To a large extent, major armed conflict has subsided in Syria as authorities across the country marshal their full force behind efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Naturally, international response actors remain predominantly focused on the country’s health sector. At the same time, however, important developments with deep potential impact on the international response and the Syrian population continue to take place outside Syria’s hospitals and health facilities (see: Syria Update 30 March). Among the most impactful of these developments is the Government of Syria’s apparent readiness to quarantine communities as authorities grapple with the growing virus crisis. On 1 April, the Syrian Ministry of Interior announced that Government of Syria health authorities had placed the village of Monin, approximately 18 kilometers north of Damascus, under “isolation” following the death of a local resident due to COVID-19. The following day, state media reported that the Government had imposed similar restrictions on Sayyeda Zeinab, 10 kilometers south of the capital. These lockdowns build on previously introduced restrictions, to include a prohibition on travel between governorates, a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, the closure of most businesses, and a reduction in the hours of operation of state institutions.
Movement restrictions may be critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19, yet they have worrying implications for affected communities. Cases of COVID-19 are almost certain to arise elsewhere, due in no small part to the late implementation of containment mechanisms, the large presence of foreign fighters in Syria, and the general inadequacy of testing regimes. As such, restrictions imposed in Monin and Seyyada Zeinab may serve as templates for what state media has described as “a gradual isolation mechanism for overcrowded areas”. The likely ramifications of these restrictions will be considerable, particularly in terms of access and household economics.
Patchwork access restrictions
Restrictions on movement risk cutting off affected communities from necessary commercial and humanitarian access. These restrictions will force populations into a greater reliance on central or local authorities for the distribution of food, gas, and essentials, thus raising the risk of diversion, misappropriation, and selective distribution. However, the capacity to carry out distributions will almost certainly be affected by pre-existing supply side challenges. Meanwhile, despite the presence of carve-outs for aid actors, general movement restrictions in Syria will also be likely to increase access challenges for international response actors. This is especially true if local authorities begin to impose movement restrictions in their jurisdictions, thus creating a patchwork of inconsistent and highly localized access conditions. Indeed, local officials in Sednaya, which is adjacent to Monin, have reportedly implemented harsh mobility restrictions in the community. As the pandemic continues, response actors will be forced to contend with similar restrictions that may follow in other communities.
Household economics: from bad to worse
According to the Syrian Ministry of Health, the quarantine of Monin is a precaution that is necessary because the deceased individual’s family failed to adhere to social distancing measures and “continued to sell [goods] in a commercial shop.” The Government of Syria’s willingness to blame residents for the resulting restrictions on the community is deeply flawed. Local sources indicate that the woman had sought medical care for her symptoms and was nonetheless discharged without a COVID-19 diagnosis. On a more fundamental level, the event highlights the tensions that are unavoidable as Syrians confront mounting limitations on their livelihoods activities, thus worsening the economic peril that was already widespread prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Unless central authorities overcome long odds to provide a safety net adequate to meet Syrians’ basic material needs, families will be compelled to carry on with income-generating activities by any means possible — despite the risk to themselves and others. All this raises deep concern over the lengths to which Syrian authorities are willing to go to implement such lockdowns. In Sayyeda Zeinab, security forces will reportedly enforce the restrictions; how exactly such measures will accommodate material needs remains to be seen. As incomes evaporate and bread and other basic commodities run in increasingly short supply in Syria, individuals’ desperation will likely grow. Ultimately, the pandemic may further divide an already exhausted Syrian populace and push individuals into deeper reliance on state support or international aid — neither of which are guaranteed or even possible in the current climate.
Idleb: On 1 April, local media sources reported that the leadership of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) convened a high-level internal meeting to discuss the means through which HTS could eliminate rival extremist group Hurras Al-Deen. According to unconfirmed media reporting, the meeting entailed discussion of the feasibility of a military campaign against Hurras Al-Deen as well as popular incitement through local media. In parallel, local sources reported increased tension between HTS and Hurras Al-Deen in northwest Syria, including the circulation — by HTS — of accusations that Hurras Al-Deen is targeting activists. These local sources raised doubts over the reported meeting of HTS leadership. However, they indicated that HTS did convene a meeting with the Turkish-supported National Army on 2 April, reportedly to discuss joint efforts to combat Hurras Al-Deen. Since the meeting, both groups have allegedly gone on ‘military alert’.
M4 patrols running out of runway
Despite a general lull in violence attributed to a ‘corona detente,’, HTS and Hurras Al-Deen remain locked in what appears to be an uneasy standoff in northwest Syria (see: Syria Update 30 March). The groups reportedly clashed in the vicinity of the M4 highway in Idleb in late March, yet their relationship is merely one dimension of the region’s overall trajectory, and both groups have been seen as obstacles to the realization of the M4 security corridor, a key sticking point in the full implementation of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement in northwest Syria (see: Syria Update 23 March 2020). Whether directly or by mobilizing its proxies on the ground, Turkey must find a way to deal with extremist groups in the northwest, not least to satisfy its Russian counterpart, which has emphasized that mere cosmetic changes to (or a rebranding of) HTS will not give the group staying power. Russia has painted a target on HTS, in the long term, rival groups such as Hurras Al-Deen and Turkistan Islamic Party also present challenges. To that end, geopolitical machinations and local tensions may yet furnish HTS an opportunity to deploy its formidable military force to buy itself time by turning its guns on rival factions.
Al-Hasakeh city, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 29 March, the Self Administration announced that an unspecified number of ISIS-affiliated detainees escaped from Al Maahad Al-Sinai’ prison in Al-Hasakeh city following violent riots, during which the prisoners reportedly seized control of the ground floor of the prison. In public statements, the Syrian Democratic Forces claimed they were able to quell the riots, but did not disclose the status of the prisoners who reportedly escaped. Media reports indicate that an unspecified number of escapees were captured with the assistance of unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the International Coalition. The reported prison riot in Al-Hasakeh comes shortly after the escape of 11 ISIS prisoners from Kasra prison in Deir-ez-Zor governorate on 28 March.
ISIS in the time of COVID-19
The reported escape of ISIS-affiliated detainees comes at a potentially critical juncture for the group. Despite the shattering of the group’s formal command structures and pretensions to territorial control, its media organs have nonetheless seized on the COVID-19 outbreak to call for its followers to carry out attacks, including in sweeping rural expanses of Iraq and Syria. This timing is also potentially fortuitous for the group’s scattered followers (or, indeed, non-state armed actors of any affiliation), given that the drawdown of international security cooperation will create space in which such actors may be able to resume activities with less resistance. However, pragmatic and logistical checks do exist to hamper the group’s capacity to carry out attacks in Iraq or Syria. In Al-Hasakeh and Ar-Raqqa governorates, newly enforced measures restricting social gatherings, setting curfews, and limiting mobility, as well as the lull in security incidents generally will impede ISIS affiliates’ mobility. In this sense, local security actors are more likely to detect and thwart ISIS activities. No doubt, the possibility remains that ISIS will seek to seize on security actors’ distraction to carry out attacks, yet its capacity to execute complex attacks in Syria appears, for the time being, diminished.
Qarayya, Sweida governorate: On 27 March, local and media sources reported that intense clashes broke out between local armed factions from As-Sweida and the Russian-supported 5th Corps in Qarayya town, located on the administrative border between Dar’a and As-Sweida governorates. Notably, local sources indicated that clashes followed tit-for-tat kidnapping attempts. First, on 26 March, members of the As-Sweida militia kidnapped two civilians from Busra Al-Sham — the headquarters of the 5th Corps, which triggered a response kidnapping attempt by the 5th Corps, targeting civilians from Qarayya. The incident in Qarayya broke down into heated clashes that intensified as both groups sent military reinforcements to the area, ultimately leading to the 33 deaths and five injuries in total. Notably, Government of Syria forces refrained from intervening. However, local sources reported that reconciled armed groups known for their affiliation with Military Security did support the 5th Corps during the fighting. The clashes ultimately ceased following the mediation of Russian military police, and were finally concluded with negotiations among local notables from both governorates on 30 March. The notables’ vowed to form ad hoc committees to investigate and resolve the issue of the detainees, as well as a permanent committee tasked with “revitalizing social and economic relations, and establishing joint projects” between the areas.
Marking their territory
Though incidents of kidnapping Dar’a and Sweida governorates have reportedly been on the rise since the beginning of this year, the clashes in Qarayya are the first instance in which they have resulted in intense military confrontation. The intervention of notables decreases the likelihood that the events will serve as the opening salvo in a wider campaign of mutual hostage-takings across the southern Syria region, yet conditions are in place for such events to continue at pace. The leadership of the 5th Corps and the influential Shoyoukh Al-Karama in As-Sweida disavow kidnapping and smuggling, yet members of both groups likely are engaged in such activities, with or without official sanction. Given the intensely local nature of these events, both actor sets are likely to hold open the door to self-defense and revenge by whatever means are available. This prospect is notable, given the Government of Syria’s limited willingness to impose order on the region; worse, tension between Government forces and local factions in Sweida and Dar’a show no sign of abating (see: Syria Update 9 March). Potentially more promising is the prospect of Russian intervention. Russia has often played the role of umpire in regional security issues, yet in As-Sweida in particular the efficacy of this role will be blunted by the fact that Russian military police have yet to cement a strong relationship with Druze religious leadership.
Various locations: On 1 April, media sources reported that eight Iranian oil tankers, with an estimated load of 6.8 million barrels per tanker, have reached Syria since the beginning of March. According to TankerTrackers.com, the estimated 253,419 BpD reaching Syria from Iran during the month of March accounts for the largest average daily supply to be recorded since the tracking organization began monitoring maritime traffic between the countries. Meanwhile, the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources has stated that production from oil fields in Deir-ez-Zor, to include Al-Shola, Al-Kharatah, Al-Ward, Nishan, Tayem, Al-Mazraa, and Al-Mahash, has recently increased from 2,500 BpD at the beginning of the year to 6,000 BPD at present.
The sharp rise in Iranian crude oil shipments to Syria throughout 2020 may finally have reached a level sufficient to relieve Syria – at least temporarily – of its previously dire oil shortages, caused by local oil production shortfalls and wavering supply from Iran. While the Government of Syria will greet the boost to its depleted oil reserves with enthusiasm, the oil supply boom does not signal a deepening support role on the part of Iran. On the contrary, the measure is likely a side-effect of the global oil glut that has resulted from a race-to-the-bottom price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. As global prices have plummeted to lows unseen in years, Iran has likely upped its supply to Syria in a bid to offload domestic production to avoid local stockpiling and avert the risk of a forced production shutdown. While the terms of Iran’s credit line to Syria remain shrouded in uncertainty, there is little doubt that its current support may be instrumental in allowing Syria to temporarily forestall future energy shortages to achieve relative stability in the domestic oil market for the foreseeable future.
Various locations: On 29 March, media sources reported that the Syrian Ministry of Economy announced the elimination of import restrictions on flour. As such, wheat and flour imports for bread — a staple in many Syrians’ diets — will be open to the private sector for the first time (see: Syria Update 27 January). The move comes as Syria slips deeper into crisis over the staple commodity. In recent months, multiple large tenders for wheat on the international market have gone unfulfilled, and on 4 April Syria’s General Grain Establishment announced that Russia will provide 25 tons of wheat to Syria. Meanwhile, bread shortages have emerged in Government of Syria-controlled areas in light of a national shortage of flour, which compounds the food security concerns spurred by unprecedented price increases on food commodities. Across the country, Syrians have been forced to stand in line for hours to secure a single packet of bread. Syrians have been harshly critical over the visibly declining quality of bread and the shrinking weights, notwithstanding continuously rising prices and the emergence of a black market for bread, in which a package of bread commands between 500 SYP and 770 SYP.
Notably, the measures come shortly after the Central Bank of Syria introduced a range of initiatives in a bid to ease imports and reduce costs. These measures include the introduction of “preferential” conversion rates on nearly all transactions (see: Syria Update 30 March), a three-month freeze on business and individual loan repayments, and the elimination of the requirement that traders block 50 percent of their revenue as a bank deposit security.
The end of the ‘democracy of bread’
Relaxing import controls on wheat and flour signals that the Syrian state may continue to fracture as it struggles to navigate its current financial straits. Historically, the state has held a tight monopoly on bread production, and its commitment to efficient distribution of subsidized bread has been among its most durable commitments to what was once an expansive welfare state. In turn, this relationship has been an indispensable mechanism for maintaining centralized state control, but it has evidently fallen victim to financing challenges that have stymied multiple efforts to import foreign wheat (see: Syria Update 16 March). Already, import shortfalls have forced the Syrian state to relax restrictions on key goods, thus allowing individuals greater license to import goods such as industrial gas. Faced with another step toward Syria’s piecemeal privatization, the business elite are likely to welcome this latest decision with open arms. Indeed, the state’s loss will be the gain for local traders, who may see the opportunity to meet Syria’s demand for bread as an opportunity to launder their images publicly. Already, notable business figures have seized on the COVID-19 crisis to burnish their images by distributing free bread, food baskets, sanitizers, protective equipment, and uniforms. It is further evidence that as the Syrian state crumbles, private business people will be left filling in the gaps.
Damascus: On 31 March, media sources reported that a U.S. State Department official has confirmed that the U.S. will implement the sweeping Caesar sanctions within two months. Separately, local sources confirmed that the sanctions would take effect in June. Notably, the sanctions, which were passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law in December, specifically single out “reconstruction or engineering services” as a new target for punishing the Government of Syria (see: Syria Update 11-17 December 2019).
Destruction, not reconstruction
By slapping secondary sanctions on individuals who engage in Syria’s reconstruction, the Caesar sanctions will have a devastating — and likely long-term impact — on Syria. While prominent Syrian individuals have long been under direct U.S. sanction and international restrictive measures, the provisions of the Caesar Act pose a challenge of a different kind (see: Syria Update 6 January). Now, foreign individuals and private businesses face risk of sanction, which is likely to have a deeply chilling effect on the interconnected economies of Lebanon and Iraq, as well as further afield, in the Gulf. Among the most nettlesome challenges posed by the law is the likelihood that it will be extremely difficult to undo. Even in the long term, the political will required to roll back sanctions is in short supply. While there have been hopes of mitigating or delaying the Caesar sanctions in light of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent announcement suggests that Syria will instead find itself subject to maximum pressure.
Al-Bab, Aleppo: On 28 March, media sources reported that clashes broke out between local police and members of the armed faction Ahrar Al-Sharqiya in Al-Bab city. Reportedly, the clashes were triggered when a local vendor refused to close his business as per local council orders to shut down markets in an effort to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. The dispute escalated to an exchange of gunfire, and ultimately, a wider conflict between relatives of the vendor — including members of Ahrar Al-Sharqiya — and the local police.
Old tensions resurface
While the clash was triggered by extreme measures taken to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Syria, it is ultimately a reflection of local dynamics that have long been present in northern Syria. First, competition and infighting among various armed groups have been fixtures of Turkish-controlled areas, to the point of becoming an impediment to effective regional governance. Second, the vendor’s resistance to the local council’s order is a reflection of the economic peril in which many Syrians find themselves. Certainly, economic anxiety existed in these areas before the arrival of COVID-19, yet it has quickly become a matter of foremost concern. Local sources report that workers and laborers whose livelihoods have been threatened by the restrictive measures have been among the most likely to resist such orders. Ultimately, the events are indicative of the way in which enforcing universal public health measures may force the surface existing feuds among armed groups over geographic control and economic stakes.
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.
What Does it Say? The analysis by Jihad Yazigi frames the economic shocks that have hit Syria, from the financial crises in Lebanon, to the impending Caesar sanctions, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reading Between the Lines: The analysis paints a grim picture for Syria’s economic future, given that its lifeline to the open market through the Lebanese banking system was cut off due to Lebanon’s financial crisis, and the Caser sanctions made things even more difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic will also seriously hamper donor countries’ capabilities in sending aid to Syria, resulting in even more difficulties for the country.
Source: Arab Reform Initiative
Date: 26 March 2020
What Does it Say? Israeli aircraft have carried out yet another round of airstrikes in Syria, this time targeting Shoayrat airbase.
Reading Between the Lines: In addition to claims of chemical weapon capacity, what distinguishes this latest attack is the unconfirmed rumor that a top IRGC commander was killed in the incident. Though currently unconfirmed, the death of a top IRGC commander in the attack would signal that in spite of a lull in violence across Syria due to COVID-19, such incidents are likely to continue apace as Israel remains focused on its long-term shadow war with Iran.
Source: The National Interest
Date: 5 April 2020
What Does it Say? The European Union announced that it would be giving support packages to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, valued at approximately 240 million Euros in order to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reading Between the Lines: Syrian refugees are among the most vulnerable populations in the three countries; however, balancing the needs of refugees with increasingly desperate and economically challenged local populations will be key to maintaining social cohesion.
Date: 31 March 2020
What Does it Say? In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire. ISIS has a different opinion, and has encouraged its fighters to take advantage of the situation and governments in their weakened and distracted states.
Reading Between the Lines: The risk remains that as governments the world over pour resources and attention into healthcare, ISIS affiliates may seize on this distraction to rebuild and regroup.
Source: International Crisis Group
Date: 31 March 2020
What Does it Say? Human Rights Watch accuses Turkey of interrupting the water pumping station at Alok on several occasions, effectively weaponizing water in the highly charged climate of northeast Syria.
Reading Between the Lines: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hydration and sanitation are especially paramount. Disruptions to the water supply could have disastrous effects on public health.
Source: Human Rights Watch
Date: 31 March 2020
What Does it Say? The web tool maps the ways in which senior officials in Syria link back to Bashar Al-Assad, showing the Syrian president’s hand in every aspect of business in the country.
Reading Between the Lines: No major industry has been left untouched by the Al-Assad regime, which plays a strong gatekeeper role in deciding access to the country’s markets and most lucrative business opportunities.
Source: Pro Justice
Language: English and Arabic
Date: No Date
What Does it Say? The map shows the location of Turkey’s military deployments of an estimated 20,000 troops to Idleb and the surrounding areas.
Reading Between the Lines: By establishing service networks and fortifying the area militarily, Turkey has left no doubt that it is determined to retain its hold on northern Idleb for the foreseeable future. Turkey is working at pace to develop the area into another sector of its northern Syria buffer zone.
Source: Institute for the Study of War
Date: 2 April 2020
What Does it Say? The detainees in Syria’s prisons hold thousands of people brutally tortured, underfed, and who lack proper healthcare, food, ventilation, and sanitation. These detainees are highly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.
Reading Between the Lines: Despite hopes that the Government of Syria’s recent general amnesty would provide a means of reducing the country’s enormous population of detainees, large-scale releases — as seen in Iran — have not materialized. The state may yet elect for public health of coercion and punishment, but time is running out for it to clear prisons before the coronavirus spreads.
Source: Human Rights Watch
Date: 16 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.