Syria Update

23 March 2020
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No spitting, no fighting: Coronavirus crisis reaches Syria

In Depth Analysis

On 22 March, Government of Syria Health Minister Nizar Yaziji announced the first official case of COVID-19 in Syria. Yaziji indicated that the source of the novel coronavirus infection was outside Syria, thus downplaying the risk of outbreak in the country. The announcement followed an extended period in which the Government of Syria continued to deny that the virus had reached Syria, despite mounting outrage and mockery as reports increasingly suggested that the outbreak is already widespread in the country (see: Syria Update 16 March). In that respect, the Health Ministry’s statement brings little assurance. Not only does the Syrian state lack the means to address a viral public health crisis, but conditions remain conducive to the pathogen’s spread. Despite a ban on spitting in public, as well as restrictions on border crossings, internal mobility, and public gatherings, combatants reportedly continue to flow across the border. Worse, Syria has little medical capacity to respond to an outbreak. Moreover, the nation’s health sector has been crippled by years of international sanctions limiting access to medical equipment, thus aggravating the shortages caused by destruction of infrastructure and the loss of human resources and expertise. More generally, the collapse of the Syrian pound leaves the population less capable of affording basic medical supplies and sanitation materials. All told, COVID-19 may strike Syria with disastrous fury. Mitigations will be difficult in every corner of Syria but are likely to vary widely by geographic area.

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Government of Syria-held areas

The most notable feature of the Government of Syria’s likely response to the virus will be its potential geographic limitations. The Government will likely direct its efforts primarily to Damascus and its vicinity. Notably, in reconciled areas, the Government has systematically neglected the restoration of basic services and infrastructure, and will likely continue to do so, thus increasing the threat that outbreaks will disproportionately affect reconciled populations of areas such as Eastern Ghouta or southern Syria, which are already disfavored in the eyes of the state. Holistically, air travel and land borders have been shut down, while public events have been restricted. Reportedly, at least three quarantine centers have been established, but with limited access to testing supplies or medical equipment, an outbreak may take place on a dangerous scale.

Opposition-held northwest Syria

As of 20 March, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in opposition-held northwest Syria. However, opposition-held areas of Idleb and Hama governorates remain acutely susceptible to an outbreak, as they host perhaps the greatest concentration of vulnerable individuals in all of Syria. According to the most recent February data compiled by UN and implementing partners, 754,078 IDPs currently reside in the region, mostly in densely populated camps and informal shelters, with shortages of basic nutrition and hygiene needs, and limited access to health facilities — most of which were deliberately destroyed by Government of Syria aerial bombardment in recent months.

Health interventions are planned. On 16 March, the World Health Organization indicated that it would begin testing for the virus in northwest Syria in the near term. On 18 March, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) announced the complete closure of crossings linking opposition-controlled areas to those under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and to Government of Syria-held areas in rural Aleppo. Additionally, the Free Health Directorate has reportedly begun awareness campaigns for residents in rural Aleppo and has called for limitations on public movements and social gatherings.

Eastern Syria

Likewise, the Self Administration has yet to announce confirmed COVID-19 cases but has taken several measures in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. Local sources reported a decrease in the work of administrative institutions, the suspension of humanitarian programming except for distributions for relief aid, the closure of gathering places, the establishment of medical points, the launch of awareness campaigns in IDP camps, and the introduction of medical screenings at crossings. Furthermore, the Self Administration has announced that it has established a 20-bed quarantine in Ain Al Arab (Kobani), with plans to soon open another nearby, with a 1,000-patient capacity. However, concerns remain. Civilians and foreign fighters may continue to have mobility in eastern Syria’s rural hinterlands, across Self Administration- and Government-held areas. To that end, local rumors suggest that at least six journeymen combatants of Iranian and Iraqi origin have been put under quarantine in Mayadeen city, due to fears of COVID-19. Additionally, the need for medical supplies is perhaps more acute in northeast Syria than anywhere in the country, following the suspension of cross-border humanitarian aid via Yaaroubieh, which has drastically curtailed the area’s access to medical supplies and forced a reliance on Damascus-based operations as gatekeepers of official medical aid (see: Syria Update 13 January).

Smuggling

Notably, local and media sources reported a spike in the prices of various medical supplies, ranging from 90 percent to 700 percent. Given the interlinked economic collapses of Syria and Lebanon, mutual travel restrictions are likely to be undermined by the growing financial incentive for cross-border smuggling. However, local markets in Lebanon are also suffering major shortages due to the financial crisis. In both Syria and Lebanon, local workshops producing basic medical supplies will likely struggle to meet demand or satisfy quality standards, thus feeding black market profiteers on both sides of the border. Such incentives are likely to grow the longer the coronavirus pandemic lasts. However, for Syria one silver lining to the crisis has already emerged: the indefinite pause of major military operations.

Whole of Syria Review

1. HTS vows to disrupt Russian-Turkish patrols

Idleb governorate: Local and media sources have reported a widening schism between Turkish-supported armed opposition groups and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, following public demonstrations that cut short the first Russian-Turkish military patrol along the M4. On 16 March, media sources reported that a large number of HTS affiliates had participated in the demonstrations and pledged to undertake further efforts to prevent the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreement in northwest Syria. Additionally, individuals affiliated with HTS reportedly announced financial rewards for anyone who carries out attacks on Russian vehicles. On 17 March, additional sources reported that HTS combatants had blocked the M4 highway by erecting earthen berms between Neirab and Ariha.

Collectively, these actions set HTS on a collision course with armed opposition groups closely supported by Turkey, which continues to carry out the patrols and attempt to implement the agreement. Members of the National Army have expressed growing concern over the demonstrations, fearing their potential to trigger resumed military operations by the Governments of Syria and Russia. On 18 March, caretaker Governor of Idleb Mohamad Fadi Al-Saadoun stated that the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreement will be guaranteed by military operations if necessary, indicating yet again that the Government of Turkey may be incapable of controlling the armed factions whose buy-in will be critical to implement the ceasefire.

Problem delayed not solved 

The presence of HTS and other extremist groups remains the foremost hurdle to the implementation of the Idleb ceasefire agreement (see: Syria Update 16 March). Though easily neglected during periods of intense, large-scale military conflict, tensions between armed groups in northwest Syria persist. Turkey’s strategic vision for HTS remains unclear. Recent reports highlight a growing HTS presence along the Syria-Turkey frontier, reportedly in a border patrol capacity in light of human trafficking and smuggling. This may signify HTS’s willingness to remain under the aegis of Turkey, but it is not clear Turkey intends to foster such a relationship into the future. Certainly, HTS has faced challenges on the local level. On 20 March, media sources reported clashes in western rural Idleb governorate between HTS and Hurras Al-Deen, an extremist group that splintered off from HTS in 2018. On the same date, two Turkish soldiers were killed and several were injured by a rocket attack carried out by what the Turkish Defense Ministry called “radical groups” — potentially pointing the finger at HTS. Should such attacks continue, inter-group confrontations escalate, or the M4 remain blocked, Turkey may find itself with no choice but to escalate the direct or proxy confrontation with HTS — or other armed groups — in order to satisfy its agreement with Russia. Crucially, however, the longer such conditions persist, the more likely it is that the Government of Syria will interpret the events as a green light for further military operations of its own.

2. 4th Division seizes Nasib border crossing

Nasib, Dar’a governorate: Local and media sources indicate that on 16 March, a large convoy of Syrian 4th Division forces commanded by Maher Al-Assad, brother of President Bashar Al-Assad, seized control of the Nasib-Jaber border crossing with Jordan. Local sources indicate that the 4th Division forces seized the crossing in a bloodless standoff with the military security intelligence commanded by Imad Abu Zareq. Although the two-day confrontation did not escalate to armed clashes, the 4th Division did reportedly arrest multiple combatants and establish new checkpoints inside the crossing zone.

Border closed, smuggling goes on

The confrontation achieves multiple Government of Syria objectives. First, it consolidates state control over a vital piece of transnational public infrastructure. Second, it cracks down on rival military actors in the restive south. Third, it sends a signal that the Al-Assad regime is willing to take extreme steps to solidify its control over war economy resources — in this case, the lucrative border crossing with Jordan. The Nasib-Jaber crossing has been closed since 8 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to local sources. However, cross-border smuggling activity — dominated by Iran-backed groups and Hezbollah — has not ceased, and is likely to continue with increasing regularity with a more consistent Government of Syria presence in the area. In the long term, the crossing’s vital significance to Syria’s overall economic vitality is difficult to overstate, and the value of Syria’s cross-border commerce is expected to grow, following the Government’s restoration of control over the length of the M5 in northern Syria.

3. Salvation Government cracks down on SARC

Idleb city, Idleb governorate: Local media sources report that on 14 March, the Salvation Government shut down Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) programming in northwest Syria, following complaints over partiality and corruption. Media and local sources report that the Salvation Government has since placed SARC resources and properties at the disposal of the health directorate, the medical syndicate, and other local organizations to continue conducting activities. The most significant accusation leveled against SARC concerns alleged favoritism toward the Government of Syria, including the use of SARC vehicles to transport Government soldiers and help them avoid Turkish airstrikes.

Ceasefire in doubt 

The crackdown on SARC in northwest Syria has not had a significant impact on humanitarian programming in the area. To date, local sources indicate that SARC’s activities in Idleb were limited primarily to facilitating prisoner exchanges and the ‘humanitarian corridors’ opened by the Government of Syria to encourage return from opposition-held areas. Such activities will likely be significantly more difficult, if not impossible, due to the SARC shutdown. Crucially, however, the crackdown does not necessarily indicate that the Salvation Government is willing to politicize aid activities more broadly. While the specific charges leveled against SARC are difficult to verify, local sources indicate that the Government of Syria — with Russian support — has attempted to portray SARC programming as a continuing service of the Government of Syria. As such, the pressure tactics against SARC are most important as a signifier that the relationship between the Government of Syria and various armed actors and governance bodies in northwest Syria remains deeply unstable. In the near term, growing mistrust and heightened animosity cast doubt over either side’s willingness to abide by the northwest Syria ceasefire.

4. U.S. forces pull-out of Qa’im base

Al-Qa’im, Iraq: On 17 March, U.S. military commanders announced that Iraqi Security Forces would take full control over Al-Qa’im military base, on the Iraq-Syria border. The handover follows several months of tit-for-tat attacks in Iraq-Syria border areas between U.S. forces and local Iran-backed militia groups, most notably local factions of the quasi-state-affiliated Popular Mobilization Forces (i.e. Hashd Al-Shaabi) umbrella (see: Syria Update 16 March). U.S. military sources have publicly described the handover as part of a planned consolidation of U.S. troops in Iraq. However, an Iraqi commander characterized the move as “the first step of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq,” according to local media sources.

Troop presence shrinks, threat level grows

The handover of Al-Qa’im military base may have considerable implications for the access and mobility of Iran-backed armed groups in eastern Syria. In reality, the U.S. troop presence in western Iraq is a vestige of the battle against ISIS. In recent months, the apparent misalignment of interests vis-à-vis Iran has become an increasingly heated point of contention between U.S. troops on the one hand, and Iraqi Security Forces and state-sanctioned militias on the other. The exact trajectory of the U.S. troop presence is hard to forecast. Due to coronavirus fears, the U.S. and U.K. have both drawn down troops in Iraq, in addition to consolidating forces in more easily defended locations inside the country.

In the near term, myriad acute threats are expected to arise on Iraq’s western frontier. First, the coronavirus pandemic has put joint military trainings on hold; local armed groups and ISIS cells may be emboldened by the apparent opportunity to stage attacks. Second, the meteoric crash in global oil prices has left the Iraqi state with a considerable budgetary shortfall. This may force consequential decisions regarding security operations as well as funding for non-security activities. Should livelihoods be threatened as a result, individuals will be more susceptible to recruitment by armed groups, thus fueling the cycle of violence. Third, on 18 March, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that “we have responded to [the U.S. killing of Qasim Soleimani] and will respond to it” (emphasis added). To date, such responses have been carried out in the porous Iraq-Syria border region, but Iran’s initial response — non-lethal rocket attacks on U.S. bases — have widely been interpreted as a placeholder response until a more impactful course of action is identified. Fourth, the risk remains that U.S. forces may be withdrawn from Iraq or Syria altogether. As the troop footprint in these theaters shrinks, so too does the political risk of pulling out the forces that remain.

5. U.S. sanctions Syrian Minister of Defense

Damascus: On 17 March, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Syrian Minister of Defense General Ali Abdullah Ayoub. In a press statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the decision was based on Ayoub’s “deliberate actions since December 2019 to prevent a ceasefire from taking hold in northern Syria.” Notably, Ayoub was sanctioned under the terms of a presidential action from October, Executive Order 13894, which primarily targeted Turkish officials responsible for Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria, Operation Peace Spring. However, the order also singled out individuals responsible for the “obstruction, disruption, or prevention of a ceasefire in northern Syria.”

Why now? 

The order to sanction Ayoub comes at a peculiar time. Ayoub previously served as chief of staff of the Syrian army and has held the defense minister post since 2018. A multitude of justifications are theoretically available for imposing sanctions on ranking members of the Syrian state apparatus, and to date, nearly all such individuals have been targeted. How the defense minister spent nearly two years in office without sanction will raise questions — no doubt difficult to answer — over the strategic rationale employed by Washington. One answer suggests that the decision to sanction Ayoub may be an attempt to build bridges with Turkey, a NATO ally whose warming relations with Russia have been a source of consternation for the U.S. In that sense, the move may signify a broader effort by the U.S. to bring Turkey in from the cold. If that is the case, Ankara and Washington will eventually be forced to come to terms over northeast Syria, where the U.S.’s continuing partnership with the Kurdish-majority SDF remains a point of virulent disagreement. From the perspective of Turkey, nothing short of a full U.S. withdrawal will do. Although no such plans are known to be active, Turkey has advocated this course of action. Likewise, the arc of the U.S. military deployment in Syria gives ample reason to believe all options are on the table.

6. National Security Office intervenes in Baath appointments

Damascus: On 16 March, local media sources reported that the central Baath Party has now “fixed the defect found in the 39 of the 136 members” whose seats were contested following internal party elections in February. In response to the large volume of complaints, the outcome of the elections was annulled, with little clear rationale given for the party’s decision to backtrack (see: Syria Update 16 March). Although the internal machinations of the Ba’ath Party remain difficult to penetrate, local sources suggest that the National Security Office — heretofore an unknown player in the Baath Party’s inner workings — has taken a role in the recent dismissals and appointments. Notably, the reworking was also accompanied by increasing female participation — by three members when compared to the annulled list — thus ensuring that at least one female member was selected for each branch.

The purge of ‘grey’ members continues?  

The internal workings of the Syrian Baath Party are highly opaque, and the contradictory reports emerging in recent weeks throw the outcome of the party’s recent internal elections in greater doubt. It is little surprise that the outcome of such elections would be subject to outside manipulation, including the potential for influence by external actors such as Russia or Iran. However, meddling by the National Security Office is believed to be novel. If confirmed, such interference would give state security apparatuses greater influence over Syria’s highest-level political affairs. Such a role would be consequential and may furnish the National Security Office a stronger hand in the political workings of the Syrian state for years to come. Finally, in terms of gender, the decision to bring one female candidate into the party in each branch should be seen more as an exercise in pink-washing, rather than an initiative in the interest of actual inclusion.

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.

Hosting Refugees: The Impact of the Occupancy Free of Charge (OFC) Shelter Modality in Three Localities in Lebanon

What Does it Say? This study explores the impact of efforts to combat abysmal living standards for Syrian refugees in Lebanon through programming offering occupancy free of charge, or rent reductions.

Reading Between the Lines: While initiatives that seek to improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are vital, these initiatives fail to address the poor living conditions of vulnerable Lebanese citizens, which may lead to animosity toward Syrian refugees amidst Lebanon’s increasingly dire economic conditions. The perception that the international community is prioritizing Syrian refugees over Lebanese citizens has the potential to increase tensions.

Source: Issam Fares Institute

Language: English

Date: February 2020

Europe’s Shame: Claims by Key Allies of No Civilian Harm in War Against ISIS Exposed

What Does it Say? An international investigation has concluded that airstrikes carried out by European allies in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties. The countries that are now under scrutiny for these allegations are France, Belgium and the U.K. 

Reading Between the Lines: Although such reports may prompt soul-searching in Western capitals, the fear of ‘collateral damage’ has seldom been a major deterrent to military operations when national security justifications are marshaled.

Source: Airwars

Language: English

Date: 15 March 2020

The Dynamics of Tyranny

What Does it Say?  The article is a sociological examination of the costs of war, namely, how many Syrians have become desensitized to its horrors. 

Reading Between the Lines: The article calls attention to DDR and post-conflict normalization challenges as Syrian communities harbor increasingly opposing worldviews that will be difficult to square.

Source: International Review

Language: English

Date: 14 March 2020

Most aid to Syria’s Rukban camp has been blocked for more than a year. Here’s why

What Does it Say? Humanitarian assistance to the Rukban camp has been extremely limited ever since aid stopped arriving there through Jordan in 2016, while Russia and the Government of Syria have mounted increasingly intentional efforts to choke off the camp since early 2019. 

Reading Between the Lines: The camp is among the ‘forgotten areas’ of Syria, and with the U.S. refusal to facilitate aid delivery to Rukban residents, humanitarian conditions have grown increasingly dire.

Source: PBS NewsHour

Language: English

Date: 14 March 2020

World Travel Restrictions United Nations World Food Programme – Emergency Division & Management Services Division

What Does it Say? The map documents individual nations’ travel restrictions that have been imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Reading Between the Lines: Disruptions due to the pandemic have been massive, and are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Source: World Food Programme

Language: English

Date: 19 March 2020

Four Western Countries Refuse to Reconstruct Syria ‘Without Political Process’

What Does it Say? The U.S., Britain, France, and Germany have stated that the only way out of the conflict in Syria is through a political solution, stressing that no reconstruction aid would be provided until such a solution is underway.

Reading Between the Lines: The statement is a rote recitation of the nations’ historical positions on Syria, yet the parties remain strategically non-committal in terms of the political transition on demand.

Source: The Syrian Observer

Language: English

Date: 18 March 2020

Hounded by war, can Idleb’s desperate civilians outrun final assault?

What Does it Say? The reporting from Idleb’s frontlines casts light on the decision points facing Syrians who are directly in the firing line should the military offensive kick off once more. 

Reading Between the Lines: The reportage paints an accurate portrait of the Syrians now being faced with decisions to remain in opposition-held northwest Syria, or to contemplate return to Government-held areas.

Source: The Guardian

Language: English

Date: 13 March 2020

How long will the Turkish-Russian deal on Idleb last?

What Does it Say? On 5 March, Russia and Turkey agreed to a new ceasefire agreement in Idleb; like every agreement before it, it may only be a matter of time before this one collapses as well.

Reading Between the Lines: The foremost question in Idleb is now where the breaking point for the Government of Syria is. Once again, Russia and Turkey have negotiated an agreement, yet it remains possible that neither actor is capable of forcing its partners on the ground to implement it.

Source: Al Jazeera

Language: English

Date: 16 March 2020

Roundup: Syria’s grim anniversary

What Does it Say? After nine years of conflict, the effect on civilians has been devastating. With 5.6 million refugees and 6.1 million IDPs, there is no end to the violence yet in sight.

Reading Between the Lines: The roundup of articles catalogs the long conflict in Syria and its devastating impact that will likely persist to some degree well after the conflict has concluded.

Source: The New Humanitarian

Language: English

Date: 13 March 2020

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.