al-Ekaydat tribe”, in Al-Busayrah town in eastern Deir Ezzor. It is worth noting that “Al-Ekaydat” is a large Arab tribe which dominates the Near Euphrates region with some 500,000 members and affiliates.
On August 1, gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying dignitaries of “Ekaydat” tribe, including “Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Hafal” and “Sheikh Matshar Al-Hafal”, the uncle of the head of “Ekaydat” tribe and one of the owners of the land where Al-Omar oil field is located. The attack, which took place in Theban town in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, resulted in the death of “Sheikh Matshar Al-Hafal” and the car’s driver, while “Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Hafal” sustained serious injuries.
Another attack targeted “Ali Al-Salman Al-Bakari” the head of Al-Dahla village in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, he is also a senior dignitary of “Al-Bakarah” tribe, one of the largest Arab tribes in the region.
In this context, the “Ekaydat” tribe held SDF responsible for the series of assassinations against tribal elders and dignitaries, as SDF did not adopt the needed measures or procedures in order to control the security situation and put an end to the assassinations in areas under their control.
Moreover, SOHR activists monitored IN MONTH growing popular anger as well as the escalating protests and demonstrations in the wake of these repeated assassinations in the towns of Al-Shuhayl, Dheban and Al-Hawayej.
On the other hand, SDF-held had occasionally been subjected to military operations and attacks by Turkish forces and their proxy factions, disrupting stability in the region, increasing unrest, depleting more resources and fuelling public discontent. The strategic town of Ain Issa has been witnessing an unprecedented Turkish military escalation since November 10 to this date, through shelling and attacks in an attempt to cut off the Hasakeh-Aleppo road.
On December 24, 2020, SOHR activists documented a significant rise in the death toll of Turkish-backed factions due to Ain Issa’s ambush in Al-Raqqah governorate in the SDF-held area. Where SDF set up an ambush in the village of Ma’alaq near Ain Issa, planting landmines. Meanwhile, the factions carried out an infiltration attempt as SDF withdraw from the village. The ambush killed 31 fighters of the factions.
ISIS cells step up operations, while uncertainty surrounds the fate of Islamic State’s abductees
Despite counter attacks by Coalition forces and their Syria Democratic Forces partner, in addition to security campaigns by Russian and regime forces against ISIS cells, ISIS continues launching attacks on regime forces and SDF in areas under their control.
ISIS cells continue their escalating activities in various areas in the Syrian desert, targeting regime forces and loyal militias through ambushes, explosions and surprise attacks, inflecting human and material losses on regime forces.
This resurgence happened despites the considerable support by Russian and regime jets through airstrikes on ISIS position.
The escalating military operations were concentrated in Aleppo-Hama-Al-Raqqah triangle, in addition to the deserts of Homs and Deir Ezzor.
These areas were witnessing daily military operations, as Russians and regime forces are trying to put an end to ISIS escalating activities.
According to SOHR statistics, ISIS managed to kill 819 regime soldiers and loyal militiamen in 2020, including 108 Iranian-backed non-Syrian militiamen, in ambushes, attacks, shelling and clashes in the Syrian desert. Also, ISIS lost 507 fighters in clashes and airstrikes by Russian and regime fighter jets in the same period.
Meanwhile, ISIS cells in SDF-held areas were numerous and widely active, moving in the region “comfortably” despite the security campaigns by SDF and the International Coalition.
SOHR activists documented more than 480 operations by ISIS cells in SDF-controlled areas in Deir Ezzor, Al-Hasakah, Al-Raqqah and Manbij in 2020. These operations, including detonations, ambushes and attacks, claimed the lives of 208 persons: 86 civilians, including 10 children and six women, and 122 SDF fighters.
In 2020, the Syrian Observatory monitored the participation of the International Coalition in tens of SDF security campaigns through raids and airdrops in eastern Euphrates region, mostly in Deir Ezzor. During these operations, 113 persons were arrested for “belonging to ISIS”, including several ISIS commanders. Also, SDF and International Coalition Forces killed eight ISIS cells’ members, including former commanders. Moreover, SOHR sources have confirmed that tens of people had been arrested by SDF and International Coalition under the pretext of tracking down the group.
However, these security campaigns failed to end ISIS cells’ activities. The Syrian Observatory also monitored many ISIS operations, including killings, assassinations, bombings and attacks, as well as asking civilians to pay zakat by sending messages on WhatsApp and threatening them.
As for ISIS’s abductees, all sides remain quiet and provide no clarification on the fate of thousands of abductees, where fear continues to grow for the lives and fate of the abductees, including Father Paolo Daololio, Bishops John Ibrahim and Paul Yazji, Abdullah Al Khalil, a British journalist, sky news journalist and other journalists, in addition to hundreds of abductees from Ain Al Arab (Kobane) area and Afrin, as well as the people of Deir ez-Zor. The Syrian Observatory has called on the leaders of the International Coalition and SDF to make the outcome of investigations with the group’s prisoners public.
Turkey’s role in Syria: Escalating violations in Afrin, hidden ties to ISIS-linked military brigades and withdrawals from regime-held areas
During2020, Turkey continued to push deeper into Syrian territories.
On 25 February 2020, SOHR monitored Turkey’s land-grab attempts to expand its border further into Afrin and annex more Syrian territories in order to achieve several goals, the most prominent of which was expanding its borders on the outskirts of Balya village of Bulbala town to a distance exceeding 315 meters.
On June 7, 2020, very reliable sources provided the Syrian Observatory with detailed information about a battalion which consists of nearly 40 Iraqi fighters, operates under the banner of “Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah” faction, and works for the Turkish intelligence..
According to SOHR sources, the battalion works in northern Syria with a task of carrying out assassinations, executions and detonations.
Moreover, the Iraqi battalion used to bury people it killed in a mass grave on the outskirts of Susanbat village on the road between Al-Bab and Al-Ra’i in the north-eastern countryside of Aleppo. SOHR has obtained information about the fact that this battalion had killed nearly 300 civilians, combatants and ISIS members buried in the battalion’s mass grave in Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory highlighted all Turkish withdrawals from observation posts in areas annexed recently by regime forces, as out of 12 main Turkish posts in north-western Syria region, Turkish forces completely evacuated the following five posts:
- Murek and Shir Mghar in Hama countryside
- Anadan and Al-Rashideen in Aleppo countryside
- Al-Saraman in Idlib countryside.
While there were four other main Turkish posts out of regime-controlled areas, and they are as follows:
- Ishtabraq in the west of Jisr Al-Shughur
- Al-Zaytounah in Jabal Al-Turkman
- Salwah in the northern countryside of Idlib
- Qalla’at Sam’an in the western countryside of Aleppo.
As for the recently-established Turkish posts, SOHR activists reported that Turkish forces completely withdrew from the following four posts: Maar Hattat and Al-Sena’a in the east of Saraqeb in rural Idlib, Al-Kurani factory in Al-Zarbah, and Qubaytan Al-Jabal in Aleppo countryside. Furthermore, Turkish forces continued dismantling equipment in Al-Duwayr post in northern Saraqeb in preparations to evacuate it.
It is worth noting that Turkish forces are still stationed in several posts established recently in regime-controlled areas, including the grain warehouse in the south of Saraqeb, Al-Sayromat factory in northern Saraqeb, Tarnabeh in western Saraqeb, and another post in Aleppo countryside near Kafr Halab.
Turkish-backed areas:Seizure of civilians’ land and properties, imposition of levies and theft of antiquities and worship places
Violations against residents in the “Peace Spring” and “Olive Branch” areas continued to mountin 2020.
Since taking control of the area in October 2019, the Turkish-backed factions have been committing violations, stealing and looting civilians’ property, including the seizure of land and farms and the stealing agricultural equipment. They also prevented farmers from cultivating their land in villages on the frontlines separating Turkish-backed factions and SDF-held, villages such as Al-Mahmoudiyyah, Aniq Al-Hawa, Al-Qasimiyyah and Al-Rayhaniyyah, near Tal Tamr area in the northern countryside of Al-Hasakah.
Moreover, “Al-Hamzaat Division” had seized agricultural land owned by more than 100 families with an area of 30 hectare in Ras al-Ain countryside in the areas of “Peace Spring” in Hasakeh countryside.
According to SOHR sources, the villages captured by the al-Hamzaat Division were: “Qatina, Al-Hardana, Al-Dawiri, Masajid and Tal al-Barm”. Al-Hamzaat Division cultivates civilian land and steals its produce.
On the other hand, people’s complaints and anger were increasing due to the imposition of high levies by the factions. The people of the southern countryside of Ras Al Ain complained of the imposition of levies in unspecified amounts on passers-by at the checkpoints of Um al-Debs, Kua Shallah and Al-Mushirfeh.
In the areas of “Putin-Erdogan”, the Salvation Government’s General Authority of Zakat appointed an official in every olive pressing factory in areas under its control in order to collect “zakat” for the second consecutive year, since residents were forced to give this official an estimated 5% of the oil production. People refusing to pay had been threatened with arrest by security services or HTS-affiliated police outposts.
Meanwhile, a supervisory body affiliated to Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham monitored the work of those officials and imposed large penalties on those seen as lenient officials, despite a significant decline in olive crops and oil production in 2020.
In the areas of the “Olive Branch”, the factions of “Falcons of the North”, “Al-Muntasir Billah” and “Suleiman Shah”, known as “Abu Amsha”, and “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya” imposed levies on the people during the olive season and confiscated their production. The Syrian Observatory monitored 250 seizures of homes and shops by factions in Afrin in 2020.
On the other hand, the places of worship have not been exempt from vandalism and looting, as members of Turkish-backed factions looted the contents of the “Mar Touma” Syriac Church in Churches neighbourhood in Ras al-Ain within the “Peace Spring” areas in Al-Hasakeh countryside.
Meanwhile, SOHR sources have confirmed that members of the regime-backed 5th Corps have stormed a mosque in Al-Baq’aa neighbourhood in the west of Al-Lajat area in the eastern countryside of Daraa, destroying the mosque’s “minbar” (a pulpit in a mosque where the imam stands to deliver sermons) and sabotaging its contents. Moreover, the regime-backed militiamen prevented the residents from entering the mosque or even get close to it under the pretext that the mosque and its facilities be used by regime forces only.
Turkish-backed factions’ violations have extended to religious and archaeological sites as well, and the Syrian Observatory has exposed ongoing archaeological excavations, acts of vandalism and destruction of religious shrines in search for antiques. The factions have vandalized more than 25 archaeological sites, searching for antiquities, as they relied on inexperienced workers who used tools and means that were not commensurate with these delicate works. Not to mention the smuggling of Syria’s artifacts to Turkey where they are sold for large sums of money.
In mid-April, reliable sources informed the Syrian Observatory that militants of “Sultan Suleiman Shah” faction, known as “Al-Amshat”, began excavations and search for antiquities on the archaeological hill of Arnada in “Al-Sheikh Hadid” area in the western countryside of Afrin. Furthermore, the hill was exposed to excavation work almost daily by members of “Sultan Suleiman Shah” using heavy diggers. Such excavations and random search for antiquities caused significant damage and massive destruction to the hill. Similarly, “Sheikh Hamid” shrine, located in the village of Qastal Jando in Sharran district in Afrin countryside, experienced similar excavations and sabotage. It is worth noting that this shrine is a holy place for Yazidi Kurds and is also frequented by the region’s Muslims, and it is also a historical monument of Afrin canton. Residents of the canton accused members of Turkish-backed factions of such excavations, with the full knowledge and consent of Turkish intelligence which often facilitated these actions.
Turkish-backed factions, supported by Turkish forces, cut down forests and trees in the village of Routanli in Ma’abatli district, after taking approval from the Turkish-backed “Samarkand” faction there.
In mid-March 2020, Observatory sources reported that members of Turkish-backed factions cut down a large number of trees in Al-Mahmoudiyah neighbourhood in the centre of Afrin, as factions’ members continued to cut down trees in various areas in countryside.
In the “de-escalation zone”, Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham and factions work widely in excavation for antiquities in Idlib and its surrounding areas, where the province is witnessing a widespread antiquities trade, particularly with the facilities provided by Turkish officers in order to smuggles and sells these antiquities in Turkey.
Strengthening Russian presence in Syria through ongoing support for Assad regime, agreements with Turkey and attempts to exclude Iran from the scene
Russia has sought to strengthen its presence in Syria and maximise its gains by supporting regime forces in their military operations in Aleppo and Idlib against jihadist factions, as well as in the Syrian desert against ISIS.
In Aleppo and Idlib, Russian support enabled regime forces to capture 3000 areas at the beginning of the year, and took full control of the Damascus-Aleppo international road, after which the Russians reached understandings with the Turkish side by signing an agreement between the two parties on March 5, 2020, in Moscow, known as the “de-escalation zone” agreement.
The agreement stipulated the following: announcement of a temporary ceasefire, establishing a security corridor and conducting joint Turkish-Russian patrols on the Latakia-Aleppo international road, resulting in 26 joint patrols in 2020, as Russia sought to preserve its own interests and presence on Syrian international roads.
Additionally, Russia had been conducting joint patrols with the Turks in NE Syria, and strengthening its presence on the Hasaka-Aleppo international road in order to consolidate its influence in the Syrian oil-reach areas, and in American-backed areas, seeking to shift the balance of power in Syria in its favour.
Russia was also seeking to implement a policy of “interim dominance” by controlling Iranian strongholds in southern Aleppo countryside, and redeploying around Idlib region.
Furthermore, Russia had apparently given tacit consent to Israeli strikes on Iranian strongholds in Syria in order to curb Iranian influence in the eastern Euphrates and the desert region and to end Tehran’s military presence in Syria.
Also, Russia carried out intensive airstrikes on areas under the control of the factions under the pretext of countering “terrorist organizations”.
And the Russian desire to change the balance of power in Syria, and particularly in the provinces of Al-Suwayda and Daraa, through its “Fifth Corps” was clear for all to observe.
In 2020, SOHR activists documented the deaths of 1,236 people in aerial and rocket attacks by Russian forces on different positions across Syria. The fatalities were distributed as follows:
- 235 civilians, including 58 children and 41 women.
- 394 ISIS members
- 607 fighters of rebel and Islamic factions, Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the Turkestani Islamic Party and other Arab and foreign fighters.
On December 10, Russian forces opened their first headquarters in Al-Bokamal city in eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, near the Syria-Iraq border.
The Russian-backed “5th Corps” started to deploy its forces in several posts on the Syria-Iraq border near Al-Bokamal city. It is worth noting that several Iranian-backed militias, including Al-Nujabaa’ Movement, the Iraqi Hezbollah and “Al-Abdal”, had handed over several posts to the 5th Corps, in accordance with a Russian-Iranian agreement, in reference to the end of the Russian-Iranian cold war.
Iran resumes “Shi’aism” proselytising and recruitment operations, and strengthens military cooperation with the regime
Despite popular and international discontent over the Iranian presence in Syria and the attempts by Washington, Moscow and Tel Aviv to expel Iran from Syria by various means, Iran in 2020 continued to strengthen its presence on Syrian territory by supporting and enhancing its relationship with the Syrian regime.
That support was reflected through an agreement between Tehran and Damascus on strengthen military and security cooperation, under which Iran supplied Syria with its most modern weaponry, especially 3rd Khordad air defence systems.
Meanwhile, Iranian forces continued recruiting more people to their ranks in southern Syria and western Euphrates region, as “Shi’aism” proselytising operations (conversion to Shiite) were still underway in public through the offering of financial incentives and continuous usage of religion and sectarianism.
According to SOHR statistics, the number of volunteers in southern Syria has exceeded 8,600. While the number of recent recruits in the ranks of Iranian forces and loyal militias in the west Euphrates region has risen to nearly 7,450 Syrian young males and adult men.
Iranian militias intentionally intensify these recruitment operations, exploiting Russia’s preoccupation with recent agreements with Turkey regarding the “de-escalation zone” and north-eastern Syria.
In Daraa province, the Iranians and Hezbollah continued recruiting more people via pro-Iranian spiritual figures in “Saraya al-Areen” of the 313th Brigade in northern Daraa, and Shiite centres in Sayda, Da’el, Izraa. It is worth noting that the recent recruits undergo training courses in Al-Lajat area in eastern Daraa.
Similarly, in Al-Quneitra, near the border with the occupied Syrian Golan, the Lebanese Hezbollah continued strengthening its presence by recruiting young people who had failed to join the mandatory and reserve military service of regime’s security branches. In addition, the Iranians exploited the lack of job opportunities, attracting more people. Conversion to Shiite and recruitment operations are concentrated in Al-Baath city and Khan Arnabah.
While in the west Euphrates region, recruitment was noticeably escalating in 2020 in the area from Al-Mayadin to Al-Bokamal in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, which is fully controlled by Iranian forces.
2020 | Significant Israeli escalation on Syrian territory
Israel continued to attack targets throughout Syrian , claiming that the Iranian presence in Syria and the support for Hezbollah threatened its security and exploiting the security chaos in the country, while the Syrian regime parroted it favourite cliché of “reserving the right to respond to these attacks” as always.
In 2020, the Syrian Observatory monitored 39 Israeli attacks on Syrian territory, which was the largest escalation ever.
The attacks were distributed as follows:
- 13 strikes targeted Deir ez-Zor, ten of which on al-Bukamal area and its countryside and the rest on Al-Mayadeen desert.
- Ten strikes targeted Damascus and its countryside.
- Six strikes targeted Daraa and Quneitra.
- Five strikes targeted Homs.
- Three strikes targeted Hama.
- Two strikes targeted Aleppo.
SOHR activists have documented the death of 213 people in these attacks, 42 of whom were Syrians, and 171 were of non-Syrian nationalities, and they are as follows:
- 12 regime soldiers
- 30 Syrian fighters
- Three militiamen of Hezbollah.
- 53 militiamen of the Popular Mobilization
- 94 Iranian-backed militiamen of non-Syrian nationalities
- 21 members of Revolutionary Guards.
An objective look at the Syrian scene in 2020 would show that the effects of humanitarian disasters and the Syrian crises have gone beyond Syria and its immediate region. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had warned of such effects at the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011. SOHR has appealed to the international community to intervene to stop the bloodshed and dangerous geopolitical conflict in Syria, and to save the world from its repercussions, which poses a threat to international peace and security.. The deaths of hundreds of thousands, the refugee crisis, smuggling operations and human trafficking across on the borders, and the crisis of radical organizations and their subversive members could have been avoided, had the international community acted swiftly.
SOHR strongly urges that the international community to prioritise finding a lasting solution to the Syrian conflict in 2021 and to put an end to the suffering of millions of innocent and peaceful Syrians.