Syria Update

20 - 26 November 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 ‘Right’ Way Back to Damascus?

In Depth Analysis

On 22 November, amid a growing number of ‘fact-finding’ missions to Syria, predominantly by populist or overtly right-wing European political parties, several members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party toured Christian religious sites in Maaloula and Sednaya and met with Syrian state officials in Damascus. The visit was not a formal diplomatic mission, and the political figures involved are relatively marginal stakeholders. More importantly, despite the AfD delegation’s efforts to publicize its Syria tour, Germany’s positions vis-à-vis engagement with the Government of Syria, refugee returns, and reconstruction have not changed. Nonetheless, such visits by western political stakeholders are recurrent, and as such they bear critical attention. Most notably, AfD members have made at least two prior visits to Government of Syria–controlled areas, while members of France’s National Rally party (formerly the National Front) have visited Damascus on multiple occasions, the last of which came in August. Indeed, a small but growing number of Euoprean political stakeholders are beginning to make overtures toward Damascus, frequently over their interest in ‘assessing’ local conditions concerning the potential for future economic relations, or in the interest of eventual refugee return.

Among the foremost challenges presented by such unofficial ‘delegations’ is the fact that rather than being the outcome of sober, conventional diplomacy, they tend to be designed to generate publicity (largely through social media). Such visits are likely to curry favor among a political base that is exercised by refugee concerns; however, by effectively representing dialogue with Damascus as the remit of a single political faction, these visits also risk introducing an overtly partisan dimension to the otherwise (ostensibly) nonpartisan process to reach a durable solution to the refugee crisis — and to the Syria crisis as a whole. There is also a risk that such overtures will yield no tangible outcomes, or fail to move the ‘Overton window’ on engagement with Damascus, and thereby risk undermining the very concept of principled engagement with the Government of Syria.

This challenge is particularly acute, given that in the long term, all roads to Syria do lead through Damascus. By and large, international actors have reached a tacit understanding that engaging with the Government of Syria will be necessary to respond to the massive needs that have arisen as a result of the highly internationalized Syria crisis; currently, nearly 13.8 million Syrians — a decisive majority of the population — reside in areas controlled by the Government of Syria. Nonetheless, a large proportion of programming remains concentrated in pockets of territory that remain outside the Government’s control, but are progressively shrinking.

Caption: A member of the German political party AfD conducts an interview with Syrian state television during a visit to Damascus.

International political actors maintain that a détente with Damascus depends upon a credible “political transition,” as per UNSC Resolution 2254. A recent International Crisis Group report provides a roadmap illustrating how European actors may begin to cautiously return to Damascus to stabilize fragile Syrian communities. To this end, progressive relief from restrictive measures can serve as a point of leverage in exchange for independent access to undertake strategic rehabilitation of vital services. Without doubt, such a strategy will need to be conditional upon the outcome of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, safeguards against instrumentalization of aid, and an end to the armed conflict itself. The domestic political concerns of member states will also be of the utmost importance in shaping these processes.

These are, however, long-term considerations, and for the foreseeable future, further delegations are likely to continue to visit Government-held areas of Syria, as political stakeholders respond to the demands of voter bases eager to see domestic actors ‘doing something’ about Syria. In the near term, however, it is important to bear in mind that the Government of Syria will continue to promote such delegations as further evidence of Syria’s reintegration with the international community. Without doubt, the Government of Syria will also portray the fuller return of European actors to Damascus as a symbolic victory, yet unlike current overtures, such rapprochement will be conditional upon the Government of Syria’s willingness to make meaningful concessions.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Government forces advance in southern Idleb

Idleb Governorate: Throughout the reporting period, media and local sources reported that Government of Syria forces made limited territorial advances into opposition-held northwest Syria, which capitalized on intensifying aerial attacks by Russia and the Government of Syria. Since the beginning of November, these attacks have reportedly resulted in the deaths of 100 civilians, the widespread destruction of civil infrastructure, and the displacement of 9,105 families, according to the Response Coordination Group. Media sources reported clashes on frontlines in the same area; local sources indicates that Government of Syria forces had advanced into Ard El Zarzur, Um Elkhalayel, and Msheirfeh, located north of Khan Shaykun, indicating that, for the time being, Government of Syria military operations are prioritizing the establishment of control over the Khan Shaykun-Sanjar road.

Analysis: Limited territorial advances in southeastern Idleb governorate signal a potential turning point in Government of Syria long-stalled military operations in northwest Syria, following weeks of ramped-up aerial bombardment. Such an operation is part and parcel of an anticipated campaign to restore Government of Syria control over the M5 and the M4. Notably, Turkish-supported armed opposition groups within the National Liberation Front remain in partial control over major communities located along the M5 highway, namely: Ma’arrat An Nu’man and Saraqeb. Thus, any major military operations in the area will be subject to Turkish influence, or facilitation (‘Land Swaps’: Russian-Turkish Territorial  Exchanges in Northern Syria). More considerable territorial advances by Government of Syria forces in the area will require Turkey to facilitate the withdrawal of these armed groups, or to end its support for them. In return, the Government of Syria will be forced to take Turkey’s concerns into consideration, namely: the possibility of massive displacement toward, and potentially across, the Turkish border. An all-out military offensive is unlikely to accommodate these needs. Rather, should they continue, Government of Syria operations will likely proceed through a series of intermittent and geographically circumscribed advances.

2. Syria Trust moves to change religious charity registration

Damascus: On 17 November, unconfirmed media reports surfaced indicating that Asma Al-Assad, wife of President Bashar Al-Assad and the founder of the Syria Trust for Development, had issued a decision to link various Christian and Muslim religious charities to the Syria Trust and to register them with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Reportedly, the organizations targeted by the decision are carrying out projects in a wide array of fields, to include women’s empowerment, health services, and clothing distribution. The decision was reported to have been poorly received by the organizations; however, this negative reaction was muffled by the Government of Syria’s subsequent decision to shut down several organizations, apply pressure to key funders and supporters, and threaten other actors with similar punitive measures. While local sources have verified the Syria Trust decision to assert authority over religious programs, to date, it remains impossible to provide further information on its exact implementation.

Analysis: Faith-based charities are perhaps the most common type of civic organization in Syria; they have been common local as partners due in large part to the wide spectrum of registration and operational frameworks available to them. To date, such entities have registered variously with the Ministry of Endowments, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In general, entities registered solely under the Ministry of Endowments have received the benefited from the least invasive scrutiny from Syrian central authorities, due to their overtly religious character, their ability to leverage personal relationships with political and security stakeholders as a buffer against such influence, and the fact that such entities often collect funding from faith communities directly. The ultimate extent of the reported order to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and coordinate directly with Syria Trust is currently unknown. Local sources report that some local charities doubt whether the initiative will have a major impact on their ability to program. From the perspective of INGOs and donors, however, further attention is warranted. The trigger of this initiative is unclear, yet there is no doubt that many religious charities operate in a way that makes them functionally indistinguishable from traditional NGOs; any initiative to bring greater uniformity to this space may be a recognition of this fact, but it also jeopardizes the potential independence and operational flexibility of such entities, and risks bringing them under greater Government scrutiny. As such, close monitoring will be important to assess how and whether the order is actually carried out, and whether Government actors have the real capacity to convert nominal registration into meaningful oversight.

3. Government releases some Dar‘a detainees, many remain

Dara Governorate: On 20 November, local media reported that the Government of Syria had released 118 detainees, including women and children, in a rare public ceremony at the Dar‘a Governorate headquarters. With a few exceptions, including a university student who had been detained for six years, the vast majority of those released had reportedly been detained subsequent to the July 2018 reconciliation agreement in Dar‘a. However, the Dar‘a Governorate Martyr’s Documentation Office stated that only 72 detainees, among whom were nine children between the ages of 2 to 15, were released during the ceremony. The release of detainees comes in apparent response to the demands of long-running protests in Dar‘a Governorate against the Government of Syria and its security apparatus, including a recent escalation in the scope of protests against the Government and its allied Iranian militias in western rural Dar‘a Governorate.

Analysis: The release of detainees should be viewed as a sign that the Government of Syria recognizes the explosive potential of the detainee issue. Less clear is whether the Government has the means to meaningfully respond to demands for the release of detainees, which lie at the heart of ongoing protests. At face value, the release is an important public-facing gesture, given that the promises the Government has made in response to such demands thus far have largely gone unfulfilled (Syria Update 12-17 September). Nonetheless, there is little possibility that the release will put an end to protests in southern Syria. Thousands of detainees remain unaccounted for, and arbitrary arrests by Government of Syria forces continue to take place on a daily basis. Although the release of detainees is a fundamental demand of southern Syrian protesters, it is not the only grievance: basic service provision and the ouster of Iran-backed armed groups are also widely shared concerns (Syria Update 13-19 November). Like the fate of long-term detainees, these latter issues are likely to prove intractable, given that southern Syria’s patchwork reconciliation has entrenched a multitude of security actors throughout the region, whose competition for economic and security primacy is ongoing. As such, even highly resonant actions by the Government of Syria are unlikely to restore wider control or end general unrest, protests, and asymmetric attacks, so long as these efforts fall short of overall demands.

4. Turkey begins new wave of deportations from Urfa

Urfa, Turkey: Throughout the reporting period, media and local sources reported that 40 to 70 Syrians had been deported to northern Syria from Urfa province in Turkey since November 15. The affected individuals reportedly held temporary protection status (‘kimlik’), but were deported for working in restaurants, cafés, and workshops in Urfa without a work permit. Reportedly, the detainees were offered the option of deportation or one year’s imprisonment in Turkey. Meanwhile, there are signs that Syrians have been returning from Turkey under unclear circumstances in far larger numbers in the past week. According to the director of the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, approximately 100 Syrians have returned through the crossing each day over the past week, en route to Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas.

Analysis: Deportations from Urfa raise an alarming possibility that the crackdown on Syrians in Turkey — a campaign that has been driven by national economic and labor considerations, but which has largely been confined to Istanbul — may now be spreading to other provinces (Syria Update 13-19 November). Large numbers of Syrian refugees have returned from Turkey throughout 2018 and 2019, yet it is extremely challenging, if not altogether impossible, to distinguish between deportations and voluntary returns. This ambiguity is due both to a lack of reliable data and to the fact that Syrian refugees in Turkey (as in other neighboring host nations) are often coerced or misled into signing ‘voluntary return’ documents, or registering with the Voluntary Return Office in Turkey. The actual number of deportations may thus be significantly higher than is generally thought. The end-destinations for Syrian returnees and deportees from Turkey are difficult to confirm; however, the timing of the Urfa deportations calls attention to the possibility that Turkey may indeed be willing to take further steps to carry out its long-articulated plan to return large numbers of refugees to the ‘safe zone’ in Syria. On 21 November, the Turkish defence ministry announced that resettlement in the ‘safe zone’ had already begun, and that 70 families — 295 individuals — had traveled from Jarablus to Tel Abiad. The statement noted that “with the re-establishment of peace and security in the Peace Spring operation area, the returns will continue.”

5. Government seeks to limit SARC and OCHA assistance for new Al-Hasakeh camp

Al-Hasakeh city: On 20 November, media sources reported that the Governor of Al-Hasakeh had issued a directive to the governorate offices of the Syria Arab Red Crescent and OCHA in late October, directing the entities to refrain from “transferring or hosting new arrivals in [IDP] camps, or contributing to the establishment of new camps for them in the area.” The directive “affirms” that the agencies’ work is to be restricted to providing relief for IDPs housed in shelters established in 71 schools and in residential areas (estimated to be 61,000 families), and only in direct coordination with the Government of Syria. Relatedly, media sources reported that tents have note been provided to the newly established “Washokani” IDP camp, located near Tweineh village in northern Al-Hasakeh Governorate — reportedly — because Al-Hasakeh Governor General Jayez Al-Hammod Al-Moussa has refused to approve the provision. On 20 November, the joint head of the Self Administration’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs, Abd Al-Qader Al-Mouwahad, stated that the governor’s decision to limit the role of SARC and OCHA is a political decision that aims to “pressure the Self Administration and portray it as helpless in facing the massive wave of displacement”.

Analysis: The latitude for Damascus-based and ‘inside Syria’ actors to operate independently has been a subject of foremost interest to the Syria response (see In-Depth Analysis section, above). Although it is unclear whether any planned programmatic operations were actually halted due to the order, the alleged interference by the Al-Hasakeh governor is nonetheless notable because it comes at a time when the capacity of the northeast response has been dramatically undercut; the responsiveness of INGOs in northeast Syria has been diminished by access limitations, programming suspensions, and ongoing clashes, all of which are the result of Operation Peace Spring. According to OCHA, as of 19 November, 75,438 IDPs (48,884 from Al-Hasakeh) remain displaced due to the offensive. Finally, the assertion by the Self Administration that the Government of Syria directive is intended to undermine the Self Administration is almost certainly correct, at least in a holistic sense. Negotiations over the administrative reintegration of the Self Administration and the Government of Syria remain ongoing; by showing that it has the capacity to deprive Self Administration-linked entities of vital response programming, the Government demonstrates that it has located yet another pressure point it can use to bring the Self Administration to heel. The longer these negotiations play out, the greater the likelihood that further restrictions will be put in place, thus undermining the Self Administration and heightening existing needs.

6. Lebanon crisis potentially opens the door for Syrian exports

Lattakia Governorate: On 19 November, local media sources reported that supplies of basic commodities, to include sugar, margarine, detergents, and other items, had run low in markets in Lattakia and Tartous. Reportedly, the shortages were caused by an outflow of goods to Lebanon via a newly established cross-border smuggling operation. Accordingly, local ‘exports’ to Lebanon have been enabled by a smuggling network involving Government of Syria security officials, local producers, and Hezbollah intermediaries in Syria coastal markets. Notably, in order to meet local demands, relief packaged that were reportedly confiscated from the Rami Makhlouf-owned Al-Boustan Organization were provided within affected areas.

Analysis: Given Lebanon’s heavy reliance on overseas imports, the creation of cross-border smuggling operations from Syria will be of little surprise. Indeed, imports are now increasingly difficult to sustain in Lebanon, as a result of capital restrictions and shortages of the dollars needed to fund foreign imports. Lebanon remains Syria’s single largest export market ($132 million in 2017, of which $56 million is fruit and vegetables, according to UN Comtrade data); whether Syrian producers will be able to realize a high-value export market in Lebanon, where many cross-border traders have pre-existing business relations, will likely vary by sector. In all key sectors in which Syria’s historical capacities meet Lebanon’s expected needs — oil, wheat, and medicine being chief among them — structural impediments are likely to blunt a robust cross-border trade in Syria produce for the foreseeable future. In the first case, Syria’s ability to meet its own oil needs is deeply in question, due to split control over key oil fields and doubt over Iran’s ability to keep Syrian oil reserves at sustainable levels. In terms of wheat (and other agricultural produce), Syrian production has suffered as a result of disrupted market chains and the rising cost (and reduced quality) of inputs. Medicine, once a staple of Syrian production, is likewise beyond the nation’s capacity to produce domestically, largely due to destruction of facilities. Nonetheless, Syrian producers may yet benefit from such a trade in localized contexts, and the possibility remains that Syria may benefit as a conduit for imports from Turkey. Looking forward, the longer Lebanon’s importers remain incapable of accessing foreign markets directly, the more likely it is that Syria’s transportation and import traders — as well as smugglers — will rise to meet that demand.

7. Paltry increases in Government salaries prompt ridicule

Damascus: On 21 November, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued a decree to raise monthly salaries by 20,000 SYP (approximately $26) for Government and military employees, and by 16,000 SYP (approximately $20) for civilian and military pensioners. Included under the announcement are all employees of public associations, organizations, and municipalities. Notably, the pay bump was followed almost immediately by reports in Government-aligned media outlets that market prices for staple goods had risen by as much as 30 percent, effectively nullifying the boost in pay. Relatedly, according to data compiled by Credit Suisse and released last month, the median wealth of a Syrian adult, as of 2019, is a meager $884, with average wealth coming in at an estimated $2,179 per adult — approximately one-fifth of its pre-conflict total.

Analysis: Syrian wage earners are facing an intensifying crisis in purchasing power, as the real costs of goods rapidly outpace stagnating incomes; the modest wage increases decreed by the Government of Syria do almost nothing to close this gap. Even as a purely symbolic measure, the wage hike is a clear misstep for the Government of Syria: the paltry increase has been met with widespread ridicule among Syrians, and the subsequent bump in market prices effectively erases any positive impact for consumers. On the whole, market conditions are becoming a focus of increasingly pointed criticism of the Government of Syria by ordinary Syrians of all political leanings, whose frustrations have largely been directed at the Government for failing to address the economic freefall in the dollar exchange rate, which now exceeds 760 SYP to the dollar. Cosmetic fixes that do little to meaningfully address this disaffection are unlikely to be effective, given that Syrians lack purchasing power not simply because the lira has declined in value, but because the fundamentals of the economy point to a process of ongoing, deep economic collapse (Syria Update 13-19 November).

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 solely the responsibility of their creators. COAR does not necessarily endorse — or confirm — the viewpoints expressed by these sources.

Al-Assad forsakes the Kurds after the ‘deal’…  and threatens the fate of 300 thousand students: Government of Syria will reportedly refuse to accept Kurdish-language diplomas, leaving students in limbo.

Source: Al Hurra

Language: Arabic

Date: 15 November

Syria constitutional talks stuck as regime delegation leaves: Government of Syria delegates walked out of discussions over a raft of procedural complaints; ultimately, the move’s greatest impact is to stall already slow talks.

Source: Hurriyet Daily News

Language: English

Date: 26 November

Assad’s intelligence puts informants in international organizations to monitor foreign employees: The Government of Syria is reportedly questioning foreign staff of international companies and INGOs concerning their work, relationships, and political points of view — and reportedly asking them to become Government informants.

Source: Damascus Voice

Language: Arabic

Date: 26 November

Airstrikes of unknown origin target oil burners in Al-Bab and Jarablus: Unidentified warplanes, widely rumored to be American, bombed oil-refining sites in northern Syria; the Pentagon has disavowed responsibility for the strikes, which come at a vulnerable time as Syria enters the fuel-intensive winter season.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 26 November

Chemical watchdog chief expresses confidence in Douma report: The OPCW has become embroiled in controversy following the leak of a letter expressing internal dissent regarding the agency’s Duma report.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Language: English

Date: 26 November

More casualties of the Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian forces in Syria raises the death toll to 21 people: Continuing Israeli airstrikes targeting Iran-linked sites near Damascus have killed 21 individuals, predominantly Iran-backed combatants, in addition to three civilians and five Government of Syria combatants.

Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Language: English

Date: 20 November

Under the pretext of “financing terrorism” the regime’s intelligence appropriates the houses of opponents in the suburb of Qudsaya and the city of At-Tal: Government of Syria forces continue to systematically target former opposition figures in a campaign stretching across Rural Damascus.

Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Language: Arabic

Date: November 21

Reopening Abu Al-Zindein Crossing for civilian movement and trade:  Serving as an essential lifeline for the region, the Abu Al-Zindein crossing will provide a needed alternative in the face of restrictions on transit through Al-Aoun crossing.

Source: Brocar Press

Language: Arabic

Date: 26 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.