Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria

Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria

December 21, 2019

Since October 17, Lebanon has been in a state of upheaval as a result of a spontaneous mass protest movement that seeks resolution to intractable political and economic challenges. While these conditions are of the foremost importance for Lebanon’s future governance and stability, they have also caused increasing anxiety among those involved in the Syria crisis response — both because Lebanon is an important hub for the Syria response, and because of the knock-on effect on Syria itself. This paper explores the impact of the ongoing Lebanon crisis on Syria and the Syria response, particularly the economic impacts both inside Syria and on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As such, it offers a preliminary outlook on the emerging dynamics that are likely to impact these tightly interconnected systems. The crises in Lebanon show little sign of ending, as political gridlock continues and economic conditions worsen. Considering how intertwined the economies and societies of Syria and Lebanon are, the Lebanese political crisis may well lead to a new phase in Syria and for the Syria response.

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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.

Syria Update: 11 – 17 December , 2019

Syria Update

11 - 17 December, 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.

Caesar Sanctions on Verge of Becoming Law

In Depth Analysis

After three years of debate, the U.S. is on the verge of enacting into law the long-awaited “Caesar” sanctions, a package of coercive measures designed to isolate and punish the Government of Syria. If enforced expansively, the sanctions will outlaw virtually all non-humanitarian operations within Government of Syria–held areas, thus placing extreme pressure on international business dealings with Syria and complicating — if not altogether freezing — rehabilitation and reconstruction (see Syria Update 7-13 February). Originally introduced to the U.S. Congress in 2016, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act enjoys broad, bipartisan support and is widely expected to be signed into law before the end of the year by U.S. President Donald Trump as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military spending package that is largely immune from partisan considerations, and which frequently serves as a vehicle for rider acts of legislation.

What are the Caesar sanctions?

If enacted, the law will trigger two processes that are designed to halt virtually all substantive interactions with the Syrian state and its allies in Syria. First, within 180 days of the bill’s passage into law, the U.S. Treasury will be required to determine whether the Central Bank of Syria “is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” In the likely event that the Treasury establishes as much, the Central Bank will be sanctioned. Second, the measure will immediately withhold visas and prevent financial transactions for any non-U.S. citizen who “knowingly provides significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction” with, the Government of Syria, any “senior political figure of the Government of Syria,” Russian or Iranian forces in Syria, or any previously sanctioned entity present in the country.

Specifically, the sanctions target support to the Government in three primary areas of concern: “maintenance or expansion” of oil and gas production (though not the domestic oil trade, specifically); military airpower; and “construction or engineering services” — widely understood to mean rehabilitation and reconstruction projects. The sanctions are slated to remain in place until expansive reform conditions are met, to include the cessation of aerial bombardment by Russian and Government of Syria forces, the release of “all political prisoners”, and verifiable steps toward accountability for “perpetrators of war crimes in Syria,” including “an independent truth and reconciliation process.” By establishing a high bar to roll back sanctions, the bill is likely to ensure that the punitive measures will remain in place indefinitely.

Caption: A Syrian defector and whistleblower known as ‘Caesar’ prepares to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on 31 July 2014. Image courtesy of Al-Monitor.

What are the effects?

The sanctions make clear that the United States, having failed to realize the aims of its military strategies in Syria, is now leaning into a new approach: punish and delay. In the aggregate, the sanctions will solidify Syria’s pariah status, ostensibly in service of the goal of coercing the Government of Syria into changing tack and bringing the conflict to an end. Nonetheless, unintended consequences are almost certain to occur. The case of reconstruction is instructive in this regard. The most obvious consequence of the sanctions will be to hamper any holistic reconstruction efforts. However, although the sanctions will complicate flagship big money projects such as Marota City, their ability to halt such projects altogether is less clear. Worse, the measures will almost certainly inhibit the type of coordinated and holistic rehabilitation that will be vital to restoring pre-conflict economic, political, and social linkages within communities and across interconnected regions. Preventing such efforts will increase the likelihood that elite Syrian businessmen will self-fund selective rehabilitation, as they have already done in Eastern Ghouta, at the bidding of the Government of Syria.

Regionally, the law will also frustrate the hopes of Gulf investors and Jordanian, Lebanese, and Iraqi businessmen, all of whom have banked heavily on the prospect of a windfall that can be achieved only through normalized ties with Syria and the boon of reconstruction and more robust regional trade. The Caesar sanctions put these hopes on hold. Without doubt, the bulwark erected by the sanctions will contain gaps. By limiting the pool of actors willing to conduct business in Syria, the law will only increase the profits on offer to those who are willing to risk sanction. Syrian businessmen will no doubt attempt to stay one step ahead of Treasury sanctions through elaborate networks of shell companies and business fronts, as they have long done.

Mightier than the sword?

The most important factor that will shape the effect of the Caesar sanctions — if they are indeed passed into law — will be the extent to which the provisions are implemented. Given that U.S. military influence in Syria is wavering, sanctions will likely become the centerpiece of U.S. strategy in Syria. To this end, the measures are crafted to raise the cost of continued Russian and Iranian involvement in the conflict. To date, advantageous business concessions made to Russian and Iranian companies have been the clearest compensation for Russia and Iran’s considerable military and political support to the Government of Syria. These investments are now in danger of becoming a liability. Ironically, by further isolating Syria internationally, the sanctions will drive the Syrian state into a deeper reliance upon Russian and Iranian state and private support, which it is likely to receive. The restrictions are also likely to strengthen the position of regime-connected businessmen. Unlike the sanctions, these conditions — and the damage they cause — cannot be undone with a stroke of the president’s pen.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Russian proposal signals shift on cross-border resolution

New York City: On 17 December, unconfirmed media reports indicated that Russia had proposed changes to UN Security Council Resolution 2165 (2014), the legal framework that enables the cross-border humanitarian response in Syria, which is set to expire on 10 January 2020.1 Reportedly, Russian representatives at the UN have called for the resolution to be extended by six months — rather than one year, as in previous renewals — and for the closure of two border crossings: Ramtha, on the Syria-Jordan border, and Yaaroubiyeh, on the Syria-Iraq border. Meanwhile, the governments of Germany, Kuwait, and Belgium have reportedly proposed that the resolution be renewed for one year, as per usual, in addition to the opening of a new border crossing in Tell Abiad, in Ar-Raqqa governorate, along the Syria-Turkey border.

Analysis: Resolution 2165 functions as a loadbearing pillar of the Syria response. Despite ideological opposition from Russia and China (nominally on noninterventionist grounds), Resolution 2165 has been renewed on an annual basis throughout the conflict. Although the possibility of a veto has shadowed the renewal vote in recent years, the amendment now proposed by Russia constitutes the most serious challenge to the resolution to date. Should Russia succeed in leveraging a veto threat to force through its proposed amendments, several consequences are likely. By closing Ramtha and Yaaroubiyeh crossings, these amendments will strategically isolate regions of Syria that are outside the complete or effective control of the Government of Syria, namely, restive areas of Dar‘a and large swathes of northeast Syria, where U.S. forces retain a strong presence. In so doing, these areas will be driven into greater reliance upon Damascus-based agencies. Trimming the resolution’s shelf life to six months raises the likelihood that future renewal votes will be subject to horse-trading among Security Council members. The outright expiration of the resolution will fundamentally change the Syria response, most notably by relegating UN agencies to Damascus-based activities, which are likely to face greater challenges in terms of programming and access.

2. Russia creates new military formation in northeast Syria

Quamishli city, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 15 December, media and local sources reported that Russia has established a number of military headquarters in northeast Syria, in locations to include Hasakah, Tel Tamar, Quamishli, and Amuda. Further sources report that Russia has already begun to conduct military trainings inside the Quamishli airport, in an apparent bid to groom commanders for a Russia-aligned military formation, for which recruitment campaigns have already begun in Darbasiyah, Amuda, and Tel Tamer. Reportedly, recruits will receive approximately 150,000 SYP ($166) monthly — roughly twice the salary paid to many combatants in Syria — and will be linked directly to Russia. Relatedly, the Government of Syria has undertaken further negotiations with the SDF concerning control of the M4 highway, a crucial trade route for oil, wheat, and humanitarian access. In parallel, local actors are now promoting the establishment of Government-aligned military and security units inside the predominantly Assyrian communities located along the road.

Analysis: Since late October, Russia has acted quickly and decisively to expand its footprint and cement its status as the predominant international actor in much of northeast Syria. These efforts have revolved around targeted campaigns to build military and social influence in northeast Syria through outreach to non-Kurdish ethnic populations, to include Arab tribes and Assyrian communities. For the SDF and Self Administration, these efforts constitute a threat about which little can be done. Not only will recruitment give Russia greater visibility and access across northeast Syria, it will also pose a direct challenge to the primacy (and unity) of the SDF — a largely cohesive force which Russia has variously courted and undermined. On the political level, such efforts will undermine the Self Administration as it undertakes negotiations with the Government of Syria, in which it holds little meaningful leverage to exact concessions (Syria Update 4-10 December). Now, there are also signs that Russia intends to extend its influence into the economic sphere. Reportedly, Russian officers have used the Quamishli airport to convene a meeting with local businessmen in an apparent bid to organize economic activities across Al-Hasakeh governorate. Should these efforts succeed, they will represent another sphere in which Russia is likely to make itself an indispensable actor in northeast Syria — an interest that will only be served by greater control and improved access to the M4 for Rusia and its Government of Syria allies.

3. Armed groups clash, factions splinter as northwest bombardment continues

Idleb governorate: On 15 December, local media sources reported that tensions have escalated between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Hurras Al-Deen in Idleb governorate, culminating in a raid on the headquarters of Hurras Al-Deen near Mhambal. In the raid, HTS arrested several Hurras Al-Deen commanders and deployed checkpoints. Reportedly, the move was motivated by competition over economic interests. Relatedly, on 13 December, ten battalions of Jaysh al-Izza — approximately half the group’s overall force — announced their defection to the Turkey-backed National Front of Liberation. Meanwhile, heavy airstrikes and bombardment by Russian and Government of Syria forces have continued throughout communities in southern and eastern Idleb communities.

Analysis: The recent confrontations between HTS and Hurras Al-Deen are by no means unprecedented, yet they are some of the most notable to occur since HTS cemented its control over most of Idleb governorate, at the beginning of 2019, and they come amid mounting economic and military pressures on the region. Multiple factors have contributed to the deterioration of relations between HTS and such armed groups; however, perhaps the chief cause is the persistence of HTS’s attempts to marginalize these groups and monopolize local economic activities, likely due to HTS’s own deteriorating finances. Such confrontations are likely to continue, as economic conditions worsen throughout Syria and as all such groups face increasing pressures as Russia and the Government of Syria bear down on northwest Syria militarily. The mass defection of Jaysh Al-Izza combatants likely comes as a result of the group’s displacement from its northern Hama stronghold and as a consequence of Turkey’s efforts to unify all opposition armed groups in Idleb and Aleppo governorates under the umbrella of the National Army. Notably, in October, the National Liberation Front, of which the defecting factions are now a part, was itself integrated into the command structure of the National Army — a move that was widely understood as a signal of Turkey’s interest in asserting greater authority over opposition groups. Turkey’s efforts in this regard are likely to continue. The Kremlin has recently reiterated that the only path forward in northwest Syria is through the framework of joint Turkish-Russian efforts to isolate “terrorist” groups.

4. Eastern Ghouta population prevented from Damascus travel

Eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus: On 12 December, local media sources reported that Government of Syria security forces had ceased issuing ‘security approvals’ for residents of Eastern Ghouta to commute to and from their communities, including to metropolitan Damascus. Exempted from the de facto restrictions are residents who were not present in the area when it was under the control of armed opposition groups. The mobility restrictions target individuals who are now effectively barred from reconciling as a result of recent administrative measures; reportedly, the newest policy’s goal is to prevent these individuals from fleeing to opposition-controlled areas in an attempt to avoid detention and conscription. Notably, the decision follows an attack by unidentified actors on a Government of Syria Military Security checkpoint in Duma, on 11 December. Shortly after the attack, on 14 December, media sources reported a shooting in eastern rural Dar’a governorate, targeting the son of Mohamad Khayr Saryoul, a prominent reconciliation figure from Duma.

Analysis: Restrictions on mobility in Eastern Ghouta are the latest in a series of punitive measures taken by the Government of Syria against the population of Eastern Ghouta since the area’s reconciliation in April 2018. Eastern Ghouta communities perceived as sympathetic to the opposition continue to be systematically underserved, and strict securitization measures remain in place. However, in recent months, the Government of Syria has imposed increasingly restrictive conditions on these areas, beginning with its decision to discontinue reconciliation for numerous residents. That measure was followed by systematic sweeps by security forces to detain or conscript unreconciled individuals and those wanted for military service (Syria Update 9-15 October). For many residents of Eastern Ghouta, the conditions now preventing their movement amount to a de facto siege, in that the only way out is eventual capitulation top state authorities.

5. Despite guarantees, Rukban returnees jailed on terror charges

Rukban Camp, Homs governorate: On 10 December, media sources reported that Government of Syria security forces have detained more than 100 people who evacuated Rukban camp in an attempt to return to various areas under Government of Syria control. In accordance with the established pattern for reconciliation of Rukban residents, these returnees had been held in two collective shelters in Homs city. Reportedly, some of these individuals have now been transferred to terrorism court, while others have been sent to Tadmour or Adra prisons.

Analysis: A lack of confidence in guarantees of safe return and reconciliation with the Government of Syria has been the greatest single impediment to the evacuation of Rukban camp residents since Russia and the Government of Syria prioritized efforts to close the camp in early 2019. The willingness to endure the daunting challenges faced by those who remain in the camp illustrates just how seriously camp residents treat the fear of detention and conscription following return to Government-held areas. Indeed, Russian forces have clamped down on ‘lifeline’ smuggling routes into the camp, slowing the inflow of basic goods to a trickle, while humanitarian convoys have become vanishingly rare, keeping the camp’s population — numbering approximately 26,705, as of September, according to UN and local implementing partners — in a tenuous holding pattern. Flour, water, sanitation, and health services are all in short supply, and have at times been unavailable altogether. If true, reports of detention among those who have left the camp under guarantees of reconciliation and safe return will raise major concerns among those who remain in the camp. The fate of 1,800 Rukban evacuees who are currently held in shelters in Homs city is likewise a question of the foremost importance. On a more fundamental level, the detentions show the limitations of Russian (or international) efforts to speak on behalf of the Government of Syria in the interest of deconfliction, de-escalation, or reconciliation. Despite the harsh winter conditions that have struck Rukban with fatal effect in past years, the recent detentions only validate the concerns that are likely to drive large portions of camp residents to elect to stay in place.

6. Conflict and economic conditions aggravate winterization challenges

Whole of Syria: On 13 December, media sources reported that the United Nations has requested an additional $25 million to meet the winterization needs of Syrians. According to UN estimates, approximately 3 million vulnerable people in Syria are in need of aid to make it comfortably through the winter, a large number of whom are IDPs currently shelter in camps with limited or no access to electricity and heat. Relatedly, on 17 December the Response Coordinate Group reported that 109,408 individuals have been displaced since 1 November due to military operations in the region.

Analysis: Although winterization campaigns are routine in Syria, the challenges presented by the upcoming winter are particularly acute, for a number of reasons. In addition to chronic, nationwide electricity rationing, heating fuel also poses a concern. Shortages in heating fuel were registered across Syria last winter and are likely to be repeated this winter season, given that Syria faces serious challenges to supply, both domestically and internationally (see Point No. 8). This challenge is compounded by the effects of Syria’s continuing economic collapse, most notably the plummeting value of the Syrian lira, which has driven up the cost of basic goods and made winter coping strategies more inaccessible. Finally, it is important to note that all of this occurs in the context of two military offensives that have resulted in large displacements. In northeast Syria, Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring has created what is likely to be an enduring displacement crisis for large portions of communities captured by the National Army (Syria Update 4-10 December). Meanwhile, in northwest Syria, aerial bombardment by Russia and the Government of Syria targeting the M5 is — like past military campaigns — designed to force the evacuation of affected communities. Notably, many people in these areas have already displaced from elsewhere in Syria and are therefore additionally vulnerable. Moreover, in many of the camps where those displaced by the bombardment are likely to seek shelter, flooding is a recurrent threat; heavy rainfalls have already begun, prompting concerns over sewage treatment and basic shelter needs. Given the Government of Syria’s apparent intention to continue its bombardment at pace, further displacement and a growing IDP population should be expected.

7. Protests in Deir-ez-Zor target the Self Administration

Deir-ez-Zor governorate: Throughout the reporting period, media and local sources reported that multiple demonstrations had taken place in Safira and Basira, in rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate, as predominantly tribal protesters condemned ‘corruption’ in the Self Administration–affiliated Deir-ez-Zor civil council and called for improved services and the release of detainees. Local sources reported that members of the Shaitat tribe forcibly closed the office of the Self Administration Directorate of Agriculture to protest its decision to refrain from providing fuel rations that had been allocated for agricultural projects. Relatedly, media sources also reported that 800,000 liters of fuel had been stolen from Deir-ez-Zor civil council. The Self Administration has reportedly initiated an investigation into the incident. As per these sources, the Self Administration had summoned the Fuel Committee for questioning the previous week. Of note, members of the committee are reported to be traders closely affiliated with the Deir-ez-Zor local council.

Analysis: Popular discontent targeting the Self Administration is nothing new, particularly in Deir-ez-Zor, where protests have been a common occurrence throughout 2019 (Syria Update 23-29 May). As in other areas of Syria, these protests have been driven to a large extent by demands over basic services, personal mobility, and the release of local detainees, who are, in the case of tribal communities in Deir-ez-Zor, predominantly held in SDF detention over suspected affiliation with ISIS. Allegations of corruption are important as signals of further erosion of public confidence in the functional organs of the Self Administration. In this context, accusations of corruption against local offices nominally affiliated with the Self Administration likely do have some grounding in fact. Local rumors suggest widespread suspicions of self-dealing on the part of the local Directorate of Agriculture, although this has not been independently confirmed. More importantly, local sources indicate that tensions are mounting between the Deir-ez-Zor civil council and the Self Administration over the degree of autonomy allocated to local officials. Ultimately, these conditions are parochial concerns, yet they should be held in proper perspective: The Self Administration is currently embattled on multiple fronts (Syria Update 4-10 December); although the Government of Syria is not itself the cause of such local discontent, it has shown itself adept at exploiting the resulting rifts.

8. Russian companies win first oil and gas contracts in Syria

Damascus: On 17 December, Syrian state media reported that the Government of Syria had approved contracts for two private Russian firms to carry out commercial exploration in Syrian oil and gas fields. Reportedly, the deals grant the firms the rights to conduct exploration in three blocks, including an oil field in the northeast Syria and a gas field north of Damascus. The Syrian Parliament granted the contracts to Mercury LLC and Velada LLC, marking the first instance in which Russian firms have won such rights in Syria.

Analysis: The Government of Syria is increasingly hard-pressed to meet the energy needs of areas under its control. Throughout the conflict, the Government of Syria has been able to secure much of its oil needs through tanker shipments from Iran and the crossline trade with various territorial actors in eastern Syria, to include ISIS and the SDF. U.S. sanctions on Iran and pressure on the SDF have put these supply lines in jeopardy since late 2018. Like the recent contracts with Russian firms, plans by Qaterji-linked companies to build oil refineries and a coastal terminal offer evidence of the Government’s desire to increase its oil security by ramping up production runs and refining capacity in areas under its firm control (Syria Update 27 November-3 December). These are, however, decidedly long-range initiatives. As the SDF acquiesces to mounting U.S. pressure to halt its oil trade with the Government of Syria, the likelihood of medium-term oil shortages increases, and the Government may be driven to find new coping strategies. To that end, oil exploration in eastern Syria will be seen as one clear means  of bypassing the lockdown on Syria’s most productive oil fields imposed by U.S. forces.

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.

Organizing three neighborhoods in Homs under Law No. 10

What Does it Say? Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi stated that the Baba Amr, Al-Sultaniyah, and Jobar neighborhoods of Homs city fall under Law No.10 rather than Law No. 5.

Reading Between the Lines: Law No. 10 grants the Government of Syria sweeping power to  repurpose and redevelop conflict-affected areas; the law’s invocation in Homs is an indicator that the Government of Syria is willing to apply the measure despite the opprobrium attached to it internationally.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 12 December 2019

Searching for the nexus: it’s all about the money

What Does it Say? Donors are increasingly driven to merge development, humanitarian, and peace (and political) funding streams in order to do more with less.

Reading Between the Lines: ‘Nexus’ is the sector’s hottest buzzword. What many nexus approaches still lack is a coherent vision and an achievable objective.

Source: The New Humanitarian

Language: English

Date: 3 December 2019

Coming clean: time to open Lebanon’s chamber of banking secrets

What Does it Say? Secrecy laws, a boon to the banking sector, cost Lebanon more than half its nominal tax revenues.

Reading Between the Lines: Lebanon’s financial sector is facing mounting scrutiny internationally, while on the domestic political front, pressures are rising to get the state’s fiscal house in order — not only for the wealthy, but for ordinary depositors as well.

Source: Triangle

Language: English

Date: December 2019

Iran gets investment to build 30,000 housing units in Syria

What Does it Say? Iran intends to build 30,000 housing units in several governorates across Syria; it also plans to construct the necessary facilities to establish joint Iranian-Syrian construction firms.

Reading Between the Lines: Given the shortage of housing stock, it is little wonder that Iran continues to vie for housing projects in Syria. How (and if) such projects will take shape — and how Syrians will benefit — remains to be seen.

Source: Al-Hal

Language: Arabic

Date: 3 December 2019

Relief organization halts its work in northern Syria as a result of Tahrir al-Sham intervention

What Does it Say? Karam has reportedly halted its operations in Idleb as a result of HTS’s imposition of restrictions and demands for royalty payments over educational programming.

Reading Between the Lines: Educational programming has largely gone untouched by HTS, primarily due to the independence acquired through outside funding; if verified, the report is a worrying indicator that this paradigm is subject to challenge.

Source: Smart News

Language: Arabic

Date: 15 December 2019

 Video: Qaterji saluted by his soldiers as if he were president

What Does it Say? A video showing soldiers giving a military salute to oil trader Hussam Qaterji prompted backlash and caused military figures to upbraid Qaterji. 

Reading Between the Lines: As a powerful oil trader and elite businessman, Qaterji has wide latitude to act with impunity, but backlash to the video demonstrates that even his power is not unbounded.

Source: Jorf News

Language: Arabic

Date: 10 December 2019

Central Bank bumps the ‘preferential’ dollar price to 700 lira

What Does it Say? The Central Bank of Syria has revised the fixed rate for dollar exchanges by international organizations, raising it from 434 to 700 SYP/USD. 

Reading Between the Lines: Though still short of the actual market rate, the new exchange value is important in that it sets a new floor beneath which the lira is unlikely to drop.

Source: Eqtsad

Language: Arabic

Date: 10 December 2019

Russia sends 100,000 tons of grain to Syria

What Does it Say? Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov has stated that Russia will provide Syria with a lifeline of 100,000 tons of grain, as humanitarian aid, beginning at the end of December and continuing until the second quarter of 2020.

Reading Between the Lines: Despite expectations of a bumper wheat crop in 2019, widespread fires and other factors blunted Syria’s harvest, and the country remains in need of external support for this staple food item.

Source: Sputnik

Language: Arabic

Date: 17 December 2019

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.

Syria Update: 04 – 10 December , 2019

Syria Update

04 - 10 December 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.

Government of Syria and Self Administration Talk Local Administration, Reintegration

In Depth Analysis

On 7 December, delegations representing the Government of Syria and the Self Administration met in Quamishli to negotiate the administrative reintegration of northeast Syria into the Syrian central state. The meeting centered around efforts to find common ground between the governing framework of the Self Administration and the Government of Syria’s own framework for decentralized local administration, Decree 107 (2011). The meeting yielded no immediate, tangible outcomes, and to date the administrative status of Self Administration–controlled areas remains unchanged. Crucially, however, pro–Government of Syria media reported that the delegates representing the Self Administration did not reject Damascus’s overtures outright and reiterated their willingness to deal with Damascus, stressing their long-standing position that the Kurdish polity in northeast Syria is not a “separatist” project. Most importantly, the two sides will reportedly convene future meetings to prepare a consensus proposal for integration to present to the Government of Syria.

Naturally, the outcome of such discussions will carry ramifications for the future of programming, access, and local governance in northeast Syria. Nonetheless, these discussions are also an important test case for the implementation of post-conflict decentralization. From the perspective of the Self Administration, the task at hand is, therefore, to fit its own governing model — a so-called ‘commune of communes’ — onto the only framework for decentralized governance that is likely to survive the current conflict: that presented by the Government of Syria’s Decree 107. This will be no small task. Many service provision and administrative entities in northeast Syria have direct Government of Syria analogues and will likely be integrated within them. As such, under the terms of any conceivable deal, the ostensibly bottom-up model of the Self Administration will be largely — and likely entirely — subsumed by the Government of Syria. Indeed, Decree 107 stipulates a very different governance framework from that of the Self Administration. It envisages a top-down system in which central authorities theoretically delegate to local technocrats and elected representatives the responsibility to execute central state policy. Nonetheless, apex figures (i.e. provincial governors) retain a high degree of decision-making authority under Decree 107, while the latitude to create and implement independent local policies remains ambiguous and likely differs by community.

Syrian MP Faisal Azouz speaks to Kurdish media following a meeting between delegations representing the Government of Syria and the Self Administration in Quamishli. Image courtesy of ANHA.

Integrating governing frameworks will be necessary and challenging. Even more challenging will be the negotiations needed to integrate individual power brokers with deeply entrenched, and conflicting, interests. As a recent study by Sinan Hatahet — published under WPCS, by the European University Institute — makes clear, important nodes of power in northeast Syria remained centralized within the upper echelons of the Self Administration. Pillars of the emergent Kurdish-led polity, such as its overarching economic policies, the vital oil trade, and the top-level coordination of local cooperatives, are controlled in large part or in full by central authorities. Meanwhile, war economy has proliferated and elite capture has taken root in sectors to include external trade, real estate, and construction. As a result of these power structures, cronyism has benefitted security actors and partisans linked to the Democratic Union Party, and negotiations between the Self Administration and Damascus will need to account for the status of such actors. As with state institutions, some will likely be integrated seamlessly; others will find no place in a power structure controlled by the Government of Syria.

These negotiations are unlikely to proceed at pace. No doubt, the Government of Syria maintains a deep interest in capturing northeast Syria’s resource wealth, forcing the capitulation of the Self Administration, and improving its own standing within the Constitutional Committee by increasing nominal Kurdish representation. For the time being, neither the Government of Syria nor the Self Administration appears willing to make major concessions. This is an arrangement that decisively favors the Government. In the long term, Russia — increasingly confident in its role as power broker in northeast Syria — may be capable of advancing the process. Should the process stall altogether, however, it is not impossible that Russia will tolerate or facilitate a resumption of Turkish military operations in an effort to jumpstart negotiations and force the Self Administration to make painful concessions. The Government of Syria, too, is taking steps to undermine the Self Administration from within. On 5 December, National Security Office head Ali Mamlouk visited Quamishli to discuss reconciliation and a general amnesty with tribal leaders. According to tribal figures quoted in Kurdish media, Mamlouk “requested that they … withdraw their sons from the ranks of the SDF” in exchange for the “necessary support,” likely to challenge the SDF militarily. For the moment, the Government of Syria lacks the bandwidth to effectively manage a full reintegration of northeast Syria; in the long term, however, such a reintegration may be unavoidable.

Whole of Syria Review

1. Russia behind deal to give ‘Peace Spring’ areas Government of Syria electricity

Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 9 December, media and local sources reported that Russia and Turkey had reached an agreement to allow ‘Peace Spring’ areas controlled by Turkey in northeast Syria, namely Ras El Ain and Tel Abiad, to draw electricity from the Government of Syria–controlled hydroelectric power plant at the Tishreen Dam, in Menbij. As such, local sources indicated that the Government of Syria will, ultimately, have control over the provision of electricity to communities that are now under the military control of the National Army. In the near term, however, electricity provision is likely to be delayed by the high levels of damage to infrastructure in affected communities. On 9 December, local and media sources further reported that Government of Syria technicians had begun taking steps to rehabilitate the Mabrouka power station, located in rural Ras El Ain, which is directly linked to the Tishreen Dam power plant.

Analysis: The Government of Syria’s direct role in service provision to areas under Turkish control is unprecedented, and it likely speaks to the apparent success of efforts by the Government of Russia to position itself as the indispensable military, political, and administrative mediator in northeast Syria. Throughout the conflict, the Government of Syria has frequently brokered agreements with armed opposition groups and the SDF to continue cross-line service provision and mutually beneficial trade arrangements. In exchange for technical cooperation, the Government has often received a portion of outputs or revenues, and has benefitted more fundamentally from making its cooperation indispensable. That such an agreement would arise in areas under Turkish control may signal the Government of Syria’s acquiescence to Russian pressure to deconflict the northeast. Alternatively, it may reflect a hope (perhaps unrealistic) on the part of the Government of Syria that by maintaining control of services in Peace Spring areas, it will also gain leverage over Turkey, despite the clear efforts by Turkey to bring such areas under its uncontested control. While the Government of Syria’s intentions in this regard are a matter of speculation, there is no doubt that Russia has missed few opportunities to step into a role as chief power broker in northeast Syria.

2. SIG moves to make Turkish lira coin of the realm in northern Aleppo

Northern Aleppo governorate: On 4 December, local media sources reported that the Syrian Interim Government has taken the first steps to phase out the Syrian lira in northern Aleppo, in favor of the Turkish lira. Syrian Interim Government President Abdul Rahman Mustafa confirmed that efforts are underway to pump Turkish lira (in particular, banknotes denominated for 5, 10, and 20 lira) into the markets of northern Aleppo. Relatedly, local traders in these areas have begun to refuse payments in the increasingly volatile Syrian lira, and are instead accepting only Turkish lira or U.S. dollars. As a further sign of the Turkish lira’s growing entrenchment, the local council in A’zaz has reportedly issued a decision to price gold in Turkish lira, and goldsmiths are now obligated to display prices accordingly; similar steps are impending in Afrin.

Analysis: Official announcements regarding a wholesale currency substitution in northern Aleppo are new, yet they merely formalize a long-running process of ‘Turkification’ in areas of northern Syria that are under effective Turkish control. Turkish lira are already circulate widely in local markets in these areas, due to the fact that large portions of the population work in the humanitarian or administrative sectors and receive salaries in Turkish lira via transfers conducted through the Turkish National Post Office (PTT). Although it is impossible to definitively link the measure to on-the-ground developments, Syria’s deepening economic instability and the fluctuating value of the Syrian pound will have increased the urgency to expand and formalize the use of Turkish lira. Given the deleterious impact of these conditions, local populations are likely to welcome the move. This is highly notable. Turkish rehabilitation and investment have already set Turkish-held areas on a separate trajectory to that of neighboring areas held by the Government of Syria (Syria Update 2-8 October). The decision to normalize the use of Turkish lira will likely accelerate that process. In a holistic sense, the currency swap will draw the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas further into Turkey’s orbit and advance the formalization of Turkey’s overarching ‘state-expansion’ practices in northern Syria.

3. Refugees return to Al-Qusayr as Lebanon conditions worsen

Western Qalamoun: On 3 December, Lebanese and Syrian local media reported that a large number of Syrian refugees — reportedly as many 1,500 —  had returned to Syria from various areas in Lebanon, to include the Bekaa Valley, Tripoli, Nabatieh, and Beirut (specifically Bourj Hammoud). Reportedly, the refugees were transported via bus to various border-crossings — Al-Masnaa, Al-Abboudieh, Jousieh and Al-Zamrani — through coordination between Lebanon security authorities and the Government of Syria. According to Syrian local media reports published before the returns took place, however, only 510 returnees were expected, primarily from communities located across the Qalamoun, such as Qarra, Yabroud, An Nabek, Ras Elmaarra, Sahl, and most notably, Al-Qusayr. These reports indicated that these individuals were permitted to return directly to the cities of their origin.

Analysis: Issues surrounding refugees are concerns of the foremost significance (and politicization) in both Lebanon and Syria, and large discrepancies in the reported manner and number of returns are commonplace. Although the reports cannot be verified independently, what is most notable in the present case is the fact that returnees have reportedly returned to communities in the western Qalamoun region, evidently in large numbers. Returns to the Qalamoun, particularly to Al-Qusayr and Qarra, have been extremely limited, especially when compared to the areas’ overall displacement figures: despite having a pre-conflict population of more than 30,000, Al-Qusayr currently has a population of approximately 3,113, of whom 75 are said to be returnees, according to UN and local implementing partners. Moreover, the limited returns that have been recorded are conditional on poorly understood mechanisms for security approval, and return requests have frequently been denied, due in part to the region’s importance in cross-border smuggling operations and the communities’ securitization under various security forces, including Hezbollah (Syria Update 16-22 October). Lebanon’s declining security and economic conditions will naturally be seen as a factor in the returns in question, although no such returns will have been possible without security actors inside Syria having relaxed strict ‘gatekeeping’ procedures. In this context, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Lebanon’s declining economic conditions and rising market costs are making it increasingly difficult for vulnerable populations — both Syrian and Lebanese — to make ends meet. Further deterioration can be expected as Lebanon’s political process remains deadlocked, and localized political, economic, and social pressures to return are likely to mount.

4. Self Administration opens two camps for ‘Peace Spring’ IDPs

Al-Hasakeh governorate: Local sources have reported that the Self Administration has officially established a new IDP camp in Tal Al-Semen, in rural Ar-Raqqa governorate — the second such camp to have opened in recent weeks, to accommodate displacements due to Operation Peace Spring. Reportedly, the Tal Al-Semen camp will have the capacity to host as many as 4,000 IDPs, in 800 tents, and efforts by Self Administration officials are underway to establish the necessary infrastructure to support this population. This effort follows shortly after the establishment of Washu Kani camp, in Tweineh, Al-Hasakeh governorate, which was opened to receive IDPs from Ras Al Ain. To date, local sources estimate that a total of 633 families (3,268 IDPs) have resettled to Washu Kani.

Analysis: According to UN and local implementing partners, as of 5 December, 68,451 IDPs remain displaced in northeast Syria. Despite the relative decline in clashes along the frontlines between the National Army and the SDF following the 22 October Turkish-Russian military agreement, large-scale displacement shows no signs of abating (Syria Update 16-22 October). Indeed, individuals with linkages to the SDF or the Self Administration remain subject to security threats and protection concerns in areas now administered by Turkey. Lessons drawn from the experience of displacements caused by Turkish military operations in northern Aleppo underscore the worrying prospect that displacements now taking shape in Peace Spring areas are likely to persist for the foreseeable future and, in the longer term, may well be irreversible. This possibility is all the more concerning due to the fact that the humanitarian response in Northeast Syria is also in jeopardy: while access and administrative conditions in much of northeast Syria remain largely unchanged — for now — future Turkish military offensives are possible, and these will almost certainly trigger further defensive cooperation between the SDF and Government of Syria forces.

5. Consumers likely to feel the pinch as regulations further squeeze importers

Damascus: On 4 December, Syria Report indicated that the Ministry of Economy and the Syrian Central Bank had introduced a set of new restrictions on private sector importers. On 27 November, the Syrian Central Bank issued a directive stipulating that private sector importers must freeze 25 percent of their value of imported goods in the bank for a period of one month. This comes in addition to previous regulations that require traders to freeze 15 percent of the value of such goods for three months, until import transactions have been cleared. In total, the importers are now obliged to freeze 40 percent of the value of goods — to be denominated in Syrian lira, based on the current official exchange rate of 435 lira to the dollar.

Analysis: The imposition of new and more restrictive capital controls over recent months is likely to reduce import capacity, especially for small and medium enterprises with limited capital. Import regulations have been at the top of the list of mitigations as the Government of Syria seeks out further methods to prevent capital flight and deal with illiquidity inside Syria. In October, the Central Bank trimmed its list of the types of ‘prioritized imports’ that banks are permitted to fund, to exclude almost all items except for medicine and food commodities. This followed the introduction of new restrictions by the Central Bank in August to cease offering credit in Syrian lira to fund imports, which left traders with no option other than purchasing U.S. dollars from Syrian commercial banks — or, more likely, the black market. As a result of the new measures, the cost of imported goods, which has already been affected by the depreciation of the Syrian lira, will likely rise, adding further inflationary pressures and raising more concerns for Syrian consumers. Ultimately, market conditions and additional regulations are highly conducive to smuggling and black market activities as conventional means of conducting business become increasingly difficult to sustain.

6. Rare protests break out in Rural Damascus over detainees

Kanaker, Rural Damascus: On 4 December, media sources reported that a rare public demonstration took place in Kanaker in western Rural Damascus governorate, calling for the release of detainees and condemning Iran’s military presence in Syria. Reportedly, the Government of Syria has since released 35 detainees from Kanaker, far short of the 250 individuals who have reportedly been detained in the area. Notably, the area witnessed a preemptive increase in securitization measures by the Government of Syria Military Security Branch in late November, following the spread of graffiti calling for the release of detainees.

Analysis: The issue of detainees remains a universal concern throughout reconciled areas of Syria. Nonetheless, public demonstrations over detainees have been almost entirely limited to southern Syria, where the Government of Syria’s security presence ranges from contested to non-existent (Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar’a Governorate). For this reason, protests in the vicinity of Damascus are of particular importance, given that Damascus belt communities and the capital are among the areas in which the Government of Syria’s military presence is least amenable to challenge. (Indeed, the Government of Syria has been keen to promote an image of ‘normalized’ security conditions in Damascus.) The Kanaker protest, which was both relatively small and singular, should not be viewed as an early indicator that security conditions like those in southern Syria will spread elsewhere. Instead, the event should be taken as a reminder that the issue of detainees is likely to remain a driver of social tension and discontent. That violence will break out on a wider basis is, for now, unlikely outside southern Syria. However, it is not impossible that civil protest movements will reach critical mass around the status of detainees, which are increasingly likely as economic and service conditions add to the cumulative discontent throughout Government of Syria–held areas.

7. IRGC and Hezbollah give Syrian combatants a (modest) pay bump

Various locations: On 6 December, media sources reported that Hezbollah had raised the salaries of its Syrian combatants by 25,000 SYP ($29) per month, without specifying a motivation for the increase. Two days later, on 8 December, media sources also reported that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps followed suit and raised the salaries of its Syrian combatants by 15,000 SYP ($17). Reportedly, the IRGC pay bump came in response to discontent spreading among the ranks of Syrian combatants as a result of the widening disparity between the value of their salaries and that of non-Syrian combatants, who — reportedly —  earn as much as $500 per month, compared to a reported 75,000 SYP ($88) for some such militiamen.

Analysis: Pay raises within the ranks of externally funded armed groups have been widely expected, following recent decisions by the Government of Syria and the Self Administration to raise public sector and military salaries (Syria Update 20-26 November). Indeed, inflation effectively nullifies the impact of these raises, which are unlikely to keep pace with the rising cost of goods for long. What is most surprising, however, is that the bump for IRGC combatants falls (slightly) short of the raise given to Government of Syria soldiers (16,000 SYP per month). Two possibilities are suggested: one, that Iran’s fiscal straits prevent it from giving more robust support; two, that armed groups recognize that, for Syrians, few employment alternatives to war-fighting exist. Indeed, armed groups remain among the only reliable sources of income in Syria. This is not a new situation: for Syrians who have grown up during the conflict, combat has been among the only forms of employment that has ever been available. For the foreseeable future, as Syria’s economic hardship deepens, it is unlikely that attractive employment opportunities will arise in other sectors. The longer the Syria conflict and Syria’s immiseration wear on, the greater this looming DDR challenge is likely to become.

8. Border-crossing fees waived for Iraqi trucks at Abu Kamal

Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 5 December, the Government of Syria Ministry of Transportation issued a directive waiving tariffs for all Iraqi trucks entering Syria through the Abu Kamal border crossing. The decision is said to have come as a measure to encourage bilateral trade; in particular, it reportedly aims to incentivize the export of Syrian citrus fruits and other agricultural produce to Iraq. Further media sources reported that the number of trucks to have entered Syria through Abu Kamal in the past two months has remained low, disappointing widely held (and unduly hopeful) expectations that the crossing’s opening on 30 September would necessarily jumpstart cross-border trade at meaningful levels.

Analysis: The easing of import tariffs is notable for a number of reasons. First, it conflicts with the Government of Syria’s former insistence upon protectionist measures as a means of supporting ailing domestic producers (Syria Update 9-15 October). Second, it coincides with additional measures to preserve domestic cash reserves, which have had the effect of disincentivizing foreign imports. Third, it comes as Syria and Iraq experience economic and social turmoil, conditions which are likely to complicate cross-border trade, if not halt it altogether. Given these conditions, it has been suggested that the relaxation of tariffs aims not to address cross-border trade or provide an outlet for local produce — goals which are unlikely to be supported by the measure — but to ease the flow of weapons and materiel into Syria through Iraq, given that Abu Kamal serves as an important gateway to an eastern Syria transit corridor that is effectively controlled by Iran-backed armed groups. Although this reading is not entirely implausible, it is difficult to assess factually. Ultimately, whatever the intention of the tariff measure, the presence of Iran-affiliated armed groups is ironically among the local factors that is likely to suppress cross-border trade at Abu Kamal. Indeed, the presence of such forces means the area remains a site of recurrent local clashes and airstrikes, reportedly conducted by the U.S. or Israel. These are unlikely to abate, while import conditions in Syria are becoming increasingly restrictive. As such, Abu Kamal is unlikely to return to a place of prominence in a robust cross-border trade for the foreseeable future.

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.

Pedersen: It is time to start a political phase that ends the pain of the Syrian people

What Does it Say? The UN envoy to Syria stated that a political solution is necessary in order to end the nine-year conflict in Syria, and that the Constitutional Committee will pave the way for this solution.

Reading Between the Lines: Although the Constitutional Committee’s work does continue, it is — by design — a slow and cumbersome process; no major breakthroughs can be expected, and outright deadlock is more a feature of the system than a bug.

Source: Shaam

Language: Arabic

Date: 6 December 2019

The EU adopted €297 million in concrete actions for refugees and local communities in Jordan and Lebanon

What Does it Say? The European Union has begun a new assistance package of 297 million aimed at supporting Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon; the EU has also extended the mandate of the Trust Funds allowing them to fund such projects, to the end of 2023.

Reading Between the Lines: Support for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries is an increasingly urgent prerogative given the turmoil rankling host communities in Lebanon and the deep-felt economic needs in Jordan.

Source: EU Commission

Language: English

Date: 5 December 2019

Attempts to boycott Turkish goods in northeastern Syria

What Does it Say? The Kurdish Self Administration has promoted the boycott of Turkish goods in northeastern Syria as a form of resistance against the Turkish military operation.

Reading Between the Lines: Though it is an important measure politically, a complete boycott of Turkish goods in northeast Syria is unfeasible, given that a large portion of the goods in the area originate in Turkey and are imported via Iraq.

Sources: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 6 December 2019

Israeli media reports on airstrikes targeting Revolutionary Guard sites near Abu Kamal

What Does it Say: Israeli media sources stated that airstrikes targeted an IRGC armory near the Syria-Iraq border, in the vicinity of Abu Kamal.

Reading Between the Lines: Following a period of relative inactivity, these strikes are the third against Iran-affiliated militias in Syria in recent weeks; this resurgence suggests that attacks on Iran-linked targets are once again at the forefront of Israeli military interests in Syria.

Source: Shaam

Language: Arabic

Date: 5 December 2019

Car bomb targets Turkish convoy in northern Syria

What Does it Say? On 4 December, a convoy carrying Turkish troops was targeted by a car bomb in the city of Jarablus. An increasing number of such incidents have taken place in areas under Turkish control.

Reading Between the Lines: Areas of Syria which are under Turkish control are increasingly subject to such attacks, which are indeed likely to grow in intensity and frequency.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: English

Date: 6 December 2019

Round 14 of Astana talks begins in Kazakhstan

What Does it Say? The 14th round of Astana (Nur Sultan) talks began in the capital of Kazakhstan, between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The discussion focused on developing a political solution in light of the Constitutional Committee’s progress and the situation on the ground in Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Astana talks have been an important theater for advancing the guarantor powers’ mutual interests within the Syria conflict; however, recent rounds of talks have yielded diminishing returns, and the lack of fanfare concerning the current discussions reinforces the notion that the Astana process may be losing steam.

Source: Zaman Alwsl

Language: Arabic

Date: 10 December 2019

Bab al-Hawa announces the number of deportees from Turkey to Syria

What Does it Say? The Bab al-Hawa border crossing authorities announced that the number of Syrian refugees to have been deported from Turkey through the crossing over the past month was 5,816 — 1,350 more than had passed through the crossing the month prior.

Reading Between the Lines: In recent weeks, Turkey has resumed efforts to incentivize the return of Syria refugees, and in some cases, has reportedly deported them forcibly. These numbers speak to that trend, which is likely to continue, given new Turkish territorial gains in northeast Syria.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 3 December 2019

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.

Syria Update: 27 November – 03 December, 2019

Syria Update

27 November to 03 December, 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.

Syria 2020 budget approved: more SYP, less USD

In Depth Analysis

On November 26, the Syrian Parliament approved the 2020 Syrian national budget of 4 trillion SYP ($4.3 billion), of which 1.4 trillion SYP ($1.5 billion) will be carried as debt. Without doubt, the most notable aspect of the budget is the self-evident effect of the progressive erosion of the Syrian lira. When it was released in draft form in October, the 4 trillion SYP budget equated to $6.1 billion (Syria Update 2-8 October); since then, its value has shrunk by $1.8 billion. This plummet is even more apparent when seen in the context of the 2019 budget, which was valued at 3.88 trillion SYP, then equivalent to $7.8 billion. To date, there are no signs that the Syrian lira’s freefall will be arrested any time soon; this decline will continue to frustrate long-range state planning, while whittling away at the value of budget allocations and checking the state’s ability to support vital imports and subsidies.

Insofar as the Syrian street is concerned, however, the 2020 budget is distinguished not by what it contains, but by what it lacks: allocations for consumer support to mitigate the effects of a precipitous and continuing decline in Syrians’ purchasing power. The line item for ‘social support’ — to include subsidies for fuel, agricultural production, and flour — fell from 811 billion SYP in 2019 (then worth $1.6 billion) to 373 billion SYP ($401 million) in the newly approved budget. Crucially, this comes as the effects of currency collapse are already being deeply felt throughout Syria. As of 2 December, artisans, craftsmen, and small and medium producers in communities as far afield as Adra, A‘zaz, Afrin, and Menbij, have been compelled to halt their work as a result of the rising costs of raw materials. Likewise, restaurants and cafes — mainstays of Syria’s increasingly service-oriented economy — are also closing their doors, as consumers brace for further uncertainty.

As prices rise, confidence in the Government plummets

Central authorities have responded to price increases and nationwide shortages of staple goods by policing markets; however, such measures should be viewed as evidence of the state’s inability to address the root causes of the crisis by stabilizing prices or facilitating imports at volumes needed to meet demand. Nonetheless, state authorities have offered a multitude of explanations for the prevailing economic conditions. Predictably, speculators and exchange offices have been scapegoated, as have smugglers and tax cheats. Additionally, on 2 December, Majd Mazrah, the director of the General Authority for Competition and Preventing Monopoly, described current shortages as a temporary result of crackdowns to remove illicit goods from the market. In one such incident, the Homs Directorate of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection reportedly closed more than 200 shops, due to violations ranging from a failure to list prices publicly to selling goods of unknown origin. But as a means of calming uncertain markets, such measures are superficial at best, and risk driving more activity underground and into the black market. More fundamentally, rising prices and empty store shelves are a result of the Central Bank’s inaction and its progressive reductions in support for critical imports throughout 2019.

The Syrian Parliament discusses the 2020 budget. Image courtesy of Al-Watan.

Additionally vexing for consumers is the fact that, during parliamentary debate over the budget, Finance Minister Mamoun Hamdan stated that there was “no need” to adjust the budget in a bid to stabilize prices, due to the recent increase in salaries and pensions (Syria Update 20-26 November). This is wishful thinking. The wage and pension increases will reportedly saddle the Government of Syria with a massive 495.4 billion SYP ($532 million) in additional expenditures — without doubt a massive undertaking for the beleaguered government. For consumers, however, the relief they brought will be short-lived. Nominal rises in payrolls and pensions have already begun to feed inflation; in the long run, they will almost certainly force the Syrian Central Bank to resort to self-defeating measures to stop the gap, namely by increasing the money supply.

An emergency response?

In some respects, the 2020 Syrian budget is an exercise in triage. With it, the Government of Syria has strained to meet its immediate needs, with little consideration (or capacity) to entertain long-range planning imperatives. Without doubt, the ability of outside observers to draw conclusions from the budget is complicated by the fact that the budget is incomplete, and by no means transparent. Defense spending and other large portfolios do not appear in the budget. Curiously, support for electricity constituted the largest single allocation of the draft budget discussed in October (711 billion SYP); however, the large deficit carried by Syria’s electricity authority has now been written-out of the final state budget. According to well-placed local sources, many other allocations are likewise excluded from public-facing budget declarations. As such, the Syrian state’s deficit may be far deeper than is publicly recognized.

Looking ahead, there will be few means of generating revenue to improve the state’s balance sheets. Syria’s most productive oil and gas fields are now under the firm control of U.S.-led international coalition forces and their production runs are unlikely to serve the needs of Damascus (see Point No. 4, below). Proposals made by the Syrian Finance Ministry to promote growth as a means of raising import tax revenues are decidedly unrealistic. Catching tax cheats — another proposed source of revenue — is also improbable, given that corruption is endemic at all levels of the Syrian state apparatus. The suggestion that the revenue shortfall can be plugged by issuing government bonds and expanding the tax base is impracticable and unlikely to supply the sums needed to buoy the economy. For the time being, the threat of international sanctions and restrictive measures will also deter the foreign investment that Syrian authorities look to as a future economic lifeline. Repatriation of foreign deposits is also a dim prospect, notwithstanding the uncertainty in neighboring Lebanon, formerly the safe haven financial entrepot for Syrian trade. Finally, the spontaneous revival of agricultural production anticipated by Syrian authorities is likewise unimaginable.

The ultimate effect of these conditions will be to increase Syria’s reliance on outside capital — and outside actors. Further concessions to foreign investors, namely Iran and Russia, are almost certain to take place at an accelerated pace. Notably, the 2020 Syrian budget allocates a paltry 50 billion SYP ($53 million) to reconstruction. This is identical (in Syrian pounds, if not dollars) to the sum allocated to reconstruction in the 2019 budget, and it falls woefully short of overall reconstruction costs, which are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Iran is reported to have recently been granted concessions to undertake reconstruction in Syria, yet there is little doubt that Damascus will continue to look to Europe for funding that neither it, nor its closest allies, can supply.

Whole of Syria Review

1. SDF agreement opens door to expanded Russian presence in northeast Syria

Tal Tamr, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 1 December, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi stated that the SDF and the Government of Russia had reached a security agreement for the deployment of Russian forces in Tal Tamr, Ein Issa, and Amouda. As of 3 December, local sources indicate that the agreement has not been implemented; they note that although the SDF has begun to transfer its command centers from Ein Issa (moving, according to conflicting reports, to Ar-Raqqa or Quamishli cities), its forces have remained present in the areas stipulated under the agreement. As per local and media sources, negotiations between Turkey and Russia concerning future zones of control and influence in northeast Syria continue to take place at the Al Aliya silos, located on the M4 highway south of Tal Tamr and Ras El Ein. According to local sources, the negotiations have resulted in the National Army handover of the silos to the Government of Syria and Russian forces, with the further stipulation that armed groups backed by Turkey withdraw to areas 2 km north of the M4 highway.

Analysis: Russian forces entered northeast Syria in small, but unverifiable, numbers alongside their Government of Syria partners in the wake of the military agreement between the SDF and Government of Syria in October. However, the deal now struck between the SDF and Russia offers a firmer basis for Russia to take on a more central military role that extends beyond the border areas designated for joint Turkish-Russian patrols. Russia’s objectives in northeast Syria can be characterized, to borrow a phrase, as keeping the Americans out, the SDF in, and the Turks down. Already, Russia has filled the U.S.’s shoes by conducting joint patrols with Turkey and deconflicting between the SDF and Turkish forces. Russia’s efforts to build trust with the SDF further close the door to regional autonomy for a breakaway Kurdish region of Syria. Not only will this satisfy Russia’s demands vis-a-vis Syria’s territorial integrity, but it will also give Russia a valuable regional ally as it seeks to secure its own investments in Kurdistan Regional Government areas of Iraq. A further consideration is the fraught Russian-Turkish relationship. Although Russia and Turkey have nurtured a surprisingly robust partnership throughout the course of the Syria conflict, their immediate regional ambitions do clash at times, giving Russia ample reason to seek warmer relations with a powerful ally such as the SDF (Syria Update 13-19 November). In the immediate term, the Russian deployment to Tal Tamr, Ein Issa, and Amouda is part of a military agreement, likely intended to delineate the bounds of Turkish advances in northeast Syria. Looking further ahead, whether this arrangement will impact mobility, transportation, or access to Self Administration areas will be determined by the Self Administration’s ability to sustain its relatively independent course, and preserve its own administrative prerogative. To date, the status quo in these respects remains unchanged. However, it is also important to note that  — unlike U.S. forces — Russia’s expanding footprint in northeast Syria is unlikely to be reversed.

2. Despite limited advances, offensive intensifies in Idleb and Lattakia

Idleb and Lattakia governorates: Throughout the reporting period, local and media sources reported that a series of clashes took place between Government of Syria forces and armed opposition groups on active frontlines in southeast Idleb governorate and in Kabanah, Lattakia governorate. On 30 November, a Government of Syria incursion to opposition-held territory in Kabanah was repelled. On the same day, armed opposition groups made limited advances in Aajaz, Rasm El Ward, Istablat, and Sarja, in southeastern rural Idleb, which were quickly reversed when met with intense shelling and airstrikes. Meanwhile, Russia and the Government of Syria continued air raids and bombardment targeting various communities in south, southeast, and eastern rural Idleb governorate, including Kafr Nobol, Maar Tahroma, Hass, Kafruma, Sheikh Mustafa, Ma’arrat An Nu’man, Saraqeb, Kanasfara, Ihsem, and Urm El Joz. Most notably, local sources indicated that airstrikes targeted local markets in Saraqeb and Ma’arrat An Nu’man, resulting in an estimated 25 civilian deaths and 40 injuries.

Analysis: The widening scope and rising intensity of clashes and aerial bombardment witnessed during the reporting period may signal a step change in the Government of Syria’s campaign to retake priority areas — namely the M5 highway and key northwest Syria communities, including Ma’arrat An Nu’man and Saraqeb — from armed opposition forces. Nonetheless, the intensifying counter-assaults launched by opposition groups have stymied this undertaking, while rocket attacks on military airports in Hama and Abul Thohur may signal the willingness of armed opposition groups to draw a firm line in the sand. As noted in previous COAR analysis, the Government of Syria’s offensive is widely believed to carry the implicit backing of a Russian-Turkish agreement — likely one half of a deal that has already seen Russia concede to Turkey large swaths of northeast Syria, with the understanding that Russia and the Government of Syria will be free to pursue their objectives in the northwest. Notably, the actual degree of control exercised by Turkey over armed opposition groups it supports in northwest Syria has long been a subject of debate; whether Turkey has the leverage to facilitate the withdrawal of such groups from priority areas targeted by the current Government of Syria offensive is now a question of the foremost importance. This offensive has proceeded at a measured pace, likely in tacit acceptance of Turkey’s wish to avoid a significant wave of cross-border displacements. Should frontlines remain frozen, the intensity of bombardment in northwest Syria is likely to increase, as the Government of Syria moves to break this deadlock.

3. Dar’a opposition erects checkpoints to challenge Damascus over detainees

Dar’a governorate: On 1 December, local sources reported that former Free Syrian Army combatants had erected three checkpoints on the road linking Yadudeh and Al-Dahyieh, in protest against the Government of Syria’s systematic targeting of reconciled combatants and its refusal to satisfy local demands for the release of detainees. According to these sources, the combatants manning the makeshift checkpoints screened ID cards in search of Government of Syria–affiliated individuals and detained a Government of Syria military security figure. Protesters are also reported to have closed the road linking Maarba and Busra Esh-Sham, likewise to protest the status of detainees and the Government of Syria deployment of 4th Division combatants outside Dar‘a governorate. Local sources also reported a noticeable spike in anti–Government of Syria demonstrations elsewhere in the governorate, including Dar‘a city, Tafas, Mzeirib, Al Kerk, Nasib, and Ash-Shajarah.

Analysis: The establishment of ad-hoc checkpoints is highly noteworthy as an assertion of defiance on the part of the reconciled former FSA fighters, and it speaks to the degree to which atomized armed actor control has permitted anti-Government sentiment to surface in southern Syria (Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar‘a Governorate). It is possible that the undertaking was calculated to force further concessions from the Government of Syria following the release of as many as 118 detainees the previous week (Syria Update 20-26 November). Unsatisfied with the scale of the release, these actors may view further escalation as the clearest means of securing the release of further detainees. For its part, the Government of Syria clearly understands the seriousness of the challenges it faces in the restive south. Facing persistent flare-ups in the region, the Government has continued to seek the intercession of local notables, whose buy-in central authorities view as essential to the difficult task of pacifying southern Syria. Having met with limited success in such initiatives to this point, the Government of Syria is unlikely to succeed in containing a growing (though seemingly decentralized) popular resistance that bears the trappings of a nascent insurgent opposition. Should the Government fail to win buy-in, detentions, conscriptions, and arrests are likely to continue, thus fueling the cycle of violence that now characterizes southern Syria.

4. Government bombs oil sites in bid to block smuggling

Al-Bab and Jarablus, northern Aleppo governorate: On 27 November, Syrian state media issued a cryptic report suggesting that the Government of Syria had carried out the recent airstrikes targeting oil infrastructure in Al-Bab and Jarablus that resulted in the death of eight individuals. These strikes had initially been reported on 25 November. At least 10 crude oil refining facilities, located on the outskirts of the cities, were reportedly targeted, due to their use by networks smuggling oil to Turkey. Syrian state media also reported that tanker trucks from northeast Syria “were destroyed,” while noting that the ostensibly Kurdish smugglers had been dealing with “their inveterate enemy,” Turkey. The report added that “strict measures will be taken against any operation to smuggle oil stolen from Syrian territory outside Syria.”

Analysis: Although the specifics of these oil smuggling operations are difficult to confirm, the episode is a reflection of the increasing pressure that the Government of Syria faces to secure its domestic oil supply. The most obvious factor now shaping Syria’s oil supply is the loss of output from oil fields in eastern Syria. Although these fields are now under the nominal control of the SDF, the latter is facing increasing pressure from U.S. forces to sever the crossline oil trade that has long been brokered by the Qaterji company to mutual benefit (Syria Update 6-12 November). Iran’s reactivation of a $3 billion credit line to Syria may provide some support to meeting shortfalls in domestic production during the fuel-intensive winter months (Syria Update October 23-29), yet it is doubtful that Iran — embattled by a domestic uprising and isolated abroad — will be capable of guaranteeing that all of Syria’s fuel needs are met. A further cause of Syria’s chronic oil shortages is a series of bottlenecks resulting from damaged and inefficient infrastructure. Media sources reported that President Bashar Al-Assad has personally overseen grants that cede to various Qaterji enterprises the rights to develop two oil refineries and an oil terminal in Tartous. While such measures will provide the Government with greater energy security in the long term, they will do little to stopgap current needs. What is now most evident is that the crossline oil trade in Syria is in flux; how needs will be met in the meantime remains to be negotiated. The Government’s threats of decisive action against smuggling do reflect the deep need to stop the outflow of domestically sourced oil, but it is unclear whether such attacks will be part of a wider strategy to prevent smuggling in the longer term.

5. Local tribal militias clash in Aleppo

Aleppo city, Aleppo governorate: Between 25 and 28 November, local media sources reported that clashes had taken place among various local militias in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo city. As per these sources, the Al-Berri militia, a constituent of the Russia-supported Doshka Al-Nimr Brigade, raided several bases of the Al-Baqir Brigade, an armed group primarily comprised of Al-Beggara and Asasinah tribesmen and known for its ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The raid was reportedly met with limited resistance, and it ended with the Al-Berri militia in secure control over the Bab Neirab, Bab Hadid, Karm El Jabal, Al-Maysar, and Ferdaws neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo city, as well as Jeb Al Qebber and Sahet El Hatab, in the center of the city. According to local sources, Russian Military Police refrained from taking action to contain intergroup confrontations in the city, leading some to see the Al-Berri raid as an initiative undertaken at the behest of Russia, as a means of curtailing the presence of Iranian militias in the city.

Analysis: At present, the trigger for the confrontations is unclear, but there can be little doubt that both Russia and local tribal figures played a role in the incident — even if indirectly. Precedent exists for Russian forces to undertake efforts to contain intergroup clashes in Aleppo city (Syria Update 1-7 August); their unwillingness to intercede in this case suggests Russian acceptance of the operations. Nonetheless, such clashes are more likely to be strongly shaped — if not driven — by localized feuds and grievances among individual families and tribes. Tribal identity is a touchstone of armed group mobilization in Aleppo city. Throughout the war, intertribal dynamics have been a driving force behind local armed group competition, as well as conflict mediation. For the foreseeable future, in the absence of effective command and control by any major party to the conflict, security in Aleppo is likely to remain dependent upon the mediation and intervention of local notables, including tribal figures, who are likely to prioritize efforts to convert military primacy into economic or political advantage. In the present case, the Al-Berri family is reportedly known for its involvement in trade; the growing influence of the Al-Berri militia might well augur a wider role in local economic markets as well.

6. Despite claims of its collapse, Constitutional Committee continues work, slowly

Geneva, Switzerland: Throughout the reporting period, the blocs in the Syrian Constitutional Committee representing the Government of Syria, on the one hand, and the Syrian opposition, on the other, have persisted in leveling charged accusations that the other party has set out to obstruct and delay the constitutional reform process. Among the myriad accusations flying in Geneva, Yahya Al-Aridi, a spokesperson for the opposition bloc, stated that Government delegates had walked out of the Constitutional Committee’s second meeting over a raft of procedural complaints; the incident prompted one source identified as a “Western diplomat” to declare that “the situation is clearly blocked,” according to Turkish media. Similar accusations were leveled by the Government of Syria against opposition-aligned representatives in Geneva. Nonetheless, despite prevailing media narratives that suggest the reform process has broken down entirely, local sources close to the Constitutional Committee report that its work continues, albeit at a slow pace. These sources note that the third session in Geneva will proceed as planned, in two week’s time.

Analysis: Without doubt, the parties in Geneva have been at loggerheads over a host of issues, ranging from the fundamentals of the reform they are mandated to undertake, to the scope of the working agenda and the length of the working sessions (Government representatives advocated for a two-hour day). Nonetheless, it is important not to overlook the important fact that the committee continues to meet, which belies the prevailing narrative that talks have collapsed altogether; on the contrary, this persistence suggests that (for now) the slow, incremental progress that the committee was designed to undertake is happening. In this context, heated rhetoric by parties to the committee should neither be received with surprise, nor should it be seen as a failure of the process writ large. UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen has prioritized efforts to slowly build trust between the blocs and has stated that “things have gone much better than what most people expected.” Nonetheless, insofar as the modest goal of the brokered discussions has been to bring diametrically opposed blocs into direct conversation, the process will have to overcome psychological barriers, as well as those raised by divergent legal and political views. According to local sources, one member of the committee, a former armed opposition figure, broke down in tears during the committee’s proceedings, as he recalled the siege and reconciliation of eastern Ghouta.

7. Basic service debt poses new HLP risks in southern Damascus

Southern Damascus suburbs: On 27 November, media and local sources reported that the Government of Syria Directorate of Electricity had begun to collect debt owed for electricity and water bills dating back to 2012 in southern Damascus, including the suburbs of Yalda, Babila, and Beit Sham. Government of Syria–aligned security forces are reportedly stopping civilians at checkpoints and demanding that they produce receipts for such payments; civilians who are unable to demonstrate the full payment of their bills are threatened with suspension of provision of public services, such as electricity and water. Local sources report that, as a result of the crackdown, residents have hastened to settle their service debts for fear of facing movement restrictions, losing access to essential services, or being arrested. Outstanding bills for both electricity and water reportedly range from 20,000 SYP to 100,000 SYP ($21 to $107). Since large portions of the population are currently in dire economic straits, many are paying off their debt in instalments.

Analysis: In myriad contexts throughout the reconciled areas of Syria, mobility, access to services, and the permission to return have been conditional upon settling service debts that have accumulated over the course of the conflict. Such bills have been levied in dubious circumstances, including cases in which individuals have been displaced to other communities or outside Syria. In some cases, such bills relate to services provided by authorities that were not affiliated with the Government of Syria at all, raising further doubt over their essential legitimacy. These are not the only concerns to be raised, however. What distinguishes the southern Damascus suburbs from other communities where such measures have been imposed is the prominence of Damascus ring communities in future reconstruction plans. Acquiring proof that water and electricity debts have been paid in full will be important for residents seeking to establish legal ownership under the patchwork of reconstruction laws that pose an acute risk to their property. Notably, these communities have a high rate of informal housing and experience high levels of poverty, meaning that even modest fees represent an onerous burden for residents. As such, even if reconstruction plans in southern Damascus are not widely implemented at pace, the consequences of such bills for mobility and security of vulnerable populations are nonetheless a poignant and pervasive concern.

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.

YPG, Syria on top of Turkey’s agenda at NATO summit

What does it say? Turkey has called on NATO members to join it in classifying the YPG as a terrorist organization

Reading Between the Lines: NATO is unlikely to fall in lock step behind Turkey, thus calling attention to widening fissures between Turkey and other NATO members.

Source: Hurriyet Daily

Language: English

Date: 2 December 2019

Who Are Turkey’s Proxy Fighters in Syria?

What does it say? Most combatants fighting for Turkey’s local partner of choice in Syria, the Syrian National Army, claim they joined the group to collect a salary. 

Reading Between the Lines: Charges of extremism among the ranks may be overblown, yet there is little indication that violence and vandalism will abate in new areas captured by the group.

Source: New York Review of Books

Language: English

Date: 27 November 2019

Lebanon: rival protests near EU HQ over dispute on Syrian refugees

What does it say? Protesters gathered outside the European Union Delegation in Beirut to call for the return of Syrian refugees to Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: The deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon threatens social cohesion in host communities that are already enduring economic hardship.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Language: English

Date: 30 November 2019

How accurate are the figures on the number of tourists coming to Syria?

What does it say? The Syrian Ministry of Tourism has reported that the number of tourists who entered Syria in 2019 rose by 46 percent over the previous year. 

Reading Between the Lines: Tourist numbers are certainly on the rise, after zeroing out during the conflict, yet state figures misconstrue visitor numbers to sell the idea of Syria’s return to normalcy.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 2 December 2019

Who committed the Tel Rifaat massacre: the opposition or Rasoul al-Aathaam?

What does it say? Kurdish forces have accused Turkish-backed armed groups of shelling a residential neighborhood in Tal Rifaat, killing nine civilians. 

Reading Between the Lines: Although the National Army has denied culpability and it is unclear who carried out the attack, attacks targeting civilians have previously been used as a pressure tactic in Syria.

Source: Al-Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 3 December 2019

Syrian unity is impossible without a deal between Russia, the USA, and Turkey

What does it say? Two scenarios are possible for Syria’s future: a divided occupation, similar to that of postwar Germany, or the forced resignation of Bashar al-Assad.

Reading Between the Lines: Neither scenario is likely to be obtainable. Ultimately, no workable solution is possible without the agreement of major foreign powers who remain at loggerheads.

Source: Russian International Affairs Council

Language: English

Date: 22 November 2019

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.

Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar’a Governorate

Security Archipelago: Security Fragmentation in Dar'a
Governorate

03 December 2019

Throughout 2019, Dar‘a governorate has become one of the most violent regions of Syria. In contrast to other reconciled areas, southern Syria continues to witness regular mass demonstrations, protests, and targeted violence. In large part, this is likely a consequence of the specific ways in which the southern Syria reconciliation differed from that of other reconciled areas. In contrast to other reconciled areas, southern Syria was reconciled under a ‘patchwork’ framework, with parallel reconciliation negotiations led either by Russia or the Government of Syria. As a result, almost immediately following the reconciliation agreement in July 2018, armed opposition combatants were quickly remobilized into a multitude of  pro-Government military and security groups that fell into an increasingly open contest for political, economic, and military primacy.

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This paper is an attempt to understand the contours of the current security landscape of southern Syria, in particular the ways in which the region’s unique reconciliation framework has set the course for the persistent violence that continues to define it. Primary research was conducted between August and September 2019; upon examination, it is clear that a majority of communities within Dar‘a governorate host myriad security actors that are in open competition with one another, and are distributed seemingly at random throughout the region, with no clear-cut patterns of influence or control. Only a handful of relatively circumscribed regions are controlled by a single pro-Government armed group. Consequently, southern Syria is best seen not as a collection of coherent ‘zones of influence’, but as a ‘security archipelago’, where the presence and influence of armed groups changes from community to community. Dar‘a governorate is by no means the only part of Syria where pro-Government military and security actors are fragmented or in open competition; indeed, many Syria analysts have rightly pointed to southern Syria as a potential ‘model’ by which to examine the state of the country as a whole. It is therefore hoped that this paper will prompt further consideration of security conditions in a post-reconciliation context. However, the findings of this paper should not be taken as static or deterministic. Considering the fluidity of events in Dar‘a, the presence and influence of pro-Government armed groups is subject to change. That said, with no single actor capable of fully securing control of the governorate, and no clear authority capable of unifying these actors, the general status quo is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

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.