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.