Syria Update

13 - 19 November 2019

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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.

Syrian lira tumbles as Lebanon rises up

In Depth Analysis

On 13 November, the market exchange rate for the Syrian pound fell to 700 lira to the dollar; as of 18 November, the rate has slumped to 720, marking a new low-water mark in the currency’s progressive decline. In November alone, the lira has shed more than 8.5 percent of its value, but this recent dip tells only part of the story. The decline ends six weeks of relative market stability in Syria, but it follows two earlier episodes of brief, rapid decline that have taken place this calendar year. Among economists and analysts of the Syria conflict, by far the most common explanation for the latest slump is the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon. Since September, surging demand for dollars in Lebanon has fueled a vicious circle in which rising black market exchange rates have encouraged a dollar buyback and have driven commercial banks to impose piecemeal controls to prevent capital flight, while banks nationwide have intermittently closed their doors to forestall a bank run by depositors. Without doubt, events in Lebanon are an important driver of economic instability in Syria: Lebanon remains Syria’s primary entry point to global markets and foreign capital; it is estimated that as much as $30 billion in deposits made by Syrians in Lebanon is effectively trapped in the country; and remittances made by Syrians living in Lebanon have shrunk, due in part to restrictions on dollar withdrawals and foreign transactions (see Point No. 3 below).

However, such explanations for the lira’s decline distract from the fact that Syria’s currency has lost more than 40 percent of its value since the beginning of 2019. While the consequences of Lebanon’s economic conditions for Syria cannot be ignored, it is important to bear in mind that the ultimate cause of the Syrian lira’s decline is undoubtedly the structural weakness of the Syrian economy itself (see Syria Update 20–29 June). Syria’s particular susceptibility to dollar shortages in Lebanon is due primarily to Syria’s own depleted reserves, which have been pilfered to sustain a growing import-export imbalance. To wit, Syria’s annual imports are valued at an estimated $4.4 billion—procured either on credit, or by raiding shrinking reserves; on the other side of the balance sheet, exports have effectively bottomed-out. Insecurity and an unfavorable business climate have prolonged the collapse of local production, while the shambolic state of Syrian infrastructure precludes quick fixes to boost Syria’s ailing productive sector. Indeed, the roads, rail networks, and electrical infrastructure that are necessary to sustain production have all been deliberately targeted by various actors throughout the conflict. Much of this infrastructure remains dysfunctional or nonexistent; consequently, entire economic sectors and areas await holistic rehabilitation to restore meaningful functionality (regional functionality and rehabilitation are explored at length in COAR’s Needs Oriented Strategic Area Profiles).

Most consequentially, despite rumors of impending policy changes, the Syrian Central Bank has refused to alter the official dollar exchange rate—pegged at 434 lira to the dollar—or respond to the lira’s fall, suggesting that Damascus is out of realistic options. Damascus was not always supine in the face of currency collapse, although the wisdom of its past interventions is questionable. In 2015, the Central Bank propped up the lira by selling off foreign currency to currency traders—stabilizing the lira in the short term, but aggravating the conditions that have left the currency vulnerable as the conflict has worn on. More recently, in late September, the Central Bank created a fund to receive dollar deposits from wealthy businessmen in order to prop up the lira (Syria Update 25 September–1 October). For reasons that remain unclear, this initiative has evidently failed. To date, traders’ calls for new instruments to support importers have gone unanswered.

The Syrian lira continues to tumble as Syria and Lebanon square off against deep economic headwinds. Image courtesy of Independent Arabia.

The last time Central Bank Governor Hazem Qarfoul addressed the crisis of confidence over the Syrian lira, in June, he pinned blame for the currency’s sinking value on speculation and international sanctions. Without doubt, the yawning gap between the black market and increasingly optimistic official exchange rates does encourage speculation. Likewise, it is true that restrictive measures and international sanctions have forced Syria into a compromising reliance on Lebanon, now a distinct liability. Moreover, in recent months, multiple volleys of U.S. Treasury sanctions have singled out Syrian transfer agents. Further explanations of Syria’s economic instability abound. Reference to past military campaigns suggests that the value of the lira is tied—at least loosely—to the status of Government of Syria military offensives, indicating that anticipation over a renewed campaign in northwest Syria should be taken into account in understanding the current crisis. The redeployment of U.S. forces to Deir-ez-Zor also has an impact. Denied the output of the country’s most productive oilfields, the Government of Syria may also struggle to meet domestic energy needs, and Damascus’s coffers may empty further (Syria Update 6–12 November).

Looking forward, the Syrian economy will likely remain susceptible to fluctuations in political, economic, and trade conditions that it lacks the means of actively countering. In the immediate term, the most pressing such concern is instability in Lebanon. However, it is important to bear in mind that the structural deficiencies that pervade the Syrian economy itself place the Government of Syria in an acutely vulnerable position vis-à-vis local communities. In the course of the latest dip in the lira’s value, the prices of essential food goods, including meat, dairy products, and produce, have increased by 30 percent, according to local sources. In the face of its withering purchasing power, the Syrian street is increasingly making economic demands of Damascus. Given the Government’s apparent inability to effectively meet these demands, there is a distinct risk that the rising costs of living will—like the status of detainees—become a persistent driver of instability that the Government of Syria will be incapable of mitigating.

NB: Due to an editing error, the In-Depth Analysis Section of the Syria Update 6–12 November misstated the estimated aggregate production of oilfields in eastern Syria. The output is approximately 135,000 b/p.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Popular Campaigns Call for Boycott of Turkish Goods Essential to Northeast Syria

Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On 16 November, local and media sources reported that the consumer goods imported from Turkey have all but disappeared from markets in SDF-controlled areas of northeast Syria, leading to significant rises in prices. General market conditions in areas east of the Euphrates River have worsened in the wake of Operation Peace Spring, but the most important driver of these conditions is the closure of crossings at Semalka (linking eastern Syria and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq) and Al-Aoun crossing in Menbij (linking SDF-held territories to opposition-controlled northwest Syria). Meanwhile, local and media sources indicated that popular internet-based campaigns championed by the Self-Administration itself have advocated for the boycott of Turkish goods, ostensibly in retaliation for Operation Peace Spring. On 9 November, the Executive Council of the Self Administration praised the boycott campaigns and called on traders and locals residents to forego Turkish goods, although no official or region-wide boycott has yet been enacted.

Analysis: Though calls for a popular boycott of Turkish goods allow Kurdish communities affected by Operation Peace Spring to wave the bloody shirt, the Self Administration is unlikely to implement such hardline economic policies on an official basis. Although the public acknowledgement of deep economic entanglement with Turkish producers is anathema to many communities in SDF-controlled areas, the fact remains that northeast Syria is heavily reliant on consumer goods imported from Turkey, which are not only cheaper than commodities sourced in Government of Syria-controlled areas, but also, in general, higher quality. The Semalka and Al-Aoun crossings are vital consumer lifelines to SDF-held areas, yet it is not clear that efforts to restore full commercial access will be successful in the near term. As such, calls for a boycott of Turkish products may constitute an attempt on the part of the Self Administration to pre-empt the negative consequences that are likely, should access remain severed for a prolonged period. Until access via these crossings can be restored, increases in prices are likely, as are shortages of goods, most including flour, of which SDF-controlled areas import approximately 50 percent of their needs from Turkey.

2. Russia to Lease Quamishli Base for 49 Years, Expand Reach Regionally

Quamishli City, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: On 14 November, local media reported that the Government of Russia has signed a 49-year lease to take control of the Quamishli airport, in northern Al-Hasakeh governorate, with the intention of establishing a military outpost there. Local sources confirmed that Russian forces had begun establishing a presence in areas south of the airport; according to media sources close to the Russian state, these forces had relocated from Hmeimim Airbase. Relatedly, on 15 November, media sources reported that Russian forces have also taken control of the former U.S. military base in Sarrin, south of Ein El Arab (Kobani), in northern Aleppo, following the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from the area. Sarrin military base is the last military outpost to be vacated by U.S. forces in Turkey-Syria borderlands east of the Euphrates River.

Analysis: Russia’s expanding military footprint east of the Euphrates River is highly significant at both the local and international levels. Locally, such forces are likely to support ongoing joint Turkish-Russian military patrols in border areas. In this sense, the Russian takeover of the U.S. base at Sarrin is a natural step toward cementing the Russian presence throughout northeast Syria, where Russia is effectively stepping into the role formerly played by U.S. in border areas, specifically in conducting joint patrols with Turkey, and in deconfliction between Turkish forces and the SDF. On the international level, the signing of a 49-year lease for Quamishli airport is not unexpected, and it answers to Russian ambitions for a more permanent presence in eastern Syria in answer to its regional security concerns. Not only will such a presence grant Russian forces leverage over the SDF, this control may also provide a staging ground for Russian missile defenses, allowing for power projection over much of eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Notably, it will also be seen as an overt challenge to U.S. forces now stationed in Deir-ez-Zor and eastern Al-Hasakeh governorates. In this sense, even a modest Russian military presence carries the potential to dramatically reshape local and regional conditions over the long term.

3. Cash Programs at Risk Amid Lebanon’s Political, Economic Turmoil

Beirut, Lebanon: On 19 November, the Association of Banks in Lebanon announced the reopening of Lebanese banks, thus ending a seven-day strike initiated by bank employees on 12 November. The Association also announced a set of universal banking restrictions, the most notable of which lowers the weekly ceiling on dollar withdrawals, and restricts the transfer of money outside the country to cases of “urgent personal expenses.” As per the statement, these measures are temporary, and may be rolled back or eased upon the formation of a new cabinet in the country. These capital controls are meant to remedy the general liquidity crisis in Lebanese markets and prevent further fluctuation in the open market value of the Lebanese lira, which is increasingly drifting from the dollar to which it is officially pegged. This fluctuation has had a significant impact on the availability of fuel and the continuity of import-dependent businesses. Strikes and disruption of various sectors and services, including gas stations, hospitals, telecom providers, and bakeries, have been common during the past two months.

Analysis: The political and economic uncertainty in Lebanon entails serious operational challenges for programmatic interventions to meet the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Restrictions on money transfers and the recurrent closure of banks have introduced logistical and financial challenges to Lebanon-based actors, and organizations are already encountering difficulties conducting money transfers within Lebanon, implementing cash-based programs, and making salary payments. Looking forward, the scope of the challenges facing these actors is likely to grow, given Lebanon’s wholesale reliance on imports, which places future procurement in further jeopardy. These adverse conditions are likely to obtain so long as Lebanon’s political process—a decidedly long-term project—remains deadlocked. In the meantime, financial uncertainty casts a long shadow over all these considerations. The Lebanese Central Bank’s refusal to implement nationwide financial regulations only adds to the uncertainty brought on by Lebanon’s march toward a severe liquidity crisis. Lebanese stand to lose most due to this volatility, yet Syrians living in the country will no doubt feel the aftershocks. Interruptions to cash support will have an immediate impact, while there are signs that Lebanese have sought out real estate as a financial safe haven; in the long term, an overheated housing market will only add to the financial burdens borne by vulnerable Syrian populations, whose few economic lifelines are already at risk.

4. Government of Syria Said to Control Tishreen Dam

Aleppo Governorate: On 18 November, a spokesperson for Russian forces in Syria, Boris Fomichev, stated that the Government of Syria had taken control of Tishreen power station, the second largest hydroelectric power plant on the Euphrates River. Russian military patrols are said to have begun in the vicinity of the power station on the same date. However, during a 19 November press conference following a meeting with the commander of the Russian Police in the Euphrates region, the head of the Kobani Military Council, Ismat Sheikh Hassan, denied that the Government of Syria had taken control of the facility. Hassan stated that work at the hydroelectric plant has not undergone any change. The capacity of the Tishreen power plant is estimated at 630 megawatts; it feeds both the Aleppo and Ar-Raqqa governorates. Notably, the claims surrounding control over the dam follow the Government of Syria’s seizure of military control over the Tabqa Dam and hydroelectric power station, in Ar-Raqqa governorate, on 20 October. This was carried out under the auspices of the 13 October agreement between the Government of Syria and the SDF, allowing the former to deploy forces in key areas in Ar-Raqqa and elsewhere in northeast Syria.

Analysis: At present, it is difficult to parse the conflicting statements regarding technical coordination between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria to operate the Tishreen power station. The Government of Syria has naturally prioritized restoring full control over such infrastructure in areas under the control of the SDF, and it was widely expected that a technical-administrative handover would form a central pillar of the Government’s strategy for returning to northeast Syria, under the terms of the 13 October agreement. However, these negotiations have evidently stalled, if not broken down entirely, due to the Government of Syria’s categorical unwillingness to make concessions, and the redeployment of U.S. forces to Deir-ez-Zor. It could be argued that the renewed U.S. military presence has emboldened the SDF to walk away from negotiations with Damascus. However, it is not clear that the strategic backstop provided by American armor in Deir-ez-Zor will have an equally strong impact on local technical and administrative negotiations between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria in areas further afield. Looking forward, control of such infrastructure as the Tishreen Dam will be of vital concern for non-humanitarian programmatic interventions. Should the U.S. military commitment to the SDF falter, a complete handover of such infrastructure is distinctly possible.

5. Israeli Strikes Target Islamic Jihad in Syria, Underscoring Continuing Intervention Risk

Damascus: On 19 November, media sources reported that at least five missiles, reportedly launched by Israel, targeted subjects in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport. Government of Syria air defenses reportedly intercepted several of these missiles; there are currently no reports of casualties from the fusillade. The attack reportedly came in retaliation for an earlier volley of missiles intercepted by Israeli air defenses over the Golan Heights. These attacks followed a deadly missile strike in the Mazzeh neighborhood of Damascus on 12 November, which targeted Akram Al-Ajouri, a commander with the Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad; Al-Ajouri survived the attack, which reportedly killed two individuals including his son, and wounded 10 others.

Analysis: Although infrequent over recent months, Israeli airstrikes in Syria have been recurrent throughout the Syria conflict, though they have done little to alter its overall course. In large measure, these attacks have targeted Iran-linked military installations and forces—capitalizing on the limited capacity of the Syrian military, its divided attention, and the general disarray among competing armed actors in Syria—as a means of countering Iran’s presence in the country. By contrast, the 12 November attack that initiated the latest Syrian-Israeli missile exchange was clearly directed towards Palestinian factions, a relative rarity. Notably, the attack in Mazzeh coincides with the killing of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu Al-Ataa in Gaza, by Israeli airstrike. In terms of their immediate impact, the strike differs little from past Israeli attacks targeting Iranian forces in Syria, and Israel perceives targets linked to Palestine and Iran as concerns of the utmost importance for its overall national security strategy. However, the 12 November strike underscores the fact that, despite months of restraint, Israeli military interventions in Syria remain a distinct possibility, and for a wide array of potential targets throughout the country (Syria Update 5-11 September).

6. Iran-Linked Groups Target of Continuing Demonstrations in Southern Syria

Dar’a Governorate: Throughout the reporting period, local and media sources reported that demonstrations took place across western rural Dar’a Governorate as the communities protested against the Government of Syria and its allied Iranian militias, and called for the release of detainees. Local sources reported that demonstrators staged public protests in Dar’a city, Tafas, Nawa, Tasil, Sahm El Golan, Tal Shihab, Yadudeh, Mzeireb, and Ajami. Graffiti and posters repeating the demands were reported in several of the communities. Notably, as per these sources, the Government of Syria has not taken any measures to quell the demonstrations, but has instead resorted to outreach with local notables as a means of containing the mobilizations and preventing them from intensifying and spilling over to other communities—to little immediate effect. Targeted killings, attacks on Government of Syria forces, and assassinations have also continued.

Analysis: Civil demonstrations against the Government of Syria have become commonplace in southern Syria; such actions have kept pace since the expiry, in February, of a six-month grace period that followed the region’s patchwork reconciliation at the hands of various armed groups supported by different regional actors, namely Iran and Russia. However, special attention should be paid to the fact that protests continue to specifically single out armed groups perceived as being close to Iran. In southern Syria, such groups are perceived as the chief perpetrators of violent crackdowns, arbitrary detentions, and breaches of the terms of local reconciliation agreements. This stands in sharp relief to local perceptions of armed groups backed by Russia, which are widely viewed as playing a constructive role locally, despite some accounts of their wavering effectiveness as local intermediaries with central authorities. At present, southern Syria is a checkerboard of armed actor influence and reconciliation models, intensifying local security and economic contests. These conditions curtail the Government’s of Syria’s ability to restore order, given the seemingly insurmountable, and competing interests at stake. Worse, the Government of Syria continues to refuse to release detainees, despite numerous legal measures that have raised public hopes it intends to do so; rather than mere obstinance on the part of the Government, it is probable that Damascus is simply seeking to avoid the explosive consequences of disclosing the fate of many detainees believed to have been killed in Government detention (Syria Update 23–29 October).

7. In Istanbul, Crackdown on Migrant Laborers Resumes As Grace Period Expires

Istanbul, Turkey: On 15 November, the governor of Istanbul announced that Turkish authorities had relocated 6,146 Syrians from Istanbul to temporary shelters located in other provinces since the beginning of a campaign targeting “irregular migrants” in mid-July. The announcement follows the expiration, on 30 October, of a temporary reprieve allowing migrants who were living in Istanbul without registration to leave the city of their own accord, or risk being caught up in the dragnet (Syria Update 18–24 July). Of note, the Istanbul governor’s office announced that security forces had carried out inspections of more than 3,000 workplaces between 1 November and 15 November, ostensibly in an effort to identify laborers who lacked the permits required to work in the capital.

Analysis: To date, labor and economic grievances on the part of Turks have been the most persistent drivers of the campaign to target Syrians in Turkey, and Istanbul has been at the epicenter of such measures in action. In addition to previous policies to direct (or force) Syrian workers to settle in other provinces, including a short-lived ban on travel to Istanbul and a suspension of new registrations there, local sources indicate that Turkish authorities are now applying increasing pressure to employers in Istanbul to comply with work registration requirements for Syrian laborers, in a bid to end hiring practices that make it cheaper to hire Syrian, rather than Turkish, employees. That authorities inspected more than 3,000 workplaces in the first two weeks of November serves as an indication that Turkey’s late summer campaign against unregistered Syrian workers and refugees residing in Istanbul may resume at pace. Whether the arrests and deportations to Syria that characterized the initial wave of this campaign, in late July, will also resume remains to be seen. Future initiatives in this regard will likely be responsive to Turkish public opinion. Operation Peace Spring, seen by many as a check against the perceived national security threat posed by Syrian Kurds, has met with overwhelming public support. It is doubtful the initial enthusiasm for this campaign will satisfy the domestic political imperative in the long term, as potential military operations in northwest Syria will push more refugees toward (and likely across) Turkey’s borders.

Key Readings

The Open Source Annex highlights key media reports, research, and primary documents that are not examined in the Syria Update. For a continuously updated collection of such records, searchable by geography, theme, and conflict actor, and curated to meet the needs of decision-makers, please see COAR’s comprehensive online search platform, Alexandrina, at the link below.

Note: These records are the sole responsibility of their creators. COAR does not necessarily endorse, or confirm, the views expressed by these external sources.

The ‘Shura Council’ Accepts the Resignation of the Salvation Government as It Begins to Elect a New President: Elections begin as the term of Salvation Government Prime Minister Fawaz Hilal draws to a close. Applications are being received, and elections may bring new actors into elected office, but the Salvation Government’s overall direction is unlikely to change.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 18 November

How a Moscow Skyscraper is Saving Assad from Western Sanctions: Big ticket real estate purchases in Moscow reveal the shell game that individuals close to the Syrian regime have played to circumvent sanctions and stash money outside Syria.

Source: Ozy + Financial Times

Language: English

Date: 17 November

Next Astana Summit Delayed Until Early December: The next Astana summit has been postponed until early December, following the decision by the Astana powers (Russia, Iran, and Turkey) to delay their trilateral meeting on Syria.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 18 November

Assad Warns Washington of ‘Iraq-style Scenario’: Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has repeated his warning to Washington that a continued U.S. military presence in Syria will lead to an armed resistance akin to that which ushered in the bloodiest phases of the Iraq war.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Language: English

Date: 17 November

Eastern Ghouta: The Regime Refuses to ‘Settle the Status’ of the Opposition … and Pursues Them: Russian forces conducted patrols in Kafr Batna, aggravating local tensions piqued by the Government’s refusal to reconcile more than 3,000 individuals in Eastern Ghouta (see Syria Update 9–15 October).

Source: Al-Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 11 November

New Configuration in the Syrian Regime’s Security Structure: The protracted conflict has reshaped the architecture of the security apparatus built by Hafez Al-Assad. As individuals connected to the Government itself take the place of those selected for sectarian loyalties, accountability and controllability are becoming the watchwords of Syria’s security establishment.

Source: Chatham House

Language: English

Date: November

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.