Syria Update

21 April 2020
Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 15 20200421_v03_Page_1
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Facing economic jeopardy, Syria relaxes restrictions on businesses

In Depth Analysis

On 19 April, Syrian state media announced that a total of 39 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Syria. Five patients are said to have recovered, while the Government of Syria reports three deaths, alongside the first confirmed death from COVID-19 in northeast Syria. The Government of Syria’s public statements concerning the outbreak in areas of its control should be viewed critically, given authorities’ limited testing capacity, profound secrecy, and reports that armed actors continue to flout restrictions aimed at limiting mobility. To that end, it is highly noteworthy that in recent days, the Syrian cabinet reportedly approved the conditional resumption of certain business activities in Government of Syria areas. Among the businesses that will be allowed to resume limited operation — conditional upon the avoidance of overcrowding — are mobile phone shops, auto mechanics, carpenters, taxi drivers, clothing shops, and others. Curfews and limitations on inter-governorate travel reportedly remain in effect, yet the new allowances for business activities are among the first signs that the Government of Syria may be forced to relax restrictions on public activities in the face of dire fiscal realities. 

To date, the Government of Syria has sent mixed signals over its intentions. Early indicators that authorities would enact robust mitigations to contain the spread of COVID-19 have produced few tangible outcomes. The general amnesty issued by the Government on 22 March has not led to the release of prisoners on any meaningful scale (see: Syria Update 30 March).

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 15 20200421_v03_Page_1
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Strict quarantine has not been adopted on a wide scale, despite the implementation of a cordon sanitaire to isolate affected communities such as Monin and Seyyada Zeinab (see: Syria Update 6 April). Looking ahead, relaxed restrictions on commercial activity and the absence of a comprehensive response on the part of central authorities may have the effect of ceding more responsibility over local needs to non-state entities and communities themselves. Localization of the material response to the COVID-19 pandemic is already apparent. An initiative called the National Strategy for Social Emergency Response has reportedly been launched to collect individual donations of food and clothing for in-kind support to the needy. Likewise, the Rural Damascus Chamber of Commerce has called on local traders to contribute to a collection for food aid to be distributed to local families during Ramadan, which is expected to begin later this week

Multiple factors have shaped the Government of Syria’s response to COVID-19. Certainly, Syria’s limited health capacity is among them. However, it is important to note that the response is also a product of the Government of Syria’s deep fiscal instability. This is most visible in the Government of Syria’s inability to fund and implement an effective social safety net to sustain vulnerable households while imposing a forced lockdown that prevents most income-generating activity. As such, the Government of Syria is on the horns of a dilemma that is now familiar the world over: authorities must decide whether to continue restrictive public health measures (thus exacerbating the effects of widespread poverty), or allow economic activity to resume (thus risking the spread of the virus on a wider scale). The longer the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the more salient economic considerations will become. 

Of note, this economic dilemma is not limited to Syria. In neighboring countries, Syrian refugees and host communities also face acute financial peril. Rigid lockdowns in Jordan and Lebanon, in particular, have shuttered businesses and deprived many Syrians — including unregistered migrants — of access to livelihoods. According to a survey conducted in mid-March, 49 percent of Syrians in Lebanon, had stopped working due to the cascading effects of the pandemic and economic crisis. That figure is now likely much higher. In the face of bitter economic realities, protesters in Lebanon have gone to the streets in multiple communities, in defiance of bans on public gatherings. These conditions create a backdrop against which inter-communal tensions may rise. On 15 April, municipal authorities in Ghazze, located approximately 10 km from the Syrian border in west Bekaa, reportedly ordered a Syrian refugee camp in the community to be demolished in order to “avoid strife” between the local population and camp residents. According to media reports, the order followed an altercation between camp residents and members of the local community concerning curfew. The order to raze the camp was subsequently halted by a ministerial decision. However, local residents reportedly stormed the camp and destroyed a number of shelters, despite the order. Although it is difficult to draw a straight line from the COVID-19 pandemic to any individual incident, the event highlights the fact that as lockdown persists and livelihoods are lost, host community relations may be yet another flashpoint for Syrians abroad. 

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 15 20200421_MapWeb

1. Amid infighting, HTS seeks military restructuring

Idleb Governorate: On 15 April, local media reported that Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham had formed new military wings, composed of newly trained volunteers, following a series of high-profile resignations that draw attention to widening rifts within the group. Reportedly, the restructuring aims to quell internal competition and avert disputes by sidelining members of the more extremist factions of the group, while promoting those who are more flexible and in greater alignment with central leadership.

The initiative follows two high-profile personnel changes in northwest Syria. First, on 7 April, the head of the HTS Shura Council, Bassam Sahyouni, announced his resignation. Sahyouni did not provide a reason for his resignation. However, media reports indicated that Sahyouni resigned in protest over attempts by HTS military figures to centralize the civil administration of northwest Syria under their control, flatly contravening the accommodation designed to allow for independent decision-making in civil and administrative affairs. Second, on 8 April, Shura Council member and prominent HTS combatant Jamal Zeineh (aka Abu Malek Al-Taleh) reportedly defected from HTS. However, Al-Taleh reportedly returned to the group on 10 April following a meeting with HTS commander Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani. Notably, Al-Taleh is considered to be among the more ideologically rigid of the leadership figures in the organization. He has reportedly clashed with Jolani over the latter’s attempts to strip HTS of its lingering associations with Al-Qaeda and radical ideology, and recast it as a domestic armed opposition force.

Waiting for zero hour

Internal disputes and defections within HTS are not uncommon given the increasingly uneasy coexistence between the group’s extremist and more pragmatic wings. To that end, the recent Government of Syria advances into northwest Syria, and the partial implementation of the 5 March agreement between Russia and Turkey have evidently driven HTS into a corner. In recent years, Turkey’s direct military intervention in northern Syria has upended the relationship between Turkey and HTS. Though once an indispensable, arms-length partner for Turkey, HTS is now forced to accommodate — and perhaps reinvent — itself to continue to prove its value to Turkey and defend northern Idleb against further Government of Syria military advances. In terms of its willingness to abide by the 5 March Sochi agreement, HTS has sent mixed signals. Without doubt, this is due in part to internal struggles within the group itself. In recent months, there have been indicators that HTS would carry out yet another rebranding in order to convince Turkey of its staying power. Such a move may be necessary to avoid Turkey’s ire, yet it will also foment dissent within the group itself, especially among its more rigidly ideological, largely foreign continents.

2. Maghawir Al-Thawra defections as Rukban peril mounts

Al-Tanf, Homs governorate: On 15 April, local media reported that approximately 27 members of Maghawir Al-Thawra defected from the armed opposition group. The defectors reportedly took technicals and weapons with them as they left the vicinity of the Al-Tanf garrison and underwent reconciliation with the Government of Syria. Reportedly, the defections were led by one of the group’s commanders, Ghanem Samir Al-Khudair (aka Abu Hamza). According to media sources, members of Maghawir Al-Thawra clashed with the defectors, but dropped their resistance when it became apparent that women and children were among those departing. The exact terms of the reconciliations and the trigger of the defections are not clear. According to local sources, rumors have circulated suggesting that combatants were motivated to reconcile at least due to the stoppage of salary payments by the American forces located at At-Tanf, who are close partners of Maghawir Al-Thawra.

Rukban challenges continue

The defections are highly notable, yet it is not clear that they signal a potential rupture in the relationship between U.S. forces and their local partners at Al-Tanf, an important garrison located on the Damascus-Baghdad highway. Among these armed groups, Maghawir Al-Thawra is the most noted, yet fighters from several other former Southern Front factions are present. To this point, the groups have been united by their lasting resistance to the Government of Syria, and they have been singled out by Pentagon officials for their effectiveness. Back-owed salaries may offer a partial explanation of the fighters’ willingness to reconcile, but personal concerns may also be a factor. Of note, the families of many combatants supporting the U.S. garrison at Al-Tanf reside in the nearby Rukban camp. This population has been increasingly squeezed by a Russian-led initiative to empty the camp by severing its most important smuggling routes and inhibiting aid convoy access. The Rukban settlement is now in a precarious position. At times, its flour supplies have been all but exhausted, while water, livelihoods, and healthcare access are limited. Now, the mobility restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have aggravated these service shortfalls and elevated needs. Most notably, the camp reportedly lacks access to COVID-19 testing; without a test to prove they are COVID-free, Rukban residents cannot access healthcare across the berm inside Jordan.

3. Russia extends a hand to NES tribes

Various locations: On 4 April, local sources indicated that Russian representatives met with members of several Arab tribes and the Tal Tamer local council to discuss Russia’s role as a guarantor of services in the area. According to the sources, the joint head of Tal Tamer local council, Mala Ayoub, stated that the meetings revolved around the provision of water and electricity services, as well as the return of the IDPs to Peace Spring areas, from elsewhere in eastern Syria — as demanded by local tribes. Ayoub also indicated that the parties agreed to convene similar meetings periodically. Local sources reported two further meetings of Russian delegations with representatives of Government of Syria-affiliated tribes, on 13-14 April in the vicinity of Qamishli and Al-Hasakeh cities. Relatedly, local and media sources reported Russia’s intention to establish several new military outposts in the areas. To that end, Russian military reinforcements were reported along the frontlines of the Peace Spring zone, which remains under effective Turkish control. Reports circulating locally indicated that the outposts will be established in Um Elkeif, A’boush, Tal Tamer, and Abu Rasin Haskeh.

Russia’s eastern Syria foothold 

Signs of Russia’s intention to establish a firm foothold in eastern Syria have mounted since Russia and Turkey reached an accommodation to freeze frontlines in the region in October (see: Syria Update 22 October 2019). In recent months, Russia’s operations on the ground have expanded considerably. To that end, Moscow has made a concerted effort to pitch itself to local power brokers as the indispensable international actor on the regional stage. Perhaps the most notable instance of Russian mediation has been to guarantee water and electricity services across frontlines between the SDF and armed opposition forces backed by Turkey (see: Syria Update 10 December 2019). However, tribal outreach has also been a crucial dimension of Russia’s bid to cement its influence in eastern Syria. Holistically, this pattern largely follows the template set by Russian outreach to key community figures in reconciled areas, including southern Syria.

Ultimately, Russian ambitions in eastern Syria are diverse. Russia’s intention to use eastern Syria as a platform for its own regional force projection is likely an important driver of its actions (see: Syria Update 11-17 December 2019). So too is the imperative to head-off Turkish and Iranian influence in the region. Most important, however, may be Russia’s intention to ensure basic stability in the area. For instance, Russia’s role in southern Syria has been largely constructive, despite the very real limitations of Russian efforts to mitigate the consequences of the region’s patchwork governance and anti-Government of Syria resistance. Should Damascus succeed in restoring administrative control over northeast Syria, deep ties formed by Russia in the region may be crucial to stabilizing the area.

4. OPCW pins chemical attacks on Government of Syria

Various locations: On 8 April, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published a report that accused the Government of Syria of launching three high-profile chemical attacks in Ltamenah in northern Syria in March 2017. The OPCW has verified the use of chemical attacks in Syria in several previous instances; however, this report marks the first instance in which the OPCW directly assigns blame to the Government of Syria for a chemical attack. The agency concludes that the attacks were carried out with support at “the highest levels” of the Syrian air force.

Syria’s accountability gap 

The OPCW report is an important piece of evidence in the hands of those seeking accountability for war crimes in Syria. In terms of realpolitik, however, the findings are likely to have a mixed impact. The findings reaffirm the work of a multitude of international assessments, including those of individual foreign governments. However, political fallout is likely to be more considerable and lasting. The fiercest international critics of the Government of Syria and its allies have already used the findings to justify their political stances vis-a-vis Syria. Moreover, the report’s findings complicate the cautious or limited engagement with Damascus that some actors in the international Syria response have already begun contemplating. In the long term, the most important impact of the findings will likely be felt in international sanctions regimes. By increasing the political pressure on the Government of Syria, the report will likely lay out a further impediment to lifting restrictive measures on Syria, including the forthcoming Caesar sanctions (see: Syria Update 6 April). 

5. Lebanon ‘haircut’ plan jeopardizes Syrian deposits

Beirut, Lebanon: Newly leaked details of Lebanon’s ‘economic rescue plan’ have triggered a wave of concern from across the country’s political spectrum. Perhaps the most concentrated opposition centers on the potential for a ‘haircut’ on deposits in Lebanon, including the holdings of Syrian depositors. The exact details of how a widely discussed haircut would be executed remain hazy. In principle, such a procedure would pay down Central Bank losses through “exceptional contributions by the largest depositors.” However, news of the possibility was widely rejected by a range of stakeholders. Prime Minister Hassan Diab issued a statement following the cabinet session on 16 April, indicating that no haircut on deposits will be implemented. Nonetheless, rumors that such a procedure may be inevitable persist, as Lebanon restructures debt and reevaluates long-standing totems of state fiscal policy, including the artificial dollar peg for the Lebanese lira.

Deposits at risk

The uncertainty that now reigns over Lebanon’s financial sector has a deep impact on Syria. For a host of reasons, including the protection of the high-value banking sector, key Lebanese stakeholders insist that a haircut can be avoided through a scattershot approach entailing privatization of state assets, public sector cuts, expense reductions, and injections of external funding. Some painful reforms will almost certainly be necessary, however, and the rules of the game in Lebanon are seemingly being rewritten. Lebanon has long been understood as Syria’s primary banking entrepôt to the outside world, a position that has grown in importance as Syria’s pariah status has been cemented by the ongoing conflict (see: Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria). Not only is Syria’s economy tightly bound up with Lebanese markets, but Syrians also account for a considerable portion of all deposits in Lebanese banks. Assessments of the total value of Syrian deposits in Lebanon vary, but in January, an assessment conducted at Damascus University found that Syrians’ total personal and commercial deposits in Lebanese banks may surpass $50 billion, more than one-quarter of all holdings in Lebanon. All such deposits are at risk, should the Lebanese government go forward with a haircut. Naturally, many of these deposits are high-value and may enjoy implicit protection through political connections. Nonetheless, for Syrian depositors, the risk remains that Lebanese banks may no longer be a safe haven.

6. Israeli attack targets Lebanon-Syria border area

Jdidat Yabous, Rural Damascus Governorate: On 15 April, media sources reported that Israeli forces carried out a provocative drone attack targeting suspected Hezbollah militia figures riding in an unmarked civilian SUV on the Syrian side of the Lebanon-Syrian border. No casualties were reported in the attack. In video footage purporting to show the strike in real-time, several passengers abandon the vehicle and quickly return to retrieve baggage, before the SUV is destroyed by a sudden strike. Media reports indicate the target was a Hezbollah commander.

Same rules of engagement, but tensions rising

In terms of substance, the strike itself hews to established rules of engagement between Israel and Iran-linked forces. What is noteworthy is the event’s immediate context. The strike follows only days after a provocative incident in which an Israeli drone surveilled metropolitan Beirut. Moreover, the Lebanon-Israel border area has also witnessed increased activity in recent weeks. In Syria, Israel has also begun to carry out airstrikes with increasing regularity, and the latest attack follows an incident in late March, in which Israeli forces reportedly targeted a high-ranking commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the aggregate, these events bring to the fore the persistence of the threat of confrontation between Israel and Iran and its affiliates. Despite the global lockdown, all of these actors remain in the field, and these events suggest their continued willingness to risk escalation to achieve strategic goals.

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.

Festering Grievances and the Return to Arms in Southern Syria

What Does it Say? At the fall of opposition-held Dar’a in 2018, some areas were captured through force by the Government of Syria, while others were captured by the Russians through negotiations. Now, areas under Russian control enjoy more favorable security and service conditions than others under Government control.

Reading Between the Lines: In additional to demonstrating Russia’s mediating influence on the local level, the paper shows that negotiated takeover — rather than force of arms — is more likely to avoid the blowback now witnessed across Government-held Dar’a, where retaliation, intermittent violence, and service disruptions are common.

Source: European University Institute

Language: English

Date: 7 April 2020

Russia’s role in reforming the Syrian private services

What Does it Say? The report suggests three models for intelligence services reform driven by Russia: restructure the branches under the Ministry of Interior, eliminate overlapping services, or reconstituting them all in a purpose-formed ministry. 

Reading Between the Lines: Syria’s intelligence services are notoriously opaque, with overlapping mandates that serve as de facto checks on unilateral power — and efficacy. Russia’s ability to bring order to this contentious stage is debated, but it will likely be a priority as large-scale military operations in Syria wind down. 

Source: Carnegie

Language: English / Arabic

Date: 26 March 2020

What are the repeated seismic indicators, and how do we act during an earthquake? 

What Does it Say? Several earthquakes have been recorded off the coast of Lattakia in recent weeks, thus raising questions over the potential for further seismic activity.

Reading Between the Lines: Syria is prone to earthquakes, and an uptick in active seismic activity may foreshadow a more powerful earthquake to come. Although far from conclusive, the indicators may prompt consideration over how the international response can retool in reaction to an earthquake or tsunami in Syria.

Source: Snack Syrian

Language: Arabic

Date: 15 April 2020

Grand Theft Lebanon

What Does it Say? The study examines the most critical factors that led Lebanon to the ruinous financial engineering schemes that now threaten to destabilize the country. 

Reading Between the Lines: If — and how — Lebanon is able to escape its downward economic spiral, is now a question of deep significance for the region in general, and the international Syria response in particular, given the close-knit interconnections between the neighboring states’ economies.

Source: Synaps

Language: English

Date: 14 April 2020

Assassinations in Deraa Interview

What Does it Say? The Q&A provides an outlet for a media correspondent who was recently targeted in an unsuccessful assassination attempt.  

Reading Between the Lines: Assassinations and targeted violence have been common throughout southern Syria for more than a year. Though brief, the interview calls attention to the fact that on the local level, many in southern Syria believe that local actions are being driven by regional agendas, thus complicating attempts to extract order from the chaos mounting in the region.

Source: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Language: English

Date: 11 April 2020

US-led coalition ally targets State Department-funded Syrian Arab activists

What Does it Say? The article details the groundless detention of Arab civilians involved in Western-sponsored aid projects in northeast Syria. 

Reading Between the Lines: Whether driven by local interpersonal grievances or fissures in the civil society of eastern Syria, the detentions reflect the deep challenges that face programmatic intervention in the region.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 7 April 2020

The ‘Assad regime’ policies to confront Corona: Between ‘denial’ and ‘investment

What Does it Say? The study argues that the Government of Syria was late to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus — in some cases due to outright denial, and in others out of deference to Iran and Hezbollah. 

Reading Between the Lines: The article highlights additional factors that complicate the Syrian state’s pre-existing challenges for dealing with the pandemic, following almost a decade of internecine conflict.

Source: Omran

Language: Arabic

Date: 7 April 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.