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Syria Update

18 April to 24 April, 2019

The Syria Update is divided into two sections.  The first section provides an in-depth analysis of key issues and dynamics related to wartime and post-conflict Syria.   The second section provides a comprehensive whole of Syria review, detailing events and incidents, and analysis of their respective significance.

The following is a brief synopsis of the in-depth analysis section this week:

The ongoing fuel crisis in Syria continues to drastically impact the Syrian economy.  Fuel shortages are now nationwide; individuals are largely unable to purchase fuel, transportation of both goods and people is becoming extremely difficult, industry has come to a halt, and even the military has had its fuel cut.  The fuel crisis has its origins in the international sanctions levied against Syria, which prevent Syria from easily purchasing imported fuel. However, ultimately Syrian fuel production has been drastically impacted by the conflict itself, and Syria is now completely reliant on foreign imports.  Considering the lack of financial capital available to the Government of Syria, fuel shortages should no longer be considered a temporary crisis; indeed, even if Syria’s allies are able to bring fuel into the country to temporarily alleviate fuel shortages, the crisis will resume once stockpiles are reduced.  The fuel crisis is now an existential threat to the Government of Syria; indeed, while the Government of Syria remains militarily unchallenged, it is perhaps the weakest it has been since the start of the conflict. This has two broad implications. The first is that the Government of Russia now holds a much greater degree of leverage over the Government of Syria, and can now compel the Government of Syria to acquiesce to Russian political and economic concerns.  The second is that the Government of Syria’s weakness is also a potential point of leverage for the international community and the Syria humanitarian and development response. International governments and institutional donors are in a better position to realistically leverage the Government of Syria than at almost any time previously; however, doing so will require an understanding of the actual situation on the ground, the willingness to enforce red lines, clear strategic priorities, and achievable demands.

The following is a brief synopsis of the Whole of Syria Review:
  • Russian and Iranian forces reportedly engaged in direct clashes in both Aleppo city and Deir-ez-Zor governorate; these events are unverified and their origins are unclear, but they nevertheless raise discussion of Russian and Iranian competition in Syria taking place at the local level.  
  • The Government of Russia rented the port of Tartous for a period of 49 years. The Government of Syria is in an increasingly dire economic position, and therefore increasingly compelled to sell its economic and infrastructural assets to regional actors in order to secure funding.
  • An informal neighborhood in Hama was slated for expropriation under the dictates of Law 40; nearly 1,000 vulnerable families will be evicted. Law 40 gives local municipalities the ability to expropriate informal housing areas almost at will, presenting a major HLP risk nationally.
  • The Lebanese Minister of Refugee Affairs announced he would soon present a Syrian refugee ‘return plan’ to cabinet; the plan reportedly intends to target NGO’s serving Syrian refugees, but Lebanese reliance on the NGO sector makes implementation of the plan unlikely for the time being.
  • Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham launched an attack on the outskirts of Aleppo city, further highlighting the fragility of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement despite Turkish guarantees.
  • The Salvation Government released details of its electricity grid rehabilitation plans;  reportedly the plan to rehabilitate the electrical grid is being coordinated with the Government of Syria to some degree, further indicating that a major offensive is not likely forthcoming in the near term.
  • A group of reconciled individuals were detained in Dhameer, highlighting the continued fragility of reconciled areas; considering the increased leverage of the Government of Russia over the Government of Syria, the Government of Russia may become a more viable advocacy target.
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif met with Syrian President Al-Assad and Turkish President Erdogan; Iran is increasingly becoming a conduit between Turkey and Syria, though a rapprochement between the two countries is unlikely so long as Turkish military forces remain in northern Syria.

Ongoing Fuel Crisis

In Depth Analysis

People queuing for hours and pushing thier cars towards a gas station in Aleppo City. Image courtesy of Reuters.

The ongoing fuel crisis in Syria continues to impact the entire Syrian economy.  Massive lines are forming at gas stations throughout the country, and many Syrians must wait for hours to use government-issued ‘smart cards’ to purchase gasoline and diesel rationed at 20 liters per person every five days. Fuel available for personal use is extremely expensive: 1 liter currently costs up to 600 SYP (~$1.15). If an individual were able to fill the fuel tank of a small vehicle (which is unlikely considering current rationing), it would cost up to ~$52 (based on a 45 liter fuel tank). As a point of reference, a state employee in Damascus generally makes between $65-$100 per month. Taxis and public transportation systems still in operation are now forced to charge exorbitant prices, both to cover the cost of gasoline and the time spent waiting to refuel. According to local sources, taxis are now up to 300% more expensive than prior to the crisis.  Much industrial activity that still takes place has effectively been put on hold. Many industries, such as the ceramics industry and agricultural processing facilities, have already been operating at reduced capacity for months, and now factories requiring diesel fuel, gasoline, or propane have widely ceased operations. Perhaps the most remarkable indication of the scale of the crisis are reports that fuel supplies to military units and governmental bodies have been cut. As noted in last weeks Syria Update, the Syrian Arab Army, Air Force Intelligence, and various other Government of Syria institutions reportedly had their fuel quotas cut by nearly 50%. Only select units such as the Republican Guard and the office of the Minister of Defence have reportedly received full fuel quotas.

The origins of Syria’s fuel crisis are often attributed to international sanctions. The U.S. in particular has leveraged regional states to prevent oil from reaching Syria, and likely leant on Egypt in order to prevent Iranian oil tankers from freely using the Suez Canal. Financial constraints have compounded such logistical issues: European Union restrictive measures and U.S. sanctions have depleted the finances of both the Government of Syria and individual members of the Syrian regime. Indeed, the fuel crisis truly began on October 15, 2018, when the Government of Iran was forced to suspend $3 billion credit line it had offered the Government of Syria in 2013 due to Iran’s own sanctions-related financial constraints.  According to sources, the Government of Syria requires ~$8 million dollars per day in order to meet existing fuel needs. Ultimately however, Syria’s fuel crisis is a consequence of the country’s decimated fuel production infrastructure. Prior to the conflict, Syria produced ~350,000 barrels of crude oil per day, and exported large quantities. Current production levels (24,000 barrels per day) fall far short of demand (~136,000 barrels per day), making unaffordable and politically difficult imports the only viable option.

There are no simple solutions to the fuel crisis. Iran can provide some fuel to the Government of Syria, but likely not enough to represent a sustainable solution to the logistical challenges presented by international sanctions. Theoretically, the Government of Russia and/or its allies can provide Syria with fuel; the President of Crimea has already offered to ship oil to Syria.  However, no pipelines connect Russia and Syria, and there is currently no capacity to transport Russian fuel overland, making Syria reliant on expensive Russian oil imports by sea.  The Government of Syria has attempted numerous mechanisms to facilitate private sector imports from Lebanon, but local sources note that fuel is difficult to source in large quantities in Lebanon, and Lebanese imports have had only a limited impact on actual fuel stockpiles. Moreover, bulk imports from Russia or a neighboring country would only alleviate the crisis for a short time. In the absence of a reliable and affordable supplies, the exhaustion of bulk shipments would only lead to the renewal of the fuel crisis.

Securing a reliable source of fuel has subsequently become an issue of almost existential concern for the Government of Syria. Like any modern economy, fuel is the most important resource in Syria’s economy. Fuel shortages lead to electricity shortages (which are already taking place in the majority of Government-held Syria), price increases across practically all forms of economic activity, and food shortages driven by higher transportation costs and stunted production. If farms and factories are unable to operate and civilians are unable to work, the prolongation of Syria’s fuel crisis should give rise to serious concern over the potential for ‘state collapse’.

Considering the dire prospects now facing the Government of Syria (and the entire civilian population of Government-held Syria), the fuel crisis is likely to alter the trajectory of the Syrian conflict in two fundamental ways. The first is that the Government of Syria is now likely to be more reliant on the Government of Russia, and Russia is likely to exert more influence over Syrian policy. Since its entry into the Syrian conflict in late-2015, the Russian government has demonstrated an ability to ‘stop’ the Government of Syria from taking certain actions. For instance, it has withheld military support to defer or prevent state-led military offensives. Russia has had more difficulty demonstrating positive leverage over the Government of Syria however, as demonstrated by sluggish implementation of the constitutional committee process, respect Russian negotiated reconciliation agreements, and the Syrian government’s slow progress on meaningful political and military reform. Now Russian shipments of fuel – which will only temporarily sustain the Government of Syria – are one of the only solutions to Syria’s fuel crisis. Russia thus holds a critical piece of leverage over the Government of Syria, which it can provide or withhold at will. For this reason, Russian policy and strategic priorities are likely to become a much more dominant force within the Government of Syria.

The second is that the weakness of the Government of Syria may present an opportunity for the international community to engage in Syria in the near to medium term. The Government of Syria faces no obvious challenge, but the rapidly deteriorating economy and the state’s inability to provide basic services is affecting stability in several regions. Indeed, Dar’a governorate has witnessed a growing services-based protest movement for the past several months. The international community may therefore be in a better position to exert influence over the Government of Syria than at almost any time since the beginning of the conflict. If robustly presented, targeted humanitarian and development interventions may be less likely to meet with resistance, especially with populations or sectors that have long been marginalized by de-facto state policy. This will require the international community, institutional donors, and the UN to strongly consider the ways in which they seek to influence Government of Syria behavior, ideally with an understanding of the actual situation on the ground, the willingness to enforce red lines, clear strategic priorities, and achievable demands.

Whole of Syria Review

Map

1. Russian-Iranian Clashes

Al Mayadin, Deir-ez-Zor Governorate; Aleppo City, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On April 19, media sources reported that clashes took place between Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces and Russian Military Police in the vicinity of Aleppo airport, in Aleppo governorate, and in Al Mayadin city, in southern rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate. Sources indicate the clashes in Aleppo erupted after Russian Police requested that Iranian forces evacuate the airport. Information on casualties is unclear. The clashes in Mayadeen reportedly resulted in the death of two Revolutionary Guard combatants, and two injured Russian Military Police. The cause of clashes in this location is unclear. Of note, the Government of Syria General Command of the Army has denied that the Iranian-Russian clashes took place.

Analysis: Reports of confrontations between Iranian armed groups and Russian Military Police are difficult to confirm. However, if confirmed, they are unlikely to reflect top-level Iranian or Russian orders, and are more likely the result of escalated local disputes. This is not to say that tensions between the Russian and Iranian governments in Syria should be ignored: The two are widely believed to be in competition over Syria’s economic resources and the shape and regional orientation of the Government of Syria’s internal structures. However, reports of such clashes mainly question the extent to which the interests of the two parties are aligned in Syria, and highlight the potential of further occasional clashes between Russian and Iranian military forces and their affiliates. It is highly unlikely that contestation between the two states will devolve to a point that it fundamentally affects the trajectory of the Syrian conflict in the near future.

2. Government of Russia Rents Tartous Port

Tartous City, Tartous Governorate, Syria: On April 21, President Bashar Al-Assad met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Yury Borisov, as well as various other Russian officials from the Foreign and Defence ministries, including Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Alexeyevich Ryabkov. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, officials discussed the upcoming summit in Astana, and the formation of Syria’s constitutional committee. Notably, Al-Assad’s meeting with Borisov emphasized the status of Syrian trade and industrial affairs in light of ongoing international sanctions targeting Syria. To that end, Borisov stated that the Government of Russia will sign an agreement with the Government of Syria to rent the entirety Tartous Port for 49 years; notably, the Government of Russia has had military access to the Tartous port since 1971. Borisov added that Tartous will serve a variety of military, economic and logistical purposes for the Government of Russia. Specifics relating to the deal are currently unknown.

Analysis: Economic agreements and cooperation between the Syrian government and its international partners have become a fixed feature of Syria’s economy. Indeed, both the Iranian and Russian governments have secured controlling stakes in many Syrian industrial sectors, infrastructure, and state services. To a great extent, the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure, widespread displacement of the Syrian workforce, heavy toll of sanctions, and the country’s deteriorating currency makes the leasing of assets by the Syrian government to its Russian and Iranian partners unavoidable. Though such deals are likely to cause some discontent among the state’s popular support, it is not expected this will prove sufficient to change the Government of Syria’s needs-based economic strategy. With regards to the Tartous deal, Russia has now secured a key strategic objective which increases its ability to project influence into the Mediterranean.

3. Hama Land Expropriation

Hama City, Hama Governorate, Syria: On April 18, several media sources reported that the Hama municipality notified civilians in the Mashaa Tayyar and Hay Al-Samak neighborhoods of Hama city that they would be evicted from their homes on April 23. This directive was reportedly issued by the municipality via the local police department, and claimed that the homes were located on land belonging to the University of Hama. Local sources note that the directive affects 1,000 vulnerable families (~8,000 individuals), and the eviction notice makes reference to Law 40. This law provides no compensation to evictees, and could result in fines and a prison sentence. Evictions have yet to begin, and residents are reportedly pursuing appeals via the Governor of Hama and local Ba’ath Party officials. However, the eviction order reportedly originates from Damascus, and local officials are believed to be under pressure to accelerate implementation of Law 40 in informal housing settlements.

Analysis: Law 40 empowers local municipal authorities and the Ministry of Local Administration to expropriate or demolish informal housing areas with impunity, but the Masaa Tayyar case is the second high-profile application of the law since it was passed in 2012 (the first was also reportedly in Hama city). The land in Mashaa Tayyar was originally purchased as an agricultural plot by its current owners from a large landowning family in the 1980s. The land was then expropriated by the Government of Syria in 2004, and officially allocated to the University of Hama as unused agricultural land. However, an informal settlement had developed on the land in the intervening period, and the expropriation did not occur. In essence, Law 40 has now been used to expropriate the land that had already been expropriated, but which has been occupied for decades. The use of Law 40, and the ease with which it can be used to clear informal housing areas should be considered a grave HLP risk facing Syria’s most vulnerable populations.

4. Lebanon to Draft a ‘Return Plan’

Beirut, Lebanon: On April 18, Government of Lebanon Minister of Refugee Affairs, Salah Gharib, announced that he will soon submit a plan for Syrian refugees to cabinet. Most notably, Gharib stated added that a main part of his plan would entail discouraging NGOs in Lebanon from providing “incentives” for refugees to remain in Lebanon.  However, Gharib did not discuss the specific details of the plan itself. It is worth noting that there are now several ‘refugee return’ plans proposed by various Lebanese political parties, to include the Lebanese Forces and the Progresive Socialist Party; these plans are largely differentiated by the degree to which the Lebanese government will engage with the Government of Syria.

Analysis: Nearly all political parties in power in Lebanon maintain that Syrian refugees must return but differ on the means by which this policy should be implemented. There is currently a split between whether returns should be pursued by establishing links with Damascus or through UN mechanisms. In the meantime, there is growing hostility of state officials and political figures towards NGOs serving Syrian refugees. NGOs are frequently portrayed as contributing to the continued refugee presence in Lebanon, but the extent to which Lebanon is willing or capable of clamping down on NGO activity is difficult to discern. This is particularly due to the fact that the NGO sector in Lebanon is an important employer of Lebanese youth, and purchases made by NGOs are a significant force in the Lebanese economy. Lower youth employment in this sector, or the withdrawal of NGO funding, could thus represent a destabilizing economic shock that the Government of Lebanon would likely prefer to avoid due to its dire economic situation. While Lebanese governmental policy towards NGOs is likely to become more hostile in the near to medium term, it is therefore unlikely that NGO activity will be significantly curtailed. For Syrian refugees in Lebanon however, state policy is likely to become increasingly harsh.

5. HTS Attack in Aleppo

Al-Rashideen, Aleppo Governorate, Syria: On April 20, media sources reported that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham attacked Government of Syria forces in Al-Rashideen, Aleppo. At least 30 Government of Syria-aligned combatants and three Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham combatants were reportedly killed. Reportedly, the atrack was carried out by Katiba Abu Omar Saraqab, considered by local sources to be a hardline unit within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The incident marks the first major Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham attack targeting Al-Rashideen, an important area in the vicinity of Aleppo city, in 2019.

Analysis: The motivations of the attack remain unclear, but was likely undertaken in retaliation for increased Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes on northwestern Syria over the past two months.  Indeed, muich of the shelling that has targeted northwestern Syria has originated from military bases in Rashideen. More importantly, the incident highlights the fragility of the northwestern Syria disarmament zone agreement despite the Government of Turkey’s increased influence in northwestern Syria. Indeed, while the Government of Turkey holds some influence over Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, it is unlikely to wield authority over the group, nor does it have the ability to stop cross-line violence. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is therefore unlikely to adhere to broader Turkish agreements with the Iranian, Russian, and Syrian governments. In fact, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s military action will likely continue so long as Government of Syria shelling and airstrikes persists in northwestern Syria.

6. Salvation Government Electricity Plan

Opposition-Controlled Northwestern Syria: On April 16, the Salvation Government General Directorate of Electricity disclosed details of its plan to rehabilitate electricity networks across northwestern Syria. As per the Directorate’s statement, the plan’s overall cost amounts to $1 million, and will be covered by the Salvation Government. Local sources also noted that the northwestern Syria electrical grid would be rehabilitated in order to reconnect to the Government of Syria’s electrical lines in the vicinity of Aleppo city and Abul Thohur.  Local sources added that this rehabilitation is to some degree being facilitated by the Government of Syria.

Analysis: While the rehabilitation of electrical lines in northwestern Syria is ostensibly taking place in order to power water stations and create electrical usage quotas for residents of northwestern Syria, this is reportedly not the only reason for the rehabilitation. Local sources note that the Salvation Government’s electrical rehabilitation, which is reportedly being done in coordination with the Government of Syria, is also taking place in order to facilitate greater electrical availability to Government-held Aleppo city.  Reportedly, these plans are being encouraged by both Turkish and Russian representatives. As such, the Government of Turkey and Russia’s increased involvement with the Salvation Government likely reflects their intention to maintain the broader stability of northwestern Syria. In light of the joint Turkish-Russian patrols across northwestern Syria, it is becoming apparent that both the Government of Turkey and Russia intend to prevent a Government of Syria offensive in the area, at least for the time being.

7. Detentions in Dhameer

Dhameer,  Eastern Qalamoun, Syria: On April 19, media sources reported that Government of Syria military security forces detained at least 40 reconciled combatants in the past week. Media also reports that Government of Syria forces also detained three women at a checkpoint as the women tried to leave Dhameer for Damascus. The detentions were reportedly justified by allegations that the women are married ISIS affiliates.

Analysis:  The fragility of reconciliation agreements and their inability to secure the protection of reconciled individuals remains a major concern throughout Syria. Indeed, protection concerns, disputes over a lack of services, and the impunity of local security branches are expected to persist for the foreseeable future. Here it is worth recalling elements of the in-depth analysis section of this weekly update, namely, that Russia was a major guarantor of most reconciliation agreements and has often attempted to compel the Government of Syria to respect the terms of these deals. Considering Russia will now likely have greater leverage over the Government of Syria due to the ongoing fuel crisis, international actors may reasonably consider advocating for the Government of Russia to ensure protection concerns in reconciled areas are addressed.

8. Zarif Meeting with Al-Assad and Erdogan

Damascus, Syria; Istanbul, Turkey: On April 18, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif convened a meeting with Turkish President Erdogan ahead of the Astana talks scheduled for April 25-26. The formation of the constitutional committee, the status of northwestern Syria, US. sanctions on Iran, and the return of Syrian refugees were reportedly discussed. Zarif’s visit to Turkey followed an earlier meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad and Walid Muallem in Damascus, Syria, on April 16, during which Astana and the northwest were discussed. Zarif reportedly briefed Erdogan on his meeting with Al-Assad, stressing that whilst the Government of Iran’s understood Turkish concerns, Syrian sovereignty must be respected. Shortly after his meeting with Zarif, Al-Assad received Russian Presidential Envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, in Damascus on April 19. Lavrentiev reportedly relayed positive messages from Saudi Arabia, with media sources claiming he presented Saudia Arabia’s potential interest in restoring diplomatic ties with the Syrian government. Relatedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Saudi Arabia soon, but the date of his visit has not yet been decided.

Analysis: Combined with Lavrentiev’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Zarif’s visits to Damascus and Turkey highlight the efforts of Syrian government allies to aid in the normalization of Syria’s ties with major regional powers. The Government of Syria’s current economic plight is likely a major driver of these efforts, particularly given U.S. sanctions limit the Government of Iran’s capacity to provide support. Rapprochement between the Government of Turkey and Syria remains unlikely for the time being however, especially given the continued Turkish presence in Syria’s northwest. Saudi Arabia represents a more likely candidate for normalized diplomatic ties, and can be expected to pursue opportunities in reconstruction and investment in Syria.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.